By Reggie Allen
The N.E.I.G.H.B.O.R.S, Huntsville’s rap trio on the rise, has come a long way. It wasn’t too long ago that the group was making music out of an RV with a boombox and a microphone that flashed at the end. A humble beginning for musicians who would eventually perform alongside Grammy award-winners. Roughly a decade later, the kids from East Limestone County are shaking up the local music scene. And they have no plans of stopping anytime soon.
It’s roughly 9 p.m. when I arrive at our agreed-upon location, a house smack dab in the boonies of North Huntsville. It’s a quiet neighborhood until I reach the end of a cul-de-sac, where the faint sounds of neo-soul instrumentals are seeping from the large, ranch-style home.
Once inside, I’m greeted by the leading men themselves: Jarrett “Jnarly” Fox, London “Don KIF” Brandon, and Aric “Shaego” Smith. I catch them mid-rehearsal leading up to their headlining show at the Camp, Mid City’s outdoor pavilion for local musicians to serenade crowds with popular covers and original tunes. It’s a venue they’ve played myriad times, but for the Alabama MCs, it’s deeper than that.
It’s part of their origin story. It’s a family affair for the N.E.I.G.H.B.O.R.S. Members Jnarly and Don KIF are brothers. Shaego is their cousin. But it was a literal trial by fire that truly united them when the sibling’s family home was burned to the ground.
The group, which initially consisted of six performers eventually dwindled to its core three. There’s no bad blood, though. It just was a matter of flow. “There were six people on every song,” Jnarly says. “That’s a long song. It’s like, how long is people’s attention span? Can I give you an eight-minute song and will you appreciate it?”
However, they wouldn’t make their onstage debut until 2018 when the ensemble started playing open mics at the Mid City mainstay. According to the group, they were one of the first Hip Hop acts to perform there.
“We just started going up [to the Camp] on Sundays doing live band,” Jnarly explains. “We didn’t have a set, nothing. That was really our first time just on stage, performing with an audience, and then doing live band just, listening to the phone and stuff. So, that’s where we built the relationship.”
Manager Rick Bradshaw of Impresario Productions said he caught wind of the trio that same year after a pow-wow with music veteran Codie “Codie G” Gopher. The two were discussing a potential line-up for a block festival in 5 Points. It didn’t take long for him to be sold on their talent and potential.
“Initially, they were just making music,” Bradshaw explained. “They have since diversified. They’re starring in films now; they’re signing sync licensing deals. They are aligning themselves with the business of music now, really focusing on business relationships. It’s a beautiful thing to see!”
Last Spring, the trio shared the stage with Alabama’s most lauded entertainers at the First Waltz, an inaugural three-night concert series. The event served as the official kickoff for the Orion Amphitheatre, Huntsville’s newest performance space. The weekend-long huzzah, which touted iconic performances from rapper (and Alabama A&M Alum) Translee, Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard, Deqn Sue and newly minted Grammy award-winner Kelvin Wooten, served as a game changer for the group that got their start less than a five-minutes up the road.
“Playing the Orion was a pivotal moment in our career. Hitting a stage that big is motivational for things to come. And it being our hometown made it that much sweeter,” Shaego says. “It’s history and something nobody could ever take from us.”
The momentum continues with the release of their long-awaited LP “OG and Sweeetea,” a 13-track record that has a little bit of everything. A little R&B. A little Rap. A lot of Soul. But, most of all, it’s a love letter to where they come from. The album is an ode to the South. North Alabama, to be exact.
I asked, “So, how does that sound?”
“It sounds like a drive down Highway 72,” Shaego tells me. “[The album] sounds like one long song that catches most daily emotions. A funky car ride. A nice ball of genuine energy.”
“It sounds like Alabama homegrown,” Don KIF chimes in.
Tracks like “Talk to Me” and “Blk Man” have a certain lyrical flow and cadence that are reminiscent of Outkast and Kendrick Lamar with a North Alabama twist. Sound engineered by Snipe Young (Empire, Beyonce’s Lemonade), “OG and Sweeetea” plays like a radio broadcast, complete with authentic commercials, bumpers, and drops from some familiar voices. In between tracks, you can hear cameos from local personalities Lashay B, T Mils, and Marcus Sims that help push the “on-air” narrative.
It was nothing short of intentional.
“Radio and DJs are still a pivotal part of influencing and sharing music,” said Bradshaw, who served as an Executive Producer on the project. “We wanted to bring
back skits and creative ways to incorporate people like Huntsville Music Officer Matt Mandrella, close friends like ‘Booby’ and Family. This album is a snapshot of our culture in Huntsville, East Limestone, and the surrounding areas.”
Alabama may be home, but it’s certainly not the final destination for the
N.E.I.G.H.B.O.R.S, who are set to play the Backstage Atlanta this Summer. They even have their eyes on securing their own Grammy someday. However, performing in the Rocket City will always have a spot for the MCs.
“We bring the whole neighborhood to these events. We all bring our own style,” Jnarly explains. “Everybody is their self within the whole neighborhood. We may be 40, 50 deep, and you understand that you don’t have to all be the same to be in a large group. Everybody in that group is welcome because they’re themselves and it’s genuine. It doesn’t matter if they are white, black, purple, or whatever. They’re with us. You can feel the genuine energy of it. And that’s what we bring.”