Shasta Matthews and Tierney Reed, aka Klevah Knox and T.R.U.T.H. of Chicago hip-hop duo Mother Nature, look like they’ve walked right out of a music video, even though they’re just hanging out on the two enormous black couches in the corner of their Bronzeville living room. Reed is wearing red pants, a black tee, and an unbuttoned short-sleeve shirt in blocks of red, white, and blue. Matthews, who’s scrolling through menus in NBA 2K, idly trying to duplicate herself in the game’s character creator, has on sea-green snow pants with a black crop top—and even though this particular Sunday in February is just after the worst of the polar vortex, she says the snow pants are “purely for steez purposes.”
In this case, though, Mother Nature have walked right out of a music video—they both got up at 5 AM to act in a clip that Chicago’s VAM Studio is making for New York rapper Junglepussy. With their impeccable fashion sense and their megawatt charisma, Matthews and Reed have also landed a dual role in Valee‘s “Juice & Gin,” directed by microbudget local crew New Trash. But as talented as they are as actors, that’s nothing next to their skills on the mike. And in the first week of March, they’ll release the four-song EP Pressure, Mother Nature’s first record since a self-titled full-length debut in 2016.
That’s not to say the duo have been quiet in the intervening years. They’ve released a stack of digital singles (including 2018’s brassy, swaggering “This Yo Year”) and freestyles (such as January’s blistering take on J.I.D and J. Cole’s “Off Deez”) and appeared on other artists’ tracks. Mother Nature have also stayed busy on Chicago’s underground music scene. They perform this weekend at Candyland, a showcase for women and nonbinary artists hosted by a DIY venue, with acts including indie R&B artist Jordanna and political party rappers Glitter Moneyyy. In 2018 they were part of a similar Halloween celebration called the Coven Classic at Sleeping Village as well as long-running volunteer-supported winter rock festival Ian’s Party, which gives an aboveground platform to groups more frequently seen in basements. The duo have remained independent and unsigned, but they’ve landed some high-profile gigs too—last year they opened shows for the likes of Cupcakke and Ty Dolla $ign and won a battle of the bands for a main-stage slot at the North Coast Music Festival.
Candyland with CDVR, Jordanna, BFFcult, Glitter Moneyyy, Mother Nature, and DJ Evie the Cool
Sat 2/23, 9 PM, Rutcorp, candylandchicago.com, $15, 21+
In making Pressure, Mother Nature tried to push themselves to new heights—and with its release, they hope to push the rest of the scene too. “We wanted to put pressure on ourselves and make the best we can, and to put pressure on everybody else that is putting out music in Chicago,” Reed says. “This is not something that we do just fly-by-night—this is really what we do.”
Matthews sells handmade jewelry under the name FreshAssMonk, and Reed drives for Lyft and mentors kids at Beethoven Elementary at 47th and State. But hip-hop has been a lifelong pursuit for both MCs. Reed, who’s 28, grew up in Austin on the west side, and she remembers mimicking the form of rapping before she was old enough to form sentences. “I think I was rapping before I knew what it was,” she says. For Matthews, also 28, who grew up in Champaign, rapping is a family affair. Her father, Mikell Knox, raps under the names Mo Knox and Kool Mikell (he’s used the latter on a couple raps inspired by Umphrey’s McGee, whose most-played venue, the Canopy Club in Champaign, has employed him in security). Knox also facilitated his daughter’s first recording session when she was still a toddler. “My first experience behind the mike was like ’93,” Matthews says with a proud grin. “My pops had fed me lyrics, and then I said them into the mike. But it was a dope little verse!” She credits her father with encouraging her to freestyle and teaching her “not to be trash.”
“Important,” Reed interjects with a laugh.
- Mother Nature’s freestyle on J.I.D and J. Cole’s “Off Deez,” released in January 2019
Reed and Matthews first crossed paths in 2011 via the arts scene at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Matthews graduated from UIUC in 2012 with a degree in creative writing, Reed in 2013 with a degree in community health.) They’d both been involved with a school-affiliated organization called Writers Organizing Realistic Dialect. Despite its name, WORD involved a wide range of creatives, including comedians and graphic designers, but Reed and Matthews were among the few female MCs. “[Matthews] was on the board, and she was like ‘Yo, I’m Klevah, and I spit,’ and that instantly just grabbed my ear,” Reed recalls. “She was already steezing, so I’m like, ‘I don’t know what she do or if she’s raw or not, but I’m rocking with her.'”
They admired each other’s work, but they were each occupied with their own rap careers. “She was doing things with her collective, I was doing things with my collective, but we were both spearheading both of those collectives,” Matthews explains. “Any time my name was mentioned, it’d be mentioned right next to hers.”
Reed and Matthews didn’t form a group together until a Champaign-Urbana concert promoter offered them a spot opening for Run the Jewels at the 2015 Pygmalion Festival. “He wanted to give it to us both, but he didn’t know who to give it, so he wanted us to share it,” Matthews says. “I don’t know if he knew our relationship then, but we were already super cool. ‘Instead of split it, how about we actually work on a project?'” Mother Nature wrote the material that would appear on their self-titled debut while preparing for the show—it came together in just a week—and the reception their set got encouraged them to make the duo their new priority. Matthews had already assembled a management team, and Reed promptly came aboard too. After a member of that team, Nova Darling, graduated in fall 2016, all three moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Auburn Gresham. (With help from Cat Sanchez, Darling still manages Mother Nature.) “We are not ready to hit the ceiling with Champaign,” Reed remembers thinking.
- A track from Mother Nature’s 2016 full-length debut
In the years since, Mother Nature have found a creative community in Chicago through a combination of striving and serendipity. Every artist they meet, whether at a show, an open mike, or a recording session, they try to see as a potential friend or collaborator. Rapper and producer Matt Muse, a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors, remembers inviting the duo into the studio and being surprised that they showed up—he makes lots of similar invitations but doesn’t see a lot of follow-through. Mother Nature don’t turn down studio time—they like to see what can happen when they say yes.
- Mother Nature make an appearance on this 2018 Matt Muse track.
“It’s dope to combine all those energies and say, ‘If you have a show, I’m coming out to support you. If I’m having something, you coming out to support me,'” Reed says. They met producers and rappers living down the street from their first apartment, including Saint TBG, who worked on their 2016 track “W.O.W.” Since they moved to Bronzeville in fall 2017, their apartment has become a magnet for more, including Murph Watkins (who’d shared the bill with Mother Nature at the Wicker Park Emporium’s Windy Fest that summer) and Jesse 5000k. During Mother Nature’s interview for this story, the duo’s DJ, Cymba Bridges (aka DJ Cymba of Huey Gang), sits at a computer in the corner of the living room wearing headphones, absorbed in his preparations for a DJ competition the coming week. He was living in the neighborhood before he moved into the group’s apartment. “We attract who we’re supposed to,” Matthews says.
Mother Nature’s community allows them to make their music independently. As the cluster of pop filters and mike stands in the corner of their living room suggests, Reed and Matthews record the majority of their vocals at home. After adding their rapping to a track, they send it to their associates in Gr8 Thinkaz (who are also likely to have created it in the first place) for mixing and mastering. The Gr8 Thinkaz are a loose collective of Matthews’s peers from Urbana High School, including producers, videographers, and MCs. The collective’s producers provide all Mother Nature’s best beats, Matthews says decisively—one of them, H. Kal-El, made the Pressure track “DMN.” Everyone operating under the Gr8 Thinkaz banner, including Mother Nature, shares an aspirational philosophy: “Be your greatest self, think your greatest thoughts, know that everything is great,” as Matthews explains it.
Mother Nature can also see that philosophy at work in the actions of their friends who aren’t formally part of the collective, including rapper Mani Jurdan, one of Cymba’s partners in Huey Gang. “I consider him a Gr8 Thinka as well, because it’s like we all carry the same spirit, the same goals,” Reed says.
“We want to push the culture, and we want to, of course, reach our highest potential,” Matthews adds.
Mother Nature have followed this ethos in the development of a workshop program titled “The Miseducation of Hip-Hop.” Launched in 2015, it’s aimed at kids and young adults ages 12 to 24, and the duo typically present it at schools or as part of after-school programs—they’ve served a total of 300 to 400 people so far, using the language of hip-hop to help their students connect to the policies and laws that affect them. Mother Nature want to present hip-hop culture as a means of self-actualization and self-expression—as something kids can pursue for the rest of their lives and get paid for doing.
“It’s all about navigating that path and creating a new one when it’s not there,” Matthews says. She and Reed are “trying to get the kids to pull out their own genius,” she says, “the things that they might be afraid to express about themselves or the things that they’re like, ‘That’s not cool, ain’t nobody going to rock with that, that’s why they make fun of me for that.’ That’s the type of stuff that we want to get them comfortable with now, so that can go into their artistry.”
“Through the lens of hip-hop, we can see the whole full spectrum—that anything is possible, and you can do it on your own with little to no resources,” Reed adds. The workshops have taken a range of forms, as short as a single afternoon or as long as two days a week for a month. Most have been in Chicago, but Mother Nature recently created and curated a weeklong series sponsored by the Urbana Public Arts Program and the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.
- Mother Nature present “The Miseducation of Hip-Hop” in Urbana.
“Our workshops are for everyone, but there’s a specific emphasis on black and brown youth,” Matthews says. “We just face a lot, whether it be poverty, whether it be violence, not having your parents at home—whatever it may be that could cause you to not be your fullest self.” Mother Nature say that alumni of the workshop have gotten in touch to say that it inspired them to study audio engineering. Reed says, “It’s dope to see how much impact you can do in such a short time.”
The two rappers have also helped spread hip-hop culture internationally as part of Next Level, an initiative of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Meridian International Center, and the U.S. State Department. “It’s a cultural diplomacy program,” Matthews explains. “Countries that they want to have a better relationship with, they’ll try to improve that relationship through arts.” Next Level uses hip-hop specifically, sending up to 20 artists each year to work with locals in other nations. Reed and Matthews applied individually for several years before they were accepted in 2017.
Matthews says, “I went to Morocco, she went to—”
“Pronounce it,” Reed challenges.
Matthews says, deliberately: “A-zer-bai-jan.” For three weeks, the rappers each worked with MCs, DJs, and dancers via translators, culminating in recording sessions and a concert. Matthews tries to stay in contact with her collaborators. “Over there, it’s a little more underground because there is no industry for real, but they’re pursuing just as hard as we are,” she says. “I don’t know where that relationship might go in five years.”
Mother Nature’s participation in Next Level also fed into their ongoing work with “The Miseducation of Hip-Hop.” Through the program they met Chicago rapper Pinqy Ring, who later introduced them to Miami-based nonprofit Guitars Over Guns. The group helped Mother Nature set up a monthlong residency in December 2018 at south-side charter school Foundations College Prep, and it helped design student surveys that the duo can use in future workshops. Guitars Over Guns also taught Mother Nature a lot about how to reach out to schools and connect their workshops to other resources—Matthews and Reed want to learn about how to build a nonprofit, so that “The Miseducation of Hip-Hop” can become a sustainable year-round enterprise and even expand outside Illinois.
“Hip-hop can literally take us around the world—and it has,” says Reed. “So we might as well push this thing forward.”
Pressure is another leap forward for Mother Nature. In its four tracks, Matthews and Reed describe their drive to succeed, without glossing over the difficulties they face—the trauma, mental illness, drug abuse, and incarceration that affect their families and communities. “We just picked the most powerful songs that we had,” Reed says. “This right here, it should be what it is, and people will have a strong attention span now.”
“Pressure is something a great thinker feels all the time,” Matthews says. “To be your greatest self is to always be aware of your lowest self and to have the courage to face yourself day in and day out.”
“It’s good to be constantly surrounded by folks that’s putting that same pressure on you to be better, to do more and just go for it 100 percent,” Reed adds.
Matthews and Reed start writing every song as a freestyle, and they’ve developed complementary flows and timbres reminiscent of Big Boi and Andre 3000 of OutKast. Matthews has a spacey spirituality that recalls Dre, expressed on the title track in a voice-modulated monologue about the fundamental forces of the universe; Reed’s deeper, brassier vocals boom like Big Boi’s, anchoring the hook on “DMN.” Their flows wrap around each other like two plants of different species in symbiosis.
On “Pressure,” Mother Nature boast in triplets over ominous synth washes about turning fears into friends and shining like diamonds despite (or because of) the pressure of poverty and “spiritual warfare.” The relatively effervescent “Simple” pings and whirrs like a pinball machine, its catchy hook chanted first by the MCs and then by a gaggle of kids: “I do not do what you do / Keep it simple / I am me and you are you / Keep it simple.” Matthews and Reed recruited those kids, ages five to 11, from a hip-hop club run by Mani Jurdan at Kidz Express, an after-school facility in Austin. “They are legit already artists,” Matthews says. “When we came in and met the kids, they’re like, ‘I rap, this is my art, this is what I do.'” Mother Nature also returned to Kidz Express to film a New Trash video starring the same half-dozen children.
After Pressure drops in the first week of March, the duo plan to release a video for every song, each made with a local director. They hint that they’ve got more finished tracks in the pipeline too, though they’re coy about details. Mother Nature also maintain an aspirational list of rappers they’d love to record features for, including Chicagoans Dreezy, Queen Key, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and Saba, plus their “dream collaborator,” Missy Elliott. Matthews is already working on a verse for a collaboration with her father. “It’s super dope,” she says. “First time we’re actually going to be on a record together with something I’ve written.”
Mother Nature have yet to announce the hometown release show for Pressure—they joke that the only Chicago venues they haven’t played are Thalia Hall, the Riviera Theatre, and the United Center. They’re also planning their first tour for later this year, and they hope to eventually book shows overseas. “Out of the country. We know that’s still possible,” Matthews says. “It’s just a matter of connecting the dots.”
With Pressure, Reed and Matthews are poised to achieve a new level of visibility, but their goals are bigger than fame. “I see Mother Nature opening a school, I see Mother Nature being stable, I see Mother Nature being a known force in the culture,” Reed says. “Nobody’s left out in hip-hop, nobody is a foreigner to it, nobody can’t fit. To have that space and freedom for people to come and just be, I think that’s the dopest thing about it. That’s why I live and breathe it and wouldn’t be here without it.” v