Backstage after loud beats had lulled, Ekoh heard an admonishment from a fan for which he wasn’t prepared: “You’re not hip-hop.” This after he had just bared his soul at a performance. “I was like, is this guy really going to talk shit right now?” But what followed was a sentiment that would define his music. “That stuff comes from your heart, man,” the fan said. “That’s heart-hop.”
This year, Ekoh’s poetic flow is rippling deeper than ever. In March, the Las Vegas local (born Jeff Thompson) unveiled the most striking illustration of his lyrical prowess on Zzyzx Road, the EP he created with noted pop-punk producer Courtney Ballard. “When I met Courtney all of the walls came down,” he says. “I was making the music that I really wanted to make without feeling like I had to make ‘hip-hop.’” Then with director Jacob Stark, he released a stirring music video for the single “Falling Together,” and donated the song’s iTunes proceeds to anti-bullying efforts at Green Valley High School, where the video was shot. In the same month, Ekoh co-headlined the hip-hop stage at the Extreme Thing Music and Sports Festival, a show he calls his “best” and “most emotional.”
It’s a combination of his earnest approach to songwriting, dedication to his craft and commitment to his hometown that has brought the 24-year-old artist where he is today.
In addition to the many shows he plays in Las Vegas and surrounding areas, he’ll soon play our city’s most anticipated music event: the Life Is Beautiful festival, positioning him in front of his largest audience to date.
For Craig Nyman, head of music and live performances for Life Is Beautiful, it’s Ekoh’s transparency that earned him the opportunity: “There’s no smoke and mirrors about him. For an audience to see that from an artist is rare. Then when you sit down and talk to him, he’s the same person.”
Watching Ekoh at a preliminary festival showcase in July, Nyman recalls, “Before the event there were two little kids about 8 or 9 years old who had come just to see Ekoh perform. He was talking to the kids and signing autographs; it made their night.” Once onstage, “he grabbed the audience. And he held them for his entire set.”
For such success, Ekoh credits his supporters. “I hate saying ‘I,’ like ‘look what I did.’… because it is a group thing,” he says, “I want it to be something fans can feel a part of.”
There are fans who tattoo his piercing lyrics on their bodies, propose to their significant others at a show or drive hundreds of miles to catch a 30-minute set—during which he’ll graciously share the stage with other members of the local hip-hop community, including fellow rapper Chemist and Vegas StrEATS co-founder Alonzo Valencia (also known as DJ ZO). “I wouldn’t even call him ‘local,’” Valencia says of Ekoh. “He’s about to be nationwide.”
Event producer Brian Saliba agrees. Among many bookings, he handpicked Ekoh to co-headline the Vegas Music Summit in August to present him to industry contacts. “A guy like him needs to be discovered,” Saliba says. “He’s only three minutes away.”
What does that mean?
Ekoh already knows. “We’ve gotta have a radio-ready record. A radio-ready single.” So in November, he’ll return to the studio where he and Ballard recorded Zzyzx Road, this time to create a full-length album. “We’re talking about this record being ‘the one,’” Ekoh says. “We’re hoping for this one, more than anything, to be a great record, but to hopefully make a big impact.”
The “heart-hop” movement is about more than himself—it’s about making as many fans as possible feel like “someone finally gets me,” he says. “What I’ve always wanted, more than any kind of popularity, was to build a vessel for people to come together, to include people.”
That stuff comes from the heart, man.
And when you hear that, it’s hard not to believe that Ekoh’s message has a home beyond the mountainous walls of our Valley. It only takes resonance.
9 p.m. Sept. 27 at LVCS, $15 ($12 advance), 382-3849, LVCountrySaloon.net. Oct. 26 at Life Is Beautiful Festival, $159.50, LifeIsBeautifulFestival.com. For more on Ekoh, visit Facebook.com/EkohMusic.