Before starting the genre-defying Last Gasp Collective, guitarist/vocalist Justin Jay Jackson had an epiphany.
He had just read an article in a religious publication that challenged his reality by posing one important question about his very existence: What would you do if you only had your last gasp left?
For him the answer was simple: Make music.
“That question is what empowered me to devote everything to my craft,” Jackson told Revue about the origins of the now 10-member ensemble. “Naming the band Last Gasp was us challenging everyone to ask themselves the same question, and to motivate them to have the courage to chase that with every breath, not just their last.”
A full-time artist and father, Jackson, 25, wanted to create an entrepreneurial entity that would help enable artists to chase their dreams. Growing up in relatively rural Cassopolis in Southwest Michigan, he understood the hurdles placed in front of those chasing down their passions in small town America, and he wanted to start something that would allow for a collective effort to overcome those obstacles together.
Currently made up of Jackson, cellist Jordan Hamilton, keyboardist Jon Boyd, saxophonist Xavier Bonner, bassist Joel Pixley-Fink, vocalists Ashley Hicks and Lakeshore Drew, sound engineer Joe Lucas, and percussionists Terrence Smith and Matt Smalligan, Last Gasp has gone through a few different phases and rosters since starting in 2015.
The core of the group met at open mic events around Kalamazoo, including one called Put Up or Shut Up. Several jam sessions and impromptu collaborations followed where the group mixed classical instruments with R&B, hip-hop, gospel and soul, before deciding upon an open, collective structure to the work.
Comparable to genre-bending groups like The Roots, Arrested Development, The Internet, 9th Wonder, Con Brio, and Earth, Wind and Fire, the members of Last Gasp use words like “gumbo” and “melting pot” for describing the rich mix of sounds in their music.
“I think Last Gasp is a true example of Neo-Soul music,” Last Gasp bassist Joel Pixley-Fink said. “We certainly take elements we like from a lot of different styles, which is what Neo-Soul does. Jazz musicians, hip-hop beats, soul chords, R&B lyrics, rock guitar — our music incorporates all of these things and more.”
As it continues to expand its roster of musicians, Last Gasp has potential plans to become a production company, capable of handling everything from live event performances to studio production.
“The idea of the collective seems to be very fluid,” Pixley-Fink said. “Its meaning doesn’t seem entirely clear; there is some ambiguity there. I think we still hope to expand the collective into something much larger than just a band.”
Earlier this year, Last Gasp released its first full-length LP, Agape. Recorded between October and February, the album leans heavier on the group’s hip-hop side, recalling early Kanye West and the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League.
“I feel like our live shows are much different than our recorded material because of the force and energy given from the audience,” Last Gasp vocalist Ashley Hicks said. “When we have live shows, it’s raw and uncut. Sometimes we shift our groove based on the crowd, or add a twist to a song that you wouldn’t hear on our recorded material.”
Last Gasp has gained a lot of attention in just two years for its thought-provoking, groove-laden live shows. The collective has performed mostly around Kalamazoo, opening for the likes of hip-hop heavyweights like Nappy Roots and Bus Driver, as well as winning over new audiences at events as diverse as the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival and the Black Arts Festival.
“Of all the shows we’ve played, the memory that constantly come back to me is the first ‘festival’ we played,” Jackson said.
A few years back, the group played the Lamplight Festival in Grand Rapids alongside GR rap duo Rosewood 2055. The show was so packed and energized, the band was asked to stop playing so more eager listeners could squeeze in and hear them play.
“It was that moment I experienced what seemed to be an out-of-body experience, and all I could hear was the crowd screaming,” Jackson said. “(In) that moment, I knew we could really do this.”
Last Gasp Collective June Events
Sounds and Sights Festival, Chelsea, Mich.: June 8
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids: June 10
Night Market at Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market: June 15
Short Film Release at The Epic Center, Kalamazoo: June 23
For more show dates and to listen to the band, check out lastgaspcollective.com.