A band with Montgomery roots is taking off in a big way and shining some of its spotlight back on its hometown.
Montgomery has a long history of producing original musical voices. From the country classics of Hank Williams to the romantic ballads of Nat King Cole and, more recently, the aggressive rock of Trust Company and trunk-rattling hip-hop of Doe B, musical talent of all kinds thrives in our streets and neighborhoods. Members of Los Angeles-based group Watch the Duck got their start here and went on to achieve great success with their unusual and heartfelt, yet danceable, songs. The group’s name, highlighting their own work ethic and approach to songwriting, refers to a duck’s ability to appear cool and calm as it glides across the water while, unseen beneath the water’s surface, it is paddling furiously.
Some people call Watch the Duck’s music “alternative-R&B,” a hybrid genre uniting elements of dubstep, trap and soul music. This willingness to experiment and cross musical borders emerged early in their lives. Both lead vocalist Jesse Rankins and DJ/percussionist Eddie Smith III claim that their very earliest influences were Prince and Michael Jackson. “I feel like you have to start with them,” Smith said.
But, when they hit junior high, their tastes rapidly broadened. “Eddie and I were from the same neighborhood, but we met at Baldwin Middle School, and that’s when we were exposed to everything,” Rankins said. “It was us getting out of our neighborhood and hearing everything from Nirvana and Alanis Morissette to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Portishead. People that were just jam-min’. It was all new to me.”
Other crucial elements in the foundation of their musical tastes came from tuning into local radio stations like Hot 105, listening to albums at Camelot Music at the Montgomery Mall, and being regulars at the recently closed Looney’s Super Skate. “The club to us was Looney’s on Friday nights,” Rankins said.
The exposure to a wealth of new music inspired both to get involved in music any way they could. “Eighth grade is when I really started scratching my musical itch,” Smith said. “I spent a lot of time at Bailey Brothers growing up. On the weekends, I was dropped off there and would spend hours learning how to work different keyboards. Later I started cutting grass, and I was able to buy my first keyboard. I knew I had beats and sounds in my head, and I wanted to do something about it. I would go to S.N.A studios and hang around and learn what I was supposed to be doing.”
Being a shy kid, Smith admits that it wasn’t until his senior year in high school that he worked up the courage to show his friends any of his music. And though already friends for many years, Smith and Rankins didn’t start collaborating on music until they were both enrolled at Alabama A&M. “That’s when we really became a crew,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a name at that time, but we all worked together and shared equipment and came up with ideas together.”
Later, after moving to Atlanta and adopting the name Watch the Duck, they began to experience real professional success. In 2012, their single “Poppin’ Off” (and its subsequent video) was a big hit and caught the ear of renaissance-man producer Pharrell Williams who began to collaborate with them on a number of tracks and recently signed them to his label i am OTHER.
Though their time now is spent largely on the East and West coasts, Smith and Rankins still consider themselves very much an Alabama group. “Alabama is like home base. It’s the center,” Rankins said. “I relate the world to Alabama. Not just musically, but in everything. Growing up in Alabama gave us a unique perspective on the world that really never leaves. It helps growing up in a place where everything is literally black-and-white, and there’s no gray area. So when you go out into the world, and find that it’s one big gray area, it helps you know where you stand.”
And they intend to continue featuring Alabama in their work. “Somewhere in Alabama” is one of the songs off their new album, “Delayed Adulthood,” and there are plans to shoot the music video for it in Montgomery and other Alabama cities and feature local and state musicians.
“I would like to see Montgomery, and Alabama in general, celebrate our own,” Rankins said. “We want this video to be special,” Smith added. “In entertainment, whenever they show Alabama, it tends to be period pieces, focused on the past. And though that’s very important, we want to show Alabama as it is today.”