Let's face it there are few things on this planet that are cooler than ninjas. They're sleek, mysterious, deadly, sexy and, in the case of Ariel Rogers and Anika Trujillo, quite good at rocking shows. The duo (aka The Universal Ninjas) originally met while attending Evanston Township High School, but didn't start developing a sound until 2008 when they scrounged up enough loot to invest in their own recording studio. The do-it-yourself ethos led them to co-write, produce and mix an EP aptly titled Homemade. Together, Anika and Ariel mix humor and soul into a rhythmic blend of varying styles, from funk and R&B to house and electronica. Their upbeat and often sparse instrumentation provides an appropriate backdrop for their easygoing style of speak-rap. Initially it can seem very tongue-in-cheek, but upon closer listen, The Universal Ninjas broach subjects like love and womanhood with a sensibility that goes far beyond their age.
They're relatively new to the scene, but it's only a matter of time before the rest of the city takes notice. Centerstage tracked down The Universal Ninjas and found out a little bit about their past and how Lollapalooza could be approaching them in the near future.
Interesting name, what's the significance?
Anika: It comes from two parts; first is my choice to not say the "N" word, not for any single reason more than the other. Ninja is a great replacement word because it invokes none of the same ideographs that the "N" word itself does, and Eastern culture as a whole is awesome and has influenced me on many levels. Universal comes from the style of music we make.
Ariel: "The" is just a good place to start. "Universal" rolls and "Ninjas" bounces. Together it is a pleasing phrase to wrap your lips around. Alongside mathematics, music is the only other universal language. How humbug hypocritical to exclude any of the universes sounds, essences and messages from this all-encompassing medium.
Do you remember your first performance together?
Anika: I remember going, I remember waiting and I remember leaving but not the performance. We did "a round" at an open mic at Exedus II, I wouldn't call it nerves but getting on stage is a huge boost of energy. It is all about controlling that flow; at that point I didn't know how to wrangle it in and throw it back. I'm a bit better at it now, but our sound carried regardless and people received it positively.
Ariel: I burned my left eyeball with the "don't-use-and-then-put-contact-directly-into-eye" contact disinfectant earlier that day. My eyeball was watering all day and was hurting in the light so I wore my glasses and sunglasses on top of them. I was sick with nerves, but I kept it cool for Anika's sake. I didn’t want to rattle the fragile, 'fro-fitted chrome dome of my musical cohort. The performance is a blur...I remember thinking, "The music is so loud -2-3-4...These lights are brighter up here 2-3-4-than they appear 2-3-4-from the audience...2-3-4." Playing the bass and singing on beat amongst the rush of excitement and nausea, while feigning complete calm and control was a doozy. At the end the crowd was silent. There were some faint claps from the "anyone who tries is a winner" supporters, bless their hearts because it was much appreciated. We were gushing with energy afterwards, like kids that just got off the new Super Steel, Omegatron, Optimus Prime rollercoaster.
How would you describe your sound?
Anika: Adjectives are hard to correlate to music. I would say that it is made up of all the senses combined having seeped into our relative spheres over the course of our lives. I can't think of anything other than a sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, will happen to me and is happening to me at this moment.
Ariel: Universal, soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, electronic, house, R&B, folk, trance, spoken word, blues, country, pop, classical, cultural and spiritual. We prefer to a la carte.
Anika: It's hard to pinpoint what has influenced me more than the other. I would have to say the everyday stuff more so than anything else. Random thoughts while riding the train, something delicious I am eating, a good conversation, etc.
Ariel: Aretha Franklin from my mother, Jackson 5 and Smokey Robinson from my father. We'd go to musicals often growing up. Mama and Papa Rogers infused music into me before I could make sense or use of it. I just liked going and they always took us. Music by Michael Jackson and the Beatles are fabulous. But so are weird Al Yankovic and MC Hammer, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Ms. Etta James, anything with Cee-lo, Daft Punk, Outkast, Zero 7, Lykke Li, Little Jackie and Missy Elliot was a biggie growing up. I still prefer Michael over anybody any day.
What's your take on the current hip-hop scene in Chicago?
Anika: I am learning a lot about the music in Chicago. I think the Chicago scene has always been progressive, I hear as much spoken word as I do gun talk. The scene is definitely huge, I'm constantly meeting new artists. It's easy to recognize though that familiar faces mean something, and to see so many familiar faces that are genuine and positive is always a bonus.
Ariel: There are so many people who say they're artists. Unfortunately there is still a lot of the pre-fabricated music. I'd rather not hear another lyric about money stacked high and taking your girl and so forth and so on. There are a lot more subjects that matter right now in Chicago. I invite more space cadets to grab a mic and spit a more conscious message.
Are there any artists that you're looking to collaborate with?
Anika: We have done a couple things with Drunken Monkee, as well as DJ Freez Rock. I plan on continuing to work with them as long as the universe allows me. Honestly we jam out with anyone. It is a part of our core principles that music exists everywhere and can be created by anyone so whenever someone approaches us we are apt to oblige more often than not.
Ariel: Anika's nephew, Jackson - he's four. He's got that insta-learn ability with percussive instruments.
In what ways does Chicago inspire your sound?
An: I would say some of our songs have a heavier house-music sound and Chicago originated house music. I would also say that a song like "Birds" is the direct product of life and circumstance in Chicago and how we focus so much on the wrong things sometimes we lose sight of the real city right in front of us; segregation in Chicago, police brutality in Chicago, poverty and homelessness in Chicago things that have been repeated so many times they sound cliché. It's a hodgepodge of inspiration; all the reality of Chicago but through different mediums.
Ariel: I love Chicago. It's the best city in the whole wide world, yes. House is proudly a child of Chicago, that upbeat cadence is one of The Universal Ninjas' signatures.
So if The Universal Ninjas have a day off, what would a perfect day in Chicago entail?
Anika: Sleep! Ha, well it depends on the season. Winter, I'm more apt to stay local but the summer, an outdoor festival is the natural first choice. I must say though my personal favorite is the Art Institute. It is an endless source of creative mind candy.
Ariel: If we had a day off from playing music I'd want to go play some music outside on the 4th of July with a barbeque and fireworks - the kind you buy off the side of the road in Wisconsin or Indiana.
At times it seems like female lyricists don't get as much respect as they should. Thoughts?
Anika: There is truth to what you're saying, female lyricists face a great deal of opposition especially when not trying to play into traditional roles. However, carrying a demeanor that commands respect is a person's greatest asset no matter the gender. Staying oriented towards a solution is always the goal so I focus more on the desired outcome of respect rather than the current situation or reality which is a lack thereof.
Ariel: "Female(s) don’t get as much respect as they should."
Any forthcoming projects?
Anika: We are building on our existing EP, Homemade, the goal is to convert it into a full LP. We just finished a podcast live session at The Black Gate Studios, so that should be out soon. Continuing to build with other artists hopefully will yield a collaborative EP, sometime in 2010. I guess you just have to stay in tune.
Ariel: Lollapalooza. We're not booked for it yet, but we've been speaking that one into the universe.
The Universal Ninjas perform at darkroom on January 27 with Ill Legit & DJ Alo (9 p.m.; $7).