Making It As a Hip-Hop Band
Two St. Edward’s Alumni Are Poised to Break Out
Megan Tillman ’14 and Chris Beale ’12 came to Austin for St. Edward’s University, but they stayed to break into the city’s music scene. This fall, their band, Magna Carda, showcases its innovative style of hip-hop at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Sound on Sound Fest. Find out what inspires their music. See what the critics are saying. And catch them in action in two videos.
The February night is chilly and damp, but the narrow courtyard at downtown Austin venue The Belmont is packed with fans of local hip-hop band Magna Carda. Smoke drifts through the spotlights as Megan Tillman, known on stage as Megz Kelli, spits rhymes into the microphone, her voice defiant and taunting. Her waist-length hair, which began the show piled atop her head, has come loose and swings back and forth as she raps, swaying to the beat and gesturing with her free arm. To her left Chris Beale, aka Dougie Do, alternates between playing one of the two keyboards in front of him and checking the laptop that mixes some of the group’s sound. Behind them on stage are guitarist Eric Nikolaides, bassist Derek Van Wagner and drummer Mike Gonzales, each nodding to the beat.
The crowd erupts as the song ends, and Tillman nods appreciatively, grinning.
“So this next song is called ‘The Root,’” she tells her audience, as Gonzales clicks his drumsticks together and heads bob to the rhythm. “It’s pretty much about your roots” (she points to a fan in the front row), “your roots” (she points to someone else), “my roots. I’m from New Orleans, and that’s where I grew up and learned everything. This one is for my grandmother, because when I think about this song, I think about her. I think about all the dreams I’m trying to pursue and about my roots, and about where I come from — and you never forget that.” She nods at Beale and, in the next breath, launches into the song.
Everybody come from somewhere/ or maybe nowhere
The place you wake from/ The place we ain’t from that makes us scared
The projects, or overseas/ the trailer parks
The poverty line/ place where there ain’t no art on the walls
Just pictures of Jesus and civil rights leaders/ or Confederate flags and Elvis …
“The Root” is one of 11 tracks on Magna Carda’s first full-length album, CirQlation, a collection Austin Chronicle music critic Kahron Spearman gave four stars and called “a quantum leap forward.” The album’s release was the spotlight of the February concert at The Belmont, which attracted new fans, as well as those who have followed Magna Carda since it formed in 2011. The band is a tour de force on stage, blending rap with live instrumentation and frequently collaborating with friends and guest artists. Its sound is influenced by jazz, blues, soul, R&B and old-school hip-hop and has drawn comparisons to some of the biggest names in its genre.
“Think of Magna Carda as Austin’s answer to The Roots, except they’ve got a ferocious and charismatic frontwoman bound for stardom in Megz Kelli,” Morgan Davis, managing editor of Austin music blog Ovrld, told the website Mashable in 2014. Recently, a fan posted on Instagram: “You took the best things from The Roots, old Outkast and Jamiroquai and made it new and incredible.” What most fans don’t know is that the band’s distinctive sound emerged as a response to obstacles it faced early on.
And that Magna Carda started in a St. Edward’s University campus apartment.
Tillman and Beale were both musicians — Beale dabbling in production, Tillman writing songs and rapping — before they came to St. Edward’s, but neither was set on a musical career until they met in 2011. Beale’s father worked in the gas industry, and as a result, Beale grew up in Houston; Perth, Australia; and London. He came to St. Edward’s because of its Austin location and to play club soccer. Tillman, too, was attracted to Austin and chose the university for its small size and English Writing and Rhetoric program.
The two were introduced by mutual friend Greg Rucker ’12. Beale had been teaching himself music software, working on beats with Rucker and posting music on MySpace. But, Beale remembers, Rucker kept telling him, “Man, you’ve got to meet this girl who can rap. She’s got skills.” Beale and Tillman first performed together at Hip-Hop on the Hilltop, a concert and festival of hip-hop culture that debuted in 2011. Beale, Rucker, Tillman and a handful of friends formed a six-member band that headlined the show. Performing was a rush, but wrangling so many musicians (who were also full-time students) was exhausting. “Everyone had it together for 40 minutes, and then I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again,’” Beale remembers. “After that, we dropped the band thing, and the two of us stuck together.”
That meant holing up in Beale’s campus apartment after class, setting Tillman’s rhymes to Beale’s beats. In those early days, it seemed like every class at St. Edward’s somehow ended up in their music. Beale was taking a piano elective to build his skills on the keyboard. “I would learn some classical, super-beginner stuff in the Carriage House in the morning, and I’d run back to the apartment and plug in my own keyboard,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘All right, now let me try and make a beat out of it.’”
As his graduation drew nearer, Beale realized he could marry his Digital Media Management major with his musical avocation — in fact, it would be imperative for him to understand the business side of music if he and Tillman were going to pursue it. When the duo started getting small live gigs, Beale consulted now-retired Assistant Professor of Digital Media Management Gregg Perry for help interpreting the legal language in those early contracts.
Meanwhile, Tillman was filling her lyrics with ideas she’d encountered in classes taught by Associate Professor of English Writing and Rhetoric Drew Loewe, Adjunct Professor of University Studies Tim Braun and Writer-in-Residence Carrie Fountain. In a World History class taught by Assistant Professor of University Studies Peter Austin, Tillman and her classmates were charged with writing about a topic that had never been chosen by a previous student. Tillman chose the Nation of Islam.
“That led me to the Black Panther party and all of this other stuff that was going on in the ’70s,” she says. “It actually started my infatuation with the ’70s and ’70s music. I was sending Chris all these Curtis Mayfield songs to sample. A lot of what I’m writing now is slightly political and looks back on black history in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s all been building on knowledge that [I gained in] that class.”
Tillman and Beale started recording mixtapes — the hip-hop equivalent of a demo — and releasing music online: Creature Creative in late 2011; Shoe String Theory in 2012; and Van Geaux in 2014. The cover for Creature Creative was drawn by a St. Edward’s student they approached in the art lab; another friend had access to a color printer and helped them make the covers; a Photocommunications student was their first photographer. “Our first three projects were definitely total St. Edward’s collaborations,” Tillman says.
In 2012 the duo started contacting Austin venues about playing live shows, but the response was curiously tepid. It seemed like Megz Kelli and Dougie Do could only get booked at Hip-Hop Wednesday at The 512 bar downtown. Four years ago, Austin’s hip-hop scene received little attention — even big names performed in Dallas and Houston but skipped the capital city. Lacking a network to tap into, Tillman and Beale decided to rely on shoe leather, walking from bar to bar downtown, leaving their CD and their number. Other than The 512, they didn’t get a single booking.
What they got was a skeptical question: What kind of crowd are you going to bring?
“It definitely had a lot to do with the basic hip-hop and rap stigma,” Tillman says, suggesting club owners were wary of booking an act in a genre they associated with lyrics focused on violence or misogyny.
But Magna Carda calls its genre “conscious rap.” Some of its songs are about relationships, real or imagined; others are infused with a self-conscious sense of humor. “The Root,” off CirQlation, is more of a social commentary. Tillman grew up in a struggling area of New Orleans, but after Hurricane Katrina, her family resettled outside Dallas because they had relatives in Plano. The upper-middle-class suburbs where Tillman went to high school were the polar opposite of her childhood neighborhood in New Orleans.
“So I can see life from the perspective of the person who can’t make the bills this week, and from the perspective of the person who has excess,” Tillman explains. “At the end of the day, you are where you come from, and you are what you’re rooted in. If you’re rooted in evil and [are] mean-spirited, that’s ultimately what you’ll return to. If you’re good-spirited — if you’re rooted in values and a strong upbringing — it doesn’t matter what you have to go through. In the end you’re going to come out polished because you’re going to return to your root for guidance.”
Despite their innovative flavor of hip-hop, the duo continued to hit roadblocks for more than a year. They started studying bands that were getting gigs and noticed that, regardless of their genre or quality, those groups had a certain Live-Music-Capital-of-the-World sound: amplified guitar, bass, drums. Tillman and Beale decided to make a crucial pivot — one that ultimately transformed their sound and musical identity. They recruited a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer and reworked their sound to incorporate live instrumentation alongside Tillman’s rapping and Beale’s beats. Almost immediately, club owners who had ignored them started returning their calls.
“Getting the band was a game-changer for us,” Beale says. “When we played the first time, people said, ‘Hey, good job,’ and that was it. When we came back with a bassist, people were like, ‘Oh, snap, y’all are serious.’ So we brought in a guitarist and a drummer, and they were like, ‘Wow, let’s get you to play Saturday.’”
While live bands aren’t common in hip-hop, the strategic change Tillman and Beale made to get Austin clubs’ attention put them in the company of well-known hip-hop band The Roots as well as newer artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, who incorporate live instrumentation into their sound. The duo’s evolution into a full band, with the addition of Nikolaides in early 2013, and Van Wagner and Gonzales in 2014, also meant the group had to shift how it operated and made decisions. And it needed a new name. For that, Tillman took her cue from World History with Peter Austin.
“We had been working closely with three other players, and their opinions were important to us, and we were all creating music together,” Tillman remembers. “So I thought, ‘What if we named ourselves something like Magna Carta?’ Then we would be limiting our powers, so everybody’s equal contribution is valued. That was the concept of limiting the power of the kings. So it would be a check on ourselves, and a check on each other.” But “Magna Carta,” they thought, was too direct a reference, so they swapped the ‘t’ for a ‘d.’ It was a nice perk that the band’s initials matched the initials of its original members.
Today Magna Carda regularly plays gigs at popular Austin venues like Scoot Inn and Empire Control Room. The full band rehearses on Tuesdays at Gonzales’ house, but Tillman, 24, and Beale, 26, get together other evenings in Beale’s garage, where they tinker on new songs in a homemade soundproof booth. Both work as contractors in the fraud detection division of Facebook, a day job that’s flexible enough to allow them to log their shifts from a hotel room while on tour.
The two, who describe their relationship as “like brother and sister,” have spent so much time together that they have an intuitive connection, anticipating one another’s jokes and completing each other’s sentences. In a blurring of the lines between life and art, they often refer to one another by their performing names, Megz and Dougie.
Critics often describe the band as poised to “break out” — whether by releasing a hit single, touring enough to establish a substantial fan base or catching the attention of the right promoter. “Megz is an exceptional talent — one of the top two or three rappers in Austin, and I’m being conservative,” says Spearman, the Austin Chronicle critic. “She has the most star power and room for growth. [Magna Carda’s] live show is fire. No disrespect to the rest of the band, but two things will drive them: Dougie’s continued improvement in production, and Megz’s vocal talent.”
Female frontwomen are relatively rare in hip-hop, and Tillman knows younger artists look to her the way she looks to her role models. She cites singer-songwriters like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill as some of her biggest influences. “And artists like Teena Marie, Queen Latifah and Eve — those women have always been seen as uncompromising and powerful. They come from a time when it was much harder for them to break through. And musical activists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday were like pioneers, so I look at them like a guide.”
Now women, and even young girls, approach her after shows to connect with their own inspiration. “I always encourage people to feel that they can do it, too — especially young women or women of color, or anyone who feels like they’re facing the odds,” she says. “So many people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t think I could write, but I’m going to try it now,’ and I always put time aside after a show to make sure I communicate with those women. That’s the kind of encouragement that we all need.”
These days, the band is channeling its energy into preparation for performances this fall at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Sound on Sound Fest. They’ll also head out on their third tour: this time to the East Coast, where cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have longstanding hip-hop scenes.
Getting signed is not a priority for the band that’s done virtually everything — production, booking, promotion — itself. A distribution deal would be better, Beale says, because it wouldn’t take as much of a cut of the group’s work but would help find a wider audience for its music. He says Magna Carda wouldn’t turn down an offer from the right label, but “so far we haven’t owed anybody anything. We haven’t even done any Kickstarters, so it’s cool just to fund ourselves without having to try to
For now, “making it” means getting to the point where they can follow their passion full time. “A Grammy would be nice,” Tillman quips. “But if we could quit our jobs and still pay the bills, then that means we’re doing what we love every single day. To me that’s making it — and it doesn’t get better than that.”
By Robyn Ross
Video by Morgan Printy
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10