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On Ardamus’s new EP, Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar], you can hear a clip of Levar Jones, a black man shot by a South Carolina state trooper at a gas station in 2014 while reaching for his driver’s license, asking “Why did you shoot me?”
“I’ve never really done a song about police brutality like that,” Ardamus says. “I was outspoken about it before in conversations, but didn’t really put it into music.”
Like many Americans, Ardamus—whose real name is Artemis Thompson—feels the need to speak louder and more clearly in the wake of a steady stream of bad news. The final track on the new record, “God Save Us From These People,” offers a prayer in response to the election: “Now pull yourself by your bootstraps and just hang until the noose snaps,” he raps before repeating “God save us from these people.”
“I’m sitting in DC9 making this beat for [what ended up being “God Save Us From These People”] while [Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump] debate and I’m just horrified watching them go back and forth,” recalls Thompson. “I was thinking in terms of how people do not care. These people in power just won’t care about poor people or people who struggling or people who trying. They don’t care about them, but they care about themselves.”
But Thompson says that just because Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar] is overt, doesn’t mean the more seemingly mundane topics on his previous albums aren’t politically relevant.
“Just me walking down the street is political,” he says.
Ardamus’ roots are still firm and Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar] doesn’t lose any of Thompson’s charm or signature nerdiness. “Another Earth,” which features collaborators Nevasleep and Prowess, uses free samples of rocket launches from NASA’s website and, yes, it was inspired by Mike Cahill’s 2011 film Another Earth. While Ardamus is raising his voice, this is still the man who uses clips from Rick and Morty as a backdrop during live shows.
What’s changed is that Thompson has started to care less about what other people think about his messages. “I feel like if my music pissed you off then I did something right, I guess,” he says.
This hasn’t always been the case.
“Sometimes those people who get the most known are people who kinda step all over others,” says Ceschi Ramos, co-founder of Fake Four Records, which released Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar], “Unfortunately, Ardamus is not as well know, possibly because he’s such a nice guy.”
Now Thompson is starting to think more about his own career.
“Sometimes you gotta look at it as,” Ramos says. “‘Am I doing anything to make myself successful? Or am I just helping other people to be successful?’”
Artemis Thompson is a humble man, but Ardamus is relentless.
“He’s one of the hardest working artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” says Renell Thompson (whose stage name is RNL), a member of The Drop Lockers along with Ardamus, “He has given constantly to this scene and D.C.”
Artemis Thompson, 37, moved to D.C. in 1997 to attend Howard University. He put out his first project with the help of a grant from the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities in 1999. Since 2006, he has released 28 albums, EPs, and singles, either solo or with one of the many groups and projects he contributes to. In 2016 alone, he released Vol. 1: Beatbreaking with The Drop Lockers; the fourth and final part of his I Can’t Replace Me series; After I Replace You; and Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar].
“I look up to people like E40. I like the fact that they just keep going,” Thompson says, “That might be my dream, to have a catalogue like that.”
Kyle Murdock, Director of Media Learning at Howard University and the sound engineer for many of Thompson’s records, has trouble remembering sessions when Thompson wasn’t working on multiple projects.
“Artemis would be like, ‘Let me play you a clip of this project I’m working on. Oh yeah! I’m also working on this. And did I tell you I’m also working on this, too?’” Murdock says, “I used to joke, ‘You’re trying to record on, like, Tupac’s level!’”
But for Thompson, prolificacy is essential. To him, it speaks volumes about an artist.
“It shows that they care about their craft, they give a damn, they want to contribute something,” he says. Thompson just can’t help it. It’s in his nature to meet new people and expand his tastes.
Jerry Busher, a longtime D.C. musician that has played in French Toast and Fugazi, among many other groups, remembers one of the first times he met Thompson. It was a Wilco tribute show where his band covered “Heavy Metal Drummer” and Thompson joined them on stage to freestyle over the track.
“I went backstage at one point and Artemis was like hanging out with these bluegrass musicians talking about, ‘Hey yeah we should get together and collaborate,’” Busher recalls.
The motivation to constantly be making music and try new things has led him in interesting directions. Thompson’s catalogue is varied, but not haphazardly. His own solo work is rooted in boom bap and conscious rap. The Drop Lockers, his trio with Edword Asis and RNL, features more futuristic and electronic sound experimentation. His big band, The Lucky So and Sos, explores jazz and samba.
His curiosity extends to every aspect of his craft. In 2012, he participated in an NIH project called Freestyle Science along with artists likeOpen Mike Eagle and Kane Mayfield that examined the brain activity of MCs while they freestyled.
“I’m very big on mental health, particularly for the black community,” Thompson says, “Growing up we didn’t really touch on it in our household or just like how beneficial it is for us to have.”
And Thompson’s music often revolves around this theme. His I Can’t Replace Me series follows the building of a man from the realization he needs to grow up through the hard work he puts in to make himself better. Thx4UrHONESTY.[liar] contains similar self-reflection.
“I went through a lot of transitions and not being honest with myself,” Thompson says, “Sometimes people aren’t really honest with themselves or about the truth they want to relay that’s inside of them.”
For Ardamus, the foundation that holds all of his music together—the rap, the experimental and futuristic sounds, the jazz and samba— is still his razor sharp lyrics and flow.
“I think he’s one of the greatest freestylers in this community,” says Tia Abner, who performs under the name Prowess. “I’ve seen people call him up on stage and he makes magic happen with very little context and no preparation.”
Thompson practiced his freestyle in the early 2000s at a weekly event called Tru Skool hosted at the old Capitol City Records store on U Street. MCs would battle and play improvisation games like freestyling about words displayed on cue cards at random.
“Every Friday night, he was there to sharpen his skills,” says DJ Earth 1ne, another member of Tru Skool. “If you give him a chance to just go, he’s amazing.”
It was also at Tru Skool he built his reputation for being humble, generous, and outgoing.
“I see him in MC battles and I see him give his all and at the end of the battle, if he doesn’t win, he takes it graciously,” DJ Earth 1ne says. “I think he’s motivated by other people,” Abner adds.
In 2005, Thompson was applying for the Red Bull Music Academy—an event where the brand flies out 60 people for two weeks to do an intense music creation workshop—and encouraged Murdock to apply as well at the last minute. Murdock made it in. Thompson didn’t.
“Artemis was never salty about it. If anything, he was super supportive, always the first to be like, ‘Congratulations,’” Murdock says.
“He’s a badass and he’s humble. He has every reason to be full of himself and he’s not,” Busher says. “I don’t know that he even knows that people feel that way about him.”
While those around him appreciate it, being humble seems to wear on Thompson at times.
“I was showing up and doing my thing at open mics, but promoters kept sliding me to the side, giving favor to some other folks, putting them on bills,” he recalls. “I almost gave up off of that because it felt discouraging. It kinda felt like people were playing two sides of the game with me.”
You can hear Thompson’s frustration starting to come out in his music: “Okay, I’m happy for you/ No, wait, I’m not happy for me,” he raps on “Other People’s Success.”
While he says he would love to tour and make a living off his music, Thompson still mostly holds back when talking about the future.
“I don’t even know if I have a dream,” he says, “I’m just doing this until the wheels fall off.”