When Jon Whitfield moved to Los Angeles in 2008, he had no aspirations of seeing Hollywood Boulevard or hitting the beach in Malibu. He didn't come from his home state of Mississippi to play tourist. Then again, he also didn't come to fall in love, get married and merge his burgeoning musical career with a globetrotting female MC, but that's more or less what happened.
Whitfield, who records under the name Swish, grew up listening to gospel, jazz, soul and classical music via his father, an established pianist and gospel producer. While Swish was primarily an athlete, Nas, Jay-Z and Eminem were icons of his adolescence. “My family didn't have much money so I kind of grew up in a hood area,” he says. “Hip hop spoke to me the most directly.”
It was in college, after spending all of the money he won in a free throw contest on musical equipment, that Swish began producing his own tracks and mix tapes. These gained some traction in the southeast U.S., but the demos he sent to record labels got no responses at all. “People knew who I was, but I wasn't getting shows. It wasn't a thing where anybody really cared.”
Figuring that his home state couldn't support his musical ambitions, Swish moved to Los Angeles upon graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi. Soon after his arrival, a friend suggested he connect with Jamaican MC Nadirah X. “He told me, 'She's a rapper and she's managed by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. He doesn't really produce a lot of hip hop, so she must be great.'”
Nadirah, already an established artist, began her musical career after winning a singing competition in her native Jamaica. She was noticed by Stewart, who took her under his wing “like family,” guiding her growth and moving her first to London and then to LA.
Intrigued, Swish attempted to reach Nadirah through her MySpace page, and the two ultimately met at a recording session and became fast friends during group hangouts, trips to the mall and outings to see the L.A. Galaxy. “We just liked each other,” says Swish.
The couple married in 2010 and began making music together under the name Mister + Misses shortly thereafter. Nadirah introduced Swish to Stewart and cohorts including Glen Ballard, Annie Lennox, Joss Stone and Mick Jagger, all of whom the couple have collaborated with.
As Mister + Misses, their sound is epically elegant hip hop that is richly layered with instrumentation that recalls both the classical influences of Swish's father and the sounds of Nadirah's native Jamaica. Their debut EP, released by Stewart's Weapons of Mass Entertainment and available as a free download, is thematically grand as well, speaking to the daily struggles and subsequent triumphs of being both a broke artist and black man in America. “Those things take a toll,” Swish says, “but ultimately it makes the music sound good.”
“He gets up at whatever hour inspiration hits him, takes his iPhone and locks himself in the bathroom,” says Nadirah of her husband's process. “Eventually he comes out and goes, 'I've got something. It's HOT!' I've got to wait on his process to write lyrics, so in the meantime I'm just being mom to our daughter.”
“I'm trying to make it a masterpiece.” Swish says of the couple's debut LP, due out this fall. “I want it to be a classic, one of those hip hop albums where people listen to it and go, 'It sounds like The College Dropout or The Blueprint or The Marshall Mathers LP. I want people to listen to this and say, 'This is the sound we've been waiting for.'
Mister + Misses play the Interdependence Day Festival at The Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park on Sunday, September 9.