"We should hang out, you know, because we're brothers and everything."
Two brothers from Lancaster with a similar interest in writing and hip-hop never imagined where chasing the beauty of a beat could take them. For love of a rhyme, they just went.
For older brother Eric Hassler (a.k.a. “Matic”), it started with writing poetry in high school, then progressed to college where he was exposed to others’ freestyling in basements and realizing he might have some latent potential himself. For younger brother John (a.k.a. “PA”), it also started in high school with a love of writing poetry—but here’s the rub: at first neither brother knew the other was also writing rhymes.
Eric recalls a day when his younger brother John, who was then a senior, brought home a collection of poems he’d written for an English project. He read them and was ‘blown away.’ Eric relates with a chuckle, “Then we started talking about rap and I was like ‘Yeah, I do that’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, me too!’ to which Eric quipped sardonically: “We should hang out, you know, because we’re brothers and everything.”
Little did he know what that moment would mean. Reflecting on it, he explains that seeing how his younger brother was, in his opinion, “leaps and bounds” ahead of him drove the inclination to step up his game musically in that “infuriating and proud” moment. He snickers when remembering his thoughts at the time: “My little brother is kicking my ass! ...I have to become better, NOW!”
This led to writing to beats together and later recording a demo in a Millersville University studio. A short time later, John moved to California for four months, but this didn’t deter the duo from keeping the creativity going. The two reminisce about spitting verses to each other on the phone and John sharing stories of his experiences on the West Coast freestyle rapping on streets and in underpasses with various local artists, some of whom had lovingly bestowed his moniker, “PA.” A track aptly titled, “PA” on John’s first solo album PA & the Muse:Ack—MOVE BACK! chronicles many of these experiences and friendships forged. Later when John was back in his home state, he and Eric would freestyle on speakerphone with those same friends from John’s West Coast escapades. It was during that time in California that John’s own drive developed, because as he puts it, “We weren’t even writing it down half the time...we were just freestyling….freestyling all day every day.” It was the element of being out of his home element that made the realization dawn for John. Here he was, among complete strangers looking to him to perform, and when it comes down to it, as Eric says “Can you do it or not?” John realized that not only could he, but much like his brother, he needed to.
After John’s return, he and Eric hooked up with a local beatmaker/producer known in circles as Zander, played him their Millersville-produced demo, and started work on producing their first album Matic/PA: It’s a State of Emergency. The album was the result of “a lot of late nights” according to Eric. Both brothers relate working their full-time jobs to pay for beats mixed by Zander or others, then coming home and working on music all night into the wee hours of the morning, waking up, and then doing it all over again—and being glad to do so. It was three years in the making, and the two are proud of their first creation.
It was during this process that they had a friend, Bob Kenyon (a.k.a. “Berp Willie”), try his hand at writing two verses on a track. Eric remembers being awed: “those were the best two verses.” It dawned on him that the three should work together and thus an offshoot group, Highlife, was born.
The group, consisting of Matic, PA, and Berp Willie (and a cadre of rotating DJs helping out) then released an album together titled Next Exit. Among Highlife’s highlights are opening locally for Wu-Tang Clan twice (2010 and 2012), Method Man and Red Man (2011), and Cool Keith, among others.
Berp Willie gained recognition for his work with Matic and PA and then did various work on tracks for other local underground hip hop acts 46 Acorns, Sam Doom, and Analytical. Inspired, another friend, Eric Herr (a.k.a. “Charlie Buckets” or a.k.a. “Il Duce”) began working on tracks of his own, producing beats for other people, and the creativity became electric.
“We really got people onto it without trying to be cocky or persuade them to join our side of music…we just like seeing people do music,” Eric says, to which John quickly adds, “and everybody just kind of motivates everybody else.”
“Yeah,” says Eric, “this city has always been good for that.”
With a second Matic/PA album, second PA solo album, and Matic’s own solo EP among many other projects in the works, the guys are decidedly busy. Lump in the fact that all three men are maintaining jobs and families (Eric, two girls ages 12 and 9, John, a 1 year old son, and Bob – twin boys!) and it’s hard to believe the guys are anything short of everyday musical superheroes—and yet they still guilt themselves for not being able to perform more regularly in public venues.
“I hope anyone, if it’s not us….I hope that somebody from Lancaster shows them that this is a city that’s doing things artistically,” Eric says. “We’re not just a little community with art galleries. We’re actually artists and people that live here, doing the right thing.”
There’s an impromptu but apropos anthem on their website, Lancstars.bandcamp.com, with a verse that ends…”five point star in the L-a-n-c.” On a tepid Lancaster night with some good friends and the integrity of an infectious bassline, to the discerning listener’s ear it just might sound like something these hardworking, humble artists are on their way to becoming.
All of PA, Matic, Matic/PA, Highlife, and Berp Willie’s music is available for FREE and the artists can also be contacted and booked for shows at Lancstars.bandcamp.com. CD pressing via another of their ventures, LancStar Studios, is also available.
Written by Lore Mauger
Photography by Nate Mauger
Headline Art by Broc Verschoor