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Name: Adam Bernard
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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The other day I was perusing my Twitter feed when I saw something interesting from my buddy Core Rhythm, an emcee and producer from New York who now resides in Barcelona. He was lamenting the underwhelming nature of the vast majority of hip-hop bands.

The Roots helped lay the groundwork for such acts, and with them being so great one might wonder why so many of those who’ve attempted to follow in their footsteps pale in comparison. Is it just because The Roots are THAT good, or is there something else involved?

According to a number of artists, the first, and possibly most important, aspect of being a good hip-hop band is having a special combination of musical ability and hip-hop knowledge. Lee, who is a New York based artist who writes and arranges for his own band, and is the lead emcee/singer of The Square Egg, explains “they have to have a feel and a history for the music you’re a part of. You can’t have a dude who has never heard of 9th Wonder, or Black Moon, when you are discussing a break with a band.” Core Rhythm seconds this, saying “SP-1200s, MPCs, are a hip-hop lifeblood. You can’t deny that. If the drummer doesn’t understand MPC swing he is not playing hip-hop.”

Johnny Durkin and Darian Cunning, who play in Sketch Tha Cataclysm’s band, both note that there are certain things they do differently when working with an emcee. “When rehearsing and coming up with arrangement ideas the unit functions like a DJ picking out breaks from a crate of records,” Cunning explains. “This is in contrast to the way arrangements are addressed in a rock, singer/songwriter, or jazz group, where the band acts as a collective of composers adding embellishments to a composition.” Durkin explains the differences in his playing, saying “the process for me, as the percussionist, is to LISTEN to the beat first and see if there are already percussion parts to cover. If not, before I think of making one up I listen to see if there is anything I can either bastardize or change the voicing of.”

For Cunning, the process he utilizes involves “internalizing the beat, prioritizing what parts can, and need, to be played, and rearranging the parts that can’t.” Durkin notes that the best bands truly understand this, pointing to The Roots’ version of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” as an example. “On ‘Big Pimpin,’ when The Roots backed Jay-Z on Unplugged, the percussionists covered some quieter parts from the original on the bongos and tambourine, When they did that it brought some new life to the track cuz those instruments live, played with sticks, are LOUD.”

The entire onus of being a good hip-hop band, however, is not entirely on the band. According to Sketch Tha Cataclysm it’s also about having an emcee who understands live instrumentation. “Some hip-hop tracks don’t have much going on for any musicians to play and thus it becomes unnecessary to play the instrumental live. Sometimes it even takes away from what is great about the song. There are a bunch of songs I have done that I would never want to do with a live band.”

His live band, however, provides him with a number of options he really enjoys taking advantage of. “I don’t ever have to perform a song the same way twice,” he explains, “and I could add things the night of a show to allow each performance to be special.” Lee also enjoys the spontaneity of performing with a live band and notes another added bonus is that “you also never have to worry about a record skipping or your laptop getting unplugged. You can play through technical glitches.”

Core Rhythm has heard some of his production work played by live bands and he has very mixed feelings about it. Creature’s band Rebelmatic is one of the few that Core feels does it right, saying “they made a punk version of my beat. I feel that.” Workforce producer Dirt E. Dutch has also experienced his beats being played by live bands, and he says “it takes on it’s own life. Sometimes it’s a low life, and sometimes it’s a luminary genius.” What he enjoys most about it are the results of the process Durkin and Cunning discussed. “It was interesting to see how they (the bands) interpreted what I made, and also how they substituted for certain sounds that could never be made by a live instrument.”

Dutch also points out the new concept hip-hop bands have created simply by their own existence. When a band recreates a beat that was originally made with samples from other songs Dutch notes “you can almost consider it twice recycled.”

Whether it’s something “twice recycled,” or an original composition, according to Lee the keys for all hip-hop bands to reach musical greatness are balance and identity. “There has to be a balance in the sound, and the band has to forge its own identity,” he explains. “It’s tricky. You’re either a band with an emcee, an emcee with a band, or you’re a group. There is a difference. I think the perfect balance is the latter. There’s a cohesion that makes for an identity.”

Story originally ran in the FairfieldWeekly.

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