by Luke Stewart
The dawn of the new millenium saw the Y2K armaggedon unrealized, the former U.S. president’s theft of an election, and the influence of underground culture mounting – with groups from across the country gaining recognition and helping to craft the tastes of the new century. The music company/collective/band Sound of the City emerged from this environment, creating an outlet and a magnet for talented artists on the East Coast. Now in its 12th year of existence, the group has developed a network of core performers and producers, who have come together to work with some of the finest names in the music industry. Led by the renowned DJ 2-Tone Jones of D.C., the band will make its debut at the historic Blues Alley tonight, in a concert that explores the relationship between the respective “golden ages” of jazz and hip-hop. This will be the first time a DJ-led group will headline at the famed jazz club.
The concert is an extension of the Shaolin Jazz Project, which 2-Tone and his friend, Gerald Watson III, launched last year in order to present the links between the two genres in a manner that is innovative and new. One of their main projects was a mixtape splicing lyrics from the Wu Tang Clan, a legendary hip-hop crew, with classic jazz tunes. (Shaolin Jazz also led a panel discussion on jazz and hip-hop at CapitalBop’s recent Jazz Loft MegaFest.) As a co-founder of the Shaolin Jazz project, 2-Tone saw an opportunity for his group, Sound of the City – which is well versed in funk, a connective tissue in the chronology that links old-school jazz to hip-hop – to make real some of the concepts envisioned by the Shaolin Jazz Project. “We just needed a band that was good enough to translate the music from the project live with a DJ,” he said via email. “It just so happened that I was already a member of the best band around that could do just that – Sound of the City.”
To the purist, this band is far from jazz. Their rhythms groove rather than swing, evoking more head nods than finger snaps. The front line is made up of MCs and singers rather than horns. Overall, the group is more akin to a modern-day hip-hop electric fusion band, rather than what one would readily recognize as jazz. But to Sound of the City, that is okay. The group identifies heavily with the hip-hop generation, but many of its members are “classically” trained in jazz within the context of urban America.
2-Tone and the band look beyond genre definition. Rather, the goal – especially for him – is to give more credibility to the DJ as an instrumentalist and to turntables as a viable instrument, rather than just as a party-starter. As 2-Tone elaborates, “On a small scale I feel that I’m breaking some ground by being the first DJ to perform at Blues Alley as the frontman of a band as opposed to being just a component of it. On a larger scale (and beyond just the realm of jazz) I hope to one day be recognized in the same lineage as cats like Grand Mixer D.STand DJ Logic, who give credibility to the notion that turntables are musical instruments capable of improvised performance and not just record players.”
The concept of DJs performing live with bands is certainly not a new one, as 2-Tone explained. Even the DJ collaborating live with jazz musicians is not new. From Madlib’s series of recordings with live bands to D.C.’s own DJ Spooky performing with pianist Matthew Shipp, the groundwork has certainly already been laid. Sound of the City has even had its own residency at Bohemian Caverns, where the group used to perform every week. Therein lies the difference between Sound of the City and many other DJ/band hybrids. Where many projects are one-off collaborations focused on the improvisatory moment, this group has developed its own focus. As the translators of the Shaolin Jazz Project, the path is perhaps more clear.
Sound of the City is certainly indicative of a larger creative music that is propelling a new and exciting energy into not only jazz, but all forms of music and music-making. The corresponding lines of jazz and hip-hop’s development are coming closer together, due in no small part to technological advances. Watson, 2-Tone’s Shaolin Jazz co-founder, explains: “I think the biggest [parallel between contemporary jazz and hip-hop] is the usage of technology – specifically how it’s used to market both genres via social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). An extension of this is how today’s artists are taking more charge of their careers and becoming more tech savvy and managing those areas of their marketing and promotions. This leads to the idea of how artists are now becoming aware of and looking to brand themselves and greatly develop their own direction.”
One need only to look at how music is discovered now to confirm Watson’s point. Listeners and fans find music via social media and follow them. The definitive difference between the experience of a jazz fan and a hip-hop fan lies in the live performance. For a jazz fan or musician, the live experience is essential, due to the music’s inherently intimate qualities of engagement. For hip-hop, the music has trended recently toward being more studio-centric. The recording means everything and the live show, while still important, is somewhat secondary for many. Slowly but surely, that dichotomy is withering. Jazz fans have witnessed the rise of Robert Glasper, Ben Williams, Marc Cary and many others who come from a hip-hop tradition and are fusing what they have learned from that environment into their jazz performance. Likewise, many hip-hop artists have begun to incorporate more live music into their concerts, and guess who they often look to: jazz musicians. Jazz and hip-hop are meeting on the stage, and Sound of the City is a perfect example. With their live interpretation of Shaolin Jazz, the group is poised to push this concept forward, fusing hip-hop with jazz and making it work.
Sound of the City performs a program based around the Shaolin Jazz Project tonight at Blues Alley. Admission is $18, and there is a $12 food and drink minimum; the band will play two separate sets, at 8 and 10 p.m. More information is available here, and advance tickets can be purchased here.