The Beast & Nnenna Freelon: Bridging Jazz and Hip-Hop
By Jordan Lawrence
There’s an expectation that comes with the seal, “hosted by 9th Wonder.” The prolific NC/NY-based producer is well known for his production work with Little Brother and Erykah Badu, tracks that thump through old school soul and jazz samples like a subwoofer pounding out of a vintage car. His cachet carries even more weight here in the Carolinas. The Beast, a Durham-based jazz trio/MC fusion, sports the producer’s endorsement on its latest outing Freedom Suite, and knows the clout that comes with 9th’s name.
“We were told by some local hip-hop musicians, ‘Why don’t you use like a 9th Wonder snare? It’ll really make your head knock,’ ” says The Beast’s rapper Pierce Freelon. “ ‘Your stuff, live drums, it’s just not punching trough. It’s just not doing it for me.’ ”
That resistance is to be expected for a band that works in such unconventional ways. Instrumental hip-hop bands may be common today, but rap outfits that lay their instrumental foundations in jazz are a much rarer breed. The Beast’s bass lines don’t always follow the beat path — they move with a skittering amble. Those live drums don’t pound metronomic. They complicate the rhythmic landscape, making it an invigorating challenge to follow. Little that The Beast does sonically adheres to rap’s status quo, and neither does the use of its 9th Wonder cameo.
Freedom Suite, which is available for free download at both The Beast’s Bandcamp page and jazz blog Revivalist.OkayPlayer.com, fades in on a hypnotic, looping jazz instrumental. 9th Wonder takes the mic, playing the role of a jazz club owner introducing his guests to the night’s entertainment: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and welcome to the Freedom Suite,” he says with a rich, suave delivery. “I hope you’re ready for some progressive hip-hop and jazz tonight.”
Credited to The Beast and Nnenna Freelon, Pierce’s Grammy-nominated jazz-singing mother, Freedom Suite tirelessly inverts the sounds and aesthetics of hip-hop and jazz, creating a vivid musical dialogue between them. The trad jazz club intro substitutes for a typical, name-dropping mixtape opening, and the music that plays under 9th re-imagines one of his own beats. It’s a compelling tangle of twisted genre tropes, a listener-friendly blueprint for the free-thinking jams that follow.
Intent on keeping The Beast’s name out there after the release of 2009’s full-length debut, Silence Fiction, the band began working toward Freedom Suite early in 2010. Bandmembers were originally drawn to the idea of collaborating with indie rock bands from around the Triangle area, stemming in part from their friendship with acts like Hammer No More the Fingers and Lost in the Trees. The idea shifted when The Beast decided to push its own uniquity (???) to the fore. (Fix this sentence)
“We have an MC. We play backbeat stuff. We’re a hip-hop band,” drummer Stephen Coffman says, addressing the outfit’s alignment with the local rap community. “But I think with Silence Fiction, calling that a hip-hop record and saying that we’re a hip-hop band, it turns people off. Because you know the hip-hop fans are going to think, ‘Nah,’ because it’s not traditional hip-hop.”
But as the band stewed on it, the plan became more ambitious. The project would revolve around the clash of both styles and, in addition to the originally planned cuts, it would include updates of jazz and hip-hop standards.
“There’s never been one person that the media or the public could look to as like the person or entity that has defined what the relationship between jazz and hip-hop is,” says keyboardist Eric Hirsch, speaking to the divide the band was trying to span with Freedom Suite. “If anything, maybe it’s just a project that asserts that they’re very complimentary approaches to things.”
After weeks of what Pierce remembers as repeated “phone calls, e-mails and just nagging people,” the band assembled an all-star cast of North Carolina talent to help out – a list that includes Phonte of the smoothly experimental Foreign Exchange, Raleigh rap group Kooley High, rising-star R&B singer YahZarah, and production by Apple Juice Kid, who has full-length re-workings of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong already to his credit. But the biggest impact comes from Nnenna Freelon’s contributions.
There’s intimacy between her singing and The Beast’s music that’s clearly influenced by the familial bonds. Her voice, a slow-burning and sophisticated timbre capable of bright and blinding flares of raw emotion, provides the drama, while The Beast — via Pierce’s witty adlibs or melodic wrinkles from the band — lightens the mood. On the updated Beast tune “Freedom Part 2,” Nnenna sings the opening lines with the conviction of a revolutionary (the album’s title echoes the famous 1960 pro-civil rights recording by Abby Lincoln and Max Roach, We Insist! Freedom Suite Now, and shares its name with a 1958 Sonny Rollins LP, which speaks more to a sense of musical freedom.) But Nnenna’s visceral impact is tempered by Pierce’s lighthearted, pop-culture-nod-cum-advisory to “Eat, pray, love/ Freedom.” The undulating bass lines in Apple Juice’s remix add sensual sway, letting the song’s pro-environmentalist, pro-humanist agenda go down with the ease of a slow dance. It’s another example of the record’s generation-gap bridging charm.
“Parents are always kind of turning up their noses and not really listening to the cultural impulse,” Nnenna says. “My son has really done a lot to educate me on the culture of hip-hop that I don’t think I would have had if I hadn’t had his leadership. Duke Ellington said something that I think is so to the point. He said, ‘There are only two kinds of music: Good and the other kind.’ I’m really feeling that. There’s no genre that’s inherently good or bad. It requires listening. Really listening to what any artist is saying.”
That’s the discourse Freedom Suite aims for, particularly when The Beast (and company) invert still more expectations when reinterpreting the songs of others – one of jazz’s greatest traditions. “Umi Says” transforms Mos Def’s original reverb-laden rap into one of the more straightforward jazz pieces on the record, with Nnenna crooning the lyrics as Pierce echoes her in a way that recalls Def’s spoken-word delivery. And “Skylark” renders a jazz canon standard into a glossy piece of modern R&B that warps Nnenna’s performance with aggressive vocal effects.
That approach impressed the other collaborators, too. “They’re taking songs that I love and that inspire us, and flipping them to another interpretation to inspire others,” says YahZarah. “I want to be a part of things that do that for people.”
But on Freedom Suite, subverting musical expectations isn’t enough. Pierce, a hip-hop scholar at North Carolina Central University who operates the insightful blog Blackademics, fills space between songs interviews with respected musicians from the worlds of jazz and hip-hop. So instead of typical between-song skits, sound bites from the likes of saxophonist Branford Marsalis, jazz legend Herbie Hancock and The Roots’ ?uestlove litter the record with academic insight.
These interviews don’t shy from the prejudices between the worlds of jazz and hip-hop. In the outro to “Freedom Part 2,” Marsalis references his famous trumpeter brother Wynton, who called hip-hop “another form of minstrelsy.” The Beast follows this with “Let Go,” a critique of the bling-obsessed and misogynistic side of hip-hop that doesn’t toss out the hip-hop baby with the gangsta rap water. “People think hip-hop got to be a certain way. People think jazz got to be a certain way. It’s just music,” Pierce laughs during the instrumental break.
“This is a conversation that we got into a lot,” Pierce says of his band, “so it was easy to say, ‘let’s take this conversation and weave it into and throughout the music.’ It’s just another reflection of our journey as musicians and artists. It just happens to play out in dialogue with these icons of the genre. I think art, really good art, is just about channeling your life experiences through whatever medium is at your disposal. We definitely do that musically, and we saw an avenue to do that as far as the discussions.”
Like the seamless integration of these interviews, the guest spots on Freedom Suite don’t suggest marquee-only cachet. They’re here because this is a dialogue with many voices. In this way, the record becomes much like the metaphorical “Freedom Suite” that 9th Wonder bid us welcome to in the beginning. It’s a place where artists not only can play music on the fringe of two often clashing genres and cultures, but also where they can speak their piece about the divide freely and openly. That’s a lot to be accomplished by any album, but giving the music away for free means anyone can listen, and that’s a good way the dialogue to continue.
“If it allows people to continue the discussion, then it is what it needs to be,” Nnenna says. “Because the freedom to talk about these things, to work them out, to maybe not come to a total resolution, but put it out there – that’s what’s up. That’s what’s good. Everywhere where doors are closed and we can’t talk because we’re just too different, it maybe lights a little candle to be like, ‘you know what, let’s talk about it.’ I think that’s a good thing.”