DJ Monkey: Hip Hop Goes Back to the Future
In a musical setting of funky drums, bass and piano colored by delightfully smarmy, lounge lizard sax, the spoken word is a modern diatribe on L.A., rendered in a voice that sounds like a film noir private eye...
Into the arena of rap comes DJ Monkey (DJMonkey.TK). This band of outsiders - with the exception of Lil' TipToe (Bad Azz, Snoop Dogg & the Dogg Pound, Daz & Karupt) is comprised of a poet, a rapper, a saxophonist, and various other musicians - reprises and expands the music; as if Public Enemy's Chuck D. cut his teeth with NWA, joined forces with the Roots and added Branford Marsalis for flava. This group - the brain child of poet, songwriter and singer Joey Alkes and his main collaborator Mick McMains - combines beats, rhymes, spoken word, pop hooks and blazing guitar to create their own thing.
Streaming MP3: "U-Boat"
DJ Monkey's CD, "Another Evolution," is surprising and unique, a tonic for jaded music fans. The title suggests going beyond, but the music is even more surprising. The first piece, "5th Avenue Jam" is - jazz poetry? The music swings - drums in a bebop style, walking bass, saxophone bleats and skitters - as narrator and vocalist Joey Alkes bops: "Raw in tears, my nose blowing, Vesuvius erupting in the darkest reaches of my mind, pop!" What?
The next cut, "U-boat," starts with a slow, funkadelic groove, featuring burning guitar by Mick's son Ian, a chorus sung in a David Bowie-like voice (Run, I've been overrun/nothing left to do but to run from you), ominous spoken word ("Like corporate law... America stumbles from her headlines...") and a strident rap, the likes of which we seldom hear (Tha world is on fire... people are running/the line to heaven is long... Everyone's screamin' "It's the end of the world"). This song, with its vocal hook, spoken word, phat groove, and rap, sets the stage for most of what follows.
Then Alkes throws the listener a curve with "Beatnik." Over a Prince style funk beat created by multi-instrumentalist McMains (Earl Slick's NYC) and Lil' TipToe's MPC 2000, where they drop lines like "Wannabee a beatnik... it sounds cool enough for me/Maynard G. Krebbs and Nina Simone, Burroughs, Kerouac /... if you wannabee a beatnik holla!" With its catchy chorus, the song is pure pop animated by bongos, wailing soprano sax, and scratchy guitar.
Streaming MP3: "5th Avenue Jam"
Playing with and giving a new take on familiar conventions is what the best musicians do. In jazz each player has to do a ballad. In pop music you got to sing about love. The song "Too Cool" is a love song but without the corniness and cheese. Mick McMains recites the poetry with scholarly gravity. Rapper Lil' Tip Toe raps, with the gangster lean of a West Coast / Dirty South rapper. The two parts blend into a whole, building off of and shading each other, riding a chill-funky G - groove. Adding color and counterpoint, as he does throughout the CD, is saxophonist Mitch "Count Daddy-O" Rafal (Kid Frost, Mellow Man Ace, Luciano & Rick James).
"Hollywood and Vine" takes other familiar sounds and styles and cooks them in a DJ Monkey-ish stew. In a musical setting of funky drums, bass and piano colored by delightfully smarmy, lounge lizard sax, the spoken word is a modern diatribe on L.A., rendered in a voice that sounds like a film noir private eye: "L.A. heat wave, it's so hot today! Tell me now why we all feel so cold? Living in this city..." This is far cry from the inane shouts of "reprazent" heard in most raps about the 'hood.
Streaming MP3: "Beatnik"
"My Life Is" flips the script on yet another hip hop staple, the man from the streets describing his "trife life." In contrast, the clich/ celebration of success and glorification of gangster violence, Lil' Tip Toe brags about focus and an unstoppable drive to succeed. All his braggadocio, however, has an uplifting, humorous quality. Lil' Tip Toe is indeed "off the hook like spring break in Miami."
Slam poetry's raw political expression rises up on the piece "Big Oil." Here they take political ideas and cut to the chase: "Who pulls the string?/Big Oil/Who's got the ka-ching? Big Oil?/Quiet as a mouse... we gonna own the white house." The song's funk rock beat is augmented by some the tastiest rhythm guitar this side of Curtis Mayfield. The scratching and record samples intertwine with the soaring guitar leads, bouncing and playing off each other.
Streaming MP3: "Hollywood & Vine"
"Messages" takes the album back on the track of the abstract. Though musically not as dryly antithetical as the Antipop Consortium or El-P's work on the Def Jux label, lyrically it goes beyond spoken word and into the realm of pure poetry over a beat that lumbers like a juggernaut. The low, droning bass sounds carry you along like a spot light in a horror movie.
The final cuts are evocative, plaintive and, with more ambient sound textures, meditative. "Jerusalem," the final piece, ends the CD on an uplifting note. Over the easy R&B beat and keyboard riffs, DJ Monkey speaks of the oneness of the human race and the desire for peace as symbolized by the sacred city. "We ignore the prophets of peace ... I want to walk across the great divide and look into the flower of your eyes and tell you that everything will be okay ... that we will all forgive each other one day." From the troubled and troubling opening cuts through to the end, "Another Evolution" is like a movie; you laugh, you cry, you cheer.
How did this eclectic group come together?
Joey Alkes: Mick and I met at a company in Pasadena. We became friends and started working on poetry and music in May of 2002. We realized that we were comfortable with the elements of spoken word verses combined with rhythmic heavy bottoms and (hook-laden) vocal choruses. We started to realize that rap could play a part in all this (so) we decided to ask rapper Lil' Tip Toe, my stepson-in-law, to insert himself into the compositions. He listened to the music, and gave us the first draft (of his raps) off the top of his head that first day. So now we had the narrative spoken voice of Mick McMains, my hooky, completely untrained scat singing, and Lil' Tip Toe's strong rap presence.
Saxophonist and flutist Mitch "Count Daddy-O" Rafal and I came to L.A. together years ago and he was a natural to add to the mix. Guitarist Ian (Mick's son) McMains is literally a prodigy. In hanging out in his dad's studio he would be riffing over some of the chordal structures we had up on the board. He added, along with Lil' Tip Toe, youth and energy to the mix. We promised ourselves right from the top that we were going to learn from the kids.
Streaming MP3: "Big Oil"
Mick McMains: It was during the mixing phase that we decided to bring in a scratcher. I asked my son Ian if he knew anybody. He said the best DJ he knew was his roommate Jeremy, a/k/a MR1.
How did you go from composing pop songs to doing spoken word to rap?
Mick McMains: We tried writing pop songs, but it didn't feel right. One night I was listening to the music we had and picked up a book of Joey's poems. I started to read the poetry over the music.
Joey Alkes: Musically, I always wrote very simple changes. I learned my pop from Motown. My ability to write hooks (such as in the hit pop song "Million Miles Away," played by The Plimsouls and the Goo Goo Dolls) comes out of the fact that I hear more like a listener than a musician. Spoken Word and Rap/Hip-Hop are a natural fit for me. I was into the mix of spoken word and music as far back as The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. When rap first emerged I didn't perceive it as being that much different from what the Beatniks did with Jazz in the fifties.
Streaming MP3: "My Life Is"
In today's stultifying world of mass marketed music and an ever-lowering, lowest common denominator approach to culture, how can you hope to make it or even survive?
Joey Alkes: My response is that artists have no choice but to be themselves. "Making it" is a term that only applies to the lowest common denominator and shameless capitalists. As for survival, what we are beginning to discover everywhere is that there is a growing undercurrent of us that yearns for something honest and soulful. Forms can be used to communicate real things: evolved behavior, truth, sharing, justice and love; or they can be used to sell self-hate and a reactionary agenda.
Real art and music, like in-depth education and news, takes hard work and real effort. It is much easier for those in power to continue to recreate the formula over and over again, convincing people that they actually like it and that there is nothing else possible anyway. There is no risk. It takes no talent for art, literature, film and music as an executive to create it. It is the old theory of take no risks and keep your job.
Streaming MP3: "Jerusalem"
Peace, love, anger, war, silliness, funk, jazz, rap, poetry. You can get a peace of this true bling bling from Airborne Monkey Records, ph. 626-296-0342 or check their website www.djmonkey.tk. Holla!
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