By Joey Grihalva
With year-end “Best Of” lists populating News Feeds and other media spaces, they are being met with equal parts vindication and scorn. Some allege favoritism, while some promote their praises. Others — like Sam Kacala of Rhythm Changes — quietly take note of the underappreciated, the overrated, the justified, and move on. Kacala would rather focus on the music he’s creating with his band.
Sam Kacala is one of the most understated artists I’ve met in the Milwaukee music scene. It may have something to do with the fact that he works with youth at his day job. Kacala is the Character & Leadership Coordinator-Supervisor at the Don & Sallie Davis Boys and Girls Club.
As a result, I figured Kacala would be an ideal candidate for the in-school performance series I produced as part of the Arte Para Todos festival back in April. Rhythm Changes not only entertained and interacted with a gymnasium full of students at Gaenslen Elementary School, Kacala even assembled a student/teacher band for an on-the-spot jam.
In terms of underrated Wisconsin releases, 2015’s The Message is Real by Three. Stacks. Eliot (TSE) is one of the best examples. Rhythm Changes is the current incarnation of TSE, representing both a lineup and name change. The band continues TSE’s tradition of being a premier hip-hop/R&B backing band, while creating their own jazz-pop sound.
“Three. Stacks was done as a group when Teddy decided he was going to Japan,” says Kacala. “Even though I still speak for the band in terms of press and what not, it’s more of a collaborative project. Three. Stacks was more so me and Teddy’s vision of collaborating with hip-hop artists, specifically Klassik.”
TSE achieved their goal of collaborating with Klassik for a number of memorable performances in 2015, including one at Brady Street Festival and another at the Grain Exchange Building with the Milwaukee Ballet.
“Once that happened and we put out the album it was like, ‘Well, this is it. This is what we set out to do.’ Then we added new members and it became more of a group change than a name change. We have a lot of fun playing together. Our stage presence is like we’re laughing at each other.”
Rhythm Changes added Kyndal Johnson and Curtis Crump to TSE members Cody Steinmann, Calvin Turner, and Kacala. Earlier this year they produced a debut EP — We Had No Choice. Unlike the slew of guest rappers and vocalists on The Message Is Real, We Had No Choice is feature-free.
“It came together really quickly. It took a couple months to develop the music and then we recorded it all in one session. Kyndal’s vocals are somewhat repetitive, so it’s not a huge lyrical project. That helped the process. She’d be in rehearsal scatting, come up with a lyric line, then repeat it,” says Kacala.
Like The Message Is Real, the Rhythm Changes EP was recorded in Kacala’s parents living room.
“It’s so comfortable for me, though I can’t speak for the rest of the band. But we always get stuff done there. I like to have my hands on every part of the project. And I think it’s more of a learning process for me that way,” says Kacala.
Rhythm Changes threw an EP release party in September at Jazale’s Art Studio in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The lineup featured Genesis Renji, a stand-out guest on The Message Is Real. Renji — who recently moved back to Milwaukee after living in Washington, D.C. — is one of the most underrated hip-hop artists around according to Kacala.
“The release show was a great night. Renji is one of the hardest working rappers, but I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. It was a great moment for people to see how raw his material is. It was just him, no mic, nothing but his voice. He did a piece on diabetes and two on gun violence. People started tearing up,” recalls Kacala.
Back in 2013 when TSE was starting out the band produced a showcase series at the Jazz Gallery Center of the Arts. Among those first performers were WebsterX, Vonny Del Fresco, Lex Allen, and Emmitt James. Kacala prefers the art gallery/cafe setting to a traditional bar venue, where he feels people are more concerned with drinking than the music.
For the Rhythm Changes EP release at Jazale’s, Kacala and Darren Hill — Jazale’s co-founder — came up with an idea to do an art raffle.
“Vedale Hill is my favorite artist in the city. So we bought four pieces from him and ended up raffling off two of them. Kyndal had an artist that wanted to get her work out there so she had a piece there too. We had them on display at the front and each person got a raffle ticket when they walked in, but you could also buy them for a certain price,” explains Kacala.
“We raffled them off at the end of the night and we didn’t expect people to get into it. But the crowd was so intimate that people ended up bantering back and forth about who wanted what piece. It felt like I was watching a scene from a play.”
Kacala — who taught a free drum camp for kids at the Jazz Gallery in the summer of 2015 — will return to the East Center Street venue on Friday December 23, as Rhythm Changes will be the house band at the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser. Freespace is an all-ages, free, monthly, (mostly) hip-hop showcase featuring youth performers and established artists. It is the brainchild of high school English teacher Vincent Gaa and Sam Ahmed (WebsterX), with production help from designer Janice Vogt and KaneTheRapper. It provides an opportunity for youth to learn from and interact with professional musicians, as well as their peers.
“As a musician, I think it’s important to ask yourself if you are making a positive impact on your community,” says Kacala.
“We’re going to move on someday, whether it’s to a bigger stage or to no longer making music, so it’s important that young musicians have a chance to take our place. Music also kept me out of trouble. I was given so many opportunities and wouldn’t be where I am if not for older musicians taking the time to help me, so I expect that we do the same for the next generation.”
For more information on the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser click here.
To listen to Rhythm Changes’ We Had No Choice click here and Three. Stacks. Eliot’s The Message Is Real click here.