A few years back Milwaukee’s arts and culture scene lost an important voice with the demise of the local branch of The Onion A.V. Club. Thankfully, city editor Matt Wild went on to team up with freelance writer Tyler Maas and launched the website Milwaukee Record in April 2014, offering a unique brand of “music, culture, and gentle sarcasm.”
Since its inception, Milwaukee Record has produced a signature benefit event called Local Coverage. The idea is simple: local bands and rappers cover each other’s material. Proceeds from the event are donated to worthy local organizations like Girls Rock Milwaukee and COA Youth & Family Centers.
On the surface the event might seem a bit like “inside baseball” — something only the musicians and critics such as myself might enjoy. However, after attending Local Coverage 2017 at Turner Hall Ballroom last Friday, I learned that the event has a surprisingly broad appeal.
The fact is that good musicians are good musicians, no matter what material they are performing. Not to mention, as someone who covers local music, it’s always refreshing to see an act perform new material rather than run through their usual set. In addition, the event brings together a diverse cross-section of the Milwaukee music scene, exposing the musicians both to each other and to a wider audience. The musical pairings are chosen at a draft a few months before the event.
Like David Ravel’s Uncovered series — which I featured in the last issue of WiG and the next installment, Tribe UNCOVERED, takes place tomorrow at Turner Hall — Local Coverage is a one night only event. As such, my girlfriend and I made sure to arrive promptly. Kicking things off was Americana band Devil Met Contention covering hip-hop artist Vincent VanGREAT, which they previewed on an episode of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s 414 Live.
Vincent VanGREAT followed with his rendition of Abby Jeanne’s soulful rock music, with help from his band Ninja Sauce and SistaStrings. VanGREAT teased his singing skills on the excellent 2016 album UnGREATful, but VanGREAT’s performance at Local Coverage put even more of a spotlight on this additional talent. The emcee/singer brought out Abby Jeanne — who was leaving the next morning for India — to join him on a song, a move that he assured the crowd was pre-approved.
Some acts — like Devil Met Contention and Abby Jeanne — presented their covers through the lens of their own musical sensibility. Others — like Midwest Death Rattle — did more true-to-form covers. The art rockers did an incredible job rapping along to D’Amato’s sexy and thought provoking lyrics.
“I’ve wanted to rap since the first time I saw 2 Live Crew,” exclaimed John Dykstra of Midwest Death Rattle after catching his breath. The band’s earnest rendition of D’Amato’s funky rap songs was a highlight of the night. Even their drummer couldn’t help but dance as they played the final song.
From the looks of her, you wouldn’t expect gentle folk singer Marielle Allschwang to absolutely own the rap stylings of Lorde Fredd33. But after learning about Allschwang’s penchant for hip-hop and R&B, along with the dark, hypnotic tone in each of their music, this was far and away our most anticipated performance of the night.
After a few sets I ran into Nathaniel Heuer — who plays bass in Allschwang’s band as well as another project, Hello Death — and I mentioned that most of the musicians seemed to be taking the challenge quite seriously.
“Oh yeah, we take this very seriously. We’ve rehearsed a bunch. At this point we know it as well as we know our own material,” replied Heuer.
Allschwang’s set was nothing short of a revelation. Her confident, controlled delivery of each and every one of Fredd33’s obscure lines of poetry was glorious in and of itself, but her band also created a mesmerizing soundscape that bounced between doom folk and alt hip-hop. Her set contained a political subtext as well, with Allschwang wearing a solidarity with Standing Rock t-shirt and closing with “MWME,” which contains the chorus, “Trynna turn the Midwest to the Middle East.”
With all of our hype centered on Allschwang’s set, I hadn’t thought about who would be covering her fantastic songbook. That task went to power-pop garage rockers Midnight Reruns, who delivered the best surprise of the night. Allschwang’s folk soul spoke directly through their jangly, crackling guitars. Every time I see the Reruns I love them more and more.
Another takeaway from the night included Jay Anderson creating synth sounds with his tiny saxophone via an effect pedal during Lorde Fredd33’s loose covers of Midwest Death Rattle. I also learned that while I’m not a fan of country music, I can get into country songs performed by a punk band. At least when that band is (two of the three members of) The Pukes covering the music of Buffalo Gospel.
D’Amato closed the show as only D’Amato knows how — with bravado and style, turning The Pukes snappy, punk tunes into his own sensual brand of get down. Between ticket sales, raffles and an exclusive beer made by Company Brewing, Local Coverage 2017 raised over $3,000 and counting, as the delicious sweet and spicy porter is still available at some local establishments. The audio from Local Coverage 2017 will be online later this year, but until then you can listen to and purchase recordings from past Local Coverage events here.
Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially as it pertains to music. Tune in to many of our radio stations or check out the latest Summerfest lineup and you’ll notice that Wisconsinites particularly have a penchant for the “oldies.” Not to mention, cover bands. While that identity has suited us just fine for years, there are those pushing for more progressive and more local music.
In 2012, Alverno Presents artistic director David Ravel hatched an idea that married iconic songwriters with contemporary regional talent. The resulting Uncovered series presents reinterpretations of quintessential American music, curated and performed by homegrown artists.
Last year — after 56 years of Alverno Presents — the college shut down its renowned performing arts series in order to allocate more resources to student services. When the news broke, it was also announced that Ravel had formed a partnership with the Pabst Theater Group that would allow Uncovered to live on.
The first performances will be January 20 — Tribe UNCOVERED — and April 14 — Wonder UNCOVERED — at Turner Hall Ballroom.
I recently sat down with Ravel, Tribe curator Kellen “Klassik” Abston, and Wonder curators Dave Wake (De La Buena, Aluar Pearls) and Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee).
The genesis of Uncovered
David Ravel and his wife moved to Milwaukee in 1997 when she was hired as a theater professor at Marquette University. They had been in New York City, where they ran Brooklyn Playworks, producing work by new American playwrights. Ravel got his job with Alverno Presents in 2003.
“When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, ‘What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.’ Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others,” says Ravel.
As the head of Alverno Presents, Ravel brought world-class performers to the Pitman Theatre. During that time he also developed relationships with Milwaukee musicians. Ravel admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with local artists in their series and he searched for interesting ways to do the same.
One morning, while in his car listening to a re-released demo by the McGarrigle sisters, a line from “The Work Song” sparked an idea. There was a direct reference to Stephen Foster — “the father of American popular music” — whose songs have been recorded by musicians in a variety of arrangements over the years. Ravel enlisted Juniper Tar’s Ryan Schleicher to curate a show that would present reinterpretations of Foster’s songs. It would be the prototype for Uncovered and was titled Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project.
Architect-turned-radio DJ Tarik Moody began his Unlooped series in 2010 as a way to highlight Milwaukee’s electronic music scene through collaborations with popular musicians from other genres. The performances operated in a complementary fashion to what Ravel and Schleicher did with the Stephen Foster show. Ravel and Moody teamed up for a Marvin Gaye show centered on his 1978 album Here, My Dear.
“We placed a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and the show went really well. After that, the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it ‘Uncovered.’ Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it,” says Ravel.
“It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted,” he adds.
After Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye, Ravel invited Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa to curate an Uncovered show. She chose the songs of Patti Smith. Next, Jordan “DJ Madhatter” Lee of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee decided to mine the work of legendary producer Quincy Jones. Later that year, Alverno Presents staged arguably the most intriguing Uncovered pairing — dark folk quartet Hello Death unraveling the music of Prince. This revelatory performance stuck with me for months. Upon hearing the news of Prince’s passing I immediately experienced a desire to relive the one night only event.
The final Uncovered performance at the Pitman did not fall under the official moniker, but had a similar execution.
“The show that (Christopher) Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician no one had ever heard of,” says Ravel. “Charles K. Harris wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, and he wrote that in Milwaukee.”
Harris ended up moving to New York City, where he was one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley and had an active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. He wrote a book called How to Write a Popular Song, which Porterfield used as the foundation for his show. Musicians reinterpreted Harris’ songs and followed the book’s instructions to create their own song.
Blame it on the jazz — the roots of ‘Tribe UNCOVERED’
The first time my girlfriend and I visited the Pitman was for the Jones Uncovered show in April 2015. It was a special evening full of surprises and marvelous music. One of the standout moments was hip-hop artist Kellen “Klassik” Abston taking the lead on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
Considering the popularity of that performance and the fact that Klassik’s biggest single — “Boogie” — samples The Jacksons’ “Blame it on the Boogie,” it seemed logical that he would eventually stage Jackson UNCOVERED. In fact, that was the initial idea when Ravel first sat down with Abston in the summer of 2015 to discuss an Uncovered show.
“This was an artist that I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought,” says Abston. “Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. Where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show?”
“With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook,” adds Abston.
For Abston, Tribe UNCOVERED allows him to put a spotlight on the art of the sample. The lyrical content was actually the final piece of the puzzle. In effect, Tribe has become a vessel to make a larger point about sampling and where classic hip-hop albums stand among classic albums of all genres.
“Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful,” says Abston.
“Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz,” adds Abston.
With Tribe member Phife Dawg’s passing last March and a new Tribe album released in November — their first in 18 years — Abston saw these as reassuring signs. While hip-hop had been used in Uncovered shows as an interpretive lens for existing material, Ravel originally had trouble wrapping his head around the idea of using hip-hop as the foundation.
“All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook,” says Ravel.
‘The elusive perfect album’ — the roots of ‘Wonder UNCOVERED’
As the bandleader of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz outfit De La Buena, Dave Wake first became involved with Alverno Presents by providing the marching band for a Trisha Brown contemporary dance piece. Later, Jordan Lee enlisted Wake to be the musical director for Jones Uncovered. After the show, Wake’s sister came up to him and exclaimed, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?”
“Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth,” says Wake. “It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between Tarik and I. Plus, I like that he’s into doing full albums.”
“It’s what I call the elusive perfect album,” says Moody. “Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.”
Wonder UNCOVERED is still a work-in-progress, but Moody and Wake have found a similar sensibility with artistic choices and arrangements.
“We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, ‘But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?’” says Wake.
Tribe UNCOVERED will be the fourth time Abston is involved in an Uncovered show. The first time he ever sang in front of an audience was at Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye. Abston describes each show as a unique and transformative experience.
“I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. They’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer,” says Abston.
Moody and Wake have enlisted Thane and Q the Sun — two of Milwaukee’s top producers — to help brainstorm Wonder UNCOVERED.
A key component of the series is to gather together a group of musicians who would not normally work together. This was inherent in Moody’s Unlooped series and carried over into Uncovered. In the months after the Jones Uncovered, I noticed many of the same players from the house band hanging out and jamming with musicians both young and old at saxophonist Jay Anderson’s Riverwest home. Also, Prince Uncovered served as the introduction of Abston to Chris Rosenau, who will be playing guitar at Tribe UNCOVERED.
“When I was living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration,” says Moody. “It’s ridiculous how many musicians crossed genres naturally in that scene. If you want a strong and supportive scene, collaboration is very important. People tell me, ‘Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.’ No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.”
“The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. So I think what Uncovered is doing for the scene is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people,” adds Moody.
Purchase tickets for Tribe UNCOVERED and Wonder UNCOVERED here: http://pabsttheater.org/show/tribeuncovered2017
[ FULL-INTERVIEW ]
WiG Tell me about the genesis of the Uncovered series?
RAVEL It started in the parking lot of the Colectivo in the 5th Ward. I was in my car listening to the re-released demos of the first two McGarrigle sisters albums. So there was no production, just guitar, voice and piano. I knew both of those albums very well and loved them very much. As is often the case with something that you get to hear a second time in a stripped-down way, in a fresh way, I was really taken with “The Work Song.” It has the line, “Back before the blues were blues, when the good old songs were new, songs that may no longer please us, about the darkies about Jesus.”
It’s a very direct reference to Stephen Foster and parlor music. Also, it’s a reference to their family and how they shared music with each other. This got me thinking about how the American popular song developed. I started obsessing about this and talking about it with a lot of different people including Ryan Schleicher, who’s an old friend. Eventually I decided I wanted to do a show about Stephen Foster where his material gets reinterpreted.
WiG Had you seen shows like that where the music is being reinterpreted? Did you ever experience that template?
RAVEL No. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I wasn’t familiar with it.
WiG About what time was this?
RAVEL This was 2012. The Stephen Foster show went really well. And as that show was about to happen it was very clear that Alverno Presents needed to follow up on this idea. Tarik and I started talking. I wanted to do something about Marvin Gaye and I really wanted to do something about Here, My Dear, because it’s my favorite album. But Milan (Zori) said, “Don’t limit somebody like that, it’s such a great catalogue. Why do you want to limit them to one album?”
Tarik and I started talking about Marvin Gaye and listening to a lot of it and then Tarik said, “You know what my favorite Marvin Gaye album is? Here, My Dear.” And I said “Yes.” So we focused on that and we did the whole album, placing a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and that show went really well. After that the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it “Uncovered.” Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it. It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted. And we went on from there.
WiG How long had you been working with Alverno Presents prior to that?
RAVEL I started there in 2003, so this was like 9 years later.
WiG What was Alverno Presents known for at that point? RAVEL Well, over its 56 year history it was known for a lot of different things. When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, “What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.” Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others.
WiG What were you doing previous to being hired by Alverno Presents?
RAVEL I worked for Theater X for two years and prior to that my wife and I lived in New York for 14 years.
WiG What precipitated the move to Milwaukee?
RAVEL My wife got a job. She was chair of the Theater Department at Marquette University, so we came for that job and I did what I could.
WiG So Tarik, tell me how you wrapped your head around the Marvin Gaye show?
TARIK Well, Here, My Dear is a concept record. It’s basically a divorce settlement for his ex-wife. At first he didn’t really take it seriously, he was just going to do some BS. But then he thought back and decided to put all of his emotions in it. The album covers a range of emotions. So I approached first from the lyrics and then the music. Each song is almost a different genre. I wanted to have different ensembles for each song. To approach the song from a completely different way.
One of our favorites was Martha Cannon from Lady Cannon. She took the song “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and turned it into a country song. My secondary goal besides putting on a good show was to connect different artists together that I like. It’s my selfish reason for doing these shows. It’s kind of what I did with the Unlooped series. I love Chris Porterfield and I like Kiings, so I want to put them together. A lot of people who worked on Unlooped had never met each other. That was the fun part of the show. That was kind of my ulterior motive to get different artists I appreciate and respect and see what happens when they come together.
WiG Can you explain the Unlooped series?
TARIK It started back in 2010. It was basically to highlight the electronic scene. Because since I felt that people in the city didn’t really appreciate electronic music. So the idea was basically to highlight electronic musicians and I felt the only way to do that was through collaborations with other musicians that people like. That’s how it started. Then I took a hiatus and I brought it back in the form of reinterpretation. So the first one was Dilla and the second one was Justin Vernon and the third one was the Marvin Gaye show.
WiG So Dave, was the Jones Uncovered show the first one you became involved with?
DAVE I had done…I don’t remember when we first met…
RAVEL We had done that Trisha Brown thing. That was so wonderful.
WiG What was that?
RAVEL Trisha Brown is the foremost postmodern choreographer. She has a piece that involves a marching band happening around the building so you can hear the marching band not in the theater but around the theater. So we got De La Buena to be the marching band. The dance company was thrilled because they normally get high school marching bands. And so they had first of all somebody with a very good sense of rhythm, which the dancers really appreciated and we marched them around the theater and through the orchestra pit. It was a lot of fun.
DAVE We brought a bunch of percussion to it. David emailed me when they were asking for a marching band asking if we could do something. We started dialoguing via email and I said, “What about a Samba band type thing with a bunch of second line horns?”
RAVEL Which is not the idea of their piece but they were open to it.
DAVE So we got like New Orleans second line horns with a Samba group, just like sight unseen. There’s no part of the show where we’re seen. It’s just a point of reference where the sound was coming from and it ended up being amazing and then we played either at the break…
RAVEL That piece was the end of the first set and when the audience went out of the theater De La Buena with outside playing. That was how many years ago?
DAVE That was maybe 2013/2012. I remember we were backstage at the show and you said, “There’s this Marvin Gaye record, Here, My Dear.” So that was a really great experience working with David and then for the Jones show, Jordan Lee just called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to be the musical director for the show?” It was a little different in that Tarik is sort of into this…you know David was saying about not being limited to one album? But I do like the concept of taking one album and really dissecting it. So Jordan and I took on Quincy Jones. I mean his catalogue is insane. My wife was in India with Painted Caves and we sat at my kitchen table for like three or four hours listening to the Quincy Jones songbook. I think we narrowed it down to like 83 songs.
RAVEL He has 50 years worth of work.
DAVE We were like, “Okay, let’s just narrow it down a little,” and our list was like four pages long. Then we brought that down to like 13-14 songs at the end of it. It was really daunting, but it was an incredible experience. We took a little different approach with it because we did feature performers with a house band. And then we brought in Painted Caves to do some really different stuff.
RAVEL Like the Lady Cannon piece where they took a Marvin Gaye song and turned it into a country song, Painted Caves took Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” which is kind of classic early ‘60s white girl pop, and turned it into something with a really intense Middle Eastern vibe. I don’t know the name of the male vocalist…
RAVEL Ali took the lead vocal, which is the persona of the young girl. Ali took it and just cracked it open. And Holly was able to sort of jump into that sweet spot. It’s one of my most satisfying moments of the Uncovered shows.
DAVE Yeah that show I think was like…it’s something we’ve been dialoguing about, those moments of having a clean house band and then bringing something totally out of left field. The counterpoint of that worked really well in that show. That’s one thing that in hindsight I would have liked to have done more with Jordan on that show. More of having these really nice tight arrangements with great singers, letting them do their thing and then all of a sudden something out of left field just comes in and knocks your socks off. That’s sort of been something for the Stevie Wonder show that we’re discussing. Using the device of sharp contrast and counterpoints.
WiG So Kellen, I know you were involved in that show and Prince Uncovered. Were you involved in any others? KELLEN I was in the Marvin Gaye show.
WiG So what was your experience like performing in all these shows?
KELLEN My experiences with Uncovered up until the present day have all been very unique and transformative experiences. I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. To take something that’s recognized on its own right and then turn it on its head is something special.
I’ve learned a lot about where I want to go as an artist, finding my strong suits. Find the things that are super new, that I’m not as sure of and tackling those kinds of things head on. Like the Marvin Gaye show, I had never sung in front of people before I did Marvin Gaye show. It’s still something that I’m coming to terms with. These shows, they’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer.
WiG So I’m familiar with the Jones Uncovered show, the Prince Uncovered, the Marvin Gaye show, what other Uncovered have there been in the series?
RAVEL Stephen Foster, Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Quincy Jones, Prince, and the show that Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician that no one had ever heard of. So if we were to call it Charles K. Harris Uncovered people would have probably been scratching their heads. But it was in effect an Uncovered show. There were people reinterpreting Charles K. Harris and he wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, “After the Ball,” and he wrote that in Milwaukee. Then he left Milwaukee and became in essence one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley in New York and had a very active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. And he wrote a book, a very strange book, called How to Write a Popular Song. What Chris did was invite a bunch of musicians to reinterpret Charles K. Harris’ songs and then follow Charles K. Harris’ instructions to write a popular song. So it was an Uncovered show, we just didn’t call it that.
WiG Did you know that Alverno Presents was going to end before it was announced?
RAVEL Yes, they gave me a heads up. One of the things that I wanted to do was that I had a number of projects in development that I wanted to find homes for including these two upcoming Uncovered shows. So I went to talk with Gary and Matt [at the Pabst Group] and they had a lot of enthusiasm for the Uncovered shows. So it was a very natural home for these things to go to. And I am told that we have a commitment to doing two Uncovered shows a year for the next three years. So this will go on.
WiG So it’s not just a trial run?
RAVEL I thought it was a trial run until I read in the Journal Sentinel that we’re doing two a year for the next three years. I suppose this could change, but for now this is my information.
WiG Looking at the first one that’s coming up, how did A Tribe Called Quest get selected?
(Ravel and Kellen both laugh.)
RAVEL Let me start with saying every curator I’ve ever worked with we started on one idea…
TARIK Hey, I kept mine.
RAVEL Okay, you kept yours.
DAVE My sister walked up to me on stage after the Jones Uncovered show because my dad played Stevie Wonder growing up and she said, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?” And it’s so funny because that same night the next conversation I had was with you (looking at Tarik) and you were like, “Stevie Wonder.”
RAVEL Yeah, but Tarik was also saying after the Jones show that it would be a long time before he did another one of these things, which is another thing every curator has said. “It was great. I had a good time, but I need a break.” It’s a lot of work. But pretty much every curator changed their mind midstream. We started with one idea and went to another one. I’ve always gone with it because the work that the curator has to do it so intense. I mean, they’re living with this for like a year and a half, in some cases two years. It has to be something that you can live with for that amount of time. So Kellen was going to do a Michael Jackson show.
WiG I had heard that…
KELLEN This had to be summer 2015 I feel like when we first sat down and talked about this. My immediate thought was MJ. Of course, I’m gonna do a Michael Jackson show. Duh.
WiG I feel like people were saying that after the Jones show…
KELLEN I think that was kind of the inspiration. And there was this growth and that’d be like a challenge because we did this one song and what if I just really dug into his catalogue? Obviously, this is an artist I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought. It was, “MJ, but then I could also do Tribue…but I’m gonna do MJ.” And for sure like with Phife passing, it was right before then that I was really moving strongly towards changing it. Because MJ was just like equally…
RAVEL I think we made that choice before Phife passed.
KELLEN Yeah, but I think his passing was a sign…there were some things that happened since the change that were reassuring. It was like, “Alright, MJ is equally as difficult and easy. This could go one of two ways.” Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. I probably could do a really good MJ show, but where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show? What am I arguing besides the obvious?
With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. The story kind of just unfolded and unveiled itself once we made that decision and immediately it was like, “Yeah, there’s a lot more to say with this, there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as the art of the sample and what that takes and the type of ear.”
Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful. So that’s what this show became.
RAVEL All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. Jordan’s idea of working with a producer rather than a songwriter, I didn’t understand it when he suggested the idea. But he made a really compelling case for it. And while past Uncovered shows have used hip-hop as an interpretive lens for existing material, we’ve never looked at hip-hop before. And the first question I had was, “How does this get reinterpreted?” I didn’t understand that. Then Kellen explained it to me. And I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook. WiG (to Kellen) I think you kind of already answered this question, but what has Tribe meant to you?
KELLEN Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. When I started rapping it was because in high school and a little bit of college, I was making beats as a side thing, as a hobby. But my main thing was going to music class for five hours a day. I was a 50-year-old jazz guy who was actually 16. That was my life. Practicing every single day. The art of improvisation, as I started getting more into hip-hop, I saw very early on that jazz improv and freestyle rap are literally the exact same thing.
With jazz improv you learn certain licks and runs and then you learn them in every single key and eventually you build up this vocabulary. It’s a language in a very literal sense. You can better convey and more efficiently share ideas and emotions and thoughts if you have the vocabulary. You’re not thinking about it. Even speaking to you right now, I’m not thinking about every single word that’s coming out of my mouth per say. I’m thinking about the larger thought, and the rest just happens. So the greatest jazz improvisational players are the ones who sat in their rooms for like 12 hours a day and practiced the same pattern over and over and over again, until eventually they’re not thinking about it and they’re just “talking to you.”
Freestyle rap is even more literal than that because now I am talking to you with words, but I’m making them rhyme, and I’m keeping it in time. And I’m having complete thoughts with this level of self-awareness that there are patterns and phrases that if you know, they’re couplets and certain rhyme schemes that you can go in and out of. You get to a point where you’re so comfortable you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking in a different way. If you’ve got a saxophone and you’re doing a solo, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking to the audience. If the DJ throws a beat on, I’m not sitting there in a corner thinking about what I want to say. No, it moves you to speak. And so what Tribe represents for me is the embodiment of that parallel. The marriage of jazz and hip-hop. The records that they sampled and the reasons that they sampled them and why they worked together. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz.
WiG And did the new Tribe album have any impact on the direction and vision of the show?
KELLEN Actually no. All of this was in motion well before they announced the album. It was just another one of those reassurances. It was another sign. Didn’t really effect the show that I’ve constructed.
RAVEL We won’t be looking at any material from the new album? KELLEN There may or may not be one song from it towards the end. But…without giving away too much…
WiG It can be off the record.
KELLEN No, it’s not super secret. But yeah overall the new album didn’t alter the course of the show.
WiG It sounds like with the Stevie Wonder show, the roots of it go back a few years.
DAVE Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth. Again, my sister came up after the Quincy Jones show and said “Stevie Wonder!” It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between with Tarik and I. Plus I like that he’s into doing full albums. But I do think it’s a daunting task that we’re taking on the entire Songs in the Key of Life…
TARIK Which is a double album.
RAVEL We’re investigating the idea of a dinner break.
TARIK It’s what I call the elusive perfect album. I mean it’s everything you want in an album. It’s beautiful. When I first heard it, it was like…I’m more of a music guy, sonics and sounds, and I feel like Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.
DAVE It takes you on such an emotional journey too, it’s such a story. Each song in it’s own stands alone and as a work of art it’s such an incredible journey. It’s such an incredible work.
WiG So was that a pretty easy consensus?
DAVE I think so. I think we sort of came to it a little bit individually as well and so when we started talking about it we were kind of already on the same page. It’s been really interesting with us combining our artistic sensibilities, because we’re coming from two different worlds. It’s been really cool. It’s just like feeling it out and starting to put the thread together in how we approach something like that and where we’re coming from as artists and musical minds. It’s really starting to develop nicely and again, we’ve had a couple great moments where we’ve individually come to a couple of conclusions then we’ve checked in with each other and been like, “This song would be great as that,” or “This person would be really great on this song.”
I think both of us have had individual revelations like that and when we check in we’re like, “Wow, I was thinking that too.” Some of the other collaborators we’re bringing in are really really bright and have great perspective. Like Thane, who put out a really great record this year and is young, he brought some really great, fresh ideas. He’s really thinking about it. And Kiran as well. Those are the two people we brought in really early to help brainstorm with us. And it just feels like there’s a really cool collaborative vision going on, which is important.
TARIK And plus the album was released forty years ago.
WiG This question can go to either of you guys. How do you start putting together a show like this?
TARIK There’s bourbon first.
KELLEN Why was I going to say the same thing? Buy a bottle of bourbon…
DAVE Lubrication of some sort, in this case bourbon.
TARIK For me, I go through the songs first. You just start listening to records. Have a drink. And hopefully ideas will spark. Like “Oh, I’d love to have that singer,” or “That drummer would kill on this song.” You start brainstorming while you listen to records. I listen to them over and over again. Try to think of other ways, what would be interesting. That’s how I approached Marvin Gaye and this next one.
DAVE And in the spirit of the re-interpretative nature of it and personally, I consider myself first and foremost an arranger.We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, “But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?”
We’re looking at different angles of arrangement and how a different pairing of artists might look at it. Getting people together that wouldn’t normally work together and seeing how they are going to interpret it. You give them the artistic freedom to do their thing and interpret it in their own way and sort of hold a place for them. Cuz I’m also thinking as an arranger, how does the show tie together? What are the common elements where you can get a thread throughout the show? Something that really makes it a complete show. So it’s like, “What are the things you can keep in place to keep it feeling like a real show that has a thread that flows with tons of room for interpretation between it?”
KELLEN Same. Also, this is something that I’m like actively combating now, the beauty and the controversy of what I’m doing. Meaning I’ve had old heads, like die hard hip-hop fans, in public forums just basically question my credibility. Like, “Where is your knowledge of this?”
DAVE Your authority.
KELLEN “You were two years old when this happened, why are you doing this?” Well, first of all…
RAVEL I’m a musician. Second of all, I have ears.
DAVE And third, you’re bitter.
KELLEN Right. And then the thing that I was able to eventually get across is that none of these are supposed to be cover shows. And this for sure, the way that we approached this, from de-constructing the samples themselves and replaying them, and recording those, and then re-sampling that. There’s so many layers. The lyrics are almost, ironically enough for this, gasp, all the hip-hop heads are going to hate this, but the lyrics are the last thing that are even a part of this Tribe show. Tribe has become more of a vessel for a larger point that I’m trying to get across about the art of the sample and the parallel of jazz and hip-hop. They just happened to be the fucking best to do it.
It’s not specifically about your favorite lines. It’s definitely more of a musical exploration as far as expectation, as far as records that were used and how that laid the foundation for a new iconic piece of work on top of that. And so taking that whole process and putting it on the stage for everyone to see, like, hear the original sample played by a live band and then watch this guy sample this record on stage. At least that’s what it’s going to look like to people. It’s really putting front and center the art of creating a classic hip-hop record and where classic hip-hop records stand amongst classic records of all genres.
(We then discuss the Tribe/Pharcyde mash-up album Bizarre Tribe and Dave recalls a Hieroglyphics show at Stonefly Brewing, which is now Company Brewing.)
WiG I guess my last question, well I guess it’s more of a comment than a question, and I think we touched on it before, but one of the residual effects of these Uncovered shows is a community building effect in the Milwaukee music scene. Bringing together people who’ve never worked together to collaborate on something larger than themselves. I felt like being at the Jones Uncovered show and then seeing some of the house jams at Jay Anderson’s place with some of the same musicians coming in and mingling, a mix of older heads and younger players. You know, hats off for that aspect.
RAVEL One of the things I was thinking about for a long time when I was at Alverno Presents was I always admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with Chicago and Minneapolis based artists in their series. And I wanted to do that. And it took me a long time to figure out a meaningful way to do that.
It never made sense to me to book somebody who’s going to do their Cactus Club set at Alverno, because we can see that at Cactus Club. Why is this special? As this idea with Foster started to develop I realized this is how I’ll get to work with the artists in Milwaukee I want to work with and give them an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before and give audiences an opportunity to see them in a different light. That part has been especially meaningful and I’m glad it’s worked out.
TARIK I mean with Unlooped that was basically the whole reason I wanted to do that. Because living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration. It’s ridiculous how many musicians cross genres naturally in that scene. There was this cross-pollination and I guess the idea sparked when the group Gayngs, which was started by a bunch of Minneapolis people as a joke, 26 people based on one funny concept, it was kind of a loose tribute to yacht rock and 10cc and they got all these different artists together, plus a couple people from North Carolina, and they put this album together and had this prom in Minneapolis at First Avenue. Prince was backstage.
I mean you see that kind of collaboration and local support in Minneapolis. A lot of local artists sell shows out at First Avenue and I wanted to see that here in Milwaukee. And I knew the only way I could get that done is that artists had to get out of their comfort zone and intermingle. If you want to have a strong scene and a scene that is supportive, collaboration is very important. Just seeing that and watching that and knowing those people when I was living there and watching them grow, now that I’m on the outside it’s just amazing. And the thing is people tell me, “Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.” No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.
DAVE Amazingly insular talent, Milwaukee has.
WiG And I would say Minneapolis has stronger leaders like Prince, Rhymesayers…
TARIK Yeah, Prince was very supportive. And Rhymesayers helped out Doomtree and P.O.S. so much. They kind of brought each other up. Now Doomtree’s helping other people out. When you go to Eaux Claires you see all the Minneapolis people just hanging out and stuff in the back. That intermingling seems like such a natural thing. I don’t know why it happened, maybe because of the legacy of Prince, the legacy of The Replacements, the legacy of all those bands might have something to do with it. It’s a beautiful thing.
DAVE Austin’s got that vibe too. I think they set it up with Austin City Limits and that festival is set up as such where the artists village is like, they specifically build it so that artists are hanging out and exchanging ideas. They have a bunch of different backstages but everyone goes in one area to eat. They’re basically like, “Here, all you artists eat together. You’re standing in line waiting for your food, start talking.” Not to knock Summerfest, so I won’t, but it’s a very different experience where you’re being shipped in a van and it’s like, “Don’t look at the other artists! Turn your head away.” But with Austin City Limits they’re like pushing you together. Which can really foster some cool ideas and bands forming out of it.
WiG You see that at Eaux Claires, which is new but…
DAVE Yeah, I haven’t been to that one yet, but I’ve heard that it’s really…
TARIK Justin Vernon is basically inspired by Minneapolis.
WiG I’m pretty sure he has an apartment there.
TARIK He might be a Wisconsinite, but he takes a lot of cues from Minneapolis. And he sees that collaboration and he brought it to Eaux Claires. Jay’s doing his house parties. That’s a great start and I hope it continues. I’d like to see more local artists on each other’s albums. Maybe Klassik gets Tenement on his album. Or De La Buena gets Reyna on their album. That needs to start happening as well, not just performing live together, but starting to feature each other on albums. I think what Uncovered is doing is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people. The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. They had never met each other. That was the coolest thing ever.