by Jane Roser
“Hey! Mr. Beat box! Can we get a picture with you?” As a respected fixture in the DC music scene, Grammy nominated progressive hip-hop artist Bacon is recognized everywhere he goes, including The Hamilton Restaurant where I’m meeting him for lunch. After graciously posing for a few photos with his fans, we sit down to a lunch of the mumbo sauce chicken wings that the chef created especially for him.
Growing up in Southeast DC, Bacon was exposed to diverse genres of music early. His mom DJ-ed basement parties and would put speakers in the windows and bump up the music for the folks in the neighborhood to enjoy. “My mom grew up during the hip-hop era listening to Kurtis Blow and RUN-DMC, so I would hear all of the early hip-hip, Motown, Duran Duran and The Police. Plus, growing up in DC, if you needed something to get into, you’d bang on the buckets and trashcans. It’s a very musical city.”
Bacon is a master of beat boxing. He started when he was a kid walking around making percussion sounds with his mouth. Then, his mom introduced him to the music of Doug E. Fresh aka the Human Beat Box and he was able to put a name to the type of music he was making.
Bacon attended Duke Ellington School Of The Arts in Northwest DC, concentrating on drawing and painting- skills which he still uses in his current work. Everything from his website to his business cards, logo and album art is created by Bacon. “I believe that artistic energy can be used in any realm,” he explains. “It’s like, if you have water you can put it into any type of container, but the water will adapt to this mug or glass or flask. If you have creative energy, you should be able to put it anywhere and it’ll work out.”
Bacon’s five-track album, Hip-Hop Unplugged, is being released February 22nd at a spectacular album release concert at the historic Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC. This is part of Bacon’s Washington Sound Museum Program which is “usually folk music from different parts of the world”. Every month, Bacon collaborates with someone in a genre of music totally different from his own style.
“The vernacular, customs and the essence of the culture can be found in the roots of their music,” says Bacon of the program. “My whole mission statement is cultural acceptance and unification through music. I deliver that message with the performances and collaborations, exposing audiences to different cultures. Through that, we can see the humanity in different groups of people, understand one another and appreciate our similarities, as well as our differences. We won’t have this wall built on stereotypes or class and economic division, we’re able to see each other in a better light.”
Each song on Hip-Hop Unplugged has a clear topic and is a definition of his life in several ways. The song “Freedom” came out of a Woodstock tribute show he was asked to participate in. “They gave me this Richie Havens song and I wrote a rap around it about financial freedom- being a cat who grew up in Section 8 housing in the projects of Southeast DC and only attending college for one semester because my financial aid didn’t come through.”
“Freedom” personifies the struggles and frustrations Bacon went through back then. “At the time I only had one verse and the chorus [for the live performance]. I’d perform those, then pass the solo over to a local cat, Jon Carroll, who would kill it on vocals and piano, then I’d do one more chorus and we’re out!” Bacon liked the song so much, he decided to develop it more then added a second verse, some cool bossa nova rhythms and made it into a different piece for the album.
DC folk duo The Sweater Set came on to add vocal harmonies to several tracks, “I really wanted that jazz vocal harmony and their folk sensibilities on this album. All of the music is organic and with live instrumentation, so it moves in a different way. There’s no drum set, it’s purely beat box.”
Sara Curtin of The Sweater Set says, “I count myself lucky to have worked with Christylez as much as I have. He’s fearless and a true collaborator; always trying new arrangements and embracing the unique styles of the different artists he works with. Hip-Hop Unplugged is a special project that showcases Chris’ fearlessness. In a genre commonly swimming in electronics and studio production, Chris is unafraid to let his actual voice be heard, to let our actual voices be heard and to let his complex musical arrangements of live instruments speak for themselves.”
A song from the album I enjoyed enormously was “Children Album Gangsta”, which with four verses, sixteen measures and seven minutes in length is quite epic, but Bacon had a lot to say, “I had just gotten nominated for a Grammy for doing a children’s album and what, as a hip-hop artist does that mean? Because your genre is supposed to exist on the streets and be demonized or written as a thug’s art form, as people outside of the culture may say. My content is palatable. At the end of the day, I’m just communicating, so what’s it like to be a cat that’s from a crazy hood, who does shows for children, schools and libraries, as well as for adults? I wanted to let people into that world and give a different perspective.”
Bacon’s album release show next Saturday with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra and the Sweater Set is not to be missed. He will perform with his own ensemble, as well as with the bands joining him on stage. “They’ll do an opening act,” Bacon explains, “then I’ll collaborate with them inside the constructs of their genre, and then they’ll come into my set and we’ll freestyle.”
Bacon has always loved the big band sound and is currently soaking up all the Count Basie and Duke Ellington he can, explaining that what the audience will see on stage will be very similar to what Count Basie would do in his arrangements, Bacon is just doing it with a 22 piece orchestra to create an intersection of big-band jazz, hip-hop and go-go. Plus there will be tea, so there’s no excuse for not going.
Bacon just wrapped up a play he scored for the Woolly Mammoth Theater called “We Are Proud To Present…” and will next collaborate on scoring a production at The Kennedy Center. Bacon is not your average hip-hop artist. No, he is something new under the sun. He is redefining a sometimes misunderstood genre of music and bringing people together, performing often at venues and festivals that wouldn’t normally include hip-hop artists.
As writer Robert Alan once said, “cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.”
And bringing together that diversity is just what Christylez Bacon is attempting to do. One song at a time.