ISWHAT?!
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ISWHAT?!

Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France | INDIE

Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France | INDIE
Band Hip Hop Jazz

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Au rayon des noms improbables, on connaissait Charlemagne Palestine, chantre du minimalisme anglo-saxon, il faudra y ajouter Napoleon Maddox, élément moteur du groupe Iswhat?! de Cincinnati (Ohio), qui agite la scène hip-hop alternative avec un cocktail s’employant à révolutionner un genre menacé de formatage. Pareil sursaut d’implication hybride n’est pas sans rappeler, parmi quelques autres, The Roots.
Vecteur. Aux antipodes des productions racoleuses qu’il fustige, Iswhat?! retrouve les fondements du hip-hop en tant que vecteur politique et part en campagne politiquement incorrecte, inspiration croisant jazz avant-gardiste soixante et lignes poétiques du slam.
La clef de voûte du son Iswhat?! est l’entente spirituelle et la vision commune que partagent Napoleon Maddox, stupéfiante boîte à rythmes humaine, et son aîné Jack Walker, saxophone et flûte à qui la formation doit son nom. «Cette musique ne peut être enfermée ni dans une boîte, ni dans des catégories, appelons-nous Iswhat?!» , aurait-il suggéré au cours des premières séances.
A l’œuvre dès l’ouverture du second album, The Life We Chose, dans la reprise acoustique du Kashmir de Led Zeppelin, le duo vrille en symbiose, entre volutes charnues du sax et rafales syncopées du beat-boxer. Né trio (avec une basse électrique), le groupe se déploie à la manière d’un collectif, comme en témoigne le deuxième essai, où sont conviés la Bolivienne Daniela Castro et son débit latino (Casket), Roy Campbell Jr et sa trompette de poche, sur un faux air be-bop un brin moqueur, Mooc h, ou la saxophoniste Claire Daly, couronnée par le magazine Downbeat : «La reine en titre du saxophone baryton.»
«Iswhat?! est né en 1997 des amitiés développées au fil du temps dans un engagement social, culturel et musical à Cincinnati, jusqu’à atteindre ce solide concept spécifique», explique Napoleon. «Au-delà d’un simple apport technique, l’entente suppose de véhiculer une émotion et un point de vue communs.»
Ainsi l’impulsif Hamid Drake, batteur majeur du jazz libre afro-américain, s’est-il profondément impliqué dans le projet. C’est d’ailleurs ce format du groupe que révéla en janvier 2006 le festival Sons d’hiver grâce à la sagacité de son équipe, alors que le premier CD, You Figure It Out, n’était pas encore distribué en France. Premier choc. Vint ensuite la création, entre jazz et spoken word, pour Banlieues bleues l’année suivante, du saxophoniste Roy Nathanson, ex-Lounge Lizards et pilier de l’underground new-yorkais. Autre choc, diffusé par Orkhêstra sous le nom de Sotto Voce .
Tourneries. Particulièrement impliqués socialement, Napoleon Maddox et ses acolytes dénoncent, en une diatribe anti-Bush, le système des Trusts dans Ill Biz. Circus , rap âpre bordé de pleurs convulsifs sur un fond sonore emprunté aux Clowns de Fellini, propose une évocation de fête foraine désenchantée. Front, armé d’une rythmique drum’n’bass et cuirassé de tourneries indiennes aux tablas, semble particulièrement voué au dancefloor. Tandis que The Voice Within convoque les accents chantants de la langue brésilienne pour mieux subjuguer.
Writer’s Block conclut le recueil sur la participation des producteurs hip-hop III Poetic.
Formé à l’église dès l’âge de 3 ans aux vocalises gospel, Napoleon tient assurément de son prénom de baptême le goût des conquêtes soniques, mais «ma bataille est pour la paix intérieure et mon arme, la musique», conclut-il.

- LIBERATION


En garde! The avant-garde hip-hop stylings of IsWhat?! prove that there are still
artists out there willing to push the proverbial envelope. Trying to define their sound
is a supremely difficult task, causing you to take note of what is going on in the
background. On The Life We Chose, lyricist/poet/beat-boxer Napoleon Maddox
and multi-faceted jazz instrumentalist Jack Walker create a fresh sound for lovers of
the spoken word.
From the outset, we hear Walker's tenor sax swell as the undertones of Led
Zeppelin's "Kashmir" accompany Maddox's swift verse. The duo from Cincinnati
waste no time in defining their sound as Maddox provides the backdrop for
"Casket" with his beat-boxing talents on display. Maddox can rhyme too though.
Don't let his penchant for beat-boxing dissuade you from the fact that this man has
a message.
Not wanting to give away too many lyrics, the title cut "The Life We Chose" is ripe
with lines that beg for people to stop complaining about the lot they were given in
life. "So you a boxer with a broken nose?" he asks, "Hands up this is the life we
chose! Hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes? Dress up, this is the life we
chose! A farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow? Dig up, this is the life we
chose!"
Maddox gets political on tracks such as "Ill Biz" taking some jibes at our current
president. He talks about politics on "Circus," too, using metaphors of the circus life
to characterize how our own society has been transformed into a chaotic spectacle.
The moving image of a wailing mother who has lost her child to a bullet wound
closes out the song in cinematic fashion.
For all of the praise given to Maddox, it is Walker who quietly goes about his
business as the backbone of the group. His proficiency on a number of different
instruments provides the listener with a sense that they are listening to something
modern and progressive. He makes the group relevant, giving them a unique
perspective that other hip-hop groups don't possess. They look to be well on their
way to a long career.
--James Armstrong - BEYOND RACE


Monday, May 7
On the surface, the duo that forms the core of the Cincinnati band Iswhat?! might
seem to be oddly matched, but the hip-hop/jazz hybrid sound is a successful
intergenerational dialogue. Saxophonist Jack Walker was an active avant-garde
jazz musician when hip-hop's architects were in diapers, and he brings swing and
a non-standard melodic approach to rapper and beatboxer Napoleon Maddox's
compositions. The way they attempt to bridge the musical gap is similar to the
relationship that jazzman Weldon Irvine had with rappers Talib Kweli, Mos Def and
Q-Tip. Iswhat?! hits DC9 as part of its national tour tonight. - Washington post


The Cincinnati-based combo ISWHAT?! combines hip-hop and jazz in a lean, mean and politically potent mix that doles out as
many inspiring aphorisms as angry rants. On their latest record, last year’s The Life We Chose, core members — rapper Napoleon
Maddox and saxophonist Jack Walker — are joined by upright bass, drum machines, Maddox’s beat-boxing and various electronic
touches to create “organized arrangements that contained both hip-hop and improvised music,” as Maddox describes it, “. . .
with a little more bite to it than a lot of the so-called jazz-hip-hop that we had been hearing so far.”
Bite it’s got. “Profane words don’t burn like the truth/ I get a grip on reality, then I relay the news,” Maddox raps on “Front”;
“The hood is self-hating . . . Blow up then bottom out/ You know what I mean,” he says on “Circus,” a scathing take on
mainstream hip-hop. “Cocaine business controls America,” he raps on “Ill Biz” — “Ganja business controls America/ Illegal
business controls America/ ’Cause George Bush controls America.” (Maddox hastens to add that the song refers to George H.W.
Bush, father of the current president.)
All the while, Walker blows memorable hooks to help the medicine go down.
The connection between hip-hop and jazz is threefold, Maddox says — there’s the tradition of improvisation and the ability to
absorb different musical forms. But “it’s not only musical . . . it’s a social connection,” Maddox says. “Both hip-hop and jazz are
music that came from the youth generation of African-Americans that’s been shared with other people . . . and has done a lot to
connect different communities. . . .
“Both musics were more or less villainized by the mainstream media, but after a while the practitioners kept . . . developing the
music until people could see ” that ‘This is something to be reckoned with.’
On the title track, Maddox shouts out equally to the hood and to the society that enables it. “So you a boxer with a broken
nose/ Hands up! This is the life we chose.” And that call to responsibility is central to Maddox’s aesthetic.
“One of the things that I hear a lot of over the years is, ‘hip-hop is gonna do this’ or ‘hip-hop is gonna do that.’ . . . And I think
it’s important for us to remember that hip-hop, or jazz, can’t do anything that the people aren’t doing. . . .
“Hip-hop doesn’t have any hands or voice or body without the body and the voice of the people. And people have to take
responsibility for the shape and condition of hip-hop; people have to take responsibility for the shape and condition of our lives.”
It doesn’t escape Maddox’s attention that the shallow, negative portrayals of African-American life in mainstream hip-hop (which
he calls “big business pimping the hood”) are at platinum-selling status. It also doesn’t escape his notice that it’s largely because
white people are buying the music. “Because of capitalism and racism . . . of course the images of negative hip-hop have gotten
a boost, because it’s what certain people want to hear and want to see. . . . But if the negative music isn’t supported and
bought and sold, no matter how much it’s pushed, it can’t succeed.”
The responsibility cuts both ways, he says — to artists and audience.
“I think the artists hear that all the time: ‘You have to be responsible.’ . . . That statement has lost its teeth and conviction,
because the artists who are making meaningful music don’t get support.” On the other hand, “It’s like a twisted novel. In some
way the public is being held responsible, because the monsters that we help create by supporting certain things, we have to live
with those monsters. And the music will either continue to deteriorate, or it’ll grow in a different direction. Or there will be a
revolutionary response to such debased creations. . . . But hopefully the public will see.”
Maddox says it’s hard to tell whether his messages are catching on, since most people coming to the group’s shows are already
inclined to agree with the point. But if he’s preaching to the choir, “The choir’s growing because people see that the church
service is more important. . . . The Roots made a really strong album, and a growing number of artists are saying things, and
it’s harder and harder to stay asleep. You have to choose a side.” - The Providence Journal


Discography

"You figure it out" Hyena Records 2005, rough Trade / Nocturne
"The life we chose" Hyena Records 2007, Rough Trade / Nocturne

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Bio

Don't adjust the speakers. That is the legendary riff to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" skronking on tenor saxophone underneath the spitfire rhymes of Napoleon Maddox. And the old man getting the led out on the horn who looks one part Henry Threadgill and one part Grady Wilson is Jack Walker--a little known avant-jazz sage from Lincoln Heights (a section of Cincinnati best known as the original stomping ground of the Isley Brothers). Together the unlikely pairing form ISWHAT?!, the groundbreaking hip-hop duo from Cincinnati. Busting out of the Midwest with their 2004 debut, You Figure It Out, on HYENA Records, Maddox and Walker were greeted with declarations like: "ISWHAT?! are going to rescue hip-hop. The trio are part of a movement that is promising to bring originality back to underground beats." (STYLUS) and "They're all about what's happenin' that a lot of people ain't even hip to yet." (Rahzel/The Roots). On August 29, 2006, ISWHAT?! attempt to match the level of such lofty praise with their highly-anticipated follow-up, The Life We Chose. While the core of ISWHAT?!'s sound is based on Maddox's human beatbox rhythms and Walker's sharp, incendiary horn lines, this time around they build upon their ideas with help from a vast cadre of friends and special guests, including Hamid Drake, Piakhan, Animal Crackers, Claire Daily, Ming & FS, Roy Campbell Jr., Fatal Prose, Lewis "Flip" Barnes and Daniela Castro among others. After the release of their debut album You Figure It Out, Napoleon Maddox and Jack Walker hit the road like ghetto prophets, spreading their re-conceptualized vision of their individual generations' musical languages: jazz and hip-hop. Over the course of those 200-plus shows in the U.S. and Europe, ISWHAT?! played to sold out audiences with the likes of KRS-One, Sound Tribe Sector Nine, Saul Williams and Maktub to name but a few. But they also performed at smaller, more intimate gatherings comprised of politically and socially charged heads looking for true community and purpose from music. Their co-conspirators on those nights included artists such as Burnt Sugar, Dalek, Dujeous, Ursula Rucker and Pack FM. If spreading their sound to the furthest corners of the world was the immediate goal of their relentless touring, ISWHAT?! often found that playing music to a vastly divided country in the throws of a highly contested war took on a purpose greater than they could have ever imagined. They seized upon the opportunity to question U.S. foreign policy. They also called out the government and corporate America for what they saw as the exploitation of violence and poverty in African-American communities. Ultimately, ISWHAT?! played their small part in uniting like-minded, progressive souls in questioning the ever tightening grip of authority and suppression of democracy.
These experiences coalesce on The Life We Chose, featuring 14 brand new tracks bursting at the seams with pith, vinegar and hard earned swagger. The album signals a major evolution for ISWHAT?!, which is assisted in no small part by its guest artists who bring a broad spectrum of sonic colors and styles to the table. However, in the end, it's the giant steps made by Napoleon Maddox and Jack Walker at their respective crafts that makes their long-awaited follow up so extraordinary. The soulful tenor that winds through "Casket" exemplifies Walker's command of the less is more approach, adding an earthy potency to the cut's electro funk groove. On "Writer's Block," he slowly repeats a lick that offers a stark counterpoint to the track's frantic vocal. Meanwhile, the resounding conviction in Maddox's rhymes is sharp and convincing like that of the title cut, "The Life We Chose": "So you a boxer with a broken nose? Hands up, this is the life we chose! Hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes? Dress up, this is the life we chose! A farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow? Dig up, this is the life we chose!". While Napoleon Maddox takes on the system, he also questions his peers in both the hip-hop game and his own community. "Top 40 today and gone tomorrow but I can't feel no sorrow 'cause its all music for the circus man." he rants on "Circus," as Jack Walker blows new meaning into the circus theme of childhood memories. "K-N-O-C-K, you get props for not getting locked away, but if so, flip time, prevail, don't serve time, make time serve you well," he later declares on "K.N.O.C.K." The latter also highlights ISWHAT?!'s growing focus on the hook. They haven't turned their back on the improvisational tendencies of their past, but have consciously applied greater focus to constructing durable hip-hop refrains. Despite its deathly serious subject matter, "Ill Biz" reverberates with a droning chorus that lingers long after the song has finished.