The Cornel West Theory
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The Cornel West Theory

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States | INDIE

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States | INDIE
Band Hip Hop Spoken Word


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"LIVE DC: Cornel West Theory"

All words: Andrea McPherson
All photos: Jati LindsayAt a packed out show, in the small but well-known Liv nightclub in NW, the Cornel West Theory defines their rendition of renaissance during their first ever album release concert for their third album, Second Rome (out now on SOCKETS Records-ed). While remaining totally oblivious to gimmicky trends, outside opinions and criticism, their message is jarring and intimidating, proving that the flip side of progressive music and revolution ain’t so sweet.What they have to say isn’t easily articulated, but so easily understood with a motley mix of vocals, spoken word, electronic sounds, drums and guitar. It’s an extroverted sound that, ironically, is not for the typical listener but their music is for everyone; it’s simply complex, “We have grown so much in terms of our musicianship and how we operate as a group,” says the man at the helm of extemporaneous sounds and electronics, John Moon says in a post-haste interview immediately following the show, “We’re not about pounding people over the head with our message and our sound.”With the ability to metamorphose, yet still keep with their message of the forward mobility of all marginalized peoples, it’d be hard to categorize their music because they’d simply break it out of the box; their style cannot be singularly defined. Over the years, their genre has worn many different masks, giving them the ability to satisfy the tastes of a diverse audience. Sometimes changing with the times has its benefits, “At first I think we were all about that noise-Jazz, Hip-Hop sound,” says spoken word vocalist and emcee of the group, Rashad Dobbins, “This third album is a melding of those first two.”At first, their music is a hard little pill to swallow; they’re intense, a little strange and their sound is intense, raw and jarring, but once listened to is easily understood, “My personal objective is to figure out the meaning behind relationships,” says Yvonne Gilmore, spoken word artist for the group, “Whether those relationships are between the government and its people, men and women or Black people and White people.”As people press themselves into tiny, sweaty spaces and crane their necks just to get a clear view of the stage, this out-of-the way band is on the come up from performing to unoccupied chairs at the former Bar Nun on U Street. This show is beginning to come into its own. The atmosphere is sticky and tangible. Once the harsh stage lights are turned off, the graceful silhouette of the evening’s honorary vocalist, Deborah Bond takes center stage. Her voice and that of Ndigo Rose (Tony Hicks, vocals, keys) and the lyrics, “I so many words I am trying to say, that you blow me away,” wash over the crowd. Their melody is a perfect intertwining of melancholy and acknowledgement; it is an anthem for the young children of the world. One is compelled to wonder what Deborah’s inspiration is as she sings with eyes closed and totally uninhibited; lost somewhere in the music, yet somehow found.Each member of the group, with their respective talent and aura brings a different color to the prism. Sam Lavine, sets the tempo with his effortless drum skills; Katrina Lorraine Starr’s soft timbre and vivid poetry root the band’s music with a maternal and unapologetic force; Tim Hicks with his fireball of a personality has no choice but to keep the crowd intently watching his every move as he contorts his body and launches himself of speakers. The set also includes Malik Hunter on base and Zack Butler on guitar.In conjunction with Socket Records and Cornel West himself, the Cornel West Theory has manages to pull off a seamless show. To put it simply, they are an amalgam of Rage Against the Machine, Saul Williams and the Black history that wasn’t taught in the public school systems. Presented was a full range of emotion: angry and militant to soft and nurturing, which is somewhat analogous to the Black struggle itself. And as if to dispel any myths, Dr. Cornel West himself, who also is featured of 18 of the 21 tracks on the latest album, decides to grace Liv with his presence. It was the perfect dose of balance with aggressive and bold songs mixed in with a bit of rhythm and soul. - Brightest Young Things

"A Theory In Practice: The Cornel West Theory"

THE CORNEL WEST Theory isn't just a hip-hop band, says Yvonne Gilmore, one of the D.C.-based group's members. As a poet, ordained minister and spiritual base for the band, Gilmore says the group is really more of "the anti-brand."

"We're really trying to honor the fullness of the different things that we bring to the table," she said. "And we create a sound that is just complex — and yet it works."

Since 2004, the six-person band named after Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West has created multi-layered music that draws from West's musings and incorporates rapping, spoken-word and storytelling elements. And with a show at the Black Cat Friday night, a mix tape coming out in February and a tour of the East Coast, the Cornel West Theory is ready to bring its sound to a larger stage.

"Nobody else is making seven-minute songs, and it's like, 'Are people going to feel this?'" Gilmore says. "And in the end, we're just pretty content with being like, 'Well, we'll see.'"

Their association with West doesn't hurt — he was at Theory's album release party in D.C. last fall, and the band supported him at an event at Busboys and Poets. The group is trying to organize a tour that aligns with his "profoundly busy" schedule, Gilmore says.

"We try to give space for people to retain and pick up and enjoy what's going on. You'll leave with not just sounds to rock with, but also with ideas and images."

» Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; with Hume, Imperial China, Buildings, Big Gold Belt; Fri., Jan. 22, 9 p.m., $12; 202-667-4490. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo courtesy The Cornel West Theory - Express Night Out

"In Her Hands: Embryo Capital"

Standout Track: No. 8, “Hustler’s Boogie,” a bleak meditation on a bleak period in D.C. history: the drug wars of the 1980s. The track focuses on the story of notorious D.C. drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III, opening and closing with clips of news reports from his 1990 trial, which put him away for life. The track gurgles with anxious synths and sports an old-school beat—with its dark sound and easy flow, “Huster’s Boogie” could be a D.C.-themed version of the Roots’ “Rising Down.”

Musical Motivation: “We are huge fans of The Wire,” says Rashad Dobbins, one of the Cornel West Theory’s MCs. “We wanted to make a song about a D.C. drug story, but in a way that didn’t glorify it,” the Riggs Park native says. To wit, there’s nothing romantic in its downcast verses. Take the grim, rhythmic poetry from its conclusion: “Dope boys, track stars, hustlers, bosses/Cadillacs don’t fit in coffins/Tombstones, a trophy for ballin’/Telephone love, death is calling.”

Teacher’s Perk: With its creative but unbusy arrangements and political themes, the band could be said to have pedagogic aims. It even convinced its namesake, Princeton scholar and occasional spoken-word performer Cornel West, to appear on its 2009 album Second Rome. “Hustler’s Boogie” comes from the band’s new mixtape, In Her Hands: Embryo Capital Vol. 1. But Dobbins says his music isn’t quite a vehicle for teaching. “My whole thing is reflection, inspire to go deeper,” Dobbins says. “We’re not trying to educate [listeners], but inspire them.”

The Cornel West Theory performs with Diamond District, Damu the Fudgemunk, and DTMD Saturday 9 p.m. at the Black Cat. $12. - The Washington City Paper

"Three Stars: The Cornel West Theory"

Conceptual work can require the most investment in terms of time and attention. However, such projects can also turn out to be the most rewarding. That's the case with The Cornel West Theory. Every track on their debut album, Second Rome adds to the overall story of Washington, D.C. as a dystopia. But it's the music -- which teeters between chill and vigorous -- that make the story so compelling. The seven-piece speeds up and slows down depending on which of the four emcees is taking the lead. They bridge the gap between jazz and hip-hop (throwing in elements of every other funky and innovative sound). On an initial viewing at the Sockets Records Fifth Year Anniversary, they reminded us of Digable Planets -- but although they draw from similar elements, The Cornel West Theory provides a more incendiary delivery.

We talked with emcee Rashad Dobbins and spoken word artist Yvonne Gilmore about the thematic elements of Second Rome, their feelings on social responsibility and the band's namesake.

Find them online:

See them next: Saturday July 31st at the Black Cat.

Buy their album: At the Sockets Records website or at any local record store.

How long have you guys been around?

Rashad: As the Cornel West Theory? Since 2004. But we’ve been doing music together as a circle since 1998.

What prompted the name change, then?

Rashad: Well, we were going through many different band phases and the band before this one was called the Avant-God Mount and it was a noise/jazz/hip-hop thing. And after two years, we broke up the band and everybody in the band has their own project. So, Tim decided he wanted to name his next project the Cornel West Theory and it started from there in 2004.

Could you tell me more about Cornel West?

Rashad: He’s a professor, but he’s also an activist, a historian, a theologian; all these things in one.

I feel like your music is appropriately deep and philosophical, given your namesake. Is that intentional?

Rashad: Well, the first album we wanted to make a Dystopia. We wanted to do a 1984 but on sound. Because Cornel West was a philosopher, we definitely have intricate layers of philosophy and we made the dynamic of the album sort of like The Wire. You have to stay with the album to get where we’re going and everything we’re getting into. It requires a lot of attention but as you listen to it more and more you start loving it more and more. That’s what I hear from people.

So something that’s important to the band is giving a voice to social oppression and injustices?

Yvonne: Certainly that was something that was really important to Cornel West but I think for us, children of the late ‘70s and ‘80s and coming from D.C. and seeing the District change in profound ways and seeing the country change in profound ways and the country’s going through what I always call an identity crisis as they’re trying to figure out an economic system that will equitably take care of everybody, as we kind of figure out war and militarism. How do we actually honor our commitments abroad? How do we take care of people of color even as the city changes and goes through gentrification. As the education system changes, how do we do the public/charter, all of these things that were going on that were a big part of our own formation as young men and women that are particularly from D.C. But then the way that shadow was kind of cast, these issues are relevant for everybody. So, the music that we like, that really shaped us was stuff like John Coltrane, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul or even Henry Rollins or other rock bands that were formative artistically and socially.

One thing that I have noticed to be the case with many people that have that interest in social justice is that it affects more than one aspect of their life. Do you have community involvement over and above the music you make with Cornel West Theory?

Yvonne: Definitely. My vocation beyond music is that I am a pastor of a church. So, in that role things that feed the soul and lift up social consciousness are really really important. So that leads me to continue all kinds of things but I have programs with ex-offenders that are important to me within the church community. Doing things that are anti-violence, I’ve been a big advocate in that area. Then certainly trying to call, particularly, communities safe, both in the parishioner context where I work on a daily basis and then in the context where colleagues can say we put our money where are mouth is and put our time where our professions are. I would say that on a daily basis that I seek these things out and I am a part of a variety of coalitions and more recently trying to volunteer and feed the homeless and working with ex-offenders from incarceration for folks to really be rehabilitated and to really have a changed life.

It seems like Second Rome actually has a story line.

Rashad: A long time ago before naming this c - DCist

"The Cornel West Theory Second Rome"

At one time, Public Enemy front man Chuck D, famously quipped that Hip Hop music is the “Black CNN.” Certainly in its infancy that rang true, but as Hip Hop’s popularity grew, its narrative expanded as well. Hip Hop isn’t directly focused on the trials of one people any longer nor has its sound remained static. It has at times become the vehicle of positive messages and a tool of those who have goals that are more trivial. The Cornel West Theory, a 6-member band, uses the name and theories of the lauded Princeton professor to great effect. Their new project, Second Rome, is a haunting yet necessary reminder that art needn’t be compromised for the greater good.

Emcee Rashad Dobbins, vocalist/producer John Wesley Moon, poets Yvonne Gilmore, Katrina Lorraine Starr, and drummer Sam Lavine accompany lead emcee Tim Hicks. Starting the album is the LP’s title cut. This haunting number features profoundly eerie production that builds slowly and lends itself to a blistering spoken word performance from Dr. Cornel West himself. Following is “Knights of the East & West,” which employs a more traditional, straight-ahead approach that’s expertly intersected with spoken words and another feature from Dr. West. The rhymes are muted and somewhat somber but mesh sonically with the backing track. The energy rises with “Paper Tigers,” with the noisier production creating tension and the MCs delivering some of the stronger verses thus far – definitely one of the stronger tracks to appear early on. “COINTELPROnomics” doesn’t immediately please the ear but as the song plays on, the staggered track and heavily abstract rhymes blend to incur some interest. The sparse track “Rifles” features more spoken word than the earlier offerings before it, but does feature an excellent short rap verse that accents the parable present in the song. “Gentrified Chicken” is an amazing if abrasive track that transforms from hardcore b-boy head nod bliss to freeform jazz (with more great poetry) and back again. The rhymes are poignant and relevant to the track’s title to a tee.

The middle portion of the LP is filled with a few bloated tracks such as “Memory Loss,” and “Patriotic Me” – both overlong clunkers. All is forgiven with the tracks “Second Rome (Revisited),” and “G.R.E.E.D.,” which brings the LP’s focus back into the tangible and familiar – the latter of the two most especially achieves this feat. The album closes on a sweet note with Tim Hicks’ young daughter Hannah and the appropriately named “Hannah’s Song.” It is simply Tim Hicks and his daughter engaged in a heady conversation about creation, his line of work amongst other things. Second Rome is an ambitious, if overlong, attempt at readjusting what one should expect from a Hip Hop LP. It is futuristic, tense, melodic and lyrically stout all at once.

"Cornel West Theory"

Type 1: it's not an error; it's not a disease. It's a new musical phenomenon from a band of poets, preachers, intellectuals and artists who call themselves the Cornel West Theory. At first glance, the six-member group is a hip-hop band with emcees, a drummer and live electronic instrumentation. But take a closer look and it becomes clear that the Cornel West Theory cannot be defined in such traditional terms.

The difference is in the band's approach. Emcee and self-proclaimed "reflectionist" Rashad Dobbins came up with the term "Type 1" to describe a brand of music anchored not only in hip-hop but also in soul, jazz, rock, go-go and all manner of sound.

"I would define our band as a sonic representation of the tangent between philosophy, religion, culture, music and explorations of the black diaspora," vocalist and electronics man John Wesley Moon said. In other words, their music is a reflection of the ideals of the band's namesake and guest contributor, African American Studies professor Cornel West GS '80.

By far the most important influence on the band, West is also a musician, writer and civil rights activist. In addition to his writings, West has had a long history in music, both with his own albums and his collaborations with other groups. In 2009, West recorded a recitation of John Mellencamp's song "Jim Crow." He also contributed extensively with spoken word on Terence Blanchard's jazz album "Choices," a recent winner of the Grand Prix du Disque 2009 and has most recently worked with Raheem DeVaughn on the album "The Love & War MasterPeace," set to be released in a month. He has released two albums of his own since 2001, including the recent "Never Forget," featuring Prince, Andre 3000 and Talib Kweli among many others. In 2008, he was named an MTV Artist of the Week.

"At Princeton, I tend to teach the great classical books of thought," West explained. "In music, I talk much more about contemporary situations in my own life."

With so much to contribute, it comes as no surprise that after serving as the band's namesake, West also recorded several vocal tracks with the Cornel West Theory on its debut album "Second Rome," which was released last year.

"We see ourselves as kind of the grandchildren of Dr. West and the '60s generation, and that's why we've called ourselves the Cornel West Theory," explained Yvonne Gilmore, a spoken word artist in the band.

Though West may be the most important inspiration for its music, the Cornel West Theory's eclectic style is in large part a reflection of its individual influences and fields of interest. In addition to Dobbins, Moon and Gilmore, the band includes lead vocalist Tim Hicks, drummer Sam Levine and storyteller Katrina Lorraine Starr. Though the band officially formed in 2004, the group met in the late '90s in Washington, D.C., when Dobbins, Moon and Starr were attending the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

In addition to the literary media, journalism, playwriting and poetry work he studied at Duke Ellington, Dobbins cites his major influences as everything from Jimi Hendrix to Toni Morrison to The Simpsons. Moon's inspiration is equally comprehensive, ranging from his affinity for visual artists like Jean Michel Basquiat to writers and jazz, classical and funk musicians. Other members note writer Octavia Butler, John Coltrane, A Tribe Called Quest and even go-go bands as sources of inspiration for their style.

"It's like what Bruce Lee said - absorb only what is useful," Dobbins said.

Though the contributions on the album are diverse, Moon emphasized that what keeps the members together is the freedom to experiment with music and artistic honesty, "making sure we're saying what we really want to say and not just what people want to hear."

And the band's ambitions are not limited to music.

"It's about using music as a platform for discussion and debate as opposed to just using music as a tool for entertainment, but still retaining the important value of musical expression," Moon said.

"Second Rome," which was once a potential name for the District of Columbia, is packed with passionate criticisms and expressive stories from each group member. It explores thematically the role of power in America and a potential vision of a second empire.

"[‘Second Rome' is] a nonlinear concept of America as a place of freedom, but also a place for fascism," Dobbins explained.

"Our country finds itself in the midst of what I call an identity crisis as we work to repair things like health care, labor, issues of greed, oil and patriotism," Gilmore added. "But the album also looks at issues of love, having children and the question of materialism."

For him, there's no better way to explore these issues than in a band.

"I think democracy is such a complex activity and it's exciting to be with five other people with different artistic visions and different ways of interacting with history," Gilmore said. "It's a way to live o - Daily Princetonian

"CD review: The Cornel West Theory's 'Second Rome'"

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Second Rome"

Kindred spirits: Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron, P.M. Dawn

Show: With Hume, Imperial China, Buildings and Big Gold Belt on Friday at the Black Cat. Show starts at 9 p.m. 202-667-7960.

Where is this "Second Rome" that the Cornel West Theory condemns on its latest album? Look around. The D.C. hip-hop sextet is talking about its home town, both as a "chocolate city" that is trending vanilla and as the capital of what the song "Knights of the East and West" calls an "empire of spiritual malnutrition."

The group isn't merely named for Cornel West, the Afrocentric author and Princeton professor. He is credited as a writer on half of these 21 tracks, some of which feature recordings of his remarks. With West as their guide, lead MC Tim Hicks and his colleagues cover a lot of ground. "Gentrifried Chicken" addresses such local concerns as the displacement of residents near the baseball stadium, but the CD also flashes back to the 1960s and '70s to invoke Che Guevara and the Black Panthers.

The group's most impassioned numbers are built on stuttering, swaggering loops. The incendiary "Durito's Revenge (Dirty Bombs)," for example, uses militant beats and a strangled vocal clip to drive a fantasy of violent insurrection. But much of the CD is less agitated, drawing on cool jazz, trip-hop and acid rock. The words also include West's rebuke to hip-hop misogyny and a dialogue with Hicks's 5-year-old daughter. At nearly 75 minutes, the CD sprawls a little broadly. But it rarely runs out of provocative things to say.

-- Mark Jenkins - The Washington Post


Second Rome

In Her Hands: Embryo Capital Vol. 1



the Cornel West theory is a Washington, D.C.-based ensemble, proudly born from the hip-hop aesthetic, but not bound by limitations of any genre. It’s an eclectic amalgam of spoken word, lyricism, instruments, electronics and vocals, which draw from genres ranging from home-grown go-go to jazz to rock to hip-hop. This “musical theory” is best understood as an artistic wavelength that hits you aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually.
With the blessing of Dr. Cornel West, the Princeton University
professor and renowned author, the band takes its name from his prolific writings and philosophies, which have shaped contemporary thought throughout the world.
Inspired by D.C.’s rich musical history and the struggles of poor people worldwide, the ensemble formed in 2004 in response to social oppression everywhere. Winners of the 2008 Washington Area Music Association’s Wammie for Best Hip-Hop Duo or Group, the Cornel West theory released its debut
album “Second Rome” in 2009.
They are here to deliver music that holds a mirror to the world, with a core focus on political, cultural and spiritual commentary. They combine the essence of hip-hop with the original purpose of its movement: to speak truth to the masses.
the Cornel West theory presents a unique live music experience that entertains and informs listeners. The ensemble’s style, sound and show challenges audiences to confront some of the most important issues of our time. At its core, their sound is driven by the hard, edgy funk from the bass kick and stinging snare shots of drummer Sam Lavine. It’s purpose is
defined in the poignant message and peculiar delivery of its lyricists (Tim Hicks and Rashad Dobbins). These elements congeal through the addition of a live electronic sound manipulation musician (John Wesley Moon) who employs samples, pads, clips, beat breaks and vocals like a high-
tech, futuristic DJ. The bass and keys add rich, soulful layers of
harmonic and rhythmic texture, which is beautifully complemented by the thought-provoking voice of spoken word artists (Katrina Lorraine Starr and Yvonne Gilmore). Djembe and conga drums lend a dynamic and traditional
accompaniment to the group.
The ultimate griot, Dr. Cornel West, has recorded and appeared live with the band, sharing his unifying philosophy and highlighting the talents of this extraordinary ensemble.