“North Carolina has arrived,” claims Pierce Freelon of N.C. hip hop/jazz quartet, The Beast.
For a state mostly known as a forerunner in the tobacco trade, collegiate sports and sweet tea consumption, to assert it’s now the stage for a musical revolution may seem a tad presumptuous. All things considered however, it’s not.
On the heels of releasing their latest record, Freedom Suite, a ten-track collection of hip hop, jazz and soul-inspired music performed with Nnenna Freelon, GRAMMY-nominated jazz vocalist (and mother), Freelon describes the significance of their location beneath the Mason-Dixon Line in the conceptualization of The Beast’s eclectic sound.
“Freedom Suite is a statement about the renaissance of musicians coming out of North Carolina,” comments Freelon. “Every guest on Freedom Suite is based in about a 30 mile radius, in the middle of North Carolina. That’s really special. The Beast is at the forefront of a burgeoning scene that is giving other music hubs like Atlanta, New York and New Orleans a run for their money. We’re producing some of the most progressive jazz, hip hop and soul music in the country.”
As tribute to hip hop icon, Guru, who passed away earlier this year, Freedom Suite pairs The Beast with such veteran artists and producers as 9th Wonder, Branford Marsalis, Phonte (of The Foreign Exchange/Little Brother), YahZarah, and Geechi Suede (of Camp Lo) to create a compilation of both new and revisited tunes, interspersed with cultural discourse from Questlove, Herbie Hancock, Amiri Baraka, Christian McBride, James Moody and others. Capitalizing on the recording industry’s trend to bridge genres of music with a common message and aesthetic, The Beast created beats and breakpoints from fundamental jazz standards, soul-infused melodies and bebop-style hooks. The result is something unique in form and fashion, echoing the opuses of one very legendary predecessor.
“With Jazzmatazz, Guru innovated by weaving jazz narratives into his poetry,” describes Freelon. “Even though we’re rooted in hip hop, from a songwriting and arrangement standpoint, jazz is at the nucleus of what we do. It was fun to re-interpret classic jazz standards like “Skylark,” and flip hip hop “standards” like, Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop,” on the same record.”
Many remember Guru as a member of prodigious rap group, Gangstarr, a duo out of New York comprised of the late rapper and DJ/producer, DJ Premier. Gangstarr united jazz and hip hop to establish a distinctive voice in the East Coast rap game of the early nineties. Considered a pioneer of the genre, Guru’s legacy lives on not only through his work, but his charitable foundation and various tributes by artists, like The Beast.
Notes Freelon, “Guru was a double threat. In Gangstarr, he paired a calm and focused flow with Premier’s classic neck breaking drums and soulful samples.”
The Beast aims to do something similar with their inventive narratives and classic-meets-contemporary rhythmic forages. Though unsigned at the moment, the group has no lofty aspiration of scoring a record deal that will lead to fame and fortune, rather they intend to manage success on their own. Exploiting the digital diaspora, they’re happy to grant fans easy access to their work, yet they admit the capricious nature of the field has its pitfalls.
“The internet helps because we no longer need the permission of certain gate-keepers to get our music out,” observes Freelon. “It hurts because there’s no quality control.”
To coincide with the release of their collection, the group will play a series of shows along the East Coast, including the NuBlu Jazz Festival in New York this November. Additionally, in December, Freelon and his mother/collaborator will perform several dates in Angola. All in all, the world will soon be introduced to Freedom Suite’s introspective world of experimentation and cultural integration.
“My first love has got to be hip hop,” says Freelon. “I started warming up to jazz around the mid-nineties when my mother began taking me on the road. We went to Japan and Finland when I was 12, and that was my first taste of life on the road: hotels, back stage passes, tour managers, flights. I loved everything about it, and I got to make good friends with a bunch of eccentric jazz musicians. That was the beginning of my relationship to jazz.”
Now it’s a lifelong bond.
The Beast considers such musicians as The Roots, The Experiment, The Foreign Exchange and Kooley High as leaders in the game, and have no intent on slowing down their movement anytime soon. They’ve formed a solid foundation in their home fort that will indubitably spread beyond its borders, as their ingenuity has already earned them many accolades in the press, including the title “jazz and hip hop juggernaut.”
And if they had a million dollars at their disposal?
“I’d spend it on our next music video,” says Freelon. “Isn’t that what Jay paid to make ‘Big Pimpin’?”
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– Courtney Garcia