By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Even if the competition is not exactly fierce, to be nominated in the Dallas Observer's "Best Rap/Hip-Hop" category two years in a row is no small feat. Denton's Bassx walked away winners in 1995; in 1996, prior to the ballot counting, the band packed it up and moved to New York City just as their first CD release--Thick--was making its way from the pressing plant to music stores. The challenge of the big fish from the small pond choosing to go where it may well be devoured had an irresistible appeal to the hip-hop quintet. Apparently they figured that if they can make it there...etc.
What they left behind is proof that they're up to it. Thick--as its title suggests--is full of catchy funk grooves, fine musicianship, and raps on the good side of smart. Whereas the genre's average album relies mostly on samples of other people's records and irritating exhibitions of bass prowess in back of some egomaniacal verbal diarrhea, Bassx is a pleasure to listen to. First because this is a real band, where musicians and rappers share equal roles; second, because Thick is a musical album made by five people who really love music and show a deep respect for their roots. Their few shortcomings are canceled out by their enthusiasm and the fact that not once do their songs insult anyone's intelligence. As a result, the CD with 11 songs that blend funk, hip-hop, jazz, and rock is a mighty fine groove thang and one of the best of its kind coming out of Texas.
Chill (aka Vince Reynolds) plays smooth guitar licks; Ben Ra (Ben Bocardo) alternates between fluid bass, cool keyboards, and bebop trumpet; and Ari (Hoenig) is the latest addition on drums. Snika (Gerard Young) and Homeslice (Hal Hilliard) rap about things that you can actually relate to: everyday things like the records they love, having a good time, and being young and restless.
It was this restlessness, along with a healthy dose of ambition, that sent the young musicians to New York in the first place. It took them a few months to get settled in Brooklyn and find jobs; they didn't start playing gigs until the summer of 1996. Luckily, Reynolds found work in Soundtrack Studios, giving Bassx access to its facilities. As they talk on the phone, "Tumbling Bones"--their new single--pulsates in the background. The song is already on heavy rotation on KDGE's The Adventure Club--their hometown hasn't forgotten about them--and the band will be back to Dallas and Denton after a night in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Before the hometown visit, Hilliard waxes enthusiastic: "Moving to New York was a good decision, although we had success in Texas. We needed to do something else, start over and try another market. We didn't wanna get fat and comfortable. We've been here for a year now, and although we're not rich or signed, things are going that direction."
For Gerard Young, the move brought the band to the birthplace of hip-hop, the ground where the music lives and breathes--sometimes too heavily--and perpetuates itself: "Now we got a real grasp of the hip-hop culture. We now understand the spirit behind it, the history, where it comes from, where it's going to. You become part of it, it engulfs you," Young says.
"Busta Rhymes recorded in this studio, and right now Jodeci is recording next door. We talk to them and they talk to us. It's no big deal. In Texas they are idols, but here they are part of the scene. In Texas you can hear hip-hop, but you can't get it," he adds slyly. "Hip-hop is a craft here, it's a culture. In Texas it was a party. Here you either come correct or don't come at all. Our rhymes are more complex now, whereas they used to be 'have fun and party.'" Still, Young insists that having fun is what it's all about, that their philosophy has remained intact--it's their approach that's changed.
Reynolds, a formally trained jazz musician, is equally happy to feed off NYC's rich music heritage and ambience: "New York is the center of jazz. The birthplace of bebop, where jazz has spawned and grown. Music permeates the streets: a car drives by and you hear music, you walk by a club and you hear something else. It's just inspiring."
So far the five have let the Big Apple soak in as they steadily work toward their goal. The opportunities are there; recently they opened for the Last Poets, the grandfathers of rap: "[It was] at a venue called the Cooler, and that was cool!" Hilliard says. "That wouldn't have happened if we were still in Dallas. It was a spoken word/poetry type of thing, and people were standing in the back. We invited everybody to come up front, and they did. We got a lot of people signing our mailing list that night."
It's a slow process, but definitely a valuable learning experience that is changing the band's perception of the music biz. In Texas they used to play in front of 250 people; in New York, the clubs are much smaller and a crowd of 50 is a sellout, considered a 'great night.' The audiences there, however, are far more demanding; they'll let you know if you fail to deliver. Playing in diverse venues such as the posh jazz club Nell's to punk haven CBGB's has exposed the band to audiences that are definitely more analytical.
"New York has pushed us in playing at a higher level of musicality," Reynolds says. "The rhythm of what we do has changed. Our music has gotten darker because life in New York is harder, more tense."
"Tumbling Bones" shows that. A departure from the happy-go-lucky music and lyrics found on Thick, the beat is denser, slower, moodier. The jazzy playfulness of earlier songs gives way to a dark atmosphere closer to traditional hip-hop, and there is more gravity in the voices of Hilliard and Young.
"Since we moved to New York, our songwriting has matured," Hilliard says. "We're not singing with church choirs and being serious and somber or anything, but we do sound different. In the past we had a little bit of a rock influence that showed. The guitars were louder, the songs faster, but not anymore; it's slower, our own style of hip-hop. We do listen to gangsta rap, but we interpret it our own way."
In the context of mallrat rap, Hilliard believes that there is a lot of potential that hasn't been realized. He still praises De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, but feels that there are few new names to write home about. Instead, he sees a lot of phonies plundering hip-hop and reaping undeserved rewards: "Having been exposed to it, lately my lyrics have been centering around the state of hip-hop. There is a foulness to it, it's very surface: bragging about materialistic things, that you have to be down with high fashion, have fat cash and all that. We're definitely not a part of that foulness," he says.
For now Bassx concentrates on building a new audience and recording tracks for a new album. Spending time in the studio brings them into contact with other established acts that share their stories about the music biz glitter. "Since we're the low men on the totem pole, we record whenever there is space," Young says, laughing.
Reynolds is convinced that the band is on the right track: "We're closer to our goal now. We're at the center of what's happening. Every label, publishing company, magazine, even MTV is here. Now we see how it's done on a national level. In Texas we had the "local hero" syndrome, living in a fantasy land. Moving here made us get off our butts and work harder. Now we can be connected to the people who can get you out on an international level," he says.
"But I miss the Texas weather, and I miss driving my car," Young adds with a touch of homesickness.
Bassx performs Friday, April 18 at Trees and Saturday, April 19 at Rick's Place in Denton.