I stumbled on Avant Age in the unlikely hip-hop haven of a coffee shop open mic. That may not sound very promising to some, but bear with me here. The space was rife with comedians and folk-oriented musicians working to carve out a space for themselves in the Denton music scene. But when Avant Age took the stage, it became immediately evident that they were in a league all their own.
The five-piece hip-hop outfit hearkens to older influences in the genre -- A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def -- and favors socially conscious rapping and live instrumentation. On their journey so far, they've found themselves at odds trying to get shows booked in Denton due to a lack of hip-hop-oriented bills. Unfettered by these difficulties, however, the group has pushed forward and continued recording, writing and making a name for themselves in the Little D.
A week after the open mic night the group is sitting down and discussing their performance in the idle chatter of that same coffee house. In particular, I mention the flow of lyricist and rapper Evan Bornes. What makes my jaw drop, though, is when they inform me that he improvised about 80% of his verses last week.
"That's what we've ended up doing the last couple times because he lives in Dallas," keyboardist and fellow lyricist Alex Newman says. "We'll give him a few beats a couple hours before an open mic and he just goes with it. The kid's mad talented."
The core group of Avant Age started as Alex Newman and his brother Michael doing live beats along with Jack Tinehan, the group's first lyricist and vocalist. Bornes and Taylor White were found over time by the existing members almost by accident. Alex met Bornes at the University of North Texas' weekly "Poetic Justice" event, a collective designed to inspire and challenge people who want to pursue hip-hop-oriented lyrics.
"One day they just brought Evan back and they said he loved our music," Michael Newman says. "It wasn't even a question if he was in, it just happened."
Avant Age's modus operandi stems from a desire to inspire change. Each member agreed that above all else, they want to make sure their songs serve as a conduit to say something substantial and relatable to an audience. But Alex also noted that he takes care to walk the fine line between making statements and getting preachy.
"It can be difficult to not alienate an audience in that way," he says. "I find myself rewriting lyrics to make sure it doesn't come off as a finger-wagging, 'you' need to do this, but a sense that 'we' need to take action."
However, Alex isn't setting out to convert a crowd to his beliefs. Even when his songs have a specific message, he's only trying to get the audience thinking about their own dispositions rather than indoctrinate them with his own ideas.
"Even if it's just hardening in their own beliefs, I'm just trying to get them to contemplate that," he says. "If they disagree with me I don't mind at all. I still think that's a good thing."
In a scene thick with punk and metal bands, Avant Age has hit a few snags trying to grow in Denton. When Alex has attempted to book shows, he's been met with concerns about fitting bills, selling enough tickets or matching the environment of a venue. Even the topics that Avant Age rap about can alienate a potential venue that's looking for more accessible music acts.
"I know some of the other Denton hip-hop acts almost exclusively play house shows because of that reason," Alex says. "They're more concerned about drink sales that night. Which they have the right to worry about, it just makes it harder to get booked."
The band has nonetheless hit its stride in playing house shows themselves as well as with more open-minded venues including The Whitehouse -- the coffee shop they now host a weekly open mic at.
When the group constructs beats, the instrumentation always gets played live and never set to programmed beats. Michael plays beats live on a MIDI pad and the bass and piano are tracked live as well. In staying away from automatic drumbeats, the instrument-playing side of the group finds a groove in the rhythms that wouldn't be possible with the hard repetition of purely digital percussion.
"That's really the staple to our set," bassist Taylor White says. "We want to keep it fluid and organic."
That aesthetic decision transcends even to the equipment the group uses: they stick to analog. Alex usually plays a vintage Rhodes, but doesn't bring it out to live shows typically because of its size ("Unless someone is paying me well," he says to the side with a laugh). The other members stick to tube amps and as much practical live instrumentation as they can manage.
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Alex notes that despite their own difficulties, there are hip-hop acts in Denton going strong just the same. He mentions the Boombachs and Funkle Sam in particular, saying that although it's an uphill battle, the hip-hop groups will power through.
"So long as there are a few impacted lives along the way, that's all that matters" Alex says. "We're not the only ones doing this. There are other people doing this, and we're better together than separate."
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