It’s Monday night at the Kennedy Center, and the cocktail crowd is confused. On many evenings, programming on the arts center’s free Millennium Stage skews toward background music for patrons killing time before Wicked. But at this particular moment, there’s no exchanging of pleasantries.
A front line of poets performs sharp-elbowed verse while prickly guitars, percussion, and bass overwhelm the grand corridor. A laptop and MPC-2000 dispense chaos; samples are dropped and manipulated live. What starts as combative testosterone becomes manic performance art: There’s Thom Yorke-like limb flailing, James Brown shuffling, yells, whispers, echoes. Before delving into a scathing, self-serious verse on the song “Patriotic Me,” frontman Tim Hicks wraps his dog tags around the mic stand. “Distance is the gun of the resistance,” he rhymes. “So we pledge allegiance to the poor and the war-torn streets.”
Volunteer ushers are the first casualties, plugging their ears even though the band’s manager says the group is playing more quietly than usual at the Kennedy Center’s request. But despite the on-stage ruckus, between songs the proceedings take on the polite vibe of a policy lecture. The MCs stand there awkwardly. Onlookers squirm in their fold-outs.
The Cornel West Theory is used to this. Since 2004, the hip-hop band has been a mainstay of the area’s show spaces, re-imagining its genre as a thick soup of spoken-word patterns, traditional flow, densely arranged beats, and frenzied instrumentation. They’re poised to become a rare local rap export, though you won’t see them at open mics on U Street NW. You will see them performing for horn-rimmed socialites at the Black Cat, punks at Fort Reno, jazz heads at Bohemian Caverns, and socially conscious bohos at Bloombars.
They’ve worked out raps on the mixtape circuit, but capturing their live show in the studio has been grueling. They’ve scrapped one album and gone on to resent another. They’ve split with their label. Most members are in their 30s and harboring toddlers.
But the title of their new album plants an ambitious flag: The Shape of Hip-Hop to Come. Trouble is: They’re running out of chances to transform into something sustainable.
First things first: winning back the Kennedy Center set. As the show winds down, rapper Rashad Dobbins does his best imitation of an anti-drug PSA asking the crowd, “Any questions?”
Concert becomes panel discussion, and the first query is easy to predict: Are you really affiliated with the Cornel West?
It happened at a book signing in 2004,when Hicks, the band’s chief beat-maker and lead MC, asked West for his blessing. The name was probably happening either way, but paying tribute was the right move. “I asked him about the style and substance,” says West, the controversy-prone public intellectual who teaches at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies (and who’s released his own hip-hop albums). “I was honored, humbled by a younger generation of highly talented creative and visionary artists.”
The group, whose members are all D.C. natives, initially formed around American University. Dobbins, poet Yvonne Gilmore, and drummer Sam Lavine were students who bonded over their misfit taste in music; Hicks met Dobbins in a pick-up basketball game. Eventually, two of Dobbins’ former classmates from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, poet Katrina Starr and electronics utility player John Moon, suited up. The band supplements its live game with guest musicians.
The nascent group wasn’t simply interested in being a hip-hop band. And the conscious-rap subgenre had grown too clown-like for their taste. “It’s sort of the way Bruce Lee hated kung fu movies because there was too much dancing and not enough fighting,” says Dobbins, who’s not just a fan of free-jazz legend Ornette Coleman (who made The Shape of Jazz to Come) but also the defunct Swedish post-hardcore band Refused (who made The Shape of Punk to Come).
They make it a point to blindside journalists with widely diverse name-checks: On the first day I meet Dobbins, he invokes Sonic Youth, Blonde Redhead, the Kardashev scale, transhumanism, and Mortal Kombat (Dobbins’ first rap alias was “Scorpion”). The band’s booming urban sprawl brings in all kinds of sounds, and meditates on all manner of societal ills. “We’re into Bad Brains, we’re into krumping,” Dobbins says. “We’re into a very physical live show.”
After ditching an album it finished in 2008, the band released 2009’s self-recorded Second Rome on local label Sockets Records, which is mostly known for dispensing vinyl from art rockers. It was the label’s most successful release at the time, but given the limited run of 1,500 CDs, it’s doubtful the band made more than four figures, which it then split among its many members. A 2010 mixtape followed, and this year the band booked time to record at Arlington’s legendary punk studio Inner Ear.
Yvonne Gilmore spends a lot of time going inside the brackets: “One of the lines I use on the new album is, ‘We’re training hip-hop not to stutter.’ Stuttering is a rhythm you outgrow in order to connect with more people.”
She spent the night driving from Columbus, Ohio, where she’s a pastor with the Disciples of Christ. It’s Saturday morning at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library downtown, and Gilmore is leading a poetry workshop for sharp-tongued teenagers. After this, she’ll drive to Baltimore for the Roots Festival; the band is billed just beneath Talib Kweli.
Gilmore presents Maya Angelou and Marc Smith to the teens. There’s background, reading, analysis. The kids loathe rapper Common, but Gilmore finally connects on the topic of gentrification. Sort of. The kids lament the recent closing of a trusted Pizza Hut on U Street NW. The workshop is a mirror of the band: They use expression to disseminate information; they’re a dogmatically D.C. outfit that often raps about parochial conditions. Thing is, the agenda is kind of a mess.
Moon is an Americorps veteran who has taught in D.C. Public Schools. “Each of us has a different slice of the pie,” he says. “Yvonne being very committed to religion and feeling that it plays a part in social change. Rashad is about reflectionist art, about anarchy. He’d say we’re just taking in information, putting our spin on it, and putting it back out. Tim is into revolutionary ideas. Katrina is into paganism. I’m more into grassroots D.C. activism.” The clashing is minimal, because they’re all left-leaning bohemians.
The members call West their uncle. He pops in every three months or so, guesting on stage or on records.
The band’s name means two problems: reacting to West’s high-profile opinions, and not embarrassing him. In April, West called President Barack Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs,” and the band had to answer for it to friends and peers. “We deal with it all the time, ‘What do you think about what he says about the president?’ He’s a living legend and can speak for himself,” Starr says. “But his mother gave him that name. We remain mindful that it’s not some sort of life gimmick.”
Hicks loves to defer questions and share shine, but he’s the alpha dog. For the new album, Hicks had West lecture while the tapes rolled. “We were specific about what type of character or personality we wanted to get out of him,” Hicks says. “Everything was done from the top of his brain. Present him with a topic and he can expand right on the spot.”
West laid down tracks in Columbus following a speaking engagement at Ohio State University. “It was just describing what was in my heart and soul,” West says. “We got song after song usually done in one take.”
Great—except the band parted ways with Sockets in late spring. “It made sense for them to keep profits and not add another piece in the overhead,” Sean Peoples, Sockets’ owner, says. “They’re one of the D.C. bands that can be exported, but they have six people. They have a manager. I’m not adding much beyond, ‘Hey we’re on a label.’”
The band says the Sockets split was necessary to bankroll the album, and that they’re grateful to Peoples. But it also marked the first time that the band has made a compromise in the interest of business.
Second Rome garnered praise from figureheads like Chuck D, whose Public Enemy tapped The Cornel West Theory to open at the 9:30 Club. Still, the album lacked the technique and budget to showcase the live band. Moon, whose role has blossomed to include heavy lifting on the studio boards, speaks of Second Rome like it’s an ex-love and the biggest barrier was bad timing. “Maybe it went over people’s heads,” he says. “Once you put it out you have to let it go. It was done in a very simply tracked manner. [The Shape of Hip-Hop to Come] was a much bigger production: more instrumental overdubs, it’s brighter and punchier.”
The album drops July 19—the band is self-releasing 5,000 copies—and Starr says she’s praying for a windfall. Dobbins echoes a similar need for the money to get right. Four members have kids, which mostly limits the band to regional touring. Hicks isn’t worried. “The only thing that can break us up is the creator,” he says. “Moses was called at 40 and didn’t go into Israel until he was 80-something. If it was meant for you to do it’s going to get out.”
The Shape of Hip-Hop to Come won’t compete on the pop circuit, but in a landscape that allows Jay-Z to sign ill mathematics mystery men like Jay Electronica or tap weirdos like Frank Ocean for hooks, anything is possible on the heels of a lucky tweet.
The band calls its stuff Type I music, after the Kardashev scale’s measure of civilizations. A Type I civilization has mastery over the resources of its home planet. The outer-space angle is sort of bullshit. The band makes smart, highly poetic, unguarded rap-rock. They’re often backed on bass by an older session type named Ezra, who does not look classically cool because he’s probably in his early 60s, but he’s a terrific bass player. That truly expressionist commitment to telling stories via the clearest available channels is much more remarkable than mission statements and academic associations. And the goal is simple: “The plan is to tell the world about D.C. hip-hop,” Dobbins says.
Back at the Kennedy Center, Dobbins is fielding more questions: about West, about the new album. For some reason, the band is asked about the recent death of Gil Scott-Heron. Dobbins is warm and transparent, clarifying lyrics.
Think circles surface as folks file out. Four college kids combine forces to buy the band’s old CD. They’ve been converted. “You can upload it at the house,” one of them says. “We only need one copy.”
The Cornel West Theory performs Thursday, July 14 at Fort Reno Park; Saturday, July 16 at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent at Fort Fringe; and Saturday, July 30 at U Street Music Hall. Photos 1-4 by Darrow Montgomery. Photos 5-6 by Yulia Graham.
Correction: The article originally misspelled Sam Lavine’s name.