Wendel Patrick had an image in his mind. He wanted to get as many of the Baltimore Boom Bap Society's participating artists in one place at one time for a photo to celebrate its fifth anniversary and 50th session, which hits the Windup Space Nov. 2. And he wanted to do it with the drone camera he got a few months back. DJs/producers Erik Spangler and Patrick co-founded the monthly improvised hip-hop event in 2011, and over the years they've had numerous local musicians—from emcees to beatboxers, flautists to trombonists, upright bassists to electric bassists—take part. Why not the Y-Not Lot right there next to the Society's home base at Charles Street and North Avenue? He'd have to coordinate a time and date when both artists might be free and the busy intersection isn't too chaotic. And so on Sunday, Oct. 16, about 26 musicians arrived at the corner with their instruments in tow—a harp, two basses, flute, trombone, mixing boards, guitar, vocal chords—at 7 a.m.
Eze Jackson captured the mood when he strolled up to the Y-Not stage, took a sleepy-eyed look at the people nursing coffees as the rising sun finally broke turned night into dawn, and quipped: "My name's Wendel Patrick, and I have a great idea."
The sarcastic emphasis he put on "great" scored a hearty round of laughs, but he had a point. Artists don't show up somewhere at 7 a.m. on a weekend morning just because somebody asks. They make a 7 a.m. group photo because what they're showing up for means something to them. And over the Boom Bap Society's five years, it has become not merely a spellbinding night of live, improvised hip-hop but a laboratory for hip-hop experiments and cross-genre collaboration.
Jackson appeared as the Society's first guest artist at the second session ever. "From then on it definitely was a place for me to train as an artist," Jackson says in an interview after the photo shoot. "As an emcee you don't always get to share. We get to rap around each other and do cyphers but you never get to rock out with a fucking harp player."
He adds that the night the Society was joined by Alash, a Tuvan throat-singing trio, was "one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had in my life."
"They had never really done hip hop," he says. "We had never done what they did. But in the spirit of the Boom Bap Society, it wasn't hard to bring together. That's training. It's definitely helped me be more confident in my improvisational ability. And the more you do it, the better you are at it."
Jackson's joke about the photo shoot's "great idea" could just as easily apply to the Society itself: free improv makes sense with jazz musicians, as it's part of the culture. As Jackson points out, emcees get together to trade rhymes in cyphers, but rarely does that take place with an impromptu full band. The anything-goes abstract musical surprise is the norm for experimental musicians, but those practically shun discovering rhythmic shapes and grooves that are part of the basic building blocks of hip-hop. There's often an unspoken assumption that, in free improvisation, spontaneous means chaotic. And while chaotic beats aren't foreign to hip-hop—Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad ably demonstrated how to harness form from noise—the typically "experimental" baggage of free improv suggests that it shouldn't lead to dope beats.
Spangler, aka DJ Dubble8, thought it could. The idea for the Boom Bap Society first came to him after he met Patrick in 2011, when they played in the same installment of Out of Your Head, the jazz-leaning free improvisation events that bassist Adam Hopkins and guitarist Matt Frazao started in 2009. A few months later Spangler ran into Patrick at Artscape, they got to talking, discovered they both loved hip-hop, and wondered if the Out of Your Head model could be adapted to suit producers, MCs, and musicians.
"I found that format really inspiring, people being put in to different combinations and improvising together," Spangler says. "I felt like it would be great to have a context to explore that side of music-making to sustain grooves. One of the things that led me to talking to [Patrick] about it was just being surprised at how there are amazingly talented hip-hop artists in Baltimore who didn't really know each other. It would be to have something that would put people in connection with each other, start building a community that focused on experimentation in hip-hop."
Rufus Roundtree appreciates the Society's big ears. "I'm a jazz musician, I play New Orleans-style jazz," says the leader of his namesake's ass-flattening Da B'more Brass Factory. Like many of the artists at the photo shoot, he looked a little surprised to be out of bed so early on a Sunday, but there he was, with his trombone and customary bicorne hat. He compares the Boom Bap Society to a bunch of people who never met each other having a conversation. "This is what I talk about, this is what's on my heart, this is what I speak—and what do you do? It's an opportunity to connect with different genres, artists that have never seen each other or spoken before. So me bringing my style of horn playing to it has been really interesting."
The Society's ability to find a common ground among such a wide range of musicians continues to impress Patrick. "It's really taken on this whole life that I certainly couldn't have envisioned," he says, "in terms of people from so many different genres and styles of music who want to come and participate."
At the morning photo shoot alone there were classical musicians (flautists Louna Dekker-Vargas and Stephanie Ray, trumpeter and Classical Revolution Baltimore director Rafaela Dreisin, bassist Yoshi Horiguchi, harpist Jacqueline Pollauf), jazz musicians (guitarist Frazao, bassist Jeron White), beat-makers/producers (Bond St. District's Paul Huston), and vocalists/emcees of all stripes—from beatboxer Shodekeh to Uncle Lulu to Olu Butterfly, Saleem Heggins, Jasmine Pope, Tislam the Great, Hum Sumerian, and Von Vargas. They milled about chatting in small groups, catching up, making jokes, asking each other what they're working on. Patrick cleared out an area on the Y-Not lot, lugged his gear and stuff to the stage, and came over to everybody standing on the sidewalk. "You all look beautiful right now," he said. "So, just keep doing whatever it is you're doing and do it over here."
Smiles, nods, a few more jokes, and then musicians started breaking out their instruments and finding a place to stand on the lot. Which way are we facing? How close to the stage should we stand? What's going on? Patrick busies himself getting his drone together, testing out the controls, before looking around and saying, OK, here's what's going to go down.
The early days of the Society involved a similar figuring-out-by-doing-it process. MC Saleem Heggins compares a first exposure to the Society with a collaboration he did with country-folk singer/songwriter Caleb Stine. He says the first time he and Stine sang their song "Baltimore" people initially scratched their heads: hip-hop folk what? "After we performed, I didn't realize a lot of our friends were nervous because they were like, is it going to bomb?" he recalls. "Once we did it, and they saw what it looked like, it made sense. That's sort of how Boom Bap was at first. No one knew what it was going to be but once they saw it, it was like, oh yeah—why didn't we do this before?
"That's what brings me out," he continues. "I have a band, but it's different working with classically trained musicians and harpists and people with upright basses. That part was interesting to me. I've been in ciphers before, but actually playing off of other musicians and doing it live was just interesting."
The most recent, October 2016 session is a gorgeous example of what Heggins is talking about. Spangler and Patrick, as with every installment, have their DJ/keyboard rigs set up onstage. They were joined by bassist Brian Brunsman, beatboxer Chuck the Mad Ox, guitarist Frazao, invented instrumentalist Matt Muirhead, saxophonist Scott Paddock, and trumpeter Clarence Ward III. This group established bubbly, blunted grooves that recalled the chilled 1970s electric jazz Madlib conjured on his 2004 recording homage to creative polymath Weldon Irvine, "A Tribute to Brother Weldon." This relaxed background allowed the emcees—Jackson, Tislam, Gray Matter, and Last Born Child—to find beat pockets to ride for their freestyles.
And then classically trained sopranos Melissa Wimbish and Alison Clendaniel stepped to the microphone. At first they harmonized vocal phrases. Under their sneakily soulful lines the group made the beat a bit more squishy, a vocal shout getting looped, and some scratching coming in, and then Wimbish launches into a speedy verse that changes the temperature of the vibe. By the time Tislam steps back up front, the MCs begin trading quick-hit four bar freestyles. Within a matter of minutes, a cool jazz vibe got turned way, way up.
That musical nimbleness keeps MCs on their toes. "My advice for emcee that's trying to be with Boom Bap Society, come prepared," says Jonathan Thomas, aka MC Ullnevano. He says it's good to show up with some lines you've been thinking about in your head to try out, but always be ready to go off script. "Have both barrels loaded. Have something written and be ready to freestyle."
Ashley Sierra agrees. She first started attending Boom Bap shows about two years back and started getting onstage about a year ago. "The thing that's so amazing about it is to watch everything come together organically from scratch," she says. "Most of the time when you go to a hip-hop show it's mostly a lot of oversaturated music. It is what it is, but I like to see something that comes together live, when you really test a person's skill. You want to be a good MC, you got to keep up with things that are happening in the moment. It trains you to feel the music, just let the music talk to you, and everyone's doing something so as they go you just want to catch the vibe of what's being said."
Spangler says that simply listening is one of the skills participating in a Society session sharpens, and that he and Patrick often tell Boom Bap newbies that sometimes the most valuable way they can contribute is by sitting back, be very intentional about when they come in, and have something to add. That thoughtfulness isn't only good for the vibe in the moment; it plays a role in helping to inform what a local music community might look and sound like. Wanna be a part of the scene? Show up, pay attention, listen to what people are doing and saying, and find a constructive way to add yourself to the mix.
Boom Bap Society sessions are "an opportunity to model what do we want our musical culture to look like, one that's a very inclusive culture that people from all different music backgrounds can find a common ground in," Spangler says. "That's something that was definitely one of my goals when we were first coming up with the idea. Hip-hop, through sampling, is so open to so many different sounds. Just the idea that you can take that as the premise for live music-making that's completely spontaneous without a road map of how it's going to go, that people can find common ground even when they haven't met before."
That starting point means that every Boom Bap Society session is different. That also means that every session might be something you've never even imagined before. "What they do here is unheard of," says Tislam, a veteran local producer and MC. "The sounds and the instrumentation that come together on the fly is mind boggling, sometimes you get mad because why isn't this being recorded and put out? This is phenomenal music."
Unstated in that assessment is that phenomenal music is made phenomenal musicians, and artists show up to Society sessions with expectations set pretty high. They don't know what's gonna happen, they might not even know who they're going to be doing it with, but they're all trying to find that fleetingly sublime moment and stay there, together, as one. If you've ever followed a band from its very early days on you can probably remember that night you saw them become who they are onstage, that moment where the young band went from awkwardly walking tender foal to grown-ass beast at full gallop. Boom Bap Society shows cycle through many of those moments nearly every session.
And being a part of some fleeting brilliance, a lighting strike that just as quickly evaporates, might be one of the reasons why so many musicians were willing to drag themselves to a grassy city lot so that Wendel Patrick could take their picture. The sun officially rose at 7:17 a.m. on Oct. 17, and by 7:30 a.m. Patrick had both his stationary camera set up and the drone working. He had flown the drone around a bit found the right height and flight path for it. He looked at the assembled musicians from the camera's point of view on a tablet and then did some impromptu art direction: some people move more this way, some move more that way, turn the harp a little this way, one bass move over to the other side. And then he he told everybody he was going to start taking a few shots. The drone hummed, idling in the air, and Patrick, hands on the controls, added one final thing: "OK, everyone, look straight up."