Interview and Photos by Scott Preston
Don’t adjust your speakers. That is the legendary riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” wailing on a tenor saxophone underneath the spitfire rhymes of Napoleon Maddox that you’re hearing. And the old man getting the led out on the horn who looks one part Henry Threadgill and one part Grady Wilson is Jack Walker–a little known avant jazz sage from Lincoln Heights (a section of Cincinnati best known as the original stomping ground of the Isley Brothers). Together the unlikely pairing form ISWHAT?!, one of the most groundbreaking hip-hop groups to emerge from the Midwest in recent memory. Busting out of Cincinnati with their 2004 debut, You Figure It Out, on HYENA Records, Maddox and Walker’s music was greeted by declarations like: “ISWHAT?! are going to rescue hip-hop. The trio are part of a movement that is promising to bring originality back to underground beats.” (STYLUS) and “They’re all about what’s happenin’ that a lot of people ain’t even hip to yet.” (Rahzel/The Roots). On August 29, 2006, ISWHAT?! attempts to match the level of such lofty praise with their highly-anticipated follow-up, The Life We Chose. While the core of ISWHAT?!’s sound is based on Maddox’s human beatbox rhythms and Walker’s sharp, incendiary horn lines, this time around they build upon their ideas with help from a vast cadre of friends and special guests, including Hamid Drake, Piakhan, Animal Crackers, Claire Daily, Ming & FS, Roy Campbell Jr., Fatal Prose, Lewis “Flip” Barnes and Daniela Castro among others.
Cincy Groove: How long has IsWhat?! been together?
Napoleon Maddox: Since the Fall of 1996. Our original bass player left in 2005 and shortly after that Chris Walker played bass for us for a little while. Brent Old is playing bass with us now. We really got started because I was working with Matt and Jack, the original IsWhat?! members, in some other settings. They were in a group called The Healing System and thats when I first met them. Over time we would run into each other at different shows and festivals. I was in this group of rappers, kind of like the Wu-Tang Clan, lots of guys on stage and electronic beats.
After a while I said I wanted to try something different other than working with electronic beats, microphones and voices competing with each other. The three of us decided to really make a marriage between voice and instrument. They were really into jazz and I came from a hip hop background so it really fit well together.
Cincy Groove: Is IsWhat working on any new projects right now?
Napoleon Maddox: We are working on a new album that should be out in Spring of next year. We have some tracks with the drummer Hamid Drake on them, there are also some tracks with Chris Walker. Its a really interesting album already and we aren’t even finished with it yet. Its a lot more song oriented in terms of composition, melody. The improvisation is much stronger on this record because of the song structure. I’m really excited about this album already.
Cincy Groove: Where are you recording the new album?
Napoleon Maddox: Ninety percent of it is being recorded at the studio of the Animal Crackers. We are doing a lot of work with Tobe Donohue, he is my favorite engineer. He really knows how to get what you are going after and at the same time he is able to bring in his own ideas. Tobe being a drummer really helps out as well.
Cincy Groove: I see you are heading over to Europe soon. Where will IsWhat?! be performing?
Napoleon Maddox: For the most part we will be in France but we will have a couple other dates we will pick up in Belgium. But our strongest market right now, including the US is France. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one I think is the history of Jazz in France and timing. Where ever we would go people would tell us they quite haven’t heard anything like what we are doing.
Cincy Groove: Who was one of the first hip hop artists you can remember listening to?
Napoleon Maddox: I think it would be Nucleus or Whoudini. Then I started to listen to Run D.M.C., UTFO.
Cincy Groove: I understand you used to have a radio show on WAIF 88.3 here in the Cincinnati/N KY area.
Napoleon Maddox: Yeah, I had the show for about 7 years. I did a lot of interviewing and also did a lot of opening the phone lines so the community could call in and let us know what they thought of the music. I interviewed KRS One, Jay-Z, Baba Seth, all kinds of people. I prided myself on introducing music that at the time was considered underground. At the time I interviewed Mos Def he wasn’t too well known and only had one record out.
Cincy Groove: How do you feel the internet has affected the way the music industry does business?
Napoleon Maddox: I think its really interesting to see how many new opportunity’s there are. If you are creative and stay in touch and in tune with whats going on, there are a lot of things you can do now that you couldn’t do 20 years ago. You can now put your music in enough places to generate interest to the point where you are the person that people are looking for because you were willing to give away your music. Now you can keep a certain amount of fidelity because it is digital. You can also send it all around the globe almost instantly. I understand the argument about it not being fair people are downloading music for free, but honestly we are way past that now.
Cincy Groove: Who are some of the groups IsWhat?! has played with?
Napoleon Maddox: The Roots, KRS One, AntiBalas, Saul Williams, Dirty Dozen Brass band, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Galactic. Thats what I can remember, I’m sure they are some I’m leaving out.
Napoleon Maddox – vocals and beatbox
Jack Walker – alto sax
CoCheme’a Gastelum – tenor sax
Brent Old – bass
Hamid Drake – drums
Upcoming IsWhat tour dates:
for complete show details visit http://www.myspace.com/iswhatsince1997
Oct 7 2008 Nancy Jazz Pulsations Nancy
Oct 10 2008 Le 6 x 4 Laval
Oct 11 2008 Le Vip Saint Nazaire
Oct 13 2008 Le Chabada with Herbaliser Angers
Oct 29 2008 Beursschouwburg Bruxelles
Oct 30 2008 Novo Hiphop Paris
Nov 1 2008 Festival Les Rockomotives Vendome
Nov 11 2008 Baba Budan’s with guests !!! Cincinnati, Ohio