Photo by Julien Bourgeois
The Cincinnati duo probably knew taking the name Iswhat?! would make people ask lots of questions over their chosen name. And I have to admit that the group remains an enigma in this era of sharply defined boundaries.
A group that changes in shape, orbiting around core musicians (founders / players) MC Napoleon Maddox and saxophonist Jack Walker, Iswhat?! has been around since the mid-1990s. Their first album “You figure it out” (2004) – a sort of a spacio-temporal rendezvous between Charles Mingus and Public Enemy in a graffiti covered Harlem basement in Harlem – intrigued jazz fans aficionados as well as the hip-hop community. Two other disks (“The Life We Chose” in 2006 and “Big Appetite” in 2009) and several prestigious collaborations with (with the likes of) Archie Shepp, Chuck D (Public Enemy), DJ Spooky, Fat Jon (Five Deez) and DJ Spinna make it clear: Iswhat?! disregards categories to cultivate a polyvalent vision of music, a new blend of music beyond boundaries. The duo inherit the traditions of Great Black Music, like their forebears Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Stetsasonic, John Coltrane, The Last Poets, Doug E Fresh, Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and Boogie Down Productions…
It is moreover very clear, when one sees the eclectic but coherent list of guests on “Things That Go Bump in the Dark,” all long time collaborators: on the drums, the mythic free drummer Hamid Drake (also heard with Herbie Hancock and Pharoah Sanders…); on the alto sax, the Dap-King Cocheme’a Gastelum (Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse…); on the baritone sax the great Claire Daly (former member of Aretha Franklin and James Brown’s bands); on violin and bass, Sam Bardfeld and Tim Kiah (Napoleon’s colleagues on Roy Nathanson’s “Sotto Voce”); and mixing (engineer/ producer), the legendary Bob Power who produced the hip hop elite from D’Angelo to The Roots, to Q-Tip, Common, and De La Soul. And other collaborators, less famous but just as striking.
With this new recording, the mysterious Iswhat?! joins the pantheon of pioneers like Duddley Perkins, Georgia Ann Muldrow, Build An Ark, and Madlib. Like these others, Napoleon Maddox and Jack Walker are jazz musicians who have continued to look for what makes the street swing to create a new music a new sound at the crossroads of golden age hip hop “Hands Up,” “Good Fight”), spiritual jazz , and cosmic soul . “Things That Go Bump in the Dark” thus leans on the past, sometimes with subtle winks to its influences to better propel itself into the future, but Napoleon also doesn’t hesitate to reference the films of Luis Buñuel, the paintings of Salvador Dali, and a novel by Dave Eggers as sources of direct inspiration.
For in addition to knowing how to rap, sing, beatbox, and make futuristic beats, Napoleon Maddox is also an incredible story-teller/writer, with a pen as sharp and versatile as a Saul Williams or a Mos Def. His somber stories can also often be interpreted as metaphors for the rap game, or for humanity in its broad sense – where each of us must struggle daily against our base instincts so that brother does not turn on brother. Or to quote a proverb: so that man should be more than a wolf for man.
Yet again, Iswhat?! will raise more questions than answers. But this is what happens when we look ahead rather than back.