Header image credit: Joshua Yospyn for Worn Magazine
Matt Hemerlein has enlisted another one of DC’s hardest working men in show-business for his eponymous showcase at the Gibson Showroom tonight. A tireless performer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, vocalist, and writer, the addition of southeast DC’s own Christon “Christylez” Bacon to The Family Hemerlein seems only right. Christylez’ ascent has been wildly DC-centric, from passionate pursuit of design at Duke Ellington School for the Arts to establishing residency as an emerging artist at Strathmore Music Center. He’s written, starred in, and produced “In Pursuit of Me” at the northeast’s Atlas Theater and will soon present at Woolly Mammoth in June. Did we mention the Grammy nomination? Self-described as a progressive hip hop artist, it’s hard to argue with him when he’s fused hip hop and folk into one of the top children’s albums of 2009 and earned a trip down the red carpet in L.A. We caught up with Christylez as he caught a breath between workshops, theater development, and performing his positives stories across the U.S.
BYT: So, originally from DC?
Christylez: Yea, DC born and raised.
BYT: You’ve got a unique style with the live instrumentation, are you playing all of your own instruments and producing too?
Christylez: Well, on my first album I worked with a pianist to expand some arrangements. These days, a lot of what you hear and see I work on solo. I’m playing guitar, I’m playing ukulele, I’m beatboxing, you know? It’s all about bringing musicianship back to hip hop.
BYT: Are you able to recreate that on stage?
Christylez: Oh, well I haven’t done a lot of studio work since the Grammy nominated album, Banjo to Beatbox, last year. I actually plan stuff for the performance realm first and then bring it to record later. I play stuff simultaneously so I’ll be playing different instruments while rapping.
BYT: I saw that Grammy nomination, can you talk a little about how that came about – why you made the record, and how the nomination happened?
Christylez: Well, I call myself a progressive hip hop artist. Taking traditional elements of hip hop like beatboxing and rhyming, and mixing it with other genres of music and cultures as a way of introducing different styles of music to other people and also bringing folks together too. We have so many barriers setup against one another so music can be that language that opens people up and introduces them to diversity. With that being said, when I worked in the artist emergence program at Strathmore, I met Cathy Fink who was a mentor in the program. With her collaborator, Marcy Marxer, they’re a duo called Cathy and Marcy and they do folk music, children’s music, and they’ve won a lot of awards. They’re great musicians, old time traditional musicians. We decided to do an album together and called it Banjo to Beatbox. It’s an album that mixes together traditional hip hop elements with old time traditional folk music with banjos, washboards, and ukuleles with the beatboxing and the rhyming. We thought it was an opportunity to bring stuff together and to do something that was fresh and new. That’s right along with my mission statement so I was down with that. We did the album in, like, May of last year or something like that and it got nominated for a Grammy. We went to L.A., did the whole Grammy thing, the red carpet, but Ziggy Marley won though. He had a nice little album in that category!
BYT: Well, you’ve been performing for a while but to get on the Grammy landscape at this stage is pretty nice.
Christylez: Yea, I mean it’s an honor to be so young and in that realm. I’m learning, I learn a lot every day, man.
BYT: I know you said you were DC born and raised, you went to Ellington School for the Arts?
Christylze: Yea, I was digital arts major, crazy enough.
BYT: So you work on your own press, web, marketing materials?
Christylez: They’re all designed and developed by me, my website is coded and designed by me as well. I studied HTML at the age of 13 and stuff (laughing,) so I multitask on a lot of things. As things start expanding I’d love to hire other folks but for now I’m trying to do me, at least what I can do.
BYT: Obviously, the album with Cathy and Marcy opened you up to a demographic you weren’t reaching before. Have you enjoyed going around to schools, speaking to the youth?
Christylez: Yea man! I’ve definitely enjoyed it, that’s what it’s all about. Me, as an African American straight up from southeast DC, I’m from the hood. When you’re going to different schools, maybe even a privileged school, or where the majority of the kids are white, I find myself teaching a hip hop workshop and they have these perceptions. I’m like hey, we’re gonna write a hip hop song and they have these misconceptions about it. I’m like whooaaa, whoooaaa, no, that’s not what it’s about brother! The stereotypes, that’s what I fight. It gives me the opportunity to show people what it’s about and get a grip on reality. My presence in places like that helps change their perspective. Introducing folks to different things as a means to bring them all together.
BYT: In terms of your own perspective, being young and growing up in the southeast, who were your influences? What grasped and turned your perspective to the arts, music, and the various creative elements of your whole persona?
Christylez: Well, my mom was into art. She used to draw, she used to play a lot of music, she used to DJ parties for my uncles, block parties. I got my love for music from her, I got my ingenuity from her, you know? When you might not have the means, the resources to make something, but, I got that kind of, where there’s a will there’s a way, there’s always more than one way to skin a cat thing from her. I’ve always been a curious cat, into the arts, so Duke Ellington was the route to go. Everyone in the community was cool and just looked out for a brother. I guess it was my determination although I was interested in different things. I definitely thank the community and the many mentors I had that helped me develop.
BYT: I was looking at your Myspace, and some of your interests like witty, acerbic comedies. Some of your music is very serious but then I wonder if you don’t throw in some wit derived from these sources?
Christylez: Oh, yea man! The only thing that makes me different from any other human being, or any other entertainer, is my collection of life experiences and influences. I’m a combination of all my influences and upbringing, and that’s gonna come out in the music. If I watch Seinfeld all the time (laughing,) that kind of witty humor is gonna come out. You know how MC’s use a lot of punchlines, well, a lot of those similes come from those characters or things they’re into, pop culture. Plus, I think humor is needed man! I go to a lot of hip hop spots and younguns is crazy rawr rawr, and I’m just like dang dog, do you hug anyone (laughing)? So, you know, I think people need to lighten up and people need to learn how to smile and laugh more and enjoy life. I’m really happy to be able to bring that to cats too as well. Humor is a big tool, a great device that I use.
BYT: So, how’d you get involved with Matt Hemerlein and the variety show coming up?
Christylez: Matt, I met Matt Hemerlein at DC9 for a showcase of songwriters called The Nine. He did something with a loop machine where he was singing, very spacey, had a lot of droning notes, very meditative in a sense. We talked and shared some similar interests. He also plays violin and upright bass which I’m very interested in as a person who studies orchestration and constantly trying to employ orchestration elements in my music, I was definitely interested.
BYT: Looks like a great space too, the Gibson showroom.
Christylez: Yeeeaaaaah! I played there with the city dance ensemble a couple of months back, it’s a cool space. I’m trying to get them to let me use one of those instruments this time!
BYT: Yea, pull one off the wall.
Christylez: I don’t know about the guitars, but the piano!
BYT: So what are you working on right now? I saw you had a theatrical concert development post on your site, is this another group you’re involved with?
Christylez: Oh, so, December of last year a director, Patrick Crowley, and I decided to come up with a proposal for a theatrical concert. Almost a musical, I prefer theatrical concert though as it’s different. We did it, In Pursuit of Me, for the Intersections New America Arts Festival at the Atlas Theater in northeast DC. In two and half months we had to write an entire play. The entire narrative is told through hip hop songs and small vignettes that includes two other actors and a mini orchestra.
We did the Atlas thing with three shows and now, we’re looking to enhance it, constantly working on it. Because we had to knock everything out in two and a half months there’s a lot of things we didn’t get to like incorporating projection, working with a choreographer a bit more, a movement coach, you know? We’re taking the chance to do that and an organization called Artist Block is helping develop it and we’re working with a sound designer to add ambient noise. So, if there’s a bus going by, you’re gonna hear the buses. It’s all about telling the story through music. We’re showing it on June 6th at The Woolly Mammoth theater downtown, Archives Navy Memorial on the Green Line. If you’re free, love to have you.
BYT: Cool, thanks again.
Christylez: Cool, I’ll see you Thursday at the show.
Want more: Follow Christylez on his website: http://www.christylez.com/ and make sure to check him out live tonight @ Gibson Guitar Showroom (right across from Verizon Center) for the May Edition of Family Hemerlein