Music: Napoleon, Complex

Hip Hop/Jazz mashers IsWhat?!'s decade in music comes to a head on The Life We Chose

 
Jon Hughes


On the new Hyena Records release, The Life We Chose, IsWhat?!'s Jack Walker (left) and Napoleon Maddox take their staunchly unique sound to new heights.



It's another muggy Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati and most people inside Sitwell's coffeehouse in Clifton seem to be chilling, kicking back in the restfulness that is mid-weekend lethargy. A few patrons have their noses buried in books or laptops, perhaps studying, perhaps turning their minds off from studying.

Napoleon Maddox isn't on break, though. The MC/beat-boxer/vocal artist for the local group IsWhat?! can't slow down right now. He's 10 days away from the release of his group's second full-length album, The Life We Chose, IsWhat?!'s first CD of all new material for respected, eclectic Hyena Records, which focuses primarily on progressive Jazz.

More importantly, Maddox is just two days away from a trip to New York City. It's far from his first time to the Big Apple; his label is in Brooklyn, and he ventures there frequently for his myriad collaborations with other artists in New York's avant-garde music scene.

While he is strong about his love for his hometown, where his family and many friends live, New York is certainly No. 1 on his list of "homes away from home."

Maddox has some shows lined up in New York and Cambridge, Mass., to get the ball rolling on the new album's promotion (in November, they head to Europe for some festival dates), so he's got loose ends to tie up before heading out.

Still, with all of the activity going on around him, Maddox is remarkably calm, downright centered, when we meet for our interview, answering questions carefully because, if you know anything about Napoleon as an artist/poet, you know the weight he puts into words.

As we talk, Maddox's business smarts come through in his cautious (though honest and open) answers; he clearly understands his words will be transmitted, people will judge. But when the conversation turns away from history and the industry and toward music and art, his passion leaks through with a gush of subtly animated hand gestures and expressiveness.

Though their music touches on various genres (the new album has elements of Electronica, and Rock rears its head on a re-imagining of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"), the foundation of IsWhat?!'s sound is Jazz and Hip Hop. Maddox's partner in the group, Jack Walker, is the stoic Jazz shaman, a veteran musician whose saxophone lines form the core of the group's sound with Maddox's brilliant rhymes and masterly, hyperkinetic beat-boxing that moves from hardcore Funk to fills and runs on par with an expert Jazz drummer.

When asked about the connection, historically, between Hip Hop and Jazz, Maddox's eyes widen slightly as he goes into a presentation. It's something he's clearly thought about in great depth.

"To me, there's a much shorter list of ways that Jazz and Hip Hop are not related," Maddox says of the musical genres his band so deftly blends. "To me, they're connected at the root. One of the fundamental ways is that the phrasing of an MC ..."

Maddox then launches into a scat version of an old-school Hip Hop song, mimicking the rhythmic punctuation of a rapper.

"That phrasing, that rhythmic lead, that's not in R&B, that's not the dominant voice in Classical music, it's not in Country," he says. "The only other music that I know of that has that as a dominant voice is Be Bop. Not just Jazz in general, but Be Bop."

He then impersonates a climbing horn riff to perfection, demonstrating an undeniable connection between the cadences and inflections.

"In Hip Hop, the best MCs can kill that," he adds, before riffing on Doug E. Fresh's "La-Di-Da-Di" to drive the point home.

Maddox's energetic eloquence isn't always enough to convince naysayers who insist Hip Hop isn't even qualified to be called "music." It especially seems to hurt him when his peers in Jazz circles belittle the art form.

"The opinions and sentiment of Jazz people I respect, that I have an honorable reverence for, I understand some of them are like, 'This music has nothing to do with anything musical, this is garbage,' because they don't connect to it or they don't feel good about it or whatever," he says. "But there is a musical reference. If you listen to an MC's voice and you put dots and dashes and you write the time signatures out and write out the note his voice is making when he goes up and down ... it's there. The connection is there musically."

Despite the apparent need for precise categories and genres in the music world today (mostly a by-product of "commercial viability"), different genres of music have other genres' DNA all over them. Like how knowing Latin or Spanish can give you a leg up when trying to learn other foreign languages, Maddox says the Gospel music of his upbringing made exploring Jazz natural and familiar.

"There's so much Blues and Jazz in Gospel — and vice versa — I don't separate that," he says. "When I started really understanding Jazz, I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm familiar with that. That's not foreign to me at all. That's part of my experience musically.' "

Maddox was born in Springfield, Mass., and moved to Cincinnati with his family when he was a baby. Maddox remembers most of the music around the house being Gospel — Andrae Crouch, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Maddox has eight siblings, all sisters, and each was sent to weekly piano and/or voice lessons starting at a young age. He joined the church choir when he was 3, "because my father was singing in church and I wanted to do whatever he was doing."

As a child, he discovered Hip Hop during its first wave and was hooked. "I'm sure I wasn't even 10 years old yet; I remember breakin' and learning how to beat-box," Maddox says, adding that he was already exploring literature and poetry when Hip Hop came into his life.

His discovery of Jazz came in the same way kids discovered the Blues through The Rolling Stones or Reggae through The Police. In 1988, the Hip Hop group Stetsasonic released the album In Full Gear, which featured the groundbreaking track, "Talkin' All That Jazz." The song was a fuming, defensive blow against Hip Hop's critics who dismissed the music for many of the same reasons some of Maddox's Jazz peers do. Besides the empowering message, Maddox was struck by the song's use of a thick Jazz bass line and looped horn samples.

"They made me realize I wanted to be about that, I wanted to connect with that," he says. "The first Jazz stuff I ever got excited about was actually Hip Hop. That made me start to do more research and get an understanding of what they were doing."

In high school, Maddox formed a makeshift group thanks to an understanding band/English teacher, who let his friends and him jam in the band room. Using marching band-style drums, a keyboardist and a DJ, Maddox fronted the group as the MC. He then formed a group called Social Committee and later joined Watusi Tribe, a fluctuating Hip Hop collaborative that still goes on today.

Inspired by the fresh, adventurous sounds of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, Maddox began to consider the boundaries of Hip Hop, wondering if there needed to be any.

Jack Walker and upright bassist Matt Anderson were playing the streets and clubs of Cincinnati at the time with the Healing System, a free-form Jazz group. Walker also claimed membership in The Last Boppers, an exploratory Jazz/World group that's still alive and kicking.

Maddox, Walker and Anderson began crossing paths when their different groups performed at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium. Hanging at the Consortium was inspiring to Maddox, who started to be exposed to visual art and new (to him) Jazz music, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Thelonious Monk. The vibe was also conducive to creative synergy, and Maddox would sit in with (and eventual join) The Last Boppers. Maddox also invited Walker and the Boppers' Ken Leslie to play over beats he made with the Social Committee.

Maddox and Anderson began to talk about the idea of taking the Hip Hop and Jazz fusion further.

"One day, after a Watusi show, I had some other ideas in my head, like I would like the music to have a little more space and I wanted to focus more on MCing, to try and get my voice and sense of music to the level of a musician, to MC and perform like a musician," he says.

IsWhat?! was born.

By 1999, the trio had released the EP Landmines on vinyl and CD and started doing regional dates. The response the band got out of town boosted their confidence.

"We had several conversations like, 'Wow, we might be on to something,' because," Maddox says, chuckling, "these people would be just as happy to boo us as they would be to clap, and we got good responses wherever we'd go."

The group increasingly expanded the radius of its touring itinerary, hitting the East Coast more frequently. They self-released the full-length You Figure It Out in 2002. The band got a few feelers from labels, including Instinct, DJ Spooky's Synchronic imprint and even venerable Jazz label Verve. But Maddox says he was starting to become slightly jaded with the music industry.

"Circus," one of the highlight tracks on the new album, shrewdly paints the Pop music machine as a carnival where everyone — from the audience to the performer to the ringleaders — bears responsibility for perpetuating its plasticity ("Top 40 today and gone tomorrow/But I can't feel no sorrow/'Cause it's all music for the circus man").

"The whole way the industry works was an epiphany," he says. "I was like, 'Well, everybody's saying they want something new.' (I thought), 'Oh yeah, well then we'll make it in that way.' I found out that a lot of times, when people say they want something new in the industry, they're looking for something that everybody can identify with that they can market in a new way.

"So they don't care if it's new or old, as long as they can say it's the new thing. As long as I understand that, as long as I'm comfortable with where I am, then this is the life I chose. So you can say and do whatever you want to do and market whatever you want to market, but this is what I'm going to do. And that's where I am now, but it took some time to get readjusted to 'the game.' "

After You Figure It Out was released, IsWhat?! was asked to set up a Cincinnati area date for modern Blues hero James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer had recently joined the roster of Hyena Records, then a new label founded by producer Joel Dorn. Hyena was releasing live recordings by Jazz legends like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk, but they were also putting out music by new acts that didn't fit neatly into one prescribed category, including Electronic/Jazz innovator Mocean Worker and adventurous young Jazz crew Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, which was a hit on the Jam Band circuit.

The Ulmer dates fell through, but Maddox had sent Hyena a copy of You Figure It Out in the interim. When Maddox got back in touch about the aborted Ulmer show, he hinted that IsWhat?! was looking for someone to put their music out. He says he thinks the label was already considering it, so the move to Hyena came quickly after.

"It wasn't a hard sell at all," he says. "I didn't have to push or pull." After initially hoping to release a new album, the two sides agreed it best to release a remastered You Figure It Out in 2004 with a few different tracks.

Hyena has become one of those labels that, by simply having their logo on a release, you know you're in for quality. With Hyena's strong catalog and artist friendly/nurturing approach, Maddox is thrilled to be on the imprint.

"It's an honor to be a part of music that's happening now that's so progressive," he says. "It gives me hope. I'm not somebody that's all dark and down about today's music, so to speak. (But) I think there is a disposable element to a lot of stuff that's happening. That kind of happens all the time. I would say that Hyena is on the opposite end of that. The best labels don't get built any way (other) than solid music."

Between the touring behind You Figure It Out and the recording of the band's second album, The Life You Chose, Anderson left the band. Maddox's reaction when asked about Anderson's departure suggests it wasn't a happy split, but he seems to have come to terms with it and says he still speaks to Anderson. He thinks that some of the same shadiness that made him weary of the industry pushed Anderson away as IsWhat?! became more dedicated to taking things to the next level.

"He just figured this is not for him," Maddox says. "I think a lot of things were a lot different than he thought it would be. Things that matter to him. After a while it becomes clear that this is waaay not a hobby. There's a lot of expectations."

Anderson's bass work appears on the first four tracks of The Life You Chose, including opening cut "Kashmir," which presents the group in its natural, most naked state: live and onstage. Opening with what people who have heard them before expect was all a part of Maddox's sequencing plan. From there, the experience shape-shifts, with numerable collaborators contributing to tracks that break new ground for IsWhat?!, including cuts with live drumming from noted skinsman Hamid Drake; DJ scratching from Casual T of the local turntable crew Animal Crackers; Electronica precision from NYC duo Ming + FS; more traditional Hip Hop tracks with contributions from a wide range of MCs (including locals like Ill Poetic and Piakhan); and tracks featuring New York jazzbos like Roy Campbell, Lewis Barnes and Claire Daly, a frequent IsWhat?! collaborator who joins the group for live shows from time to time. (Iswhat?! currently plays live as a duo, trio and quintet, depending on scheduling.)

"I tried to imagine somebody that is just learning about us and the person who has heard us from the beginning," Maddox says of the sequencing. "I wanted the album to make sense, like this is where we started, and these are some of the other things that we are working on or other places we have been. Musically, it flows. It gives clues to where we're going and how we're really doing away with all limitations or perceptions of, 'Oh, Iswhat?! is this kind of group.' "

By spending so much time in New York, Maddox was able to connect with many of the album's collaborators. He has recorded and toured with some of them as NapoleonSolo, and he has also worked with acts like Transmitting, Burnt Sugar Arkestra, Ming + FS and Sotto Voce, Jazz Passengers co-founder Roy Nathanson's latest project, of which Maddox is an official member.

"The stuff that I've been able to do as a collaborative artist outside of Iswhat?!, it has been completely fed by the Iswhat?! experience," Maddox says. "I'm not who I was 10 years ago, because I wouldn't have been able to just jump into the mix with Roy Nathanson or jump into the mix with Burnt Sugar and get down with what they're doing."

Maddox says he has never seriously considered moving to New York, where many of his artistic co-conspirators live, because of family and friends in Cincinnati. Plus, while he concedes that New York has opened more artistic opportunities for him ("You never know who's going to be in the room, at the venue, around the corner"), he feels like there is no real need.

"I can make a long, long list of people that live in New York and need to get out to this part of the country," Maddox says. "So, with the Internet, and if your whole thing is you're touring, it doesn't really matter where you live because you've got to go somewhere else to get to the place you're playing.

"When I have to be in New York, I'll know. But until then, I feel like I need to be here."

Maddox still holds down a day job, working at what has to be a very understanding daycare center. But he is anxious for the day when he can live full-time off his music. Unlike some adventurous artists who are almost stubborn in their dedication to the underground, Maddox says he would welcome commercial success with open arms, as long as it's on the group's own terms.

"If I run from commercial success, I'm discrediting what I've been doing all this time," he says defiantly. "If somebody makes a great offer, or however it happens, and we turn away from success, then we're doing a disservice to everybody we claim to be honoring, from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Andrew Lamb, from Chuck D to Last Poets. (We would be) saying all of your work is only of value if you can be broke doing it.

"There's some stuff I can't get with, like 'artist angst.' I understand how it feels to do creative things and feel like nobody's into it or nobody gets it. It's hard to do experimental music, people always want you to sell out. I know that. I've been that. I've seen that. But that's not the life for me. That's not what I chose. I chose to say, 'I'm going do something creative. I'm going to do it how I do it. And I'm going to be smart enough to learn how to do it better.' And I'm going to keep doing that until I'm dead or until I hit the right nerve. There's been a lot of stuff that people thought was weird that got through. There was a time when everything that's on the radio now would have sounded weird."

The Life You Chose features a few tracks with crossover appeal, more traditionally "structured" cuts, with hooks and an undeniable catchiness. Though, with the smart subject matter — which gets more politically overt than ever on this release, including the volatile anti-Bush/Corporate America screed "Ill Biz" — is there any way IsWhat?! could fit comfortably on a modern radio playlist?

"Fit comfortably?" Maddox responds with a grin. "I almost hope not. I hope it would be on there and that it would fit uncomfortably."



ISWHAT?! (

 
Jon Hughes


On the new Hyena Records release, The Life We Chose, IsWhat?!'s Jack Walker (left) and Napoleon Maddox take their staunchly unique sound to new heights.



It's another muggy Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati and most people inside Sitwell's coffeehouse in Clifton seem to be chilling, kicking back in the restfulness that is mid-weekend lethargy. A few patrons have their noses buried in books or laptops, perhaps studying, perhaps turning their minds off from studying.

Napoleon Maddox isn't on break, though. The MC/beat-boxer/vocal artist for the local group IsWhat?! can't slow down right now. He's 10 days away from the release of his group's second full-length album, The Life We Chose, IsWhat?!'s first CD of all new material for respected, eclectic Hyena Records, which focuses primarily on progressive Jazz.

More importantly, Maddox is just two days away from a trip to New York City. It's far from his first time to the Big Apple; his label is in Brooklyn, and he ventures there frequently for his myriad collaborations with other artists in New York's avant-garde music scene.

While he is strong about his love for his hometown, where his family and many friends live, New York is certainly No. 1 on his list of "homes away from home."

Maddox has some shows lined up in New York and Cambridge, Mass., to get the ball rolling on the new album's promotion (in November, they head to Europe for some festival dates), so he's got loose ends to tie up before heading out.

Still, with all of the activity going on around him, Maddox is remarkably calm, downright centered, when we meet for our interview, answering questions carefully because, if you know anything about Napoleon as an artist/poet, you know the weight he puts into words.

As we talk, Maddox's business smarts come through in his cautious (though honest and open) answers; he clearly understands his words will be transmitted, people will judge. But when the conversation turns away from history and the industry and toward music and art, his passion leaks through with a gush of subtly animated hand gestures and expressiveness.

Though their music touches on various genres (the new album has elements of Electronica, and Rock rears its head on a re-imagining of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"), the foundation of IsWhat?!'s sound is Jazz and Hip Hop. Maddox's partner in the group, Jack Walker, is the stoic Jazz shaman, a veteran musician whose saxophone lines form the core of the group's sound with Maddox's brilliant rhymes and masterly, hyperkinetic beat-boxing that moves from hardcore Funk to fills and runs on par with an expert Jazz drummer.

When asked about the connection, historically, between Hip Hop and Jazz, Maddox's eyes widen slightly as he goes into a presentation. It's something he's clearly thought about in great depth.

"To me, there's a much shorter list of ways that Jazz and Hip Hop are not related," Maddox says of the musical genres his band so deftly blends. "To me, they're connected at the root. One of the fundamental ways is that the phrasing of an MC ..."

Maddox then launches into a scat version of an old-school Hip Hop song, mimicking the rhythmic punctuation of a rapper.

"That phrasing, that rhythmic lead, that's not in R&B, that's not the dominant voice in Classical music, it's not in Country," he says. "The only other music that I know of that has that as a dominant voice is Be Bop. Not just Jazz in general, but Be Bop."

He then impersonates a climbing horn riff to perfection, demonstrating an undeniable connection between the cadences and inflections.

"In Hip Hop, the best MCs can kill that," he adds, before riffing on Doug E. Fresh's "La-Di-Da-Di" to drive the point home.

Maddox's energetic eloquence isn't always enough to convince naysayers who insist Hip Hop isn't even qualified to be called "music." It especially seems to hurt him when his peers in Jazz circles belittle the art form.

"The opinions and sentiment of Jazz people I respect, that I have an honorable reverence for, I understand some of them are like, 'This music has nothing to do with anything musical, this is garbage,' because they don't connect to it or they don't feel good about it or whatever," he says. "But there is a musical reference. If you listen to an MC's voice and you put dots and dashes and you write the time signatures out and write out the note his voice is making when he goes up and down ... it's there. The connection is there musically."

Despite the apparent need for precise categories and genres in the music world today (mostly a by-product of "commercial viability"), different genres of music have other genres' DNA all over them. Like how knowing Latin or Spanish can give you a leg up when trying to learn other foreign languages, Maddox says the Gospel music of his upbringing made exploring Jazz natural and familiar.

"There's so much Blues and Jazz in Gospel — and vice versa — I don't separate that," he says. "When I started really understanding Jazz, I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm familiar with that. That's not foreign to me at all. That's part of my experience musically.' "

Maddox was born in Springfield, Mass., and moved to Cincinnati with his family when he was a baby. Maddox remembers most of the music around the house being Gospel — Andrae Crouch, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Maddox has eight siblings, all sisters, and each was sent to weekly piano and/or voice lessons starting at a young age. He joined the church choir when he was 3, "because my father was singing in church and I wanted to do whatever he was doing."

As a child, he discovered Hip Hop during its first wave and was hooked. "I'm sure I wasn't even 10 years old yet; I remember breakin' and learning how to beat-box," Maddox says, adding that he was already exploring literature and poetry when Hip Hop came into his life.

His discovery of Jazz came in the same way kids discovered the Blues through The Rolling Stones or Reggae through The Police. In 1988, the Hip Hop group Stetsasonic released the album In Full Gear, which featured the groundbreaking track, "Talkin' All That Jazz." The song was a fuming, defensive blow against Hip Hop's critics who dismissed the music for many of the same reasons some of Maddox's Jazz peers do. Besides the empowering message, Maddox was struck by the song's use of a thick Jazz bass line and looped horn samples.

"They made me realize I wanted to be about that, I wanted to connect with that," he says. "The first Jazz stuff I ever got excited about was actually Hip Hop. That made me start to do more research and get an understanding of what they were doing."

In high school, Maddox formed a makeshift group thanks to an understanding band/English teacher, who let his friends and him jam in the band room. Using marching band-style drums, a keyboardist and a DJ, Maddox fronted the group as the MC. He then formed a group called Social Committee and later joined Watusi Tribe, a fluctuating Hip Hop collaborative that still goes on today.

Inspired by the fresh, adventurous sounds of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, Maddox began to consider the boundaries of Hip Hop, wondering if there needed to be any.

Jack Walker and upright bassist Matt Anderson were playing the streets and clubs of Cincinnati at the time with the Healing System, a free-form Jazz group. Walker also claimed membership in The Last Boppers, an exploratory Jazz/World group that's still alive and kicking.

Maddox, Walker and Anderson began crossing paths when their different groups performed at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium. Hanging at the Consortium was inspiring to Maddox, who started to be exposed to visual art and new (to him) Jazz music, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Thelonious Monk. The vibe was also conducive to creative synergy, and Maddox would sit in with (and eventual join) The Last Boppers. Maddox also invited Walker and the Boppers' Ken Leslie to play over beats he made with the Social Committee.

Maddox and Anderson began to talk about the idea of taking the Hip Hop and Jazz fusion further.

"One day, after a Watusi show, I had some other ideas in my head, like I would like the music to have a little more space and I wanted to focus more on MCing, to try and get my voice and sense of music to the level of a musician, to MC and perform like a musician," he says.

IsWhat?! was born.

By 1999, the trio had released the EP Landmines on vinyl and CD and started doing regional dates. The response the band got out of town boosted their confidence.

"We had several conversations like, 'Wow, we might be on to something,' because," Maddox says, chuckling, "these people would be just as happy to boo us as they would be to clap, and we got good responses wherever we'd go."

The group increasingly expanded the radius of its touring itinerary, hitting the East Coast more frequently. They self-released the full-length You Figure It Out in 2002. The band got a few feelers from labels, including Instinct, DJ Spooky's Synchronic imprint and even venerable Jazz label Verve. But Maddox says he was starting to become slightly jaded with the music industry.

"Circus," one of the highlight tracks on the new album, shrewdly paints the Pop music machine as a carnival where everyone — from the audience to the performer to the ringleaders — bears responsibility for perpetuating its plasticity ("Top 40 today and gone tomorrow/But I can't feel no sorrow/'Cause it's all music for the circus man").

"The whole way the industry works was an epiphany," he says. "I was like, 'Well, everybody's saying they want something new.' (I thought), 'Oh yeah, well then we'll make it in that way.' I found out that a lot of times, when people say they want something new in the industry, they're looking for something that everybody can identify with that they can market in a new way.

"So they don't care if it's new or old, as long as they can say it's the new thing. As long as I understand that, as long as I'm comfortable with where I am, then this is the life I chose. So you can say and do whatever you want to do and market whatever you want to market, but this is what I'm going to do. And that's where I am now, but it took some time to get readjusted to 'the game.' "

After You Figure It Out was released, IsWhat?! was asked to set up a Cincinnati area date for modern Blues hero James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer had recently joined the roster of Hyena Records, then a new label founded by producer Joel Dorn. Hyena was releasing live recordings by Jazz legends like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk, but they were also putting out music by new acts that didn't fit neatly into one prescribed category, including Electronic/Jazz innovator Mocean Worker and adventurous young Jazz crew Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, which was a hit on the Jam Band circuit.

The Ulmer dates fell through, but Maddox had sent Hyena a copy of You Figure It Out in the interim. When Maddox got back in touch about the aborted Ulmer show, he hinted that IsWhat?! was looking for someone to put their music out. He says he thinks the label was already considering it, so the move to Hyena came quickly after.

"It wasn't a hard sell at all," he says. "I didn't have to push or pull." After initially hoping to release a new album, the two sides agreed it best to release a remastered You Figure It Out in 2004 with a few different tracks.

Hyena has become one of those labels that, by simply having their logo on a release, you know you're in for quality. With Hyena's strong catalog and artist friendly/nurturing approach, Maddox is thrilled to be on the imprint.

"It's an honor to be a part of music that's happening now that's so progressive," he says. "It gives me hope. I'm not somebody that's all dark and down about today's music, so to speak. (But) I think there is a disposable element to a lot of stuff that's happening. That kind of happens all the time. I would say that Hyena is on the opposite end of that. The best labels don't get built any way (other) than solid music."

Between the touring behind You Figure It Out and the recording of the band's second album, The Life You Chose, Anderson left the band. Maddox's reaction when asked about Anderson's departure suggests it wasn't a happy split, but he seems to have come to terms with it and says he still speaks to Anderson. He thinks that some of the same shadiness that made him weary of the industry pushed Anderson away as IsWhat?! became more dedicated to taking things to the next level.

"He just figured this is not for him," Maddox says. "I think a lot of things were a lot different than he thought it would be. Things that matter to him. After a while it becomes clear that this is waaay not a hobby. There's a lot of expectations."

Anderson's bass work appears on the first four tracks of The Life You Chose, including opening cut "Kashmir," which presents the group in its natural, most naked state: live and onstage. Opening with what people who have heard them before expect was all a part of Maddox's sequencing plan. From there, the experience shape-shifts, with numerable collaborators contributing to tracks that break new ground for IsWhat?!, including cuts with live drumming from noted skinsman Hamid Drake; DJ scratching from Casual T of the local turntable crew Animal Crackers; Electronica precision from NYC duo Ming + FS; more traditional Hip Hop tracks with contributions from a wide range of MCs (including locals like Ill Poetic and Piakhan); and tracks featuring New York jazzbos like Roy Campbell, Lewis Barnes and Claire Daly, a frequent IsWhat?! collaborator who joins the group for live shows from time to time. (Iswhat?! currently plays live as a duo, trio and quintet, depending on scheduling.)

"I tried to imagine somebody that is just learning about us and the person who has heard us from the beginning," Maddox says of the sequencing. "I wanted the album to make sense, like this is where we started, and these are some of the other things that we are working on or other places we have been. Musically, it flows. It gives clues to where we're going and how we're really doing away with all limitations or perceptions of, 'Oh, Iswhat?! is this kind of group.' "

By spending so much time in New York, Maddox was able to connect with many of the album's collaborators. He has recorded and toured with some of them as NapoleonSolo, and he has also worked with acts like Transmitting, Burnt Sugar Arkestra, Ming + FS and Sotto Voce, Jazz Passengers co-founder Roy Nathanson's latest project, of which Maddox is an official member.

"The stuff that I've been able to do as a collaborative artist outside of Iswhat?!, it has been completely fed by the Iswhat?! experience," Maddox says. "I'm not who I was 10 years ago, because I wouldn't have been able to just jump into the mix with Roy Nathanson or jump into the mix with Burnt Sugar and get down with what they're doing."

Maddox says he has never seriously considered moving to New York, where many of his artistic co-conspirators live, because of family and friends in Cincinnati. Plus, while he concedes that New York has opened more artistic opportunities for him ("You never know who's going to be in the room, at the venue, around the corner"), he feels like there is no real need.

"I can make a long, long list of people that live in New York and need to get out to this part of the country," Maddox says. "So, with the Internet, and if your whole thing is you're touring, it doesn't really matter where you live because you've got to go somewhere else to get to the place you're playing.

"When I have to be in New York, I'll know. But until then, I feel like I need to be here."

Maddox still holds down a day job, working at what has to be a very understanding daycare center. But he is anxious for the day when he can live full-time off his music. Unlike some adventurous artists who are almost stubborn in their dedication to the underground, Maddox says he would welcome commercial success with open arms, as long as it's on the group's own terms.

"If I run from commercial success, I'm discrediting what I've been doing all this time," he says defiantly. "If somebody makes a great offer, or however it happens, and we turn away from success, then we're doing a disservice to everybody we claim to be honoring, from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Andrew Lamb, from Chuck D to Last Poets. (We would be) saying all of your work is only of value if you can be broke doing it.

"There's some stuff I can't get with, like 'artist angst.' I understand how it feels to do creative things and feel like nobody's into it or nobody gets it. It's hard to do experimental music, people always want you to sell out. I know that. I've been that. I've seen that. But that's not the life for me. That's not what I chose. I chose to say, 'I'm going do something creative. I'm going to do it how I do it. And I'm going to be smart enough to learn how to do it better.' And I'm going to keep doing that until I'm dead or until I hit the right nerve. There's been a lot of stuff that people thought was weird that got through. There was a time when everything that's on the radio now would have sounded weird."

The Life You Chose features a few tracks with crossover appeal, more traditionally "structured" cuts, with hooks and an undeniable catchiness. Though, with the smart subject matter — which gets more politically overt than ever on this release, including the volatile anti-Bush/Corporate America screed "Ill Biz" — is there any way IsWhat?! could fit comfortably on a modern radio playlist?

"Fit comfortably?" Maddox responds with a grin. "I almost hope not. I hope it would be on there and that it would fit uncomfortably."



ISWHAT?! (myspace.com/iswhatsince1997) celebrates their new album's release Thursday at Cooper's on Main with DJ April Reign. On Sept. 15, they play Downtown's Hyatt Regency (see jazzincincy.com for details).

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