Napoleon, Dynamite

Napoleon Maddox and IsWhat?! meld 17 years of experience into an explosive new album

May 15, 2013 at 8:26 am

Long gaps between albums aren’t unusual for IsWhat?! 

In fact, it took Napoleon Maddox and his Cincinnati-based genre-defying Hip Hop/Jazz/Rock/Soul collective three years after their 1996 formation to drop their auspicious debut, Landmines. Nearly everyone who contributes to IsWhat?! is also engaged in other creative projects, as well as day jobs and family commitments — from the full-time core of the band (frontman/beatboxer Maddox, saxophonist/flautist/vocalist Jack Walker, drummer Hamid Drake) to a coterie of vastly talented regulars who drift in and out of the group’s orbit (including bassist/graphic designer Brent “Killa-O” Olds, saxophonist Cocheme’a Gastelum, Cincinnati turntablist/producer Tobe “Tobotius” Donohue and Jazz giant Archie Shepp, who has used IsWhat?! for his backing band). 

Given the “collective” spirit of IsWhat?!, extended periods of inactivity are natural.

So when the question arises over lunch at Panera in Clifton about the four-year span between IsWhat?!’s last acclaimed album, 2009’s Big Appetite, and its exquisitely powerful new disc, Things That Go Bump in the Dark, Maddox offers a slightly unexpected answer.

“Besides touring Big Appetite, trying to get (the new) record done,” Maddox says of the time between releases. “Any time you’re doing something that you want to matter, it’s not an overnight process. It didn’t really seem like four years.”

Maddox began writing and recording Bump in the Dark within a year of the release of Big Appetite, so the new album represents a relatively solid three years of effort and, as Maddox likes to describe his albums, the latest chapter of his — and the band’s — lives. 

Like IsWhat?!’s previous releases, Bump in the Dark is a triumphant musical hybrid, blending Maddox’s consummate skills as an MC/beatboxer with Walker’s impeccable Jazz chops and sonorous narration and Drake’s percussive mastery. Add in the contributions of close to 20 other utility members of the IsWhat?! family and Bump in the Dark stands as the pinnacle of Maddox’s efforts to organically combine the visceral groove of Hip Hop and the cerebral flow of Free Jazz, with distinct elements of Rock and Soul flavoring the proceedings.

“It’s always been a ‘write-as-we-produce’ kind of process,” Maddox says. “Me and Jack will hook up and have a session or just talk and get some stuff down, and then I’ll head over to Tobe and he’ll say, ‘I think this is what you’re talking about, Nap.’ ”

“And he’ll say, ‘More or less,’ ” Donohue says with a laugh. “Napoleon has a real interesting mode of production. When he comes with ideas, it could be anything from a simple breakbeat loop to a really complex jam session that he’s going to nip and tuck little pieces out of. Even though it’s work in a digital world, it’s still a real analog process from his standpoint. The way he and Jack come up with stuff is not always the same writing methodology. It can come from different ways and there’s no expectation; you come up with a few things and play with it, it’s all real malleable. It’s a fun, surprising process.”

Hip Hop certainly lends itself well to the digital domain’s cut-and-paste mindset, but the fluid nature of Jazz might seem to be a harder fit in the context of IsWhat?!. Walker and Maddox have ready answers to the question of how the group melds the two concepts.

“No problem for me,” Walker says in the resonant voice at the center of so many great IsWhat?! tracks. “Music is music. I travel all kinds of genres. Jazz cats will ask me, ‘Why doesn’t this fit with that?’ And I say, ‘It does fit with that. It’s creativity. You’ve got to make it work.’ In my mind, it shouldn’t be a problem. If cats can’t make it work, I back off, you know?”

“For me, and for all of us, we have to make efforts to divorce (Jazz and Hip Hop) from each other,” Maddox says. “They’re so united and so married, it’s more natural for them to be connected than not connected. It’s a common question in interviews, ‘How did you come to merge these two?,’ and it’s like, ‘How did you come to not merge them?’ I’m not saying that in an aggressive, accusatory way, but it’s kind of, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ ”

The short answer is “everybody doesn’t,” certainly not in the manner that Maddox has developed for IsWhat?!.

Take musical influences, for example. Maddox, rather than relying on his predecessors for specific stylistic cues or reference points, tends to view music on a whole as a feeling and he works to duplicate that feeling in his own unique fashion. Likewise, his inspiration for writing songs is equally global in scope, something certainly augmented by the band’s consistent European touring presence. IsWhat?! spends far more time playing live shows and festivals overseas than in in the States, developing a particularly strong fan base in France. 

“Around the time the album was getting finished, it was 2012 and there was a lot of talk of, ‘This is it — when 2012 rolls around, it’s curtains,’ the Mayan calendar and everything,” Maddox says. “That whole apocalyptic vibe threw me back to when I was a kid. There have been many apocalypses coming up; the (Reagan-era) Star Wars issue, then Y2K, then 9/11 happened. I was just thinking how dark our circumstances are and how human beings take care of each other or fail to take care of each other. 

“I was on the road and seeing people in different cultures and countries dealing with their own versions of the problems we have here in the US. It gave me a lot to write about and think about and to contrast, to focus on the dark and say, ‘There’s something going on there and hopefully we can bump around and come up with some light, but there’s stuff going on out there that people aren’t talking about.’ ”


Things That Go Bump in the Dark below; click here to purchase on iTunes.

ISWHAT?! performs a rare, free hometown show this Friday at Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub .