Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

(Above:  “The Sixth Sense”  – A classic joint from a classic album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Trumpet player Hermon Mehari of Diverse kept a copy of Common’s landmark hip hop album “Like Water for Chocolate” in his car for two years, but it wasn’t until he saw Les Izmore at the Czar Bar in January that he knew what he wanted to do with it.

The idea was as ambitious as the album Mehari wanted to celebrate: to combine the jazz chops of Diverse with Izmore’s hip hop style. Both outfits are staples of the local music scenes that rarely overlap.

“The people in the jazz scene often worry why people don’t go out, but the truth is some people don’t have a reason to go to Jardine’s or the Blue Room,” Mehari said. “Likewise, a lot of people may never have been to a hip hop show before. Hopefully this will give everyone a reason to get out more.”

Izmore frequently performs both on his own and with the Afro-beat collective Hearts of Darkness. Diverse made a big splash on the jazz scene when Bobby Watson unveiled the combo in 2008. They kept the momentum alive with a self-titled debut the following year and several high-profile shows and collaborations.

“Diverse has wanted to do a cross-genre collaboration for a while,” Melhari said. “I heard Les that night and was impressed. Could to tell from Les’ rhythms he liked all of that.”

By “all of that” Mehari means Common, Black Star, the Roots and the other members of the late-‘90s New Native Tongues movement in hip hop. The low-key faction turned their backs on the hard, gangsta stance of the moment to focus on socially conscious lyrics backed with soulful or jazz-influenced production.

“Hermon pretty much said he want to link up in the future,” Izmore said. “I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know he already had an idea. When he brought up ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ I was like hell yeah. That’s one of my favorite albums ever.”

On Friday, March 19, Izmore and Diverse will collaborate and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Like Water For Chocolate” at the Czar Bar.

That album’s music, there’s no album with the sound like they have,” Izmore said. “That was my way into (Afro-beat legend) Fela (Kuti) because (his son) Femi is on there. That album can get you into so much stuff. You have the jazz guys, the hip hop, DJ Premier, Jill Scott. It’s a who’s who of that time. These are some of the best artists of their time.”

The “Like Water for Chocolate” roster also includes jazz trumpet player Roy Hargrove, rappers Mos Def and Slum Village, DJ Premier, Black Thought, Rahzel and Questlove from the Roots, soul singers D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Bilal and future Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo. Producer James Yancey, or J Dilla, a longtime friend of Common’s who had worked with A Tribe Called Quest, tied all the elements together.

In keeping with the spirit of the album, Izmore and Diverse will have a few friends on hand to help them out as well. Hearts of Darkness singer Brandy Gordon will take on all the female vocal parts, and Lee Langston will stand in for D’Angelo, Bilal and Cee-Lo. Local MCs Reach and Vertigone also help out.

“We will definitely keep the jazz tradition and hip hop tradition of improve and freestyle alive,” Izmore said. “We’re not going to do the album straight through, and we might even skip a song or two. We want to leave a lot of room for improv.”

As an MC who grew up with the album, Izmore said he needed little preparation for the show. Diverse had the tougher job translating and arranging the record’s sounds and textures.

“We all expected this show to be harder than jazz shows because of a lot of the intricacies,” Mehari said. “Some of the things you have to do goes against the nature of a jazz musician. Like in jazz there are usually a lot of changes, but here because of the loops you have to find ways to be creative within that repetition.”

Izmore and Diverse worked out their parts separately, then rehearsed together in the weeks leading up to the performance.

“When I first heard them I was ecstatic,” Izmore said. “I knew it was going to be a fun night, because they got it down. It doesn’t sound like jazz players doing hip hop.”

Mehari said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction in the jazz community.

“When Diverse played a house party at 57th and Ward Parkway, people there asked me what we had coming up,” Mehari said. “I wouldn’t have expected them to get excited, but they did.”

With its socially conscious poetry, innovative rhythms and intricate rhymes, Mehari said “Like Water For Chocolate” forced him to grow as an artist. Now he’s hoping to use the album to expand the horizon’s of Kansas City’s music community.

“This is how the scene grows,” Mehari continued. “I think people are too reliant on fans. I think it’s our job as artists to take things higher.”

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KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

(Above: Supernatural takes on Juice in one of the most famous MC battles of all time.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Practice is vital but when it comes to rapping, nothing improves skills like a live, trial-by-fire MC battle. This weekend, several rappers will have a chance to compete for money.

The third annual Versus Emcee and Beat Battle goes down Saturday night at the Record Bar, 1020 Westport Road. A pre-battle show will be held tonight at the Riot Room.

“Battles are how you prove yourself and show how far your skills have developed,” said Clarence Draper, who goes by the MC name Vertigone. “This is also a way for people who aren’t actively involved in the scene or new to the area to get up and connect and get involved.”

The contest is open to the first 16 MCs who sign up. Draper encouraged them to arrive between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The winner will take home $500.

“This is first-come, first-served, so they need to be there early,” he said. “Plus people should come out to see the beat battle.”

In the beat battle, six DJs will use their own equipment and go head- to-head in six rounds that include using a common sample to create distinct productions.

Draper said the final evening will resemble the battle scenes in “8 Mile” but without scripts. Everything that comes off the stage must be spontaneous.

“At Versus we reward the freestyle,” Draper said, “which is the most pure idea of the MC not having anything and being ready to rhyme.”

Draper practices his freestyles during his normal routine, incorporating things he sees, such as traffic signals, into rhymes.

“The socially conscious stuff I do on my albums is not going to win you any battles,” he said with a laugh. “I practice all the time how to rhyme, which words work together. I focus mainly on two-syllable words like ‘eventually’ and ‘century.’ It’s not all ‘cat’ and ‘hat.’”

MC Les Izmore, who releases albums on his own and performs as part of Hearts of Darkness, participated in last year’s Versus battle. For him, the night is more about building his skills than beating others.

“I know a lot of people practice their freestyle, but I’m not prepping,” Izmore said. “(Last year) was a thrill. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I may not know the person I’m up against, but I’m there to challenge myself as an MC.”

Although boasts and insults are a large part of the battle repertoire, presentation plays a large role. In other words, sweat the technique.

“Battling is more than insulting people. You have to have style and swagger to how you do it,” Draper said. “You have to work the crowd as much as your opponent. When someone says something that sways the crowd, you have to win them back.”

While the Versus battle is only in its third year, its tradition runs deep in Kansas City. During the city’s jazz heyday, musicians would spar in ‘head cutting’ contests nearly every night in the 18th and Vine District.

“I’ve been at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and seen the musicians, all of them were just in this mood, this groove,” Draper said. “And then they started jumping off of that with solos, each person trying to outdo the other. It’s the same thing we’re trying to do in a freestyle.”

Vertigone and his friend Raymond “Kartoon” Hardy hosted the initial Versus battle because they felt there was a void in the community after the demise of the successful Mic Mechanics battles in Lawrence.

“Battle rhyming starts out under the street lights and on the corners in the neighborhood,” Draper said. “Eventually you get tired of that and want to take on other people. We are trying to keep this going for anyone who doesn’t have an outlet. It’s as much about social networking as anything.”

Izmore has one final word of advice for everyone joining him onstage this weekend.

“When I was up there (onstage last year), I could feel a ton of raw energy,” he said. “You gotta make sure to come with your best, because you don’t know what will come up next time.”