There’s a dude in the corner of the room playing the piano. And doing it well. He’s putting down some soft and beautiful tinkling, like maybe he has a few Bill Evans or George Shearing records at home. It’s late in the afternoon and he’s making the place feel more like cocktail time at the Rainbow Room than happy hour at Kingston’s Keegan Ales, which is what it is, actually. Probably not what you’d expect from a mike-rocking hip-hop MC.
“I can fake it okay, I guess,” says a grinning Jarabe Del Sol, who, with his co-MCs Decora, Freeflowin, and Latin Translator and turntablist DJ H20, makes up Hudson Valley words-and-music crew ReadNex Poetry Squad. Further confounding expectations, perhaps, is the fact that Del Sol is actually a multi-instrumentalist: “I play guitar, too, but I’m more of a drummer,” adds the rapper known as Cuttz El Colombiano on the group’s early releases. “I was playing the drums before I could speak English.” For ReadNex, however, defying the general public’s perception of what it means to be a hip-hop band—and what hip-hop itself means—is par for the course. Heroically so.
Right from the group’s 2001 inception, when the members met as students at Middletown’s Orange County Community College during a campus open-mike night, ReadNex has been as much about effecting positive social change as it has been about music. The band is an out-and-out activist machine, for whose members art and progressive work are simply inseparable. Besides releasing three albums on the band’s own DeBefore label; playing on HBO Latino and at hallowed venues the Apollo Theater and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; touring the US, Canada, Europe, and Brazil; and performing regionally as a group and as individuals at spoken-word gigs, ReadNex maintains a packed itinerary of educational and public advocacy efforts. Along with steady appearances at benefit and awareness-raising events—the group was en route to a climate-control-themed affair at the time of its Chronogram interview, after having played a state education conference in Hew Hampshire the night before—examples of the outreach actions the outfit regularly organizes include food and clothing drives, inner-city farmers’ markets, youth-mentoring programs, and student-empowerment workshops. But because the media only likes to occasionally play up the odd cause-boosting but less-than-sincere photo op by splashy money men like P. Diddy or his swaggering gangsta peers, for many ReadNex’s steady regimen of altruistic endeavors will likely be another expectation-shattering revelation.
“Mahatma Ghandi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” quotes Decora, who, like his band mates, is a perpetual font of wisdom-bearing axioms. “There are four elements that make up hip-hop culture: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. We’ve added a fifth, ambiguous element, which is more personal and can be anything you want it to be. Not that you can’t do more than one thing, but for some people that extra element might be spoken word or poetry; for others it could be comedy. And for some it might be the kind of social change activities that we do.”
But with all this talk about ReadNex’s extracurricular doings, there’s the danger of taking the focus off its music—do so at your own risk, however. At a Kingston performance shortly after the release of the group’s second album, Social IssUes (DeBefore Records; reviewed in the December 2006 issue of Chronogram), the group was devastating, the four MCs stalking the stage and discharging their words with angry abandon while DJ H2O threw up a dense storm of sounds and beats behind them. Integral to the band’s studio sound has been its behind-the-scenes sixth member, producer Charlie “Fox” Graham, who’s been on board almost since the beginning. “I would see them play at the open mikes back in 2001 and their energy was just amazing,” Graham recalls. “We ended up doing a demo and then the first album [2004’s F.O.S.S.L., also DeBefore], and things just kept going. As far as I know they’re one of the first groups to apply such eclectic styles to the music. Especially on [new album] Day before Sound (DeBefore), which has rock, Latin, reggae, folk, and world music, along with hip-hop, house, and spoken word.”
With its alchemical, psychedelic blend, Day before Sound holds such provocative tracks as Del Sol’s eerily prescient—in light of the Gulf oil spill—ecology commentary “Deaf Ears Can’t Be Environmentally Sound” and Freeflowin’s flamenco guitar-laced lover letter to the music that freed her mind and allowed everything else to follow, “When Life Gives You Capital-ism Choose Hip-Hop.” But it’s with the record’s power-packed closer, “Be Dif’Rent,” that the band has waxed a new anthem for young outsiders, one that aims to let them know they’re not alone and that it’s okay to be, yes, different. Over a loud and relentlessly throbbing electro-pulse, the MCs trade rhymes sure to resonate with any disaffected or inner-city kid who hears them: “This is for the Chinese-Dominican with the cinnamon-colored hair / This is for the Puerto Rican on the weekend lookin’ to express his poetry through guitar / This is for the black kid in the moshpit with the Mohawk / the white kid in the rhyme circle with the ’frohawk / This is for the IED-ADD’s / on the way to GED / Low test scores and didn’t take your SAT / Yellow, purple, black, or brown / growin’ up with no cops around / Gun clappin’ was the sound / that put you to sleep.” The group recently completed a video for the song, to be released this month.