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Hypnotic Brass Ensemble interview: Black Star changed MC'in
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Hypnotic Brass Ensemble interview: Black Star changed MC'in

Ben Smith spoke to Hypnotic Brass Ensemble about their continual inventiveness, imitators of their sound, the impact of Black Star and more.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 10th Oct 2016

Image: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble 

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble share a closer bond than most musical collectives; seven members are the sons of jazz trumpet virtuoso and composer Kelan Phil Cohran - most famously an integral part of Sun Ra Arkestra.

The eighth and final piece is their drummer; together they're a band of brothers defying the notion of genre conformities by blazing a trail of jazz, hip hop and funk sensibilities - and weaving in influences of world music. 

Torn from the streets of Chicago, the troupe have worked alongside artists ranging from Mos Def to Erykah Badu and Prince. The similarities they share with all of these artists is that they too have forged their own path, opting to continually explore the chemistry of their instruments to break new boundaries. 

More recently they collaborated with MathMan of The Animators for the Hyp Hop EP, relaying Hypnotic Brass's thirst to stylistically venture - if you consider their record previous - Sound Rhythm and Form - was cast in more familiar mesmerising jazz territory without vocal intervention. 

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Ahead of their upcoming UK shows, Ben Smith spoke to the band about their continual inventiveness, the influence of Black Star and the logistical impact of operating unsigned.   

You are revered for your thirst to reinvent and evolve, what creative desires went into ‘Sound Rhythm and Form’?

In 2015, we released two singles 'Straight Business' and 'What It Is' - both hip hop style songs. For Sound Rhythm and Form we wanted to revisit our instrumental roots. We wanted to record a jazz record. We have always avoided labeling our music as jazz or hip hop or anything. We feel we encompass all genres of music.

But for Sound Rhythm and Form we wanted to explore what it would look like if reached in that direction. So we didn't shy away labeling our creative expression on this project as "jazz".

Did you construct the album to be consumed in a particular environment or to appeal to a cross-section of your audience? 

Yes, we had captured a certain audience already with hip hop releases that we had put out. We didn't want to forget about our fans that just wanted to hear music free of lyrics and vocals. So yeah, we want jazz fans to appreciate this project 

What informed the decision to hook up with MathMan for the Hyp Hop EP? 

MathMan is a good friend of ours and we had discussed doing something together for a while now. The opportunity presented itself and we just said yeah, lets do it. As well, this was a good outlet for our hip hop sensibilities. We really enjoyed doing it.

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Your scheduled shows with Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def are somewhat unprecedented in the UK, how privileged are you to be part of that? 

Immeasurably. Yasiin is our brother. He was very integral in helping people to feel what we were doing. He put a stamp of approval on us that really helped us go places and for that he will always be one of the bros. We are privileged to rock with him. 

Can you remember the first time you heard ‘Black Star, what impact did it have on you?

Wow! We where still in Chicago, one song comes to mind - 'Brownskinned Lady'. That was such an infectious song, then there was 'Respiration'. The whole album really was amazing. The lyrics to 'Theives In the Night'...  

Black Star changed the way MC's approached MCing, really, they weren't pretending to be something that they weren't. They were authentic.

That had a huge impact on us, because we were horn players and in Chicago and the whole city was on a completely different frequency. We had to muster a lot of courage to choose to be musicians when everybody was rapping. Even though we rapped as well, we chose a unique path.

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I’ve seen you mention that there are imitators of your sound, do you see that as a compliment to you, or a dissatisfaction to the art form and possibilities of music?  

We have 'passionate' conversations amongst ourselves about this. On the one hand you've got those of us that appreciate the flattery and realize that you can't stop them anyway. On the other hand you have those that say we found our own lane so everyone should at least do that.

At the end of the day, we all influence one another. If someone is inspired by what we do then we are happy to have added to the world around us. There's really nothing else to it.

Despite your success as a band, you continue to operate unsigned. Do you think labels are too controlling of creative freedoms?

In the beginning, we needed to be independent largely, because we were creating music that didn't necessarily have a genre. We were forging a new path so to speak. But we have always worked in conjunction with different labels and companies.

At the end of the day, labels have to do their job (monetize the music). So it's incumbent on the artist to "help" them do that in every way possible. Sometimes that does mean infringing on an artist creative control, it's no secret. But that's what comes along with that method of operating.

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What impact of not having the financial backing of a label have you experienced as a band?

That's huge. We've been the investors on virtually all of our projects.  We executive produce and produce the records. We make all the decisions but we also pay all the costs.

It's really just the difference between having a bigger budget and just being resourceful with what you've got. Sometimes issues arise that require deeper pockets and we are simply made better business men by having to overcome the challenge.

You’ve collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Prince, Gorillaz and released some fantastic albums, what more is there to achieve for Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? 

There's always new places to go with this music, we're excited to see what new opportunites will present themselves in the future. We will be releasing a couple projects in 2017 so the stage is already set for a vibrant display in the near future.  

Secure Hypnotic Brass Ensemble ticket below: 

Liverpool - The Magnet, Wednesday 12th October

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Manchester - Gorilla, Thursday 13th October 

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Leeds - HiFi CLub, Saturday 15th October 

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Like this? Read our GoGo Penguin interview 

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