IsWhat?!: Things That Go Bump In the Dark

Dec 17, 2013

Iswhat?! is MC Napoleon Maddox and saxophonist Jack Walker

How many hip-hop albums have you listened to recently that contained freestyle performed in French - or that combined heavy bass-drop with samples of birdsong?

Before you can begin to address the album "Things That Go Bump In the Dark" by IsWhat?!, you must first throw away any preconceived notions of what a hip-hop album is or what 'urban' music is -- because the aesthetic of this album lies somewhere between beatnik coffee-house poetry-jams and late-night dance club after-parties.

IsWhat?! is the team-up of MC Napoleon Maddox and Jack Walker on saxophone -- a duo that almost-musique calls "a sort of a spacio-temporal rendezvous between Charles Mingus and Public Enemy."  The album "Things That Go Bump in the Dark" is the fourth full-length release from the duo and features a huge roster of notable musicians performing on traditional jazz instruments paired with samples, turntables and heart-wrenching poetry performance.  

Listed on the inside sleeve of the CD package you'll find names that read like a who's-who of hip-hop, jazz and R&B musicians, such as Hamid Drake on drums and percussion [Herbie Hancock], Cocheme’a Gastelum on alto sax [Paul Simon, Amy Winehouse], Claire Daly on baritone sax [James Brown, Aretha Franklin] as well as Tobe Donohue on turntables [Bootsy Collins].  

The final mixing and mastering on "Things That Go Bump In the Dark" was performed by the legendary award-winning producer Bob Power , who has worked with the likes of The Roots, Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Macy Gray, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, KRS-One, Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones and Run DMC, just to name a few.

In reviewing this recording, I'm not going to begin to pretend that I know anything about what it is like to be a person of color living in the 21st century (or any century for that matter.)  However, as pedestrian as it may sound, I simply know what I like when I hear it.  There are thirteen tracks on this album and they could not possibly be any more divergent from each other.  The sound ranges from semi-traditional rap to Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam verse to beat-poet jazz riffs.

The track that strikes me as having the most conventional hip-hop/rap sound is "Meant Somethin'" but even this breaks down the barriers of the genre's norm because the lyrics belong to a higher echelon of writing.  There's a nobility in the poetry that comes from it not being derogatory and not being used to tear down others but rather in serving to elevate one's self.  This gives power to the language.  It is as if, in the creation of "Things That Go Bump In the Dark," Maddox and Walker listened to the music of their peers and realized, "We can do that; but we're better than that."

Fans of the "Jazz With OT" program on WVXU will appreciate the nod Maddox and Walker give to OT with the piece "Tread Well."  Including this song on the album gives evidence that they possess a deep awareness of their roots, not only musically and lyrically but regionally as well.

A very poignant moment of the recording comes in "The Good Fight."  The track begins with what sounds like a man talking to his television set while watching a prize fight.  However, the perspective quickly switches and the words being delivered could be taken as a deeply personal message of empowerment, perseverance and of believing in one's self.  In many places throughout the album, Maddox directly addresses himself with questions that then are turned back on the listener to become a deeply introspective shared moment between performer and audience. 

I think what makes this album most successful is that, in the end, it not about black and white, it is not about hip-hop or jazz.  This album is universal, it is cosmopolitan and primarily, it is human.

There are so many moments of brilliance in this collection that it would be impossible to highlight them all without simply playing the entire album for you.  The listening experience for "Things That Go Bump In the Dark" must, therefore, be an incredibly personal one.  The album will touch each person differently because each human being will come to it with their own unique perspective on life, the universe and everything.

With that being said, there is a singularly special moment on the album that outshines all the others. Toward the end of the 2nd track, entitled "WTF,"  the heavy, adult voice gives way to that of a child who tells a haunting, dark story of a violent shooting.  That instant alone made me fall deeply in love with this album and place it on heavy-rotation in my personal music collection.

"Things That Go Bump In the Dark" by IsWhat?! is available at Rock, Paper, Scissors and on iTunes.