The DownBeat Keys: A New Kind of Hip-Hop for the ‘Cac to Be Proud Of
Who: The Downbeat Keys, Hamilton College’s Quintet Rap Group, joined by Sarah and Ale
What: This was originally an interview, but it appears to have become a concert review and overall band review based on outside factors that include but are not limited to: popularity, adoring fans, food, and alcohol.
When/Where: June 23, Church, Boston, MA
Expectations: Here’s the thing – I love music. I love listening to music, finding good music, making playlists for each and every mood. I write for Camelback Music and once ran my own music blog that In the ‘Cac’s Jay wrote for. I bounce from Raekwon (my favorite rapper) to Jack’s Mannequin and make it all the way around to Madeaux (chill, EDM inspired underwater pop). I also happen to be very picky about production, lyrics, and general ambience, though. So when I offered to review The Downbeat Keys, I have to admit, I was a little worried. Five guys playing live music to accompany a rapper. When I think of live music and hip hop or rap, I think of The Roots or Common. And anyway, who needs more college rappers? Pretty much beginning with Sam Adams, we’ve had our fair share of kids who think they can make it from their prep school or university. But I asked some of my Hamilton friends about DBK, and they were completely raving about them, and I got a nice vibe from the various YouTube videos I watched, and determined that it was Saturday night in Somerville, and there would probably be not much else exciting to do. I grabbed my friend Ale, who was nice enough to co-author this with me, and we headed down near Fenway to Church of Boston. I’d heard of the venue, but had never been; it’s a restaurant with a lounge/club that hosts events 4-5 nights a week. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a guest list, but the feeling you get when you roll into a place because you know you’re supposed to be there is great. I showed the bouncer my ID and he got all confused, wondering if my last name was Brolins or **alins. This was to become a joke with the guys of DBK, but in all honesty, it seems my Twitter handle (follow me at @sbrolins) is sticking. Anyway, the bar was great, and the crowd slowly became a solid diverse group of college students, kids who had just graduated college, and some adults (and parents of band members). It wasn’t super crowded, but it certainly wasn’t empty. We settled in with a cocktail before I finally warmed up enough to approach the band and tell them I’d be hanging out in the back after their set.
Concert: According to Ale, she “loved the Downbeat Keys.” That’s a solid summary. The group’s origin is pure college: the fearsome five some (had to do it) was born in order to be eligible for a music contest at Hamilton College in New York. Some of the guys played together in a jazz band, MC Simile (a.k.a. Sim), the front man, wanted to rap and was looking for a group, and other guys just tagged along. Their high energy and cohesiveness totally worked, and they started performing at parties. In 2009, the group released the EP Invisible Ink, and toured East Coast Colleges and even got a music video out or “I Don’t Remember” that won the first ever “Most Bitchin’” award at the Finger Lakes Film Festival. They were featured on the Record Crate Music Blog as 2009′s Unsigned Act of the Year. And I’m wondering, now that I’m reading this stuff online, why they don’t have more awards.
The band is totally organic. Baldwin, the keyboardist, discussed their creation process, saying, “Most of our stuff comes from us jamming.” Someone can bring in the hook, or an idea for the chorus, and they layer and construct until an awesome song comes together. It’s evident how talented each musician is if you listen carefully or watch closely. Andrew’s on top of the bass, coolly interacting with other members of the band on stage and jamming out while Cal and Jared, the drummer and guitarist/occasional saxophonist, keep up the funky and entertaining beat and melody. DBK had this really smooth mix of jazz, funk, and classic rock in the midst of a solid rap bass beat and drum technique. And that’s what makes the unique as musicians – they are able to keep up this awesome energy and vibe while playing live with a sweet vocalist/rapper. Not many people can do that, but they sure as hell can.
In terms of lyrical content and overall vocals, I was pleasantly surprised by the stretches that Sim made – he could sweep the song with a soul inspired chorus or melodic vocal, and then go hard and heavy (albeit calm and cool as a cucumber) while rapping. I was also impressed by his lyrics. I caught some references from Snoop Dogg (the most obvious is from “The Children”), Biggie, and Clipse. Ale, in particular, picked up on some lyrical genius moves. “I think their lyrics reflect the spirit and vibe of the people of the NESCAC. Comfortably and colloquially, they will just as easily and smoothly rap about last night (Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about/ I want to see you with the lights out) as well as cover issues of social justice, and more complex concerns about our place in the world (It seems like our generation is plagued with the mentality/ that someone else will clean it up but in reality/ you’re wrong/ silly consumer in this game you’re just a pawn). In true NESCAC form, you’ll hear lyrics with social commentary as well as some catchy hooks about daily life. She asked Sim about his ability to switch topics, and he said: “It’s pretty natural…it’s what we talk about in college. You’ll chill party with your friends, but you’ll get into these discussions too.”
Concert Afterglow: This was an incredibly entertaining show. Ale and I bounced to the music, bobbed our heads, and jammed out. While it may not have been the type of hip hop to dance to, it definitely gets your blood going and your body moving, and your spirits up. At one point, Sim had brought up a friend to rap with him, and the crowd was totally into it and I think at one point Ale and I bumped hips. After the set was done, Ale and I hopped to the bar order some food (awesome truffle fries that I convinced Baldwin to order) and wait for the band to say hi to their friends and family before meeting us. By the time we all met up, there were various girls with cameras and about five drinks gone per each person. We partied, we spoke in Spanish, and we casually discussed music and influences. Sim’s favorite rapper: Kanye West. Andrew learned Spanish while abroad in Argentina, and is the only member with a girlfriend. Baldwin played pop music on the piano rather than classical, and…Jared and Cal were too busy partying (or maybe I was) for me to really remember what went down over in that end. They were really nice guys; Ale spoke with Sim for about 15 minutes as I chatted with Baldwin about how they came up with the music and who wrote the lyrics. Every few minutes another band member would come into the conversation and we’d chill until another adoring fan came and took them away. Ale and I left the venue and traveled back to Tufts, really getting into the importance of lyrical content and how talented each member was as a musician. And how awesome they were.
Recommendation?!: Absofuckinglutely. We’re in college on this site, so I have no problem cursing it out here. As Sim said, “It’s free, and I love free shit.” Preview the songs below, and hit the download link to get that free shit. Also, take a look at their Facebook page for more info on concerts, tours, and upcoming songs!