Hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon

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The Grammy-nominated musician explains his mission of unifying cultures through music and closes the show with a performance of a track from his new CD.

With an eclectic blend of classical, jazz and hip-hop arrangements, Christylez Bacon's music is an example of socially conscious hip-hop. He also multi-tasks between such instruments as the West African djembe drum and acoustic guitar, while continuing the oral tradition of storytelling through lyrics. The pioneering Grammy nominee was the first hip-hop artist named as an Artist-in-Residence at the Music Center at Strathmore and the first to be featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Bacon grew up in Washington, DC and was exposed early to a wide variety of music. He played in his middle school drumline and studied at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts.


Tavis: Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon got his start on street corners in his hometown of Washington, D.C., drumming on buckets because he couldn’t afford a drumkit.

Since those days he’s performed at the National Cathedral and was commissioned by the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to create a concert for a 12-piece orchestra.

You can hear his exceptional talent on a new CD. It’s titled “Hip-Hop Unplugged.” He’ll close our show tonight with a performance of a cut from that album, called “It’s the Beatbox.”

You do not want to – I love this track. I love it and I want you to hear it. Christylez, good to have you on this program.

Christylez Bacon: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: You’re rocking that red jacket, brother.

Bacon: Hey, thank you.

Tavis: Everybody can’t do that. Everybody can’t do that. (Laughter) Tell me about this name, “Christylez.”

Bacon: Christylez, Christylez, well I feel like the hardest thing for an MC is to come up with a pseudonym for yourself. How do you describe yourself and how you want to come into the world?

So I didn’t do it, and my mentor at the time, while I was in seventh grade, he was just jokingly coming up with different names for me. He was, “Oh, I got this idea,” and it’d be “Chris styles.” But when you get it, it’s like “Chris’s style,” with a Z. He was like, “That’s hot.” Then he was like, “No, I’m kidding.” I was like, definitely took that one down.

Tavis: I like that. So it worked.

Bacon: And Bacon’s my last name, which people think is a pseudonym. But yeah, Bacon’s my last name.

Tavis: Bacon really is your last name.

Bacon: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So tell me, I alluded to it a moment ago; tell me about growing up in D.C. and having obviously what we now know as a prodigious talent, but trying to find the way in.

Bacon: Well it was always interesting, because we didn’t really have the tools, the standard tools to create the music, but we always found a way to make something out of nothing.

So in this case, if we couldn’t afford the drumset, we had to either (makes sound) become the drumset –

Tavis: Do some more of that. (Laughter) Give me a little more of that. Give me a little more of that.

Bacon: (Laughs) All right. (Vocalizes beatbox) You know what I’m saying, a little fade-out.

Tavis: I love it. (Laughter)

Bacon: So you either become the drumset, or you find some other things to make it work. So in this case it was the buckets and the trash cans, and we would do what’s now really similar to the West African drum circles.

Instead of djembes, though, we’re using these buckets and trash cans, and we’re doing a style of music that’s indigenous to Washington, D.C., go-go. We’ll do that. So it was like not having style, but you still created something.

Tavis: I lived in D.C. for five years –

Bacon: Hey.

Tavis: – when I was starting my TV career years ago on BET. I was there for five years, every night, and had a chance to get to know and hang out a little bit with Chuck Brown.

Bacon: The man.

Tavis: Who is the king of D.C. go-go. (Laughter)

Bacon: Oh, yeah. Oh, you know it, you know it.

Tavis: So did you ever get a chance to hang out with Chuck Brown?

Bacon: Oh my goodness. So –

Tavis: “I feel like busting loose.”

Bacon: Exactly.

Tavis: Busting loose.

Bacon: So with Chuck Brown, I got the opportunity to open for him at the Music Center at Strathmore, where I was an artist in residence, and I really came up out of that and really started my career.

So the people there, they knew that they was going to do a go-go event, and they had Chuck Brown doing it. So they suggested that I open. The manager was like, “Oh, I was thinking of him too.” So I got a chance to meet him backstage and talk to him just for a bit.

But I grew up listening to his music as a Washingtonian. His music is the soundtrack of the spring and summer. People would drive through the streets with the windows down, playing go-go.

Tavis: How would you describe D.C. go-go for those who have not heard it, but heard it and didn’t know that’s what they were listening to?

Bacon: Oh man. So go-go, like hip-hop, it’s folk music, because we’re getting everyone involved in go-go. It has call-and-response just like the music in Africa you can find all over the place.

It’s like a cousin of funk music, but it’s its own thing. It uses conga patterns that are like arranged a little differently from Latin American music, over a type of funk music, call-and-response, and it’s just a groove.

The music starts at the beginning of the concert, and it don’t stop until the concert is over. So it’s just funky, and a lot of call-and-response, so we’re getting people involved. It’s not a (unintelligible) listening experience.

Tavis: This project is called “Hip-Hop Unplugged,” your latest.

Bacon: Yes.

Tavis: You describe your work as “progressive hip-hop.” What do you mean by that?

Bacon: So progressive hip-hop, meaning I’m taking traditional elements of hip-hop – beatboxing and rhyming – and I’m pushing it outside of its original cultural context and bringing in different cultures, different genres of music as a means of creating a safe space for people to come together and, like, witness each other’s humanities.

Cultural acceptance and unification through music is basically the mission of what I do and what I’m doing with hip-hop.

Tavis: When you say “a safe space,” that wasn’t lost on me, because when I hear you say safe space, part of what I connect that to is the humanity in your lyrical content, which is something that we don’t get enough of today, in my judgment, in hip-hop, writ large.

There are certainly artists who do that, but how important has it been and how many opportunities have you turned down because the humanity was not at the epicenter of the lyrical content?

Bacon: Oh, man. Well some people who hit me up for collaboration, I’m like, “That’s not it right there,” because it’s like that space where I don’t want a senior to feel uncomfortable, or I don’t want a kid or anybody in between.

I want everyone to be able to come in and experience the art, and know hip-hop as an art. So yeah, you have to closely curate the things that you’re doing.

Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, this song you’re going to perform at the close of our show tonight is called “It’s the Beatbox.” That’s track number one on this new project, “Hip-Hop Unplugged.”

Track number two, though, is called, speaking of children, “Children Album Gangsta.” Tell me about this track.

Bacon: Well “Children Album Gangsta,” it came out of this experience of doing an album that got nominated for a Grammy in 2010, “Banjo to Beatbox,” where I collaborated with my good friends Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. They do bluegrass and traditional folk music.

So we mixed these two different styles together, hip-hop, folk music, and bluegrass, and released it as a family album, a children’s album. It got nominated best musical album for children.

So I’m in schools doing a lot of performances there, and I have an educational component to what I do, so I’m always in schools, performing. So you hear on the other end, being a hip-hop artist, hip-hop is supposed to be this and it’s supposed to exist inside of this one limited and narrow space, right?

How people view hip-hop. So I can’t be in the schools and out here at the same time. So it’s about navigating both of those spaces. I could go in a bar and I could be noticed for some stuff like, “Oh, yeah, my kid loves your album.”

It’s just like, that’s what the first verse is about, just traversing both experiences and how those have made me a better person.

Tavis: You can walk in any bar in D.C. or anyplace else, for that matter, in the nation’s capital – I’ve done this any number of times over the years – and you are known, you are beloved, you are celebrated. You’re like a star all over the nation’s capital.

Bacon: No. (Laughs)

Tavis: How does it feel, though, to be so committed to the humanity in your lyrical content and in some way – I want to be generous and charitable in how I say this – you are not as well-known, as appreciated, as I think you should be.

I think that’s coming for you, because your stuff is undeniable. You’re just that great an artist, and the audience will see that in just a second. He’s a bad boy, so you don’t want to miss this.

But how does it feel to – do you ever wonder how much farther along you would be if you weren’t so PG in your stuff? That’s my word, not yours.

Bacon: Do I ever wonder – I never actually wonder that, because I’m about doing this specific work, saying my goal at the end of the day isn’t just to get ahead, or I’m not really chasing fame.

But I’m more like trying to unite people together, bring people together and have our world looking like “Star Trek’s” first season, you know what I’m saying, everybody on the bridge. (Laughter) You’re like, “Oh, yeah,” like, “What is that?” “Oh, that’s a Klingon. He cool, though.” You know? (Laughter)

So it’s like I have work that I’m interested in, I have a mission, and I’m right there. So it just is what it is, and people will come along when they come along.

Tavis: And you’re okay with the pace of us catching up with you?

Bacon: Oh, man, well, I appreciate y’all. Everything within time, I say.

Tavis: I’m anxious to hear this. I’ve already heard it, but I’ve never heard it in person, so I want to hear him do his thing on our stage tonight. You’ll hear him as well in just a moment.

The new project from Christylez Bacon – got to love that name – Christylez Bacon, the project is called “Hip-Hop Unplugged.” In a moment he’ll perform track number one. It’s called “It’s the Beatbox.”

Bacon: Hey.

Tavis: “It’s the Beatbox.” (Laughter) Christylez, good to have you on this program, man.

Bacon: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Congratulations on all your success. So Christylez is coming now with “It’s the Beatbox.” I will say, then, good night, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. Here comes Christylez.

[Begin live musical performance.]

Christylez Bacon: (Rapping, beatboxing) It’s the beatbox, it’s the beatbox, the human beatbox. Now I could walk down the street and always have a drum with me. I play it at the shows and they say it sounds pretty.

For some strange reason not everybody can see it. I play what I’m singing and I’m (unintelligible). I’ve even got a sound like – and a sound like – if you put them both together then it’s (beatboxing).

It took a lot of practice and it started as a hobby, and now I got 20 different drums in my body. It’s the beatbox. It’s the beatbox. The human beatbox. Now I can make people groove cause it sounds so smooth, with the (beatboxing). And then bring it back (beatboxing) rapping. I could keep it going ’cause it’s cool like that.

The beatbox has started, let’s say, in the ’80s, people heard the sounds with the mouth and said it’s crazy. And you can make the sounds with the letters in the alphabet, like Bs and Ps and t-t-tTs and other things, from clock sounds and doorbell rings.

You see, the beatboxer uses all types of things. Now we can make it go fast or make it go slow, it’s so versatile that we can make it do both. (Beatboxing) It’s the beatbox, it’s the beatbox. The human beatbox.

Now we all have a million drums that’s inside our chests, but be careful when you use them, you could run out of breath. Now I can easily cough and throw the beatbox off, but mix the beat with the cough and the problem is solved. (Beatboxing, coughing)

It’s the beatbox, it’s the beatbox. The human beatbox. Let’s get a drum (unintelligible). (Beatboxing) Let’s fade it out like a old-school record.

[End live musical performance] (Applause)

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm