The new album from the Durham super group, The Beast, is straight fire. Your options? You can either take my word for it, wait for the album to drop, or get your buns to MotorCo Music Hall this Friday night July 7th to hear the album debut in person.
The group, which features Durham Mayoral Candidate, emcee Pierce Freelon, along with drummer Stephen Coffman, keyboardist Eric Hirsh, and bassist Peter Kimosh, has been making music for nearly a decade. This album has been a work in progress for nearly half of that time.
I had a chance to talk to Freelon and Hirsh last week before their upcoming show and album release.
The Beast has long been regarded as supremely talented, but occasionally accused of lacking an edge or identifying characteristic. They are often compared to jazz/hip-hop fusions like The Digable Planets and Luscious Jackson. And while these comparisons are fair musically, they seemed to point out the heights The Beast could reach, rather than the levels they had already achieved.
While it has been more than five years since The Beast released a new album, they haven’t simply been sitting in the lab, isolated, working on new tracks. Instead they have been doing a series of residencies, ala The Beatles in Hamburg. First at the now dearly departed Jack Spratt in Chapel Hill, and most recently on the rooftop of The Durham Hotel on East Chapel Hill Street in Durham
Freelon and Hirsh told me these residencies are crucial and formative. They described the Jack Spratt era as seminal. They love the intimacy. They love the audience engagement. They delight in the opportunity to work with fellow artists. Their work has made a leap which both reflects their joy in the process and the intensity of their practice. Freelon and Hirsh credit this, at least in part, to the crucible of live performance.
Freelon said in no uncertain terms, “Storytellers expose the truth.”
The emcee and the band are the vessel, he said, but the song, the lyrics, and the music are the message.
Because they have been working on this album intensely for the last three years, Freelon noted it was inevitably shaped by the events of recent history and politics. He mentioned Amendment I in North Carolina, which summarily and unconstitutionally banned gay marriage in our state. He recalled with frustration HB 2, the Bathroom Bill, which made our state a national laughingstock and a focal point for bigotry and hatred. Freelon also talked about the Black Lives Matter movement which, he said, undoubtedly shaped their thinking and consciousness.
However, he noted political consciousness wasn’t new to the band. It was embedded in the music of their earlier albums. Freelon and Hirsh urged me to listen to a tune called “Professor X” from their 2009 album Silence Fiction.
And indeed the song says, “Stop lying…You are black wherever you are…[we need] People ready to teach the class [along with] People ready to beat some ass…all we can do is stand tall…what do we do when we don’t have an option to fall?”
And the next track on the album, “Where is the Light” quotes Gandhi, Dr. King, and Obama about being the change we wish to see in the world.
While the message is there, the tone feels light, especially compared to new tracks on Woke like “Captain America” where a clearly emotional Freelon relates an alternate history to the one told in our high school textbooks.
them little European immigrants was too weak to survive in the Americas
they lacked the strength knowledge and the stamina
to handle harsh conditions from Savannah to Panama
so they created the super-serum experiment
to see if they could make them a superhuman American
invaded Africa shooting humans and selling them
to make some capital they was filling schooners with melanin
they concocted the serum from black blood
tobacco and cotton markets profited from the drug
it was like a shot of adrenaline
enhanced reflexes, strength, speed, agility
Black Americans transformed the economy
and a world superpower grew from them weak ass colonies
the experiment exceed their goals
feening for war they easily defeated their foes
killed the indigenous called them villains with no souls
while they claimed their independence on billions of Red skulls…
The powerful song concludes with Pierce Freelon bellowing:
Malcolm X he was [gun-shot sound] in America
it feels like any minute I’ll be capped in America
MLK was capped in America
Trayvon was trapped in America…
Medgar Evers capped in America
Emmitt Till was capped in America
cause they was Black in America
Captain America …
It feels like any minute I’ll be capped in America
Michael Brown he was capped in America
Tamir Rice he was capped in America
The video above was produced by students at Durham School of the Arts (Freelon and Coffman’s alma mater). Freelon collaborated with the students, and their teacher, Mark Maya, to storyboard, create, and edit the video.
The music radiates with passion and pain. It is the story of our current history.
Yet, The Beast has been honing and sharpening the album for years. When I told Eli McDuffie of LiLa that I had an advance copy of the album, he immediately wanted to listen to the title track, “Woke” which he had already heard performed live a number of times previously.
Hirsh and Freelon said the final piece of putting it all together was Philly-native producer/drummer Steve McKie, whom drummer Coffman had played with previously. They credited Cicely Mitchell and the Art of Cool Festival’s curation for bringing McKie to their attention. McKie produced Bilal’s most recent album. Coffman backlined a Bilal show at MotorCo way back in November of 2013.
As the Art of Cool made its leap from the tiny Labor Love Gallery in Goldenbelt to venues like MotorCo, Mitchell has worked hard on behalf of Durham artists. There was a day when most folks in Durham would have said, “Who’s Bilal?”
Bilal is (now) a Grammy Award winner who has collaborated with everyone from Jay-Z to Erykah Badu to Kendrick Lamar, J Dilla, The Roots, Beyonce and more.
Needless to say, The Beast, had a strong level of trust for Producer McKie, who is also a key figure in the Philadelphia collaborative Killiam Shakespeare. The album was recorded in Studio Pine, a space tucked away in a Philly garage with HVAC humming in the background. The Beast’s members loved that McKie wasn’t just a Hip-Hop producer, but was also grounded in soul music and well-versed in rock and roll.
The results of this talent collaboration are self-evident on Woke.
I asked Freelon and Hirsh about the writing process. They said Freelon writes most of the lyrics, while the other band members compose the music. (Coffman wrote the lyrics for the track, “Runaway”.) Hirsh noted it usually starts with an idea and often as little as “three chords”. They both said that the residencies frequently had them feeling like they were composing in real time.
You can hear their jazz roots in this psychology. Hirsh talked about improvisations and permutations. He said that the best soloists create the maximum message in the minimal amount of time they are allotted. They used basketball analogies, describing song writing as like a guard throwing the alley-oop to a big who slams it home.
They cited as an example on the new album, “Had a Good Run” which has a three chord structure that references Prince’s timeless classic “1999”.
The quartet works as a unity. Again, this feels like the result of those live residencies. Even when they take a leap in a different direction, like the vibraphone based track, “Infinite”, the synchronicity runs like a perfectly choreographed motion offense in basketball. The blend allows each player to star in turn when the opportunity is right.
I had to ask them directly about the whispers heard in various circles. Is Pierce Freelon running for Mayor of Durham as promotional stunt to help The Beast sell albums and gain fame?
Hirsh chimed in first. “Absolutely not.” He said that the band was creating this album well before Freelon was a Mayoral candidate.
Hirsh reiterated to me later that Pierce Freelon was thinking about running for public office before The Beast was even making albums.
Freelon added, he is running because he believes he is the best candidate.
Hirsh enthusiastically seconded this. He said, “We want Pierce to win for the City.”
Freelon noted, too, despite the uptick in coverage surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the story is a continuation of America’s less than glorious heritage. He pointed out Emmett Till was lynched at age fourteen, nearly sixty years ago, and that America had a decades long lynching epidemic. He said musicians had been responding to that with their songs as far back as Billie Holiday and beyond.
This album is a leap up in levels for “The Beast”. Already well-known, they deliver the goods that match expectations.
“Woke” is a poignant, powerful, listenable album that speaks to our era. From millennials to septuagenarians, The Beast has something important to say to you about the times we live in and the future we’re building.
See The Beast live with Friday night at MotorCo with Young Bull and John Doe. Tickets here.