Since he began releasing music in the mid-’00s, Cincinnati Hip Hop artist MC Till’s work has been marked by honesty, positivity, collaboration and ambition. Till’s early releases included an upbeat collaborative album with national “Holy Hip Hop” fave K-Drama; the darker (yet still hopeful) and introspective Beautiful Raw solo LP, on which he questions and examines wavering faith; and Kings Of Tragedy, which he and collaborator Wonder Brown took on the road, accompanied by a dramatic stage production based on the album.
Saturday, Till celebrates the release of yet another recording that defies expectations. The concert at Rohs Street Café (245 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights, 513-381-7647, rohsstreetcafe.com) is in honor of the release of The Neighborhood, Till’s first effort to feature a live band and also his first foray into Jazz music. Daniel in Stereo (also celebrating a new release; check it out at danielinstereo.bandcamp.com), Northbound and Wonder Brown & MC Forty also perform at the eclectic show, which begins at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $5.
Till didn’t just cobble together a group of college students studying Jazz and piece together the new release on a laptop in his bedroom. The MC went all out for The Neighborhood, first signing Ric Hordinski (former Over the Rhine guitarist and Grammy nominated for his production work) on as producer. Hordinski (who also provides guitar on the project) gathered together some of the area’s most accomplished Jazz artists to record the album at his Monastery studio/performance space. Blue Wisp Big Band anchor (and drummer for artists like Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, among others) John Von Ohlen provides the drumming, while the acclaimed Steve Schmidt (a Blue Wisp Big Band co-founder who has played with Eddie Harris, Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson and scores of other heavyweights) plays piano. Busy Nashville session player Byron House, who has worked with Emmylou Harris, Nickel Creek, Dixie Chicks and scores of others, provides the bass.
Joining Till at the release party will be a live band featuring Hordinski, drummer Tony Franklin and bassist Peter Gemus, plus some special guests.
That’s a collection of artists that would intimidate most, but Till totally holds his own on The Neighborhood, guiding the proceedings like a boss with his deft flow and lyrical prowess. The musicians create a warm, organic soundscape for each track (written by Hordinski and House) that is straight up vintage Jazz, with a few moments of sweet funkiness. Together with singer Aprina Johnson, who provides some great jazzy hooks throughout the album, they create a unique listening experience that has a musical depth most Hip Hop recordings don’t come close to capturing.
Till does a great job of adapting to the unique musical surroundings, providing vocal deliveries that lay back and feed into the jazzy flow. On songs like “Quiet Killer” and “Right Now,” Till delivers the lyrics in a poetic, spoken-word style, while vocals on tracks like the title cut could more easily be pulled out of this context and placed into a more standard Hip Hop situation.
Till’s lyrics on The Neighborhood are also some of the best of his career. He again looks realistically at life’s struggles and offers optimism — on “Quiet Killer,” he personifies cancer (during the run up to the album, Till’s wife battled the disease, which provided a lot of source material for the songs on the album), while on “Right Now” he acknowledges his shortcomings in life, but knows he must live in the now and not dwell on the past: “And yet the beauty in my life flows/’Cause the future of my life knows/The past in me is not life now/And that’s beautiful and beautiful is right now.” The album is loaded with that kind of unflappable hopefulness in the face of adversity, but it’s never overly sunshine-y and always tempered with a strong dose of realism.
Other highlights include “You Are,” with its sharp vocal hook, which the band riffs off of expertly (as one might expect); the groove-driven “Beautiful Stress;” and the poetry-slam-ready “Street Light,” which slow-struts beneath Till’s unique rhyme schemes, which he plays with like a Jazz musician plays with scales.
Artists from Guru and Digable Planets up through Cincinnati’s own IsWhat?! have shown that Jazz and Hip Hop aren’t the strange bedfellows one might think, and The Neighborhood is further irrefutable testimony that, when done right, the two styles are completely complementary. It’s a wonder why more artists don’t explore that fertile intersection.
The Neighborhood is available in both digital and physical (CD) formats. Visit mctill.bandcamp.com to order the disc or download the seven-track release. The album will be available Tuesday, but you can pick one up early at the Rohs Street Café show Saturday. To read the story about the making of the album, visit mctill.com.