MCF: The Cool Kids, with Owen Bones, PZ x Cubist
Blue Moose Tap House — Friday, April 7 at 9:30 p.m., $20-22
In 2008, the Cool Kids were “bringing ’88 back,” channeling a stripped-down eighties boom-bap rap aesthetic for a new generation. “When we started,” Sir Mike told me in advance of their appearance at this year’s Mission Creek Festival, “I was about seventeen and Chuck was twenty-two.” This led to a series of acclaimed singles and albums, a burst of activity that began with their debut “Black Mags” and abruptly ended after their 2011 LP, When Fish Ride Bicycles.
“When we stopped recording together,” Sir Mike said, “we were going through a lot of stuff with our record label and legal situations. So it was not much fun to record as a group, knowing that it would be tampered with and there would be a lot of hands meddling.” (On the classic song “Check the Rhime,” A Tribe Called Quest noted: “Industry Rule #4080, record company people are shady.”)
Sir Mike and his partner Chuck Inglish say they went their own ways as a survival tactic, so they could both continue to be creative, but eventually the music biz drama died down. They recently returned with two excellent singles — “Connect 4” and “Running Man” — and the resurrected Cool Kids are currently recording a full-length album in hip hop-friendly places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and — Iowa City?
“A mutual friend of ours, LazerBeak from the Doomtree collective, connected us, and it was a great fit for everybody involved,” said Luke Tweedy, who owns and operates Flat Black Studios just outside of Iowa City.
“That was probably the second session recording for the new album,” recalled rapper and producer Chuck Inglish. “We were looking for an isolated area to record,”
Sir Mike added, “and that’s how we ended up recording at Luke’s studio in Iowa. We saw it as kind of taking a road trip to a farm and being able to do a whole lot of work.”
“We are located in the country, yet right next to town,” Tweedy said. “Everything you are going to need is on site. We offer full living quarters for the bands, so that once they are here they don’t have any of the distractions that are present in almost every other studio. The Cool Kids were after that exact experience. They started their latest album somewhere else, but needed a more focused environment.”
“It’s like taking a trip to an island with a studio where you can create your own environment, but still have access to all the instruments and technology you need,” said Chuck Inglish, perhaps the first time anyone has compared winter in Iowa to, say, Compass Point Studios in Nassau.
“When we came back to record together for the first time in a while,” Sir Mike recalled, “we approached it as, ‘Let’s ignore everything we have done before and who we were before. We’re now two different souls, so let’s work with all the knowledge we’ve gained doing it on our own, and push it further.’”
The Flat Black Studio sessions were intense, but fruitful, and practically ran around the clock. “Since they could only be here under a week I agreed to work some insane hours,” Tweedy said. “We would get started in the late mornings, and go until the early morning hours. I doubt there was a day that we finished before 2 a.m. They are workhorses and really go for it. They didn’t care about going into town, partying with fans or screwing around at all. They had a goal, and they focused and busted ass to work towards it.”
Recording in Iowa City and elsewhere, the Cool Kids took an eclectic and inventive approach to songwriting and production. “We would do a lot of organic sampling of instruments and old breakbeats,” Sir Mike told me, “or we had people bring in their keyboards or guitars.”
Luke Tweedy observed, “Their process is unlike any I have experienced. They start with literally nothing. They do not have lines written, or beats made. They start from scratch, with a conversation.”
“For me to create the original sounds I was looking for,” Chuck Inglish said, “I didn’t rely on any one specific technique or instrument. It could start with a rhythm in Pro Tools, and then it’s just a gumbo of people playing and me making additions.” At Flat Black Studios, Chuck Inglish and Sir Mike had access to a variety of synthesizers — such as a Moog, Nord and Korg. They would play keyboards and drums themselves, or sample something, and then cut up and reassemble those elements to make a basic track. After that, one of them would then come up with a hook or a single line, and the song would blossom from there.
As they sat on the couch while listening to their looped rhythm tracks, Chuck Inglish and Sir Mike would go back and forth writing lines. “They are good at self editing,” recalled Luke Tweedy, “but not afraid to help each other too with what they dig, or don’t dig.” A lot of hip hop artists who have previously worked with Tweedy have recorded their rhymes in a piecemeal fashion, a few lines at a time. In the Cool Kids’ case, they worked until they could spit a verse in its entirety. “It is extremely impressive to observe,” he said, “and I feel very fortunate to have gotten to see it, and be a part of this album.”
In the ten years since the Cool Kids began working together, they have grown substantially as MCs and producers. Chuck Inglish used to handle production while doing double duty on the mic, but he said he was always a little intimidated by Sir Mike’s lyrical skills. This pushed him to become a better MC and, conversely, Sir Mike began holding his own as a producer. “Our ability to play the English vocabulary has grown substantially over the past five, six years,” said Inglish. “I can honestly say that now we rap circles around our old selves.”
Kembrew McLeod is spending the next month working on new dance moves he will debut at Mission Creek Festival. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 218.