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Holler to the Hood

Erik Spangler invigorates hill-hop genre with new EP

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Erik spangler mixes sampled banjo riffs and hip-hop beats.


A composer with a PhD from Harvard, a hip-hop DJ, and a banjo enthusiast walk into a bar. No, this is not the set-up for a bad joke. It’s a night alone for Erik Spangler. Spangler is co-founder of the post-classical institution Mobtown Modern and of the Boom Bap Society, CP’s “Best New Hip-Hop Night.” He recently released Cloudsplitter, an EP of what is called hill-hop (or, less charitably, hick-hop).

Hill-hop began sometime around the turn of this century as Appalshop—a media collective dedicated to documenting and preserving Appalachian culture—was looking for ways to connect traditional mountain music with the hip-hop then flooding the hollers. Spangler began developing an interest in the genre in 2005 but came to it more fully last year, when he was composing music based on the words of the Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry for the opera company Rhymes with Opera. (Disclosure: This writer has also worked with RWO.)

He got a banjo and a residency at Wildacres, a retreat in North Carolina where he was going to work on the piece. On his way there, he camped in his car and wrote much of “What We Need is Here,” the first track on Cloudsplitter.

Spangler grew up in Iowa City and wasn’t really exposed to Appalachian music—or hip-hop—until he went to Harvard, where housemate Paul Lovelace turned him onto both forms of music. (Spangler is now working on a score to a documentary Lovelace is making about Appalachia.)

The interest lay more or less dormant while he worked on his thesis piece, which he describes as “ritual cantata for four singers and four ensembles.”

When he moved to Baltimore, Spangler began working, first as a middle-school music teacher and then in the sound program at MICA. In 2008, he founded the Mobtown Modern series with Brian Sacawa; the widely praised program presented top-notch performances of adventurous contemporary art music for four seasons before going on hiatus this year.

Spangler was also working with the improvisational Out of Your Head collective, which pairs musicians who have never played together before and asks them to improvise, with unpredictable and sometimes thrilling results. One night, Spangler was playing with another classically trained hip-hop head, Kevin Gift (who, in his hip-hop persona, goes by the name of his deceased brother, Wendel Patrick). The two bumped into each other at Artscape later that year, and as they walked, they talked about how cool it would be to do something similar to OoYH for hip-hop and DJ culture.

Shortly afterward, they created the Boom Bap Society as a venue for live, improvised hip-hop. When it first started, Spangler and Gift kept relatively tight reins on the process in order to prevent it from falling into more familiar hip-hop forms like battles.

But as the monthly night has developed, it has grown more adventurous, featuring, for instance, Spangler as DJ Dubble8 on the turntable, along with jazz bassist Jake Leckie and Tony Bonta on banjo. The night has attracted a wide variety of MCs—like Ursela Rucker, Kane Mayfield, Eagle Nebula, and Eze Jackson—who rarely get the chance to rap over live music (though Jackson fronts Soul Cannon with members of OoYH).

Now, as Boom Bap Society approaches its first-year anniversary, it already feels like an institution and is looking for ways to develop further. “We’re going to have some audience participation,” Spangler says. “Either rolling dice or a spin” to set the parameters for the music.

At the moment, however, Cloudsplitter may be the most complete expression of Spangler’s aesthetic obsessions. With it, he has managed to locate the sweet spot that connects contemporary classical music, mountain music, and hip-hop. The so-called “mountain modal” tunings of banjo players like Dock Boggs blend perfectly into the atonal sounds of 20th century classical music; and the banjo’s drone-y sound and the fiddle’s rhythmic squawl mirror much electronica and DJ music, providing someone like Spangler an especially fertile terrain.

Spangler played banjo riffs and then sampled and mixed them with hip-hop beats. On the first track, “What We Need Is Here,” Berry’s words are sung in a high and lonesome mountain tenor accompanied by a banjo for about 30 seconds before a traditional hip-hop scratching sound subtly breaks through underneath. The drone rises electronically rather than from the banjo itself as its modal clawhammer plucking stays steady, giving the whole thing the sense of a prayer.

The second song, “Baltimore to Shenandoah,” continues in the same subdued, almost ominously quiet vein, until a steady, more recognizably hip-hop beat interrupts, energizing the whole track.

“Dirge for the Holler,” perhaps the most successful mixture of the elements in Spangler’s repertoire, could easily have won the titular prize in Guy Maddin’s 2003 film The Saddest Music in the World with its gorgeous, lonesome lament that somehow transcends its own emotion and location to become something universal.

“P.O.V. Appalachia” seems to comment in an equally melancholy way on the desire for authenticity, i.e., poverty, that dominates the reception of both hip-hop and mountain music, using the tropes of each genre to set the other in a stark contrast. We want our rappers and our banjo-pickers to come from backgrounds we never want to experience ourselves, because it makes a better story.

Though hill-hop began as an experiment and, in its early days, was almost entirely artificial, with Appalshop bringing together hip-hop and mountain artists to create the music, Spangler shows that the genre has the ability to rise above the almost-novelty quality of its origins and become an independent artform in its own right. If anyone can make this happen, it is probably the banjo-picking DJ doctor of composition.

to hear cloudsplitter visit erikspangler.bandcamp.com/album/cloudsplitter. Boom Bap Society will celebrate its first anniversary at the Windup Space Nov. 7, featuring Saleem, Eze Jackson, OOH of Brownfish, Black Root, and Javier Starks.

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