Photography and text by Erin Scott and Abby Greenawalt
He says “live a little more life, come back, and knock ‘em out.” Perhaps the most sane approach to writer’s block we’ve heard yet. A self-taught musician, Christylez Bacon paved his own way though the music industry. From the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to selling out shows at Strathmore to his eventual Grammy nomination, describing Christylez as successful is an understatement. But don’t let the prestige fool you. The man is a constant student, wise beyond his years. He has a remarkable hold on the present, doesn’t lose sight of his past, and is timing his future endeavors just right. We soaked up every minute of tea-sipping, beat-boxing, and listening to the wise words of our latest houseguest, DC’s own Christylez Bacon.
His latest album, “Hip-Hop Unplugged” was just released this year and it is amazing. Buy it here!
You have such an independent, original voice. How do you keep it fresh?
By not taking myself too seriously, and being open to learning– a constant student. I hang out with different musicians and poach the knowledge: read the books, see what they’re learning, and say, “Okay, I’m going to study that, too.” Sometimes it can be embarrassing when you’re very green to it. I’ll be like, “Here’s a chart for you. Play this.” And then they might say, “Chris, this is totally in the wrong clef!” But that’s the method that I get down with. It’s how I learned to compose and score a lot of “Hip-Hop Unplugged.”
We had a conversation about hanging out with all different types of people in order to grow, not just photographers.
I’m definitely about that. I love hanging out with different people who practice different disciplines, or speak different languages, because you get to see their best practices and then take inspiration from them. Like, my lady does organization development. I hear her talk about her work, and I see the books she has laying around the house, and I’m like, “Hey, this is also how to keep a band in order.”
I hung out with a lot of business owners because I wanted to start an LLC. I saw how they handled their business, and I asked questions. If I was just hanging out with some cats who practiced guitar all day, I wouldn’t have gotten all that information and all that help.
What do you think about the current radio hip hop scene?
Oh, it lacks purpose and intention. If I turn on the radio right now, I’d be like, “What are you trying to say, man?” I guess the purpose is to party. But me, I love to communicate. I love to teach and inform. My work as a musician is collaborating with people who practice different genres of music from around the world. I’m mixing their music with hip hop to create safe spaces to bring people together and break down barriers.
When you went out on your own to make music, were you supported? Did you have to combat the nay-sayers?
Some people only understand what they know. Those people can’t see it. But creative people who have vision can see it. Sometimes you have to take your work beyond a concept and manifest it so people can see it. If back in the day someone told you what an iPod was gonna be, you’d be like, “Get out of here man, we’re rocking CD players. We’ve got the Discman with rubber bands and tape on them– why do we need something new?” The resistance is just to be expected.
How are you affected by advice, whether it’s good or bad?
I think when BS is said, my mind just does this thing. It’s like a high pass filter. It’s to the point where I’m not even hearing it. So for really bad advice, I can’t remember.
Besides that, the major criticism I get is about me being a jack of all trades and a master of none. But if I decided that I wanted to master rapping, then yeah I’d be a really good rapper, but I would be at the mercy of some other person to create the music underneath it. The way I work is like, “I have rhymes that need this beat. I want the music to represent these words.” If I was only a rapper, and the song wasn’t saying what I wanted to say or going where I wanted to go, what could I do about it? I’d have whack beats on top of awesome raps. As a jack of all trades I know enough to get the concept together. Then I can outsource and bring in other cats who share my creative vocabulary.
Do you ever hit bumps, along the way? Like little roadblocks?
Man, all the time. Learning how to get out of your own way is so real. It took a lot to put out my newsest album, “Hip-Hop Unplugged.” My previous commercial release, “Banjo to Beatbox,” with mentors/friends Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, which mixed together Hip Hop and Bluegrass, got nominated for a Grammy in 2010. That’s when you’ve got the buzz going, so you should drop your album quick. But change is a doozy. You can want change sometimes, but are you really ready to deal with all that comes with it? Certain freedoms you had from being low-key will change. Are you ready for the responsibility? The expectations? All those thoughts and those questions will be there.
How about writer’s block?
I have no problems with starting a song and coming back later. Live a little more life, come back, and knock ’em out. That’s why I keep a book. Every now and then I review them and decide what I’ve got to finish. A song on my new album called “Freedom,” which is a remake of Richie Haven’s freestyle song, was written like that. I had that first verse right away. Two years after that I had the second. Now it’s a full song.
Where were you when you got the Grammy call?
I was walking down U Street with my friend. We were passing by the RiteAid when I get a call from the folks at the DC Grammy chapter. They said, “Yo, you got nominated for the Grammy!” And I’m like, “Oh… that’s crazy… thank you so much for the call.”
When I got off the phone and told my friend, she was like, “Aren’t you going to scream?” and I was like “Nah, I’m cool, I’m going to keep it calm.”
You didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops?! Why so calm?
That seems to be the way I handle things like that. It has a bit of a dark side to it. When you grow up in a hood area and see crazy stuff happen, you try not to get too excited about good things, because there’s a fear that someone will take it away from you. But now there’s less of that in me. I just try to keep a clear head about things. If I keep a clear head, I can navigate this new space. Yeah, so that’s my Grammy experience.
So you didn’t start changing up your life right away—you just took it as good information?
There was a lot of work to be done and I wanted to make sure I was ready to be in that new space. I’m not the kid that’s like, “I’m rich now– everything is gonna be good!”
I know that while this is a great opportunity, it comes with a certain level of responsibility. Be excited, but still ask the right questions. It’s like someone offers you the dream job but you forget to ask about the pay. That paycheck comes and you’re like “Uh oh.”
To say you’re a good dresser is an understatement. Please elaborate on your style!
On my first album, I was rocking the t-shirt and the blue jeans. Now, I don’t even own a t-shirt. I do have one pair of sneakers, but for the most part I wear dress shoes and Panamas every day of my life. That’s just how it is. That’s a lot of change and growth, but there it is. This album (Hip-Hop Unplugged) is a marker.
If you happen stumble across a well-dressed man wearing an ascot, we encourage you to ask him to play the spoons.
You won’t be disappointed.
Photos and writing by