As ‘Ultra Sheen’, the title track from his new album, reaches its conclusion, tenor saxophonist, composer, and rapper David Boykin proclaims: "I crept up in position on competition, that slept on my skills in composition, and kept on with ambition pursuing my violation, built my rep on original creation, not steeped on renditions of dated tunes, that should have been slated for demolition, a long time ago, before a wrong rhyme ago."
Well folks that sounds like fighting talk! What might be termed the AACM versus the traditionalists! When I recently talked with Boykin I was eager to know just who he was referring to in the song.
"Oftentimes" he replied, "things are put out just for effect, not necessarily for literal meaning,"
I responded by asking him if he would like to name names. "The literal meaning that you can apply to this would be the standards or classics" he said. "There are some compositions that are considered great works of art, and there are many songs recorded and played by musicians that were show tunes, that were just popular tunes of the day. They weren’t necessarily considered great works of art, so you can take that and apply it to some of those songs."
"Any particular songs" I wondered. "No," Boykin countered with a laugh, clearly deflecting the bait to debate. "When I wrote that, I didn’t have a particular song in mind. My emphasis was more on my personal preference for creating original compositions."
So what motivates Boykin to play creative, improvised music where (as with ‘Ultra Sheen’) jazz meets hip-hop in a variety of ways? Well, before seriously studying his first instrument, the clarinet, he had already immersed himself in hip-hop music. When Boykin heard hip-hop artists sample jazz standards, his developing ear detected how the rhythmic feel produced by jazz music, and what the hip-hop samplers were attempting, actually resembled each other.
As an example Boykin cites Thelonious Monk’s quartet. "Their approach to music" he made clear "contained a rhythmic feel that then lent itself to what many hip-hop artists find attractive now. Within hip-hop, the music was based more on funk music, old R&B," he continued. "Artists like DJ Premier and Gang Starr seemed to be at the forefront of implementing a slightly different sound which rhythmically emphasized the off-beat, the dotted eighth note and sixteenth note, as opposed to the straight eighth-note feel."
"Even in drum programming," Boykin added, "they used the electronic programmed drums. They would have more of that in the music. The music they were making, I feel, had already been made by Monk."
When first blending hip-hop and jazz, Boykin sought out freestyle rappers to write rhymes to his music. However, because these compositions did not have "your typical hip hop beat," this proved too difficult. It was then that Boykin decided to write and recite the rhymes himself.
"When combining these forms", Boykin clarified, "the challenge is to maintain what makes them great. The jazz must be present through its rhythmic integrity and swing. Equally the hip-hop must have its quality both in the lyrics and the lyricism."
On ‘Ultra Sheen’, Boykin is joined by flautist Nicole Mitchell, pianist Jim Baker, bass player Josh Abrams, and drummer Mike Reed. When discussing the disc’s jazz - hip-hop marriage, Abrams informed JazzReview how this approach succeeds because it is based on authenticity, not novelty.
"David wasn’t interested in taking jazz and hip-hop and presenting them in a watered-down form," Abrams told me. "He was more interested in maintaining the complexities of the music with different time signatures. He wanted to make this his own personal style by incorporating his emceeing over the music."
Abrams met Boykin in 1996 during a jam session in Chicago at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge and began playing in his ensemble soon after. Now Abrams considers that Boykin’s skill as a composer and improviser has become more complex with time.
"David has always had a different approach and sound which was very interesting to me," Abrams revealed. "He and I have always been interested in the tradition and also the expansive possibilities of music. Through the actual character of his physical sound, I could tell early on that he was trying to develop something personal. His sound on the horn has also gotten stronger and his circular breathing technique is completely phenomenal. He has always had his sound. He’s just continuing to develop it."
Boykin, whose influences range from Fletcher Henderson to Sun Ra, KRS-One to Mos Def, also invokes the themes of integrity and purpose when discussing another passion of his, the Sonic Healing Ministries (SHM). This initiative, he believes, helps nurture his personal development.
"I’ve always had that perspective about music and my religion and spirituality. I play the music with that type of pursuit, as opposed to any economic pursuit or as a hobby," he explained. "I see playing creative music as a spiritual discipline. I believe in learning your instrument, mastering your instrument, and then trying to achieve this expression. That’s what this is about."
Through the SHM, Boykin presents the Microscopic Sound Orchestra (MSO), an all-improvised music ensemble, every Sunday from 2-00 to 3-00 pm at 7534 South Eberhart in Chicago. The MSO features musicians who have similar beliefs about creative music. Participants for the performances, which may also be viewed on USTREAM, have included bassist Alex Wing, poet Daniel Godston and Mitchell.
"All music should leave you in a higher state of being than before you experienced it" Boykin confirmed. "It is our intention, as artists, that our audience feels better when they experience creative music. This belief is communicated above everything else, so we make our music for that specific purpose."
Further information on David Boykin can be found at myspace.com/davidboykinexpanse and myspace.com/sonichealingministries