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Breaking Ground with Brass & Boujee

Above image: Brass & Boujee performs at Starlight Theatre this Saturday. | L to R: Kemet "the Phantom" Coleman, Marcus Lewis, Ryan "Kadesh Flow" Davis | Photo: Michelle Bacon

Rap and Jazz meet at KC's Cultural Intersection

It’s a somewhat unlikely grouping of musicians — a native Kansas City emcee, singer and producer; a trombonist and nerdcore rapper from Mobile, Alabama; and a touring member of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland ArchOrchestra from Atlanta. Yet, their Brass & Boujee project is proving to be one of the city’s most groundbreaking musical collaborations.

Fusing hip-hop and rap with jazz and big band music, Brass & Boujee includes upward of 25 of the city’s most proficient musicians. Upon releasing its debut effort at the end of August, the band’s self-titled album reached the top of the iTunes jazz charts and No. 15 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart.

This Saturday, Brass & Boujee performs its biggest show yet — a direct support slot for Janelle Monáe at Starlight Theatre.

The Beginnings

This project is the brainchild of three men — Kemet Coleman, who goes by the stage name Kemet the Phantom; Ryan Davis, also known as Kadesh Flow; and Marcus Lewis.

“When I was in grad school, I figured out that I was eventually going to go all in music-wise, but I felt like I had to get some kind of corporate job first,” Davis said.

Getting his start as an emcee and trombonist at age 11, Davis later earned an MBA and relocated from Alabama to KC in 2013 to take a job with Cerner. Before doing so, he spent time researching his new city and its music scene.

“Kemet was one of the first people from KC I’d heard of who wasn’t huge, so I knew a little bit about him before we ended up meeting,” he said.

Davis met Coleman that winter at “Let the Beat Build,” a series that allowed musicians, vocalists, emcees and producers to collaborate via freestyle open mics and live beat creation. Coleman began crafting his broad musical range at the age of 13, as a rapper and singer. By the time he met Davis, he was known locally for his work in projects like The Phantastics — a high-energy funk/dance/soul act that remains one of the area’s preeminent party bands — and hip-hop duo COA.

Meanwhile, Lewis was putting down roots in Kansas City. An accomplished trombonist, composer and arranger based in Atlanta, he had already amassed recording and performing credits with Aretha Franklin, Prince and Bruno Mars. While touring as Monáe’s long-time trombonist, Lewis and his wife, Andrea, decided they would move closer to Andrea’s family, who lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

“We still wanted to be in a city with a music scene, and I knew a few musicians from Kansas City, so we started thinking about it,” Lewis said. “It was so weird, but around the same time, a friend of a friend offered my wife a job in KC, so we sold our house in a month and moved here.”

The Meeting

Not long after his move to KC, Davis was told that Janelle Monáe’s trombonist had just moved there as well. A few years later, he was tapped by keyboardist Eddie Moore to rap on a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” that Lewis was arranging for his big band. Without hesitation, Davis agreed.

After he’d played the song with them a couple of times, Davis recalled an evening at The Blue Room with Coleman, where they watched the Marcus Lewis Big Band perform.

“Kemet and I were kicking it that night, and then Marcus approached us,” he said. “Marcus says to me, ‘I’ve been listening to your music,’ and then he spots Kemet and says, ‘Yo, I’ve actually been listening to your music too!’”

“I wanted to be a part of whatever they were doing,” Coleman said. “I didn’t know what it was and they didn’t either, but I told them that it could not happen without me.”

That mutual respect and admiration was the catalyst for Brass & Boujee. The two emcees began sending their original tunes to Lewis, and he started arranging them for his 17-piece big band.

The Music

“I tried not to get too far from what was already initially there because I didn’t want to destroy the integrity of their music,” Lewis said about the process, noting that each song took 10 to 12 hours from listening and conceptualizing an arrangement to putting it down on paper. “To do something different for the sake of doing it is wrong; it has to feel natural.”

Davis and Coleman sent Lewis four original tracks each, many of which had already been released by their other projects. These eight tracks make up the bulk of the “Brass & Boujee” album, which is rounded out by two covers — the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar tune and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” sung by Tevin Williams. The contrasting strengths of each emcee are on full display throughout the album, and are given extra muscle with Lewis’s deft arrangements.

“I studied arranging formally for a semester in college, but there was a lack of good material that was new and fresh, so I started trying to do it on my own,” Lewis said. “Back in the ’30s, people would go out and see big bands to dance. Brass & Boujee is perfect for that — the way these two rap, their music is heavily jazz-influenced and it works really well together.”

Coleman’s cadence and compositional style is smooth, soulful and measured — qualities he has honed through his self-described “dapper rap” approach. It easily lends itself to Lewis’s big band treatment, emphasizing Kemet the Phantom’s funky flourishes and a propulsive but poised energy. On the other hand, Davis’s style as Kadesh Flow is kinetic and urgent, with a complex melodic and rhythmic vocabulary that nods to his instincts as an instrumentalist. His nimble flow pairs well with the sonic density of Lewis’s band, adding depth and gravity to songs about institutionalized racism and the confines of racial identity.

The Weekend

On Saturday, these men will take the Starlight stage with the 20-plus musicians who make up Brass & Boujee. Their appearance is part of “The Weekend” — the culminating event of Open Spaces, an initiative that has transformed sections of the city into living, breathing arts experiences. Saturday’s concert, featuring superstar and Kansas City, Kansas, native, Janelle Monáe, is expected to be the primary draw of the 10-week event. And for the leaders of Brass & Boujee, being included in this pinnacle evening is no small feat or coincidence.

“The timing factor is critical because of what’s happening in the arts in KC right now,” Davis said. “It’s serendipitous for us, because it feels like one of the sounds embodying what KC is and is becoming.”

It’s a sound that characterizes the artistic renaissance that Open Spaces aims to shed light on — a sound that epitomizes innovation, a collaborative arts community and the evolution of KC as a cultural hub — creating palpable enthusiasm for anyone exposed to it.

“For me, the biggest highlight is being around so much talent; it’s unbearable and distracting to the point where I have to hold back my excitement and unbridled passion,” Coleman said. “I feel like I’m in heaven with Count Basie, Miles Davis — all those cats, carrying down a tradition of talent and spirit.”

—Michelle Bacon is 90.9 The Bridge’s Radio Content and Database Manager. She also plays bass and drums in bands. Follow her at @michelleobacon on Twitter or Instagram.