Even as a kindergartner at Durham's E.K. Powe Elementary School, Pierce Freelon loved hip-hop. Rather than adoring the tunes of his mother, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, he idolized those of LL Cool J. But as a preteen, he accompanied her on tours of Japan and Finland. Everything changed.
"I knew it would change him in many ways," Nnenna says. "Traveling allows you to see yourself through other people's eyes and can expand your notion of what it means to be you."
"Her show was full of people old enough to be my grandma," Pierce jokes. "It could have been the antithesis of cool, but kicking it with the musicians and getting to experience what it's like to live on the road ... really gave me an appreciation for the life of a live musician. Every room, every instrument, every vibe had its own character and brought a different type of performance from my mom and her band."
Freelon delved into records by Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny when he returned to America, but his first foray into music was hip-hop. He formed the group Language Arts just before college with fellow Bull City emcee Aden Darity. During a collaboration with Raleigh brass band Children of the Horn, the trio broke from its usually DJ-dependent instrumentation.
"It was kind of an epiphany," Freelon remembers. "I didn't realize at the time that it would be the direction that I would end up taking musically with The Beast, but it was so different and invigorating."
The Beast is Freelon's exploratory, enthusiastic quartet that welds jazz and hip-hop in bold, socially aware maneuvers. Freedom Suite, the group's new and incredibly rich third record, pushes the group well past its previous limits, wrangling an all-star list of collaborators into an album that's interested in the past, present and future of hip-hop. One of the most exciting acts on the Triangle circuit, The Beast's inclusive vision was born of serendipitous circumstances.
In 2008, Freelon was finishing his master's at Syracuse University. His thesis presentation—Sankofa: Pan-African Migrations in Hip-Hop Music and Culture—needed live musicians, so he asked childhood friend Stephen Coffman for help. A drummer for area outfits like the Michael Jackson tribute band Who's Bad and salsa ensemble Orquesta GarDel, Coffman also studied in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's jazz studies program. He recruited two classmates with whom he often played, bassist Peter Kimosh and pianist Eric Hirsh, to join him for Freelon's thesis.
"The synergy and the really productive, collaborative nature of the four of us together was just so dope," Freelon remembers. The quartet soon called itself The Beast, a work in progress.
"When we first started hooking up with The Beast, it was very jazz concentrated, almost to a fault," Coffman admits. "We were coming out of jazz school, and we had more of an academic approach. The more we would hang with Pierce and figure out how to mesh with a vocalist of that genre, our sound began to drift towards the hip-hop realm."
The trio identifies with and plays off Freelon's lyricism, which is rooted in both his Pan-African studies and the everyday exigencies of modern life. "It's been an important experience for me to listen to what Pierce is saying and let that influence what we are doing as a band," Coffman says.
Freelon didn't just influence his backing band; they changed him, too. He found new and perhaps unexpected inspiration in their improvisational nature, adding a new twist to lyrics already rife with social discourse.
"If a song takes a dark direction during rehearsal, I can kind of build and draw from the energy and tension of what's being played and translate that into lyrics," he says. "[It's] my interpretation of the mood that's being conveyed by this kind of fluid music."
That juxtaposition—Freelon's dense verse against The Beast's musical imagination— makes for an intelligent, engaging combination that resists categorization. Not only does it blur the lines between hip-hop and jazz, but it also incorporates rock, soul, reggae, funk and other bits of the quartet's rich musical past.
"It really is a by-product of the different personalities and talents that came into the group," Hirsh explains.
The Beast is now using that same approach to expand its pool of ideas simply by asking more people to participate. Freedom Suite gathers more than a dozen local collaborators, including Freelon's mom and Little Brother emcee Phonte Coleman.
It all started during a collaborative recording session with Chapel Hill producer The Apple Juice Kid, who remixed the band's track "Freedom." The Beast then added Nnenna Freelon and Camp Lo rapper Geechi Suede to the track. The process required the quartet—which maintained almost complete control on its earlier work—to step outside its comfort zone. Freelon believes it paid off: "It opened the door and showed us what was possible."
Sparked by the highly successful session, The Beast sought out more collaborators to bring into the fold. At UNC and North Carolina Central, Freelon has taught courses that mix music, politics and black culture. Through those classes, he'd become familiar with Durham producer and hip-hop kingpin 9th Wonder, who's also taught at Duke and N.C. Central. 9th agreed to host the project and allowed The Beast to reinterpret many of his most famous beats for the record. Freedom Suite—named after the 1958 Sonny Rollins classic—soon had nearly as many features as a mixtape. The album highlights The Beast's ability to adapt to the strengths of its guests while maintaining its signature genre-bending character.
"There are so many artists that we've grown up listening to that are on this record: Phonte, YahZarah, 9th, Darien Brockington," Pierce enthuses. "They're legends of the Triangle hip-hop movement." Freedom Suite comes studded with Pierce's scholarly conversations with The Roots drummer ?uestlove, authors and activists Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis, and jazz legends Branford Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, too. The conversations revolve around sociocultural topics in black history or, in Freelon's words, "how we're really all cut from the same cloth and the generational differences don't trump the foundational similarities between genres." To that end, the younger lights of Triangle hip-hop—Kooley High, King Mez, Carlitta Durand—get their spot on Freedom Suite, too.
And The Beast is just getting started with its partnerships: Last Tuesday, the quartet began aLive, a semester-long residency at Jack Sprat Cafe on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street. Freelon singles out ?uestlove for inspiring the series. "His advice to me was basically to practice all the time and play a bunch of gigs to develop our craft," he says. Performing the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, The Beast plans to reveal a side of itself that's often unseen in its typically shorter sets for club shows.
"We usually put the stuff on the shelf that's a little bit riskier," explains Coffman. "We're hoping that with this residency, we can stretch out—whether that's opening up some sections, soloing a little bit more or improvising."
Spoken word crew Sacrificial Poets will also perform small sets, while Chapel Hill rapper SkyBlew helped kick off the series January 25. Beyond poets and emcees, planned guests include singer-songwriters and instrumentalists ranging from trombonists to cellists. The band hopes the residency will allow them to carve out a niche within the crowded local music scene.
"I think one of our strongest assets as a quartet is our live performance," Freelon says. "Every time I step on stage, I think I tap into some residue of that vibe that I was experiencing with my mom as a child. That has probably been the single most influential thing for me."
Mothers surely do know best, it seems.