The Mad Conductor are a phenomenal psychedelic hip-hop band from New Orleans, hell-bent on making a difference to music. Wait, hip-hop? Surely I can’t be aurally qualified to listen to this? Well, I’ll have you know that I accidentally saw Tinchy Stryder support The King Blues back in 2008; but I’d be lying if I claimed this had inspired a love of all things hop and hip, even if the young Master Stryder was quite impressive. So how did I come across The Mad Conductor?
In 2009 I unearthed the sounds of The Stupid Stupid Henchmen (formerly No IQ), a crack rock steady band from Carmel, New York, formed in 1999, who have released a staggering quantity of their music for free here. Chet Mike and TC, are fiercely DIY and while earlier releases are a little rough and ready, they capture the raw hectic energy of the band perfectly. Their album Charmingly Demonic, released between 2006-08, is an exceptional specimen of crack rock steady, with such exemplary tracks as “I Controlled the Lego Village” and “The Majority of People are Decoys”. The album also includes the song “It Really Makes Me Wonder (ft. MC Devlin)” in which MC Devlin takes the Henchmen on a hip-hop stroll through his worldly concerns, crammed full with welcome geeky references to labels, sublime tracks, and Star Wars characters. The band are still active and have tentatively hinted that a new 13 track LP titled Nothing Matters will be released at some point in the future.
I was intrigued by the inclusion of MC Devlin and discovered that, in his formative years, he was known as Big C and played in the legendary Pennsylvanian crack rock steady outfit No-Ca$h, formed in 1999. In 2003, after gaining considerable attention from the NYC punk scene, the band released Run Your Pockets, their one and only full length. The album is yet another perfect example of the genre, and tends more towards the hardcore side. Contrasting mellow bridges and touching instrumentals pepper the songs, only to be consumed time and again by triumphant guitar riffs, pounding drums and gullet rending vocals. “Home Life is a Drag” deals with issues of isolation and identity in suburban America and comes complete with an incongruous yet perfectly beautiful piano solo. Interestingly, the poignant samples from The Goonies featured on “A Better Tomorrow” and the rapping in “Gasoline” offer clues as to the future sublimation of Big C to MC Devlin.
Shortly after recording their split album “Summertime in the City” with Team Spider, No-Ca$h disbanded in 2005 due to ‘differences within the band’ However by this time, MC Devlin had been introduced to Dan McKinney, who worked to produce the split album, and in the spring of that year, the duo formed The Mad Conductor. To date the band have four releases. Mechanical Claw, unleashed in 2005 is an overwhelmingly experimental and ambitious record, that saw The Mad Conductor escape the inertia of the hardcore scene, and posit themselves in a steady observant orbit around it. The words ‘Oh, my friend you have been grossly misinformed’ from the cautionary “Troubles in the Sewer” seem to speak directly to MC Devlin’s former audience, warning them that this will no longer be standard hardcore fare. “Nairobi”, on the other hand, is a jaunty number, bordering on cheesiness, but is, in fact, crammed full of audible treats which keep the listener enthralled every time it is played.
Both individuals are highly talented musicians, and clearly have a deep respect for each other; in “Venom” MC Devlin introduces MC Kinney as ‘a wonderful man with magnificent capabilities’. MC Kinney is a ridiculously inventive keyboard player, with certain songs such as “Marisafa Lupina” and “Members Only” showcasing his mastery of the instrument.
MC Devlin has a very particular vocal feel, one that remains both relaxed and apprehensive simultaneously, as if performing from an armchair, but with one eye permanently fixed over his right shoulder. The truths he has to offer are very real but not everyone is happy with him telling them. This personal, candid approach works perfectly with the issues discussed, ranging from the music scenes, to troubled neighbourhoods, to his own personal experiences and keeps MC Devlin on an absolute level with his audience while never once being patronising. Another example of his down-to-earthliness is his incessant references to food, particularly in “Porchmen” but which can be heard throughout most of the tracks. Indeed, although The Mad Conductor are obscenely progressive, with later tracks on Renegade Space Rock, released in 2007, reminiscent of Mr Bungle’s more experimental music in Disco Volante, the band never develop the pretence associated with more Avant-garde acts.
MC Devlin’s lyrics often invite the listener on a journey through a narrative expanse which rarely departs from being a deeply cerebral experience. Complete with anxiety, and nihilism all rapped over a steady relentless beat with playful melodic samples and ambient chords; the entirety of Central America (2010) captures this tone perfectly. The record remains largely an abstract stream of consciousness whilst moving further away from the reliable ska rhythms and into the uncertain realms of awkward time signatures which MC Devlin has no trouble bending his rhymes around to great effect.
Although their music is exceptionally well produced, this has not deterred The Mad Conductor from touring live. I was delighted to discover that in June 2007, the band toured the UK with 500 to a Cage as part of their Never Mind the Mystery Tour, visiting England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Perhaps the most exciting date I uncovered was a show in Dublin on Friday 15 June, where support came from Irish Quote Unquote legends, and Stza Crack favourites Chewing on Tinfoil.
Both MC Devlin and MC Kinney wield an unprecedented number of influences, including jazz, dancehall, ska, R&B and punk, and all are present without ever sounding nebulous or confused. The ska is particularly prevalent in “Starry Safari”, which features saxes, horns and a ripping bass line while the riffs of “Destapadores” hark back to the hardcore of No-Ca$h.
Ska flirtations with hip-hop are relatively common; bands such as Sonic Boom Six, The Johnstones, The Night Gaunts and the immense (though perpetually unlucky) Tyrannosaurus Alan are no strangers to mashing the two genres together with great success. Chipmunk even sampled “Ska-culation” by Roland Al And The Soul Brothers (or “Pipeline” by Bad Manners) in his single “Diamond Rings” in 2009, and was very well received. While describing themselves (at least partially) as hip-hop, The Mad Conductor frequently conduct a disparaging appraisal of commercial rap, particularly audible in “All Things Considered”. The following is taken from their Facebook page:
‘The real problem hip-hop music is facing today is not the unoriginal, lacklustre emcees you hear dominating the radio stations, as much as it is the simple-minded consumers whose ideals have become so mundane that the uninspired, commercial rap music they support is the perfect soundtrack to their equally uninspired lives. This is becoming a serious problem.’
The band is equally critical of punk. “Soulless Experience” of the Members Only EP, released in 2008, is perhaps the most important song The Mad Conductor have recorded to date. It offers a frank analysis and damning critique of the punk scene MC Devlin was part of as Big C of No-Ca$h. In fact, the song makes any subsequent listening to his former band very difficult indeed. However, despite posing a very real and legitimate challenge to the listener, in the closing minute, MC Devlin makes his intentions clear:
‘My goal’s not to crush this empire of evil,
It's to merge on this network and inspire the people,
There’s no more hypocrisy anywhere the there is in the punk scene,
My man Jesse told y’all back in 87, still peace is unseen.’
Far from rejecting the scene and punk ideology, MC Devlin and MC Kinney both demonstrate their support for solidarity and unity. Indeed, in April 2011, The Mad Conductor and The Stupid Stupid Henchmen joined forces to form The Infinite Alliance, and have, so far, released one song with more on the way. The Mad Conductor themselves are releasing their latest single “Lethal Protector” any day now and I doubt their second LP will be far behind, sparking perhaps another welcome excursion to the UK.