new music: sidewalk chalk evokes the golden age of hip-hop on ‘leaves’. #soundcheck

February 26, 2014

It’s called “the Golden Age of Hip-Hop” for a reason, and it continues to inspire artists for the same damn good reason. Though I was a kid then, I remember listening to Native Tongues releases at the time, and it was undeniable that there was something magic happening. Chicago’s Sidewalk Chalk thankfully doesn’t try to trade just in nostalgia and recreate the sound on their Leaves LP, instead they go hunting for magic.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor


The rhythm section of Charlie Coffeen (keys), Garrett McGinn (bass), and Tyler Berg (drums) pull of the Roots’ trick of being as tight as a laptop without losing an ounce of human feel. On opening track “Grocery List,” the band evokes classic Stevie Wonder, while dueling vocalists Rico Sisney and Maggie Vagle bounce off each other with effortless chemistry. In far too many groups, a talented singer like Maggie Vagle is relegated to singing the hook and little else, but she shares the stage equally with MC Rico Sisney. On the tight “Mary the Beautiful,” Maggie’s lead vocal allows the singer to stretch her chops. As the track turns on a dime, shifting tempos and keys, the interplay between the 8 members highlights a creativity determined to declare the modern standard pop format irrelevant.

While Sidewalk Chalks sound is clearly indebted to the Native Tongues crew, the band’s creativity (particularly in the samba-infused breakdown of “There She Goes”) makes it stand out. As more bands come to look back on the Golden Age for inspiration, far too many end up just reminding me that it’s been too long since I last took the time to sit down and just get lost in The Low End Theory. It’s one thing to make music that sounds “jazzy,” but it’s another to commit to the rapid changes in time signature, tempo, feel, and song structure that make something jazz. In other words; it’s easy to sample Charles Mingus, but it’s far harder to make music that Mingus would have liked.

The free form and dub-inspired “C.B.R.” is the kind of track that’s not likely to win the band much airplay, but it shows a talented team unafraid to challenge their listener. The balance between their desire to experiment, and the band’s innate pop sensibilities come together on the flawless “Fearless Messenger.” Highlighting the sound of the band’s tap dancer (did I mention they had taps? I should have earlier. They’ve got a tap dancer.) Jumaane Taylor, the band flexes all their muscles simultaneously, but delicately. You don’t need to drive 120mph all the time to appreciate a 600 horsepower engine.