BLACKS’ MYTHS: AN AFROPUNK DJ MIX
By Piotr Orlov
January 12, 2020
Though Blacks’ Myths seemingly come out of the jazz tradition, the Washington D.C.-based duo of bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Trae Cruddup actually make music way beyond category. Improvisational and loud, intense and electric, experimental and emotional. If it’s jazz, it’s punk jazz — or, more to the point, jazz as hardcore, which Stewart played when he was a youth in Mississippi. Whatever you may call it, their roar — whether together in Blacks’ Myths, or in any of the multitude of projects they are individually involved in — feels like some of the best musical shit happening in America in 2020. The sound of a revolution in the making — heady, weird, mythological but real, and, above all, Black.
The mix that Stewart has put together for AFROPUNK reflects all that turbulence. It features a deep cross-section of projects that he and Trae are a part of, reflective of all the great underground creativity taking place around D.C., right under Tr*mp’s fucking nose. Some of it is being organized and activated by Stewart, who is not just a musician, but an activist and archivist, working with organizations such as the the now-defunct Union Arts, with sites like Capital Bop, and with great current DIY spaces like Rhizome, where many of these tracks were recorded. Much of this music is making its public debut here. Luke walked us through it, and how he arrived here.
As a musician, you move across genres and styles — from jazz, to hardcore, to electronic improvisation. What ties different music together for you?
I enjoy taking the approach that I learned from studying the music, stories about the music, and from talking briefly with Muhal Richard Abrams, that The Music is a continuum, especially Black Music. (To be clear, I did not study with Muhal — he was, however, a supporter of James Brandon Lewis and I. So I was able to speak with him a few times in person before he passed.) I’ve never seen music in separate genre formations, though I am very much appreciative of style, and of the different, unique ways in which people express themselves and represent their communities. I think it is good to be aware of the diversity in aesthetics across geography and worldview, which is one of the greatest determining factors of why certain musicians play what they play. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to freely seek out and be exposed to many styles, and have been inspired by those that you enumerate. With a thorough investigation of the continuum — and of the connecting lines of style through historical interaction — lateral inspiration becomes clear. Some of the music that, say, Muhal has made (like “March of the Transients”) has a similar spirit as hardcore, in both music and in their struggle for creative independence. The intensity of hardcore (rock and jazz) inspired a multitude of scenes in electronic improvisation (including Miles Davis’ “Rated X,” arguably the first ever “jungle” track). Now we are living in a time of unlimited access, unlimited inspiration. That, coupled with the real-life interaction with various creative communities as a musician and organizer, has provided multiple avenues and opportunities for my personal development.
Specifically, as someone who played in punk bands as a youth, and who as one-half of the Blacks’ Myths plays very aggressive, electric and loud improvisational music, I would love for you to give insight as to what the “jazz” and the “punk” traditions share for you, or your approach to them.
Absolutely. I’ll start with the J word. For a long time, until fairly recently, I saw myself as being outside of the jazz tradition, being isolated from a living scene, having no access to a formal educational jazz program, not choosing to follow my generation’s migration to NYC in my early twenties. I always saw jazz as something that was beyond me, far away and ahead of anything I could do. It wasn’t until I moved to DC when I was able to meet elders who had lived the music, as practitioners and otherwise, that I finally felt connected to a community and tradition, which made me feel very proud. It felt like I was finally claiming my “cultural inheritance” of sorts. Later though, as I learned more about the stories behind certain musicians, I realized I was indeed very much in the tradition of Southern Black musicians who would go on to be involved in the creation of some of the most enduring Creative Music. Just to name a few Mississippians: Wadada Leo Smith, John Gilmore, Dick Griffith, and Alvin Fielder. I was able to speak with Mr. Fielder the most — even though sadly I was never able to find a way to play with him, or visit him in Jackson. His example represented some of what I have been inspired by as a musician and community person. On top of being an amazing drummer, he also was able to start initiatives like the Black Arts Music Society (in 1960s Jackson, MS!). His involvement in the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Music], as well as the many other men and women in the community arts movements around radical music, have continued to teach me about the impact and importance of the music and its legacy.
My forays into punk music was something that started as a way to play music with my friends outside of a school scenario. (I played alto saxophone in the marching band.) By early-/mid-high school, I had been in a band called the Volatiles (we were very good, even upon recent listens!) which had begun to be the basis of my social circle outside of school. I think we were very much more interested in the late 70s/early 80s styles and bands from all over really. Then we played some shows around the Gulf Coast and ultimately our adolescent ridiculousness turned into many other strange projects. Once I moved to DC, I honestly found that the corresponding punk scene was much more tame than what I was used to, in both the sound and the attitude. I’ve spoken about this with some folks who say that I just missed the exodus of a lot of people from that scene (moved in the early 2000s). However, that scene was very warm and extremely politically active, embracing me and the band I was in called Laughing Man. Through our activities we were able to interact with the scene as it existed about 10 years ago, and found it to be impactful and important in other ways. That is how it spawned recent groups like Priests and Gauche, as well as newer legacy Dischord bands like the Messthetics and Hammered Hulls.
You are based in Washingon, DC, which has always been (lowkey for some folks) an epicenter of radical cultural activity. Can you talk a little bit about the creative and musical community there, and shout-out some of the sounds and creative thinking emanating from there, and some of the spaces that are hosting this stuff?
Yes, this is true and I’m glad you pointed it out (I’m currently based in both DC and NYC). I could speak forever about the various interactions with the greater music community of DC, not to mention the many things that I’ve been involved. But like NYC, the music scenes are segregated — and, likewise, my interactions with them have been segmented to a certain extent. However, it has been extremely important to me that I have been able to be accepted in so many of those circles.
Historically speaking, DC has a very strong legacy of radical cultural activity, specifically within the Black community. I felt a sense of pride the first time I experienced U Street, seeing waves of beautiful Black folks who seemed to be doing well. As I learned more about the local history and became engaged through the radio station WPFW and otherwise, my sense of pride only grew. It was really at the radio station that so many things were unlocked for me, being able to be surrounded by a series of men and women with deep intimate knowledge and experience of the music. (Every DJ at WPFW spins from their personal collections, no station library to draw from.) I can attest that virtually every famous radio DJ has a corresponding counterpart at WPFW with just as much depth and knowledge as DJs from New York or anywhere else — if not more! There are entirely too many people to name, but specifically people such as Jamal Muhammad, who gave me my first chance at the station. Bobby Hill, who was the Program Director for many years and also an innovator in the art of radio DJing (live radio performances using the actual Console as an instrument) as well as a longtime concert presenter for Transparent Productions. It is through him that I first began to personally interact with the greater Creative Music community as an audience member. Bob Daughtry, who was the longtime technical director, has some of the deepest knowledge of the greater underground cultural scenes of DC going back to the 60s. He taught me a lot about those, and specifically about some of the proto-punk happenings in the 70s in the virtually all-Black wards 7 and 8. Tom Porter was deeply influential to me as the person who was able to tie together the music, the radical message, and the culture. He continues to be among the most brilliant people I’ve met.
At the moment, the main spot in DC is Rhizome, now in its fourth year. I see it as the only truly organically developed radical community arts initiative that has emerged in the past few years there; and it is made all the more profound by its dedication to experimental art and music, rather than popular underground forms like punk, hip-hop, etc…
Does the term “Strength in Struggle” have any resonance or meaning for you? If so, what?
It makes me first think of the phrase “Unity in Struggle,” coined by Amiri Baraka. However, I have experienced in my life and interactions the true struggle that it is to exist in the US. It makes me think about the cultural pervasiveness of Black Americans, how through centuries of oppression and continued destruction of the community and psyche, the reaction was to create virtually every form of popular music that has come out of the U.S. However that also includes the story of co-opting and erasure. For example, the modern recording industry was created specifically through the co-opting and erasure of Black musicians and their creation of a new art form (jazz). It makes me think about my family, my grandparents, who had to endure hardships that I will never experience in order for me to exist and to be a musician. So “Strength in Struggle” is a mantra of reality, that strength is gained through overcoming hardships. That’s not the only way however.