the world according to heroes are gang leaders

March 20, 2020
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One of the essential elements of the Black American music experience is how it serves multiple community needs and motivations all at once. Rarely is music just for entertainment or information, purely joyful or mournful, simply jazz or punk or dance or rap. Mostly, it’s an extension of all these, culturally connected and imbued with a multitude of meanings. The richness of the tradition is a part of its creative magnetism and the platform of its purpose — giving it extreme relevance in times of day-by-day living, as well as times of crisis.  

Heroes Are Gang Leaders are immersed in the tradition. The band that is big enough to seem a collective was born of a gig that poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis had in 2013, as an opening act for the poet Amiri Baraka. When Baraka died a few months later, Ellis and Lewis assembled a crack line-up — bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Ryan Frazier (now Heru Shabaka-ra), pianist/keyboardist Janice Lowe, drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup, and the poet Randall Horton — to record a tribute, what Ellis called “a signifying groove head-nod to Mr. Baraka,” imbuing it with a musical vocabulary lifted off Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Brown, A Tribe Called Quest and a thousand other giants. 

Their work improvised sounds and words and stories (in addition to Ellis’ dramatic recitations and singing by Margaret Morris, other vocal performers piled on in); and as Heroes Are Gang Leaders found their stride as noisy oral historians, the cast of characters and themes of their shows and recordings morphed past Baraka. They praised other great Black poets (Gwendolyn Brooks, Bob Kaufman and Etheridge Knight), on-boarded guest punk musicians (Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch) and free jazz legends (William Parker), and the core of Heroes expanded, elevating the group’s mighty sound with more horns, bowed strings, and, especially, voices voices voices. (In 2018 they won the American Book Award for Oral Literature.)

On the new Artificial Happiness Button, HAGL’s fifth recording (but its first for the great jazz-groove label Ropeadope), the “band” is a dozen strong, regularly expanding to more than twice that size with guests. Its become an overwhelming, nimble improvisational force, tripping the spectrum between a musical troupe that’s creating a chaotic radio narrative, and a tight funk ensemble — comfortably embodying what the press release calls a “literary jazz band…a version of Funkadelic playing the Archie Shepp song book.” Their oeuvre is a musical wordplay cabaret of Blackness, representing every era, no era and The Era.

One of their primary modes of attack is theatricality, the voices of various Heroes Are Gang Leaders embodying a community of characters, moving the narration from one tempo’d setting to another, like P-Funk on an Ain’t Misbehavin’tip, via 3 Feet High & Rising. This could be a panorama of a timeless Black American space (as on the swinging title track), or a specifically dark, swampy, and blue atmosphere (the Jim Crow terrors and drunk real-life hallucinations of “Mista Slippy”). Poems and sampled voices make way for tight-cropped musical tensions with loose storylines (the instrumental “Hurt Cult” finds “Trae” Crudup working the hi-hat for a spectacular trap beat, as Heru’s trumpet and Janice Lowe’s synth lead a quintet through big wide territory reminiscent of In A Silent Way); or the words return so that storylines can get really specific (the wonderfully titled “It’s the End of the Babysitting of Traumatized Grown Ass Men,” a kind of clueless mea culpa led by a crying Ellis, with a Greek chorus of women snickering and cooing, as the music rises like a mountain and recedes with the tide, over and over). And though amidst its catalog of modern technology-related horrors, the closing “Internet Kill Switch” says nothing about global pandemics — nor gets specific about orange menaces realigning the government with white supremacist policies — it couldn’t be more perfectly positioned to comment on the need to reimagine the world. “It’s time for telepathy! Telepathy!,” says Margaret Morris with the sugared-up voice of a woman pitching something on QVC. “What does it mean to be a human hero? We’re going to find out.”

The traumas, historic and current, are woven through with the jokes and libations required to get past them — or simply survive them. Our heroes have always been gang leaders; only after-the-fact are they sainted, as though they worked within this system built on artificial happiness buttons as social distractions, instead of wanting to tear it the f*ck down. The multiple purposes of this collection of music is to simultaneously help you focus you on this important political fact, while giving you enough musical joyful calories to help keep living through whatever’s going on outside. Now, and after the quarantine.