Just because it's old-time doesn't mean it has to be old-fashioned: That's the takeaway from "Hit 'Em Up Style," the hip-hop cover by black string trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops. "It's a real American kind of thing," says multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens. "You take a hip-hop tune, you put it on a banjo and there you go. That's happened a lot in American music history."
Maybe hip-hop on a banjo, specifically, hasn't happened with any degree regularity (at least not yet) but performing contemporary hits on string band instruments: Giddens says that's old school.
"There's never been any criticism [from the old-time community] because really, it's a very old tradition," she points out. "People wanted to hear the most recent stuff and old timers played modern songs that they heard on the radio. They're just not modern to us anymore. It's kind of actually traditional to do that."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are based in Durham and met five years ago at the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone. When the three musicians — including multi-instrumentalists Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson — decided to start a band, they studied with now 91-year-old African American old-time fiddler Joe Thompson.
And, though the Chocolate Drops still perform Thompson's repertoire along with a number of traditionals (their latest album, Genuine Negro Jig includes tunes like "Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Cindy Gal"), they're also not afraid to add modern twists — like "Hit 'Em Up Style," a 2001 hit for R&B singer Blue Cantrell — and beatboxing; a talent Robinson includes among fiddle, 5-string banjo, autoharp and jug.
"When he started doing that, we were just like, 'Whoa! What happened? We didn't know you could beatbox,'" says Giddens.
But, in a way, it's like of course Robinson can beatbox. Just like of course Giddens — who attended Oberlin Conservatory for voice ("Good lord, I wish they'd had a banjo class") — taught herself five-string banjo, fiddle, kazoo and the akonting, a banjo-like gourd instrument that she traveled to Gambia to study. Not to be outdone, Flemons (who told Spinner.com that you don't have to be a good musician to play old-time because "It's folk music, so regular folks can do it" but "Our group happens to be good at our instruments and we've played for quite a while") plays four-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum and bones.
From the beginning "there was always the potential" for being a band of multi-instrumentalists, according to Giddens. "Justin studied as a classical violinist. When I came in, I played banjo and fiddle. Dom tries to play everything that moves … we're such a loose and fluid band that we kind of swap around instruments so we've each gotten better at different things by playing in different configurations."
This year's Genuine Negro Jig peaked in the top slot on the US bluegrass chart and in second place on the US folk music chart. And, though the Chocolate Drops aren't in a big hurry to capitalize on that success ("We're working on new material," says Giddens, "but I don't think we'll ever be a one-album-a-year band because we tend to road-test our stuff"), the significance isn't lost on the trio.
For starters, they're signed to Warner Music Group imprint Nonesuch Records. Then there's the growing fan base, not hurt by frequent radio play of "Hit 'Em Up Style." There's the burgeoning interest in old-time music. Three years ago, in an interview, Plemons said, "I do think we're on the cusp of an old time music revival here." Today, Giddens says, of that revival, "It's still building. I don't know if it's ever something we'll see reflected in the mainstream media, but there's a lot of stuff going on. People are getting tired of pop music."
She also believes listeners have grown tired of hip-hop and that's why "we're even getting interest from the black community." Though, according to Giddens, traditional black string band music — especially in how it differs from white string band music — "is not really that clear. When you're talking about music it's more of a regional thing than a color thing. Blacks and whites living together were all the same class. Working class. So there was quite a bit exchanged."
And, happily, both that exchange and the trajectory of black string band music continues — as evidenced by the Black Banjo Gathering reunion (a celebration of that first event, five years ago, that launched the Chocolate Drops) which took place earlier this spring. The roster of panelists, lecturers and performers included Giddens, Thompson, Corey Harris (who has traced, through music and video, the roots of American music back to Africa) and Alice Gerrard (of folk music duo Hazel and Alice) among many others.
"The profile of that whole topic is higher now," says Giddens. "A lot of people were really inspired. A lot of people who were at the beginning of their journey [five years ago], as far as the history of the banjo, I really see them coming into their own now."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: The Carolina Chocolate Drops (with Firecracker Jazz Band)
what: Black old-time string band with a modern twist
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, May 14 (8 p.m. $15 advance/$17 doors. theorangepeel.net)