"Contrast," the third album by Hartford-area hip-hop collective ClaS!ck, released May 30, lives up to its title; the music is both world-weary and positive, expertly engineered and loosely delivered, outward-looking and deeply personal.
The spare hook of the title track, sung by guest vocalist Charlie Widner (and backed by a gospel choir), speaks of finding one's way home: "I lost my feet beneath me / I take my steps so freely." Rapper Murf (aka Christopher Parker) counters with a brash, distorted, braggadocious verse: "Who you kill on a track? / Whose city on your back? / Are you really talking facts? / Sh*t, we should go pop for a couple racks."
"People always say to Chris: 'You have such a unique, off-kilter flow,'" says Gary Nolan, aka Rudy, a beat-maker, multi-instrumentalist and singer. "Rappers always have this machismo, and Chris was never like that. We're just trying to write songs."
"Our favorite artists and inspirations were very original," Parker says. "That's always been a goal, to be as original as possible and to just create."
Parker and Nolan met as teenagers in Windsor. Parker, who played drums, attended the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield, where he hosted benefit concerts. He soon got interested in rapping. Nolan, meanwhile, working closely with Windsor High School music technology teacher Michael Duffek, crafted beats using Fruity Loops software. (Nolan, a music teacher himself, will take over for Duffek at Windsor next year.)
Even early on, Parker and Nolan wanted to make hip-hop songs and beats that were "out there," Nolan says.
"Chris and I always clicked creatively. Even though we weren't very good at it when we started, we wanted to make rap songs that were like movies, that were cinematic."
"To me, lyrically, writing a song is painting a picture," Parker says. "I only have so much time to get my thoughts onto a track. What do I really want someone to take away from it?"
Parker and Nolan are also members of UZOO, a Hartford hip-hop supergroup, featuring members of Joey Batts & Them, AQMNI, Funk Gero and others. The two men formed ClaS!ck in the early 2000s; "Flings (Sides 1 & 2)" came out in 2013, followed by "Grown Ups" in 2015.
Nolan discovered auto-tune while working on "Tick Tock," a song that appeared on "Grown Ups." "On the recording, it's really boring, just me singing the same thing over and over," Nolan says. "I was kind of doing a Kanye 'Blood on the Leaves'-type thing." After one commenter referred to Nolan as "Geezy," a derogatory way of saying he was sounding too much like West, he changed it up.
"I stopped doing it like [West] and just started using [auto-tune] like a seasoning to my voice," Nolan says. He pitched his voice up an octave and doubled it below — listen to the "Contrast" song "Work" — and it became a signature sound. "No one can call me freaking 'Geezy' again, because I did my own thing."
Nolan and drummer Aaron Cotterell, a recent addition to ClaS!ck, also met in Windsor. Jeff Moro, who plays bass and leads the jazz-funk collective the Recess Bureau, began working with Nolan when the two were students at Western Connecticut State University. Nolan moved into Moro's house at the beginning of 2016 while student-teaching; he stayed for four months.
At the time, Moro was working on the Recess Bureau's debut EP, which featured Nolan on guitar. "I was mixing that EP and another live record," Moro says. "[Nolan] was sitting there, getting a feel for how I worked and my concept as an engineer."
"Contrast" is the first hip-hop record Moro has ever mixed and mastered; the album took 11 months to write and a month to record at his Brookfield home studio. Post-production went on for a full year. "This is what I do, and some people don't take it seriously," Moro says, "but I flip them the bird."
Some "Contrast" songs take the form of a pop song: verses, choruses, bridges, and so on. Others, like "Pander," are through-composed, continually evolving over time. Formlessness, when it happens, is completely intentional.
A protected world, free from outside influences, forms at the start of "Place to Be," the short, opening track, which unfolds with an auto-tuned chorale of gentle voices, building slowly across a chord progression. A quick, skittering beat arrives, along with Parker's first verse:
I built this space for you
You can bring some friends, too
That other world is cruel
I hope that you stay true
Parker shares thoughts on creativity, art and escapism: "What's it like to be left-brained all the time?" he asks on "Run." "A thousand-yard stares with some endless sighs."
"Work" adds live drums from Cotterell and Moro's jazzy upright bass; "Keeping our head above the shore, making our way against the tide," Nolan sings. Work is a blessing and a curse. "Used to be blunts back to back," Parker says. "Now it's exhaling stories on the damn track."
UZOO colleagues Joey Batts ("Leviathan") and AQMNI's CrissB.amazing and TyHookz ("Clouds / Everything") appear on the album as well; the latter, one of the most laid-back tracks on "Contrast," is also crammed tight with sonic information.
"Strength" morphs quickly from a polyrhythmic, handclapping groove to guitar-based rock, showing off the band's musical chops.
"Don't let the world make you bitter like some licorice," Parker raps. "Stop bitching 'cause even when you fly, you really might fall." The groove reverts to a triple-meter feel mid-song, then shifts back to 4/4.
The five-minute "Pander," is through-composed, a musical and lyrical stream-of-consciousness over a chamber-pop groove, experimental in form and sound; here, Parker supplies some of his most abstract couplets; "The pen is mighty, the sword tells a tale," Parker says, "stand at attention even when you always fail." Cotterell adds swirling drums to the simplest of drum-machine beats; the dynamics swell into a giant peak, collapse and reform.
Cotterell plays live drums on several "Contrast" songs, mixed in with electronic drum tracks; live, he plays to a headphone monitor mix. Most of the singing on "Contrast" — some auto-tuned — was done by Nolan.
Nolan and Moro met Widmer, who fronts the band Sub-Urban and almost won Switzerland's Got Talent ("Die grössten Schweizer Talente"), at WCSU.
"We call him 'The Velvet Voice,'" Moro says. "They didn't want an American winning $150,000 and then leaving the country."
With all the band members' other ongoing projects, ClaS!ck remains a priority. The band drew 50 to 60 fans to a recent CD release show at Tainted Inc., an intimate space in Hartford, where Cotterell played acoustic drums, Moro added bass, Nolan sang and played guitar, and Parker emceed. The band hopes to tour at the end of July, work schedules permitting.
"We're trying to play as many places as possible at this point," Nolan says, "now that we know this is being received really well. ... We just want to spread that as far as possible."
Stream and purchase ClaS!ck's "Contrast" on Bandcamp.
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at email@example.com.