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On the third evening of finals period, amid some typically frightful New England winter weather, students and guests duck into the Fox Club and shed their ruffled coats. In a modestly sized room, a lone laser projector struggles to establish some ambiance as attendees inch along, trying to claim a small plot of real estate in front of a mic stand and drum kit. There is an air of speculative anticipation that distinguishes the evening from typical nights of pong and hopeful mingling. Rather than forming the usual familiar clusters, the visitors align themselves around the focal point of the mic stand. Soon, a raucous chant of “BEN! BEN! BEN!” swells and crests, and it is at this point that the evening resolutely turns its back on the expected.
Ben G. Blumstein ’15 saunters out with war paint across his face, accompanied by a man wearing a horse head that will never be explained. The horse-headed accomplice, Jake E. Gambitsky ’15, walks over to a waiting Macbook and plays the beat for the first song of the night. As pounding drums and tribal flutes build, Blumstein begins to rap with confidence as Gambitsky, part hypeman and part DJ, dances with admirable intensity. Blumstein’s lyrics skate nimbly over topics as abstruse as Norse mythology and technical sheep-herding terminology. Perhaps nonplussed by the spectacle but undeniably drawn in, the audience begins to jump and dance with vigor. And thus the world is introduced to Bared Grillz.
Born of a shared love of recording and hip-hop, Bared Grillz is the brainchild of Blumstein and high school friend Preston R.W. Ossman, who is currently a junior at Bard College. The project came into being in 2011, during the last week of high school for Blumstein and Ossman. Originally, the thematic direction for the group came in the form of British accents and dissing Bear Grylls’ competitor Les Stroud of “Survivorman,” but this was quickly abandoned in lieu of more abstract concepts when Blumstein and Ossman began recording in earnest in the winter of 2012. “Much of it is about society and what is it doing to us; what has civilization given us?” Blumstein says. “And with that as a framework, we got back into the studio and started writing again.”
For a hip-hop project formed around a one-off joke, Bared Grillz has evolved to espouse a very tightly defined set of ideas. Blumstein describes their ethos as follows: “The most general concept is nature rap or wilderness rap. It’s rap music, but it’s about something that has never been rapped.” The upcoming debut album, “Bare Essentials,” incorporates dense allusions to Greek and pagan mythology throughout its nimble wordplay. On “Thanatos,” Blumstein raps, “Razorblades slashing, last bastion of the skullcaps bashed in, your dome’s blown / think you’re safe in your own home? / ask Kronos where the throne go,” referencing the origin myth of the Greek gods, who burst forth from within Kronos to usurp the throne of the world. As these bits of mythology whiz by at a neck-snapping pace, it becomes clear that Bared Grillz is a labor of love for the artists. “We had this whole space that had never been manipulated in rap music, so let’s go explore the wilderness,” Blumstein says. Still, he is not ignorant of the fact that the result is fairly unusual. “I would hope that people can laugh at some of the stuff, and also think that some of it is touching, and some of it is earnest,” he says.
For all the esoteric content that Blumstein and Ossman delight in, the music of Bared Grillz is immediately enjoyable thanks to Blumstein’s inventive production. “I have a four-year-old cousin, and I kind of want to make music that he can dance to,” he says. “Bare Essentials” makes use of a number of highly strange samples, the most compelling of which is warbling Nigerian folk singer Nini Mikie from the ’30s, whose voice has been pitch-corrected to a pentatonic scale and laid gently over a piano track on “Eros.” Small pulses of horns and an unobtrusive bass drum create a fascinating mosaic of elements that complement the heartfelt lyrics of Ossman and Blumstein uncommonly well. It is the complexity of musical ideas in moments such as this that prevent Bared Grillz from straying into the realm of gimmicks and tricks. “By no means is it just a joke; so much thought and so much time went into it,” says Blumstein of the project, reaffirming his ardent belief in the potential of his project’s brand of “wilderness rap.” “Bared Grillz is the future. The future of music.”
—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at email@example.com.
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