photo by: JMG

I first heard Rye Rye’s recent mix-tape RYEot poweRR at Devin Morris’ “Cold” fashion shoot . I didn’t know any of the hype, that the she been signed by Sri Lankan powerhouse MIA, that she would soon be on a nationwide tour, or that she would be playing at the Coachella festival. But I loved the songs.

I was first drawn in by the power of the song “Witchdoctor” (and having written a book about witchdoctors it became something of a soundtrack for my book promotion stuff over the last few months). The simple, almost school-yard rhythm of the chorus contrasted sharply with the insanely rapid delivery of the verses. The seeming shout-out to MICA kids, “Art School Boy” was equally surprising and original.

Perhaps that indie-vibe explained why her homecoming gig last Saturday was held at Station North mainstay Metro Gallery.

Inside, it almost didn’t seem like the Metro Gallery at all. T-Mobile was streaming it live. Only a hundred and something tickets were sold so there would be room for the giant MTV or sitcom style crane being used to film the event. Several guys worked it, swigning it up over everyone’s heads, down for a side shot. For a while there were more videographers than spectators. Guys in T-Mobile t-shirts handed out postcards and posters.

And yet, Rye Rye’s huge smile and contagious energy overcame the machine surrounding her. It seemed like she forgot the bullshit, and so everyone else did too. How could she think about the cameras and the streaming, when she had to remember the hundreds of words she spit out at a breakneck pace. She seemed so much faster live. And, unable to follow the meaning of the words, I listened to her sound, and I think I came to understand something. Her vocal delivery sounds like Charlie Parker’s alto sax lines.

Not only does Rye Rye sound a lot like Charlie Parker, she is doing something similar to the great sax player. Parker took swing jazz and sped it up, focusing on the riotous harmonic improvisations that the standards allowed, but had never before promoted. Some people say Parker and the other bop artists were sick of playing music for for white people to dance to, so they sped it up and said “Dance to that.”

Rye Rye uses the kinetic beats of Baltimore club music to speed up the delivery of the usual hip hop line and by chopping it up like that, making it staccato, she, like Parker, makes it more melodic. Except Rye Rye does dance to it. Good too. During every song, she quit singing to break out in wild, kinetic, and yet choreographed steps along with the two dancers she had on stage. She kicked her legs and flung her arms in wild pulses of rhythm. With bright eyes, short hair with bleached blond bangs, huge square earrings, a short black dress and gold tights, she owned the many corporate cameras in the place. But after they all came down, she kept dancing.

Entranced by her own music, it seemed for a moment it seemed like Rye Rye had overcome T-Mobile’s corporate spell.

It seems almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation when a major cell-phone service provider has been transmitting your every move all over the world for the last hour, and I wondered if this authenticity would carry over. I walked up while she was signing posters that T-Mobile guys were giving away at the door.

“Sure, I’ll talk to you,” she said when I approached. “It’s good to be back in Baltimore, where I can be around my people and recharge before the Coachella concert next week. My people are my people.”

I didn’t really want to ask about Coachella or any of that and I figured I only had a minute, so, slightly drunk, I asked her the thing that really interested me at the moment: how did she write”Witchdoctor.”

“I was working with a DJ in Chicago and I took this old Baltimore club song… because of certain sounds. I remembered it from way back and it was just in my head and that was what I kept hearing, ‘I saw the witchdoctor and this is what he said. He gave me some weed and then he knocked me on my head.'”

“Did you know any witchdoctors that you were talking about?”

She giggled, looked down, and signed another poster for a fan. “No. It just sounded good. But I did know a bunch of stoners so I just put them in the song.”
“It’s time to go,” somebody in a T-Mobile shirt said. But Rye Rye was still laughing.

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