In a new biography, hip-hop artist Klassik emerges transcendently talented, but still rooted, a native son of Milwaukee

Book review: The Milwaukeean: A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph by Joey Grihalva

Joey Grihalva will present SONSET — a book reading by the author and solo improv by Klassik — for The Milwaukeean, at a new venue, forMartha, 825 E. Center Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The event will follow the Center Street Daze street festival. Cover is $10, or $25 with book.

Is a thirty-ish hip-hopper with only regional renown worthy of a biography? In his new book about Klassik (Kellen Abston), author Joey Grihalva forges, in effect, a freshly painted, still-mutating portrait of a creative man, of Milwaukee and of contemporary times, with all the urgency and potential for tragedy and agency that all implies. In that sense, Klassik emerges as a comparatively humble embodiment of a Black Milwaukeean, even as he manifests genius that might characterize the city. The painfully enlightened and haunted saga – he watched his father die of bullet wounds at age 11 – bends toward the arc of triumph, if justice remains elusive.

The victory comes, in one sense, because the personal is still political. Klassik is one of many who’ve grown as the art of hip hop has grown – fitfully, defiantly, and dynamically – to where Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. If there’s a connection, Klassik has much more in common with Lamar’s 2015 jazzy masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly than with Lamar’s ensuing album Damn.

It might also be the cultural difference between Compton, California and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Maybe, ultra-hipness vs. a kind of ultra-hopeness? As in “keep hope alive.” As this book reveals, Klassik’s deep troubled history with, and vision of his hometown, sets him apart. It’s partly why he’s watched many Milwaukee area rap artists become bigger names than him.

Standing over his hometown’s skyline, Kellen “Klassik” Abston says he thinks of Milwaukee as a character more than a place. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 

That does not mean they’re better. That’s why, among increasingly aware Midwesterners, Klassik is as essentially Milwaukee as contemporary hip-hop gets. Grihalva captures a nearly lost Midwestern bonhomie, a pan-racial faith in humanity, hidden beneath the grime of post-industrialism and the crime of racism.

Klassik, who studied jazz saxophone with Milwaukee master Berkeley Fudge, was an early musical prodigy. To the degree he manifests his own filtered amalgam of jazz, classic R&B, and hip-hop, I hear and feel how much he makes good on the thoughtful presumption of his name, Klassik. His previous album, American Klassiks, demonstrated how he can reinvent classics of American vernacular musics, and make them present, alive for today and pointing a beacon forward, musically and spiritually. The artist in him won’t do it any other way.

“This is the problem with Kellen’s stuff – it’s too smart,” says his friend Jordan Lee, a DJ, and a former station director at 88/Nine Radio Milwaukee, who’s also a member of the jazz-hip-hop trio KASE, with whom Klassik as recorded and collaborated. 1 “It was never going to work at the beat battle,” referring to a competitive hip-hop event Lee produced from 2005 to 2015, known as the Miltown Beatdown, which brought together produces rappers, and hip-hop heads from all over the city.

Rather than always “on the beat,” that can be as delimiting as it is compulsively attractive, Klassik’s music unfolds with an almost Midwestern shapeliness, as if informed by the Kettle Moraine as much as by the staccato pulses of the urban environment. As a primal Klassik source, I’ve always heard the soul-praying-to-the-moon existential angst of Marvin Gaye, whom he shouts out on “Black-Spangled Banner,” on American Klassiks, recorded live late one night in Bay View’s Cactus Club.

Klassik’s expressive power dates back to, among other things, Marvin Gaye and the hauntings of his childhood. Courtesy IAMKLASSIK.com.

He’s also decidedly more improvisational than most hip-hop or pop. “Maybe it’s the jazz purist in me,” he muses to Grihalva. “When you think about live music and playing an instrument, even the most rehearsed and refined part has its own idiosyncrasies or little inflections that make it human. I’m making something, I’m adding layers and depth.” 2

Klassik performs at Pianofest, at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a few years ago. Singer Adekola Adedapo recalls, at age 10, Kellen played “Over the Rainbow,” on saxophone at a Heath Brothers jazz workshop at the Wisconsin Conservatory, one of the first discoveries of his talent. Photo courtesy JGCA

The book, a prime example of “new journalism,” is also the author’s own story, about his relationship to his subject and their shared hometown, “an eternal tie that binds.” Abston and Grihalva are virtual contemporaries and Grihalva teaches at Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, which is Abston’s alma mater.

Part of Abston’s burden is that he feels he could have done more than simply freeze up, to possibly save his father from dying, and that, 20 years past, Robin Abston’s murder remains unsolved. That’s plenty to drive a young man to drink and drugs – a large part of his struggle, aside from his often-exquisite peculiarity as a young, gifted, and black man, within our race-obsessed culture. And yet he won’t leave Milwaukee, as partly a spiritual detective still on a homicide case grown cold for most others. His relationship with police is deep ambivalence, hardly hatred. But he’s also doing close investigation of his own identity, which messes with him, with ghosts of what he’s been, shouldn’t be, won’t be, and can be.

Klassik’s bling always includes the dog tags of his father, veteran Robin Abston, who was murdered 20 years ago, in a crime that remains unsolved. Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine

Ultimately the redemption and triumph of the story is the hard-earned wisdom that arises from it, in the experiences and voices of both author and subject, as well as a choir of street-sage homies. The way that choral mosaic enlightens the story, like a vast stain glass window, is Grihalva’s achievement, his crafting of a sense of authenticity by finding common cause with your roots. One of Klassik’s defining ventures into communal creativity was his key role, in the summer of 2016, in Milwaukee’s Strange Fruit Festival, named for the searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” popularized by Billie Holiday. The festival was spurred in response to two police killings of unarmed black men on back-to-back days: Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, killed in his car in St. Paul Minnesota.

“That was one of the first times where I felt pulled artistically, in terms of feeling a responsibility with my platform,” Kellen explained. “It heightened this desire to wield it, almost like a weapon, for good.” Kellen’s profile was rising, as he was performing in New York City during the first two nights of Strange Fruit. Kellen flew back to Milwaukee for the final night of the festival.

Then, that weekend’s Saturday afternoon, Milwaukee police shot and killed Sylville Smith in the Sherman Park neighborhood. The incident sparked riots that culminated in the burning of a gas station, a bank, and a beauty supply store, images seen on international news the next morning.

As for the festival, Kellen said, “Everybody was on their A-game…It was such an amazing event. You could tell everybody was there for the betterment of the community in whatever small or large way they could. And was just crazy timing that we had this festival amid the madness that ensued.” The event played again the next two years, and Abston wrote a manifesto for a potential relaunch of the festival, though it never got off the ground.

Much chaos and transformation has come down since then, the era of Trump and George Floyd, and Klassik has achieved a kind of personal-is-political triumph of textured passion on his last album QUIET, with assists from Milwaukee artists who’ve gone to greater renown, SistaStrings, the multi-talented singers-string-players, and folk-rock artist Marielle Alschwang, among others.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about protest in the form of joy, specifically Black joy,” Abston says. “With the new stuff I’m working on, there is this element of defiance in being happy and free. That’s like the most powerful thing you can do as a minority in this country.”

The power, he understands, also derives from accepting himself as a Milwaukeean, “The Milwaukeean.” He’s lucky to have a biographer as attuned as this one, who can tell his story so tenderly and beautifully. Abston reflects on the notion of faith: “If I hit a good note or I’m writing a good melody or these chords have a certain color or have the ability to stir up emotion from thin air, that’s magic. That’s God. It’s all those things. It’s being connected to something greater than ourselves.”

Almost two years ago to this day, he meets with Grihalva at Kilbourn Reservoir Park, which overlooks downtown where North Avenue curves into Riverwest. It’s one of his favorite places in the city. “I would go up to that hill over there when I was super-fucking depressed. I would just sit and cry, let it out and wipe them tears off. Then this warmth would come over me, especially at night. Something about the lights. It’s weird because it’s not a spectacular skyline. But it’s mine, you know?” He continues, “In all my videos, I’ve always thought of Milwaukee as a character, not a location.”

That idea of making a city a living, breathing character – a father figure? – seems to speak volumes about Klassik’s genius, as an archetypal son of a quintessential American city, in all its grit and glory, it’s patriarchal sorrow and shame, its defiant brotherhood and sisterhood.

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  1. Klassik’s most recent appearance on a recording is his largely wordless vocalizing on KASE + Klassik: Live at the Opera House, on B-Side Recordings.
  2. Grihalva’s previous book was Milwaukee Jazz, a photo history from Arcadia publishing’s Images of America series.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul 2016 tour keeps on truckin,’ with Los Lobos…

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Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, here performing in White River State Park in Indianapolis, may be pop music’s most talented and hardest-working couple.

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal

Indianapolis — A wall of dark, broad-shouldered clouds hovered above the massive J. W. Marriott Hotel, surely one of the largest facades this side of the United Nations building, with mirror windows that reflect myriad aspects of the sky’s caprice. The building looms over the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn, nestled along the refurbished White River Canal, which includes ancient canal lock foundations sitting in the middle of the water like giant grizzled, brick turtles. Those clouds felt ominous for the big outdoor concert headlined by The Tedeschi Trucks Band, which my girlfriend and I were walking towards.

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Just east of the park at Lucas Oil Stadium, The Indianapolis Colts prepared for a new season. But the sky eventually mimicked the clouds, merely growing darker as the sun set.

We arrived too late to see the opening set of the North Mississippi All-Stars, but the band’s star guitarist, Luther Dickinson, came on to jam on a couple of songs when Los Lobos hit the stage. This sort of band commingling is part of the “Wheels of Soul 2016” tour concept, in which members of the three bands sit in with each other. Soon, Susan Tedeschi walked on unannounced in a pastel green print summer dress and sang an impassioned version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” with “the wolves” providing sparkling vocal support in high harmony. Gaye’s imploring lyrics resonated with our times, with such lines as “Picket lines and picket signs/ Don’t punish me with brutality./ Talk to me, so you can see.” Tedeschi especially drove home hard the line “For only love can conquer hate.”

Los Lobos

Los Lobos, going strong for more than 40 years, preceeded the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Next thing you knew, guitarist Derek Trucks and his band’s three horn players stepped out and the impromptu ensemble cranked up a monster guitar ensemble riff (with four guitars now onstage), jousting with the horns, with heavy musical armor clanking.

Los Lobos, the remarkable Latino group from East Los Angeles, remains a force with the same personnel over 40 years, and a joy to behold. Their last album, Gates of Gold shows absolutely no loss of creative and performing powers. Yet, although the band soon fell into a deliciously rocking groove, they offered very little material from that album, aside from “That Train Don’t Leave Here Anymore.” But singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas remains a growling and prowling rock ‘n’ roll voice, and the train rumbled down its track with abandon.

The band members offer a study in onstage contrasts: Rosas is the voluble hipster in goatee and shades. Bassist Conrad Lozado bounces along merrily in shorts and a perpetual grin. Bespectacled and largely mum Louie Perez, the band’s resident poet/songwriter, resembles a college professor who just discovered the joys of the electric guitar, but his serious, pursed lips won’t let on. Behind him, the band’s only comparative youngster, drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzales, stokes the beat with zealous relish.

And beside short, slight Perez stands his hulking counterpart and old high school compadre, singer-guitarist-multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, who always seems slightly afflicted by soulful pain. To his left, keyboardist-saxophonist Steve Berlin lurks in shades and long, gray goatee, like a mysterious monk summoning the music of the spheres.

Their set was too short but rich, especially with the personnel mixing.

After a break on this sultry night, The Tedeschi Trucks Band ensued. Their latest album, Let Me Get By, bears a liberated Mongolian eagle as its iconic cover symbol, and the great raptor hovered majestically in a large background projection (below).

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There are many aspects to singer Susan Tedeschi’s vibrantly expressive vocal style, including a tendency to sing out of the side of her mouth, as above.

And the group consistently liberates itself in pushing the boundaries of an array of genres – the blues, R&B, rock, gospel, jazz, and even country – by strapping them together in various stripes in their distinctive originals. So we heard such TTB standouts as “Bound for Glory,”  “The Storm,” “Let Me Get By,” the Sly Stone-esque “Don’t Know What It Means,” “Right On Time,” the pulsing rainbow of a song redolent of an old Beatles brass-band rave-up, and the raga-soul “Midnight in Harlem,” where tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams took a superb solo in place of Trucks’ usual guitar spotlight. The sax conveyed a sudden revelation amid the song’s bittersweet story of loss and urban desperation, and felt like a tender smile and a sigh bleeding together.

Trucks seemed to share the spotlight more than usual this night, and yet he delivered an understated but stunning “raga” passage, which introduces “Midnight.”

This seemingly improvised raga works with the song’s tonalities more than its chords or melody, per se (until he states the melody at the end of the improv). It’s his time to explore the guitar especially with Eastern classical microtonalities, tunings and fingerings, as well as the spirit of East-meets-West. For this band, I think, Harlem might signify the essence of The West. The East, accordingly serves to illuminate things about the West.

So in this intro solo, Trucks uncovered some bizarrely enchanting sitar-related voicings that I don’t think I’ve heard on a guitar before. People like Mike Bloomfield and George Harrison opened the door for this, via the great sitar master Ravi Shankar, of course (with jazz guitarists like Gabor Szabo pioneering a jazz-middle eastern connection about the same time, the mid-60s). But Trucks is very quietly (considering his fame) expanding the vocabulary and expressive palette of the contemporary electric guitar through this realm, and his astonishingly developed slide-guitar technique facilitates that search, with its emphasis on striking and strange harmonics more than precise, Western-style chords. This all seems important to him. The sum of his effort works beautifully as an intro to the depths as “Midnight” plumbs — as if he’s setting a cinematic mood and scenario and a consciousness-expanding spirit for this vivid and powerful song.

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Derek Trucks plays at the Wheels of Soul 2016 tour in Indianapolis on July 27. His highly developed bottleneck slide technique facilitates his exploration of Eastern tonalities in his “raga” modes. Photo by Chris Shaw of Indianapolis.

It’s a prime example of how these road-tested stagecoach riders know where they’re going with their reins on all those vernacular styles because they know where they came from. Tedeschi swerved into honky tonk on “The Color of the Blues,” where the blues married a barroom cowgirl in this chestnut by George Jones, the magnificent country vocal stylist who died in 2013. Accompanied only by her own guitar and background vocals from Mike Mattison and trombonist Elizabeth Lea, the lead singer mined the dolorous lyricism implicit in the blues.

She also tore into the old Bobby Blue Bland hit “I Pity the Fool” and ratcheted it up higher than when I saw her perform it in Madison on the band’s previous tour. Towards the end of the song, she unleashed a sassy rap like a righteous black woman putting her wayward man in his place. I mean, for a white woman from Boston with a little-girl talking voice, Ms. Tedeschi was dealin’!

Also convincingly covered were ZZ Top’s “Going Down to Mexico.” The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s boisterous “Are You Ready?” which improbably tested the audience’s readiness for their almost comically drastic gear shift into an extraordinary rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Here, a relatively new band weapon emerged when background singer Mark Rivers took the vocal lead. The song’s bittersweet reflection swelled into nearly operatic heights but never felt overblown, partly due to its doo-wop colorations.

If any band can redefine and re-invigorate American music by embracing the best its many vernaculars have to offer, it is Tedeschi Trucks. At times their idioms feel like a journey into valleys as shadowy as the mythical American  “Mystery Train,” but they invariably chug up to the crest where it all makes sense in the sunlight, like a train bound for nowhere else but glory.

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All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as indicated.