Back in early 2016, Alverno College’s long-running performing arts series, Alverno Presents, announced its current season would be its last. Among the many casualties of the announcement was Alverno Presents’ excellent UNCOVERED series, which found local talent reimagining the works of national legends. One-time only shows like Betty Blexrud-Strigens’ “Smith Uncovered” (a tribute to Patti Smith), Jordan Lee’s “Jones Uncovered” (a tribute to Quincy Jones), and Hello Death’s “Prince Uncovered” (a tribute to Prince) had been big, bold, and unmistakable highlights of their respective years.
Happily, UNCOVERED has found a second life with the Pabst Theater Group, who will be hosting the series going forward. The first UNCOVERED 2.0 show, “Tribe UNCOVERED,” is set for Friday, January 20 at Turner Hall, and finds multi-threat Klassik—along with Foreign Goods, Stomata, Chris Rosenau, Lorde Fredd33, AR Wesley, Deb.On.Air, Mike Regal, Strehlow, Jordan Lee, Old Man Malcolm, and Christopher Gilbert—reinterpreting the music of A Tribe Called Quest. Milwaukee Record spoke to Klassik about the origins of the show, its unlikely serendipity, and its original subject.
Milwaukee Record: You’ve been involved in past UNCOVERED shows—Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, and Prince—but only as a performer. That’s no small feat, though I imagine it’s a little bit different heading up your own show.
Klassik: Yup, a little bit more involved, to say the least. Everything falls on you, and everyone is looking to you for direction. It’s like being on call for anybody’s concerns or questions, especially with a band and group this size—Foreign Goods, additional musicians, other producers, MCs, and the Turner Hall folks. Every day there’s a new thing, besides just trying to carry out the vision and the musical ideas. There’s a whole technical side to it that I’ve enjoyed. It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve definitely enjoyed it.
MR: Was this show already in the works before Alverno Presents announced it was coming to a close?
K: It was, and that was the big reason for the eventual shift. David Ravel, who was the Artistic Director at Alverno Presents, already had this show and the Stevie Wonder show lined up before the Alverno series ended. His main priority was finding a home for these shows. So he did his David Ravel magic and fostered this relationship with the Pabst/Riverside/Turner folks.
MR: What was the shift? How did this show originally come about?
K: I’m pretty sure it was the summer before the Prince show. David invited me over to his house. We had grown close from working together. He had respect for me as an artist, and I had respect for what he had done. He invited me over and was like, “Well, you’ve been in a number of these. You’re the youngest person I’ve ever asked to do this, but I’ve seen what you can you, I’ve seen your shows. Would you be interested in doing one?” And I was like, “Yes, absolutely.”
The story goes that this show wasn’t originally Tribe UNCOVERED, it was Michael Jackson. That was my first idea. “Yeah, I’m going to do MJ!” Historically, a lot of these UNCOVEREDs, a lot of them change. People have an idea and then it becomes something else, so they totally switch it up. I totally switched it up.
MR: Why not Michael Jackson? Just too big of an artist to tackle?
K: Too big, but not in an inherently scary way. There were too many dynamics to try and control. I struggled with what story I wanted to tell. I knew that whatever I was doing, in the spirit of UNCOVERED, I really wanted to come at it with an angle. I wanted to dig deeper into this artist. After a while, I was like, “What else am I really going to say about Michael Jackson that hasn’t already been said?” Not to say that it still can’t be done, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it might happen in some other iteration from somebody else. Wink wink.
Tribe was always in the back of my mind. It was my second choice initially, and then as I sat with it more I realized parallels with my own upbringing. A jazz introduction to music, and then finding hip-hop. The story kind of unfolded the more I sat with it, and it became more interesting. Then, serendipitously, shortly after that Phife Dawg passed, and after that [Tribe] announced a new album. So all of the cards kind of aligned after I made that decision to do Tribe. It was like, “Aw, man, R.I.P. Phife Dawg,” and, “Aw, man, they’re coming out with a new album.” This couldn’t have been any more perfectly timed.
MR: Does the new album figure into the show? It’s only been a out a few months.
K: For the most part we haven’t included a lot of that. There was already a lot in place. I definitely had a very clear objective and story I wanted to tell, and although pieces of the new album can fit into that…with us having DJs, there’ll be portions at the end where they’ll be spinning some of the new stuff. But with this show, just because of the time and the kind of theme that I’m going with—really focusing on the samples used, and how that highlights the parallels between jazz and hip-hop—I already had enough material to work with.
MR: Can you talk more about how samples are explored in this show? It almost sounds as if the whole thing will act as a kind of hip-hop primer.
K: It very much became a show about the art of the sample. Dispelling the myth that sampling is just stealing, taking other people’s music, and really digging into the layers and the sources that [Tribe] were sampling from. The records that they were listening to, the records that they grew up with, and how those influenced them. The depth of those records, and how they added to the depth of what they were creating. In any given Tribe song there are three, four, or five different samples going on. You think you’re hearing just one thing, but you’re hearing five completely different records put into one seamless production. So this show is also very much about the genius of that, and how that also factors into Tribe’s legacy, and why they should be considered a part of the American songbook.
MR: It’s important to note that this show, like other UNCOVERED shows, isn’t really a cover or tribute show.
K: The UNCOVERED series isn’t a cover show, hence it being called “UNCOVERED.” It’s supposed to be a reimagining. You’re supposed to take liberties with the material, and I think I definitely did that with this show. I made the executive decision where all of the lyrics are being rewritten. They’re inspired by the verses, but it’s not karaoke. I warned everyone, “Don’t come here and think you’re going to sing along to all your Tribe records. It’s going to be familiar, you’re going to know the material, but…”
I’ve deconstructed everything about these records, from replaying the original samples to rewriting the verses and arrangements. Other than the melodies and the cores of those records, everything else is a reimagining.
MR: It sounds like you’ve taken it even further than past shows.
K: Absolutely. I’ve had the fortune to have been a part of past UNCOVERED shows, seeing how these things roll out, how the curators go about presenting their shows. That gave me some really great insight. So when it came time for me to do this, it was like, “Okay, this is how I’m going to do this.” It’s been humbling for me as a musician and as an artist, because I’ve learned my peers and the other artists around me respect my vision enough to go along with this. They’ve all been excited to be a part of this. That’s really gratifying, to know that people respect you and are interested in what you have to say and present as an artist.
MR: Who picked the lineup? Did anyone other than you have any input?
K: Pretty much all me. The easy part was Foreign Goods. I knew this show was going to be built around some type of house band. It didn’t take very long, probably ten minutes, before I was like, “Oh, wait. I’m kind of already part of this superband kind of thing. I should probably just assume that we’re going to be the house band for this show.” It’s worked out perfectly. The way that we attack recreating the samples…I know the way we work, and we already have such a chemistry, I knew that deconstructing and recreating those samples was going to be a fairly simple and natural process based on how we work and how we collaborate on musical ideas already.
The MCs were the only thing that was different. It was originally a different list, but because of schedules and stuff…it’s actually a good thing…those are good problems to have, when people are touring and doing things. It’s definitely a testament to the city and its talent, especially in the hip-hop scene.
MR: One of things that was interesting about past Alverno shows was the fact that they were one-night only. If you missed it, you missed it. How do you prepare for a show like that compared to, say, a bar show?
K: Besides the time invested, the way we prepare for it and rehearse…At least just speaking for myself, I prepare for any show, whether it be a tour or a one-night thing or a bar thing…I had a jazz teacher coming up who gave me this piece of information that I’ve always lived by as a performer and an artist, and you could apply it to this: It doesn’t matter if there are ten or ten-thousand people in the room, you have to give the same.
With this show, a lot more time went into it, and there are a lot more moving parts, but we all just want to make the best show possible. I think we’re just prepared to go out there and kill it. All the nerves in the preparation are going to make sense, the adrenaline is going to kick in, and I have full faith and confidence that everybody’s going to have a spectacular evening.