Big Game Hunter

photograph by Todd J. Wolfson

Two weeks ago at the Victory Grill, a local jazz ensemble ran through an impressive set of improvisational numbers that proudly displayed their influences: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Doc Cheatham, and the like. Also that night, two more locals, a pair of MCs, rapping about themselves as the "Lost Boyz of Jazz," ran their own shout-out to a roll call of their be-bop influences. The crowd, a packed house, reacted to both, dancing, drinking, and hollering as if all three were going out of style. Just another night of the Victory Grill's diverse booking policy in action? Sort of. Thing is, this pair of jazz traditionalists and hip-hop purists is actually one group, Big Game Hunter. "We're souls, we're skinless. It's just hearts beatin' with a universal rhythm," says one of Big Game Hunter's two MCs, Larry Williams (aka "Tiger Lou"), attempting to describe the outfit's driving force. Perhaps, because they've only been together since last summer, or because they're so wary of being pigeonholed by the press, Big Game's six souls generally fail to explain their chemistry in more concrete terms.

Even if they we were willing, the fact that they insist -- make that demand -- to be interviewed only as a "group" further hinders a solid definition; not only aren't they saying what makes Big Game Hunter click, they're not saying it at all at the same time. So, what's going on? Only what local hip-hop headz maintain, which is that along with Relax and the Disgruntled Seeds, Big Game Hunter are among a new crop of outfits that constitute Austin's best and most viable hip-hop groups yet.

At the same time, open-minded local jazz fans are making similarly grand statements about Big Game Hunter's fortunes in a jazz scene with lots of great players, but few young and exciting innovators. "A lot of people don't get it," concedes
Kenneth Loyde (aka "EstevanicoX"), the band's other mike man and its most outspoken member. "And a lot of the time, I don't get it. But the reality is `the Game' will rock a two-and-a-half-hour show. And it's going to be a `show,' and no two shows are ever going to be the same."

It's this improvisational nature of the group's show that's perhaps Big Game Hunter's most obvious attribute; what started last summer as a casual jam between casual friends has now developed into an intensified form of jamming, with Loyde and Williams out in front of bassists Michael Briones and Dylan Jones, percussionist Chris Siebenthaler, and drummer Chris Deaner.

Pin-pointing the musical outcome of this collaboration is somewhat more difficult, however. Often, within the same tune, Big Game Hunter's instrumental core flips and flows between Latin jazz, hard bop, salsa, fusion, avant-garde, swing, punk, funk, and metal. Even with a pair of skilled emcees that are equally fluent in old-school hip-hop and the savvy lyrical intricacies of the genre's latest waves, there's still something more literate and stylistic going on with Big Game Hunter than would allow for their dismissal as merely the smart middle-ground between the Brand New Heavies and the Roots.

"We're lucky that the parameters of hip-hop have grown to encompass live hip-hop," says Siebenthaler. "Cats are sampling stuff from all over the world to create new beats, but we can do that live and that's an interesting thing. The origins of hip-hop also legitimizes us. A lot of people say that live hip-hop is not real hip-hop, but tell that to Grandmaster Flash or Sugar Hill. They had live bands backing them and they were diverse. You had Puerto Rican influence, Cuban influence, African and African-American influences and that's kind of what we're doing with this band, but in a sort of refined Nineties way."

Ironically, `the Nineties way' is enticing Big Game Hunter crowds to respond to the group the old-school way: by dancing, something that recent hip-hop acts like OutKast, Wu Tang Clan, and Master P can't and don't elicit. While these deejay-driven hip-hop icons could still cull time-proven danceable beats from old disco and funk records if they wanted, Big Game's running challenge has been to create new beats and rhythms while maintaining the soul and texture of their skeletal jazz arrangements. In that framework of live instrumentation lies the reason Big Game Hunter has proven palatable for local hip-hop virgins while also separating them out from the city's other rap entries -- a combination that's been perceived by some other local hip-hop artists as threatening.

"It gets problematic when you separate us from other hip-hop groups," says Loyde. "That seems to be the problem, as in, `Oh, that's not hip-hop.' Everyone wants to talk about what's `real' and what's not, and the rhetoric is making it so that nobody knows what's real. There's been a gap between rhetoric and reality, and in reality, hip-hop music is everything. It came from everything, and what's `real' to me is people die from hunger every day. But trying to define what's `real' and what's reality in hip-hop sells everything short."

Even within Big Game Hunter, there's discussion as to whether or not Loyde's and Williams's lyrical messages are occasionally sold short by the band's groove and the audience's rousing drink 'n' dance response; surprisingly enough, the question is raised more often than not by the group's musical core and not the emcees. "A lot of different politics run through this band and those politics get expressed," says Loyde, a University of Texas Government/History major. So, what's the difference between Loyde's and Williams' politics? "Not much, but Ken's just more," says Williams.

"A lot of people don't want to hear what we want to say," adds Loyde. "They don't want to hear exactly what we're talking about, particularly when they're coming out just to have a good time. It all also depends on the particular mood we're in. It's going to get said regardless. Sometimes, we'll take it out of the song and just say the rhymes so it gets heard. Or it will manifest itself in terms of commentary, just talking over the mike."

Although it might surprise Big Game's hip-hop oriented fans, Loyde actually developed his political voice in a set of projects as a bass player -- Falfurious, Shade, and Drown -- that were basically punk variants who called Emo's home.

"There's angst in punk rock, it may not be very articulate, but it's definitely there," says Loyde. "And there's definitely angst in hip-hop, which just has to do with cultural suppression. It's essential that frustration is articulated, because you have to know who the enemy is and why the enemy is there -- you have to understand it. Or as they say, overstand it."

The key to overstanding Big Game's lyrical and musical approach may just be their upcoming EP, a four-song, self-released set the band hopes will allow people to dig deeper into their messages, on their own time. Without a viable radio outlet in town to play it, however, or wide retail distribution, what's the market for a Big Game Hunter CD? Probably the same diverse crowd the band says they've cultivated by carefully choosing which bands they play with what clubs they'll do it at.

So far, the latter choices have been concentrated mostly on the Victory on the East Side, The Ritz on Sixth, and the B-Side in the District. Not only do all three clubs sport wholly different clientele for their Big Game Hunter showcases, but since they don't have any type of residency agreements with the bands, it's pretty clear that the crowds of between 100-300 people have been established each time via word of mouth and are therefore there to see the band, not just mingle in the club atmosphere.

"We don't want to burn the sound," says Siebenthaler. "If we were a commercially motivated band, we'd be playing three or four times a week, but nobody's in this band just to pay rent, and it's more enjoyable for both the band and audience if we carefully select our shows.

"When we do shows with different people, we'll do shows with hip-hop groups and jazz groups. It's all about creating an environment. For instance, when we play a show with East Babylon Symphony, we contrast in styles of jazz. It's a learning experience for the audience -- as it is when we do shows with other hip-hop acts. We organize shows around contrast, where one band provides the audience this function, the other a different function. Rather than a continuous flow, this staggers the audience and gives them a taste of something different."

While there's plenty of stylistic diversity between Big Game Hunter and similarly improvisational local bands like Hot Buttered Rhythm and Ta Mére, many believe it may be with these two bands that best contrast "the Game." Since the band books, promotes, and flyers all their gigs, they've been talking about putting together a show later this year that would feature all three bands. So is this a scene? The bulk of Big Game Hunter says they don't feel comfortable calling it such, because they're all so comparatively new, although Loyde says that he's unwilling to be thrown in any "scene," period.

"I'm at the point where I don't want to deal with scenes at all," he says. "I grew up in Dallas with scenes and they come and go -- they die hard. But when you see Big Game play with East Babylon Symphony, you're seeing community there, and that's a definite connection. That's growth beyond a scene. It's all about community in that this is just real people doing real things, making music. This is what we do and this is what we love, so it's more than a scene."

That may be Loyde's answer now, but there's some local sentiment that as Big Game Hunter grows up, there will come a time when their following and the clubs that host their shows will be more demanding in regards to the group's choice between being outsiders or scenesters, and ultimately, whether they'll focus on hip-hop or jazz. In other words, how long can Big Game Hunter be all things to all people? It's a question with an answer as vague as their explanation of their chemistry.

"In my definition of hip-hip, you express self," says Loyde. "That's what we do. It's all these different elements, all these different experiences coming together in this context. It's important that we continue to do it in this concept, because hip-hop is, not to be cliché, the voice of the voiceless."

Adds Williams, "Every one of us can make a jam together and there's people that will say it's hip-hop. But one of us might be thinking funk-rock, while another might be hearing salsa. And someone else might be hearing hip-hop. Or, we all might be thinking jazz.

"Even though we're young, we're all old souls with a jazz vibe in us, and jazz to me is everything else we are. Jazz is hip-hop, jazz is salsa, jazz is funk. It's never like, `Let's all feel hip-hop.' It's like, `Let's feel whatever is inside."

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