Shoegaze Meets Hip-Hop, Again

Written by Saby Reyes-Kulkarni on . Posted in Posts.

If moments on Apollo Heights’ debut, 2007’s White Music for Black People, sound like a throwback to punk-inflected shoegaze from the late ’80s, that’s because some of the tunes are built on demos from that time. Led by identical twins Daniel and Danny Chavis, Apollo Heights plays heavily layered, effects-drenched guitar rock underpinned by skeletal programmed beats. While this may seem like another gimmicky hybrid, the Chavis brothers have been on a mission to find the crossroads where shoegaze meets hip-hop for almost 30 years. And even though vocalist Daniel doesn’t rap—his punkish wail and the way he takes liberties with pitch have become increasingly gospel-tinged over time—he and Danny, both 44, were profoundly moved by the rhythm patterns favored by seminal rap pioneers like Schooly D and Run-DMC. The brothers were also equally open to rock and rap as youngsters. Danny played in a hardcore band; Daniel saw both The Clash and Prince live in the same week, and their first show ever played was with Corrosion Of Conformity. But the brothers’ biggest inspiration came in the unlikely form of the Cocteau Twins’ 1982 debut Garlands, an album that would become the launching point for their first band, The Veldt.

"Initially," Daniel explains, "the hip-hop idea came across to us from the title track. And also ‘Lorelei’ from their third album Treasure. Those were our blueprints. When we told Robin [Guthrie] that, he was like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not hip-hop.’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’" Originally from Raleigh, N.C., Daniel and Danny Chavis moved to New York in 1989 when The Veldt signed with Mother Love Bone’s Stardog label after generating buzz in the Chapel Hill area. Laughing, Danny calls the move "a big mistake." In retrospect, both of them feel it would have been better to stay put and build their following. Both speak disparagingly of their major-label experience. In fact, the band had already been dropped by Capitol before its run with Stardog, which in turn released only one full-length, 1994’s Afrodisiac. By that time, The Veldt’s up-tempo alterna-gaze had already landed the group an opening slot on a 1990 The Jesus & Mary Chain tour and, more impressively, caught the attention of Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, the brothers’ biggest idol. In 1989, Guthrie took the fledgling brothers under his wing and produced some of the earliest Veldt recordings, which were shelved by Capitol but have recently resurfaced on White Music for Black People.

"Robin gave us our first drink," chuckles Daniel. "We were 23, but we’re from a Baptist family, so we’d never touched alcohol. Our first night in England, he tricked me by giving me apple cider. After that we became complete drunks!" "Everything I’ve learned about recording," Danny gushes, "I’ve learned from him."

White Music features guest appearances by Mos Def, Dave Sitek and Lady Miss Kier, as well as key contributions from Apollo Heights’ revolving cast of side players (most notably, bassist/programmer Hayato Nakao, who co-wrote and mixed the contemporary tunes). Because it spans 18 years’ worth of work, the album documents Danny’s development as a sound architect. The rippling, washed out guitars remain a trademark, but it’s also clear that he prefers a spare approach to layering. During shoegaze’s infancy, production limits dictated how full the music could sound. But three recent Apollo Heights demos, most likely bound for an upcoming album titled The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur, leave no doubt about the band’s ability to create space on purpose.

Rather than saturate the songs with heaps of guitars like, say, My Bloody Valentine, Apollo Heights keeps its guitars comparatively thin. At times, the various lines—often limited to just two—sound like twirling sea snakes chasing each other across the stereo field. The newer material also shows a great leap forward in terms of production. The beats still follow a prototypical hip-hop mold, but they’re more elaborately finessed. The snare hits, for example, no longer sound like robotic stabs into cold, featureless air. Similarly, explosions of artificial bass amount to more than just huge, low-end frequency burps meant to knock you on your ass, and instead spread across the music with much apparent care given to their sonic color, texture and shape. Everything hangs suspended in place like pieces in a vivid puzzle of moving parts.

"What we’re doing now," says Daniel, "is what The Veldt had intended to do from the very beginning."

Apollo Heights
Jan. 23, Lit Lounge, 93 2nd Ave. (betw. E. 5th & E. 6th Sts.)
212-777-7987; 11, TBA