Type 1: it's not an error; it's not a disease. It's a new musical phenomenon from a band of poets, preachers, intellectuals and artists who call themselves the Cornel West Theory. At first glance, the six-member group is a hip-hop band with emcees, a drummer and live electronic instrumentation. But take a closer look and it becomes clear that the Cornel West Theory cannot be defined in such traditional terms.
The difference is in the band's approach. Emcee and self-proclaimed "reflectionist" Rashad Dobbins came up with the term "Type 1" to describe a brand of music anchored not only in hip-hop but also in soul, jazz, rock, go-go and all manner of sound.
"I would define our band as a sonic representation of the tangent between philosophy, religion, culture, music and explorations of the black diaspora," vocalist and electronics man John Wesley Moon said. In other words, their music is a reflection of the ideals of the band's namesake and guest contributor, African American Studies professor Cornel West GS '80.
By far the most important influence on the band, West is also a musician, writer and civil rights activist. In addition to his writings, West has had a long history in music, both with his own albums and his collaborations with other groups. In 2009, West recorded a recitation of John Mellencamp's song "Jim Crow." He also contributed extensively with spoken word on Terence Blanchard's jazz album "Choices," a recent winner of the Grand Prix du Disque 2009 and has most recently worked with Raheem DeVaughn on the album "The Love & War MasterPeace," set to be released in a month. He has released two albums of his own since 2001, including the recent "Never Forget," featuring Prince, Andre 3000 and Talib Kweli among many others. In 2008, he was named an MTV Artist of the Week.
"At Princeton, I tend to teach the great classical books of thought," West explained. "In music, I talk much more about contemporary situations in my own life."
With so much to contribute, it comes as no surprise that after serving as the band's namesake, West also recorded several vocal tracks with the Cornel West Theory on its debut album "Second Rome," which was released last year.
"We see ourselves as kind of the grandchildren of Dr. West and the '60s generation, and that's why we've called ourselves the Cornel West Theory," explained Yvonne Gilmore, a spoken word artist in the band.
Though West may be the most important inspiration for its music, the Cornel West Theory's eclectic style is in large part a reflection of its individual influences and fields of interest. In addition to Dobbins, Moon and Gilmore, the band includes lead vocalist Tim Hicks, drummer Sam Levine and storyteller Katrina Lorraine Starr. Though the band officially formed in 2004, the group met in the late '90s in Washington, D.C., when Dobbins, Moon and Starr were attending the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
In addition to the literary media, journalism, playwriting and poetry work he studied at Duke Ellington, Dobbins cites his major influences as everything from Jimi Hendrix to Toni Morrison to The Simpsons. Moon's inspiration is equally comprehensive, ranging from his affinity for visual artists like Jean Michel Basquiat to writers and jazz, classical and funk musicians. Other members note writer Octavia Butler, John Coltrane, A Tribe Called Quest and even go-go bands as sources of inspiration for their style.
"It's like what Bruce Lee said - absorb only what is useful," Dobbins said.
Though the contributions on the album are diverse, Moon emphasized that what keeps the members together is the freedom to experiment with music and artistic honesty, "making sure we're saying what we really want to say and not just what people want to hear."
And the band's ambitions are not limited to music.
"It's about using music as a platform for discussion and debate as opposed to just using music as a tool for entertainment, but still retaining the important value of musical expression," Moon said.
"Second Rome," which was once a potential name for the District of Columbia, is packed with passionate criticisms and expressive stories from each group member. It explores thematically the role of power in America and a potential vision of a second empire.
"[‘Second Rome' is] a nonlinear concept of America as a place of freedom, but also a place for fascism," Dobbins explained.
"Our country finds itself in the midst of what I call an identity crisis as we work to repair things like health care, labor, issues of greed, oil and patriotism," Gilmore added. "But the album also looks at issues of love, having children and the question of materialism."
For him, there's no better way to explore these issues than in a band.
"I think democracy is such a complex activity and it's exciting to be with five other people with different artistic visions and different ways of interacting with history," Gilmore said. "It's a way to live out the Socratic experience."
"[The Cornel West Theory] primarily has to do with critical engagement with the world, prophetic witness to truth and justice - and just keeping the music funky and smooth," West said.