The first time I saw Blak Scienz Tribe, they were playing at Hiphop in the Park in Northeast Portland. It was slightly raining, and they began playing when it was starting to get dark. The crowd was scrappy, a few musicians lingered around the stage--there were some dogs running around eating leftover hamburgers. It was a motley scene. But when Blak Scienz went on, their energy and enthusiasm transformed the stage instantly, engaging the audience with their huge comprehensive sound.
The Blak Scienz Tribe is an eight-piece crew--a combination of two emcees, saxophone, piano, stand-up bass, guitar, beatboxing, and a deejay. The band formed when Illaj, an emcee, teamed up with his older brother Malcolm on the sax. Though most jazz-hiphop fusion is heavier on the hiphop than the jazz, Blak Scienz are, essentially, a jazz act, with socially conscious emcees filling in for scatting and improvisation. When they all play together, the eight of them come across as intense and incredibly tight, but the overall sound is mellow and danceable. The bass lines are low and rolling, and their piano seems to float in and out at just the right moments. Occasionally, the upright bass player, Esperanza, lends her pretty soprano to a chorus, and ultimately, the experience is really special.
I know, this probably sounds like a description of cheesy religious experience, but Blak Scienz Tribe are that good, without an ounce of pretension or ego. And they play music that is, at the core, about a kind of primitive wonder. "I try to look for inspiration wherever I can find it in real life," says Illaj. "We're working on this song now--it's called 'Baby Girl,'" he explains. "I was actually inspired when I was at the bus stop one time, and there was this girl there, toddling around--and she was the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."
Illaj's sincerity is augmented by the fact that he's one of the most articulate and confident 16-year-olds you'll ever meet. Several of the other band members are also still in high school--Esperanza's only 16, as well--while others are right out of high school or just in college. "I don't think people really care about our age," says Illaj. "I mean, as long as you're doing something great musically, then why would it matter?" True, but the fact that they became so good in such little time is still impressive, especially considering the fact that organizing a single practice means coordinating between eight different school and extracurricular activity schedules. "Honestly, it's a good month if we get two practices in," explains Illaj.
Despite all that, Blak Scienz has still managed to work on recording their first CD and organizing a local music benefit for The Human Rights Campaign, the New York Disaster relief fund, and the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org), among others. And the construction of the group right here, organically, in Portland. "The people who have influenced us the most are the people who we're playing with now," says Illaj, an emcee for the group, but also the glue of Blak Scienz. "When I was a little kid, I went to the shows of Mike Crenshaw, Hungry Mob, the Chosen. I was a groupie. And now, it's incredible, I get to play shows with them."
"I think we take people off guard, definitely," Illaj admits. "But it's a good off guard. It's a positive off guard. And we love that."