On a rainy afternoon in mid-February, Christylez Bacon strolls through Adams Morgan’s LINE Hotel lobby with an elegance reserved for men with style. The clothes aren’t vintage, but admirers always assume he’s wearing old garments from yesteryear. Despite looking like a man who time traveled from the Jazz Age – all the fabrics are new(ish).
“Forget about what everyone else thinks,” Bacon says about style. “You put an afro with the suit, and I automatically look ‘70s or vintage. I never wear anything that is vintage, ever.”
They say clothes maketh the man, but sartorial style represents only a sliver of Christylez’ creative whole. Before he wrapped himself in cardigans, herringbone suits and top hats, he wore baggy jeans, tall T’s and Nike Air Force Ones: “A Southeast uniform.” Even then, his ability and provincity to produce art was unquestioned. From a middle schooler rhyming about conquering obstacles to a high schooler studying visual art by day and absorbing music textbooks by night, Bacon has eternally been obsessed with reflecting his reality through a collection of outlets.
“It was a prophetic piece: I could do anything,” Bacon says about a middle school performance, which more or less launched his career. “I could do anything yo. Whatever I put my mind to, I’mma knock it out.”
A self-described “cat from Southeast,” Bacon has accomplished some of the anything he mentioned as a kid. In 2009, he released Advanced Artistry, an album with a song solely dedicated to mumbo sauce and others stuffed with D.C. references; in 2010, he was nominated for a Grammy for the children’s album Banjo to Beatbox; in 2011, he founded a concert series focused on exposing audiences to worldly sounds titled Washington Sound Museum; and now, he’s producing a web series titled Beatbox Remix, where every week brings a new collaboration with an international musician. Bacon has performed at heralded venues like the Kennedy Center and Strathmore, given a TEDx talk, and been featured on NPR and in the Washington Post. He went from lyrics exclaiming he could do anything to literally doing some of everything.
“I was like boom. It was like breaking out of the earth’s atmosphere,” Bacon says, referencing the pre-teen realization. “Now that I’m up there in space I was like ‘yeah I got some options here. Let’s see where we gon’ go next.’”
Bacon’s style is self-described as “progressive hip-hop,” with a focus on global sound. Growing up with two visual artists as parents, and a DJ for a mother, he heard a lot of rap early. Bacon rattles off Busta Rhymes’ stacking lyrics and A Tribe Called Quest’s penchant for using jazz-based instrumentation as early memories. These sounds inspired him to the point he’d jot down their lyrics in an attempt to learn from masters. To feel the words, verse and flow pass through his own pen, “I wanted to see how it worked.”
For some, hip-hop’s artistry is purely lyrical, but to Bacon the poetry wasn’t endgame. Despite no formal training with a traditional instrument, the young M.C. couldn’t help but stretch his imagined sound to include grand orchestral backgrounds, with horns and strings and drums.
“I always heard orchestration in my head,” he says. “[So] I started making beats. It seemed like an unfortunate thing to be a rapper only to be confined to the beats available. I always had the auditory vision. I wanted to craft things sonically as well.”
The tracks on Bacon’s playlists are likely different than most contemporaries. There’s music from Brazil, Africa and India. He doesn’t listen to much hip-hop, but this isn’t a surprise.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the world, different cultures,” Bacon says. “I never really had the resources [to find that music]. You’d have to go in the world music section, but even that is an American curation of another culture, which might not match their sensibilities.”
Bacon says his curiosity in the world, in people, began in high school at Duke Ellington. Before the music or the style, people would come up to him and talk about the innocuous, about whatever.
“I was open,” Bacon says. “These conversations were fascinating. I wished all the people in my hood could have these conversations with people from different walks of life, different races and different communities. It would help them grow and open up, and expand their concept of the world.”
This series of exchanges led a mission statement Bacon still champions today: culture acceptance and unification through music. From there, his own offerings weren’t only slices of life, but an opportunity to collaborate and introduce listeners to experiences, sounds and instruments that might otherwise fall on deaf ears.
“All of these encounters, I want to give it to the people.”
Over the years, his influences have morphed. At the moment he’s entranced by Brazilian music, which he says provides a tremendous amount of his sonic foundation. Several times he recognizes the Portuguese lyrics with excitement during our conversation. He loves it, which is why he constantly familiarizes himself with alien genres on a regular basis to pick up tempos and rhythms.
In the past, Bacon showcased these musical intersections with Washington Sound Museum, a quarterly concert series he founded in 2011, but is currently on hiatus. He’s hopeful it lands at the Kennedy Center’s The REACH, but this isn’t finalized, and he’s “waiting patiently.” In the meantime, Beatbox Remix has been the harvest from his perpetual exploration. The web series on Bacon’s YouTube page provides a showcase for his prowess in collaboration and curation, featuring artists who specialize in unique instruments from different cultures, such as Amadou Kouyate on the Kora, a string instrument, and Uasuf Gueye on the balafon, a xylophone.
“The difference between Washington Sound Museum and Beatbox Remix, is for [Museum] I could only work with like three or four artists per year,” he says. “But the Beatbox Remix is weekly, so I’m working with everybody. Let’s get it.”
He’s also been working on a concept album titled En Route, tentatively set to come out in 2021, which includes lyrics written entirely during treks aboard D.C.’s public transportation system.
That’s the thing with Bacon. Yes, he invites an international flair to his music, and his interests and aspirations reach far beyond the District’s borders, but he always knows when and how to bring it back. When he’s tinkering with Brazilian drum beats or lost in Chinese wind instruments, he’s also penning lyrics about the X2 bus route. D.C. is never far from his heart. It’s where he carried around a karaoke machine and where he banged out a drum beat on a garbage can. In the same District, he’s dipped his toes into everything: albums, concerts, plays, commercials, documentaries, web series, etc. D.C. is in all of them, because it’s firmly entrenched in him.
“It’s a part of who I am,” he says. “My experiences, my skillsets, my culture and sensibilities come from D.C. When I’m doing cultural exchange things abroad or with people from different kinds of music, I offer [D.C.]. They offer all their culture and musical vocabulary, and I’m like ‘alright, let me bring this flavor to it.”
See the progressive hip-hop artist with violinist Nistha Raj at the Mansion at Strathmore on March 19. Show at 7:30 p.m., tickets $24. For more information about all things Christylez Bacon, check out his website www.christylez.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ChristylezBacon.
The Mansion at Strathmore: 10701 Rockville Pike Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org