Rapping to a Different Beat

By Mandy Burrell, Wednesday Journal. Nov 26, 2003

Few bands can pull of an eclectic, electric, adaptable method for music madness the way Chicago-based absTRACT giANTS can.

The eight band members - seven of whom graduated from Oak Park & River Forest High School - gel around a strong hip hop vibe, but beyond that its hard to define them. And They like it that way, says one of the groups three MC's, Mark Mathis.

"When I first started writing, what was hard for me was that I didn't feel jiggy or club or anything like that" says Mathis, aka Two Moons Mathismo. "I didnt write about bitches or hos or guns or fucking people up. Thats not what hip hop's about for us."

What its about, says Mathis, is free expression, and abstract, easy-flowing arrangement of sounds and words with only one catch: its gotta sound good.

The way the Giants balance chaos and order- carefully, but seemingly effortlessly - might explain some of their success. Ultimately, weather listeners "get" their band's subtleties or not, audiences cant help but get into their infectious sound: electric violin mingling with jazz piano, hints of Calypso percussion beating behind strong dance rhythms, all brought together on the turntable to form a base of sound for the silver-tounged MC's.

Listeners from all kinds of musical backgrounds can get into the Giants, so its no wonder that Chicago label Pull 'Em Up Records signed the band to a two-album deal, with the first album due in December. The band's strong fan base packs venues all over the city and suburbs, including a headlining show at Subterranean last New Year's, gigs at the House of Blues and Metro and an opening slot for Fareed Haque at the Double Door.

What might come as a surprise is that, though all eight members are extremely talented musicians, theres little to no beef among them throughout teh creative process, says Mathis. "They're the best people I know, the best people that I've come across."

He and guitarist Cary Kanno credit the community of Oak Park for creating an environment that values creativity and compassion, openmindedness, and acceptance. They say their Oak Park experience, shared by all except violinist Jason Vinluan of Milwaukee, is the common ground upon which they all still stand.

They and the rest of the guys - MC Cameron McIntosh aka Apitight and Andres Roldan aka Ronnie Physical, keyboardist Matt Conway, drummer Andy Lempara and bass/turntable/percussionist Matt Sherrell - went in various directions after graduating from OPRF. Their explorations led them to different parts of the country and got them interested in a vast array of musical styles, though all were raised on hip hop, says Kanno.

As college came to a close, they were all called to head back to the town that Kanno calls the "post big ten Mecca" Chicago. Different projects kept them busy for the first year or so, but one day a little more than two years ago, the MC's who'd been rhyming together, and the band, at the time a "fledgling pop rock band," says Kanno, decided to get together to fill a long set at the Tim Lizzie.

It worked so well that more frequent collaboration followed. Eventually, the group decided to take the plunge and join forces. It wasn't a seamless merge says Kanno, but in time they worked out the kinks.

"It took a while to harness what we had." he says "For a while it was just a mess of sound. We had to learn each others styles. It took a good year to get the sound fine-tuned, and when it happened, immediatley people began to notice the differnece." Then the gigs started rolling in.

"It's been a great time to be able to play in Chicago," says Mathis. "At one time I walked into Subterranean and thought, "Oh my God, I can't believe we're playing this place. Now we're so comfortable there, and we know we deserve to be there."

Live, the band is pure energy. The three MC's walk the stage, smoothly playing off one another's word games, while the instrumentalists keep it together. The band is hoping to catch its live flavor with teh first album. But those who really want to get the Giant's full effect should see them live. A bonus: the guys always throw in a few freestyle numbers to keep the MC's nimble.

"There are times when people freestyle and every other word is 'yo'" says Mathis. "there is nothing wrong with that, but I try not to rely on certain catch phrases. But you dont have to really elaborate that much if you use strong words. If I say 'government' in a rhyme, thats going to make people think about so much stuff."

Whether you care to think about it or not, though, isn't necessarily why the band does what it does.

"We highlight the abstrct musical style, so the content has multiple meanings," says Mathis. "I guess the ultimate message is to do what you want to do and stay true to yourself."