Tim Hicks: The Cornel West Theory

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Photo courtesy of Michael Andrade

Photo courtesy of Michael Andrade

Dr. Cornel West is a philosopher, activist, and a democratic intellectual. The Cornel West Theory is a Washington D.C. based Hip-Hop band that carries on the tradition of their namesake via music. The group entered the last quarter of 2015 with the release of their third album, Coming From the Bottom.

The band shocked fans by kicking off 2016 with their fourth released titled “The T.A.B.L.E.”. The T.A.B.L.E. is produced entirely by Tim Hicks & The Church and features appearances by Deborah Bond and Blue Nefertiti of Les Nubians.

The Real Hip-Hop spoke to The Cornel West Theory front man Tim Hicks about the aim of the band, their relationship with Dr. Cornel West, and their new album, The T.A.B.L.E.

TRHH: What exactly is The Cornel West Theory?

Tim Hicks: We represent the last resistance in music. In Hip-Hop we represent survival. The Cornel West Theory is a representation of the musical tradition that we come from. The Cornel West Theory is the sound of survival.

TRHH: For those that don’t know who does The Cornel West Theory consist of?

Tim Hicks: The Cornel West Theory consists Rashad Dobbins – he’s one of the lead vocalists. Brother Sam Lavine is our drummer. John Wesley Moon is our electronic sample wizard for the live show. On bass we have a brother named Ezra Greer who has been with us since the debut album. We have two beautiful, beautiful, beautiful sisters in our group who are not with us all the time but they are core members and original members of the group and that is Ms. Yvonne Gilmore who is also an ordained minister who is back and forth between Chi-Town and Ohio, and sister Katrina Lorraine. They both provide the spoken word aspect. There is myself, Tim Hicks. I’m one of the lead vocalists and I’m the producer and composer for the group.

TRHH: Was Dr. West receptive to his name being used for the group?

Tim Hicks: Yes! Surprisingly he was. It was very dream-like to get him to say okay. He was more than supportive from jump street. I went to one of his book signings back in 2004 at the prompting of my sister in law and another good friend of mine. They thought I should track him down and see if I could get his approval for it. I mustered up the courage, went to the book signing and stood in line. I tried to keep my composure like it was something that I did every day talking to someone of iconic status. I ran the idea down to him really fast. He was like, “Man, you got my blessing, brother.” He wrote his number down at Princeton where he was at the time. A year later I ran into him again and gave him some music from an earlier album that we had not yet released which was going to be our debut album. I let him know that we were trying to get in the studio and record with him. Two years went by and Doc was gracious enough to come down to Maryland to the studio and record with us for the first album. Here we are four albums later still with his friendship, his mentorship, and his support. The doctor is a great brother. We’re honored to be able to use his namesake.

TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of your latest release, The T.A.B.L.E.?

Tim Hicks: That’s a good question. The acronym means absolutely nothing. We did that on purpose just to kind of mess with people and spark some interest in what it represents. The album was originally going to be called “Dope on the Table”. I discovered that somebody, I don’t think it was Raekwon himself – shout out to Raekwon, he’s one of my favorite emcees – top 5, hands down, at any rate there was a mixtape called Dope on the Table. Us being Hip-Hop heads we honored the tradition of not biting and stealing anybody’s style. We decided to shorten it to “The T.A.B.L.E.” and that title came from when I was watching HBO’s The Wire. Me and Rashad are huge Wire fans. We’ve studied it several times over like a book. I was watching this one episode in the first season and the police commissioner was responding to pressure from city hall to shut down one particular drug crew to curb the violence in the streets. He was arguing with a subordinate and said, “Tonight on the 6 o’clock news we put a lot of fucking dope on the table!”

For some reason it rang out in my head. When you think about Hip-Hop we always refer to that word “dope” to describe something that’s outstanding or sonically amazing. Somebody that has a gift with lyrics we’d call them lyrically dope. Obviously within the African, Latino, and poor European communities, I say European because they aren’t white, we need to stop swinging those words black and white around because they are actual colors and not people, needless to say in those places the word dope means something outside of Hip-Hop. It represents something ugly. If you’re looking at it from a gangster view dope represents purity too if you’re talking about drugs. This album was basically an album for Hip-Hop. It’s just straight up Hip-Hop, boom bap, no concept for the whole album. There was no consistent theme throughout the album. It was just hard beats and hard rhymes. This is what we’re placing on this table to offer to people. The acronym doesn’t stand for anything. We were just fucking around.

TRHH: You have a song on the new album called Christopher Martin. What are the origins of that song?

Tim Hicks: Aw, man. Well anybody that’s a Hip-Hop head we dig deep since being children on some, “Yo, gimme that tape, let me fold this joint so I can look at these liner notes and see who did what.” Needless to say one day as a child I discovered this brother named Christopher Martin. That’s his government name but his real name is DJ Premier aka Preemo. Hip-Hop heads dig deep and know what your government name is and everything. Preemo is iconic in the whole bands head but specifically for me as the producer of the group Primo is top 2. My top 2 is Premier and Pete Rock. That’s no diss to the other producers that influenced me. I kind of don’t rank them in a way. How you gonna pick between Pete Rock, Premier, Dilla, Diamond D, and folks like that? Inspiration and influence wise I was already a Premier and Pete Rock head. In the end of 2014 I submitted a track of ours to an e-mail that somebody said was for Preemo. Somehow by God’s grace the record actually got through. Two months passed and I got an e-mail that said, “Yo, this is dope. I’m playing this tonight. – P” The little kid came out in me and I was like, “Oh my goodness, it’s DJ Fuckin’ Premier!!” Preem actually played our record. He stopped the show Live from HeadQCourterz and introduced the record and it was like being a kid. You’re used to seeing these people on TV and hearing them on the radio, and imagining your moment like, “One day I’m going to work with these guys. One day they’re gonna know who I am and know me for my music,” but when it actually goes down that’s what makes it crazy. It’s just a reminder that we’re doing the right thing. At any rate, Premier played our record and I found out he was coming to D.C. for the PRhyme tour. That PRhyme album was a big influence on this record, The T.A.B.L.E. Somehow I have people that care about me, a wonderful friend who loved me enough to get me a V.I.P. ticket to that show [laughs]. When I got there my mission was to chop it up with the kings of this shit and let them know we’re doing it and hopefully they like what we’re doing. Met Preem and Royce real quick, saluted the brothers, and gave them a copy of our third album which was released last year called Coming from the Bottom. It’s an excellent record too if you have not checked it out. You kind of need to hear that one almost before you hear The T.A.B.L.E. I definitely recommend checking that one out.

Preem got that record from me and X amount of months later somebody hit me up like, “Yo, did you see this?” I go to YouTube and Sway is interviewing Premier and Royce about something in conjunction with SXSW. At the beginning of the interview he asked who they were checking out on the road. Royce starts talking about the new cats like Kendrick and Big Sean. Sway goes over to Preemo and out of nowhere he said, “I’m checking out this band called The Cornel West Theory out of D.C.” I was once again floored like, “Damn, I must be doing something right.” The record is being created throughout that time. When I did the track I don’t know what possessed me to do the track that way. It kind of came together in a style where I wasn’t trying to bite Preem but it’s sort of like if you have a jazz musician – the jazz musician might have a jazz tribute band to him and they’re playing his stuff. It’s almost like that. Without actually playing a Premier song or me trying to bite his style I showed the influence that he put on me in the game. I think any producer or emcee should be able to highlight the influences in what you’re doing without people being like, “He’s a straight rip off.” That one track in particular was a play on old jazz cats that would pay tribute to each other. Coltrane had a record called “Like Sonny” about Sonny Rollins. Archie Shepp had a record called “Four for Trane” about Coltrane. It’s playing in a style that’s reminiscent of what you do to show people how you affected me. If anyone listens to that track they can hear it in the beat. Me and Rashad were talking and I asked if he wanted to call the track “Three For Preemo” and he said, “Why don’t you call it his regular name?” The original title for the track was actually going to be called “If Christopher Martin Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole lot of Dead Copycats” which is a play on a Charles Mingus song about Charlie Parker called “If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole lot of Dead Copycats”. It’s basically saying, “Yo Preem, thank you for doing what the fuck you do. This is where we are.”

TRHH: Has Preem heard the song?

Tim Hicks: You know what, I still don’t know yet. I hope he has. I know Preem’s been on the road. We’ve been back and forth over e-mail and Twitter for the last couple months, which is a blessing. People like that don’t really have time to just stop for anybody. It’s a blessing to know whatever I’m doing is getting that attention. I actually heard from Preem about a week ago. He said he was out on the road and he was going to check the record out in about a week when he gets back. Who knows, maybe he heard it? That’s a OG, he’s not going to necessarily hit me and be like, “Yo, Oh my goodness!” Maybe he will, but I think the OG’s give you the head nod like, “Okay. Keep coming youngster, Let me see where you at with it.” Hopefully he has heard it and he hears the sincerity in the record and knows these ain’t some clone niggas trying to bite and be on some asshole shit. That’s not the intention at all. That’s why we specifically named the track Christopher Martin. There should be no questions in the minds of a true Hip-Hop head. It’s also a shout out and a head nod to Guru. You gotta have the two, it’s like Pete Rock without C.L. You know who Pete is and you know C.L. is but you gotta have that combination. Rest in peace, Guru. He’s an inspiration on all of us.

TRHH: What made you put the Booker T sample in there?

Tim Hicks: People kind of have this idea about us. We’re waiting on the world to catch up but the few that do, know. Some people tend to get afraid of us. I’ve actually heard this before. A brother in L.A. told me,” Cornell West Theory is the band I hear everybody is afraid of.” I don’t know why that is [laughs]. I think people are used to us being edgy and hearing social-political-cultural commentary from us. With The T.A.B.L.E. I didn’t want to focus on anything heavy directly. Me and Rashad, that’s where we come from. Even if we just spit you’re still gonna hear a progressive message in that rhyme. This album was about having fun. Stuff that I might not have necessarily put on a Cornel West Theory record before, this album was me just wanting to give the people some good Hip-Hop shit. Hip-Hop, it draws from a lot of different shit.

You might have a track that starts out with a scene from a movie. Like on a Wu-Tang album where they have those skits and clips from early Kung-Fu films. It’s part of that aesthetic of layering your music with little pieces to highlight the overall piece. We laugh a lot, man. Like Tip said, “I laugh to keep from crying.” We don’t walk around with black Matrix coats on all the time. We like to have fun with it and sometimes slapstick is the best way to do it. If you listen to every little sample on this record there is a message in it – every little piece! When you hear that Booker T we’re letting people know and we ain’t gonna name no names ‘cause it don’t just consist of wack niggas. It actually consist of some people that we are inspired by and we feel like, “What you doing right now might not be utterly wack but it ain’t dope enough for a balance in the face of all this wack shit that we got out right now.” It was just a lil’ reminder that we’re coming from you. That’s what that meant. After we take care of what we gotta take care of we coming for your ass.

TRHH: What’s your beat-making equipment of choice?

Tim Hicks: Aw, man. I have one guitar, man. My instrument is a MacBook Pro. That joint goes with me wherever I go and I go with it. I work on Logic 10. I actually didn’t learn Hip-Hop the way most cats learn it with the MP, ASR, or the SP1200 putting all those pieces together. I learned on an old KORG 01/W keyboard. My brother showed me how to sequence on it so I was doing stuff organically – no samples. I finally got to start messing around with samples once shit became digital and I upgraded to Reason. I did the first two albums on that. The third album Coming from the Bottom is all straight Logic production working on my brother’s computer because I didn’t have an instrument. I call my computer my instrument ‘cause that’s what it is. I was working on my brother’s joint for some time to get that third record done. Finally God looked out for a poor man, gave me a little bit of money, and let me invest in my craft. I had to take this shit seriously. If you don’t have the proper tools then you’re not going to be able to compete. So here we are, man. I’m short roughly 2 g’s but I have the capability to compose now. It is what it is. So, I’m working on a MacBook and Logic 10 is my best friend for right now.

TRHH: Your music can be considered conscious but like you said, you guys like to have fun. Your music is more versatile than it may seem. How would you describe your style of music?

Tim Hicks: Type 1. Type 1 is the best way to say it and the reason why I say that is because that wording is specific to us. It’s an idea that came I believe from a scientist. Rashad is the one who put this concept in the air, but there is a scientist who said something to the effect of society becoming one consistent thing. Even if it is many different things coming together it creates a Type 1 society where all those elements are in this one thing and we figure out how to work together. For us we feel like what we do is Type 1 music. It’s Hip-Hop at its core ‘cause that’s the generation we all grew up in. We are affected by a lot of different things. It could be The Wire, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Jimi Hendrix record. It could be Radiohead, it could be Patrice Lumumba, the former PM of the Congo who was assassinated because he tried to do something right. It could be that I miss my babies because I haven’t seen them. Type 1 is the way we describe our music and our style. It’s Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do, my style is no style, motherfucker, this is what it is. Experience it and hopefully you’ll be able to walk after you get caught with the serious blows [laughs]. Type 1 is the way I would describe it, playing off what my boy Rashad would say.

TRHH: What’s next up for The Cornel West Theory?

Tim Hicks: A barrage and an onslaught of more dope ass music. We got some projects in the works for 2016. I know somebody is thinking that we’re crazy because we released two albums within the span of 3 or 4 months. Most of the time it’s usually a year or two gap between people’s albums. We don’t want to do that though. We don’t have any rules in terms of the same rules that govern the music industry. We don’t care about those rules because we have no budget, we have no backing, it’s straight indie over here – like literally, literally indie. That’s without an indie label, it’s just us. While we have only ourselves to control the output we feel like right now is a good time to flood people. There was a 4 year gap between the second album and the third album so our goal is to never repeat that. We want to be able put out great music and hopefully the people see it as great music. We got some more tricks up our sleeves for 2016. The T.A.B.L.E. is just the introduction to this particular year and phase for The Cornel West Theory. I don’t wanna give up any more than that in terms of names of projects. I will reveal to people that they might get another album or two this year – we’ll see. Just know that it’s more dope shit coming [laughs].

Purchase: The Cornel West Theory –The T.A.B.L.E.

About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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