Pomona Professor Spits Rhymes in Above/Below

To most students he is Gabriel Chandler, Assistant Professor of Statistics at Pomona College. A growing number, however, know him also as a member of Above/Below, an eight-piece free-form jazz group featuring the novel hip-hop stylings of one MC Stat—a.k.a. Professor Chandler.

I use the qualifier “free-form” because, as Stat put it to me, “I don’t think jazz is the right word.” Above/Below toys with the conventional genres of jazz and hip-hop, complicating categorization, with members’ diverse influences coming from the worlds of rock and beyond. The group features Jonas Sanchez on drums, Hollis Dunlap on guitar, Chris Reilly on bass, Patrick Murphy on the trombone, David Dorfman on the baritone saxophone, Kevin Thornton on the alto saxophone and flute, and Johnny Harbel on the flugelhorn.

Above/Below released their debut album, Two Sides, in October. It was received well in the band's hometown of New London, Connecticut and online, landing the band some local press and winning Bloggerhouse.com’s weekly “Best of Bandcamp” series. Recently, Above/Below was nominated for best hip-hop rap at the Wailing City Awards: “the New London equivalent of the Grammys,” according to the Wailing City website. Two Sides also made ripples overseas, confirming that the band’s music has legs. It has been bootlegged by “at least two French blogs, a South Korean blog, and a blog from the UK” and landed a feature on a Czech website, according to Above/Below’s Facebook page. Europe in particular seems “more appreciative” of Above/Below’s fusion of various elements of jazz, golden-age hip-hop, and other genres, said Stat.

The group blurs the lines between genres, fusing elements of jazz, rock, and hip-hop while incorporating aspects of ska, electrica, and other influences. Although instrumental solos frequently take central stage, Stat’s lyrics—sometimes irreverent and often politically bent with socio-economic themes—are tremendously refreshing to hear in the age of swagger rap. Stat sees everything as inherently political, and music as a particularly effective means of getting messages across. And he rejects the notion that rappers must play political theorist or academic to be considered a “political” artist.

“If you choose to write a song about the club, then I think that’s a political statement,” he said. “In choosing to write a song about the club when clearly you know there’s pressing socio-economic, socio-political issues.” Not surprisingly, Stat cites current events as inspiration for much of his music.

Two Sides opens on a lively note with “Lovely Day,” an Ice Cube-reminiscent number sure to “get the blood flowing.” Stat shows a knack for spitting surging, tumbling flows that complement funky baselines and horn-infused hooks. An electric guitar solo comes in after two verses and breeds a sweet medley of “rock, rap and jive.” Goes well with a cup of French Roast.

The swinging and horn-fueled “J Street” stays “true to the tenets,” with two verses from Stat followed by playful drum and saxophone solos flexing Above/Below’s bebop vibe. “J Street” was released as a single with “Ignite.” The latter track features a horn-based and Spanish-sounding intro as well as Stat spitting two verses of his distinctive flow over a groovy base line, followed by a saxophone solo.

There isn’t a single track I skip on Two Sides. That said, a highlight of the album for me is “Socialist Todd (TWAS).” Here Stat takes on the role of narrator, telling the story of “poor Socialist Todd” and his boss Bertha. “Todd was a socialist / with fair trade bananas on his grocery list… Bertha was a capitalist / try to unionize and she’s throwin’ a fit.”

Stat tears “mics to pieces, like [he’s] tearing up your thesis” over a swinging, bebop-influenced background in “Fly in My Soup,” spinning a tale of gustatory warfare and jail and boos at the Apollo Theatre.

Stat spits two Tea Party-inspired verses over a throbbing but easygoing backdrop. With “people in the streets, the masses getting rowdy,” Stat reflects on how Americans “voted for change / got the same old same, slight rearrange” and acknowledges the overblown rhetoric of the resultant political culture. “The People’s Bailout” was inspired by a march led by a friend of his in Hartford, Connecticut against banks receiving bailout money but still foreclosing on houses. The march’s rallying cry—“the banks get bailed out, the people get sold out”—became the first line of the song’s chorus. Stat’s first verse tells the story of a financially imprudent man who ends up going bankrupt and ultimately deciding to rob a bank, “just a man with a list of demands.” Verse two tells the story of foreclosure driving a hardworking man to suicide. The track’s initially happy tone gives way to a “darker, bluesy riff”—the song’s structure mirroring the decline from pre-recession Wall Street to today.

The sheer existence of a rapping professor on campus—a politically minded one at that, on a campus as small and politically inclined as Pomona College—seems to me like it ought to generate at least some degree of student interest. Instead, playing Two Sides to friends, I have seen unequivocally positive responses that contrast bizzarely with Above/Below’s peculiar lack of a following on campus. Above/Below has over 500 fans on Facebook, but only a handful from the Claremont Colleges. And Stat’s own students and athletes—he is an assistant coach for the Pomona-Pitzer baseball team—often have no idea that he raps.

“I certainly haven’t been trying to keep it a secret,” Stat said. Yet he doesn’t push it on his students.

So I’ll say it: there is a rapping professor on campus, dammit. With a song about the Tea Party.

You can download Two Sides for a price of your own naming (including free) at AboveBelow.bandcamp.com.

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