The Dirt and Clean of the Urban Sophisticates’ Sounds
All the aural elements sing from the speakers within the dimly-lit silver-painted recording studio in the trumpet player’s modest house set back in the woods off Hines Chapel Road: a ragged guitar riff, a funky N’Awlins-style horn line, a discrete snare lick, some smooth R&B vocals and the deft lyrical patter of rapping that defines the purpose of the mÃ©lange.
To the untrained ear, everything seems complete, but for Benton James and trumpet player Jeremy Denman, two musical savants, there are yet innumerable adjustments, infinite choices, and an exhilarating aesthetic tension to guide them through the final production of the Urban Sophisticates’ second album, which James says will be titled The Coward’s Anthem.
The song ‘“Run’” is built around a chunky, fuzz-tone guitar riff.
‘“It’s this kind of pursuit song, actually kind of an escape song,’” says James, the group’s MC and primary lyricist. ‘“It’s got a lot of metaphor, to be honest. It’s about the pursuit of a dream, but more edgy.’”
He expresses satisfaction with a verse written by his brother, Aaron, who sings with a smooth edge of foreboding like a latter-day Marvin Gaye: ‘“I close my eyes tonight because I’m afraid of the future.’”
Then Denman ‘— who with trombone player Sal Mascali comprises the horn section ‘— describes his contribution to the seven-man collaboration that is the Urban Sophisticates: the horn section build and breakdown.
‘“The horns are building up to where the entire band drops out,’” he says. ‘“I wanted the horn lines to portray that imagery, so it’s percussive like running. It builds bigger and wider and everything stops until there’s a horn break.
‘“I don’t know whether that comes across but it’s really artsy-fartsy in my head,’” he adds. ‘“There’s a quote I like by Branford Marsalis: ‘The music tells you what to play.””
This is the house Denman shares with his wife, an aspiring architect, but for all intents and purposes it’s also James’ home.
‘“What you’ll see over the next two weeks is me working here, sleeping here,’” James says. ‘“I’ve got an air mattress. It’s not glamorous.’”
James and Denman estimate that they put in 16 to 18 hours a day together in the studio. With their obsession for detail, it’s easy for them to lose track of time.
‘“I like to work at night,’” Denman says. ‘“I kiss my wife goodnight and before I know it I hear her alarm clock go off. ‘Dang, I did it again!’ It always takes longer than you think. This place is like a time capsule. You don’t know if it’s day or night.’”
The Urban Sophisticates hit a good run of touring in August, playing to college audiences at the beginning of the fall semester in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They’ve established a name for themselves in Raleigh and Chapel Hill ‘— and to a lesser extent in their hometown of Greensboro ‘— on the strength of their self-titled debut album and their elaborate live show.
The group received some major label interest from EMI when they played a showcase in Nashville, but shied away when the label reps asked them if the horn section was necessary and whether James would be interested in going solo, Denman says.
The group was born out of the creative collaboration of three young men looking for an avenue of self-expression, and working out of the age-old model of music as spiritual practice. Their ambition seems to have gelled later.
James, a transfer student from Eastern College in Pennsylvania, where he’d played basketball on a scholarship, was studying at NC A&T University about five years ago. He got to know the Urban Sophisticates’ guitar player, Tim Hooker, and a bass player named Ryan Kee through a Bible study group called the Inner Varsity Christian Fellowship.
They shared a love of music. The three founded the Urban Sophisticates three and a half years ago, James says. When Kee, who is now doing missionary work in Switzerland, left the group, he was replaced by Ricky Nxumalo. The current lineup is about two years old.
At this point James and Denman have a pretty good idea what they want to accomplish with the Urban Sophisticates and how to execute their ideas. They have one distinct advantage in the notoriously slippery business of making music for a living: they’re one of only a handful of live hip-hop acts in the country, much less the eastern seaboard.
‘“It’s a way to differentiate ourselves,’” James says. ‘“We’ve tried to stick to a pop idea as far as verses and choruses. The really cool thing is we write bridges. Honestly, we make money. A live band can go out and get 400 people. We can play a two-hour show. An MC and a DJ just can’t keep it going that long.’”
James received indispensable training during an internship at Philadelphia International Records with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in his native City of Brotherly Love.
‘“Everything is about the single, and marketing it to girls between 18 and 34,’” he says. ‘“Those guys have been making money for a long time ‘— everything from Elton John to the Commodores.’”
He describes himself as a hip-hop producer whose model is making beats as background for someone to rhyme over, while Denman operates more in the mold of a rock producer ‘“like a general overseeing the sound.’” They split the difference by having James mix the beats and Denman mix the horns.
‘“I like snares to have dirt,’” James says. ‘“I like imperfections a lot, raw stuff, mistakes. I like to peak the sound.’”
Denman adds: ‘“In hip hop the bass and kick really synch up and lock up. With the bass I like to bring out the string and wood part of it.’”
Despite such densely-layered instrumental considerations, it’s the voice that holds it all together. Improbable as it might seem, James counts Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz as a major influence.
‘“He’s real big on putting his insecurities out there,’” he says.
And so the album’ title track, ‘“The Coward’s Anthem,’” makes a proposal to the Urban Sophisticates’ listening public: ‘“I know I’m not the handsomest and the car I drive ain’t the fanciest, but if I took a couple inches off the waistline would it be enough for you to want to be mine?’”
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