The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is comprised of nine brothers (one honorary) who play instrumental music that draws from hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz.
Brass band of brothers
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
June 13th at 12:30 am
The Blue Note
131 W. Third St.
($15, 212-475-8592, bluenote.net)
By Lee Ann Westover
Almost every afternoon, lucky crowds of New Yorkers and tourists gather en masse around the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, pulled in by their bombastic brand of instrumental music that draws from hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz. Though critics have, in passing, compared the group to New Orleans brass bands with a similar line-up, these nine brothers (one honorary) take inspiration from their own musical genes. They are a part of the cacophony of urban life they witness in their afternoons spent busking on New York City subway platforms. Since 2005, Hypnotic has held court underground, but on Friday, June 13, they will step out and up with their late- night show at the Blue Note.
The genetic brothers (Gabriel Hubert, trumpet; Saiph Graves, trombone; Tycho Cohran, sousaphone; Amal Baji Hubert, trumpet; Jafar Baji Graves, trumpet; Seba Graves, trombone; Tarik Graves, trumpet; Uttama Hubert, baritone) were born in Chicago. Their father, Phil Conran of the Sun Ra Arkestra, raised them in a home that pulsed with music. The oldest brother, Gabriel, recently sat down at Union Square’s Coffee Shop to tell me more. “We were taught by a man who taught most of the people in Chicago,” he said, “and who was taught by the old-school cats. Every night I would hear music. My father had a theater right in our house. Because of that, by the time I turned five, I wanted to play trumpet. It happened like that with each one of us. After two or three of us showed interest in music, another one would come down the line. My father would put ’em right into band.”
Gabriel explained that Hypnotic got started “when some of the guys were in their senior year of high school. Tycho got the notion that since they were playing songs in the high school band, they could play some of these songs on the street and probably get paid. He fumbled around with it and finally convinced Seba and Tyrik to go out with him. They made, like, 70 bucks a piece! They did it for about a week, secretly. Then, they started going shopping and it was like, ‘Ok, where’s this money coming from?’ The older brothers were out working, and the younger ones were still in high school. We were just trying to find a way to not have to work conventional jobs and make a living playing music. Slowly but surely the rest of the bros started coming down to where they were playing.” Eventually, the eight brothers cemented their identity as Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with the addition of drummer Christopher Anderson.
Not long after the millennium, Hypnotic came to New York to play the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night. Gabriel said the experience gave them a small taste of what playing in the city would be like. After a second visit a couple of years later, Hypnotic returned to Manhattan for a trial run in 2005. They brought along 1600 CDs, and gave themselves a week to sell all the discs from their peripatetic bandstand. They achieved this goal, said Gabriel, “with three or four days to spare.”
A permanent move to New York followed soon after. Gabriel continued, “I mean, there are seven million more people here than there are in Chicago. Here, you can be playing somewhere on the street and somebody will be walking past and take you to the next level — just like that. That happened with G-Star and with Mos Def” — with whom Hypnotic has since collaborated. “I mean, 14th Street...everybody walks up and down 14th Street. Times Square? Everybody moves in and out of Times Square.”
Years spent busking have started to grate a bit, as the band continues its upward trajectory. “Sometimes it’s cool, like when we did the Apollo for the James Brown Tribute. To go from the red carpet to the street...I mean...this is the type of stuff we do. But after going on a world tour for six or seven weeks, seven or eight countries...to come back here and go back on the street? It becomes frustrating. To go from where people are holding you like this...” (Gabriel raises his hand high up above his head) “...to back over here where you gotta worry about police popping you. When we are on the road we don’t have to do that. We forget that we have to deal with that B.S.”
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble won’t have much longer to worry about police and bad tippers. After the show this week, they’ll head to Europe again for balance of the summer. Gabriel shared that, following their return, Hypnotic will be on its way to retiring the street performances. “In a club, you’re going to see Hypnotic more relaxed...with our hair let down. Onstage you already paid for it. Out on the street you got people who love our music and have a million dollars in the bank getting out nine pennies and feeling that’s sufficient. We made good money on the street, but think about people who didn’t make nothing, and they might be great musicians. I mean, this is how people show their love.”