A few weeks ago, fans of the hip-hop/jazz collective ISWHAT?! received an email from founding member Napoleon Maddox in their inboxes: a Spotify link to a new EP called iMaintain. Maddox, a Cincinnati native who is currently doing an artist residency in Besançon, France, linked to the EP as a birthday celebration of sorts for himself, but the release also marked the first time he’d used the moniker ISWHAT?! since the death of the group’s founding member and saxophonist Jack Walker five years ago.
Founded by Maddox and Walker in 1996, the collective has toured extensively in the United States and Europe, appearing primarily as a quartet of vocals, saxophone, bass and drums, with a free jazz and punk rock approach to “boom bap” hip-hop. Since their founding, they have released four EPs and four full-length albums, featuring collaborations with Boogie Bang, DJ Spinna, Hamid Drake, Archie Shepp, Claire Daly, Cocheme’a Gastelum, and Naïssam Jalal.
Maddox gave some thought to the name’s legacy after Walker’s passing but he ultimately decided ISWHAT?! should live on. “The question of whether to continue [using the name] entered my mind briefly,” the rapper/beat boxer says. “Then it was obvious that we had built something—a family, a community, a way of creating together and taking care of each other—that should continue.”
The title studio track of the new EP, “iMaintain,” features critically acclaimed saxophonist JD Allen while the other two studio tracks “Twice the First Mind” and “Torture,” with Dan Barger on saxophone and flute, are a part of Maddox’s multimedia theatrical performance about his conjoined great grand-aunts, Millie-Christine: Twice the First Time. All three were recorded in the Cincinnati studio of DJ/drummer/producer Tobe Donohue. “Dig” and “Homestead” were recorded live in 2017 at Joker’s Pub in Angers, France, and feature Erik “Raggy” Sevret (sax), Brent Olds (bass), and D’Anna Kennedy (drums).
“We’d been working on new pieces before Jack passed, and then after he passed, Brent, Tobe and I spent a lot of time working on tribute pieces that, in hindsight, I feel were as much about therapy for us,” Maddox says. “They sound good. We just need to resolve our questions and put the music out (or not). The expectation of what those pieces needed to represent was just too heavy when we were creating.”
While fans await a new full-length ISWHAT?! release to come out next year, they can check out Maddox’s virtual performance with Sorg at the Besançon Rooftop Festival on August 29. The event will stream live on Facebook, complete with drone-produced aerial shots of the city’s gorgeous streetscapes. In addition, fans can listen to his podcast, Bestown State of Mind. On the show, whose title is a play on rapper Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind,” Maddox interviews guests from Besançon and Cincinnati and plays a wide range of jazz, soul, African music, and hip-hop while sharing his reflections on discovering a new culture.
When reflecting on how far ISWHAT?!’s music has come in 20-plus years, Maddox notes that the group’s goal has remained the same as it was in the beginning. “The idea has always been to refer to tradition but forge ahead and discover or rediscover,” he says. “The constant has been change.”