In 2006, The Black Keys released an EP titled Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, covering songs by Kimbrough, a Mississippi blues icon who heavily influenced vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach. In his review of Chulahoma, Pitchfork critic Sean Fennessey commented, “The white-boy imitators from Ohio jacking a Mississippi Delta shaman’s style is an idea fraught with unmanageable questions.” These days, that kind of cross-cultural musical hybridization is everywhere, from a multiracial Minneapolis hip-hop collective (see: Doomtree) to an African-American comedian-turned-Childish Gambino. Nonetheless, to a certain extent The Black Keys handle possible issues surrounding their music’s roots with extreme sensitivity. On Chulahoma, they include a recording of Kimbrough’s widow Mildred saying, “You’re about the only one that really, really plays like Junior played his records.” These two white guys from Akron may play music that originated in black communities in the Deep South, but they exonerate themselves by playing it really, really well.
The Black Keys – “Junior’s Widow”
The Black Keys first tackled Kimbrough by covering his blues standard “Do the Rump” on 2002’s The Big Come Up. Gnarly and raw, Auerbach’s voice roughs up Kimbrough’s suave wail with Paul McCartney’s “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” urgency. While “Do the Rump” exemplifies The Black Keys’ racially transcendent musical abilities, the most intriguing track on The Big Come Up arrives at the end. “240 Years Before Your Time” elevates the record from grungy ‘60s blues to ‘90s trip-hop with a simple hi-hat rhythm and psychedelic reverb. It’s striking and foreshadows the duo’s forays into hip-hop. It’s no coincidence, then, that “240 Years Before Your Time” soundtracks a trailer to Blakroc 2, the rumored follow-up to 2009’s collaboration between The Black Keys and rappers like Mos Def, Ludacris, and RZA. The first Blakroc—which the BBC’s Nick Neyland calls, “a surprisingly compelling and welcome rejoining of the rap and rock worlds that successfully captures the off-the-cuff nature of the recording sessions”—remains a surprisingly solid example of cross-genre collaboration.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
“240 Years Before Your Time” was also the first example of The Black Keys’ tendency to include hidden tracks on their albums, which they did again during the Blakroc sessions. An “off-the-cuff” excerpt from these studio sessions, found at the end of album closer “Done Did It”, absolves The Black Keys similarly to Mildred Kimbrough’s voicemail message: M.O.P.’s Billy Danze joked, “I knew I should’ve brought my knife with me” after famously humorous drummer Patrick Carney told him to leave so Q-Tip could arrive. Hamilton said in an interview that Carney’s audacity picking on “the biggest guy in the room” from Brownsville (read: ghetto), joking or not, shocked everyone. The clip lends Carney, and by association his band, street cred that might not otherwise come across in Blakroc’s carefully orchestrated fusion of blues and rap.
A less slick but no less enjoyable example of The Black Keys’ hip-hop compatibility came out shortly after 2010’s Brothers and Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Wick-It the Instigator, the remix artist behind Beastie Mouse and Austin Powers vs. Big K.R.I.T., came out with seven mashups known collectively as The Brothers of Chico Dusty. Available for free download, songs like “Black Bug” and “Everlasting Shine Blockaz” made it onto blogs and mainstream media like Minnesota Public Radio and Spin Magazine. On Outkast’s website, Big Boi gave his stamp of approval to Wick-It the Instigator and thus by association, The Black Keys: “Mashups these days can be questionable, but this one is Big Boi approved and stankin’.” He then asked readers to vote for The Black Keys and Big Boi to perform at the Grammys. It doesn’t get much more “stankin’” than that. Even though The Brothers of Chico Dusty doesn’t bear The Black Keys’ official signature, it nonetheless demonstrates the hip-hop tendencies that underlie the band’s constantly evolving interpretation of north hill country blues.
Perhaps the biggest unintentional risk The Black Keys have taken is with the recent video for El Camino single “Lonely Boy”. Derrick Tuggle’s rockabilly dance moves have so far scored close to three million hits on YouTube. While the image of an African-American dancing and lip-syncing to two white guys from the Midwest might ruffle a few feathers, Tuggle was picked for the part almost entirely by chance: The video’s director saw him dancing to the music off-camera and, based on his version of the mashed potato (his dance has already become a verb, “to Tuggle”), decided to promote him from extra to star of “Lonely Boy”. Regardless of his race and how it relates to Auerbach’s voice coming out of his mouth, the simple truth is that Derrick Tuggle was the best dancer in the room and now probably on the Internet. Like him, The Black Keys work because they have fun with what they do and they do it well. It would otherwise not be possible to successfully re-appropriate Kimbrough’s north hill country blues, Big Boi’s Atlanta slang, or Raekwon’s razor-sharp rhymes. Let’s hope Mildred Kimbrough still feels the same and that the next idea The Black Keys have that’s “fraught with unmanageable questions” is Blakroc 2.