Bless the Mad share their private pantheon of Black Chicago music | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Bless the Mad share their private pantheon of Black Chicago music

The production duo discuss the classic hip-hop, soul, gospel, and jazz records that inspired the reverent sonic collage on their debut album.

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I regularly search Bandcamp for Chicago releases, and this past August I found the album Bless the Mad. At that point it was still a month from release, with only a few tracks streaming, and the information on the Bandcamp page didn't enlighten me much—just the identities of the core members of the group behind the music, also called Bless the Mad, plus a little backstory and a detailed breakdown of the guest players on each track. Unfortunately, I didn't recognize a single name.

I could draw some conclusions from the album's artwork, which collages together images from the world of Black Chicago music—including the logo for Kelan Phil Cohran's Artistic Heritage Ensemble and a photo of postman with a guitar in front of a sign for the Maxwell Street market. It gives Bless the Mad the look of enigmatic private-press LP, the kind that crate diggers dream of finding at estate sales or flea markets. The cover makes it clear that these artists love and respect the history of postwar Black music, and the fraction of the album I could hear this summer felt like a similar collage—a richly textured, organic collage with a hip-hop kick.

That first impression turned out to be right on the money. Bless the Mad incorporates gospel, soul, spiritual jazz, R&B, funk, and hip-hop, and the collective of musicians enlisted for the album play with an almost serene cool that allows them to pivot between styles without disrupting their flow. On "Fall Dead," for example, solemn but jazzy bowed double bass overlaps with strutting electric bass and a simple funk keyboard lick that tiptoes through the song; a sparse snare-drum pattern adds an invigorating hint of hip-hop that foreshadows the entrance of rapper Gaia Earthpeace. Aside from a few vocal samples, everything on Bless the Mad was freshly recorded by live musicians, though extensive postproduction often makes their playing sound like samples.

Fifteen people contributed to the album, though only two are members of Bless the Mad: producers and multi-instrumentalists Ibrahem Hasan and Matthew Rivera. While this is their debut under that name, they've collaborated for nearly 20 years. They've been releasing music here and there for most of that time, the majority of it since 2014 and on their own label, Stay the Course Records, but Bless the Mad is their first full-length album.

Hasan and Rivera aren't great with dates, but their recollections suggest that they met in their teens in the late 1990s at the Maxwell Street flea market, which by then had moved to Canal Street. By then Hasan, a Brighton Park native, had been traveling to the flea market for about six years, having been introduced to Maxwell Street by his dad. The early-bird diggers took a liking to Hasan. "I had a weird nickname: Pieces," he says. "I was the person that would come late, and then I would pull out, like, a Philip Cohran 45 and be like, 'What's this?' They'd be like, 'You fucking idiot.'"

Ibrahem Hasan of Bless the Mad circa 1998, digging through vinyl at Hyde Park Records - COURTESY BLESS THE MAD
  • Courtesy Bless the Mad
  • Ibrahem Hasan of Bless the Mad circa 1998, digging through vinyl at Hyde Park Records

Rivera grew up in Rogers Park and started digging for records in 1997, not long after he began DJing for parties thrown by his friends from Lane Tech—he'd pillaged his dad's collection to get started. An ex-girlfriend told him about Maxwell Street, and soon he was visiting every Sunday, waking up earlier each week to try to beat other diggers. "One day I'm like, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna get there really early.' Got there at 6:30, and there's like nine dudes, mid-dig," Rivera says. "Ibrahem was there, with a bunch of other dudes—I thought they were a crew."

Hasan, Rivera, and a couple other collectors got to talking and discovered they all made hip-hop instrumentals at home. One weekend a music producer, DJ, and fellow collector named Djuan, who'd sell records to Maxwell Street regulars out of his trunk after the flea market got picked clean, invited the aspiring beat makers to bring in their music for a listening session using his car stereo. After hearing each other's work, Hasan and Rivera realized they clicked as musicians, not just as people. Hasan invited Rivera to jam in his parents' basement in south suburban Hickory Hills, and despite the distance between their homes, Rivera made the trip.

  • A compilation of Hasan and Rivera's early work together

They've continued to collaborate even as that distance has grown. Hasan, who now works as a freelance creative director in Brooklyn, first moved out of Chicago in 2001 and hasn't lived here in more than a decade. Rivera has moved around a lot too, and in March he went to Japan to teach English. They haven't lived in the same place since the late 2000s—Rivera joined Hasan in New York in 2008, after Hasan sent him a remix of material they'd recorded together, and then Hasan moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2010 for work. They made most of Bless the Mad over the past couple years in Hasan's home studio, working piecemeal whenever Rivera could visit. The two of them contributed mostly percussion and keyboards to the skeletons of their productions, roping in friends they'd made in New York to flesh them out fully.

Since Bless the Mad so clearly builds on and pays homage to our city's music history, I decided to ask Hasan and Rivera about six Chicago albums that inspired their work on the album. Most of the records they chose date from the 1970s or earlier, but they've all been reissued—in many cases recently enough that copies are still on the market. Pastor T.L. Barrett & the Youth for Christ Choir's Like a Ship . . . (Without a Sail), for instance, has been reissued five times in the past decade (longtime Reader music critic Peter Margasak wrote liner notes for the 2010 Light in the Attic version). They're all on Spotify too, but I highly recommend buying physical copies if possible—not just because Spotify sucks but also because record stores don't. Most local shops have continued to operate during the pandemic, and many have found novel ways to stay in business while keeping employees and customers safe. Considering the current surge of COVID cases, you should probably call ahead to ask your favorite shop about any new public-health measures.

I interviewed Hasan and Rivera separately, after they talked amongst themselves to settle on the six albums they wanted to discuss. I've edited both of their conversations for length and clarity.

Earth, Wind & Fire, Earth, Wind & Fire (1971)

Ibrahem Hasan When I saw that cover I was like, "Yo, I've never seen this one before." Then when I brought it home, it just sounded a bit more raw—it had this very raw feeling. Because I'm a designer, the art also has a big influence in how I look at all these records.

Matthew Rivera I guess I probably knew who Earth, Wind & Fire was, but I wasn't a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire until I heard this record.

Hasan That record was the 70s revolt sound. I don't know what it was about that record for me that it just hit that way.

Rivera Every track is a heater—it's so dope.

Hasan The songs that stood out were "Fan the Fire"—the vocal structure in that was amazing. "This World Today," I remember listening to that and feeling like RZA made this. It sounded like hip-hop to me, but soulful with a punch.

Rivera Maurice White was part of the Pharaohs—that connection to the Chicago underground jazz scene. It's like soul-jazz, and the musicians are killer. The vocal arrangements are killer. It's like a bridge between the Pharaohs and more mainstream soul, but it has that really deep undercurrent.

Hasan It's funny, [this album] was not a direct influence, but I think it was the overall sound—the structure, the vocal structure. Even to this day, I still think we have so much to learn in respect to song structure—just the song arrangements and whatnot. I think that record probably was helping, and the vocal chants, and how they arranged vocals, which is very new for us. We're still in the infancy of figuring that out.

Rivera The whole vibe—the spiritual-jazz vibe, plus the really deep and soulful R&B vibe, with the rich vocal harmonization and dope bass lines. I can't say that, like, when we're making stuff, we're thinking of specific records, but I think we've absorbed it.

Matthew Rivera plays drums at Ibrahem Hasan's house, circa 2004. - COURTESY BLESS THE MAD
  • Courtesy Bless the Mad
  • Matthew Rivera plays drums at Ibrahem Hasan's house, circa 2004.

Common Sense, Resurrection (1994)

Rivera My boy Domenichi [Morris] gave me a tape in high school. He's on the Bless the Mad cover, actually—a photo I took of him at my mom's house DJing. Common was one of the first tapes he let me borrow. I went home, I listened to it again and again, and it just got better and better. In Chicago, we didn't have a lot of dope hip-hop—there's very few acts that you could be proud of. So I think that was part of it too. But just, like, the beats—No I.D., his production, it was just so dope.

Hasan It's only until I landed in hip-hop where I found my favorite space, and Resurrection was the record that got me there. When I heard that song, "Resurrection," it was over—that's it. I was fully engaged in understanding what that song was all about. What I was doing with that song was unpacking it and trying to figure out what are the things that they are doing so I can emulate. Like, "OK, what's this DJ thing? OK, I want to be a DJ. What is this breakdancing? Oh, I'mma breakdance."

Rivera Anything of that style—very jazz based—it draws me to it. And it's a lot of early-90s stuff. Listening to that stuff too also helps shape your ear, when you're shopping for jazz and stuff. You're like, "Oh, this George Benson is in 'I Used to Love H.E.R.'"

Hasan When I listen to Resurrection, the tonality is in our music. The samples are in our music, because the process of how that record is made is no different than how our record is made—except we added on top of it. So if I started out with a very beautiful soul sample, and I chopped it up a bit, and we started to play it live—this is our live version that we interpreted.

Rivera We're production heads; that's why we're drawn to it. There was something there I wanted to take with me on the next journey—I didn't just want to abandon it completely. In my head, I was just like, "I want to make real music, but I want to have that texture. I want that SP-1200 feel." So I always was conscious of trying to play quote-unquote real music, and make sure it was almost tricking you into thinking, "Is this a sample?" Both of us would always be like, "If it sounds like a band, that's bad." It's gotta sound "produced," whatever that means.

Pastor T.L. Barrett & the Youth for Christ Choir, Like a Ship . . . (Without a Sail) (1971)

Rivera My boy Andrew Brearley—Meaty Ogre, Chicago producer—he was working at Hyde Park Records. I went to his house maybe one day after work or something. He had that record. So ever since I saw him with it, I had to find it. I was looking for it for so fucking long. Other dudes had several copies—for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how people were getting this record. Every time I'd see gospel records, I'm like, "OK, where's that fuckin' Barrett? I'll never find it, it's fine." And then it popped up.

Hasan Mine is a beat-up copy. Still doesn't matter—I love that record to death. I got it at Maxwell Street.

Rivera Being tuned to hip-hop is part of it. You listen to that kind of stuff differently—going backward, after having been tuned to certain tastes, frequencies or whatever, it hits in this different way.

Hasan "Nobody Knows" is the track—I can't play that song one time and then walk away. I have to put that on repeat and listen to it over and over again. That's how it influences me.

Rivera It's just heavy. Like the drums just hit—it sounds like what a hip-hop producer going back in time would tell them to do: "No, hit it like this." Religion is not for me, but I love gospel music. It's praising something outside of yourself.

Hasan Every gospel record, I'd have to look for this feeling, this tone, this aggressiveness, this passion. You know that they brought everything. I will say this right now—I love spiritual jazz, and I love all kinds of music. I don't think anything hits the way gospel music hits, because it's done with so much love and passion.

Rivera The intention of gospel music is love and it's joy, and it's made for others to experience those feelings. So much of music is like, "Look how cool I am, look how good I am, look how dope my whatever is." I think there's much, much, much less of that in gospel. I think you can hear it. We would do a whole gospel album, honestly, if we could. If it made sense.

Hasan [Bless the Mad's] "Show Me the Way," that's the gospel track, even though that was influenced by another record. The tonality, the feeling, the punchiness, the way that that record was put together—"Nobody Knows," all day. Actually, that influenced every gospel track that I made moving forward—that's the type of effect it had on me.

A portion of Bless the Mad's recording setup in Ibrahem Hasan's home studio, photographed in 2019 - COURTESY BLESS THE MAD
  • Courtesy Bless the Mad
  • A portion of Bless the Mad's recording setup in Ibrahem Hasan's home studio, photographed in 2019

Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble (1967)

Hasan Man, that guy. I've been in love with him and his music for the longest time. I bought a 45, and it was on Zulu [Records, Cohran's label], and I didn't know Philip Cohran. I remember playing it at home and being like, "This is cool. Maybe I can sample it," like, super fucking asshole—I didn't have the maturity to understand what I was listening to. Listened to it more and more, and it just started to grow on me in a very different way. I kind of intellectualized the 45. I was like, "OK, I need to listen to more of this." Until I listened to that track, "On the Beach." It was over. Whenever anybody asks, "What's your favorite song in the whole wide world," this might be one of my favorite songs ever, in any genre.

Rivera Ib, he had [this record]. At the flea market we called him Pieces, because no matter what time he would get there, no matter who's looked through that box, he'll pull a piece out. I believe he pulled that out with no cover at 10 AM—like, 10 AM, it's done. Eight AM, it's done. But I remember he got there super late, and I believe he pulled that record out. I've never found any of those. The only times I've seen them were in the shop, for about $300. So that's like something I've only been fortunate enough to hear at his house.

Hasan That's a masterpiece to me. Me and Mateo [Matthew Rivera], we have this thing where there's certain records we just don't touch. We are not gonna make it better. Respect that artist. Like, I'm never gonna touch James Brown. What am I gonna do to James Brown? He's fucking James Brown!

Rivera Part of that late-60s, early-70s jazz-funk, spiritual-jazz scene with the kalimba, the thumb piano—I know Maurice White was doing that with Earth, Wind & Fire, and Phil Cohran had a lot of that [Ed: Cohran, who mentored White in the 1960s, devised an electrified thumb piano he called the frankiphone while playing with Sun Ra in the '50s]. It has African elements and also, like, sort of has a worship element too. This music is very powerful, and it connects us, and it connects us to something higher.

Hasan When I listen to that song ["On the Beach"] in particular, there's never a part of me that's like, "We should do a remake of this, or a rendition of this." It's gonna influence what we do and how we create. I mean, that song influences pretty much everything on this record [Bless the Mad]—"Ra's Lament," "Mama's Land." It's just always in there.

Rivera We're producers; we don't have a band. All this stuff is mostly overdubbed. A lot of times it's just me. We're not fortunate enough at this moment to turn off the lights and have this spiritual session. So that's not there. But we still want that feeling—we still want to tap into that, into what the music does or what it's capable of doing. Just like we try to capture that SP-1200, early-90s texture, we draw from spiritual jazz and gospel and try to tap into that feeling.

Curtis Mayfield, Curtis (1970)

Rivera That was easy to find—back in the day, it was everywhere. You couldn't not find that record. It was everywhere, in every condition. I've had a lot of copies of that one—that record is my favorite record of all time, I think. I might just say that's number one.

Hasan Matt brought this record up, and I was like, "Damn, I haven't listened to this record in a long time." Yesterday night, I was working; I put it on, and I was like, "Oh my God, this feels so good!" It was like a breath of fresh air. It was almost like I forgot Curtis's voice. His voice is like, honestly, if he started singing to me I'd be like, "Whatever you want, you can have." His voice is so soulful and beautiful, it can turn your day; if you were having a bad day and you put Curtis on, it changes the whole vibe and energy of your space. When they were recording, I almost feel like the tape was oozing with honey.

Rivera Why is it so dope? It's soul. That's the definition of soul, it just hits you. A lot of times the bass line, it just stays the same the entire time for, like, eight minutes. But he found the right one—that's it, that's the one, that's the bass line. Why change it? "We don't need a B section, that's it." That's hip-hop; that's what hip-hop is.

Hasan That record influenced one of my favorite songs on our record, "I Wanna Give to You." That one was a direct influence. Obviously, it doesn't sound like Curtis, but the feeling that that gave me is a very similar feeling that I felt when I listened to that Curtis record.

Rivera Curtis is in everything. I can't do anything without him—I love Curtis Mayfield.

Matthew Rivera of Bless the Mad (left) circa 2007 with pianist Ken Chaney of the Awakening, in Jackson Park where Chaney was teaching lessons - DAVID AUJERO
  • David Aujero
  • Matthew Rivera of Bless the Mad (left) circa 2007 with pianist Ken Chaney of the Awakening, in Jackson Park where Chaney was teaching lessons

The Awakening, Mirage (1973)

Hasan I grew up working on cars—that was the family business [Brighton Automotive], and it was in Brighton Park on the south side. I would go there as a youngster and just work. I didn't really understand who would come in and out of our mechanic's shop.

One day, I buy the Awakening's record from Maxwell Street. I get home, I put the stack of records on the table. My dad comes in and he goes, "Hey man, that's Ken!" I'm like, "What the fuck are you talking about?" Mind you, I don't know who Ken is—he's like, "Hey man, that's Ken!" And I'm like, "Man, stop fucking around, you don't know what you're talking about." So I turned the record; lo and behold, it's Ken. And I'm like, "What's his last name?" "I don't know—Chaney?" I'm like, "Jesus Christ, you know him. Oh my God." He [pianist Ken Chaney] brings his car to the shop.

I didn't know Ramsey Lewis brought his car to the shop. A lot of well-known musicians brought their cars to my dad's shop. Steve "Silk" Hurley brought his car to the shop. I had no idea that these people were coming into the shop; I had no clue. My relationship to Ken is interesting because he used to come to my dad's shop to fix his car. And then ultimately became Mateo's piano teacher.

Rivera I was fortunate enough to learn that [Chaney] was teaching at Jackson Park. I'm like, "I really want to learn this fucking piano." I had tried it a couple times, but the teachers just didn't work. I thought I couldn't do it. I thought it was too hard. It was boring, and the teachers were boring, and they seemed disinterested. Djuan said [Chaney] is teaching at Jackson Park, and I'm like, "Let me just go down there and see what's up." I went and I paid my 30 bucks for, like, three months—Chicago Park District, thank God. And there he is, in the little room with a bunch of pianos. I had lessons with him every Friday at 3 PM for about a year.

He knew exactly what I was talking about—like, "I like this kind of music, I want to play something like this—I like Roy Ayers." He knew exactly what I was asking for. He's like, "Here, play this." He did the C major scale and all that stuff, but he let me cut through and get to the cool shit, so I could be motivated. He showed me the C minor seventh chord, which is a basic jazz chord, but it blew my fucking mind. He's like, "Here, you want this." I'm like, "Holy shit, what the fuck is this?" And it's four fingers. He's like, "Yeah, practice that." I thought I was like RZA at home—I was playing this chord again and again. He's like, "Yeah, learn it in every key." So I spent a year trying to master just that chord in every key—it was so dope. He tried to teach me other stuff too. A lot of our lessons were just talk; we didn't even play. I would just ask him questions and he'd tell me about touring and like a lot of interesting tidbits.

He's an important dude, an important figure in my life. When I found that Awakening record, I brought it into the class to have him sign it for me. I was like, "Do you know how much I paid for this record?" At the time I think I paid 70 bucks for it at Dusty Groove.

Hasan I never had a relationship with Ken, but I love the fact that we have Ken's imprint on our music.

Rivera I like jazz-funk a lot, and [Mirage] hits the jazz-funk side and the spiritual-jazz side. It's so cool to hear this guy playing—I know that guy. To have him show me a couple of things that he's doing on this record, I think that makes it one of those records I'll never get rid of. Even without the connection, it's one of the best spiritual jazz-funk albums of that era, for sure. Definitely one of the best records in the Black Jazz catalog.

Hasan I think it's amazing to be able to kind of say, "Hey, Ken influenced our music. Ken was the reason why Matt plays the way he plays."

Rivera If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't even be here.  v

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