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Back in May, Damon Dash, Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder and Jay-Z's old business partner (they've since suffered a rather public falling out) placed a call to some new friends: singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney, they of Akron-spawned bluesy rock duo the Black Keys. Dash told them he was a fan, and expressed interest in working together. Soon, they'd booked time at Studio G in Williamsburg and recorded eight instrumental tracks in two days. A procession of big-shot NYC rappers later, the BlakRoc project was born.
Dash's side of the bargain was simple: Bring in those rappers. First, he showed up with Jim Jones, the Harlem provocateur best known for 2006 club anthem "We Fly High." Soon thereafter, in the wee hours outside a Tribeca bar, Dash heard his name yelled out; he feared it was a crazy fan or someone he "didn't want to see." But it turned out to be Mos Def, whose eyes lit up as Dash explained the project: Mos, too, was a fan of the Black Keys. He was in. Wu-Tang Clan's RZA completed the early-adopter trifecta—as Dash tells it, "With those three names confirmed, it was easy to get other artists involved." What followed was a roll-call from a certain era of New York lyrical proficiency: Q-Tip, Raekwon, Pharoahe Monch, and M.O.P.'s Billy Danze, plus a beyond-the-grave a cappella from Ol' Dirty Bastard that sees him running around town with Ludacris like a pair of randy rabbits and complimenting a female on having "a body like a horse." (It's titled "Coochie.")
Pairing rappers with rockers is nothing new, of course, but it's still far from a safe science—some swear by the Judgment Night soundtrack, and some do not. "Any time you hear about these collaborations that involve different genres, I'm personally skeptical of them," Carney admits. "But I think we did a good job."
Indeed, BlakRoc works despite such skepticism, because the Black Keys have always laid down the type of bumptious but bluesy backing tracks you'd imagine RZA or Q-Tip happily sampling themselves, were they to stumble across them in a box of old vinyl. The emcees and the rockers sound natural together, not forced, and often they actually improve one another: The band's sorrowful tone imbues Jim Jones's usual braggart-about-town persona with a welcome layer of redemption, while Auerbach compares witnessing Raekwon record the BlakRoc track "Stay Off the F*%$#n' Flowers" to "watching Bob Dylan—just someone who has such a command of their art form." No, Dylan likely never recited a rhymed verse off the dinky screen of a BlackBerry, but thanks to the Keys' lolling bassline and swirling guitars, it might be the most evocative track Rae's lent his husky timbre to since the original Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. . .
Elsewhere on the Wu-Tang front, Carney recalls RZA "turning up to the studio with crystals in his pockets, telling everyone not to talk, and deciding he wanted to not just rap but play the guitar, too." It's a scene captured on one of BlakRoc's "webisodes"—short, behind-the-scenes video footage aired weekly at blakroc.com in the run-up to the self-titled record's release. Cue slightly awkward looks from Auerbach and Carney, before RZA picks up the guitar, sits down, and strums like he samples: with an angular, edgy, and almost spastic approach, his ear for the obtuse fitting snugly within the Black Keys' grooves.
The strong Wu presence on BlakRoc isn't a quirk. Auerbach and Carney both cite GZA's scuzzy crime-noir-in-rhyme solo nod Liquid Swords as their favorite rap record, and admit that the group's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: (36 Chambers), made a big impression. "When Pat and I started making music together, we were listening to 36 Chambers a lot," remembers Auerbach. "We tried to replicate RZA's drum sounds. We were putting samples in our demos, trying to make it sound really dirty."
That BlakRoc's musicians meshed isn't a surprise. RZA publicly declared his desire to incorporate more guitars into the last Wu-Tang album, and New York hip-hop producers have long plucked samples from rock records. But this new project has also given Dash, officially credited as executive producer, the chance to assert his own artistic ambition. At the height of Roc-A-Fella's reign, he was portrayed as the garish side of the enterprise, the guy spraying champagne over chicks in videos, and the one who thought it a good idea to pair stick-thin Spice Girl Victoria Beckham with rowdy rappers M.O.P., or launch Jewish-girl-about-town Samantha Ronson's quickly extinguished pop-rock career with a mixtape called Challah. But since Roc-A-Fella's implosion, he has put his clout behind the 2004 Kevin Bacon vehicle The Woodsman (a sensitive portrayal of a pedophile) and now BlakRoc, a genre-crossing project that resonates far more earnestly than Jay-Z's attempts to endorse Grizzly Bear.
"Sometimes, you have to concentrate on building the brand," reasons Dash, and, yes, you can buy a range of BlakRoc T-shirts from their website. "This time around, I enjoyed the chance to show people another side of me," he adds. "I think it's a creative success—that's why we're already recording BlakRoc Part Two."