‘Yeah, y’all playing with me after the set is over with. Come on over to my tent.’ We went to [Prince’s] tent, he’s like, ‘Key of E, let’s jam’.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have been constant visitors to the UK over the last few years, their inimitable and influential style weaving magic over audiences across the globe as well as over here. The sons of the late Phil Cohran, whose passing in 2017 is still extremely raw for HBE, make up the core of the band and are complimented by other talented musicians for live shows.
I’ve been lucky enough to warm up for the crew a number of times, and did so again last week over at Gorilla in Manchester. Twisted Tubes (with the amazing Joe Luckin on drums) killed it on support, and I got to play a little Phil Cohran before HBE took to the stage. Out the back later on, we caught up to reminisce on their success.
So how hard is it carrying a family unit across the world?
Tarik Graves, aka Smoove (trumpet): Oh, it’s hard. We started with eight, there’s four of us on stage tonight (other brothers were at home with family or work commitments – J). Life is about survival, and trying to get more of what you had yesterday, tomorrow. If not, you’re just chasing your tail. So us, when we first started doing this, we wanted to be better. Each day we wanted to be better musicians, better men, better fathers, better brothers so we fought to get to this point. But, being guys that didn’t know about the music game at that time, you just don’t know how many changes you would go through.
Saiph Graves, aka Cid (trombone): You got family. People ask us about family because they want to relate it somehow to they family and they self. I always tell people, you got a brother, you got a sister, imagine multiplying that times six and being on the road with them all the time, the same hotel, same tour bus, same plane… we love each other because…
Smoove: Because we trust each other.
Cid: We can argue and get on each other’s nerves because we love each other. But the music holds it together. That’s just how powerful the music and the legacy is, that beyond differences – we know people that haven’t talked to their siblings since they been adults, they have one problem and it’s just done – we don’t even have the option to not be around each other. The music is bigger than us, stronger than us. The legacy is beyond us wanting to be in a band with our brothers. This is our destiny. Our dad had all these boys for a reason. He didn’t just have a bunch of kids and think, I’m a turn you all into a band… he’s like, I’m gonna have a bunch of artists and train ‘em from birth.
Smoove: Another thing I gotta add… in America, it’s different from over here and a lot of other countries we go. It’s hard to be a great black man. You’re looked at, when you become great, or getting close to being great, everybody got flaws… your flaws get amplified and they just make you out to be a bad guy, as a black man.
‘They excellent, and you sitting here on the sidelines watching them.’ And I was like, you know what, pops? You right.
Cid: When you building something, it’s very rough because the return is nowhere near what you put into it. Now, when we first started… first of all, wasn’t no brass bands. Just one or two from New Orleans or something like that. We’ve put a whole movement on and we’ve spearheaded something, we’ve paved a road. Paving a road has been hard, it gets in the way of our interactions with each other, having to be serious about business and that kind of stuff. Thats the main thing with our band and the family and how it relates and the struggles, and who you see and who you don’t, it’s just because we’re climbing a mountain, kid. That’s how you get to the top.
Smoove: This is the life we chose, that’s why we keep going. Each one of us, when we started playing, our parents didn’t put an instrument in our hand, we chose.
Cid: All of us got a chance to choose our instrument.
Smoove: We all chose this life even if you was too young to know it. But we learn every day and you get to see the music business is not what it’s all cracked out to be, it’s a sea full of sharks, whales, fish, you gotta choose who you wanna be. Do you wanna eat or do you wanna get ate? It can take you away from your spirituality, it can take you away from a lot of things to do with the music, dealing with the business, ‘cos you gotta be a shark in this game. There’s a lot of things I’m learning now and I see it’s beautiful, we’ll laugh about it at the finish line. But yeah, it’s real. I miss my bros that’s not here. Them the bros that brought me here.
Cid: Happy birthday, Clef!
Smoove: On Clef’s birthday, 2nd October. That’s the brother who told me to come down, said let’s go try something with our horns.
Gabriel Hubert aka Hudah (trumpet): My father told me… I watched these guys performing at the Adler Planetarium (in Chicago), it had to be 2000, 2001…
Cid: You didn’t play at that show?
Hudah: I did not. I was the last brother to get down with the group. I didn’t get down until 2002. The thing that made me know that I was doing something wrong, was that my father told me after that Adler Planetarium show in Chicago: ‘you spittin’ on your birthright. You was born in a family where music is the essence, music is everything that everybody does, it’s the centre focus and you’re not playing it. I see you, and then I see your brothers playing and they are fucking excellent.’ I’m sorry for the cuss words. You can bleep that. ‘They excellent, and you sitting here on the sidelines watching them.’ And I was like, you know what, pops? You right.
Smoove: Rest in peace.
Hudah: And from that day on, I decided that I had to play because the energy was bigger than me. The energy in this group is bigger than each individual and is shown every day when people listen to the music. We have people who come from different walks of life, people who come from different backgrounds and they like and respect HBE for different reasons. The beautiful thing about HBE is we give you something that you’ll never get from anybody else.
Is there an overarching plan to your journey?
Cid: We create our opportunities. If we didn’t we would not even be able to perform right now. A lot of people don’t know that about us. Even sometimes guys in the band think people going out of their way to call us and bring us places. We have the ability – once we get on a stage, we gonna impress any audience. We create the opportunities to be in front of the audiences that therefore like us and bring us back. We just finished our Spain tour, we breaking that market. We broke England over a decade ago. Ireland, a decade ago, we broke Australia. You see us with Snoop Dogg, Damon, all that stuff, a certain part of it people gravitate towards us because the legacy and the music, but the business side we creating these. We booking these shows, we promoting them, buying the flights, the hotels, we’re funding ourself, every time you see Hypnotic or hear us.
Hudah: Our plan is to be your favourite band, and there’s a lot of work that goes into that behind the scenes. A lot of stuff that people don’t get to see, even fathom. The things that we go through on a daily basis being, 1) that we’re brothers, 2) that we’re friends, and 3) that we just trying to get a business off the ground…
Smoove: Just look at the band that was on stage before us (Twisted Tubes). When y’all first saw us we had a tuba. Everywhere you go now you see a tuba.
Hudah: We wanted to inspire. Like he said, with a tuba. You saw us with a tuba. The best thing to happen in a band with horns is a tuba. The first people who made that evident was The Roots. Our innovation, not even knowing the potential that we had, put us in that place and had us create a slate.
Smoove: I mention the tuba to just represent a fact of the growth that we had. Even when we was first rockin’ with you, I think we still had the tuba, right? Each day, each time, life is about learning, each second. We just learning as we go.
What are your proudest moments?
Smoove: Prince. Or I have to say, today. Now is the best time you have, it’s your best chance to do something about whatever you had yesterday, or whatever you want to do tomorrow. This is the best chance you have right now, this second to do anything to change… or, you can do some shit that make shit worse. But this the best chance to change whatever situation you got in your life and that’s right now at this moment, this day, not tomorrow and not yesterday. So you got to treat it that way and that’s on the t-shirts, that you got, HBE Now Music – our father was the one that started that. He was the one that told us about Now Music, and we pretty much created the Now Music that gave him the idea, ‘cos we were making songs every day, and we were just going with the flow and our feelings.
Cid: I think our first big milestone, beyond going to New York, was doing the No I.D. track, ‘cause we were still playing on the streets. Some days we were making, like, eleven dollars. And we was writing the first music y’all listened to.
Smoove: That was major.
Cid: We was on the streets, we always knew we would travel the world, but to start seeing the physical representations in front of you, we was like, yeah. Those days where we was depressed, we could have just quit it. We got rained on today, we didn’t make no money, our family, everybody’s like, go get some jobs, do this and that… everything but what we were doing. Not a lot of people were encouraging us. When we got that No I.D. track with Wu Tang…
Smoove: Ghostface! It changed.
Cid: After that, we didn’t stay in Chicago still no more. We went to New Orleans, we went to LA. If things weren’t good, we’d start getting on the road. Since then, we been on the road and the road just got bigger and bigger. Went from being the west coast, to the east coast, to the south to now, it’s just the world. But, we got on the move after that. Funnily enough, that day, young kid on the couch, as protege to No I.D., we didn’t know that day… that was Kanye West. The little dude on the couch.
Smoove: It was right before Kanye just blew.
Cid: This 2003.
Smoove: Then everybody was on him.
Cid: No I.D. requested us specifically from our song Flipside.
Smoove: We had met a few other famous people before then, but it was the Ghostface shit, No I.D. had the idea to put us with Ghostface.
Cid: Since then we done Pretty Wings with Maxwell, we done Plastic Beach with Damon, recorded with Erykah, just did Snoop’s record this year, we’ve set off a string of working with others. We wasn’t to really try to work with nobody either, we was: ‘young and bad, get out our way, we doin’ this, we don’t need no help!’ We had to learn how to start working with others, and that’s what really put us across shit.
Cid: Prince was dope because Ireland was our stomping ground, we’ve played a hundred shows there. The record he was touring was called Musicology, and he did this interview like, we’re gonna have real musicians, and real music, for real people. After he put that tag out there, he put I think it was Smashing Pumpkins, he set down, I don’t wanna say fired or released, he just took ‘em off and put us in the place of them. At Malahide Castle, this huge venue in Ireland (Dublin), and we were just supposed to open up for Prince. We opening up, there’s this big giant open field, which when filled is 40 000 people, it’s empty. We doing our soundcheck and Prince goes and stands in the middle of that fucking, the whole big giant ass field just like arms crossed. Little short guy. Just listening to our soundcheck like, lemme see what y’all got. With his arms folded. We just kept playing and hitting our songs, getting our levels like he wasn’t even there. He just popped up on the side of the stage like, ‘Yeah, y’all playing with me after the set is over with. Come on over to my tent.’ We went to his tent, he’s like, ‘Key of E, let’s jam’.
Smoove: He didn’t even tell us the music.
Cid: He’s like ‘key of E’.
Smoove: Key of E! He was like, do what y’all want.
Cid: And that was just one of ‘em! There was like four songs. He had the guitar sitting the side of his van, and we jammed. When that show rocked, he was like, this was awesome, y’all gonna be my horns for the rest of this tour. But we had five more shows! We was ON tour.
Smoove: We dropped them shits.
Cid: He was like, y’all can’t make it? We was like, no, yes we can. I don’t even remember the excuse we told them. We got rid of all of those shows and went on tour with him. It was amazing man. We wasn’t even supposed to play WITH him. It just turnt out that way. AND it rained during his show!
Smoove: Legend. Rest in peace.
Cid: All the electricity went out on Prince’s concert. We thought it was effects first of all, we was like DAMN, HE’S GOT THE GREATEST EFFECTS! Purple Rain and all this shit, and it start raining. ‘Cause he said, ‘Let it come down!’ And the rain just got hard.
Smoove: Very hard, bro, they had to shut off all the electricity.
Cid: But when it stopped, the electricity… Hypnotic kept going.
Smoove: He told us, keep playing.
Cid: We continued the song long enough so when they had finally fixed the electricity, it looked like all a gimmick. And he came right back in and swung it back in, the band and everything, and we were like… this is glorious.
Smoove: Purple Rain, man.
Cid: We hit the (songs) with the horns. He just let us jam, there wasn’t no parts. ‘This the key, yo, get live.’ And he was so good, man. We played with a lot of artists, and everybody don’t say your name. He was like, ‘mess with these guys from Chicago, this is Hypnotic Brass Ensemble!’
Smoove: The funny part is, (HBE baritone horn player) Rocco’s watching his show like, yeah, ‘cos we didn’t know, we thought we was just going to open up for him, Rocco’s watching the show and he starts singing… ‘Go get the brothers… Go get the brothers…’
Cid: And we supposed to come up!
Smoove: It took like three times while Rocco dancing, he was like, hold on… he’s talking to me! And he just start running, came and got us, we thought we were done! He was like, ‘no, you’re coming on stage with me.’
Cid: Prince was the man. Rest in peace to Prince. A lot of people say bullshit about him, but from us being around him, it was only over a week that tour was, the dude is Jehova’s Witness, vegan, wasn’t on drugs, I don’t care what people say about him, it still sound real shady what people say about his death. That dude was a Duke Ellington, or James Brown, he’s one of the legends. One of the masters.
Smoove: That was the greatest night of my life, the brothers Hypnotic.
Cid: Every artist wanted to be like Prince, because he ended up taking the labels to war and won. The only artist to this day, in history, any country anywhere who took the labels to war, and won, and still had a career. Our idol, man, or one of them. Shout out to Prince. And he knew we was independent, he liked that about us. In our own small way we took the labels to war, to maintain our identity. There’s a lot about us that rang with him.
To this day, music is still saving our life and raising our families. The other thing was that space is the place. This is a Sun Ra quote that our father expanded upon, meaning basically that everything that happens down here happens up in the heavens first, so to pay attention to the stars, the planets…
Either in the business, or from your father – what have been your greatest lessons?
Smoove: I got to say, a lot. Our father taught us so much with the greatest warmth. For me personally, being the youngest bro out of the band, patience. You gotta have patience not only in doing what we do, but in life or being in a position where you uncomfortable. It could be on stage with all the lights, where you’re uncomfortable. You have patience, and you believe in something greater than yourself. And always look in. Everything that you want in this life, in the world, is on the inside of you. You don’t have to search for it, you can just get to know yourself and you’ll figure out whatever problem it could be, anything, you just gotta spend time with yourself. A lot of these people are bright people, but if you lock them in a room by theyself they will go crazy because they never got the time to get to know who they are.
Cid: Best lesson I got from my dad was that the music will solve problems. Literally, when we was kids we would have our lights turned off. He was like, we gonna go in this room, everybody get your instruments and we gonna mediate. We gonna pray the lights back on. I remember being a kid thinking ‘this is ridiculous, this is not about to make the lights come on’.
Smoove: It happened…
Cid: It actually happened, that evening. I mean, I don’t know if he went and paid it then made us pray, whatever.
Smoove: That sounds more reasonable.
Cid: He told us the story that music will always solve the problems. We grew up in the ghetto, a couple of brothers been shot, stabbed, all those things and he always let us know, whatever our situation is, we were always greater than it, we always had the ability to improve and expound and that music was the conduit to that. To this day, music is still saving our life and raising our families. The other thing was that space is the place. This is a Sun Ra quote that our father expanded upon, meaning basically that everything that happens down here happens up in the heavens first, so to pay attention to the stars, the planets… people live under ‘em all the time and don’t even know what phase of the moon it is that day, or what constellations are above you that were not two months ago. Pay attention to the stars, and you gonna have some foresight. That’s the two things which he taught us which we’ve used as Hypnotic to create our career, and pretty much get something out of nothing. As far as what we learnt ourself, we learnt a lot of technical stuff. We went seven years without our own publishing company, we was playing with No I.D., all these other people, and no one goes, ‘get your publishing company, y’all writing all your own music’. Nobody taught us stuff, no one told us get our own corporation, to get incorporated, we tryna get cheques, we can’t cash ‘em, they say Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Little stuff. What we learnt ourself was the technical stuff, run your publishing company if you’re writing your music. Read your contracts if you got a lawyer.
Uttama Hubert, aka Rocco (baritone horn): The most important thing I learned was don’t say ‘Am’a…’. He’d say, ‘your name is Uttama. Don’t use the end of your name, use the first, the Ut… don’t am’a nothin’. Just do it, then tell people after you do it. Don’t tell people am’a do this, or am’a do that.’ That’s the most important lesson I learned from my pops. He’s been in my heart all today, and right when I was thinking about him, the music came on in the club. That was you playin’ it? Fucking glorious man. You’re a glorious man, and I appreciate that man. I appreciate when people love our pops, it means that he’ll live on forever, man.
Smoove: Rest in peace, Phil Cohran. Rest in peace, dad.
Hypnotic Brass are on tour right now.