Rap with strings attached

Boulder group Whiskey Blanket takes hip-hop in new directions

Whiskey Blanket plucks tough
Photo by Tobin Voggesser

I haven’t done the research on this, but I don’t imagine Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto is the ringback song on your average rapper’s cell phone.

But call Jordan Polovina and you’ll see pretty quickly why he and the rest of Whiskey Blanket are not your average rappers.

Polovina — stage name Funny Biz — is one of three emcees in the Boulder hip-hop group, but he’s also the cellist. Joe Lessard (Sloppy Joe) plays the violin; Steven Pampel (Steakhouse) is a pianist. The group, playing the Fox Theatre Oct. 1, brings orchestral instruments together with underground hip-hop for a rich, textured sound.

Yes, there are also turntables here. But Whiskey Blanket doesn’t lean on simple soul loops and samples, as evident on their 2010 album, No Object. Their strings follow complex, expressive lines that share the spotlight with the group’s tight lyrical flow. The classical instruments are a fundamental part of the group’s sound; in fact, they were classically trained musicians before ever grabbing a mic.

Whiskey Blanket’s music isn’t your typical dance-club rap; it boasts a harder edge and an emphasis on lyricism. Members say they’re excited to be pushing the envelope.

“I like the darker realm of hip-hop,” Polovina says. “I’m into Odd Future and Homeboy Sandman, to name a couple that are creating something different that’s kind of anti-pop.”

Polovina says he’d like to see more complexity in the future of the genre.

“It’s hard to say because trends are always shifting,” he says, “but I like the darker parts for sure. I like originality in beats with a little more depth. I love where hip-hop has been in the past, but I like a little more complexity these days.”

As the classical strings prove, the group also values creativity.

“What I want to see in the future of hip-hop is more unique styles and more creative approaches to how to use that foundation to the best of what it can be,” Pampel says. “I want people to utilize the best aspects of different genres to achieve what they’re trying to create.”

In the nine years the Boulder-based group has been together, it’s seen the music scene change quite a bit in the city. Polovina says while hip-hop seems to be fading, it won’t disappear entirely.

“The music scene is very dance-oriented right now,” he says. “But there’s always going to be hip-hop kids no matter what the trend is. The kids that are there are going to appreciate it, and they’re gonna go to shows.”

Pampel says he’s especially excited to see the crowd at the Fox Oct. 1, since the group has had success with performances there.

“The atmosphere’s great,” he says. “The Fox is one of those places where you get a balance of people who are willing to output their energy but they also listen really well. We have amazing shows at the Fox. It’s always some of our best.”

Pampel agrees with Polovina that hip-hop isn’t front-and-center anymore. He says drastic changes have happened in the past few years.

“The music scene in Boulder changes a lot,” Pampel says. “Right now it’s obviously pretty taken by the electronic scene and things like that. It’s definitely shifted a lot from what it used to be four or five years ago.”

Pampel says it’s no coincidence that the scene changes in four or five years. Thanks to high school and college graduation, youth in Boulder is constantly changing.

“College kids definitely have a big influence on the music scene. Another big part is the high school students; the underagers can make or break the turnout for a show,” Pampel says. “The college crowd definitely has a large influence, and you need to keep them in the loop for what you’re doing.”

Pampel and Polovina say they’ve found success navigating the ever-shifting music scene by remaining true to their listeners.

“Independent hip-hop definitely suffered from changes to the scene,” Pampel admits. “But there’s still a lot of great listeners there. It’s still a unique place to write. It’s somewhere we definitely want to maintain a very strong fan base.”

These days, Whiskey Blanket’s working to strengthen that fan base with a release that Pampel says is directed at the group’s most dedicated fans.

“We’re going to be releasing a vinyl sometime near the end of the year,” he says. “It’s going to have a new single on it, it’s gonna be pretty awesome. We have that track in the works right now. It’ll be a very limited run. That’s the next step.”

Pampel won’t say who’s featured on the track. He says he’d like to see Whiskey Blanket collaborate with former Jurassic 5 member Chali 2na, with whom the group has toured in the past.

After the vinyl release, it’s off in — no surprise — another creative new direction for the rappers who love Vivaldi.

“The next release after that is going to be an EP with very heavily spaghetti western-themed hip-hop tracks,” he says.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

Whiskey Blanket plays the Fox Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 1. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Proximity and Peace Officer. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 day of show. $2 fee for being under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.