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Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

The Lab Partners’ Live Hip-Hop Experiment

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The Lab Partners is a new group that pairs Rusty Ps rapper Adam James (known as Phantom Channel) with Milwaukee producer Brandon Birchbauer (The LMNtlyst), but the project isn’t quite the traditional beats-and-rhymes rap excursion that description might suggest.

The group was born of impromptu jam sessions between the two musicians, with James laying down drums and Birchbauer playing guitar, bass and other instruments over them at his studio. When the pair saw potential in these sessions, they began recording them in the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

“I’d been there a couple of times, but I’d never been through the whole place,” James explains. “It’s just room after room of drum kits and keyboards and orchestral instruments like marimbas and tympanis. I was like, ‘Dude, we could record with all of this.’ So we’d get together once a week at the Conservatory and just record everything we possibly could. Then we’d go back to Brandon’s studio, chop up those sessions and build drum loops out of them.”

Once Birchbauer built the foundation of the songs, James recorded vocals over them. In the spirit of The Lab Partners’ jam sessions, these vocal sessions were also unscripted.

“We go through each beat, one by one, live with headphones on, and just improvise and freestyle,” James says. “We’d just improvise and freestyle over them, not just rapping, but conveying whatever mood and idea the music suggested to us, laying down whatever feeling the music gave us. We’d get together once a week to record more of these first impressions, then build on them from the week before. We were knocking out 10 to 15 songs a week. I’ve never been so productive in my life.”

From a bank of more than 100 song sketches, they singled out about 30 for completion. The 16 tracks that make up their self-titled debut album touch on the traditional, head-nodding hip-hop the Rusty Ps are known for, but the vibe is far looser and spacier. James sings nearly as much as he raps, and many songs ride a dub-reggae groove, with prominent melodica, xylophones and muted trumpet taking the lead for long stretches.

For The Lab Partners’ CD release show Saturday, the duo has been rehearsing a performance that’s more Andrew Bird than Run-DMC, reconstructing their beats with an arsenal of instruments and gear instead of a pair of turntables.

“I have a couple loop pedals, so I can play the bass part, loop it, then draw a guitar, drop down the guitar part and loop it and build up the beat on the fly,” Birchbauer says. “Adam is pretty much a freestyle kind of MC, so we can just kind of vibe off of each other.”

James will be singing and playing drums, though not, he stresses, at the same time.

“I wish I was Phil Collins, but I’m not,” he says with a laugh. “My drum abilities really aren’t up to par with my rapping yet, so I’ll probably start working two or three different microphones, one straight and one on a loop pedal and probably another on an effects box. Then once I’m done with my lyrical portions, I’ll go back to the kit. It’s exciting, but I’m a little nervous because there’s so much room for error.”

The Lab Partners’ CD release party is Saturday, Dec. 19, at Mad Planet, with supporting sets from Rusty Ps, Pezzettino, Chalice in the Palace and DJ Madhatter. The $10 cover includes a copy of The Lab Partners CD.