Sensory Overload: SRVVLST’s Will Ong and others give the drummer some in Carabar showcase

From the April 3, 2014 edition

In the late ’80s, the Ultramagnetic MCs paid respects to some of music’s less heralded craftsmen with “Give the Drummer Some.” Will Ong, who minds the kit with local rockers SRVVLST, picked up this baton and ran with it on a recent Thursday at Carabar, headlining a hip-hop showcase with a solo drum performance that drew upon some of the genre’s more aggressive breakbeats.

Sliding behind his drums, Ong, whose burly, bearded appearance made him look like a viking auditioning for a gig in an indie-rock group, cued the backing track and started playing along to a smattering of generation-spanning hip-hop classics, bringing additional rhythmic heft to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions” and peppering Outkast’s “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” with sharpened snare shots that hit like bunker busters.

Prior to Ong’s turn, the evening highlighted performers steeped in varying aspects of hip-hop culture, bringing together two MCs (Hafrican and Alleyes Manifest) and a pair of beatboxers, FreshFX and LethalFX, whose styles and approaches were as different as their names are similar.

FreshFX utilized a mixer and a microphone, digitally layering his vocals to create little ambient worlds, which he occasionally smeared with rhymes that sounded like snippets of dialog lifted from a self-help cassette tape (“I … keep myself sane”). LethalFX, in turn, employed nothing more than a microphone and his impressive lung capacity, which was such that it likely could put even deep-sea freedivers to shame. Approaching his 10-minute showcase like a master technician, he veered from crunchy robotic passages to more playful segments where he recreated a spirited game of Bop It (“Twist it! Pull it! Bop it! Bop it!”). There were times it sounded as though there were three of him onstage, Michael Keaton-in-“Multiplicity”-style.

A similar sense of mania bled into Hafrican’s 20-minute set. “How many syllables can I get in my verse?” he asked amid “Strange Arrangements,” and the answer, quite often, was lots. Fortunately, he used these myriad words to traverse wide swaths of the landscape, pairing diss tracks (“I Like It Live”) with more complex, introspective turns like “Half.”

Where Hafrican practically oozed confidence, Alleyes Manifest walked far shakier ground, exploring those various cracks that appear in one’s psyche in the midst of social and romantic upheaval. Even when he professed it time to “party like a rock star,” his slow, detached delivery was enough to make one think this consisted of little more than crying himself to sleep, alone. Occasionally happiness would find a way to intervene — “I love you!” he professed on one buoyant, skipping tune — but more often than not reality would find a way to intervene.

“You can’t handle happily ever after,” he sighed on one number, and the rapper’s music often doubled as the soundtrack for this darker reality. —Andy Downing