DNA breaks into Duke scene

It's 11:25 at George's Garage Halloween night, and on the mostly-full dance floor, high-spirited witches, angels and pirates are moving to Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot." But then, with the house finally warming up, the DJ-dressed as Ashton Kutcher-suddenly cuts the music. Enter DNA-then calling themselves Decepticons, a brand new hip-hop collective of eight to 10 Duke MCs and musicians.

The number of jamming, rapping group members is unclear because the band is still evolving, like their name. "We were all at a party together, and the party wasn't all that great," explained bassist Steve Brock, a senior. Chilling afterward, Brock started messing around on bass with senior Zach Kilgore playing guitar, and senior Ike Mbanefo was inspired to start rapping along.

"Every night we jammed together. We had a new cast of characters, and something new happened," said Kilgore, best known for his bass work with another Duke band, the Pulsar Triyo. But there was something electric about Monday's show. "It was probably the most fun I've ever had onstage," Kilgore said.

Even though much of Monday's repertoire had never been rehearsed, the band's chemistry allowed them to keep the groove going, Kilgore said.

"All of sudden everyone will just know-'Go into the hook,'" he explained.

"I had a lot of written rhymes, but I didn't end up spitting any of them," Mbanefo added. Instead he freestyled his raps, rhyming on the fly.

DNA's first set Monday featured slinky grooves, anchored by Brock, Kilgore and graduate student Josh Stohl on drums. A revolving group of MCs traded choruses, hilariously mixing high and low culture, once dropping a Dean & Deluca reference before proclaiming, "We drink beer/We drink Busch Light/We get high/And then we get real tight." The set's more mellow beats didn't seem to grab the rowdy George's audience, though, and the band quickly switched into faster tempos in the second set.

It was the dancy "This Is How We Do" that finally got the crowd's attention. Building on senior "Big" Will Durrah's infectious hook, junior Anteneh Addisu took over, spitting rhymes that went right to the heart of his student audience.

"Try to tell the girl I'm sorry/She's down the hall telling my RA," Addisu jived. And on a night where the most risque masquers wore not skimpy costumes but the initials "ALE" on their backs, nothing garnered louder applause than Addisu's declaration, "I drink and I don't give a damn about no A-L-E!" By the time the song ended, the audience was pressed up against the band, finally feeling the music.

"It's definitely a game of feeding off each other," Mbanefo said. "When I'm ready to take the mic, I just step up, tap whoever's rapping on the shoulder, and jump in."

The smoothness of Monday's show is a testament to the members' improvisational chops, but their rough edges showed in places. On far too many songs, especially in the first set, the artists petered out one-by-one, making the on-the-spot music feel amateurish. Trite refrains, like "This is life/This is life we're living, yeah" however tunefully crooned in the background, never managed to connect with the frontline rapping. Minor disturbances like this should fade away as the band gets tighter, however.

That's the hope of DNA's members, who see the band breaking new musical ground on campus. "There hasn't really been a space for this kind of music here," said keyboardist, singer and hooksmith Malcolm Ruff, a senior.

Brock hopes for a chance to play for an audience focused on music, rather than dancing. While DNA has no other gigs scheduled, the band is looking into venues in Durham and Chapel Hill.

"If it's like this after one week, what's it going to be like in a month? In a year?" Kilgore asked.

But no matter where they're playing next week, or what the group is called, one thing is certain: some very talented musicians have finally found a place to share their passion for playing and creating music.

"It just popped up out of the blue," Ruff said. "The moment we started playing, I knew this was exactly what I'd been looking for musically."


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