By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Cody ChesnuTT is an anomaly, but he shouldn't be: He plays rock and roll and can righteously wail on a guitar, one of many such artists to arise since black musicians essentially invented the genre more than fifty years ago. Yet when the Atlanta-bred, Los Angeles-based ChesnuTT steps on stage with a guitar strapped to his midsection, audiences often respond as if they're looking at a being from another planet.
"People have gotten to the point where when they see a brother with a guitar, it's strange, it's absolutely strange," ChesnuTT says. "You have black people talking about, 'Man, you playing white folks' music.' This is how lopsided it has made the whole experience. It's a lack of exposure."
It's easy to understand how modern black listeners might lose sight of rock's origins. Whitewashed historical revisionism in rock and roll is nothing new, from the days when Pat Boone released sanitized versions of Little Richard songs to the time the Rolling Stones recorded a Robert Johnson song ("Love in Vain") without giving proper credit. To quote Mos Def's song "Rock 'N' Roll": "You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they didn't come up with that shit on their own." But artists like ChesnuTT want to make sure that people know and appreciate the source of a musical style that, aside from artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains and Living Colour, has few recognizable black practitioners.
"White people always know about our culture better than us," ChesnuTT says. "To me the parallel is to the blues. It's always known about by whites before it's known by blacks. It's a sad thing to see a white guy respect me playing guitar and understand it before a black person would. What you're dealing with is a long history of the black and white, African and European experience, which we've all become products of.
"As much as I respect [whites'] contribution to music," he adds, "it makes no sense for me to know more about the Rolling Stones than Little Richard or Bo Diddley."
ChesnuTT seems uniquely qualified to shed light on the cross-pollination of musical styles. His ambitious 36-track solo debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, owes as much to founding fathers of soul like Sam Cooke as it does to the Beatles. The record is a hybrid that imagines a frequency in which new wave, British invasion, funk, folk, rock and soul co-exist harmoniously. Using a four-track recorder in his bedroom studio, the Sonic Promiseland, ChesnuTT recorded almost all of the album's instrumentation himself. His methodology for the recording was influenced by his living situation and by a desire to create an organic sound devoid of studio chicanery.
"It was just me in the bedroom with a Tascam console and just the bare necessities: a microphone, a cheap compressor, reverb and this junk of a stereo mixer that I found in a garage," he says. "I have four or five roommates. I'd be up in the morning at like four, five, six o'clock, and I'd have to work in my headphones, so the sound became real true to me. It put me off into a place. You know how headphones are: They take you off to a whole different realm."
The Headphone Masterpiece has a similar effect on listeners. Stereophonic and soulful, the album suggests a past when listeners could hear radio DJs play records by Otis Redding, the Animals, Sly and the Family Stone and Miles Davis in succession. And although it has a retro feel, The Headphone Masterpiece is a forward-looking, lo-fi, family affair produced by someone who grew up in the hip-hop era. The Sly-sounding "Serve This Royalty" finds ChesnuTT referencing iconic images of the golden days of rap ("Platinum chains and rings is all the brother knows now") while providing a storyline that rings true to the urban experience.
"I've had brothers tell me [the song] is their whole life story. It's their whole family's life story. It's my life story," he explains. ChesnuTT says he finds comfort and insight in the song's lyrics: "People think that I'm lazy/People think that I'm a fool/Because I give a fuck about the government/And I didn't graduate from high school."
"You have the whole plight of the culture and years and years of generations of people not graduating from high school," he says. "My uncles and their friends, it's like a given: 'Okay, you're young, sixteen, eighteen, whatever. You're going to jail.' This is our reality; this is what the song is representing. You have the lyric 'People think that I'm lazy' because I'm going through this whole maze trying to figure out how I belong and what my purpose is. So if I don't move on the 9 to 5 or when the bell goes off, I'm considered lazy and uninterested in productivity. Or they think I'm a fool because I don't open myself up to really what's going on with this political system that truly has no desire to educate me. That's why the song is so deep, because it's in the gutter. But it also has the celestial, heavenly glory of God on it."