Hip-Hop Act of the Year: Little Stranger 

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Jonathan Boncek

On their debut album Buddha the Beast Little Stranger uses hip-hop beats as a foundation for a kaleidoscopic array of sounds. Channeling everyone from the Gorillaz to Beck to the Beta Band, the duo, John and Kevin Shields, layers disembodied vocal samples, laid-back synth pop, Coldplay-style wide-screen grandeur, and, yes, the occasional blast of swaggering rap over tight, funky beats. It's a surprisingly cohesive sound considering that the two men recorded it in separate locations, sending each other various bits and pieces to build on.

"We were sending everything from full songs to 10-second voice memos or vocal demos," says John. "It could be pretty sparse, so we just worked on those and got inspiration from guys like Beck or the Gorillaz that had elements of hip-hop in them, but we also used more of a singer-songwriter-type thing for people who don't easily digest hip-hop. It gives them another spectrum of the music to enjoy. I've always enjoyed hip-hop that stretched outside the conventional boundaries of what people think of it as."

It might seem like a difficult way to make an album, but both John and Kevin had just come out of bands that fizzled due to creative disagreements, so the two former CofC friends, who happen to share a last name, were happy to work on their own. "It was nice to take our own time to build parts we thought would work," John says. "We both came from bands that had five or six members, and when you're working with that many opinions and that many people at once, there can be a lot of egos. When it was just the two of us, we could take our time and formulate that approach."

Which makes one wonder why the two have decided to not only live together but to add more live players to the band. "A lot of the last album was us making these songs digitally," John says. "Only two tracks featured live drums, but now we're trying to incorporate more live drums and bass so that we can expand our music but keep hip-hop a part of it."

So what happens now that there's no physical separation between Shields and Shields? "We're working on music around the clock," John says. "We'll have nights where we'll come up with something and be up 'til 4 a.m. trying to figure out what it is or if it's working and building songs from the ground up."


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