There are few borders in music where every genre is itself a hybrid. The American blues is Africanisms grown in the Delta, cumbia the combo meal of Central Europe and West Africa in the Southern Hemisphere, hip hop a product of Jamaica’s take on R&B imported into NYC (okay that’s simplifying a creation so New York it’s hard to put into a linear snippet here). Labeling styles under the oversized umbrellas of black music and world music can seem disingenuous, watering down a sound that’s unique and grouping it alongside countless other styles without distinction. But broad labels can be used to nurture a new sound, helping it find its audience. Black music is a gargantuan label to operate under. It encompasses so many types of American, African, European and Caribbean sounds. And under that generous umbrella there are some of the craftiest musical cross-dressers, especially at the edgy end of the spectrum. I am thankful for Afropunk Festival, which brings brilliant hybrids to NYC every summer. To appreciate the gold that is Afropunk, this column presents a sampling of acts appearing at the festival this August.
Continuing last week’s theme of London punk classics spun into unrecognizable concoctions (El Gavachillo’s punk rock banda from Los Angeles) this week covers New York City band Cerebral Ballzy.
Cerebral Ballzy is a welcome New York millennium take on a ratty t-shirt classic. The band plays loud, fast and crazy like a traditional punk rock outfit. In the spirit of Urban Dance Squad and Bad Brains, Cerebral Ballzy balances great bass lines with hyper-speed, straight-ahead drums fronted by a defiant, raucous street kid who pulls the crowd into dangerous moshing. I caught Cerebral Ballzy opening for Black Lips two years back at a nasty, fire hazard of a warehouse in Bushwick. The band leaves an impression, in the classic, garage-thrash style of beer brawl on the microphone. Singer Honor Titus abused the audience spitting beer and slamming into fans, sweating and bleeding, sharing moments of mayhem. Cerebral Ballsy is exactly what a messy party needs, equal measures of angst and laughs delivered by an ADD rhythm section and earsplitting guitar and vocals.
Music styles have to be fluid; genre is a liquid construct that responds to neighborhoods and attitudes and the fickle fashion of youth, so it naturally takes on pseudonyms that morph at light speed. Cerebral Ballzy is afropunk thrash and hardcore grime garage, but mostly it’s punk rock. I once met a talented Brazilian graffiti artist at his first Chelsea gallery exhibit who writes under some 20 separate monikers. I couldn't understand why any street artist would change their name so often. He explained his names suited different purposes.
Sometimes the name of the band tells you more than anyone writing about them can. I saw Cerebral Ballzy on the flyer and thought, Old Dirty with a mosh pit? Yes please.
Cerebral Ballzy performs at NYC’s Afropunk Festival August 25th and 26th.