Last Tuesday, the anxious crowd at the Belly Up was appeased as the screen rolled up and Air Dubai was already on the stage. Many of the patrons already in the crowd knew what to expect and they were glad the show was finally underway.
Along with many great off-season shows at the Belly Up, this show was free, and the crowd, like Air Dubai’s songs, built gradually to a clear climax. The dance floor started off empty but became packed as the band pleaded with the crowd to help the energy by putting some heads in the front row.
My first thought was that these guys reminded me of a band I knew in high school, multiple MCs harnessing jazz sensibilities mixed with hip-hop. A few years younger than I, they showcased a confident yet youthful swagger and were able to take me back.
Julian Thomas and Jon Shockness front the yet-to-be-signed band and are clearly the product of freestyling late-night to break beats in Denver back yards. I was not surprised to find out that they went to high school in the neighborhood that I grew up in, The Denver School for the Arts.
Thomas started Air Dubai as a solo project in 2007. Later that year he brought on Shockness and after making music together using pre-recorded beats, the duo eventually decided that they needed to make their sound more organic. By the spring of 2009, they’d had their first rehearsal as a band.
Currently, they are backed by a guitar player, a keyboardist (who also played bass), a D.J. and a drummer. As a band they blend genres in a way that pre-recorded beats could only dream of. Each member comes from various backgrounds and when they come together it turns into an indie-hip-hop mesh. The result is a sound that often gets compared to the Roots or acts like Gym Class Heroes.
If you would like to call them “rock rap” or something like that you would not be that far off, but that would just pigeonhole their sound that is coming from diverse backgrounds.
Thomas and Shockness are an incredible duo, whether dueling lyrics that seem to be in conflict or singing the harmonies on top of each other. Thomas’ lyrics are thought out as he raps behind his microphone stand with wide eyes in a vintage leather jacket. Less reserved, however, is Shockness, who bounces around the stage in an “NYC” hoodie and black beanie with his mike in his hand and focusing on the harmony.
They switch from raps to harmony as though these songs found them, each having penned different parts. They are able to convey their own feelings and experiences separate from each other on the same track.
Thomas lays down the fluid raps and Shockness swings in for the harmony sections with an air that makes it look effortless. As the two trade off singing it appears to be more of an elaborate high-five than a struggle for presence.
Thomas and Shockness have enough stage presence for the whole band but are backed by an undeniably organic feeling. Their live shows are what they are known for and you can’t help but let the music move you.
They bleed Colorado hip-hop and it is no wonder Westword, which named them “Best Hip Hop Band” of 2010 and 2011, has constantly praised them.
“Obviously, the goal is to get somewhere with our music. We want to get signed,” Shockness confessed to Westword in 2009. “Personally, though, I just want to play music.”
Combining hip-hop, pop, soul, rock and electronic, there is a melody and harmony that drives their tunes. This band from Denver is not trying to fit into any specific category; their sound is varied and their songs are eclectic. If you didn’t catch Air Dubai last Tuesday you should definitely catch them next time they come to town.
John Zelazny misses Bad Billy’s. He appreciates your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.