If you’ve ever spent any time within Milwaukee’s music community, the odds are high that you’ve met Christopher Gilbert. Gilbert is the percussionist and live spark plug for rising collective New Age Narcissism. He is probably one of the most charismatic people in the scene. Gilbert also works as a professional dance teacher around the city, having worked as a dancer and live performer in LA for many years. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gilbert. Topics discussed included various artistic endeavors, influences, and cultivating creative relationships.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up? What kind of music did your parents listen to?
I grew up on jazz, hip-hop was kind of a third place thing. I listen to funk and jazz, stuff that had soul and feeling. When it comes to music, it’s what I take away from it, not just what I feel in the moment. Like in the moment is great, but it’s temporary music. For me it was all about getting some kind of feeling. So melodies, passion and tempo were what it was all about.
Do you have any jazz or funk favorites that you still listen to a lot?
I listen to Boney James a lot, and Chocolate Factory. Anything that was on WJZ back in the day. That was on all the time. It’s sad to think about that it’s not around anymore.
Tell me a little bit about your history as a performer.
I’m a kid from the North Side really. Everything I know artistically is from my mom. My mom was a teacher herself, she was a dance instructor at Washington High School. That was my first exposure to the performance phase. I was like 8 when she worked there, and I used to learn the choreography that the students were working on for halftime shows. My mom eventually let me do it with them. I was in middle school at the time, and that was really my first phase of performing the dance aspect. As far as music, I used to perform with Ko-Thi, a world-renowned African dance group out of Milwaukee. I started out playing African drums. I was also on my middle school and high school drum line.
In my mind, music and dance always went hand in hand, and it all kind of put into perspective what I knew I was going to do. I was exposed to it all, and it brought clarity to it. I performed all the way through high school, and I’ve been choreographing and teaching since I was about 12. Then, I transitioned from high school to L.A., but it took me about a year to get going. Once it did, I was doing a bunch of stuff. Eventually, I transitioned back here to keep doing my work and bringing energy into the city and the youth.
So would you say that music and dancing and performing will always be intertwined for you?
Absolutely, I think they just automatically are. You can’t dance without music. When music is playing, it gives you a feeling that makes you want to dance. The fact that I can do both and combine both worlds lets me know that I want to do this for the rest of my life. It’s the best feeling in the world waking up and knowing that this is it. I will be able to solidify myself through what I’ve always seen myself doing.
How did you meet and start collaborating with the other members of NAN?
To make a long story short, me and Q The Sun (Kiran Vee) met about five years ago. I was visiting from LA, on a break from working on Yo Gabba Gabba!, which was a total whirlwind of an experience. I was on a short break, me and him met at the Urban Island Beach party. At the time, his band, Fresh Cut Collective, was performing. Me and my friend from high school walked up afterwards. I dug his style. His music had real substance and feeling.
I just said, “I don’t know you, but we’re going to work together one day. I promise you that.” When I came back here the next year, I ran into him again and we decided it was time to start working together. We shot a video for “Ding Dong Bong” as Fresh Cut Collective, and the same week it was released, they got booked to do Summerfest and open for The Roots. I ended up performing the whole set with him, and that was how the whole empire got started.
Because of the two of us, NAN is here. We did Fresh Cut for about two years. Then it was just me and Kiran, but we still wanted to do something. Next thing we knew, everything started falling into place. I met WebsterX at the checkout line at Urban Outfitters, and we filmed the Desperate Youth video a week later. I met Lorde Fredd33 at a show at the Landmark. Then Locust Street Days happened, and I introduces Kiran to them and it all kind of fell into place. When one door closes, the right one will open.
How would you describe your overall role and purpose in NAN?
That’s always an interesting question. I’ve always joked that I’m the Jimney Cricket of the group. I get noticed easily. I’m the well-dressed guy spewing out inspiration. I aspire to inspire, always. Anything that I have, when it comes to success and making the most of what I have, I’m giving to my other band-mates. The other members are fairly young, Q is the oldest and I’m the second oldest, and everyone else is younger. We’re always making sure they’re on the right path. We’re always there to provide inspiration and advice when it comes up. I can also be kind of a spark in the studio and add extra emphasis, like with “This is Our Year,” which was initially just us messing around that turned into a lot more. My role is to give life to the stage and to be a good anchor and supporter.
What do you think creates that special connection between all the members of NAN?
Everybody gets it. When you believe in something, and you see that in other people, you’ve got nothing to worry about it. People always ask how we make it work in a room full of egos, but no one is trying to control everything.
In the last year, not once have we ever said we didn’t like someone’s idea. Everyone’s got a certain mindset for what they want to do. We don’t have anyone on the bench. Everyone's a star, everyone knows their role, and that makes it a win for all of us. Individually, everybody is so strong. It’s just people understanding and embracing what they have. We meet every Monday just to have the moment of knowing what has happened and what steps we have to take to make our goals happen. Plus, it’s a family thing for us.
What kind of stuff are you involved in around Milwaukee outside of NAN?
I’m always focused on the youth because they are our future leaders. That seems to scare some people when they look at the youth today. Some of them are just misunderstood. The youth are a vital part of who I am because I want the future to be bright. I work as a freelance dance teacher at different places around the city. I believe if you have a special talent you should spread it around. What I give should be able to be applied outside of class or I’m not doing my job. I have to make sure the kids know they have the power. It’s their classroom. I’m just there to give the blueprint.
So would you consider yourself somewhat of a Renaissance man?
At first dance was everything, and high school was when it really dawned on me that dance is me, it’s what I do. That’s when I moved out to LA, and dance was my whole life for 6 or 7 years. Then when I came back, I started working with Kiran and realized that I’m a better artist when I’m more well-rounded and working in other areas. So I would consider myself a Renaissance man because I’m at full force as an artist.
What are some of your best memories and experiences from being a live performer?
I would say definitely opening for The Roots with Fresh Cut. Shooting the video and releasing it the day of the performance and doing the performance gave me the realization that I needed to make the most of what I have and excelling in other areas outside of dance. So I would say that, and touring with Yo Gabba Gabba! was huge. It was one of the first times I got to see the whole country with all the different demographics, and everything the country has to offer. But I never forgot that I came from this small, almost unnoticed part of the country, to some people. Being on the road and being a part of some major shows makes you value who you are and everything that you’re doing in your life, because those performances can really affect people.
What do you think makes Milwaukee music so unique and on the rise?
I think it was about time that people showed they’re not afraid. We live in Milwaukee. It’s segregated and there’s a lot of racism and lines drawn at times. But for once people are ignoring that and saying what they feel. That means now you know exactly how everyone feels. Lex has said he’s the most comfortable he’s been in his career working with us. He’s no longer hesitant and he’s being assertive. Milwaukee was waiting and was patient, but we didn’t know how to present it, but now we do and we're being assertive. I’ve never seen hip hop be nearly as big in this city as it is right now. Hip hop was always the little step brother that was just there and not doing much, but now it’s really out here. I didn’t walk into this thinking that this is what would happen. I was just doing what I loved to do.
What artists would you recommend for people looking to get into Milwaukee music?
In truth, if you go in my car right now you’d only find local music because it’s important to what I’m doing that I vibe with the whole city. For me, I love Soul Low and The Fatty Acids, they’re both great. I also love Hugh Bob and The Hustle. Younger guys like IshDARR and Kane The Rapper are great to listen to. They help me make sure I’m staying on my game.
You’re obviously a very well-dressed guy, do you have any fashion advice for people who want to look as good as you?
It’s a mindset. Most of the time at shows that’s the one thing people bring up to me is my style. For me, presentation is always key for me. When you see people, you want people to see your best you. There’s nothing wrong with going out in sweats, I do it too. I’ve just found that what works best for me is the suit. It’s this simple: dress how you want to be addressed.
What are your big goals and plans for this year?
Number one is to continue to create and grow off this momentum we’ve built. Second is to travel more with the intent to inspire others and make sure Milwaukee is never overlooked.
Gilbert will be hosting ARTdentity on the night of Friday, February 19 starting at 9:30pm at Company Brewing in Riverwest. ARTdentity is a massive artistic and musical event/concert dedicated to showcasing the talents of artists from all walks of life in Milwaukee. Show up. Support your city and its talents.