Bringing people together through music. That’s always been the mission statement of Hidden Beach Recordings, the label that introduced music fans to acts such as Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jill Scott, Kindred the Family Soul, a cappella group Naturally 7 and saxophonist Mike Phillips. Now the label is reintroducing its popular Unwrapped franchise with the release today (May 24) of Unwrapped Vol. 8: The Chicago Sessions.
The trailblazing, generation-bridging hip-hop jazz series dropped the mic on its run nine years ago. “There were too many copycats,” says Hidden Beach founder Steve McKeever. “And with the loss of brick and mortar outlets like Circuit City, jazz was getting taken out by all the pillars of the business.” But with the changing societal climate post-President Obama, McKeever decided to “roll my sleeves back up.”
“I never thought in my lifetime that the country would be so divided: young/old, black/white, blue/red state,” adds McKeever, who oversaw the production of Hidden Beach’s official Obama inauguration CD-DVD commemorative set, Change Is Now: Renewing America’s Promise. “Obama always talked about how we are all more alike than different. Regardless of point of view, his campaign brought people together. The most unifying project we’d put together was Unwrapped. So I decided to ramp it back up.”
Distributed by Universal Music Group, the 10-track Unwrapped Vol. 8 features jazz-infused reinterpretations of popular tracks such as Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Travis Scott’s double-platinum single “Pick Up the Phone,” J. Cole’s “ATM” and SZA’s “Love Galore.” Hidden Beach prefaced the project’s return in April with By Popular Demand. That 14-track collection includes the aforementioned Jay-Z and Scott tracks as well as revisits of the series’ seven prior volumes through selections like 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” 2-Pac’s “I Get Around” and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime.”
On the surface, it may seem like re-imagining hip-hop songs this way is a simple process. But McKeever stresses that it takes a lot of creative care to choose and then unfold these tracks so that they can become standards in another version a la John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.”
In the case of Lil Uzi Vert’s “The Way Life Goes,” McKeever points out that while the same hook is used, the song “gets completely transformed. We brought in a gospel singer to do a call and refrain with she and [the vocalist doing the parts of] Lil Uzi trading back and forth. There are also new chords that aren’t in the original. This is a record that you can take into a church and have everyone swaying to it.”
Of the choice to re-imagine Gucci Mane’s “Miss My Woe,” McKeever says he heard a blues progression that prompted the idea of using a blues guitar and harmonica. “This isn’t necessarily one of his biggest records but I loved the hook. There has to be something there to work with—and we want to bring something new to a record as well.”
A native of Chicago, McKeever wanted to record Unwrapped Vol. 8 in his hometown to help “shine a positive light” on the city. The album also boasts the colorful cover artwork of designer Ron Bass, whose fan base includes Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Ellen DeGeneres and Swizz Beatz. Bass’ signature crown adorns the cover’s upper right corner.
So does the reintroduction of Unwrapped Vol. 8: The Chicago Sessions (arriving on vinyl in June) also mean that Hidden Beach is ramping up for business with a new roster of artists? “We are starting from scratch, talking to new artists right now,” says McKeever, “This is a new beginning with our eyes and ears wide open.”
As for the Unwrapped series itself, McKeever promises that more volumes will be coming with the possibility of vault reissues down the road. He notes that people have been asking Hidden Beach to expand the Unwrapped spectrum into R&B. “We’re in the process of playing with ideas in that world now,” says McKeever. “My hope is reach everybody, introducing this concept to the young fans of these songs while letting loyal Unwrapped fans know that we’re back.”