They say hip hop is a young man’s game. But, if youth is a problem, just mix in some 170-year-old Central European dance music and invent a new genre. Problem solved.
They say it’s hard to form a band. Well, in a pinch, grab the nearest rapper and introduce him to a melodeon player. There’s your band.
The November Criminals call themselves the world’s first and only non-ironic polka hip hop band, a claim they back up with occasional, semi-extensive internet searches. Born as parts of Milwaukee’s rich ethnic history and bred amidst the city’s notorious racial segregation, they bonded over a way to blend cultural heritage, political commentary and good old fashioned folk-rap fun.
“We thought about, what would that actually sound like musically,” says band member Keith Gaustad. “Well, it would be polka hip hop.”
“That’s where our minds took it,” adds fellow Criminal Evan Maruszewski.
Like their genre-busting tunes, the Criminals themselves couldn’t be more different. There’s Tahrim Tatum, aka Spade One, the 41-year-old African American security worker who’s been on the Milwaukee hip hop scene for more than two decades and has opened for the likes of Slick Rick and Mike Jones; Gaustad, otherwise known as the Brumeister, a ponytail-ed poet who plays music, spits verse and calls himself the jerk of the group for constantly trying to book the band at area events; and the 32-year-old Maruszewski, alias NTSC, a newsboy-cap-wearing, hipster melodeon player whose love of rap is rivaled only by his love of studying obscure ancient languages.
For a little more than a year, the November Criminals have been taking their quirky minds and one-of-a-kind music to bars and smaller venues like Miramar Theater, one of their favorite places to play, and where this unlikely trio first met.
Maruszewski calls it a “magical tale,” the way these Criminals came together. Gaustad was managing the theater’s Stage Right bar at the time, and Tatum was head of security and also running a weekly hip hop open-mic night. Maruszewski had been coming to the open mic for a while and became, as Tatum claims, “a very well-established hip hop artist.”
Maruszewski bursts out laughing. “I’m very well established in this room with this company,” he clarifies, during an interview in Stage Right.
One night back in late 2011, Maruszewski was playing his melodeon while Gaustad and Tatum were freestyle rapping on stage. On the spot, everything was flowing and the audience was digging it. The three looked at each other and thought, “This should actually happen,” Maruszewski says.
Soon after, they collaborated to produce a track (“Nachtwurst” or, “night-sausage”) for a musical edition of the 10th anniversary of Burdock Magazine, which Gaustad publishes. They finished the song and realized they needed a name. After bandying around some ideas, “all of which were World War I themed,” Maruszewski says, they settled on the November Criminals.
It was a nod toward their ages (all three are “north of 30” and “no longer spring chickens,” Gaustad says) and their shared ancestry (each of the three is of Deutschland descent), as the November Criminals was a pejorative nickname given to the surrendering Germans who signed the Armistice that ended World War I. Germany's far right-wingers at the time denounced the government leaders who signed the peace treaty as betrayers, and, a decade later, the Nazis played on that stab-in-the-back myth to seize power.
Maruszewski, a history-savvy multimedia director at a web design firm in the Fifth Ward, fervently denies any neo-Nazi connection and says the band’s name is a tribute to the forces that fought such evil.
“Our name means a lot to us because our brand of criminality is the kind that may be shunned or reviled by the mainstream and the culture at large, but it is the right thing to do despite the way it is received,” he says. “The November Criminals was a movement against tyranny and the monarchy, which was famously corrupt and fatted at the time. We take inspiration from those that begin just fights and end unjust ones.”
Milwaukee’s November Criminals aren’t quite that politically zealous, but they do take the non-ironic part of their band description seriously. They are a polka hip hop band and their lyrics do mean something. “It’s not like, ‘My name is Evan and I’m here to say, I love polka in a major way,” Maruszewski says.
Despite songs that span such topics as beer, sports, WWI, pirates, getting laid and more beer, and even though they seem fully aware of their own absurdity, they are unquestionably sincere. They’re an unapologetic and authentic blend of old world melodeon and new school rhyme that’s toe-tappingly unique.
Some lyrics are more conscientious than others. Even in the same song, there’s relevance and irreverence. Take “Nachtwurst,” for instance, their ode to sausage, beer and class struggle, which takes on the Occupy and Tea Party movements, as well as segregation in Milwaukee. Heavy stuff, indeed, but “Nachtwurst” also includes this cheeky verse: “I used to know a frau, I called her mein schatze/played my trump right, scored a little fotze/she rolled my dice, I had to yell Yahtzee!/Had to break up, found out she was a ... You know, a not so nice person.”
Just as their vocals are true rap, their music is unmistakably polka. They draw on traditional folk like “Volga Boatmen,” the 19th century Russian classic, which they, of course, parodied into “Vulgar Boatmen,” another classist outcry. In every song, the melodeon and beats coalesce and swing and create a lively romp that gets most heads nodding and nearly every face smiling.
“One of the coolest things about this band is we get to do literally anything we want,” Maruszewski says. “This ground is totally un-tread; it’s so new that we can’t make a mistake.”
Tatum notes that polka is partying music, meant for drinking beer and dancing. “We hit the political stuff, too,” he says.
The Criminals aren’t always trying to make a statement, though.
“We’re totally not a political band,” Gaustad says. “We’re just weird. Our next song that we’re working on is called ‘Sausage Fest.’”
In early May, they were playing the monthly Deadman’s Carnival show at the Miramar, the opening act of an endearingly sloppy, three-hour music/dance/circus/comedy/burlesque performance. Sir Pinkerton, the emcee, started to introduce the November Criminals as a polka hip hop band, but paused. “Let me rephrase that,” he said, “they embody everything the Deadman’s Carnival is all about.”
And with that, the curtain came up and the Criminals – er, scallywags – appeared, dressed up as pirates to perform their catchiest song, “Ahoy.” Gaustad clutched the mic in his hooked hand, while Tatum, with an eye patch and pistol, shouted, “Shiver me timbers,” and Maruszewski diligently held the melody.
As eight costumed pirates danced behind them, an impromptu sword fight broke out and the house band broke down laughing. The Criminals initiated an “Ahoy … Arrr” call and response with the audience, one of whom, Brandon, yelled out, “Someone needs to record this!”
Afterward, Brandon called the act “hilarious,” a sentiment the band members seem to share about their own project. Gaustad says as long as they don’t grow to “unreasonably hate each other” they’ll stay together. Tatum, the Jamaican-American with the most Germanic of surnames, calls it the perfect creative outlet. And Maruszewski encapsulates the enjoyment.
“As long as these guys are around, I could never walk away from this because it’s too exciting, it’s too much fun,” he says. “As a mediocre melodeon player in a state that is filled with incredibly talented accordion players, there are only so many bands that I could express myself in the way that I really want to.
“I mean, how many other rapping melodeon players can find that niche? They’re wandering around out there somewhere, crying themselves to sleep at night, and I’m living the dream.”
It’d be nice, Gaustad says, if that dream provided for cordless mics, a pedal board for the melodeon, and other equipment that would make it easier for local venues to accommodate their unconventional sound. For now, the Criminals’ crafty lyrics often get lost in the clamor, an occupational hazard, Tatum says, of live rap.
Maruszewski blames a “gremlin” that “hexes” the band, while Gaustad quickly insists their shows are “always perfect.” Either way, they say, being the world’s first polka hip hop band brings some issues.
As for upcoming plans, the band is working on an album and hopes to one day perform at Summerfest. Given their music’s drinking-and-dancing pedigree, Gaustad also would like to go on a summer tour of craft breweries, doings gigs in beer gardens across Wisconsin.
Right now, he’s reaching out to local radio stations, though he admits some of the Criminals’ lyrics will have to be cleaned up if they’re to get any play. (“Spade’s a professional and I’m a poet, so we can find other words to use,” he says.)
The radio edit is necessary, Tatum explains, because Maruszewski “cusses more than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“He’s just filthy in general,” adds Gaustad.
“It’s a point of pride,” Maruszewski says, taking it all in stride.
Until the album and the brewery tours and the air time, though, they’re keeping things realistic and comfortable. On Sunday, the November Criminals will be playing at the Riverwest Public House, one of their favorite venues, where they’ll be selling some newly minted memorabilia.
“We finally have T-shirts,” Gaustad says, adding that the apparel was surprisingly expensive to make. “And it looks like we’re going to be hanging onto the smalls.”
“No,” Maruszewski says. “I’ll wear all the smalls. I don’t care.”
You certainly don’t become the world’s first non-ironic polka hip hop band by being too big for your britches. Or T-shirts.