This is a difficult post to write. It’s not for lack of things to say about Movits, but just because it’s hard to type while dancing and pretending to rap in Swedish. But I’ll give it a try.
I first discovered Movits back in the first few months of 2010 while researching artists for jazz installment that I hosted on a college radio station with my friend Jon. In our diligent and highly scientific combing of the web for new bands from around the world (we managed to get our show coded as “world music” and each week played artists from all over the world in a given genre), Jon happened upon the music video for the Movits single “Fel del av Gården” and fell over himself listing all of the reasons we needed to play it on our show. I’ve been a fan of Movits ever since.
Movits hails from Luleå, a port city in Northern Sweden that is also home to the winningest professional basketball team in the country (and, based on this video by Movits-affiliated artist Zacke, looks like the American Midwest in movies and TV depictions of the 1960s). According to the band’s bio, after hearing the big-band jazz classic “Sing Sing Sing” at a party, brothers Anders and Johan Rensfeldt were inspired to blend jazz and swing with hip-hop and rap, creating an exciting sound that has carried them from Luleå all over the world.
After recruiting saxophonist Joakim Nilsson to round out a trio, the young Movits spent three years live-tracking their debut album, 2008’s Äppelknyckarjazz. Coming from an acoustic background, the group had decided to avoid the use of samples, and such pieced together Äppelknyckarjazz with a full cast of musicians. The result is an album that is bouncy, groovy, and much more melodic than the run-of-the-mill rap album. Suddenly the swung backbeat has become the track over which Johan Rensfeldt’s rapped lines flow effortlessly, functioning almost as another instrument in the mix. From the swaying jazz comp of “A-kasseblues” to the up-tempo single “Fel del av Gården” to the accordion-and-brass-driven closer “Vals på Vinkelgränd”, Äppelknyckarjazz surely captures the exact vibe that the Rensfeldt brothers experienced dancing to swing records at that pivotal get-together.
By some stroke of luck, Stephen Colbert caught a listen of “Fel del av Gården” and invited Movits to perform on his show in July 2009. The day after their performance, sales of Äppelknyckarjazz skyrocketed on Amazon.com, and a worldwide tour was set into motion. Armed with the slogan “They say that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the Bronx was born in Sweden”, Movits embarked on a series of shows across the U.S., including dates at South by Southwest in March of 2010.
2011 saw the release of Movits’ second full-length, Ut ur min Skalle, a more sample-driven (the band swore off live-tracking every arrangement after the labor of love that Äppelknyckarjazz became), but nonetheless highly original, work continuing to propagate Movits’ hip-hop/swing hybrid sound. Ut ur min Skalle features much more drum machine and analog synth than the live drums and accordion of Äppelknyckarjazz, but rather than taking life from the record new possibilities are opened. String-sounds appear, and the drum machines blend with horn patches and analaog effects to produce a sound that still hearkens back to a different era of music. Bombastic horn arrangements and a driving kick drum power the track “Nah Nah Nah”, keys and a screaming sax solo from Nilsson lead the single “Sammy Davis Jr.”, and a synth-string pad forms the basis for the “love song” “Skjut mig i Huvet” (translated: Shoot me in the Head). Some elements from the earlier release remain: Nilsson continues to throw in tasteful sax solos behind, underneath, and over Johan Rensfeldt’s vocals, and guest appearances by fellow Swedish rappers such as Timbuktu and Zacke further flesh out the album.
I’m not sure there is a band who reflects their sound as well in their appearance as Movits. The group never appears on stage without their matching tuxedos and basketball shoes, and their music videos almost universally feature beautiful swedes dancing frantically to the swing tracks Movits has converted into hip-hop tunes. Videos like the clip for “Sammy Davis Jr.” even reflect the changes made to the new album as a clinical, almost retro-futuristic visual backs up the bounce of the synth organ; even the transition from live instruments to samples is played with in the clip as live musicians are “programmed” into electronic instruments.
I have had the good fortune of seeing Movits perform live three times, each besting its predecessor. I first watched the band sweat through a performance on the back patio of a pizza restaurant in Austin during South by Southwest 2010. The afternoon show was free, and broken up by pizza breaks for all involved, and the band hawking what little merchandise they were able to bring. I walked away from that show with a physical copy of Äppelknyckarjazz I spent too much on and a confirmed love of the band’s music. My excitement about the group hit a high point last September at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. Two showcase concerts by my favorite Swedish rap crew had been booked in the town where I attended college. I went to both of Movits’ shows that weeked, and each time emerged sweaty and hoarse. The energy and excitement that permeates both of the group’s albums is very much alive and well in their live show. Even notwithstanding live freestyles and a more horn-heavy arrangement of the Zacke tune “Spela Mig På Radion” (alright, I’ll have to dedicate a separate entry here to him as well), the performances at this past Lotus Festival were among the best live shows I’ve ever seen.
Movits is currently on tour in Europe continuing to support Ut ur min Skalle. For those of us not on their current tour route, both albums are available at various online retailers, a number of great music videos and live clips can be found on youtube (or linked throughout this post), and anything I neglected to talk about can be consumed at movits.se. Despite their brushes with U.S. exposure on The Colbert Report and through two nationwide tours, not many people are listening to Movits right now. In my opinion, the hypnotic blend of swing and hip-hop that forces the casual listener to move at least a little and the devoted fan to jump and jive uncontrollably deserves some more play.