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Return of the King 

Chris Thomas King has a lot on his mind. One afternoon over coffee, he's getting ready to go to Baton Rouge for the closing of Tabby's Blues Box, the blues club run by his father, guitarist Tabby Thomas. Two nights before, he added some guitar licks to a track by rapper Rhymefest that also samples "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," the song he performed on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Add to that a new album -- Why My Guitar Screams and Moans -- on his own label, 21st Century Blues, which has also released hip-hop blues albums by the British band Nublues and locals 21-C-B Boyz, and he's got a lot on his plate.

"At one time, I could do my business in the morning, deal with that a little bit, then get to my music," King says. "Now I can't get to my music. Being a person dealing with accounts, accounts receivables, purchase orders, shipping, marketing -- running a record label that has become successful is stressful. It doesn't give me time to tour like I think I should be touring."

King has been a lightning rod for controversy, largely because of his dedication to merging hip-hop and blues, adding rap and a DJ to his sound since 1991. "The reason I started rapping was because the poetry of rap allowed me to tell a more complete story," he says. "I could tell four lyrics of a story as opposed to repeating three or four verses over and over. I could tell a complete story, and the form is wide open. It's like the Wild West; you just go in there and create what you want to create, and to me that's very beautiful."

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Festivals, he says, have refused to book him if he had a DJ, and some of the musicians he has played with had a problem with the concept. "My band quit because I added a DJ to the band. My drummer gave me an ultimatum -- ŒIt's either me or the DJ.' I said, ŒI'm sure going miss you.'"

Blues fans have wanted more traditional blues from him, the sort he played as Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? "I had to hire a publicist to tell people I'm different from this person on the screen," King says. He was sufficiently convincing in the role that blues fans who saw the movie wanted "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and the like from him, even though his career has never focused on Delta blues.

"I've invested in the 18-49 (age) demographic, not the 49-and-above demographic," King says. He points out that most blues labels focus on male, largely white, baby boomers, an aging market. He's concerned that audience won't be with him as he reaches old age, and he's unwilling to acquiesce to the demands of that audience.

"I might play Leadbelly in a play, but I'm never going to be Leadbelly in real life," says King, who recently performed and acted as guitarist Lowell Fulson in Taylor Hackford's current Ray Charles biopic, Ray. "My dad's club is closing, and that era's over. You want the blues now, you go to Disney's blues club."

To help develop a new market for the blues, King and DJ Spin toured grade schools earlier this year as part of the "Harman: How to Listen " program. The tour took the duo to 30 schools around the country where they talked to students about perception of the blues -- depressing, old people's music being the usual opinion -- and played them the blues with and without a DJ to illustrate the relationship between the genres.

"What's going to happen 20 years from now, the audience I've invested in is going to inherit the world," King says. "I don't know if they're going to remember some of the other artists around today, but they're going to remember me."

King has also raised some eyebrows because he's not shy in his appraisal of himself. "I think my music sounds a lot better than Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and I have more passion for my music," he says. "I can sing their music, but I bet they couldn't do what I do. I don't know anybody that's going to rap and play the guitar and sing the music and play the chord progressions. Not that I try to make my music difficult, but it's very unique to me.

"Am I a better artist than Robert Johnson or B.B. King, or am I the greatest blues man in history?" he continues. "I don't know that, but I know that the generation coming up, I'm the only blues guy they feel they know."

click to enlarge "I had to hire a publicist to tell people I'm different from this person on the screen" after the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, says musician and actor Chris Thomas King.
  • "I had to hire a publicist to tell people I'm different from this person on the screen" after the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, says musician and actor Chris Thomas King.
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