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Ukulele Rapper Bridges Gap Between Hip-Hop and Folk

By Emily Frost | December 4, 2012 7:48am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Jon Braman found his ukulele in a garbage can in Fort Washington, Long Island. It was covered in cartoon stickers and all of its strings were missing, but he formed a bond with the instrument 15 years ago and has been playing it ever since.

The ukulele came with him when he moved to Hawaii, where the instrument is ubiquitous,  and then to Washington, D.C., where he worked toward becoming a singer-songwriter.

But Braman's musicianship took an unexpected turn when he started incorporating hip-hop. 

Braman used to be "anti hip-hop," he said, "because I didn't like the mechanized looping." But in New York City, he discovered that "nothing is as lyrically or rhythmically fun as hip-hop." 

The Upper West Side musician started copying Outkast and Biggie Smalls, teaching himself to rap by practicing their songs over and over again — sometimes 100 times — on the subway and while walking around. 

When he combined ukulele playing with rapping, he found a satisfying combination that continues to baffle and entice audiences in both the folk and hip-hop camps. 

"I'm not trying to be weird with ukulele and hip-hop," he said, but added that "if you listen to me you might be a little unsure what to call [my music.]" 

According to his website, Braman is known as the "father of ukulele hip-hop."

He's not a proponent of sticking too closely to labels though.

"Genres are more for marketing and less for the purpose of music," Braman said. 

To inspire more collaborations, Braman hosts "The Melting Pot," a monthly gathering of musicians looking to make cross-genre music. They meet at Pianos on the Lower East Side.

"We can all find some common something," he said.

In 2011, after performing solo for several years, Braman created the Jon Braman Band, which features a drummer, pianist, saxophonist and bassist. 

The band is re-releasing its 2011 album "You and Me" this January with new tracks about Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy. The album's sound moves from a "swampy, bluesy beat," to "poppy, upbeat songs" to songs with "reggae and jazz influences," according to Braman. 

When he's not performing at Pianos or at other venues around the city — or at his day job working for an energy efficiency company — Braman is "always playing [his ukulele.]" 

Though Braman said he hasn't played in many music venues near his Upper West Side home, "I'm always walking around the neighborhood [with the ukulele]." He often stops and sings with older neighbors who are sitting out on the street watching the hustle and bustle. 

His ukulele breaks all the time, and a guitar store worker once told him it couldn't be fixed. Still, he's hanging onto his beloved instrument, which now has even more "character," including Greenpeace and Labrador Retriever puppy stickers. 

"I like its sound — it's a bigger sound, not tinny or small," he said.