Dan McKinney and Chris Tray, aka MC Devlin, follow a simple rule of thumb when making music together.
"We know that if something makes us laugh, it's good and we keep it," said Devlin.
"Not so much because it was funny--like slapstick funny. We'd just laugh from delight at discovering this weird new arrangement of sounds," added McKinney.
That spirit of discovery guides Mad Conductor, a joint Devlin-McKinney project that blends hip-hop, funk, ska and other musical styles into a sound that Devlin calls "space rock." Devlin is touring with a five-man band (not including McKinney) of New Orleans musicians behind the latest Mad Conductor release, 2013's MC Rises. The group plays The Shredder on Tuesday, Jan. 28, with local punk bands The Useless and Piranhas.
McKinney, a 52-year-old producer based in Center Valley, Pa., said he and 28-year-old, New Orleans-based Devlin make unlikely partners, he treasures their collaboration.
"I've been in plenty of bands over the years, and I've never worked with anybody where it was just so easy [and] where things just clicked so well," he said. "Despite the fact that we come from completely different musical backgrounds [and] different generations, almost."
McKinney's background includes playing keyboards for psychedelic garage band The Original Sins, whose album Big Soul was listed alongside Husker Du's Zen Arcade and Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation as one of the "more memorable alternative rock records" of the 1980s by The New York Times. He met Devlin when the latter's ska-punk band No-Cash came to his Dan's House Studio to record the 2003 album Run Your Pockets.
McKinney said he was surprised when Devlin came to him in 2005 with the idea for Mad Conductor. He'd recorded music in various genres but said, "I had never done any hip-hop. Never worked with any samples, never structured any beats, any of that stuff." But as the duo forged ahead, McKinney realized that "we could come up with stuff together that neither of us would've come up with on our own."
Devlin needed to do a lot of work on his own, though. After Mad Conductor debuted with its 2006 EP Mechanical Claw and released the full-length album Renegade Space Rock (2007)--both Dan's House Studio releases--the MC moved down to New Orleans, where he'd had good experiences on tour. He'd planned to stay just long enough to write material for a new album. Instead, he started feeling burnt out and got caught up in the party scene. Between 2008 and 2011, Mad Conductor output was minimal: the two-track Members Only, the four-track Central America and the single "Lethal Protector."
"I forgot why I played music," he said. "I'd just done it so much [that] I kind of beat it into the ground."
Earning a black belt in Shaolin Kung-Fu helped pull Devlin out of his rut.
"I'd numbed myself--was just kind of wandering aimlessly--and the Kung-Fu gave me direction," he said. He assembled his current live band, which debuted at Community Records' Block Party in New Orleans in 2011.
Mad Conductor has built a supportive fanbase, but McKinney isn't sure how to push its music further. "Our fans like it [and] our fans buy it, but I think our fans are buying it less," he said. "It's like the more pervasive music becomes on the Internet, the less easy it is to make money selling stuff."
A label might bolster the music's distribution and earning potential, but winning a deal is harder with music that's so tough to define.
"Genres are so splintered ... and now we come along with something that doesn't really seem to fit any of these dozens or even hundreds of genres and subgenres," McKinney said. "So we're not doing ourselves any favors by approaching [music] this way, but it's what feels best to us."
Devlin doesn't mind that.
"I'm not so sure that I think signing to a label would really bring us anything," he said. "What with how music is being sold these days and the fact that I can upload my album to iTunes and take the lion's share of the money, I don't see why."
Regardless of label interest (or lack thereof), Mad Conductor's music continues to evolve. MC Rises features Devlin's most confident and sophisticated rapping to date. He drew inspiration for the album's lyrics from such literary works as The Divine Comedy, The Iliad and the 14th century Chinese novel The Water Margin (or Outlaws of the Marsh), about a band of outlaws who battle corrupt officials.
"It really inspired me to put a positive message in my music," Devlin said of the Chinese novel. "The earlier Mad Conductor stuff was more [about] just exploring my imagination and seeing what I could do with words. With MC Rises, I wanted to write an album that sent the message out there in a fun way."
The track "All Men Are Brothers," which decries blind materialism and urges compassion and political engagement, exemplifies this ambition. Devlin's sharp wit, polysyllabic rhymes and quick, smooth flow help make his proselytizing palatable. While the Chinese lyrics of the chorus (provided by Devlin's friend Brian Yannantuono) allude to Water Margin, the guttural vocals recall Devlin's punk days.
"The ideas are coming really, really fast," McKinney observed of MC Rises as a whole. "And you can listen to it over and over and over again and still miss stuff."
Devlin has plenty of ideas for the future. He wants to write, record and release a double-LP in the next couple of years. He would also like to make the band's live performances more elaborate, adding sets "and things to jump off and swing around during the show."
If people don't respond positively to Devlin's ideas, he probably won't care too much.
"I'm prepared to receive most of my praise posthumously," he said.
In the meantime, Devlin and the live band will take the music to whoever's willing to hear it--in New Orleans, Boise and beyond.
"People put 'Hometown: New Orleans' on a flier [and] I feel a little funny because it started in Pennsylvania," he said. "And we still record in Pennsylvania, and a lot of my life is still in Pennsylvania. I love New Orleans; that's not my concern."
Instead, as he put it, "our home is just space."