At the beginning of director Shirley Clarke’s 1985 documentary Ornette: Made in America, free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman returns to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to receive a key to the city. The film rolls out in nonlinear fragments revolving around Coleman’s performance at the Fort Worth Convention Center, where he performed his 1972 album Skies of America with his band, Prime Time.
Coleman, seated in a white suit with a collar—reminiscent of a Black minister— clutches his saxophone, as Clarke cuts to a young Black boy walking through downtown Fort Worth. Then Clarke cuts back to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra playing. Coleman, still holding his iconic plastic alto saxophone, sits in front, flanked by Prime Time. The famous Black saxophonist had returned to his deeply segregated home and performed to a mostly-white crowd, confirming that not much had changed in Fort Worth since he’d left decades earlier. However, much had changed with Coleman. The scene is one familiar to any artist who tries to grow beyond the boundaries of their earlier work and the arbitrary limitations of their musical genre.
Ornette: Made in America is a compilation of more than two decades of footage. There’s interviews with Coleman, interviews with celebrities that knew him, and footage of Coleman playing at various locations. Early in the film, Coleman stands up in his white suit, black shirt, and white collar, and plays his saxophone, emitting notes that flutter out forcefully over the performance of the symphony. Prime Time joins in as Clarke again cuts to a young Black boy playing a saxophone near a group of one-story wooden shotgun homes, just beyond a set of train tracks; then, it is back to the orchestra playing, and then to a younger Black boy walking in a field of grass near the train tracks, against a backdrop of concrete and with the metallic skyline of Fort Worth glistening behind him.
This time, when we cut back to Coleman and Prime Time, they are still performing in the foreground of the white orchestra, musicians dressed immaculately in black suits. They players riff and create music that is discordant but unified into a cohesive whole. None of the musicians is more prominent than the other. Their sound is built in layers on the convention center stage. The white conductor waits behind them, his baton at the ready, waiting for the opportunity to shift back to the more conventional orchestra.
Ornette: Made in America is an amalgamation of scenes which parallel the jazz compositions of its subject— Ornette Coleman. The film itself feels improvised. It isn’t until the end that you realize that it was all meant to unfold in exactly this way, like a jazz soloist taking off on a melodic run only to return just in time for the chorus.
Coleman took what many thought jazz was and inverted it. The self-taught Black saxophonist bellowed out his vision for jazz, and translated his feelings into a loud, utterly original sound. His work with free jazz quartets and octets and later, Prime Time, was about sonic collaboration and unification, even blending orchestral music, in all its decadence, with the chord progressions of churches and nightclubs of New Orleans. Coleman is the inheritor of those legacies, and rather than just accepting what both traditions gave him, he molded these styles through sheer artistic will.
When rapper Brian Ennals and multi- instrumentalist and producer Tariq “Infinity Knives” Ravelomanana took the stage last month in Baltimore at hybrid performance and visual arts space Metro Gallery the duo, like Coleman decades before, blended genre to their musical whims.
Infinity Knives played a SP-404 drum machine—accompanied by an effects rack—while Ennals commanded the room with bars like “Resurrect Nat Turner with a bong and a ouija/ kids with a squeegee, give them a pistol/ so they can rob crackers instead of cleaning your windows.” The duo styled themselves in matching white overalls, and captivated Metro with songs from their acclaimed summer release, King Kobra, an album forged in the cauldron of pandemic stress and isolation.
Brian Ennals is from Severn, Maryland, the hometown of Toni Braxton. His family’s roots stretch back to the Eastern Shore and Black revolutionaries: “My dad’s family is from the Eastern Shore,” Ennals said. “My people were acting a fool with Angela Davis in Cambridge in the 1960s and my great- great-grandparents left with Harriet Tubman.”
“My dad’s family is from the Eastern Shore,” Ennals said. “My people were acting a fool with Angela Davis in Cambridge in the 1960s, and my great-great-grandparents left with Harriet Tubman.” Ennals describes his connections to the place where Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were born over a groovy synth-ridden track in the song “Death of a Constable”on King Cobra.
Infinity Knives was born in Tanzania, and grew up splitting time between Madagascar and South Africa. He’s been in Baltimore since 2006. Like Ornette Coleman, Infinity Knives is mostly self-taught, and both artists create music that is unfettered and genius.
The sounds on King Cobra conjure the stirring you feel in your spirit at the beginning of summer; the agitation at the extreme temperature; the way that the concrete radiates heat, and recognition of a summer madness. The record encapsulates so much of what makes Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals a successful duo: Their music is charismatic, and revelatory—a riot act for the collapse of capitalism and a dirge for those who have succumbed to the violence of white supremacy, and for those who survive it to continue to make music, to beat on, and create.
King Cobra opens with “Neath the Willow’s Leaves” and closes with “On Bread Alone,” two tracks that are absent of rapping and instead utilize distorted folksy singing—ethereal and haunting and dreamy—from Alison Clendaniel. The levity found in the album is matched well with the weight of certain lyrics. Ennals is skillful at imparting brevity and fun on some of the tracks. “Death of a Constable” opens with Ennals decrying police brutality and on a later track, he proclaims, “Fuck Ted Cruz forever.” On “Coke Jaw,” he raps “Chris Dorner is a legend/ I know that nigga is in heaven.” Christopher Dorner was the Black former Los Angeles Police Department officer who shot and killed two cops and two civilians and set off a 12-day manhunt across Southern California before being killed in a standoff at a mountain cabin.
King Cobra’s tendrils reach out and touch the Southern Gothic rap of Three 6 Mafia (Infinity Knives recently produced a track for Three 6 Mafia collaborator, Project Pat). Ennals’ triplet flow paired with storytelling on “The Badger” takes listeners on a journey through living check-to-check and imagining killing landlords, leaning on a storytelling style reminiscent of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” and the violent and flexing posture of Chicago drill rapper King Von’s “Crazy Story.”
Infinity Knives frequently distills the expansiveness of various musical genres into one track. “My side is sort of a kaleidoscope of all the music that I sort of grew up listening to. Pretty much everything I make is a big shout out to everything I’ve ever made, or what I’ve ever listened to,” Infinity Knives said. “It’s just a homage to recorded music in the 20th century and maybe the early 21st century. Trying to sort of really study and pay respect to things that have come before me. Add that with rap vocals. And that’s what we got.”
There’s the Mobb Deep reference on “Death of a Constable,” where Ennals raps “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from/ PTSD gives me killer dreams/ I’m saving up now for a new guillotine,” updating Prodigy’s famous opening bars from “Survival of the Fittest.” Ennals wanted his lyrics to reflect the times, expel aggression, and explore bravado. “I just wanted to go hard, you know what I mean?” Ennals said.
Borrowing from groups like Mobb Deep and their haunting tales of the drug war allowed Ennals and Infinity Knives to set the table for liberatory art. The duo has created an album that is the perfect background music for polishing your guillotine or lacing up your shoes to work out, or pushing through to the next day, aware of darkness but awaiting brighter days.
“[King Cobra] is really just my perspective on the world without it being too introspective,” Ennals said. “I didn’t want it to be diary entries.” What came out was brutally honest. “This is what the fuck is going on. This is what’s wrong,” he said. “Throw some shots at some rappers I don’t like, or some rapping that I don’t like.”
King Cobra also shows the duo’s growth and maturity. When their last collaborative release, RHINO XXL was released in 2020, it captured the beginnings of Ennals and Infinity Knives’ potential as a team. Take the album art for that 2020 release: Shot on a disposable camera, inside of a liquor store.
With King Cobra, the duo offers us 44 minutes of rapid-fire reverberations and instances of melody, touching on disco and old school hip hop. Ennals and Infinity Knives reveal the growing pains of working through turmoil, and the deep sadness inherent to living and working and creating in a global pandemic. And, much like Coleman’s Change of the Century, it offers commentary on the state of the world—particularly for Black creators. In just the first verse of “Coke Jaw,” Ennals references sundown towns, lead exposure, and religion, and delivers a proclamation of he and his collaborators’ energy: “Cruising down your block on DMT/ We the post-apocalyptic Run DMC.”
“I think the intention was [for King Cobra] to be big,” Ennals said. “I think one of our touchstones, and I mentioned this a few other places, was [OutKast’s] Stankonia, which is kind of like a big sprawling thing…That was a touchstone of how we kind of wanted to format it, with Tariq’s stuff, as well as the songs and the rapping.”
King Cobra emerged from sessions originally conceived for Ennals’ solo EP. They worked on it for more than a year, sending out the first beat pack in late 2020 as the pandemic began, and wrapping up production and laying down raps in January 2022. The process of making King Cobra was not fun for either artist. Like much of the work created in the pandemic age, it was laborious and painstaking. But intention was paramount. The group began with a discussion of themes, and then began producing based on the elements that emerged in those conversations.
“I wanted to sort of have a skeleton of what it was going to be and build it off of that, rather than just coming up with a couple of beats and being like, ‘okay, here, rap on this,’” Infinity Knives said. “Everything was sort of thematic. And I think that’s how I’m just gonna keep working from now on.” Those ideas were pared down, stripped of excess, leaving an album Ennals described as “lean as it could possibly be while still being kind of expansive.”
Both Infinity Knives and Ennals expressed their relief at the completion of the record. “I’m relieved that it’s over, that shit was a big cloud over my head,” Infinity Knives said. “We were miserable the entire time we wrote it. We were in a bad mood.”
A lot of the undercurrent fueling completion of the album was the respect that they know that they deserve and the frustration with what passes as commercial success. “I’m gonna sound like a hater, but I just see a lot of mediocre work—like a lot of mediocre work, just getting all this praise and love. We’ve tried to make it cutting edge, and good,” Infinity Knives said. “And you’re still getting snubbed. So it’s just, it makes you bitter.”
Infinity Knives and Ennals have chosen to funnel their collective frustration into making more avant-garde music, even if that proposition is risky. The payoff came on tour—in Europe, often in front of the type of white audience that welcomed Coleman when he returned to Fort Worth. Ennals and Infinity Knives could see the depth and breadth of their impact. Still, both long for the kind of love at home that they received on the road for the new record.
“There was that frustration especially after people said they dug Rhino, but not really feeling like we were getting love a lot of times, specifically in the city,” Ennals said. “We felt like we should be there with whoever else is being fucking mentioned and we felt like weren’t when we we’re just as good if not better.”
Ornette Coleman began playing a plastic saxophone out of economic necessity; he couldn’t afford the brass instrument. Financial strains outline the formation of Infinity Knives’ musical career.
“Classical music… chamber music… that’s my heart and soul,” he said. “I never had the resources for it, but I’ve always loved it so much. Every time I’m offered the resources I try to take full advantage of it as much as I can.”
“I just wanted people to hear it, and not only hear us as a tandem and be like, ‘This is good music,’” Ennals said. “But I also wanted people to hear it and think, ‘That nigga is nice.’”
King Cobra is currently available on all streaming services but the group prefers you buy it on Bandcamp. “Buy it on Bandcamp. It’s only like 10 bucks, but you can pay 50 for it,” Ennals said. “We wouldn’t mind that.”