No Pandering: The Music of Junk Science

Junk Science

Photography by Saskia Kahn



When Michael Tumbarello stole a bunch of cassettes from James Christensen’s backpack while they were both students at Brooklyn’s Packer Collegiate Institute, he inadvertently laid the foundation for the hip-hop group Junk Science. Tumbarello’s score included albums by Biz Markie and De La Soul, but there was also a tape of beats that Christensen, who was going by the moniker Snafu, had produced and topped with scratches from the Street Fighter 2 video game. After hearing the tape, Tumbarello—who would take on the MC name Baje One—approached Christensen, and they soon bonded over a shared love of underground hip-hop; eventually, they decided to form a group themselves. (Christensen says it was a decade later when Tumbarello finally confessed to stealing his tapes.) That serendipitous moment happened over 20 years ago. Now, the duo has amassed a discography that includes a stint on El-P’s iconic Definitive Jux label, and they’ve come to be known for packaging physical albums in creative and artful ways, including launching their own craft beer to promote a music project.

Tumbarello and Christensen come from vastly different backgrounds: Christensen’s parents were renowned artists in the 1960s downtown New York City scene; Tumbarello’s family are blue collar Brooklynites, and his father worked at an Off-Track Betting outlet. Despite their differences, they bonded over a shared taste in music, which Christensen characterizes as “an appreciation for incredibly abstract lyrics and detailed rhythmic patterns.” When the older brother of J. Howells Werthman, another musician they both knew, returned from California with records by the experimental hip-hop collective Project Blowed, Tumbarello and Christensen found themselves inspired by the group’s freewheeling sensibilities. “A lot of people in New York weren’t checking for that stuff,” Tumbarello says. “It spoke to me because of the weirdness. People often say, ‘Oh, you’re from New York in the ‘90s, you must love Biggie and Jay Z.’ And I did—but it was never my go-to music.”

Junk Science

Junk Science’s debut, Feeding Einstein, arrived in 2005 and was recorded while the duo lived together in Brooklyn. There’s a bluesy, static-laden funk to the production, which comes from Christensen’s tendency to work with records he found in the garbage. Tumbarello, whose raps are breezy and free-associative, perfectly complements his partner’s beat-making instincts. “He has that digger’s knowledge,” says Tumbarello. “He knows that if he picks something up for 50 cents, he’ll find some vibraphones he can chop up, because he knows that label puts out a lot of solo instrumental tracks.” Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic, a concept record about a fictional cure-all brew, was released in 2007 and established the Junk Science template of enhancing their work with the packaging. The CD version came with a beer mat, and the group launched their own limited-edition craft beer, which was named after the album.

At the time, Junk Science had signed to Embedded, a label run by Jesse Ferguson, who also had an A&R position at Def Jux. Ferguson helped the group release Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic on Def Jux, even though Christensen characterizes the group as “oddballs” of the roster—“the new kids being awkward on the first day of school.” Ferguson had been dabbling with home brewing, so he suggested the group approach the craft beer company Sixpoint to make a beer that complemented the music. As it turned out, Sixpoint founder Shane Welch was a huge fan of underground hip-hop, and they set about creating a funky and hoppy limited-release beer. “The hops were sourced from a part of California where some potent weed strains are grown,” recalls Christensen. “It had this weird flavor that a lot of our friends who smoked weed but didn’t really drink beer ended up digging.”

 

Later Junk Science projects embraced the idea that, as Christensen puts it, “an album isn’t just an album—we want to have creative art projects.” 2010’s A Miraculous Kind Of Machine features a die-cut cover that folds out to reveal an illustration by the artist Alexis Negron. 2011’s Phoenix Down, which was recorded with Scott Thorough, features 8-bit chiptune beats and is available as a soft rubber flash drive with pixelated art. (Secret a cappellas and remixes are included, just like a video game easter egg.)

The CD version of the most recent Junk Science album, And The Hundred Dollar Sandwich, is designed to look like two slices of bread, and comes with with individual die-cut lyric sheets resembling pickles, tomato, and slices of cheese, all of which can be rearranged to create the sandwich of your choice. “We released it in 2015, when no one’s really playing CDs anyway. The point was to have this physical object to commemorate the record,” says Tumbarello. “Our packaging has always been much more pop than our music.”

Prioritizing art over commerce in their pursuit of creativity “might not have always been a fiscally responsible decision,” says Christensen. But Tumbarello maintains the soul of Junk Science is about maintaining a resolutely independent attitude: “It’s all just DIY art by people who really enjoy experimenting and trying things out and still caring about the process. There’s no pandering in it, you know?”

-Phillip Mlynar

One Comment

  1. MagnoliaFan72
    Posted March 29, 2019 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Great article. Who took those photos? They’re great.

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