Chanell Crichlow is a smart, stylish, passionate tuba player. She’s the founder of PitchBlak Brass Band, a ten-piece, diverse, multi-genre brass band that has been laying down sick beats all over New York City for the past two years. Chanell is doing revolutionary things not just in the music world, but also with her look. dapperQ jumped on the opportunity to sit down with Chanell and have a fun conversation about problems with the classical music industry, and where to shop in Harlem.
dapperQ: What attracted you to the tuba?
Chanell: In middle school, in 6th grade my teacher was really interested in having girls play the tuba.
dapperQ: Was she a super feminist teacher?
Chanell: It was a guy! (laughs) He was really forward thinking. He played the tuba too, and it had this really mellow sound, warm, I was really attracted to it from the beginning, from the first time I heard it. He told us not many girls play the tuba and you can get scholarships for school and all that kind of stuff, I knew that I didn’t want to play trumpet or flute or a typical instrument. So I chose it when we had to choose instruments in school. That year about four girls were part of the brass section.
And it worked because up till 7th grade we were still playing tuba! We had competitions to get 1st chair and the girls always won, there were really strong females in the tuba section. And I ended up getting scholarships to school because of it later on. From that year of my life to now it’s had a huge impact. I really don’t think I could do anything else but music, so I’m happy that music kind of found me.
dapperQ: How did you handle looking professional in a classical music setting as a masculine-of-center woman?
Chanell: I guess from an early age I knew that I wasn’t going to be wearing dresses and skirts, and for my instrument it wasn’t very practical, since my instrument goes on my leg. So I had to wear pants. I had a lot of suit jackets and black pants (for classical). No one really said anything about it but I always remember feeling a little bit out of place when…the conductors, always mentioned something about what performers should wear for orchestra concerts and there would be this really long list of what girls can or can’t wear, and it would be a short list for men. And I’m just like, come on man. At conservatory I didn’t hear too much gender stuff because people were in their own place with their identities. So I wore a lot of suits.
dapperQ: The classical music world is this primarily cis-male, straight, white space. Being a masculine-of-center, queer, woman of color, what was the experience like for you?
Chanell: Men…yeah there’s a lot of them. Most brass players are male, and white. The reason that it’s hard or difficult for me, as a woman or color, especially being gay, were the jokes that people would make in the tuba section of the orchestra for “fun.” They’d talk about women in maybe not the nicest of ways. Joking about people being gay or people’s gender expression. Just being around males I had to be a lot stronger, I had to have a stronger shell than most people because I never really wanted to be part of their jokes or how they conducted themselves. A lot of people probably thought I was mean or hard to get along with but it was really that I didn’t fit in with them, and honestly I didn’t want to. So I didn’t try to fit in, I just played music.
Another reason it’s hard for people like me in classical spaces is that it’s not easy to get places you want to be. Men feel comfortable around women that don’t threaten them, and in their eye, a female player that dresses feminine and has a typical bubbly personality will get more attention and turn more heads because men don’t feel threatened by her. If you have someone like me, you really have to prove to them how good you are through your playing. And it’s harder because 1. From the beginning they don’t want to see that you play well and 2. You have to go the extra mile and work harder. I’m always around white men when I play classical music and our worlds are so different. They have never met someone like me, they’ve never had to play next to a female tuba player or play next to a black woman, so it’s been a lot of learning from each other.
On the other hand, whenever I meet a black person or a gay person in the classical world, it’s something I can connect with. In conservatories you see that the 3-4 black people are like best friends because they need each other to survive. There were people at Penn State and brass players at Manhattan School of Music that I would seek out, and other people would seek me out because we were alike. We had to kind of process things together that would go on in our every day life. At parties people would say racist stuff that they would think was funny but to us it would be like, “Damn, you mean I gotta sit and play next to him tomorrow in orchestra…” So we had to be that companion to each other to figure out and process why these things happen. You’re always thinking like, what did that comment mean, or why did he say that.
But you have to think of it like, all of these people have got to experience who I am. Sitting next to them in orchestra, you’re the guinea pig, but at least now that you’ve been the guinea pig, they have that experience in their life. So that helps. Saying that, I’m here for a reason, and maybe when they go out into the real world and work with another artist similar to me, they’ll know how to engage with that person better.
dapperQ: What’s a typical outfit you would wear to the symphony?
Well, for my recital at Penn State I wore a pinstriped suit, with a matching vest, and a purple button down shirt. I might’ve worn a tie as well, a colorful tie, and a hat. And I had wing-tipped shoes on. There was a period of time that I loved wearing tipped shoes, so I was wearing a lot of them performing. That’s how my performing style is, very masculine, older guy kind of thing. I like wearing vests, I like wearing hats sometimes. I used to wear a lot of bowties, I don’t do that very much anymore.
dapperQ: What about for a PitchBlak Brass concert?
Chanell: Right now with PitchBlak, I try to find a way to be hip hop as well as classy. Plaid shirt with a vest and a baseball cap, that’s the kind of stuff I like. But it would be a unique cap. I have a friend that puts metal studs on top of hats, and he custom makes hats for me, @raisedbychamps. I go sneaker hunting in Harlem at this place called Atmos, that’s my favorite sneaker store in all of New York City. It’s kind of like a really fancy sneaker store when they’re in cases. I love sneakers and I love hats. And hair, like keeping your hair fresh, getting haircuts every couple of weeks. Right now that’s how my style has changed ‘cause I hardly play classical music anymore.
It’s actually kind of scary how the classical world is changing, with orchestras dying, like the Philadelphia Orchestra going bankrupt, then getting private funding. I don’t think the way we need to move forward is by doing just classical, us performers have to mix it up. We have to do something young and fresh.
dapperQ: Is PitchBlak Brass your way of experimenting, of trying something new?
Chanell: Definitely. In my senior year at Manhattan School of Music I realized that I wasn’t connecting with white composers as much as I thought I did. Ones like Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Mozart. I was reading about their history and their experiences and it just wasn’t resonating. I also realized my teachers didn’t know much about black composers, and that made me sort of frustrated. I started reaching out to, not jazz, but hip hop because it was current.
I really started to look at pop culture as a learning experience while I was in graduate school. I decided I really needed to know about hip hop if I want to be part of that kind of scene, creating music that would be different, so I started researching, looking into groups and bands that were close to what I wanted to create. I even got an internship at an agency that works with marketing artists and is also connected with The Fader magazine. There weren’t a lot brass bands that were involved in hip hop. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble was one. But one thing I realized is that they’re all race specific and they’re all male. Young Blood Brass Band is mostly white, and Hypnotic Brass are all brothers. I wanted PitchBlak to have a wider spectrum. I have women in my band, I have white and black men in my band, there are gay people in my band.
dapperQ: How did you find your bandmates?
Chanell: This might seem really creepy but I made lists. (laughs) I made lists of people who I thought would be really perfect. I thought, ok, this specific person kind of looks cool and I know that he listens to hip hop and he’s a great musician. I wanted people that had eclectic backgrounds when it comes to their musical style. In music school you meet a lot of people who only listen to classical music, so I knew I wanted to find people who loved a lot of different music and would be interested in doing this crazy idea I had. I wanted to find people who fit a certain aesthetic, musical style, and someone that I knew would have great creative input. So that’s how I choose them. I did a lot of facebook messaging. To get ten people together and try to schedule it is very difficult. It’s been through a couple of changes, in the first couple of months we had to change our drummer, some people left, but now we have a solid core of musicians. We like to call it a collective. I’m still making some executive decisions but we all write music for it and it’s very much like a family.
It was scary at first. We didn’t have many songs, people weren’t getting paid, things like that. We didn’t have any money. I was taking artistic risks and financial risks but I think right now it’s definitely paying off. Because for a band that’s been together for two years in December we’ve moved really quickly and have done a lot of things that we are all so proud of.
dapperQ: What would your ideal vision for the band be? What are your dreams for PitchBlak?
Chanell: I’d like the band to stay “underground mainstream,” but it would be nice to get more exposure, like be the kind of people you’d see on Pitchfork or Fader, or maybe get noticed by some big deal rapper, something like that, and maybe get more financial support. I want it to be out there as a creative new rap group that has instruments. I’d really like to go further than the brassy, New York City vibe and go a little more in the hip hop, rap, mainstream direction. We’re just beginning to get into that brassy New York City thing, so this will take some time. But that would be the dream. Y’know, imagine Odd Future but with brass (laughs). A collective of people that do everything and anything. From photography to selling clothes, that’s really where my brain really wants to go with it. But who knows, y’know? I’m ready to go on the journey. The journey’s gonna be the most fun part. I’m ready to go in!
dapperQ: What are some of your favorite places to shop?
Chanell: I love African print and I love Nike sneakers, and New Era hats that I try to get custom made. Harlem is my favorite place to shop, because that’s where I used to go with my mom. I live in Brooklyn, but I don’t shop there.
Go to 125th street, start from the west side and walk to the east side. The African stores there are my favorite. ‘cause it’s all handmade things by African people. I feel good giving my money to them, and it’s all different, stuff that you’ve never seen. I get the freshest hats and sneakers there. They have everything. The African market on 116th street in Manhattan is great too. When I go shopping for hats… it has to be the correct hat for the right moment. You feel it when you see the hat and you put it on. Another place I have to shout out is on 134th street, The Vault. They have really fresh clothes in general. As a person that is a female masculine of center, I feel comfortable with the people that work there, plus it’s black owned. Also, while you’re there, get your haircut cut at Denny Moe’s Superstar Barber Shop across the street from The Vault. They’re definitely queer friendly and that’s where I go.
dapperQ: Do you have any final fashion tips you’d like to leave us with?
Chanell: I’m a larger person so for me, you have to feel comfortable in what you wear. You have to have swag, which to me means getting something that fits your body and will make you shine. Make you feel like “I’m the hottest thing right now.” That’s what swag is. And accessorize. Wear earrings if you love to wear earrings. If you are the type of person that gets a short hair cut try to do something innovative with that short haircut, talk to your barber about a style idea that you’re having. My biggest thing would be exploration. Always walk into a store that you’ve never been to before. And for bigger people, spend the time that it takes to sit down with yourself and figure out what’s comfortable for you. Because it’s only gonna look great on your body if you feel like you look hot. There are a lot of people out there that love larger people and just knowing that is going to make you feel more comfortable with your body. That’s one of the things that I struggle with and it would be great to see more images of larger people looking fresh and looking hot. Ladies love it, other guys love it, so be comfortable with it.