When I first started working with Heather Thomas (aka Hech Rhymes) about five years ago, she dreamed of singing jazz and performing as a hip-hop artist, but she had no experience in either. A professional boxer who also trains fighters for the ring, Heather has an unstoppable persistence and discipline that she has carried into her musical training. While continuing to grow as a jazz singer, a few years ago she started performing spoken word and then rap, and over the last two or three years has become a rising star in the hip-hop world, opening for artists like Smif n Wessun, Ab-Soul, Kool Keith and People Under the Stars, with shows locally at the Middle East Downstairs and the Hard Rock Café. Heather recently returned from a tour of Europe where she performed in the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. I sat down to talk to her about the differences between jazz and hip-hop, how voice training has helped her with both, and any advice she might have for beginning artists.
CS: What were the best parts of your tour?
HT: We got a really great reception in Linz, Austria, and I’m looking forward to going back there in the fall. There were a lot of really enthusiastic fans in Brebl, the Netherlands. And my touring partner, Relentless, and I got the opportunity to collaborate on a recording with a Spanish artist – Ronin Gryn – in Mataros, Spain. (I sang, Relentless rapped). We made some great connects, and we’re planning another tour in October.
CS: How did you first get into jazz?
HT: When I met you I had been listening to a lot of jazz and blues and artists like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Amy Winehouse (she sang some standards, although her originals are more well known). I was just singing in my bedroom, but I knew that I wanted to perform eventually.
CS: What are the similarities and differences between jazz and hip-hop?
HT: Jazz and Rap can be nerve-wracking in different ways. Both have soul, both involve technique and a fine attention to detail. With rap, I would say the emphasis is on practice and developing the song itself, and every rap artist has to work on memorization. And of course, you have to have a good sense of rhythm. In jazz, there is more of an emphasis on training to develop a decent vocal range and a sound that is full and open, and then you can express yourself however in the moment.
CS: So, do you think functional voice technique is something that every hip-hop artist should learn?
HT: I think so because at some point everyone is going to want to include some kind of a hook in their rap, if they want to fully express themselves. It’s nice to get somebody else to come in to do the singing and that’s certainly done a lot, but having that little bit of extra freedom –some of my favorite artists do that. If you’re bored with just working on your flow and your cadence you might want to actually sing a verse or part of a verse to make it pop more but you don’t want it to sound like trash when you do it!
CS: How has voice technique helped you with rap itself?
HT: Well you definitely need a lot of stamina. The breath control is key. Every rapper needs breath control or they’re not going to get very far. And glockida-glockida-glockida (laughs).
CS: Exercises to undo tongue tension.
HT: Yes. And articulation. You definitely need to enunciate well for rap so you can understand the words. I think I had an advantage, in working on vocal technique first. In general, just becoming more musically minded helped.
CS: In my experience with the singers I’ve worked with who have been successful, it’s 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. What has boxing taught you that has helped with your music career?
HT: I think about it in terms of metaphysics – what you go through in boxing, in hip-hop, any kind of performance. Before I went out on my second fight, my trainer told me that “the second fight is the hardest.” I asked why, and he said “Well, the first fight is easy, your nerves are taking care of it, your primal instincts take over. The second fight, you have a lot more options.”
I guess I would relate that to singing or hip-hop. Those first couple of performances I did were rough. But I didn’t quit. And at a certain point, maybe you get a little buzz, and there are a lot of different directions you could go in. The main thing is, you can’t stop, you have to keep going, you have to keep re-inventing. Keep working on it. The fields will never be ploughed completely. “There are many paths to the top, but there is only one view.”
CS: Finally, what do you have coming up?
HT: I’ll be back at the Middle East on July 27th, and at Ward 6 in Lawrence on August 26th. You can check for updates on my schedule at my website.