On 2010’s “I’m Deaf” Detroit rapper Sean Forbes gives a shout-out to Stevie Wonder. A few beats later, he name-checks Heller Keller. His flow is steady, his voice is clear, but long before you notice his subtly off-kilter inflection, there is already something different about Forbes. Lyrically and creatively, Sean is on a mission to unite music fans regardless of his hearing loss.
Growing up in a musical family that stockpiled instruments, 31-year-old Sean, who has been deaf since he was a baby, took up the drums and songwriting while he was still in grade school. After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology, in 2006 Sean founded D-PAN, the Deaf Professional Artist Network, a production company that makes pop music accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing fans.
Forbes credits his family for the inspiration, and his uncle Denny for the clarity of his mission. A musician and engineer whose work credits include Anita Baker and Barry Manilow, Uncle Denny encouraged Sean to be himself and stand out in a saturated field. The approach worked. After a few homemade music videos, in 2010 Sean signed to the Bass Brothers’ Web Entertainment label, formerly home to Eminem—who has taken on Sean as a protégé.
Working closely with producer Jake Bass, Sean (a disciple of “the three Bs”— Beatles, Beastie Boys and Bob Dylan), has created a pop-friendly hip-hop sound that is radio-ready and socially conscious. “Sometimes I write the songs and then create a tempo for it and rap a cappella and give it to Jake to build music on top of it, Forbes tell VIBE. “Sometimes Jake gives me music and I write to it based on the mood of the song; and sometimes I just give Jake lyrics and tell him what I’m looking for in the song and he creates it and then we put my vocals on top after. Each song is different.” Among the many songs that stand out on his debut Perfect Imperfection is “Bob Dylan (Was the First Rapper)”, a nod to the folk troubadour that includes sanctioned lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a rare endorsement from the infamously guarded iconoclast.
Good intentions alone do not guarantee any musician crossover success. In hip-hop, rhythm and a good beat are key parts of the mix. For Sean, a lifelong drummer, they are also functional elements. “The bass and kick drum must always be banging because that is how I feel my music and am able to follow the rhythm of the track, it’s the most crucial part of the process for me to be able to vibe in the studio,” explains Forbes. “Sometimes I like to take certain things out of the track so that I really only have the kick, snare, bass to put my vocal to; the less going on, the better it is for me to hear myself clearly.”
By extension, “feeling the vibe” is an essential experience for much of his audience. In keeping with his holistic mission, Sean’s gig at New York’s Webster Hall tonight (March 6) will feature Buttkicker technology, a low-frequency amplifier used by Disney and Universal Studios to help audiences feel the bass. The show also marks the first time that Sean will feature interpreters signing for the opening acts, as well as his performance, allowing the two types of music experiences to blend.
Anyone can give you advice and a start, but ultimately every artist rises or falls on his own merits. Sean Forbes not only brings something fresh to the scene, he takes the scene itself to an intriguing, new level. “Perfect Imperfection” drops on April 2nd on Web Entertainment.