You don’t have to love mainstream hip-hop to dig this duo.Chitlin & D.U.D.E. Self-taught, versatile, and fiercely independent, Chitlin and D.U.D.E (aka Ralph Taylor and Randy Walker) nimbly stretch the boundaries of the genre, blending live instrumentation with unadulterated vocals for a fresh, full-bodied sound. Samples and digital beats take a backseat to keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, sax, and whatever else the pair can get their hands on. And they never let convention cramp their style. “I don’t think we fit perfectly in any genre,” states Chitlin. “What you hear is us – we are the definition of our music.”

Likewise, music has defined much of their lives. As members of the same musical family from Norwalk, CT (they’re nephew and uncle), the pair grew up surrounded by tunes. “My mother’s house was the hub of all events,”  D.U.D.E. recalls, “and if someone in the room wasn’t playing music, they were listening to a recording.” His uncle, a blues guitarist, introduced him to the keyboard at age fourteen and set him on a course of musical exploration. First stop: a New Wave band and matching “flock of seagulls” haircut. He also dabbled in Techno and House and soon invested in his first set of equipment.

Chitlin proved his musical prowess at age six by crooning along to his mother’s Stevie Wonder albums. In elementary school his dream of becoming a rapper took hold, and he soon started penning rhymes. But it wasn’t until college that Chitlin’ ”then known as Merlyn Muzik” discovered his own potential. The college cafeteria served as the lunchtime battleground for aspiring rappers, Chitlin remembers, and “one day, my friend threw me in the mix, so I just went with it. And I beat everyone.”

Finally in 2010, nephew and uncle held their first jam session, and everything suddenly fell into place. “When we’re in the room together, it’s magical,” rhapsodizes Chitlin. To date, they’ve composed over 40 tracks, ranging from the rhythmic and danceable to the slow and mellow. “What you hear is a reflection of how we were feeling at the time,” reveals Chitlin. Driven by this spontaneity, the duo cruises past clichés to capture the vibrancy of the moment in their songs.

And while they make some seriously good music, these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. Chitlin’s lyrics delve into personal highs and lows and illuminate life’s darker sides, but he imparts his street wisdom with a sly sense of mischief. His strategy: “I use humor to talk about real topics and to bridge the gap between myself and my audience.” An approach that has made him a crowd favorite when performing with the likes of Special Ed and DJ Jazzy Joyce.

Champions of authenticity, Chitlin and D.U.D.E. happily swim against the tide in today’s sea of gangsta-rappers-in-training. “When I’ve had a bad day, I don’t want to hear a song about a drive-by-shooting,” says D.U.D.E. “That’s just silly.” He prefers the understated and easygoing, as exhibited by his standard choice of jeans and t-shirt, sans bling. Chitlin takes the term non-conformist to another level: “When everybody else is wearing platinum, I’m checking out wooden watches.” In a word, these two are anti-style.

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