Funk Is Instrumental
The Roots never changed my life. The much-vaunted real, live Philadelphia hip-hop band so often celebrated for leading the faithful out of the valley of DATs and loops never hit me where I live--even when it was just across the Delaware in south Jersey. I've taken my share of credibility lumps from colleagues for such heresy, as if an aversion to reheated Seventies jazz funk and fuzzy keyboard vamps represented some gnawing spiritual deficiency. Me, I've never understood why using live musicians on a recording instead of a drum machine is so inherently honorable. Would my reviews be more "authentic" if I turned them in handwritten?
The Roots did, however, change the life of the St. Paul funk combo Heiruspecs, and in particular bassist Sean McPherson--and we're better off for it. A fledgling string thumper in an even more fledgling alt-rock band in Massachusetts in the mid-Nineties, McPherson indulged his rhythm jones in the eighth grade by attending a Roots show, where he learned what his instrument, the bass, could do. The other five young members of Heiruspecs (mean age: 19) share impressively wide-ranging hip-hop and jazz and rock tastes but wax most enthusiastic over Common and D'Angelo and other nuevo-funk affiliates of the Philly hip hoppers that McPherson describes as "the most important group to me ever."
So I should be grateful to real, live drummer ?uestlove and his Herbie Mann-ish boys, because one night at the Foxfire this year, Heiruspecs did change my life. Well, let's say augmented, not changed, in the small, cumulative way music alters your perceptions once you aren't all adolescent and malleable and up for grabs. Less like your first orgasm and more like an especially satisfying dinner, though in a Foxfire crammed tight with kids who knew their cues from past shows, and shouted and writhed accordingly, the energy was such that those distinctions didn't matter much.
The horns of Martin Devaney and Josh Peterson alternately punched into Curtis Mayfield charts and JB exit music or veered into adventurous runs. Alex McIntosh's guitar lent a grittier texture than any amplified keyboard could provide. Drummer Kevin Hunt and McPherson locked into hip-hop-inspired grooves even an emo kid could lope to--tight enough for a high-end wedding band, but loose enough to carry along a version of "Billie Jean" you could occasionally recognize through the laughs and the flubs.
Then McPherson (a.k.a. Twinkie Jiggles) squared off with MC Felix in a free-spirited take on the dozens. Topping off a pajama ensemble with a polka-dot cap ("What's the point of playing funk if you don't get to wear a silly hat?" McPherson quipped) the pink-cheeked, self-described "overweight bastard" and the slim, brown-skinned, and bearded Felix were a study in contrasts straight out of central casting.
The duo met, like the members of Mint Condition and Abstract Pack before them, at St. Paul's Central High School, as students in the noted music program orchestrated by Red Freeberg. They started the group in 1997, with McPherson on bass, Hunt on drums, and Felix and another MC flowing up top. They soon graduated from busking in school halls for cookies and orange juice to scoring their first club shows. "It was much more of a crowd-hyping thing then," Felix says. But when they brought horns on board, songs soon followed.
On a recent summer afternoon, the six musicians are clad in homemade T-shirts, each especially scrawled for this interview session, which display logos ranging from "LBC Drama Club" to "I think you'll get with this," to an intricate game of Hangman. They've gathered around a table at the back room of Bon Appétit in Dinkytown, where the now storied Headspin shows stretched across what seemed like an endless consecutive string of Sunday nights in 1998 and 1999 before a series of logistical and legal setbacks ended the showcase. (Heiruspecs' August 4 return to Bon Appétit is being billed as a kind of Headspin reunion.) A mingling of indie-rock and hip-hop kids--and followers of both genres old enough to buy beer--Headspin was a spot where fans first came across others who shared their tastes. "It was a place where you could pass out flyers and meet people," McPherson explains.
"I didn't miss a single one," Felix brags breathlessly. "I had to work until ten o'clock. I biked all the way over here from Grand Avenue in St. Paul as quickly as I could because the bus was too slow. I come in and there's people standing in the back on the seats, people standing on the pool tables, and like hanging from the ceiling, and it's crazy. I see my friends at the door, I see my friends inside, I see my friends onstage. And here's me coming up onstage, still in my apron...."
Heiruspecs' debut, Antidisestablish-metabolism, captures elements of those performances, and even some live recordings from those shows. You can hear the excitement: The disc starts with Hunt winding out of a drum solo, with anticipatory basslines and wind-tunnel guitars prepping a crowd that's already at full attention. Felix begins to flow: "Hip hop is a culture, not a rhyme test," adding that, if he were a superhero, he would "Use my x-ray vision/Never on your girl's dress." But you can also hear some of the confusion of those gigs: The mood peaks high, but the loose mix of live and studio material mostly whets my appetite for what they may yet accomplish.
The crew's ecumenical, affable outlook has won them unlikely admirers (they open for local bluesman Big John Dickerson later this summer) and their zeal was on full display at a recent, underattended Uptown show. In a way, they sounded like the world's most impossibly hip bar band, with horn parts challenging enough to keep the players engaged, but not baroque enough to junk up the sound. They voiced a less murky, wider range of influences than their Illadelph idols--a more expansive palette. Which just makes sense. After all, roots may be cool and necessary, but branches stretch out and grow.
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