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Trouble Funk 

Phil Crumar turns adversity into lighthearted hip hop

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
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Phil Crumar's losses keep yielding surprising rewards.

Several years after his older brother, Danny, died of leukemia, Crumar's parents decided to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family. By sharing Crumar's basement room, his new sister and surrogate parents -- all of whom are now considered family -- helped him get past his loss and see the world in a new perspective.

That was in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., where a driving, call-and-response cousin of hip hop called go-go was king. The local police force's funk band -- named SWAT -- made a huge impression on Crumar during a show at his elementary school. Later, when a drummer in the school jazz band spliced a go-go beat into a number at a pep rally, the whole world seemed to go wild. Crumar saw the power of putting the fun in funk.

When, as an 11-year-old goy, Crumar joined his best friend at a Jewish sleepover camp for the summer, Yahweh saw fit to burn their cabin to the ground. Each camper was asked to file an insurance claim, and after slightly exaggerating his losses, Crumar pestered his mother to use the money to buy him a drum set.

Soon he was pounding away to the sounds of Trouble Funk, Minor Threat, and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. His new Vietnamese sister and her parents didn't ask him to tone it down. "They had gone through enough shit, and if I was just playing drums, they were just like, "OK, whatever, you want something to eat?'" Crumar remembers.

While it has been a few years since Crumar, who moved to San Francisco in 1988, made the mental transition from being a drummer to being a composer and lyricist, he still crafts songs from the beat up. The results -- available now on an Asphodel EP, As It Goes, and in January on the upcoming full-length album Thinks It's Cool -- sound effortlessly funky.

But that's to be expected from a drummer; what might seem surprising is that the tracks are also lyrically captivating and impressively tuneful, with gripping, melodic hooks, seamlessly blended textures, and weird sounds. The songs frequently feel both quotable and hummable, whether Crumar is pursuing whimsy on the pretty, churning "Hot Toddy" ("Should I play it all smooth like I'm pot roast gravy?/ She's a number cruncher and I'm a Captain Crunch cruncher"); personal nostalgia on the smile-inducing "Wind It Back" ("All I want ... is for little friends I still remember to know that I'm still livin'/ I want to see my old shoes, them hoopty-ass Buster Browns, and tell myself my soul has been risen"); or poignant introspection on "I Want You to See" ("I see like generations before or generations to come/ I'm the lump sum of ugly and handsome").

Just as Crumar has found that happiness can grow from difficult circumstances, the playfulness in his music seems to spring from a bittersweet truthfulness. The result is likability; it's fun you can trust.

But if it hadn't been for another surprise loss, Crumar might never have come to San Francisco or taken his sound in new directions: In 1987, just out of high school, his rising band broke up on the stage of a Georgetown neighborhood nightclub when the vocalist and bassist got in a drunken, bloody fistfight. That night, Crumar decided to put his side interests in painting and sculpture before his drumming. He quickly made arrangements to hop a plane to San Francisco and attend the next semester at the San Francisco Art Institute.

But his studies failed to satisfy him, as did the experimental music ("Weird grunge with funk in it") he continued to make with former bandmates who had followed him west from D.C. It seemed to take less to make more for Crumar; he needed to lose something to gain anything. So he quit school and the new band, took a job at a Mission District sculpting studio, and holed up in a room above the workplace, obsessively teaching himself new instruments and trying out musical concepts.

"I just started making my own music because there was nothing else to do," he remembers. "I didn't have a band at all. But in a way, those were my gravy days. Even though the music wasn't that good, I just really got into it. I taught myself bass, keyboards, a little guitar, and the Crumar, an Italian synthesizer, which actually I bought for $35." He used a four-track to mix tape after tape of experimental grooves, increasingly with a hip hop flavor. He had never been happier.

"That really got me to where I am now," he says. "Because in that one or two years, like '96, '97, I started thinking, "Well, I can be more of a composer, instead of just a drummer.'"

Then one afternoon as he entered the nearby Atlas Cafe, a new muse emerged: Jimmy Spliff, fresh off the boat from Brockton, Mass. "I walked into the Atlas," Crumar recalls, "and he came out of the bathroom. It was this big cloud of weed, and I was like, "I already like this kid.'"

After hearing Spliff freestyle one night at the Uptown bar, Crumar began pressing him to flow over his beats. "From that point on," Crumar says, "I was just telling Jimmy, like every time I saw him, "Come over, come rap on my four-track.'"

Gradually the two developed a routine and became friends. Crumar would try to create one groove a week "and just let Jimmy go," he says. "All my friends were like, "Oh, Phil hasn't come out for a while, he's just in his cave recording.' I was just really mad and obsessed."

Spliff dubbed his new partner Phil Crumar (his real name is Phil McGaughy) because he toyed with the vintage synthesizer incessantly, to the point where he seemed to communicate through its spacey bleeps and warbling string noises.

But then, just as Crumar and Spliff seemed to have the Mission bar circuit crowd enrapt (literally) with a series of live shows, Spliff met producer Tommy Rome, formerly of Philadelphia rap band the Goats. Spliff and Rome conceived a "swing hop" concept they swiftly parlayed into a contract on Sony's Work label, as Jimmy Luxury & the Tommy Rome Orchestra. (Unfortunately, the completed project got buried in red tape when Work folded.) Suddenly Spliff was booked, and Crumar was forced to fend for himself.

"I just kind of said, "Well, I'm making all these beats and I don't know who else can rhyme on them,'" Crumar remembers. ""[So] I'll just try [rhyming myself].' And people were like, "Oh, keep doing it.' And so it was like coming out of myself. You know, a big coming out party."

Quickly, his style evolved from simply aiming to rhyme on the right beats to carry a groove to structuring story lines and calculating how to blend humor with pathos. "The content, that's my big thing [now]," he says. "I like to mix and match people's perceptions of what they are listening to."

The lyrics of "I Want You to See," for example, flip nimbly between cerebral reflections and an urgent street voice. "It's just balls out. I'm just saying it like how I feel," Crumar says. "But there's funnier songs that mean just as much, like "So Unique.' It's not like a big message or anything, it's just [about] how cool I am. But you need that, too; you can't just come up with a record that's just all one thing. [That] just gets boring, you know? If people want to say, "Oh, he's schizophrenic or whatever,' then so be it."

Crumar's music comes across as less scattered and more evocative of his mixed-and-matched world, where a cranky- yet-generous God, funky police, and an 11-year-old white go-go drummer with a Vietnamese refugee sister can coexist in harmony. Ultimately, with As It Goes and Thinks It's Cool, he emerges as something of a Rumpelstiltskin, able to spin personal trials into lighthearted art, if not outright gold.

About The Author

Greg Doherty

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