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What do a cappella, opera, and jazz have to do with hip hop? Ask Felonious.

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
It's the last night of San Francisco's True Music Seminar, and Broadway Studios is packed. Halfway through a set by headliner Felonious, a man and a woman walk onstage. The crowd waits, bemused. Carlos Aguirre (aka Infinite Tounga Brown) starts beatboxing. A moment later, guest performer Jessica Van Niel begins to sing. A few people clap. It's good. Nothing extraordinary, but good. After a strategic pause, Van Niel begins to rap. The crowd cheers -- this is definitely better. After another pause, Aguirre starts rapping and Van Niel starts beatboxing. This gender reversal, very uncommon in the world of hip hop, is completely unexpected. The applause is deafening.

Destroying stereotypes is what Felonious is all about. Felonious is 100 percent live hip hop -- no turntables or DAT players allowed. In a hip hop scene almost entirely focused on the DJ, this makes for a lot of raised eyebrows. Rapper Dan Wolf (aka MC Euripides) explains: "We chose the name Felonious because by not having a DJ, we're breaking a hip hop law." Aguirre adds: "When a DJ drops a beat, he may not even be a good DJ, but people in the crowd will say, "That's hip hop.' We come out and drop a beat, it may be a fat beat, but [because there's no DJ] there's people in the audience who will say, "That's not hip hop.' It's like every time we play, we're starting from nothing."

Felonious began in the early 1990s, when Wolf and rapper/drummer Tommy Shephard (aka Soulati) formed the a cappella group Felonious Punks. The duo played at house parties, cafes, and anywhere else they could find a gig. It was at one of these cafe shows that they met future bandmate Keith Pinto (aka MC Verbal KP). "I saw them, and I was blown away," Pinto admits. "After the show I went up to them and I said, "You guys are amazing. I don't know how, I don't know what I can do, but I want to be involved.'" Later, the three MCs met Aguirre. "At the time, we didn't want drums, we didn't want instruments. We felt that for us, a cappella was keeping it real," says Aguirre. That changed, and the rappers hooked up with bassist Dylan Mills and keyboardist Fletcher Nielson. (Nielson has since left the band.) Felonious Punks morphed into Felonious, and the band recorded its self-distributed EP Fight for Light. While the members still perform a cappella occasionally, as at a recent Justice League show with Jurassic5 and Quannum, Felonious is now a live band featuring keyboards, drums, and bass.

The eight raw, energetic tracks on Fight for Light span several genres and focus on the struggle of urban youth to stay positive in an often hostile world. The centerpiece track "Preyjuiceandice" transitions from bebop to reggae as it addresses racial bias. "Baby Steps" is a bouncy number that contrasts playful harmonies and dark flows. "Balance" blends jazz and funk. "I Can See" is a pop ditty, complete with Soul II Soul reference. And "Fatman" is a playful, off-key nod to the Philadelphia group the Roots.

The EP has its share of shaky moments. The recording quality is poor, almost sounding like a demo. At one point the musicians actually lose time and take a couple of seconds to catch up with each other. Occasionally the lyrics are so earnest that they seem downright naive. But that positive thrust gives the songs a powerful honesty and makes Fight for Light a promising first effort.

Thanks to hard work, Felonious' live approach to hip hop seems to be catching on. The group has played shows with the Roots, Black Eyed Peas, Latyrx, and Jurassic5; headlined the True Music Seminar; and will host "New Roots to Hip Hop," a showcase for not-yet-established MCs, every Tuesday in September, October, and November at the Last Day Saloon. "We got started because bands would invite us onstage to freestyle," Aguirre explains. Now, with "New Roots," Felonious is returning the favor. "We want to encourage creativity. There's a place for competitiveness in hip hop, but when people come up, they should be allowed to have their voice."

The members of Felonious also overturn expectations with the acclaimed hip hop theatrical production Beatbox: A Raparetta. Beatbox combines the art forms of theater, dance, and operetta with the elements of hip hop. The play tells the story of a group of inner-city youths who are all trying to rise above their limitations. "Some [of the characters] have more love than others, some are poor, some need to come to terms with their parents," Wolf explains. Set in an alleyway, in nearby apartments, and in a local performing arts college, Beatbox follows two brothers as they grapple with drugs, violence, sex, friendship, and love. The play centers around Mickey Finch (played by Aguirre), the older brother who is trying to lift himself out of the streets by becoming an MC, and Tet (played by Shephard), the younger brother who is firmly entrenched in the street life. The pair become increasingly alienated from each other, and the play culminates in a dance/beatbox battle where their divergent philosophies come head to head.

Beatbox was first performed in 1995 in San Luis Obispo. Since then it has been accepted into the New American Playwrights' Festival and been performed at juvenile detention centers in association with San Jose Repertory's outreach program, Red Ladder. The authors explain that Beatbox is a work in progress: "Audience feedback is important, and the piece becomes more and more powerful as people from all walks of life come together to discuss the culture of hip hop and the message of the play," says Wolf. Felonious will be honing and reworking Beatbox during the "New Roots" series.

Felonious isn't the first group to cause waves by eschewing the DJ format. Many hip hop prototypes, including James Brown's "King Heroin," Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and the Last Poets' "Oppression Is Worse than the Grave," all used live instruments. In the early 1980s, everyone from Kurtis Blow to Grandmaster Flash to Afrika Bambaataa played with live drummers, while Rick Rubin played guitar on Run-D.M.C.'s seminal crossover album Raising Hell. And the beatbox was firmly established through landmark pieces such as Biz Markie's "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz" and Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's "Ladi Dadi."

In the early 1990s A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory kicked off a hip hop resurgence with stripped-down drums and cool bass lines by one-time Miles Davis sideman Ron Carter. In its wake, the Red Hot & Cool and Rebirth of Cool compilations explored the boundaries between rap, hip hop, jazz, and funk. Acts like Groove Collective, Digable Planets, and Guru's Jazzmatazz further examined the synergy of rap and live instrumentation.

San Francisco claimed a prominent role in the movement. The now-legendary Charlie Hunter Trio rose to prominence playing funky jazz with a strong backbeat, while the Broun Fellinis experimented with DJs and rapper the Crack MC. Backbeat-driven live hip hop acts like Alphabet Soup and Marginal Prophets formed, and crossover labels like Ubiquity Records and Om Records captured the music.

Hip hop fashions come and go quicker than any other musical style. Soon live was out and Wu was in. Now, after several years of dormancy, live hip hop has seen another uprising, due in no small part to the Roots. The Philadelphia band's unwavering message and explosive live shows have inspired new young groups, among them Source of Labor in Seattle, the Breakestra in Los Angeles, and, of course, Felonious.

Right now, members of Felonious are at work on their next album and putting together "Party," a performing arts program in which youths will be taught a combination of artistic and entrepreneurial skills. Most of all, Felonious is just working on keeping it real. As Wolf explains, "We're trying to make hip hop that reminds you why you got into hip hop in the first place."

About The Author

Fred Medick


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