Some Galactic vocals |

Some Galactic vocals

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado

SNOWMASS ” After beginning life as an instrumental groove outfit, Galactic added a vocalist, Theryl DeClouet, to the lineup. It seemed a good idea: DeClouet, known as “the Houseman,” offered an accessible hook for those who couldn’t latch onto the otherwise instrumental music. Just as important, DeClouet is a New Orleans native, and Galactic ” comprising mostly New Orleans transplants, besides native-born drummer Stanton Moore ” was looking to establish its Crescent City bona fides.

The integration of singer and avant-groove band never jelled perfectly. Galactic was far better having room to stretch out its thick, fat experimental jams than it was backing the Houseman. In concert, DeClouet’s appearances onstage were sporadic and often interrupted the flow of the funk. In 2004, the two sides parted ways, and Galactic carried on as a singer-free quintet.

Until now. With “From the Corner to the Block,” released two weeks ago, Galactic incorporates a vocal element once again. But there is a major twist. Where DeClouet specialized in an old-school soul style that had New Orleans stamped all over it, the new album is a full-fledged hip-hop recording. “From the Corner to the Block” features a full roster of guest MCs, including Lyrics Born, Jurassic 5’s Chali 2Na, Lateef the Truth Speaker and the Perceptionists’ Mr. Lif.

“To me, it’s a natural thing,” said bassist Robert Mercurio, who founded the core of Galactic with guitarist Jeffrey Raines, another Washington, D.C. area product, who attended New Orleans’ Tulane University. “But it’s a sharp turn. We’re not saying, from now on we’re going to have MCs and rappers at every show for our career. It’s to do something cool for an album. It’s to shake things up for the band, and show our abilities as artists. Our next album could feature on vocalist, and have nothing to do with hip-hop.”

But Galactic is not going to divorce itself from rap so quickly. The hip-hop turn is not simply a one-shot, in-studio experiment. For the next year, Galactic plans on including guest MCs and DJs on its tours. When the band appears as the opening act today, Saturday, Sept. 1, at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival, they will be joined by two rappers: Boots Riley of the Coup, and Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, both of whom appear on the new album. Upcoming scheduled dates will feature Chali 2Na and Mr. Lif. (Another guest on the album, DJ Z-Trip, performs a JAS After Dark show tonight at Belly Up. The show is billed featuring special guests.)

New Orleans is not known as a hip-hop stronghold. As Mercurio noted, “it’s hard to succeed outside of funk and jazz in New Orleans.”

The classic New Orleans styles, however, do have something fundamental in common with hip-hop, a grounding in rhythm. The players in Galactic ” California-bred saxophonist Ben Ellman, and Omaha-born keyboardist Rich Vogel, in addition to Moore, Raines and Mercurio ” observe that it’s no accident that the one member to hail from New Orleans is the drummer.

Mercurio said it was easier for the band to write beats for the rappers than it had been to write songs for DeClouet. “MCs or rappers are more used to singing over something with more rhythm underneath them,” he continued. “For a vocalist, singing over a heavy rhythm can be a distraction. For them, it’s usually straight chord changes. For us, we’ve always tried to write more interesting rhythmic structures underneath the song.”

Galactic and hip-hop have another common point of reference. “Since it first came out, what a lot of rappers were sampling was old-school funk. Which is what we were into,” said Mercurio. “We’ve been liking it forever.”

Taking the jolt out of the hip-hop turn was a careful selection of just which artists to work with. Scanning the roster of guests on “From the Corner to the Block,” they clearly comes from a distinct point on the hip-hop spectrum ” whatever the one is at the opposite end from gangsta rap.

“We wanted definitely people who were more conscious of society. People with thoughts similar to ours,” said Mercurio. “We didn’t want to make a bling-bling album. There are a lot of styles that wouldn’t fit in with us.”

Interestingly, for a band that prides itself on reflecting the historic sounds of its hometown, one of the styles that didn’t fit in much on the album was the predominant New Orleans rap style. Mercurio noted that the most visible New Orleans rappers ” the collective known as Cash Money Millionaires ” are from the bling-bling corner. Galactic did locate one local MC ” Juvenile, who spawned the Southern rap style known as “bounce” ” to contribute to “From the Corner to the Block.” And several tracks ” “Second and Dryades,” featuring singer Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Wild Magnolias, and the title track, with Juvenile and the Soul Rebels Brass Band ” sport a distinctively New Orleans sound.

Mercurio said that there were no major culture clashes between Galactic (all-white, and a presence on the jam-band circuit) and the guests (almost all black, and strangers to the jam-band world). “I went in with some fears, that some of these people would take it as just a paycheck, and just slap something down: ‘It’s not my album; it’s just Galactic. I’ll take my money and run,'” he said, adding that the band had previously collaborated onstage with about half of the MCs and DJs. “But every track exceeded my expectations.”

Galactic has become accustomed to using the recording studio to go in different directions. Their last CD, 2003’s “Ruckus,” a tight, jam-free album that incorporates the textures of techno.

“We play so many live shows, and we let people tape our shows,” said Mercurio. “To go in and form an album that is like our live shows is a futile effort. We’re trying to do something more than our live shows, more than what we have been doing.”