When I was in high school, there were a few tenuous years I listened almost exclusively to hip hop. Then it was musical theater, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, then boy bands, and then alt rock: my friends and I, like most people who are sane, question the substance of our early musical proclivities. But following a rough breakup, something big in me shifted: I discovered folk and never turned back. This is not that story. But somewhere in that story is a piece of myself I let go along the way. This is where I find that piece.
How do I begin to describe Felonious? It’s an overwhelming commission for a country music enthusiast who has set neither foot nor ear near hip hop since age fifteen. But today, in my kitchen, I am whipping cream to beatbox and acoustic ‘records’ scratching, and dancing to a cappella bass echoing from the mouths of MCs Soulati and Infinite. I am right where I need to be. I am teenager, teacher, mother. I am whipping cream.
Felonious, a collective of musicians and actors, performers and playwrights, dancers and teachers, husbands and fathers, are each their own variety of Renaissance badass. Though they are hardened by a dozen years of hustling the ins and outs of the Bay Area hip hop scene, you wouldn’t think twice about bringing them home to meet your mom; not because they are accomplished — though with four albums, several EPs and three hip hop theater productions1, they certainly are — but because they are genuine, kind, and somehow commingle an impossible mix of gritty and tender. Listening to Felonious, I suspect while we record them for One Night Music at Coda, feels a little like calling grandmother while sipping bourbon, or smoking a cigarette at the peak of a fast.
The act of Felonious is what happens when these six guys convene and unleash their art live. The One Night Music crew assembled, larger in number than usual, to document Carlos Aguirre and Tommy Shepherd build intricate beat boxing loops that the four MCs (Dan Wolf, Keith Pinto, Carlos and Tommy) rap over. Add to that some catchy refrains, keys (Keith), guitar (Jon Monahan), drums (Tommy) and you can maybe picture the material components of a Felonious set.
But to really understand, you have to see Tommy rap while drumming, never missing a beat. Or write an idea of your choosing (like “cigarettes,” “Hippies,” or “scared of the woods”) on a Post-it at “Live City Revue” (a multi-disciplinary arts event Felonious hosts at Coda) to hear an MC freestyle on your selection as he works through his random handful of notes. Or hear Carlos shut down a post-session freestyle outside of Coda, split second to conjure as a bus passes, with a line about catching the 49 to City College.
This collective of men have combined their various talents and passions, which are expansive and overlapping, to carve themselves a niche in Bay Area hip hop culture — which is to say, they do so much more than mix thumping beats with hard lyrics. They use hip hop as a platform to inspire people who need it, much unlike the hip hop artists I listened to in high school. Carlos, for example, teaches hip hop dance, songwriting and beatbox in different Bay Area classrooms, but the work he speaks most highly of is his regular teaching gig at a local jail. His students there, he says, are surprisingly responsive, yet most of them haven’t been in a classroom since junior high or high school. The satisfaction Carlos derives from teaching inmates is testament to the philosophy these Felonious guys live by. Hip hop, for them, is a positive, community-building venture. You’re only good at what you’re passionate about, Carlos says.
And they are. Watching Felonious record their One Night Music session is an endless barrage of talent, surprise, explosives. There is no end to what they do. That music and energy — the theater, beat boxing, looping, rapping while drumming — is nothing less than oceanic, unbounded. While Felonious is no throwback, they released something in me: a belief that hip hop need not be ego-dominated, that it could be alive, filled with all the nuance and care of art, of true love.
Felonious’ new album Live City releases Tuesday June 8th, 2010. The Live City release party and show is June 10th, 2010 at The Independent in San Francisco.
1Beatbox: A Raparetta; Stateless: A Hip Hop Vaudeville; and Angry Black White Boy.
Recorded in Coda Jazz Supper Club in San Francisco, CA. on March 21, 2010.