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Friday, Dec. 7, 2007
Galactic keep it in their own backyard
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
In a business where some people will do anything to thrust themselves into the spotlight, for their latest release the New Orleans-based funk quintet Galactic did all they could to step out of it. Not even Hurricane Katrina could stop them.
"From the Corner to the Block," released here Aug. 8, is a collaborative effort that highlights prominent names in politically conscious independent hip-hop as well as Big Easy gangsta rapper Juvenile.
Save for instrumentals, which also feature guest artists, it's as if Galactic have transformed themselves into a contemporary version of yesteryear's house bands, who made their mark while staying in the shadows. Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio has no problems playing second fiddle.
"We've always enjoyed backing different vocalists. It's something we've admired in The Meters and Booker T. & the MG's of the world," he says by phone from a tour stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, ahead of the band's Japan dates next week.
Though they're on the road to promote their own album, Galactic aren't being stingy with the stage time they're giving the three MCs along for the ride. Chali 2na, who rose to fame with Jurassic 5, Lyrics Born (aka Japan-born Tom Shimura) and The Coup's Boots Riley, all of whom appear on "From the Corner to the Block," will be performing their own material, with Galactic providing accompaniment. Also featured will be new songs they've co-written on tour.
"We've learned some of their music that fits our aesthetic," Mercurio says. "We've rearranged some of it, thrown solos in and just made it a little more collaborative."
"From the Corner to the Block," gives 11 new voices to a group that had been performing primarily as an instrumental act since diabetes-related health problems forced singer Theryl "Houseman" DeClouet to leave in 2004. Mercurio, drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist Ben Ellman, keyboardist Richard Vogel and guitarist Jeff Raines recently performed with Houseman at a San Francisco fundraiser to assist him with his medical bills. Mercurio says there are no plans to replace him.
That said, aware that the guest MCs are likely to move on some day, he realizes that the latest Galactic album has a limited shelf life, at least as far as live shows go. Looking ahead, the band have already worked out instrumental versions of some tracks.
"We can get the gist of the music. But without the MC, you're not going to be able to perform the exact song," Mercurio says, adding that Galactic are now entertaining an offer from a rapper who wants them to back him on his next record. Until the deal is sealed, however, Mercurio's not naming names.
Originally, "From the Corner to the Block" was going to be a narrative concept album, with a story line peopled by characters voiced by the guest rappers. Mercurio says logistics doomed that idea. In the end, Galactic aimed for a collection of songs that shared a common theme, but were co-written with different MCs. Their collaborators were asked to envision a corner — street or otherwise — and write about it.
The music was influenced by the Galactic's tours with hip-hop acts such as The Roots and Lyrics Born. The album's concept was inspired by "Intersection/New Orleans," a 2006 book that paired writers with visual artists and tasked them with recording their impressions of various Big Easy intersections in words and images.
When asked to pick a New Orleans corner of special significance, Washington, D.C., native Mercurio chooses the intersection of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Nearby is the famed music venue Tipitina's and a Walk of Fame dedicated to New Orleans musical greats.
"If you were transplanted there, you'd immediately get a strong feel of what New Orleans is about," Mercurio says.
The devastation wrought upon the city in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina did not leave Galactic untouched. When the deluge struck, they were on the eve of what they'd hoped would be two months of intensive work on "From the Corner to the Block." Their studio was ruined, but they salvaged some of what they'd recorded thanks to an engineer who had permission to enter the city during the no-go days following the storm.
"He broke into our studio and got our hard drives," Mercurio explains.
Despite the setbacks, the bassist and his band mates have no intention of moving elsewhere.
"We all really love New Orleans, and we want to be part of the rebuilding process," Mercurio says, noting the inescapable nature of music in city life. "It really fills the air," he says. "It fits the vibe of the city."
Galactic play Dec. 9, 7 p.m. at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro in Osaka (tel.  6535-5569); Dec. 10, 7 p.m. at Nagoya Club Quattro (tel.  264-8211); Dec. 11, 7 p.m. at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo; Dec. 12, 7 p.m. at Shibuya O-East, Tokyo. Call (03) 3444-6751 for both Shibuya shows. Tickets are ¥6,000 in advance.