Philly Blunt: Shareese Ballard

Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every once in a while, Rocco tells us about a Philly artist you need to know about.

Shareese Ballard (better known as Res) did something most young, aspiring musicians would consider unthinkable: She asked to be let out of her major-label recording contract without having a safety net to fall back on or, necessarily, a game plan for the next step of her career. Res’ critically acclaimed (and many say criminally underrated) first album, How I Do, was released in 2001. MCA Records saw great promise in the young talent and put a great deal of resources behind her, including sending her touring the world in promotion of the LP, opening for acts like Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Alanis Morissette, John Mayer and Michelle Branch. The video for her first single, “Golden Boys,” was a staple on VH1, and her third single, “They Say Vision,” reached number one on Billboard‘s dance chart. How I Do went on to sell a not-too-shabby 300,000 copies and helped Res develop a rabid fan base and garner huge props from industry insiders who saw her as a truly unique, genre-busting, eminently gifted artist who would be around for a long time.

In 2003, Geffen absorbed MCA Records and dropped most of the label’s acts. Res was one of the 100 or so Geffen kept onboard. The only problem was that the label didn’t want to release her second record, which was mixed, mastered and ready for the world. After years of inertia from Geffen, Res eventually had had enough. She asked the label to release her from her contract. Geffen complied but retained ownership of the completed album (which she eventually leaked for free to her fans in 2009). Not long after the split, she was invited to tour the world with Gnarls Barkley as a backup singer, just as “Crazy” was just starting its trajectory to becoming a number-one hit across Europe, North America and Australia. Soon after that whirlwind 18-month tour ended, her father died. Res moved back to Philly to be with her mother and family. It was the first time she had lived back in her hometown since her wild ride in the music industry began.

I met up with Res at Silk City Diner in Philly. When she walks into a room, it’s hard not to notice her. She carries herself with an air of purpose and confidence that immediately draws your attention, as do her stunning good looks. But her physical beauty quickly becomes an afterthought once you start talking to her. Her motivation, street smarts, innate business sense and belief in herself immediately grab your focus. These qualities are so ingrained in her core that you would never question her decision to abandon a cushy label deal without a backup plan. She knows how talented and unique she is, and she has a very clear understanding of what she is capable of. She gives you the sense her destiny is much bigger than being an independent artist living in Philly.

It also becomes immediately apparent that Res has her shit together. She continually talks about making sure she releases her music “in the correct way,” taking the time to promote herself “in the correct way.” She also talks about landing the right endorsement deals, about manpower and resources. It is a much more honed and deliberate sensibility than the spray-and-pray approach many independent musicians pass off as a promotion strategy. But perhaps the most important thing she has going for her is a boatload of resilience. She doesn’t lament about how hard it is getting music heard, or how much easier things were when the label was taking care of everything, or anything else, for that matter. And even with her huge ambition and confidence, she has no illusions that her success is guaranteed, and she knows that she has a lot of work to do to get her career to where she wants it to be.

Res is getting ready to drop a slew of new music that’s a testament to her eclectic talent and genre-bending musical sensibility. There is the debut Idle Warship album, a side project with longtime collaborator and acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli. Then there is Refried Mac, an EP of her unique interpretations of some of her favorite Fleetwood Mac songs. Finally, a full album of her original songs (featuring cameo appearances by Big Boi from OutKast and other big names who have loved Res for years) is in its final stages.

Res is equal parts the colossally ambitious artist and laid-back, down-to-earth girl you feel like you’ve known your whole life. We discussed her years living and working in L.A., wearing insane outfits on the Gnarls Barkley tour, the pitfalls of being pigeonholed, her frustration with Philly musicians, major labels vs. independent ones and rebuilding herself in the music industry.

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Philly Blunt: Schoolly D

Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every once in a while, Rocco tells us about a Philly artist you need to know about.

Jay-Z has called Schoolly D a pioneer. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Interlude,” from his iconic Life After Death album, is a direct reinterpretation of Schoolly’s 1985 single “PSK.” Ice-T (mistakenly considered by many to have created gangsta rap) acknowledges that “PSK” was the first gangsta-rap song ever, stating, “Here’s the exact chronological order of what really went down: The first record that came out along those lines was Schoolly D’s ‘P.S.K’. … When I heard that record, I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ and call it a bite or what you will, but I dug that record.” Soon after Ice-T came across “PSK,” a then unknown rap group named N.W.A was calling a young Schoolly in Philadelphia, asking if he would fly out to Los Angeles to work with them. Schoolly’s influence on the burgeoning genre of gangsta rap became more and more significant, and he released a slew of records and toured the world countless times, blindsiding the international community with this unique, raw, aggressive new American art form.

But the Schoolly D you’ll talk to today isn’t interested in rehashing the old days. He is aware of his impact as a Godfather of gangstra rap but never stops to rest on his laurels, constantly juggling a slew of new projects across various forms of media. He has composed music for a number of films by distinctive director Abel Ferrara, including Bad Lieutenant and King Of New York. He is responsible for the explosive theme song that opens Aqua Teen Hunger Force and often provides narration and voiceovers for a variety of characters on the wildly popular Cartoon Network show. In fact, his own animated series, Chocolate Spider, is currently in the works. He has continued to make in-your-face music all along and is currently working on a new EP. Oh, and he’s also working on his first book. Schoolly’s chameleon-like skill set is awe-inspiring, and his history of defiant independence (particularly from record labels) points to a trailblazing and entrepreneurial spirit that is at the crux of everything he does.

Any time you spend with the 44-year-old Schoolly is an experience. His seemingly unlimited store of ideas makes you wonder if he ever sleeps. His positive energy is infectious and keeps him looking and feeling younger than artists half his age. He is a riveting and hilarious storyteller, whether he’s sharing something that happened to him that day or dishing on backstage shenanigans from his tours with 2 Live Crew. Perhaps most importantly, he welcomes everyone he meets as if he’s known them all of his life, never letting on his status as one of the few creators of what is possibly America’s most popular musical export of the last 25 years. That’s because, like most Philadelphians, Schoolly D is real. He doesn’t sit still to bask in his legend, and he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal, even though he has more of a right to than just about anyone in the history of hip hop.

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Philly Blunt: “Hip Hop Lives”


Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

In cities across America, First Friday is synonymous with art galleries opening their doors, providing free booze and hosting parties where people can check out an eclectic mix of art they’d otherwise have to pay to see. Philadelphia is no exception, with Old City always drawing a huge crowd for the monthly art fest. But some would argue that the real First Friday event in Philly was always Hip Hop Lives. The show was the brainchild of one of the most talented rappers and overlooked entertainers Philly has ever known: Mighty Flipside, Esq. of hip hop group Electric City. The party got started in 1998, and over the next 11 years, it developed into the greatest monthly event in the history of Philly hip hop.

It all started at a one-off house party featuring some impromptu performances by some of Philly’s best underground hip-hop groups, including Electric City, Jedi Mind Tricks and Outerspace. Flip realized the party was something special and unique and that it needed to continue and become something bigger than a house party. He coined Hip Hop Lives that night. “I called it that just to be a little dramatic, a little existential,” he says. “Like hip hop was dead already with Puffy and all this watered-down shit coming out on the radio.”

In 1999, Flip took the party to its first public space: the basement of coffee shop La Tazza. Soon, lots of people were showing up from all walks of life. “I never got it that the network of musicians I had tapped into weren’t just great to perform with, but that people came just because there was a live band,” he says. “The idea that people would come to check out a band they never heard of. I had a new appreciation for that.” The freestyle set was always the climax of the night, incorporating everyone who had performed as well as the crowd. “The freestyling at the end of the show, that was a well-thought out idea,” he says. “That is the communal, interactive aspect of hip hop. You know that ‘put your hands up, somebody say ho.’ You feel like you’re a part of the performance. That made people wanna come back.”

They came back again and again—and brought their friends. Hip Hop Lives started to draw huge crowds and generate buzz across music scenes and in the press. Flip’s legendary skills as an entertainer, rapper and ultimate party emcee were becoming more and more sharpened. “I learned those showmanship skills from years working in jazz and blues clubs,” he says. “I would study how people used their hands and body and movement to enhance their presence. But it’s two different disciplines being a host and being a rapper. Two different beasts, and it’s not easy to juggle.” Soon, revered emcees like Doodlebug (Digable Planets), Greg Nice (Nice And Smooth) and The Last Emperor were performing in the featured guest slot, and people like Sen Dog (Cypress Hill) and Questlove (Roots) were stopping through to check in on the party everyone was talking about.

By 2001, Hip Hop Lives needed a larger venue, and Rick D. (owner of Tritone) convinced Flip to move the party to his club on South Street. Electric City was also getting a lot more respect and attention. Flip and DJ Skipmode were sharing the stage with icons like Kool Keith, the Beatnuts and Rah Digga. And Flip made sure to never lose an opportunity to build Hip Hop Lives. And as if the awesome show wasn’t enough, Hip Hop Lives was developing an unambiguous reputation as a great place to meet people and make a friend for an evening—or longer. “We’re responsible for two weddings, three kids and countless late night hookups,” he says. After several years at Tritone, Flip found himself running of the most successful recurrent parties in Philly. Then, in 2006, Rick D. died suddenly. One of the party’s staunchest supporters was gone, but Hip Hop Lives went on.

After Rick passed, the show moved to legendary Philly venue the Five Spot. Being in Old City on First Friday was an opportunity that Flip immediately made the most of. “Because it was First Friday in Old City with all the art galleries opening up and having these free parties,” he says, “I really went out of my way to make sure we got some digital artists, photographers and other artists involved in the show.” Hip Hop Lives had turned into a full multimedia experience. “It was crazy. We had puppeteers, people doing live paintings along to the music, all kinds of visual art happening.” The party had moved to a whole new level, and a whole new audience was hearing about it. “The reaction at the Five Spot was uproarious. We started having to turn people away at the door because of fire code.” It had gotten so successful that Flip had a staff working for him to help put together and run the show. And lots of people were benefitting. One night, a local artist had a bust she sculpted of Nina Simone’s face on display. A man came in and bought it for $5,000. It turned out he worked for Simone’s daughter (the singer Simone), and the artist soon found herself trekking around Europe with Simone as the tour’s official artist. The possibilities seemed to be limitless for everyone involved. Then, one night after another mindblowing show, Flip left the Five Spot and received a text message in the middle of the night that the venue was burning down. “We were literally the last show that happened at the Five Spot,” he says. “We were about to leave all our equipment there that night and some expensive art and pick it up the next day.” Luckily, they didn’t.

After a second tragedy that caused the party to move, Hip Hop Lives was never the same. The show moved to the Pontiac Grille, Café Abana, The M Room and, finally, the Fire. The last Hip Hop Lives was June 5, 2009.

Flip is constantly reminded of what Hip Hop Lives meant to Philly. “I run into people almost every day,” he says, “all different kinds of people, who are like, ‘Please resurrect Hip Hop Lives.’” The constant accolades mean a lot, but what makes him happiest is the marriages, the friendships and the musical unions that came out of the party. “I realize now that it became a part of people’s fabric. I just wanted to make your life better for a night, and that’s what I think it was for people.”

For Flip, Hip Hop Lives was an education in becoming a consummate rapper, entertainer and project manager. “Everything that I have, all the props, all the respect—and respect goes a long way in Philly—I got that because of Hip Hop Lives,” he says. “My skill set to organize situations, to be a boss, to handle making tough decisions, I learned from Hip Hop Lives.”

Nowadays, Flip is running Hip Hop Lives Now, a program that teaches inner-city youth the often overlooked skills necessary to take a serious shot at a successful career in music. He teaches everything from development of freestyling and writing skills to making and producing beats to the business and logistical skills that so many independent musicians lack. “I teach them everything that Hip Hop Lives has taught me, from design to emceeing to budgeting,” he says. “So, you get all these skills and have a base to start from.” Flip is now in the studio with his current crop of kids, working on a Hip Hop Lives Now release. “I wanna extend it to an audience of young kids who never got to experience Hip Hop Lives and build up their skills and confidence,” he says.

The extra downtime from Hip Hop Lives has also given Electric City a chance to work on a lot more material. Its last record, Everything, Everywhere, All The Time, was a stellar set featuring razor-sharp rhymes, sophisticated beats and mind-bending sampling and scratching courtesy of DJ Skipmode—and electrifying cameo performances by some of Philly’s best emcees. It was a testament to true and classic hip hop, just like Hip Hop Lives. Electric City’s new record, King Friday, is being released this summer. Flip is excited about the future of his group. “Hip Hop Lives has been over less than a year, and we’ve got a new record out. I wasn’t fucking around. We ain’t slowing down.”

Videos after the jump.

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Philly Blunt: The Lowlands

LowlandsHey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

One night in 2004, Philadelphia transplant Todd Barneson was flipping around on the TV when he came across a live performance by Alison Krauss & Union Station. While watching the bluegrass legends, the singer/songwriter from Wisconsin had a revelation of sorts. He called his friend Adrien Reju (a fellow revered Philadelphia singer/songwriter) and insisted that they start a bluegrass band. She was in, and the two wondered who else would be right for the gig. They called Chris Kasper, and just like that, a promising new supergroup of Philly songwriters was formed. The only catch was that each member’s songs couldn’t have been any less bluegrass. But once the extraordinarily gifted singers and musicians set to work transforming their songs together, the result was beautiful, harmony-dripping music that even the most fervent bluegrass aficionado would assume was born in Appalachia.

It began with living-room jam sessions in bassist/producer Jeff Hiatt’s living room in early 2005, and it was eerie how immediately their “urbangrass” sound came together. Propelled by soaring and impeccable three-part vocal harmonies, superb songwriting, moving and energetic live performances and Barneson’s virtuosic mandolin playing, the musicians soon realized they had stumbled onto something very special. They put each of their careers on hold and dedicated themselves completely to the Lowlands. It wasn’t long before the band began to draw a great deal of attention both across the Philadelphia music community as well as from the national folk and bluegrass scenes. Philadelphia-area Lowlands shows became must-see events for musicians and music lovers alike, and the band soon began getting calls to open for bluegrass legends such as Ricky Skaggs, David Bromberg, Tony Trishka, Rhonda Vincent and the Lovell Sisters. In dive bars, large theaters and on festival stages across the Midwest, East and South, the group relentlessly floored audiences and converted scores of fans at every show. In 2007, the band released is first album, Bark And Twine, which further expanded its reach, as rabid new fans bought the CD and shared with their friends.

But in 2008, the Lowlands split up and Barneson moved back to Wisconsin. The good news is that their most highly regarded contemporaries won’t let them stay away from each other for too long. The band continues to get calls from bluegrass legends to share the bill on Philadelphia-area stops of their tours. They happily reunite once a year to play with such luminaries. A few weeks ago, they opened for Ricky Skaggs at the Sellersville Theatre in suburban Bucks County. Within minutes, the Lowlands held the sold-out crowd firmly in the palm of their hands, and whispers of “Who are these guys?” could be heard floating through the air.

But perhaps the impact the Lowlands had was even more evident on the previous night, when the band treated its fervent Philadelphia fanbase to an intimate show in local venue the Blinkin Lincoln. Nearly 200 people crowded into the bar, and the sense of excitement permeating the air was palpable. Reju, Kasper and Barneson’s most heartrending, beautiful compositions were interspersed with high-energy showstoppers in a moving performance that lasted nearly three hours. The audience members hooted and hollered, stamped their feet and sang along to every song. It was clear how much the Lowlands meant to their fans when—amid all the background noise of old friends reconnecting, sucking back shots together and cheering on the band—everything stopped as Kasper’s deeply touching “Old Piano” began. Without a cue, nearly everyone in the audience became silent. Some closed their eyes while others nodded their heads in rhythm and reverence. As the chorus arrived, everyone sang along quietly: “Take me back home to that old piano/I know a song that we all can sing/When the nights are warm and the stars hang low/Take me back home when you go.” It was a profoundly touching moment. The crowd felt it. The band felt it. We can only hope that Philly’s most unlikely bluegrass supergroup will be delivering such special moments to us for a very long time, even if they only do so once a year.

Videos after the jump.

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Philly Blunt: Infectious Organisms


Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

One night in 2003, I headed over to the Fire, where my friend Mutlu was performing later that evening. To this day, I’m beyond grateful that I happened to showed up early. The opener, Infectious Organisms, held me and the rest of the crowd fixated with riveting portraits of love and loss, of the effects of the inner city, of the struggles to overcome personal demons for the sake of your loved ones. The wildly energetic and gifted frontmen—MCs Felton Martin and Jean Baptiste—were backed by stellar musicians who delivered tightly crafted grooves and ambient soundscapes reminiscent of Lamb, Massive Attack, Morcheeba and even Sade. This was hip hop that not only kept your head bobbing, it could also move you to tears. The album they were promoting, Human Experience, is to this day one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all-time.

I ran and told my friends and found myself describing the music as almost cinematic hip hop. Martin and Baptiste told gripping stories that kept you on the edge of your seat, and the sonic atmospheres created by bassist Dave Sunderland, drummer Will Blair, guitarist Brooke Blair and keyboardist Mike Mathews were the equivalent of perfectly crafted scores. The musicians knew precisely how to complement the development of a story: a young girl who falls into drug addiction and prostitution; a surrealistic portrait of love and loss that would make Leonard Cohen proud; an absorbing discussion of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s system for smuggling cocaine into the U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s. Your mind created vivid picture scenes, and you felt what these characters were going through and wondered what the world held in store for them.

When Martin and Baptiste weren’t spinning a compelling narrative, they were baring their souls and battling their own demons. One of the most reflective moments of Human Experience comes on “Beautiful World,” where gorgeous guitar swells and ambient keyboards float over a deeply hypnotic groove and boldly exposed lyrics: “Now, who wants ya when your soul’s controlled by a monster/And what’s the possibilities when you see your life before your eyes … I’m tired of living but scared to die/At times, I can’t identify/I lost myself a long time ago, the reasons why a man can lose his sanity/Guess it’s simply the man in me, or maybe from a lack of male figures in my family.”

Inevitable recognition and critical acclaim followed, and the band went on to share the stage with revered artists including Medeski, Martin And Wood, the Roots, Black Star and OutKast, among others. Unfortunately, internal struggles led to a break up just a few years later.

But every crisis brings new opportunity. Sunderland and the Blair brothers have gone on to form East Hundred, one of Philly’s most promising and talked-about bands. East Hundred—a driving, female-fronted outfit that combines the edginess of Blonde Redhead with the elegant pop of Company Of Thieves—is quite a departure from Infectious Organisms. But what is consistent is that these guys are continuing to do what they do best: providing breathtaking sonic tapestries that turn a promising lyric into a great song.

Video after the jump.

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Philly Blunt: Cowmuddy

cowmuddyHey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

Michael McShane is a true original, in that it’s safe to say there is no one in the world remotely like him. He’s from Philly, but you’d never guess it from his quasi-drawl, rural sensibility and songs that seem to come from another place and time. For the last 15 years, McShane (who goes by Cowmuddy onstage) has been consistently supplying his community with brilliant, touching, well-crafted music that never fails to catch people off guard with its peculiar beauty.

The most rational thing to do here would be to tell you who Cowmuddy sounds like or is at least reminiscent of, but anyone who has heard his music or seen him perform live can attest that any attempt to draw comparisons would be useless. So, here’s a shot. McShane’s music is a wildly unique and modern take on Americana, possibly along the lines of what Neil Young and Tom Waits may emerge with from a year spent holed up in a remote cabin together. Deeply touching and fragile one minute, his music can veer into hilarious absurdity by the time the chorus comes around. While there is no definable recipe, you can hear dashes of Jeff Buckley, pinches of Joseph Arthur and sprinkles of John Hiatt and Frank Sinatra. It’s often bare bones—just a man and a guitar—but it’s his complex, angular vocal/instrumental arrangements that command your attention, giving you the sense that you are watching someone navigate a musical tightrope that only a few—such as Waits and Thom Yorke—dare to walk.

But as McShane’s stage moniker would suggest, don’t take Cowmuddy too seriously. His music is a heartfelt expression of his slightly warped, comical and always endearing take on life. McShane is a brilliant entertainer who works with whatever the atmosphere and setting provides, and this spontaneity ensures that you never know what you’ll get at a Cowmuddy performance. At a recent house show, he floored the audience by climbing up an elevated wooden beam while playing his guitar, then walking along the top of a narrow wall without missing a beat.

McShane’s background as a farmer, carpenter, advocate for locally grown products and devotee to his community has also been hugely influential on his music. He often crusades about the virtues of environmental awareness through his lyrics. But unlike so many musicians who share their beliefs, McShane doesn’t deliver it according to some preachy, predefined template. Refreshingly, he throws glimpses of ideas out there and lets listeners interpret and decide for themselves. His most recent release, Farming Mind, is a moving and deeply engaging distillation of his worldview.

McShane is an omnipresent figure around the city, whether performing at your friend’s house, working the soundboard at The Fire or recording conversations with interesting strangers he meets on the street. He is a fascinating dichotomy: an advocate for rural communities and agricultural development, while at the same time a hardcore Philadelphian who couldn’t be more proud of his city.

Video after the jump.

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Philly Blunt: Chuck Treece

CHUCK-TREECEHey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly artist that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

If you were an avid skateboarder in Philly throughout the ’80s and ’90s, it’s pretty likely that one of your heroes was Chuck Treece. He became a professional skateboarder at the age of 20, earning major endorsements and travelling the world for competitions and exhibitions. All the while, Treece was developing into a musician whose skills and devotion have served as an inspiration for countless Philly artists and music lovers over the last 20 years. The jack-of-all-trades musician (Treece plays drums, bass and guitar, all with unquestionable proficiency and passion) boasts a jawdropping resume that could fill hundreds of pages. He played bass on Billy Joel’s “River Of Dreams,” has worked on music for Sting and Amy Grant, slew guitar on the first Roots album and has rocked drums for Bad Brains all over Europe and the Goats at Woodstock ’94. The legendary skate punk band that he co-founded in 1983, McRad (a name suggested by Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton), is still going strong, playing blistering live shows and working on a new record. I caught up with Treece in his Northern Liberties loft, where he was getting ready to work on some tracks that just came in from his old friend Santigold. Video after the jump.

MAGNET: What do you think is a defining characteristic that makes Philly music unique?
Treece: I think what’s good about Philly is you get to see and be a part of a lot of different scenes. Philly is a very gypsy-like gathering, musically speaking. Like the cats from the Ortlieb’s crowd fizzled into the R&B scene, and then the church cats came in and added their thing. And now rock is becoming more sought after in all these scenes, with the guitars out front. So, people are completely collaborating. It’s gonna get to where hip-hop cats are gonna be like, “What does it take to write a great song?” and they can just go get involved in the singer/songwriter crowd and learn the tricks of the trade. It’s like we’re another Nashville in our own vein. At least that’s what I want it to be.

That’s interesting. So Nashville is revered for the country-inflected songwriter type of thing. How is Philly analogous to that scene?
Nashville took the soul of country and applied it to becoming a form of pop music, but without ever really selling out. But they just know how to cater to a certain ear. So it must be that people who like that sound have a certain way their brains are wired that when they take it in, it’s like they hear bells. The Nashville musicians perfected that. And it’s not just a few artists; it’s a whole genre of killer players and songwriters. What Philly is about is taking the soul, that history we have here, and putting it back into all the new bands. Like Jill (Scott) and Floetry developing their sound here, and all other kinds of stuff happened because people were just collaborating. Like, Quest would show up to something, and then next thing you know, all kinds of stuff would develop out of it. But the Nashville people realize that you have to tour and develop it. They’re playing all over the Midwest and South. They service their area properly. Whereas here, for some people it’s a trek just to go to New York, Boston or D.C.

As far as young, dedicated musicians and bands who want to make a living with music, would you tell them there’s enough here for them? Or would you suggest a move to a different scene?
I think there’s enough here because of the power of the Internet—if we can just get a great communal studio and just get people in collaborating. So many of us are already pros, and there’s great songwriters who know how to write on that level. Why not figure out what it’s like to be at the backbone of it at a business level? We gotta get people centralizing what they do so that, once these kids get out of school, they can know there is a scene that they can build on. West Philly, UArts, the Northeast. If we could get all these cats to write together, it would be wild.

Do you see an influx of artistic people moving to Philly once they come to visit and see how much creativity is here? Or do you think we will?
Well, I owned a house with my father in South Philly, and I just watched that neighborhood change so much. There are other people who left Philly and made a bigger jump because they wanted to fish in deeper water, and they didn’t mind spending the money to do it. But it’s cool because people are coming back and are now thinking, “Why don’t I figure out what I wanna be and do it somewhere where I can be more comfortable?” I think it’s good that people are moving in, but we gotta master how to centralize and keep those people interested in the underground and build the charm of that. So that people can start appreciating not only the Roots, but all these people the Roots found, and then start following that. I think people are moving in for the best reasons, and it’s cool because it’s what we’ve all created. All of us have a history here, and I mean, the scene is connected to at least 300-500 people when you really get down to it, which is great for a city that isn’t really a music-industry town anymore.

Any cons to being in Philly?
What we do in Phlly is ride the whole underdog thing to a point where we’ve just gotten weary. We gotta make something more positive out of it. Like, the next musical explosion that comes out of New Orleans will be about reviving the mess of Katrina, and hopefully it’ll create something really positive. Philly is on a comeback. So, if we can get all the music-school kids and bands and musicians and artists believing that and being centralized around that, we’ll really have something to say as a city. Like the point the Roots have gotten to. It shows you that you can literally develop something on Kater Street and take it right to the top. The question is just how much time are you willing to invest to make whatever you’re doing the best it can be.

People here can harden up.
Hardening up big time. It’s like, bills and responsibilities get in the way and people feel like they have to decide how much energy they have to give to music, because all these other people and concerns need to occupy their energy. It’s not that it’s wrong to think about that. But if you pile on all the complaining and the bullshit, then the time you actually dedicate to your music even gets hampered because of all that other stuff draining your energy. We gotta figure out how important music is to our lives. But we don’t give music the credit. If you take it away, everything will just fall apart. But music keeps saying, “I’ll keep standing here. I’ll always be here.”

What is one of your great musical memories?
Meeting Chrissie Hynde when I was touring with Urge Overkill. We ended up playing two shows with her, and we got a chance to play the Pretenders song “Precious,” and she played guitar and sang. It was wild being onstage with her energy. To see her doing her thing and I was playing bass, and that bass line is very demanding. So, it was cool to be like, “Wow, I’m holding this bass line and she’s about to sing that lyric that I’ve listened to on the headphones a thousand times.”

Who is a musician that you really feel is the pulse of Philly right now?
A person I’ve seen really grow into something is Amos Lee. Watching him do his thing is like, “Man, this cat put himself on the road and really learned what it was like to be a lonesome cowboy.” He put himself in the situation where you really have to learn how to deliver a great song. And it’s like he’s evolved who he is now. Instead of people comparing him to other people, like Dylan, people are taking him for his presence. You know, you have to develop your character around the microphone and monitors and people and noise and maybe not feeling great all the time and still have to make these records and entertain people. As far as an artist stepping on the stage, if you can’t relate to what this cat is doing, then you’re not feeling music.

Since you moved to Philly in 1982, what’s changed the most?
I think the only thing that’s changed is our personal experiences. The city’s always been vibrant. It’s all about craftsmanship here. If you create something good, Philly will open up and let you play 100 seaters, 1,000 seaters and more. The city caters to itself. The business is where we gotta learn how to come into it. That should come from us.

What are you most excited about working on these days?
The new McRad record. And I’m thinking about getting into scoring and figuring out that part of things, film and such. Hopefully, we can start doing that kinda stuff here in Philly, ’cause there’s so many great artists.

Continue reading “Philly Blunt: Chuck Treece”

Philly Blunt: Pat Martino

PatMartino2Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly artist that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

Pat Martino is widely considered one of the most virtuosic guitarists in contemporary jazz. He was born in South Philadelphia and dropped out of high school to begin playing guitar professionally at the age of 15. Still an adolescent, he became heavily involved in the burgeoning Philadelphia pop scene, playing alongside such stars as Bobby Darin, Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. These were gigs career musicians twice his age would have done anything to land. But even at this early age, Martino knew his calling was jazz.

Martino moved to Harlem to immerse himself in the “soul jazz” played by masters like Jimmy Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes. Previously, Martino said, he had “heard all of the white man’s jazz. I never heard that other part of the culture.” The organ-trio concept had a profound influence on him, and he quickly became a highly sought after sideman in the Harlem groove-jazz scene of the ’60s. A revered guitarist by the time he was 18, Martino was signed to Prestige Records as a bandleader two years later. Then, at the pinnacle of his career, Martino suffered a nearly fatal brain aneurysm.

Martino underwent surgery and was lucky to live, but the surgery left him with severe amnesia that stole virtually all his memory of his family, his life, his career, himself. His friends and family convinced him of the impact he had had on the jazz world, and while he gradually understood, Martino had no base from which to pick up the pieces of his career. It’s nothing less than mystical that by listening to and studying his own groundbreaking recordings, he taught himself to play guitar again. He returned to the world of jazz better than ever. Today, Martino speaks about life and art, and performs his music, in a way that seems to radiate only from those who’ve been to the brink, those who truly appreciate being alive and who feel a responsibility to express this appreciation through their art.

Since his return, Martino has been nominated for three Grammys and was voted by Downbeat magazine’s readers as guitarist of the year in 2004. He’s performed with countless jazz luminaries ranging from Chick Corea to Jimmy Smith, at the same time releasing a number of successful and acclaimed albums of his own. But Martino’s interviews in the world’s top jazz magazines usually touch only marginally on his guitar playing. Rather, the topics drift to the importance of artistic expression in all forms, his appreciation of life and how all of it affects his music and daily experience.

Martino has resettled in Philadelphia and continues to push the boundaries of his art with each new recording and performance. Musicians flock to his door for lessons, and he offers not only his encyclopedic musical insight but also the understanding and wisdom of a man who has overcome obstacles most of us could never imagine. In a recent interview, he said, “The guitar is of no great importance to me. The people it brings to me are what matter. They are what I’m extremely grateful for, because they are alive. The guitar is just an apparatus.”

Video after the jump.

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Philly Blunt: The Goats

goatsHey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

Philadelphia’s live-band hip-hop scene has always seemed more authentic and vibrant in comparison to just about any other city. Much is owed to the Roots for nurturing this scene and for delivering an innovative and eclectic take on rap music that has come to embody their hometown. But everyone who saw the Philly hip-hop scene develop in the early ’90s knows that the Goats deserve just as much credit. After all, they dropped their first album in 1992, a year before the Roots released their debut.

Widely considered one of the great underground hip-hop records of the ’90s, the Goats’ Tricks Of The Shade introduced America to a far more eclectic and inventive brand of hip hop than it had been hearing bumping out of car stereos across the country. The Goats opened up a fiery discourse on political corruption, abortion rights and past American atrocities (two of the MCs were of Native American origin, and one lyric proclaims, “Columbus killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews/But on his birthday, you get sales on shoes”), but they set it all to a groove that held its own with the best booty-shaking anthems of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Pharcyde. Reviews understandably pegged them as a politically charged mix of Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys (two acts they opened for across the country, in addition to a slew of other huge acts), but their eclectic live band added a unique dimension. While the Roots’ developed a well-honed soul, jazz, funk and R&B pulse to back up Black Thought and Malik B’s effortless rhymes, the Goats’ musical accompaniment went a step further, delivering that uniquely Philly heartbeat but with an intense hardcore and metal attack that brought the music into a singular territory.

1992 single “Typical American” became a minor hit, throwing the Goats firmly into the spotlight. The group eventually signed with Columbia Records for its second release, 1994’s No Goats No Glory. While the Goats continued to hold court on controversial topics, they walked a fine line that showed you they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The Goats wanted to make sure you still had a good time, and they knew how to deliver the whole package in a way that made perfect sense. Song such as “Leonard Peltier In A Cage” weaved together seamlessly with stoner anthems like “Philly Blunts” and “Wake And Bake,” which made way for classic old-school battle raps. In 1994, at the height of their fame and after playing that year’s revival of Woodstock, MC Oatie didn’t show up on the day the band was to leave for a European tour supporting Bad Brains and Fishbone. A few months later, Columbia dropped the band.

The slew of musicians who backed up and recorded with the Goats is a who’s-who of local legends, including Marc Boyce, Jay Davidson, EJ Simpson, Derrick Pierce and Chuck Treece. The music the Goats made is a testament to and emblematic of the uniquely supportive Philly music scene that still thrives today: a hotbed of chameleon-like musicians and MCs crossing over into so many different contexts and delivering authenticity, passion and precision to each type of music they come in contact with. Perhaps Questlove can serve as our ambassador to the world.

Video after the jump.

Continue reading “Philly Blunt: The Goats”

Philly Blunt: Huffamoose

huffamoose5550Hey, remember 15 In Philly? Our 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every couple of weeks, Rocco tells us about a Philly band that shoulda been bigger than Broad Street.

Cameron Crowe has called Here Comes Huffamoose one of the best rock movies of all time. The low-budget film documenting an unknown band from Philly is, like Huffamoose itself, not particularly marketable or sexy. Tony Ferguson, the Interscope A&R representative who signed Huffamoose in 1997, summed it up best: “It bothered me because I didn’t know where this music fit. It was kind of like a cross between R.E.M. and Steely Dan. I just knew that it was good and that I liked it.” Huffamoose didn’t really sound like either of those bands, but the analogy is not completely unfounded: Craig Elkins’ witty stream-of-consciousness lyrics (widely revered among the Philadelphia music scene and beyond; Counting Crowes’ Adam Duritz was a fan) often reached the brilliance of the soft-spoken Stipe, and the band’s wildly advanced musical sophistication and angular chord voicings often resembled the sardonic jazz/rock duo of Becker and Fagen. (During the first failed effort at recording major-label debut We’ve Been Had Again, the producer Interscope assigned to the band threatened, “If I hear one more fucking jazz chord, I’m walking out of here for good!” Interscope eventually, and grudgingly, let the band produce the record on its own.)

Huffamoose was an unsaleable commodity from the day it formed in 1992. Lyrics so esoteric and literate they required a deep listen, music so sophisticated you couldn’t just pick up your guitar and strum the songs, and a band whose press photos weren’t going to drive the girls wild. Yet it was all so undeniably original and captivating that it seemed Huffamoose would break big regardless. The first single from We’ve Been Had Again, “Wait,” did surprisingly well on triple-A and college radio, and live shows often reached the brink of awe-inspiring.

In the end, the unfortunate question of commercial viability kept popping up: Where did this music fit? Huffamoose was placed on a slew of dates on the 1998 Horde tour, but the musicians’ tendency to stretch out instrumentally didn’t make them a jam band. At the end of Here Comes Huffamoose, we see a boiling cauldron finally explode, as four strong personalities—ones that had been boxed up in a van for two years while touring in support of their major-label release—collided. Drummer Erik Johnson and Craig Elkins get into a long-festering physical confrontation, and Johnson quits the band. While Huffamoose recorded another album (2000’s I Wanna Be Your Pants), it was never the same after Johnson left, and the group disbanded in 2001.

Trailer for Here Comes Huffamoose after the jump.

Continue reading “Philly Blunt: Huffamoose”