By Lilan Kane
A capella, beatbox, theater, vaudeville, live band, and everything in between -- that's Felonious  (playing tonite, Thu/10, at the Independent ). Originally an a cappella hip-hop duo, Felonious has morphed into a hip-hop theater production receiving rave reviews in The Source magazine, Chronicle and Examiner, and have produced sold-out shows in SF, New York, Germany and Oakland. They have shared the stage with The Roots, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Premier, Black Eyed Peas, Zion I, Living Legends, Radioactive, and Crown City Rockers. Their shows capture different elements of entertainment creating something old school in principal but very innovative and contemporary.
Sharing the stage with notable SF musicians from the Jazz Mafia, Felonious has established themselves not only in the theater arts industry but also as respected musicians in the live circuit. They talked to us a bit about the whats and wherefores as they prepared to celebrate Live City's release.
SFBG: What's the story behind the title of your new album Live City?
MC/Beatboxer Carlos Aguirre aka Infinite: I think the name Live City represents the history of the city and how we are the next generation of artists to try and replicate that kind of energy that has made San Francisco a staple in live music for several decades..Plus we know all kinds of dope artists in the city and the bay in general that we got a real Live thing happening over here and if we try to consider ourselves more of a musical family then everyone would reap the benefits..we're pushin for that vision...it's not just a name...we believe in our city and the talent here is world class so we're trying to push a movement...
MC Dan Wolf aka d.wolf: On the surface, we're talking about San Francisco, the Bay Area, a geographic place that has a history of shaping underground culture (hip hop, rock music, street visual arts, culinary arts, circus arts, etc). On another level I look at it as very idealized place where live performance is cherished, where the city is a living breathing representation of all the creative energy pouring from the artists and culture makers who live there and shape the landscape. We are a live hip hop band who come from theater, you cant get any more live than that. We wanna take you to a place where taking risks is normal.
MC/Beatboxer/Drummer Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati: Well, the album was originally called Str8 No P@per, which is a word play of Thelonious Monks album Straight, No Chaser and the truth, we're broke like everybody else. However not many of the songs supported that theme. This album is recorded all live so there's part of the title right there. Felonious, at the beginning of the year, hosted and co-presented a weekly at Coda lounge in SF Called "Live City Revue” which was a night of showcase/cabaret talent. Basically, any Bay Area act that was working on anything and wanted to test it out with a crowd, or you just want to come through and build on a piece of text or music. We discussed the name of the show and how it was a statement that the Bay Area is STILL alive and always has been. So, if the event was the revue, this album is the soundtrack.
MC/Keyboardist Keith Pinto aka KP: We were gonna call it $tr8.n0.p@per after the thelonious monk album straight no chaser... and also living in an ever increasing digital world. plus having limited funds to produce a project. but then we started doing Live City Revue @coda lounge and it just seemed like a natural fit for the title of the new record. Live City is way more optimistic.
SFBG: What was the recording process for the new album?
Bassist Dylan Mills aka Illin Ills: To record the band in the best rooms possible (Coast, Record Plant, Different Fur...), getting the drums sounding huge. We worked with producer Ben Yonas to capture the highest quality recordings possible and mixer Hernan Santiago to make the tracks shine. The group was adamant about making sure everything on the record really belonged there before letting it go out.
Infinite: Amazing...We haven't truly represented what we do live in shows on an album since The List which was a few albums back so to be able to work in some of the premiere studios in the bay area that carry a lot of history and with an amazing mix team to round out the process, it was a dream come true.
d.wolf: Musically this was the best process we have been a part of. Recording live hip-hop is very challenging to do well. You have to retain the voice and power of the instruments while creating a sonic world that has booming drums and melodies that feel chopped and sampled yet fully fleshed out. We never have been able to capture the raw energy of Felonious on record until this one. Lyrically it allowed us to focus on our own personal styles and continue to try to mesh them together in the studio. Our last album (2007’s Up To Something) was totally lyrically driven. We recorded it in Hamburg, Germany over some of the hottest beats produced by Hamburg’s dopest producers. We lived together in the studio for three weeks and recorded 18 tracks in 22 days. The process for Live City was spread out over a few years with no real idea what the songs would become. First we built the beats and freestyled over them as we recorded the tracks and then spent the time writing and crafting the songs. It taught us how to craft songs based on the strongest verses in the best order.
Guitarist Jon Monahan: Live City was recorded over a span of about a year and a half at 5 Bay Area studios, including The Plant in Sausalito and Coast in SF. It would have been finished much sooner but so much else was going on in our lives- three members of the band became fathers, our producer got married, one of the people we were working with very closely developed some serious health problems. It forced us to take our time and allowed us to truly experiment with sounds and ideas that weren't there when we started.
Soulati: The recording process was a lot of work, one, because it wasn't recorded in four different studios, and two, because of budget. The treasure of the experience was we got record in the same room as many music legends such as Stevie wonder and Metallica. All in all it was a great experience and a very long process but when you're birthing perfection, you take your time.
SFBG: Tell me about your new play "Stateless."
d.wolf: Stateless is a hip hop vaudeville that takes what Felonious is doing in the present and mashes it with what my ancestors were doing 100 years ago in Hamburg Germany. The Wolf Brothers, my great grand father and his brother, were vaudevillians and singers who took popular melodies and changed the lyrics to reflect social and political issues of their time but in a very comical way. They wrote over 600 songs that were so popular that in 1938 the Nazis said the songs were 'too German for Jews to sing". Stateless is remixed folk songs written by the Brothers Wolf, re-imagined by Felonious and Brooklyn's One Ring Zero and placed in a loose narrative that touches on brotherhood, performance and performers, history and lineage. It's also an excuse for us to just get on stage and act stupid. Since they were known as the Hamburg Marx Brothers it gives us permission to be the Bay Area Marx Bros.
KP: On a basic level it's a mash up of genres... hip hop and vaudeville. seemingly different... but the similarities are actually quite strong. most hip hop albums have a patched together mix tape quality to them... just like a variety show... which is vaudeville. hip hop artists often have funny (sometimes random) little skits on their albums... this is also like the comedic skits of vaudeville. plus visually hip hop/r'n'b videos are known to have b-boys/girls and line dances... which is just like the acrobats and dancers (usually tap) that you would have found at a vaudeville performance. not to mention the evolution of hip hop dance itself. as it incorporates many styles, including remnants of tap and swing dancing. look at the "kid n play" also known as the "funky charleston" (yes, the kid n play may be old but 90's dances are coming back). as the choreographer of Stateless... those similarities give me more to work with than i could ever fit into one show.
Soulati: Stateless is live music, dance, beatbox, singin', rappin' with a twist of vaudeville. It takes you through a journey of past present and future, leaving you with a mind to want to go out and search your own history, if you're not aware of it already. Super energetic and moving to boot, Stateless is the play to be looking out for cause it's coming to you!!!
SFBG: How do you feel Felonious as a group, and the album Live City represent San Francisco?
Illin Ills: We've been making this music in the bay for over a decade now and we've seen the upturns an downturns and we put our experiences into our songs. The album Live City is fitting because throughout all that time there has always been a vibrant music and art scene in the city. Venues move and change, styles come and go, but people always appreciate live music so we try to keep putting on better shows and building up the scene here.
d.wolf: We’ve been working in San Francisco since 1998 so at this point we’re pretty much the OG’s on the scene. Everything has changed so much since we started. I am blown away when I think that during our 2000 – 2003 weekly New Roots to Hip Hop series at the Last Day Saloon we created this whole scene before MySpace was even around. Now there are so many tools to utilize and build a community. San Francisco needs to reclaim its place among the great cities of the world. I mean we have so much great food and great arts here but we’re there is such a lack of industry that even the artists have a hard time thinking strategically about how to have a sustainable career. Live City is our call to action to reclaim the power that was here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. We think that with all our angles – music, theater and arts ed – Felonious is ready to lead the charge.
Jon Monahan: “The album itself features Bay Area luminaries like Jazz Mafia horn players and DJs, and singers like Kimiko Joy and Cait La Dee, They've been a part of the SF scene as long as we have, a decade or more. And our band feels right at home in the counterculture tradition of San Francisco bands- from Sly to Dead Kennedys to Mike Patton... We're not necessarily heirs to that throne, but if you came out to Live City Revue, the weekly we ran from Jan – April 2010, you saw some guests and collaborations that could only take place in San Francisco... live hip-hop with West African kora and balafon players, a 20 piece men's choir singing the Leonard Cohen songbook, book readings from local MCs, some seriously bizarre shit.”
Soulati: Felonious as a group came to the Bay at a pinnacle moment of the music scene. Of course there were your track acts but live Jazz/Hip Hop was thriving. Alphabet soup was runnin thangs along with Brown Fellinis and other crews that were holding it down.Us, Crown City, Psycho Kinnetics, Most chill Slack mob among others were new to the scene and fit right into the mix. All these mentioned groups are still hittin to this day and representing SF like ganbusters. We keep pushing the scene to feel it push back. The album naturally speaks directly of the San Francisco scene. It IZZ live.
KP: Felonious has been a part of the SF music scene for over 10 years... sf has a rich history of musicians and hip hop artists working together from the acid jazz days to now. Felonious is a continuation of that. we are multicultural and multidisciplinary. in this time of ipod dj's (and i mean... instead of a dj... just an ipod) we feel it's important to keep the city's music scene all the way live!
SFBG: What would you consider the group's most notable accomplishments have been since Felonious started?
Infinite: Winning best of the bay two years in a row was super dope and opening for The Roots two nights in a row at The Justice League (now The Independent) and working with all the amazing artists we've been bless to collaborate with over the years.
Illin Ills: Playing the Fillmore, Maritime Hall, Berlin, Hamburg. Opening for the Roots, De La, LL, BEP. Taking Beatbox: A Raparetta to NYC.
Soulati: Since Felonious started we have become a household name in San Francisco/Bay Area. Among winning Bammy’s and Wammy’s and critics choice shwoompties, we are also published playwrights and educators. Staying relevant is, I think, our most notable accomplishment.
d.wolf: Survival is our most notable accomplishment. Along the way we’ve been blessed to travel together, play with some the hottest hip hop acts, produce and publish plays, and build some real deep, lasting personal and professional relationships.
SFBG: How important is it for you personally to put on a captivating live show?
Infinite: It's absolutely fundamental to both the group and the art form of hip hop..and musical performance in general..i mean there are no rules really but there's a code and decor and history behind being an emcee and you gotta respect that legacy by paying homage to the meaning behind the emcee..to be master of ceremonies..to control the crowd...to lead the crowd and to ultimately pass on an experience...that's what playing live is all about for me..."so you remember the name, when you walk out the door.
d.wolf: Coming from the world of theater the live show is actually more important to me than the studio. That being said we’ve been killing live shows for years and have had a real hard time capturing that energy on our albums. Hip-hop is a studio art form but you have to kill on stage especially if there isn’t a capacity crowd chanting every word. You gotta give people a reason to remember you in this oversaturated world.
Soulati: Personally, Why come out to see someone stand there and sing songs? That, you can do at home. A live show should be just that, LIVE. And because more than half of Felonious are trained actors, theatrics is our tactic and we better come with a theatrical extravaganza you know? Cats gotta be their "super human" selves on the stage. Them times 10. That's what makes me as an audience member want to pay 13 in advance or 15 at the door, right?
SFBG: What can people expect to see at your CD Release show at the Independent June 10th?
Infinite: Felonious playing banging beats with live string and horn orchestration ,courtesy of The Jazz Mafia, through out the set...we're gonna play a whole range of material but alot off the new album ..most of the new album in fact..plus special guest singers Caitladee and Kamiko Joy..and really expect to see ONE OF THE BEST LIVE SHOWS OF 2010... guaranteed!
Illin Ills: The whole shebang. There will be horns, strings, singers, and more rocking with the Felonious Crew, playing songs from the new record, beatboxing, and generally carrying on. Shotgun Wedding is another great group from the bay who will be rocking the middle spot. The amazing Rondo Brothers will be there celebrating the release of their latest record.
Jon Monahan: We'll premiere at least one brand new song, and play most of the new album reworked and fleshed out with a string section and horn section. Some top-shelf beatboxing as always. We're putting together an all-star freestyle session as part of the set, plus I hear talk of some comedy/ dance routine by some friends of ours that sounds epic and possibly really creepy. AND sets by Shotgun Wedding Quintet and the Rondo Brothers!
Soulati: A full live band, a string trio, a horn duo, beatboxing, freestyling and some special guests coming to spit vocals. You'll get a night of great music and fresh collaboration. There will be B-boyz and B-girlz, hot ladies if you be boyz and kept gentlemen if you be girlz. The night, from top to bottom, is gonna smash!!!!