“It’s a small road in a big world,” says Cactus, a rapper and lyricist for GFE.
Cactus and the rest of the nine-member Asheville group are headed home to play a free show after an extended tour of both coasts that’s found them in venues ranging from inner-city hip-hop stages to out-of-the-way punk clubs.
Long popular in the Northeast, GFE has played many packed shows, partly because they followed the trajectory of the current Phish tour.
The band once known as Granola Funk Express — a name they’ve dropped to avoid confusion with the Rainbow Family food kitchen — began their touring career in 1997. They aren’t a typical hip-hop group in a lot of ways. They don’t hail, for instance, from the predominately black, inner-city hip-hop culture. Instead, they come largely from white, back-to-nature backgrounds.
Also unlike most hip-hop acts that rely on looped beats and DJs to provide musical backing, GFE is composed largely of live musicians, with the occasional input of a DJ.
In some hip-hop circles, a bass line played live on an actual bass, for example, is considered novel. And though this experimentalism is hardly unique to GFE, they, unlike other groups of their ilk, have been fairly successful in finding an audience.
GFE’s unlikely combination of rap, funk and acoustic music has drawn them a long way out of the Blue Ridge. Their four MCs — spouting semi-mystical and socially conscious lyrics against a full five-piece band — have shared stages with such legendary acts as George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Run-DMC, Fishbone and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
For a group with a steadfast DIY ethic and no official leader — “Everything’s pretty much handled democratically [and] nobody has this big ego,” claims Cactus — they’re also surprisingly organized, utilizing both a tour manager and a booking agent, as well as a crew of roadies. GFE takes their music very seriously.
“We’ve been doing this for a real long time — a steady seven years at this point,” Cactus explains. “We’ve gone through touring in every type of way — we’ve gone through tours where people hitchhiked to the shows. We’ve all gone in our rental cars, or gone in cars that might or might not make it to the next show. Over time, we’ve realized that this is what we want to do, and this is really something that we’re focused on.”
GFE goes out of their way to brave improbable venues.
“We played this place right after a Phish show at this club called The Hop in Vegas,” Cactus continues. “Now, this club usually just deals with gangsta rap, although they do have some underground hip-hop that goes through there occasionally. But this club is notorious because, maybe twice a month, people get shot there. It definitely happens.
“So, we jumped in a cab, and we said, ‘We’re going to The Hop.’ But [the cab driver] was like, ‘Whoa … that’s not a very high-class place to be at.’ So, I was telling him about the band, and he said, ‘Those scenes don’t mix too well.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘You know, hippies and hip-hop. That has a tendency to end up violent.’ I told him I didn’t think that was going to happen.”
By the wee hours, says Cactus, “We [had played] to 500 kids, and definitely a lot of them [were] spun-out on all kinds of substances, putting out all kinds of positive energy in a place like that … that was cool. It was a mind-spinning event right there.
“Our fans are really dedicated people,” he continues, “and they never hesitate to show their love. We were all traveling kids that went to Rainbow Gatherings and Dead shows, and there is basically [still] a full-on traveling community in America.
“Now, we have front rows of screaming people, and I’ve even stage-dived at a show. For hip-hop, that’s definitely not a common thing.”
Their standard audience remains “mostly white,” he admits.
“We have hippies, but we’ve also had just straight thugs that sit in the back,” Cactus adds. “To them, it’s like, ‘What the hell is going on here? They’ve got f••ked-up haircuts, and they’re rhyming about all this s••t that most people don’t even rhyme about, or even think about.’ But, by the end of the night, what they see is that we practice our skills. We’re trying to be really good at what we have.”
As much as he likes touring, Cactus, who has a wife and child in Asheville, is ready for a break. The next few months will be busy ones for GFE, as they record a new album that they hope will capture their live sound a bit better than their most recent release, Slactivism (Akashic Records, 2001).
Various other side and solo projects lurk on the horizon for GFE members. But for a band whose deepest pockets of fans live far from Asheville, an already-in-the-works summer tour will probably soon take precedence.
“We’re completely ready,” says Cactus, “to put ourselves into any hip-hop situation.”