The definition of “freestyle” cannot be found in the dictionary … yet. Though Webster’s does include a certain amount of slang, the book remains a couple decades ignorant of how revolutionary artists and thinkers, forward-thinking writers — even people on the street who happen to be paying attention — are talking.
So I had to break down this important aspect of modern culture to its root words. Among other things, we’re told “free” means “made or done voluntarily, not restricted by conventional forms, and spontaneous,” while “style” represents a “method of acting, making or performing, a distinctive or characteristic manner, and overall excellence, skill, or grace in performance or appearance.”
More succinctly, the concept of freestyle is a close cousin to the idea of improvisation — the only difference being that, while an improvisational jazz band might compose its set on the spur of the moment, the result is still, ultimately, jazz. But for a band like Granola Funk Express (a.k.a. GFE), creating in the moment — i.e., freestylin’ — can take any number of musical directions.
Adam Strange, one of the band’s lyricists, explains: “[The music] is an expression of all of our personalities — there’s no way to describe it. It’s totally original, even though it’s a recycled collage of everything we’ve ever heard.”
Cactus, another lyricist, adds his interpretation: “Freestyle is being so open that you can become the translator for the moment. Freestyle is god — the universe — borrowing your voice to speak.”
Granola Funk Express is, essentially, undefinable, because it’s constantly changing. It reminds me of Magritte, who painted a very simple picture of a pipe, and then wrote above it, “This is not a pipe.” Even the band’s initials don’t limit themselves to just one interpretation: They can stand for God Force Energy, Galactic Federation of Earthdwellas, Grown From Embryos, Geometry From Egypt, Genesis Following Exodus (which it doesn’t), Guinness For Everybody, Grow Food Everywhere and Get Free Entry, to name just a few possibilities.
During a benefit show at Patton Avenue Pub last month, Jen Hyde, seeing the band for the first time, leaned over to me and said, “I think that GFE should stand for Granola Funk Experience.” In her opinion, a live GFE show is an interactive affair meshing audience and band. Unlike some touring groups that have one set list they use night after night, the song selection at a GFE show is often influenced by the energy of the crowd, which embodies a vast spectrum — everyone from 12-year-old boys just learning how to breakdance, to open-minded elders, to mothers and their newborns.
Cricket defines this exchange one night by saying to the crowd, “I hope you guys are having fun, because your thoughts are creating what we are playing.” (Frequently, guest MCs are invited on-stage to share some thoughts of their own.)
At least 11 musicians can be found on-stage on any given night; there are also satellite band members who perform on special occasions. Staying true to the higher meaning of “freestyle,” all of the musicians are versatile, exchanging instruments at many points throughout the show. The two drum kits receive attention from Ush and Hockenberry, while Jenni comes in on hand drums, Josh Blake and Shaggy on guitar, and Cricket on bass. As mentioned, Adam Strange and Cactus are both lyricists; H. Brycon and the Foul-mouth Jerk share that title, too. Some shows also feature a turntablist, spoken-word poets and breakdancers.
Although the band is based in Asheville and often plays local venues, GFE is not solely a neighborhood phenomenon. The band frequently tours the Northeast, playing shows in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. Predominantly, these shows have featured much bigger audiences than those seen around here (not to mention the 50-some full-time fans who follow the band from gig to gig).
Blake reflects, “When we’re on tour, people experience us like a dream; then we move on and they’re driven to re-create the feeling.” On March 24, GFE played reknowned NYC venue The Wetlands — an undisputed high point of the tour.
The band has recorded five albums to date — including Philosopher Stoned (1995), Beat Poem Manufacturing (1997) and The Good Life (1999) — and is currently at work on a few new projects. GFE controls the recording and distribution of its albums, with some help from members of the local community. Doing it themselves gives the band complete artistic freedom and sole influence over all production decisions. As Foul-mouth explains, “We’re not fulfilling someone else’s agenda. So if it doesn’t work out, we can’t complain; it’s the opposite of politics. If you do it all yourself, then you can’t pass blame.”
This attitude existed long before the band ever played its first show. The name Granola Funk Express, cooked up years ago, was originally suggested as a joke, referring to a free kitchen in the making that was eventually set up at Rainbow Gatherings and acted as a magnet, drawing people from all over the country to cooperatively cook and serve free food. To support the kitchen, Aaron Funk and some members of the current incarnation of GFE traveled the country, doing improvisational street performances in the form of short plays spliced with freestyle rap and beatbox sessions. (Currently, the kitchen is being set up in Montana, for the National Rainbow Gathering.)
Want to see a lifestyle in action? The Funk has two local shows coming up this weekend and is gearing up for a tour that will include stops at Columbus, Ohio’s The Little Brothers (July 13), New York City’s The Wetlands (July 20) and Burlington, Vt.’s Club Metronome (July 25), among many other venues.
Ultimately, however, the band’s future plans revolve around expanding their artistic expression — and everyone else’s. Jenni explains, “Our goal is to constantly work on our own skills, in order to remind everybody that they also have skills. We’re not just entertainment; we hope to be inspiration as well.”