Galactic’s sixth album, From the Corner to the Block, is an aural roadmap, one that guides you throughout various U.S. metropolises, one corner at a time. And to guide you on this tour of inner city corners, the band didn’t rely on one vocalist (in fact they split with their full-time singer in 2004), instead the band just provided the beats and back-up instrumentals for a slew of different vocalists.
“Everyone [doing vocals] on it is still who they are,” says bass player Robert Mercurio. “But the one parameter that we made them write within was: Write about a corner; anything about a corner. Take on the personality, whatever, write about a corner. Everyone had own little take. We just wanted it to have some little cohesive lyrical direction but not limit them too much. They get to do what they normally do.”
The artists that Galactic wrangled into the studio for the project is a who’s-who of intellectual hip-hop. Rapper Lyrics Born (of hip-hop duo Latyrx) portrays a fast-talking corner store merchant in the album’s opening track; Boots Riley of The Coup gives a lesson in wiggling, Oakland style; rapper Gift of Gab lays down one of his blurringly fast speed raps to describe his block; Mr. Lif, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets get tracks (and corners) as well.
The band didn’t, however, limit themselves to the accompaniment of heady hip-hoppers; they also mined from a vein of talent that was a bit closer to home, bringing in a parade of local musicians from various corners of the New Orleans music family. The round-up includes Mardi Gras Indian Chief Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, horn impresario Trombone Shorty, hometown superstar Juvenile and second-line favorites Soul Rebels Brass Band. These musicians have fueled the fire of Galactic’s collective inspiration over the years, as well as giving support and encouragement to the young band who made New Orleans their home.
“Funk is just the heartbeat of the city,” says Mercurio. “It would be hard not to get sucked into that.” And Galactic was more than willing to get sucked in. Drummer Stanton Moore was born and raised in the city, but all of the other members are transplants. Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines moved to the Big Easy from D.C.; sax player Ben Ellman from L.A.; keyboard player Richard Vogel from Nebraska. The music scene was a major draw for all of them, and—perhaps surprisingly—it welcomed them.
“Really I was very surprised by how friendly and noncompetitive (the music scene in New Orleans was),” says Mercurio. “When I grew up in D.C., man, no one really invited you to sit in. No one was like, ‘Oh, let me show you how to do that.’ But down here, it was more of a collective feeling, which I was really appreciative of when I was so young.”
If any one in Galactic ever took that collective feeling for granted, their appreciation was quickly crystallized when Hurricane Katrina tore through the Crescent City. Galactic was in the middle of recording From the Corner to the Block at the time, and evacuated together to Pennsylvania, where they continued working on the album.
“We weren’t allowed in the city for a few months, and we were still working on the album,” Mercurio recalls. “Luckily, we were donated studio time by (Red Rock Recording) this great studio up in the Pocanos. We moved really quickly, and it was really hard. It was when people were tapping into the internet a lot just trying to get updates [on what was happening at home].”
As soon as they could, though, the band returned to New Orleasn, where they found not just a new recording space, but also a heightened sense of love for their adopted musical family. The next step was to record the NOLA-centric parts of the album.
“I don’t want to say that Katrina was why we tried to add a NOLA element, but because of Katrina we were very proud of our New Orleans element,” says Mercurio. “We did all of the New Orleans additions to the album after Katrina, and I don’t know if that [feeling of loss] was immediately conscious, but it was harder to deny where we had come from, and I think we all had a newfound appreciation of where we’d come from.”
[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in New Orleans.]
who: Galactic with Mr. Lif & Boots Riley (of the Coup) and special guests Lifesavas
what: Hip-hop-infused funk
where: Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Nov. 8 (9 p.m. $20. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)