GFE
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GFE

Asheville, North Carolina, United States | SELF

Asheville, North Carolina, United States | SELF
Band Hip Hop Funk

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Foulmouth Jerk:
Skrilla Warfare
A street corner bootleg bandana kid offers up Granola Funk Express munchies on the cover of the latest solo venture from the GFE rhyme kingdom. The struggle to make proverbial (and literal) ends meet has been a long-running theme in GFE's work but never as explicitly as this paper fixated ontological grenade. Gone is the traditional opening "Ohm" of their other releases and for the first time there's recognizable riffs & samples lay persons might grok. These are headnodders for the working man & woman, mantras for clock punchers akin to Buck 65's Talkin' Honky Blues in 2003. Foulmouth has "no love for you hamsters" which one takes to mean those who willingly jump on the wheel for the scraps of kibble & water our "owners" dish out. Instead, he suggests chewing a hole in your Habitrail and escaping things like the olfactory hell of the public bus ride to one's job and the slow diminishment of cowtowing to idiot bosses. "Love & Respect" is a muted trumpet b-boy meeting with jazz that Savion Glover could freak beautifully to. "Still Not An Asshole" closes things with an unsparing eye on himself that also manages to sling mud in some neat directions. As the Jerk puts it, he's "quick with the script that hits you in your heart chakra." That's power, kids, but one should expect nothing less from this crew. - Dennis Cook


Pick of the litter:
Agent 23: Breakin Cages

One of the spearheads in GFE's phalanx, Agent 23 reminds us what a true, solid thing hip hop once was and still can be. His latest bumps properly enough to make the b-boys throw down cardboard yet he's always looking for a freaky lick to spice this dish. Cages is soulful & smart as say Black Star but far less self-important. He rarely brags without a tongue in his cheek, letting his skills speak for themselves (which they do continually). Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth are surely ancestors, though his universe is more bare back raw even as it's infused with the same mad love for rap. Peppered with grinning observations and a cerebral party atmosphere, this set never accepts mediocrity as okay. Lines will sneak out and stay with you "Real love spreads like algae", "The paper & pen are my savior again", "I'm a-greet the afterworld with a life story even God will get into" and "I'm not a musician, I'm music that wears skin" are but a few of the incisive, wickedly clever nugs waiting for you on these tracks. Skipping to a kalimba sample, savvy enough to know the power of Nyabinghi reggae and smarter than most primates, Agent 23 confirms his place in the modern hip hop firmament. A truly great record and one that furthers my belief that GFE may be the finest collective in their field right now. - Dennis Cool


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 ki - Lea Silverman (Mountain Xpress)


There’s a scene in the movie Superfly where Curtis Mayfield is playing what looks like somebody’s living room. Shag carpet, cheap plastic chairs and I swear you can see a refrigerator in the background of one shot. It’s supposed to be a nightclub and given the zero-sum budget of the flick, it works. To see one of the greatest soul striders of them all working the subterranean depths in such a place makes the mind reel. How’d someone this amazing end up making music in a tiny club for a handful of folks?

Watching Granola Funk Express crank on all cylinders in the Blake’s bar cavern in Berkeley brought up similar feelings of disbelief. How could a band this right-the-hell on be working it this hard, this sweet-sweetback good on a Tuesday night in a college-town hangout?

Before descending the stairs to see this gaggle of North Carolina hip-hoppers for the first time I had nearly no idea of what to expect. In recent years I’ve suffered from lowered expectations where beats and basslines are concerned. Rap went for the brass ring and left behind the purists some time ago. But time travel back to 1989 and I felt like hip-hop might become a mainstream art form to rival jazz or blues, a serious thoughtful concern.

Every once in a while I still catch a whiff of this hope in a single act or a crazy fine 12" single but like Hunter S. Thompson said, I can already see the water mark where the wave crested. So, when a band of beat loyalists from the same town as Warren Haynes come to town and snap my head open I’m grateful beyond belief to have my faith restored. I know I’ve hit the jackpot when I start scribbling down lines from their raps within five minutes of the show’s start.

“I’m drinking free beers, writing lyrics on the back of my hand.”

“Are you ready for progress or are you ready for sleep?”

“Now the monster under your bed has a sponsor.”

“My every endeavor is to make the art get better.”

“I keep the heads bangin’ like an aerosol high.”

They pass the mic like a hot potato and punch key lyrics with a collective gusto. The music is raw and refreshingly direct. Wah-wah laden guitar slices tiny nicks out of the fast, floating bass and snap-tight drumming. A Ban de Soleil vamp gets heads bobbin’ like a wack-a-mole game. Kids dance like Fat Albert cartoons, all loose and four-color and free. The most apt precedents I can muster for their backing tracks is a few Schooly D releases crossed with the entrenched vibeology of The Corporation, the musicians that provided the heat behind the original J-5 on “Dancing Machine” and dozens more.

When the musicians break out into instrumental territory they also bring up the specter of Bill Withers’ rollicking ensemble on Live At Carnegie Hall. Cut loose from the vocalists they become positively psychedelic, messing with sounds, making them reverberate with dip ‘n’ dot colors behind my eyelids. They dip into Brazilian streams and squealing Eddie Hazel freakouts and never come across as anything but guys giving you what’s in their heart. In fact, there’s nothing artificial about GFE. in any realm. For all those so bloody concerned with keepin’ it real here’s what it looks like lived day to day, night after night. The music’s the thing to catch the conscious of the kids, and they honor this truth with notes and words wrung free of the damp feeling of commercial intent.

The three rappers, Cactus/Agent 23, Foulmouth Jerk and Adam Strange name check everything from Clear Channel to Terrapin Station because their canvas for their Jackson Pollack word splatter is the whole dang universe. I’m certain I’ve never heard another group rhyme Raga with Hiawatha before. Strange in particular grabs my frontal lobes and gives them a rattle. He sports a green tee with the words “Money Mak’n” emblazoned in rounded white letters. To see him on the street you’d never place him as a verbal acrobat. But during the freestyles he’s the one I’m consistently drawn to. When he busts out a beatbox solo he becomes a white washed Biz Markie full of sputtering fineness. The dreadlocked girls in peasant skirts getting limber as Gumby with their jogging suited boys tell me I’m not the only one in the hall feeling him on a deep level. I take home a trio of albums from the show and spend the entire next day mining them for their gold, and muthas I came back with a sack brimming over with it. Each possesses a unique character but the quality control lets you know they came from one collective. G.F.E.’s Slactivism bomps along with a sunshine high wedded to consciousminded wordplay.

Vespucci’s Ransom, the debut from Foulmouth Jerk, cracks knuckles with a hard-knock toughness that might break through to the 37th Chamber. Agent 23’s Self-Full-Filling-Profes-See, perhaps my personal fave, is thick as a weed nap dream, truth spitting as a Noam Chomsky speech and still makes you shake the junk in your trunk. From the opening wordless prayer for peace that opens every release to the zi - Dennis Cook (Pauserecord.com)


Based in North Carolina and manned by a no-frontman, 10-player/MC lineup, Granola Funk Express is something like an experiment in controlled anarchy, with rappers taking turns freelancing with the mike. There's a particular irony to this, of course, because much of hip hop has evolved into a stridently ego-centered musical discipline.

That GFE has tweaked this paradigm by blurring the lines and slumming across genre boundaries seems to be what's sustained these subculture marathoners for the better part of four years. When the mood strikes to actually play, they can settle into a very credible hippie groove as well (with or without sampling or spinning the Dead, which has become a signature trademark). It might be that their rootlessness, their reluctance to practice devotion to any single musical personality or play by any set of rules, is their strongest suit.

The band formed when several of its members hooked up at a Rainbow Family gathering in Montana in 1997, and they borrowed the name from the kitchen that was set up there in an old school bus. You see a lot of talk about roots and values when you read about these guys, and the fact that their hip-hop poetry reflects traditional counterculture themes of quasi-socialist, anti-corporate community suggests an interesting marriage between street and hippie cultures. It may take some getting used to from an aesthetic point of view, but makes perfect sense from a generational one; the latest incarnation of the hippie left is populated by kids who grew up in the hip-hop gestalt, just as their parents grew up with folk and came to embrace the folk-influenced hippie bands of the late sixties. In any case, a lot of what these guys do is good fun, and the band celebrates the release of its tenth CD Slactivism tomorrow night at Tulagi. It's been a long time since we've covered anyone who releases 2-3 CD's a year, but it's obvious GFE has a lot to say. Check it out.
- Dave Kirby (Boulder Weekly)


Discography

GFE - "BPM" (1998)
Foul Mouth Jerk - "Hashashin Perspective" (1998)
GFE - "The Good Life" (1999)
Josh Blake - "Seed" (2000)
GFE - "Slactavism" (2001)
Agent 23 - "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" (2002)
Foul Mouth Jerk - "Vespucci's Ransome" (2002)
Adam Strange - "Cause and Effect of Pop Culture" (2004)
Agent 23 - "Breakin' Cages" (2004)
Foul Mouth Jerk - "Skrilla Warfare" (2004)
GFE - "Bigger Than It Really Is" (2004)

Photos

Bio

GFE is an eight piece funk/hip hop ensemble, with members from all over the map, who travelled, playing music around the country as individuals for many years before joining forces in Asheville,NC.

Their influences are as varied as there respective backgrounds, ranging from Boogie Down Productions to Primus, The Grateful Dead to NWA, Ween to P-Funk. They can blend several genres or play each individually just as well. The MC's in the group are very skilled in freestyle (improv) rhyme and do so at least once every show, often asking for topics from the audience.

One thing that separates GFE from the rest is that every member of the band writes songs and there is not one specific leader, so the music may go in a number of differnt directions, whether live or in studio. And One thing that is constant with each member is the belief that one cannot blend two styles proficiently without first mastering each individually. GFE is one of the few groups out today that has truly cultivated it's own sound and does not sound like anything that came before.