When you hear 40 Watt Hype’s Strong Feet on the Concrete, you might wonder, “Is there anything this band can’t do?” You wouldn’t be the only one. The Fresno, California-based band has been praised as one of the best unsigned acts in the United States. Meanwhile, the band’s frequent description as a cross between the Roots and Santana could work as a snippet of 40 Watt Hype’s musical sophistication, songwriting skills, and strong live presence.
The praise is well-founded, as the group’s 16-track release, Strong Feet on the Concrete, stomps forward with grooves rooted in hip-hop, R&B, funk, Latin vibes, and jazz. You’ll want to see 40 Watt Hype perform this material in person, as the Roots and other hip-hop artists have demonstrated that concert rap can be compelling when backed up by live instrumentation. The membership roster for Strong Feet includes Brian Robinson (a.k.a. MC Vagabond), Aaron Wall (a.k.a. MC Awall), Enrique Gonzalas on guitar, Sean Alderette rocking the drums, Bronson Garza working the bass, Jared Dyar on percussion, Adan Infante on trombone, and David Hull playing the keys. In 2002, the group released the flavorful Advanced Techniques in Modern Sound. A year later, they followed up with Grand Unification Theory, which was followed in 2005 by the CD/DVD package Live & Direct: Sight & Sound.
The band’s immersion in hip-hop is evident, from the title track’s opening salvos to the group’s rock-rap joint “S.O.S.”, which would make Rage Against the Machine nod in approval. The Latin vibes, as you might expect, are most evident in tunes with Spanish vocals, such as “Muevete” and “La Sombre”. That vibe, punctuated by airtight horn arrangements, is delightful, adding a joyous twist to the hip-hop and jazz layers, even in songs that tend to focus on the more serious aspects of life. For instance, the chorus in “Animated World” goes, “In this animated world, spinnin’ on its axis / Life, death, and taxes / We all wanna know the answers to questions under the sun / But all we need to know is one”. Yet, the delivery of that message, in an environment of high-energy arrangements and tempo, gives the impression that there’s hope, which usually (at least from the band’s perspective) comes in the form of music. Speaking of the magnificent horn work, you might notice there’s only a trombone player listed in the above membership roster. Where’d the horns come from? Additional musicians add spice to the group’s sound, such as high caliber contributions from Todd Doucet (tenor sax, baritone sax and flute) and Joey Rogers (trumpet).
Like the Roots, 40 Watt Hype’s musical ingenuity is backed up by content and message. The best example isn’t even a musical composition; it’s a skit called “Jerry Gente Interlude”. The skit chronicles a series of appointments by Mr. Gente, a caricature of an entertainment industry insider, who “always makes [his] money” by advising talent. The twist, though, is the nature of that advice. During his 2:00 appointment (his appointments are spaced out at two-minute intervals), he tells the client it would be good if he (the client) could “get stabbed” in to create anticipation for an upcoming album release. “Your last album,” he tells the client, “sold like hotcakes when you got that DUI”. In his 2:02, he advises a client against writing her own songs and, at 2:04, he advances his idea of a “thuggish” Thanksgiving concept album called Thugs-giving. In brilliant fashion, the skit critiques, in particular, promotional tactics that detract from the music experience and, in a more general way, it highlights the feeding frenzies (whether by fans, critics, or media outlets) that result from controversy. The “Jerry Gente” interlude appropriately leads into the song “Controversy” and works well amid the more directly issue-oriented musical numbers.
It’s 40 Watt Hype’s range that almost mandates further comparisons beyond those to Santana and the Roots. Some observers analogize 40 Watt Hype’s energy to the party-style of the Black Eyed Peas, as in the title track’s hook (“Just let go, lose control / When we rock the party, make the crowd say, ‘Ho!’”) and in songs like “Tru Players” (“We are true players, but we don’t play / The same way that you play, it’s more than a game”). I would also liken the crew to a mixture of the Brand New Heavies and Jazzhole with a splash of Brooklyn Funk Essentials and a pinch of, as demonstrated by “Keep It Together”, Rage Against the Machine (or, as the lyrics explain, “rage against the suits in the name of the truth”). Although straight-out singing isn’t the group’s strength (“Muevete” and “Slow Ride” are good examples), the attempts are successfully carried through, as in “Drunk & in Love”, by stellar musicianship and a warm party atmosphere. This is a group that’s definitely worth checking out, whether on CD or onstage.