Few would think to look for hip-hop explorers in the hills of North Carolina, but this collective has been mining beats and crafting thoughtful rhymes for almost a decade. Meet Granola Funk Express, the new children of a revolution.
It All Begins With a Thought
An animated four-man Playstation football battle has broken out in the back of Granola Funk Express's tour bus. The boys throw shoulders and talk trash with razor tongues. Then, one of them catches a glimpse of some balloony graffiti on a concrete wall outside. Instantly, they drop everything and crowd around the tiny window to take in the spray can artistry. Hip-hop flows through the veins of every member of Granola Funk. They're powerless to resist any aspect of it. What tends to surprise folks is GFE hails from Asheville, North Carolina, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Besides this decidedly non-urban hometown, they are also white, play with a totally live band, and don't have a DJ. They diverge wildly from the usual rap stereotypes, but for the past ten years they've carved out a unique, frisky, freedom-loving approach that revitalizes the increasingly stagnant genre.
This is a band for anybody who ever bobbed their head to A Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious, Digable Planets, or even golden age funkateers like Graham Central Station and Parliament. It's rebel music that grows its own vegetables and raises beautiful, conscious children for a better tomorrow.
"Hip-hop is the accurate and honest description of your lifestyle, whether it's gangsta, hippie, b-boy, or whatever. We accurately document our lifestyle, and people can feel it when you're tellin' the truth," says rapper Foul Mouth Jerk. "I think what sets us apart is our versatility. While we fuse several genres, we will often break down into individual styles and do them accurately. We believe you can't fuse two elements until you can play each one well by itself. For example, rap-metal sucks because most of those bands aren't really playing good heavy metal, nor can their singer rap for shit and was never a real participant in hip-hop culture. Just because they can't sing doesn't mean they're rapping."
Between solo records and full band sets, the GFE collective has independently released close to a dozen albums. 2004's bangin' Bigger Than It Really Is showcases their broad range, and includes a guest spot from the Atomic Dog himself, George Clinton. Besides the Jerk, the frontline includes rappers Agent 23, Adam Strange, and soul singer W.W. Sharp. The band is Josh Blake (guitars), Kyle Colcasure a.k.a. Cricket (bass), Chad Hockenberry (drums), and Jenny Junk (percussion). Despite limited financial rewards thus far, GFE tours regularly, playing coast-to-coast and constantly working up new material in the studio.
The mic operators spout saucy lyrics that are hyper-culturally literate and as book smart as the Beastie Boys or Freestyle Fellowship. Agent 23 is a complicated, acrobatic MC who combines the best qualities of C.L. Smooth and the Beatnuts' Psycho Les. Foul Mouth Jerk is a pale Masta Ace who alternates between diamond-hard jabs and disarming, self-effacing humor. Adam Strange has a rubber band snap and lascivious weirdo streak, the spirit of a brilliant old blues man poured into a lanky, wild-eyed honky. Sharp sings with a clear, powerful voice that Daryl Hall would give John Oates's left nut to have today.
The musicians balance direct, muscular licks with high-powered musical free-flights. They understand the hypnotic power in underplaying, but also possess personalities as distinct and confident as the rappers that surface in inspired tangents. The groove can be cooking like JB's on a good night, and then Jenny will summon the ghosts of Dizzy Gillespie to dance to Blake's Nile Rodgers-esque space guitar. Underneath, Hockenberry hits it like a Sun Studios session man on liquid sunshine and Cricket works his bass like a cross between Can's Holger Czukay and the Melvins' Joe Preston.
Granola Funk are the true heirs to Gil Scott-Heron and Sly & the Family Stone. More than chart toppers like Kanye West or Snoop Dogg, this unlikely group embodies the spirit and musical heft of Sly's Stand! and Scott-Heron's The First Minute of a New Day, works of deep soul and deep thought. GFE crafts something that's more playful, but still frequently gets as confrontational as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" or "Family Affair".
Despite their skills, the first word in their name has been a hurdle in attracting new audiences. "The word granola is killing us," says Cricket. "Together, we are Granola Funk Express and we know what that means. But to the person who asks, 'Who's playing tonight?' and you say 'Granola Funk Express,' 9-times-out-of-10 they go 'Granola? I don't want to hear any of that jamband, hippy crap.' Right? That's the main reason we mainly use the acronym. GFE can stand for whatever you want (band favorites include God Force Energy, Geniuses Formulating Equations, and Grassroots Foundation Employment). See the show and make up your mind afterwards. Most of the time it's just gonna be great fucking entertainment."
There's been something special about them ever since their early recordings with Soulive's Eric Krasno and the ultra rare Philosopher Stoned, which was made on a 4-track machine they bought by spare changing people, right up to their ever more mature recent works like Agent 23 & Bski Rocks's The Road Less Travelled, which has Kanye's irresistibly funky production bounce with the added bonus of someone who can skillfully rock the mic. The group is working slowly on a follow-up to Bigger that may focus on tales of the touring life. In the meantime, there are amazing albums scattered in their past, such as Adam Strange's The Cause and Effect of Pop Culture, which possesses a tremendous but peculiar flow and couplets like "Hitchhike with a tape of Tom Waits in my Walkman / Smoke out any ride so good they say 'God damn!'"
With rare humility, especially in the hip-hop world, they move forward with the music always in the forefront. Like any artist, they'd love to get paid to do what they love, but the work itself is usually reward enough to keep them on the journey.
"For me, playing with this group has raised the bar and continues to everyday," says Foul Mouth Jerk. "They never worry about what they can't do. They're always trying new shit and pulling it off. Being around people this talented will keep you on your toes. We're all pretty competitive, and as soon as one of us does something incredible, someone else comes along and tops it. So, you're constantly going back to the drawing board. There are no Yes Men in this group, and if you're not pulling your weight it will be put out in the open so that you keep up instead of holding back the progress. Most of all I just feel blessed every day to work with these characters. Anytime I'm frustrated with what's going on in my life or with the band, all we have to do is play a show and I'm all good again. It reminds me why I do what I do. Even when times are hard and the money's not coming in like you had hoped, it reminds you that you're blessed."