New Orleans Funk outfit Galactic may have its musical roots deeply embedded in the styles of Louisiana, but tonight, they play at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, just days removed from historic snowfall in the region. Two of the band’s members, Jeff Raines and Robert Mercurio, are natives of the nation’s capital, so tonight’s show is definitely special. “It means so much,” says Mercurio, the band’s bassist, of performing in his home town. “Just to play for my boys, to play for my family.” In fact, Mercurio’s first concert was at the venue, back when it was the WHFS Radio Hall.
But tonight, it’s Mercurio and the rest of the members of Galactic – Raines, Richard Vogel, Stanton Moore and Ben Ellman – rocking the stage. Hip Hop fans may have become familiar with the group following their 2007 release, From the Corner to the Block, whose guest list read like an entry in Rawkus’ Soundbombing series: Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif, Gift of Gab, Chali 2na, Boots Riley, Juvenile and Ladybug Mecca all teamed up on the effort. Their Hip Hop collaborations go even further back, as 2003’s Ruckus saw the group paired with notable producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura.
But with all deference to The Roots, Galactic is no Hip Hop band – nor would they have you categorize them as such. Their latest album, Ya-Ka-May, is probably the best example of what the crew really is: a blend of Funk and Jazz with splashes of Hip Hop, Soul, and R&B. Where else could you find New Orleans Indian Big Chief Bo Dollis and Soul/R&B legend Irma Thomas on the same album?
Assisted by former Meters member Cyril Neville and trombonist Corey “Bo Money” Henry of the Rebirth Brass Band (who ended up spitting a flawless rendition of Rakim’s classic track, “Paid in Full”), Galactic showcased all their influences in truly Funky fashion. But prior to the performance – a full house on a Monday night, in bad weather – Robert Mercurio took some time to talk about a slew of topics, ranging from the post-Hurricane Katrina music scene to the New Orleans Saints. Just like Galactic – it’s a little bit of everything.
HipHopDX: To start things off, I’m gonna keep it topical. Congratulations on the Saints victory.
Robert Mercurio: Thank you, man. Very excited, we’re so excited. It’s just been a day of elation. We’re all kind of hung over, but still feeling really good.
DX: What does that mean to your city?
Robert Mercurio: Man, it’s just a city that’s had so many hits. And to have something like this that…there’s just a feeling that there’s some hope, [that] something good can happen to our city. It’s been growing and building since Katrina, but it was such a large hit, and to have something like this – even pre-Katrina, it was like, “The Saints will never make it to the Super Bowl.” They’re underdogs all the time; they’re never seen as a real team. Even this whole season, they weren’t really taken as a real team. To have them win and [President Barack] Obama win, it’s just two things I thought I might never see in my lifetime. It’s just encouraging, really.
DX: Now for the music – the first time I ever heard you guys was when the song, “From the Corner to the Block” came out.
Robert Mercurio: Cool, the [Juvenile] tune.
DX: At first, I didn’t even recognize that it was Juvenile on the track because, to me, he’s not a very animated guy – he’s kind of laid back. And then you guys kind of brought it out of him, an energy that I hadn’t previously heard. How would you describe what you do to bring something different out of other artists?
Robert Mercurio: That’s a hard question to answer. We do it intentionally. That’s pretty much on a lot of our last album [and] Ya-Ka-May. Ya-Ka-May even more – we were just like, if the tune came out, and it sounded like an Allen Toussaint song that he had already done, we were like, “We need to make it into something new and interesting and our own. We can’t just rehash it.”
[It’s] the same thing with Juvenile. We didn’t want to put on some simple 808, some simple keyboard thing that he usually does, and say, “Oh, we have a Juvie track.” We wanted to do something different. He’s obviously from New Orleans. He’s got that swagger, and he just fit in with the Soul Rebels Brass Band stuff we had recorded. He actually, to tell you the truth, recorded to a blank tempo, and we built the song up around him. So it’s not like he was really inspired by the song. We just kinda built it around him.
DX: When are you guys finally going to do an entire album with Chali 2na?
Robert Mercurio: Oh, that is a really interesting question! We’re gonna do one, actually! It’s a little early to talk about the project, but we’re meeting in May. He’s coming to New Orleans for a week and a half, and we’re gonna work on a project that’s neither Chali 2na nor Galactic. It’s going to have a new name; it’s going to be a whole new entity. And I think there’s going to be a female rapper/singer involved too, and just do it as a single project, and do a tour.
DX: That’s great, because I basically felt that the track with him, “Think Back” was flawless.
Robert Mercurio: Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. We both felt that way. We get text messages and calls from Chali all the time, “How’s my homeboys doing?” Checkin’ in. We thought it worked really well. He was probably one of the best emcees that we worked with. We combined really well with him.
DX: A lot of Hip Hop fans became familiar with you guys because of From the Corner to the Block, but your history of working with Hip Hop artists goes further back than that. Dan “The Automator” Nakamura produced your album Ruckus. How did that partnership come to be, and in what way did he affect your recording process?
Robert Mercurio: We just were fans of the work and albums he had done. So it was simply just like a phone call, had a few discussions, met and talked about the album. What he really did – he’s like a “producer” producer, who has other people under him. You know, younger producers. So he teamed us up with these guys, the Rondo Brothers, who are also out of San Francisco. They played a lot of the stuff on [Dr. Octagonecologyst by] Dr. Octagon, and they were very familiar with Dan’s style. They were kind of contributors, although Dan gets most of the credit. So he teamed us up with them, and they came down for a few weeks and wrote with us and recorded.
By the time Dan got there, it was…he was very much more on the executive producer level. He just kind of came in – we had maybe 20 songs – and he picked which ones [to keep]. It was his idea to do “Tenderness,” which was this ’80s cover [of the song by General Public]. He brought in a couple ideas, but as a hands-on producer, he wasn’t as [involved] as we had hoped, or maybe thought he was going to be. It was more of a, “Okay, that’s good, that’s not good.” I would imagine on his earlier albums, like [Dr. Octagonecologyst], he was creating the beats and the music. We thought that maybe he would have gotten involved a little more on that level. It was still a good relationship.
DX: Did your work with Dan prompt you to work with the slew of Hip Hop artists featured on From the Corner to the Block? If not, what was the impetus?
Robert Mercurio: Nah, it was an album we had wanted to do ever since we heard the Brand New Heavies’ album, Heavy Rhyme Experience, in the early ’90s. We were an instrumental Funk band with a singer, but mainly instrumental, and it was just and album we had always wanted to make. We had a singer, this older Soul singer, Theryl “the House Man” DeClouet. When we parted ways in 2004 due to some health problems with him, it was like, “Okay, guys. Let’s do the Hip Hop album. Let’s do the album we’ve been talking about since the middle of the ’90s.”
I think that from working with Dan and the Rondo Brothers, we had learned some production techniques that helped us move forward in producing that album. That was when we first started doing the albums ourselves, and really having way more control over everything – which has been good. We really like it. We always wanted to spend the time to really do it right, but the person to hire was always limited on time.
DX: On the topic of From the Corner to the Block, that was, as you said, your first album without your lead vocalist. How did you choose what vocalists you wanted to contribute?
Robert Mercurio: Well, we made a wish list. A lot of them we were friends with. We had done stuff with [Gift of] Gab, done stuff with [Jurassic 5], we had done stuff with Lyrics Born. Actually, Juvenile hired us to be his backing band when he played Jimmy Kimmel Live, so we had relationships with a lot of the people. We just kind of made our wish list of folks, and we pretty much got most of them, which was great. We started piecing together who we thought would fit with which [song], and then we started sending them off. They would either record on their own or come to New Orleans, and we’d build the tracks around whatever they did.
They were all like that. Like the Juvenile track – really pretty barebones. They put something on it, and we made it our own.
DX: Did you look for certain vocal qualities in the rappers who contributed on the album? Because guys like Lyrics Born, Chali 2na and Juvenile all have unusual and dissimilar deliveries, and have musical qualities to their voices.
Robert Mercurio: Yeah, a lot of them were very musical people. We had connected with them previously, maybe because of that. I don’t know if we intentionally.
DX: What makes blending Hip Hop with your brand of New Orleans Funk/Jazz such a natural fit?
Robert Mercurio: [Laughing] That’s a loaded question. New Orleans Funk has been sampled in Hip Hop forever, along with James Brown and [Parliament Funkadelic]. New Orleans drummers have been sampled…it’s a natural fit, I think. In a broad sense, Hip Hop is the Funk music of now. In a way – not every artist. It’s just modernized Funk, with a little different delivery and a different attitude.
DX: You had said in a previous interview that From the Corner to the Block was responsible for getting you guys TV and festival exposure you hadn’t previously been offered – perhaps due to fans of all the artists featured on the album. If that’s the case, what made you choose to work with solely local artists on your new album, Ya-Ka-May?
Robert Mercurio: We didn’t just want to be known as…we have a lot in us. Like I said, we’re maybe doing another thing with Chali 2na, but if we just followed up From the Corner to the Block with From the Corner to the Block 2, we would be so solidified as the artists that only collaborate with rappers, and we didn’t want to do that.
DX: That “other” Hip Hop band.
Robert Mercurio: [Laughing] Yeah. I think keeping our options open is exciting for the band.
DX: Has the new exposure lent itself to new musical opportunities in the form of guest spots and features? Is that something Galactic is looking for?
Robert Mercurio: Yeah, it was great in broadening [others’] awareness. It wasn’t something we set out to do. It wasn’t a business plan like, “We’re going to do this,” but it was something that was great to see, and we were excited about that – and all the extra international travel we did due to the exposure. We were just happy that happened.
DX: Clearly with the title of Ya-Ka-May, the new album has a theme of a collaborative mixture of styles. What makes Galactic the appropriate melting pot, so to speak?
Robert Mercurio: I think we’re younger; we want to spend the time to make something unique. We’ve been a band in New Orleans for 15-plus years – we know a lot of these people. It was just like From the Corner to the Block. We didn’t just start new relationships with these people. We had already collaborated with them and hung out with them. We all play with other bands, other people come and sit in. I think we intentionally tried to make a lot of connections over the years, and I think that makes us a little better at it than some other bands might be right now.
DX: Galactic more comfortable on stage, or in the studio?
Robert Mercurio: Man, equally. We’ve created our lives where we tour, and when we’re home a day or two after the tour, we’re in the studio from noon to 8:00. We just kind of run our lives like that. We’re currently working on some music for a Playstation game, and some soundtrack stuff, and trying to make some tracks for the Chali thing. So we just like to keep the ball rolling. If you take too much time off, you lose focus. We all even tour with other bands – I haven’t had a weekend night off in a long time. But I enjoy it. I feel really comfortable on stage, I feel really comfortable in the studio. We’ve all become very well-versed in Pro Tools and how to engineer. Ben [Ellman], our sax player, kind of spearheads it; he’s definitely the main producer guy.
We all feel really comfortable now [that it’s] just us. It’s not like Dan the Automator: “Play your best bass lick right now!” It’s like your buddy that you’ve been with, and he knows your limitations and he knows how to encourage you in your great way. It’s made the studio even more comfortable to experiment and have fun.
DX: Could you explain the “Bounce” genre of Hip Hop for those who aren’t familiar? Is any of that featured on Ya-Ka-May?
Robert Mercurio: Yeah. It’s featured on Ya-Ka-May. We didn’t really make “Bounce” tracks. Bounce music is basically this call and response style of quick chant melodies – hooks – not true verses. It’s real…almost Punk Rock, and raw, and sloppy. It’s about making girls shake their asses. They are rapping to girls asses – it’s an amazing scene. But it’s always over the same beat – that’s what makes it a Bounce track. It’s a combination of these two samples. One’s called “The Brown Beat,” and [“Triggerman” beat.]
We had the Bounce artists come in. We had Cheeky Blakk. We had Big Freedia, Katey Red and Sissy Nobby, who are all transvestites. They’re kind of the current, most creative people in the New Orleans Bounce scene right now. Maybe because they’re gay in the community and they’ve had to already put it all out there, they’re just even more raw, like, “This is who I am. This is my rap, this is my thing.” So we had them all come in and record over the bounce beat they were comfortable with, and again we replaced it and made it our own.
DX: This is an impossibly broad question, but how was the New Orleans music scene affected by Hurricane Katrina?
Robert Mercurio: Oh man, it was severely affected. It’s coming back, and it’s come back a lot, but immediately, a lot of musicians were displaced. We’re sort of a rarity [when it comes to] New Orleans bands. Most New Orleans bands tour locally. Rebirth Brass Band, they do weeklies in every bar around town – and maybe they do a little touring…so when these bands were displaced, they couldn’t pick [it back] up and begin touring. All their gigs were lost for two, three months. The bars were either not open, or two of the eight members of the band had moved back to New Orleans, or their houses weren’t there.
I used to always hear kids walking home from school, playing horns and practicing, and I didn’t hear that for the first year or so. It was kind of sad in a way. We’re always trying to keep the next generation going, and when you have a cut in the generation, it can seriously screw it up. But I think people are slowly starting to move back, and the brass band scene is definitely back and kicking. Just…some people never came back, and we lost a few people. It’s a bummer, but new people moved in.
DX: How did that personally affect the group, and how did you all cope with that?
Robert Mercurio: It displaced us right when we were going to start recording From the Corner to the Block, so we had to move our sessions up to the Poconos, which was actually probably a really good thing for us. It was something to think about and take our minds off of Katrina, and it forced us all to be together. It was a seriously emotional time. We moved our families up to this little mountain area up there, and we put all our energy into making that album. We all made out pretty decently – relatively.
DX: Are there other genres of music you’d like to explore or blend your current sound with?
Robert Mercurio: We haven’t recorded any of it, but our sax player is very into Eastern European melodies, Eastern European dance music, stuff like that. He’s been kind of writing some tunes with that melodic sound on top. Now that we’ve been touring with this guy, Corey Henry from the Rebirth Brass Band, the two of them can really play these melodies. You’ll probably hear one or two tonight. They’ve still got the Funk-bass groove, but they’ve got an Eastern European sound. So that’s definitely a genre I could see us toying around with.
DX: Have you considered recording with your guest artists in person?
Robert Mercurio: We’re still in talks about how we’re going to do the next album – and who knows, that might be the way [we do it]. But we just see albums and live shows as a different thing. We see an album as a way to – it might be cheesy – as a way to paint a picture, instead of just take a photo. If you record while everyone’s there, it’s just a snapshot of that moment – which is great, but you get that when we perform live. We never get to paint a picture, take our time, when we perform live. And we really enjoy that. We own our own studio in New Orleans, and it’s really fun to make, and to push our own boundaries.
DX: The group has touted the importance of having your own recording studio. Why do you find it to be so important, and how having that amenity impacted Galactic’s creative process?
Robert Mercurio: Oh, big time. Probably in allowing us to have a lot of time, allowing us to do things that maybe someone would say, “Oh, that’s incorrect!” I think we know what we want to sound like, and I think that took us a little while to figure out. We used to be like, “I don’t know, maybe Dan will help us make this sound!” We knew what we wanted out of Ruckus, we knew what we wanted out of every album we’ve ever done – it just took us a few to figure that out. And you can’t really do that unless you have your own studio.
DX: You’re not on someone else’s time.
Robert Mercurio: You’re on someone else’s time, they’re only gonna give you three weeks…and plus, the way we tour, we do it in between tours. We kind of have a little time away from it, then we kind of come back, readjust. I think it’s boosted our creativity ten-fold.
DX: You previously listed Q-Tip on your wish list of artists to work with. Is that still the case, and are there any artists you would add to that list?
Robert Mercurio: Yes! That would’ve been the shit! We wanted to get Q-Tip so bad! [Laughing] He’s just way out of our league, I guess. Um, I’d love to do something with B-Real. Seems like a really cool guy. It’d be fun to do something with the Beastie Boys, but they already kind of do the live instrumental thing. De La Soul would be awesome.
DX: Even before Galactic recorded Ya-Ka-May, you’ve made it a point to record with artists outside of “your genre.” What would you say to an up-and-coming artist perhaps unwilling to step outside of his or her comfort zone about the benefits of doing so?
Robert Mercurio: It’s hard to say. You’ve always got to grow and experiment. You’ve got to make mistakes, and who knows? That could become the new thing. You could say, “Hey, that’s a new sound for us, and that’s cool.” I think you get that a lot more if you step outside of your comfort zone. I encourage it. It makes you grow as an artist. No harm in trying it.
DX: If you could dispel one misconception about the New Orleans music scene, what would it be?
Robert Mercurio: Good question. Something I think we tried to show on Ya-Ka-May was that there’s a lot of facets to it, that the New Orleans music scene isn’t just traditional Jazz, or just Allen Toussaint, just the R&B legends, just the Mardi Gras Indians. All the artists are connected in a way, and that’s what we really set out to do on the album – to connect the dots, between the different generations and between the different music scenes, and that it’s all one New Orleans.