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It's the last night of San Francisco's True Music Seminar, and Broadway Studios is packed. Halfway through a set by headliner Felonious, a man and a woman walk onstage. The crowd waits, bemused. Carlos Aguirre (aka Infinite Tounga Brown) starts beatboxing. A moment later, guest performer Jessica Van Niel begins to sing. A few people clap. It's good. Nothing extraordinary, but good. After a strategic pause, Van Niel begins to rap. The crowd cheers -- this is definitely better. After another pause, Aguirre starts rapping and Van Niel starts beatboxing. This gender reversal, very uncommon in the world of hip hop, is completely unexpected. The applause is deafening.
Destroying stereotypes is what Felonious is all about. Felonious is 100 percent live hip hop -- no turntables or DAT players allowed. In a hip hop scene almost entirely focused on the DJ, this makes for a lot of raised eyebrows. Rapper Dan Wolf (aka MC Euripides) explains: "We chose the name Felonious because by not having a DJ, we're breaking a hip hop law." Aguirre adds: "When a DJ drops a beat, he may not even be a good DJ, but people in the crowd will say, "That's hip hop.' We come out and drop a beat, it may be a fat beat, but [because there's no DJ] there's people in the audience who will say, "That's not hip hop.' It's like every time we play, we're starting from nothing."
Felonious began in the early 1990s, when Wolf and rapper/drummer Tommy Shephard (aka Soulati) formed the a cappella group Felonious Punks. The duo played at house parties, cafes, and anywhere else they could find a gig. It was at one of these cafe shows that they met future bandmate Keith Pinto (aka MC Verbal KP). "I saw them, and I was blown away," Pinto admits. "After the show I went up to them and I said, "You guys are amazing. I don't know how, I don't know what I can do, but I want to be involved.'" Later, the three MCs met Aguirre. "At the time, we didn't want drums, we didn't want instruments. We felt that for us, a cappella was keeping it real," says Aguirre. That changed, and the rappers hooked up with bassist Dylan Mills and keyboardist Fletcher Nielson. (Nielson has since left the band.) Felonious Punks morphed into Felonious, and the band recorded its self-distributed EP Fight for Light. While the members still perform a cappella occasionally, as at a recent Justice League show with Jurassic5 and Quannum, Felonious is now a live band featuring keyboards, drums, and bass.
The eight raw, energetic tracks on Fight for Light span several genres and focus on the struggle of urban youth to stay positive in an often hostile world. The centerpiece track "Preyjuiceandice" transitions from bebop to reggae as it addresses racial bias. "Baby Steps" is a bouncy number that contrasts playful harmonies and dark flows. "Balance" blends jazz and funk. "I Can See" is a pop ditty, complete with Soul II Soul reference. And "Fatman" is a playful, off-key nod to the Philadelphia group the Roots.
The EP has its share of shaky moments. The recording quality is poor, almost sounding like a demo. At one point the musicians actually lose time and take a couple of seconds to catch up with each other. Occasionally the lyrics are so earnest that they seem downright naive. But that positive thrust gives the songs a powerful honesty and makes Fight for Light a promising first effort.
Thanks to hard work, Felonious' live approach to hip hop seems to be catching on. The group has played shows with the Roots, Black Eyed Peas, Latyrx, and Jurassic5; headlined the True Music Seminar; and will host "New Roots to Hip Hop," a showcase for not-yet-established MCs, every Tuesday in September, October, and November at the Last Day Saloon. "We got started because bands would invite us onstage to freestyle," Aguirre explains. Now, with "New Roots," Felonious is returning the favor. "We want to encourage creativity. There's a place for competitiveness in hip hop, but when people come up, they should be allowed to have their voice."
The members of Felonious also overturn expectations with the acclaimed hip hop theatrical production Beatbox: A Raparetta. Beatbox combines the art forms of theater, dance, and operetta with the elements of hip hop. The play tells the story of a group of inner-city youths who are all trying to rise above their limitations. "Some [of the characters] have more love than others, some are poor, some need to come to terms with their parents," Wolf explains. Set in an alleyway, in nearby apartments, and in a local performing arts college, Beatbox follows two brothers as they grapple with drugs, violence, sex, friendship, and love. The play centers around Mickey Finch (played by Aguirre), the older brother who is trying to lift himself out of the streets by becoming an MC, and Tet (played by Shephard), the younger brother who is firmly entrenched in the street life. The pair become increasingly alienated from each other, and the play culminates in a dance/beatbox battle where their divergent philosophies come head to head.
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