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Crowning Glory 

With Earthtones, Oakland hip-hoppers the Crown City Rockers deliver on the promise of their energetic live show

Wednesday, Aug 18 2004
On a dark and stormy night just east of Flagstaff, Ariz., after traversing Route 66, the Crown City Rockers pull their beat-up tour van off to the side of the road and into a desolate Motel 6. Upon tricking the night watchman into thinking that there is only one of them -- after all, indie hip hop bands need as many breaks as they can scrounge -- our mischievous and exhausted minstrels pile into a tiny room.

"Good night guys ... good night ... good night ... good night ...," keyboardist Kat Ouano recalls, mimicking the group's Waltons-like procession of nightly salutations during a recent interview with the band at an East Bay ice cream parlor. "And then --" Suddenly, as a waiter is attempting to take our order, Ouano's face puffs up, and she affects a cheeky faux-frightened expression and begins emitting a low humming sound: "MmmmmmMMMMMMM ... BOOM! THUD!"

Producer Woodstock pipes in over the group's giggling: "Raashan [Ahmad, CCR's MC] rolls off the bed like, 'CCCCRRRash.' And I'm like, 'What the hell is that?'"

"And after that," Ouano continues, "someone says, 'Get a lighter.' 'I got a lighter.' 'DON'T LIGHT THE LIGHTER, we might blow up.'"

"Every movie cliché comes in," Ahmad adds. "'The phone's dead. Stay away from the windows!'"

Everyone rushes out of the room to find a tangle of live wires twisting on top of the hotel and reaching into the neighboring room. After a bit of snooping around, they discover that a nearby construction site was damaged in the vicious storm and has sent electrical wiring lashing against the motel.

Yeah, it's a silly story, but then again the Crown City Rockers are a pretty silly group -- in person, at least. With the constant snicker-inducing in-jokes, the communal curly fries, the finishing of one another's thoughts, and the sheer amount of shared history, the band resembles the Scooby-Doo crew as cast by the United Colors of Benetton -- minus the dog, of course. Ahmad and Woodstock are the looser, more outgoing members of the bunch; when I ask his expectations for CCR's recently released record, Earthtones, Ahmad slyly replies, "World domination," before adopting a deep English accent and adding, "But of course." Ouano is the cute one, with a broad, bubble-gum grin permanently engraved on her face, and bassist Headnodic provides the focus, steering the conversation back to the music when the various tangents that weave in and out of our conversation become too long-winded and off-topic.

There's a goofy, kinetic energy among the musicians that is infectious and puts one instantly at ease. This group chemistry, equal parts respect, communication, and genuine personal warmth, is evident on Earthtones -- it makes the album, in fact, which not only offers a marked maturation from the Crown City Rockers' debut, but also proves that a band most recognized for its live shows can transfer that charisma to the recording studio, resulting in a finished product that is one of the most immediately enjoyable albums to come out of the Bay Area underground this year.

Ouano, drummer Max MacVeety, and Headnodic had already formed a band while attending Boston's prestigious Berklee Music Academy in the mid-'90s. Lacking an MC, Headnodic contacted Ahmad -- who was then in a Los Angeles-based hip hop act with producer Woodstock -- about joining the fledgling group for a few live gigs. After hearing some beats that Headnodic played for him over the phone, Ahmad flew out to Boston to audition for his future bandmates. At the subsequent shows -- which were part jam-band euphoria and part hip hop throwdown -- the synergy between Ahmad and the group was so strong that the MC agreed to relocate to the Boston area and become a permanent member of what was then named the Mission, in tribute to Mission Hill in Boston.

After spending a couple of years gigging around Beantown, the group added Ahmad's former bandmate Woodstock to the lineup. In 1998, the musicians moved to San Francisco, where they made an almost immediate impact on the local music scene, establishing a reputation as one of the most energetic live acts around. In 2001, they dropped their debut album, One, recorded over the course of several years in both Boston and the bay. The response to the record was "surprising," in Headnodic's words. "I don't think any of us thought that it was as good as other people credited it as being."

Despite One's positive reception, the Crown City Rockers -- who changed their name following the album's release when they discovered the Mission was already taken ("Crown City" is slang for Pasadena, Woodstock's and Ahmad's hometown) -- were still widely viewed as more of a live phenomenon than studio stalwarts. While the Roots have made strides to disprove the theory that live hip hop is little more than a novelty act, there is still a lingering perception that the comparatively soft and loose rhythm section of live instruments is no match for the tighter grooves supplied by samplers and synths; and while groups such as CCR may be red hot onstage, their recorded output oftentimes fails to capture this exuberance.

When it came time to lay down Earthtones, the Crown City Rockers' solution to this dilemma was to treat the studio as a separate medium and simply pick the tracks that sounded best, regardless of what fans have come to expect from seeing the group's performances. Although some of the album's songs did originally start out as live numbers -- and one of the most striking tracks, the instrumental "D Minor Nine," was recorded in one take -- the group excluded two crowd favorites because they simply didn't translate.

"Each song has a different origin," Headnodic says while leaning toward my microphone, which sits in the middle of a large table until Ouano decides to play junior reporter and hold it up to the faces of her bandmates. "A lot of songs were just beats with rhymes, while other songs may be an idea that Ouano came up with a long time ago. We've tried every way possible."

"There's no process yet," Ouano interjects. "We're doing it day by day."

"Every single one of us is a beat-maker," Ahmad interjects. "We each come with our own ideas and see what happens."

"And we say, 'Oooohhhhh, that's good,' or 'Noooooo, that's not good,'" Ouano finally adds with a silly-stern voice followed by a series of giggles.

Somehow, the anarchic approach worked. Earthtones not only captures the energy of CCR's gigs, but also stands on its own as a meticulously produced studio effort, interweaving the rhythmic pop of classic hip hop and Parliament-era funk, the smooth flow of post-bop and '70s soul, and the gleeful sense of experimentation that has characterized the Bay Area scene from the Hieroglyphics to the Quannum crew. Not surprisingly, each member is equally represented: Ouano's lilting Rhodes strokes accent such songs as "Balance," "Fate," and "Seaside," while the rhythm section -- Headnodic's bass and MacVeety's relentless percussion -- defines the stellar "Fortitude" and "Maxlude." And though Ahmad is on point throughout -- making an argument that he's one of the bay's most overlooked MCs -- the sociopolitical meditation "Culture" finds the rapper truly hitting his stride.

The group also reaches beyond its own talent pool and enlists a who's who of Bay Area musicians. Saxophonist David Boyce from the Broun Fellinis -- "Our fifth Beatle," according to Woodstock -- guests on "D Minor Nine"; quickly emerging local DJ/ producer Zeph is featured throughout; Living Legend MC Scarub provides rhymes for "Balance"; and the gliding R&B vocals of Destina Woi grace the ethereal "Sidestep."

The album's steady procession of guests only adds to the comfortable, familial vibe, which is in full effect as we sit here at the ice cream shop, on a bright August day, enjoying a double hot fudge sundae and sharing stories about harrowing road trips.

About The Author

Sam Chennault


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