Music Awards: Crown City Rockers

The ability to not just party-hop but also to genre-hop is why the Crown City Rockers (then known as Mission) moved to the Bay Area from Boston in 1999. It's also exactly what has kept the Rockers here as their sound has developed into one of the most versatile and individual in hip-hop today.

For example, consider a recent evening with Rockers' MC Raashan Ahmad. "I had this night recently, man," he recounts over the phone from his Oakland home, "where I started out sitting in at Adam Theis' Brass, Bows, and Beats at Yoshi's, which is just an amazing collection of music in and of itself. ... A friend of mine is in an indie-rock band called Somehow at Sea and they performed at Café du Nord, so I sat in on their set, and then I went over to the Om Records anniversary party where Mark Farina and J-Boogie were spinning, so I got to hang over there, too. So that's the thing about the Bay: All artists are welcoming in each other's scenes, and it feels really good to be a part of a community like this."

Wielding that rarest of hip-hop instruments — a live band — instead of a couple of turntables, the Rockers have steadily built an audience as diverse as the Bay Area that inspires them. Ahmad, for one, delights in the subversiveness of their sound. "It introduces a lot of people who maybe don't think they like hip-hop," he says, pointing to the Rockers' recent set at the über-hippie Earthdance Festival and their upcoming appearance at the indie-rock–slanted Treasure Island Music Festival. "We've been able to play a lot of places that don't normally have hip-hop, but they'll let a funk band or a jazz band come in. So we kind of creep in and say, 'Oh, yeah, we're a funk band, we're a jazz band,' and then once we're in the door we show what we do and people are like, 'Oh, I didn't know this is what hip-hop was!'"

That ability to appeal to different audiences is rooted in the Rockers' sound, a tightly coiled mixture of different sonic neighborhoods. And that sound, despite the band's beginnings on the East Coast, is firmly grounded in Bay Area culture. The six-degrees-of-separation vibe that permeates the interconnected Bay Area music scene has always informed the Rockers' recordings, which continues on their new album, The Day After Forever, with guest turns from locally renowned vocalists like Aima and Destani Wolf.

That variety of influences has left its mark on the members' creative senses as well. Bassist and producer Ethan Parsonage (aka Headnodic) raves about local indie-rock faves the Morning Benders, and says he wants to collaborate with rock bands. Ahmad jokes about how differences in weather supposedly influence the West Coast vs. East Coast hip-hop sound ("That's why the Pharcyde is from out here, and Wu-Tang is from New York," he laughs), but turns serious when he talks about how the Bay Area affects him. When he first moved here, he recalls attending a meeting of different types of artists who were exploring ways to help each other and build community, a gathering that to him "was what this place is all about."

That community vibe that feeds the Rockers' creativity has now resulted in their third full-length album, which harks back to hip-hop's late-'80s and early-'90s heyday, when innovative artists merged intricate, socially conscious lyrics with sonic collages that reframed familiar soul and funk samples. The disc also echoes that era in not requiring repeated trips to the fast-forward button. It's that rare beast, a hip-hop album you can listen to from start to finish.

The members of Crown City Rockers — Ahmad and Parsonage, keyboardist Kat Ouano (aka Kat 010), drummer Max MacVeety, and sampler Peter Alvarado (aka Woodstock) — are deeply immersed in hip-hop history and culture ("We are definitely standing on the shoulders of the greats," Ahmad says), and have their own theories as to why hip-hop has grown distinctly less innovative and more homogenous. Parsonage blames rigid sample clearance laws for "strangling musicality," and mentions the trend of mainstream hip-hop artists who use the same handful of producers. "There's no ownership of a style anymore," he says.

The Day After Forever is a party record in the best sense. It dips into lots of styles along its 45-minute ride — sunny East Bay funk ("Make It Hotter"), silky synth-driven soul ("Soul"), vintage-analog electrofunk ("Astroshocks"), and more — yet has a cohesiveness that eludes many current hip-hop records.

That's no fluke. The Crown City Rockers have grown into a powerhouse that would give the Roots — the reigning kings of live hip-hop — a run for their money. The Rockers bring a level of musicianship worthy of the classic jazz and funk samples that dot their favorite albums, all in the service of every great hip-hop record's best asset: the MC.

And Ahmad doesn't disappoint. His flow as a rapper is so effortless, you almost don't notice the verbal gymnastics and intricate rhyme couplets he slips into tracks like "Astroshocks" ("Hating, loving, sex, and breathing/Heartache, hurts, and cursing, leaving/Sweating, crying, birthing, dying, asking why and/Eating, reading, dancing, screaming/Living and believing there's a better reason") or "Soul," a mile-a-minute tip of the hat to a chunk of his record collection ("SOS Band rocking like Smokey and Patrice/Debarge, L. Richie/All before my time, but the shine still hit me").

If Ahmad's rhymes give the Rockers' grooves focus, he's quick to credit the band's live energy as boosting his rapping skills. "It's made me a better MC," he says. "It's made me think about fitting in with the band, not just being a guy rapping, but actually being someone in the band."

Where this all-encompassing creativity will lead — aside from one genuinely solid hip-hop album —is anyone's guess. For all its local success, the band hasn't really broken through on a national mainstream level. Its last album, 2004's Earthtones, was an eternity ago in hip-hop years, and certainly enough time to fuel Internet chatter about the band's demise. But The Day After Forever is on Gold Dust Media, a hip-hop label that should give the band more promotional muscle than it's had in the past. And the Rockers' schedule is anything but light — after the Treasure Island Music Festival, they're heading to Japan and Indonesia. So maybe this will be the push that finally reminds the music world that there's more to live hip-hop than just Jimmy Fallon's late-night backing band.

Regardless, Ahmad and his crew are sanguine. "There's a lot of really amazing talent out here, man," he says about the band's adopted home. "I'm excited, because it's a good time to be in the Bay Area right now."

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