Galactic: Every Corner Has a Story (Relix Revisited)

John Swenson on February 12, 2013

Fat Tuesday seems like a fine time to revisit this feature on Galactic’s 2007 studio effort, From the Corner to the Block.

WORD is burning about Galactic’s Bonnaroo performance with a host of MCs debuting the new album From the Corner to the Block.

“It was outrageous,” declares Lyrics Born, the Bay Area MC whose wonderfully detailed story “I Got It (What You Need?)” kicks off the album in high style. “It was amazing,” he raves. “They started at 12:30 and played until 4 a.m. without a break. It was bonkers!”

From the Corner to the Block features Galactic’s infectious dance grooves behind a densely layered revue of killer MCs, including Lyrics Born, Juvenile, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Boots Riley of The Coup, Chali2na of Jurassic 5, Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, Mr. Lif and Lateef the Truth Speaker. Each of them delivers lyrics describing scenes on their particular corner, giving the record a powerful theme that underlies its musical coherence. Produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman and hip-hop mixmaster Count, the album is nothing short of a masterpiece from both a sonic and lyrical perspective.

The Bonnaroo show was the culmination of three years of struggle as the band attempted to determine its future following the departure of vocalist Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet in 2004. Back in 2003 Galactic released Ruckus, a song-oriented album that featured Houseman more prominently than any of its previous efforts. During the ensuing touring campaign to promote the album, Houseman developed complications from diabetes that forced him to stop touring. Galactic was faced with a huge question mark about its future.

“When the band first started it was all about Houseman,” Ellman says. “The whole band obviously was not from New Orleans so when we got to New Orleans and we started playing with Houseman it was what we were all into – still are – especially when the band first started, he was a huge part of it and a big influence. We’ve always been an instrumental band and Houseman was like a permanent special guest.”

Bassist Robert Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines were steeped in the Washington D.C. area Go Go scene when they started Galactic after moving to New Orleans to attend college. The band developed its identity as a Meters-like funk outfit after native New Orleanian Stanton Moore took over on drums and then Rich Vogel took over on keyboards. Ellman, who had been playing saxophone in local brass bands, took the lineup in yet another direction when he joined. The group’s live shows became legendary for lengthy sets of hard-edged funk capped off by Houseman’s old-school R&B vocals.

“Every time we go into the studio it’s like the next step for us,” says Ellman. “We do all the live shows, which are based around improvisation, trying to do something new and interesting with the songs, capturing the spirit of the moment. But when you go into the studio it gives you a chance to redefine yourself in more of a controlled setting. I always feel like after we make a CD it’s another step. Ruckus felt like that. It was very much song structured for us. We toured the record pretty heavily before Houseman found out about his diabetes. It came down to just being on the road was not good for him, it was hard for him to take care of himself or eat right out there. He’s certainly a lot healthier right now than he would have been had he stayed on the road with us.”

Galactic kept touring, first with guest vocalists then just as an instrumental group.

“The idea for this record was always in the back of our mind,” says Vogel. “Since parting ways with Theryl we were playing instrumentally and that was going good in terms of the live shows and everybody was playing well, but making records is a different animal and there wasn’t a lot of inspiration in the idea of just cutting an instrumental record.”

Galactic has often paired their bills with progressive hip-hop acts, and it was during one tour with Lyrics Born that the idea for From the Corner to the Block began to take shape.

“Lyrics Born was a little bit of the nucleus of the whole project,” says Ellman. “We’ve worked with him on the road and we’re big fans and we love performing with him. Stylistically, it was a really good mix, as it was with all the MCs. Originally we were talking to LB about producing the whole thing. We had this even crazier idea at the beginning – a concept album which involved a lot of MCs playing different characters with a narrative running through the whole thing. LB got really busy so he didn’t have the time to do it, but in the end we started working with all these MCs and it kind of changed the concept around a little bit.”

Vogel noted that the concept was based on a book called Intersection – New Orleans.

“A lot of the music that influenced us as a band is a lot of the same stuff that the first generation of hip-hop was about,” says Vogel. “We wanted to model ourselves on the great funky rhythm sections – Booker T and The MGs, The Meters, James Brown’s band. That was our school, learning to play that stuff. So this was such a natural idea. Here we are a funky groove band, it makes sense for us to work with interesting MCs. One album we talked about when we were coming up with the idea for this project was The Brand New Heavies record that they made with all the MCs, Heavy Rhymin’ Vol. 1. We wanted to make a record on that model for the current generation of underground hip-hop artists. We came up with the corner idea based on Intersection – New Orleans to give the album thematic unity.”

Work began on the album at the band’s New Orleans studio during the summer of 2005, when Moore went in and recorded drum parts: “I would lay down drum tracks, then Ben would take what I played and put effects on it,” says Moore. “He would maybe lilt it up, slice and dice it, start it in a different place and just do different things with it to make it interesting. Ben has been getting into a lot of production over the years and he was actually starting to make some tracks so when it came time to do this record he had already developed some skills in this area.”

Before the band could take the next step in the recording process it was blindsided by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the studio. Moore’s drum tracks were safe, but suddenly the band had nowhere to live, let alone record.

“We went away just for a weekend totally unprepared to be gone for months,” says Ellman. “We didn’t have a chance to properly evacuate. We left town with nothing but a backpack, so it was like ‘What’s gonna happen?’ Our first instinct was: ‘Let’s book a tour, we need to work right now. Let’s go on the road and start playing shows if we can’t go home. We did do a couple and we realized it was not a good idea. It wasn’t time to go provide the party. We were not in the right head space to really do that. Our first show after the storm we were all crying onstage, it was really difficult. We felt an obligation before we started playing to talk about it a little bit to the audience. It was so fresh. But we couldn’t just get onstage and play. We just weren’t ready; it brought us all to tears. We needed some time, we were scattered and we were trying to figure out what we we’re gonna do personally, people had families and it was too difficult. We ended up working on the CD, which was good.” (The band has also recorded a track with Robbie Robertson for the upcoming Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino, which benefits the Tipitina’s Foundation.)

The band holed up in a studio in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, and wrote instrumental pieces based around Moore’s recorded drum passages. After a month of this they’d come up with enough material to send to the MCs and ask them to add their verses.

“They gave me a concept,” says Lyrics Born. “They said ‘We want you to write a song about what happens on a corner. This is your corner.’ Basically I drew from my experiences growing up in the flea-market scene out here. I grew up in Berkeley, California. Anybody from Berkeley knows in those days everybody tried to sell you something, or sell you on something. So it was a really easy song to write, and a lot of fun because I had a lot of personal experiences to write from. I don’t get asked to do this kind of stuff that often.”

Coordinating the performances of the MCs was a painstaking process that required organization, trust, a lot of patience and some luck to pull off. “We kept asking ourselves ‘Is this a good idea?’” says Vogel. “We know how hard it is just for the five of us to get something accomplished. So to have this collective project with so many different artists who all have careers, they’re working on their own shit and that’s obviously their prime concern. There was a point where we said ‘Oh man, what were we thinking?’ But once you get one or two on board you start to relax a little bit. There was a snowball effect.”

Once the record was completed the group had to figure out how to play it live. They jumped in deep water by making Bonnaroo the debut showcase, but the gamble paid off. “The toughest track to figure out how to do live was ‘Second and Dryades’ with Monk Boudreaux,” says Moore. "We would meet for two hours every day before the rehearsals. We had about four eight-hour rehearsals for Bonnaroo, then a fifth one with the MCs.

“On the Monk thing Ben and I had to figure out who was gonna play which part, which loops would go through whom. We actually sampled some of the effected drums and put them into different samplers, Ben has one and I’ve got this Roland SDBS, which I hit with sticks, so I’m playing a combination of things. We actually vary it live, but we’ve gotten it to the point where it can sound exactly like the record if we want it to. We wanted to add a little live element to it. On some of the other tunes, I have two bass drums up there anyway so I can switch back and forth from a smaller bass drum to a bigger bass drum and I’m also switching between different snare drums for different tracks.
“Bonnaroo was fun. It was kind of a lot for us to bite off musically because we had to learn three or four songs for each MC we played with but during rehearsals we figured out a way to do it.”

Galactic now stands at a crossroads that could create a whole new audience for its music.

“We’re hopeful it’s going to bring some people in who’ve never been to a Galactic show,” says Vogel. “We’re hoping to bring these two audiences together who may seem to be disparate but actually have a lot in common. There’s definitely an overlap between alternative-rock kids and hip-hop hipsters. We’ve already seen a little bit of it in our club set at South by Southwest and on a larger scale at Bonnaroo, where it felt like we had the best of both worlds going on. It had the intensity of a Galactic show with some great MCs who are dynamic performers. I don’t know how many people were in that tent but it looked crowded to me and people were jumping up and down the whole time.”

Lyrics Born wouldn’t guarantee that the hip-hop community would embrace From the Corner… with the same enthusiasm as Galactic fans, but he knows he was part of something historic. “I don’t know if that was their goal or not,” he says. “It’s hard to predict or control how other people are going to perceive you. But I think the most important thing is that they made the record that they were shooting for – and more.”

“That show to me was a testing crowd and we did view it as a watershed because the next question is how is this gonna fly live?,” says Vogel. “If Bonnaroo is any indication it looks like it might fly very well.”