Interview: Flobots Fight With Tools

Published at Okayplayer.com

Flobots Fight With Tools
By Anupa Mistry

Everyone knows that person who never learned to whistle or snap their fingers as a kid. What about your 20-something-year-old friend who still can’t do a somersault? Glossing over our own personal defects, we’re all guilty of giving the royal screw face to these ostensibly underdeveloped individuals.

But imagine being that cartwheel-challenged person forced, years later, to relive the trauma of sixth grade gym class and pulling it off with Mary Lou Retton-like aplomb? What if, a decade too late, you finally learned to ride a bike with no handlebars?

It was that one small thing – cycling along, hands on knees – and the resultant chest-puffing joy that became the base of Denver-based Flobots’ popular single “Handlebars.”

Three years ago, what started as a rap group became a rap orchestra when two emcees – Stephen Brackett (Brer Rabbit) and Jamie Laurie (Jonny 5) – hooked up with other musicians from Denver’s fledgling but flourishing music scene (guitarist Andy Guerrero, violist Mackenzie Roberts, drummer Kenny Ortiz, and bassist Jesse Walker, and sometimes trumpeter Joe Ferrone). Reducing that musical menagerie to the confines of a single track was one thing, accomplished on 2005’s Platypus, but the socially relevant raps on the Flobots’ latest, Universal-released, album Fight With Tools is another. It’s definitive – their real thing.

Okayplayer: There are a lot of you in the band, six permanent members specifically. How did you come together?

Brer Rabbit: It’s been a long process and it has to do with what’s unique about Denver. Denver’s like a big, small city so once you hit the music scene it’s quick to get to know all the people who are in it. Me and Jonny 5, we’ve known each other since fourth grade and have been making comic books and spitting raps since then. Andy has been in bands since high school and that’s when I met him. Mackenzie has been playing since she was six. Jesse has been playing with Andy since high school. Kenny’s been a respected drummer on the Denver scene for like 15 years. It was just trial and error that brought us together.

OKP: You don’t hear a lot about Denver as a music hub. What’s it like?

BR: It’s amazing but it hasn’t always been. Denver, for the longest time, was just a sports town. If you wanted to go to concert on the same night the Broncos were playing, no one would be there. It’s a scene that’s actively supporting the musicians. I’ve got a friend who’s in a swamp-rock blues band and he can’t stand our music, but he will come to our shows to support me. Since it’s not an established music scene yet, the people who are in it are doing it because they love it. That’s what’s keeping it diverse and it’s pretty passionate.

OKP: So a bunch of local musicians got together to create music as Flobots. How do you condense what each one of you does into a track?

BR: Every single song is different. Some have been generated when we needed a change of pace and people just start jamming around or messing. Or someone might come with a song idea… Jesse might come with a bass line and he’ll talk about what his vision for that bass line is, the feelings and emotions associated with it. And then we’ll all try to build and work in coordination with that vision. So different members of the band will become directors of songs. The idea changes but it always works well when we have that one person leading it because it started with them.

OKP: You and Jonny 5 rap, but there are instruments the band utilizes that aren’t necessarily associated with hip-hop. How would you describe your sound?

BR: We’ve had to struggle on the corporate level to maintain the hip-hop label. We feel we are going back to hip-hop at its roots, as far as being message music. I feel like we’re hip-hop by pulling on those original influences that birthed hip-hop such as live instrumentation. Chuck D came by my college eight years ago to do a talk, and he was like “Why is it that black musicians are shying away from the instruments that we changed the world with? It’s like we’re phobic of the guitar or the drums.” That really struck me. It’s almost like there’s this imposed limitation, like if you’re doing hip-hop you have to do it over electronic beats or over a turntable and there can’t be an organic element on there. It’s kind of a triumph for us to be on top of the hip-hop charts, along with folks like T-Pain and Akon. Nobody is questioning why that stuff is being called hip-hop when cats aren’t even rapping! I think the fifth element of hip-hop is innovation.

OKP: As a rapper and an activist, where do you draw your musical and ideological influences from?

BR: Performance-wise, definitely The Roots and Gogol Bordello. People are electrified when they leave those shows! As far as composition, I love David Axelrod and, of course, anything from the much-lauded golden era of hip-hop. Lyrically – folks who are really just pushing it. When Lil Wayne tries, that cat is incredible! Underground heads can’t stand anybody who’s got that level of visibility, but there’s a reason for it. He’s been working his butt off on mixtapes, honing his craft. Lupe Fiasco… and you’ve got virtuosos like MF Doom, who are so many levels beyond anybody. As emcees, Jonny 5 and I are chasing those cats.

And ideologically, King, Malcolm X. Paulo Freire, the guy who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That’s kind of the manifesto of our cause. Also Jesus Christ, when viewed from a very progressive, activist lens.

OKP: Flobots signed with Universal last year. What effect does major label politics have on your politics?

BR: We went to a major label in the hopes of getting our message across on a wider platform but we were also aware of the fights that we would happen. There have been requests from radio stations for us to take the word ‘holocaust’ out of “Handlebars.” It’s amazing to me that you have Lil Wayne’s song on every station in the United States, and a few words might be edited out but the song is about getting blowjobs! We have a song where we’re referencing the word ‘holocaust’ – not endorsing, but reinforcing the fact that these things happen and continue to happen, and not just to Jewish people and not just during World War II. But that is taboo.

OKP: How do you respond to that?

BR: (To a figurative program director) “UH, NO!” Well, you can not play it, or enough people might call up requesting the song that you’ll end up playing it anyway.

OKP: Why did social issues become central to the Flobots?

BR: It goes back to hip-hop at its beginning. It was coming out of neighborhoods where people looked around and saw nothing they owned. And then people were able to start reclaiming territory – you bombed a piece on the wall and you’re making your mark, you plug in your turntables at some intersection and people are able to celebrate in the face of something oppressive. We’re not up here on the soapbox, yelling at people. We think hip-hop was so effective at its beginning because it was also celebrating. We try to keep the content heavy but the delivery celebratory.

OKP: Politics can be a scary realm for musicians sometimes…

BR: We’re not some straight up anti-Bush, anti-conservative band. What we are is pro-dialogue. If I look at my group of friends to see how many Republican or Democrat friends I have, I’d count none – those are really important conversations that I’m not having. The less that these elements are in my life, the easier it is to make me view them as less than human. I was talking with a friend who was telling me about these very conservative people he knew who liked Jimi Hendrix, and I was like ‘Republicans like Jimi Hendrix?!’ Well, of course they like Jimi Hendrix! I can’t believe I had this idea that they wouldn’t.

OKP: So, aside from promoting dialogue, what specific causes are the Flobots down for?

BR: Right now, we’re thinking about a step beyond the current groundswell for Obama. If he gets elected as president, there’re a lot of things he’ll have to answer for. What we’re trying to push for is getting Americans proactive for how America will be. We have this Web site, americawillbe.org, which is based on a Langston Hughes poem (“Let America Be America Again”). People have an agency in creating an America that’s supposed to be: the flag that we’re wearing is one from the future that people wanted.

We’re thinking about reinvigorating democracy, we’re anti-war, and also against the invisible class war: the war that’s happening between classes, the shrinking middle class and the growing disparity between rich and poor. Classism is a cancer in our society.

OKP: Talking about pushing for change and Obama, you don’t have to publicly divulge who you’re voting for but…

BR:
Oh no! Don’t get it twisted, we’re voting for Obama. When Hilary dropped out, it was before a show in Detroit, and you heard this collective “YEAAAH!” from backstage. Everybody in the band has actively helped and campaigned for Obama.

OKP: What currency does his message of hope and change hold?

BR: I recently read an article (The New York Times, June 17) about how Obama’s rise to prominence has not only got a lot of people of color feeling proud in America, but also in France as well. France has a long-standing tradition of being a race-less country… like you’re just French. But that doesn’t allow people to be proud or unified or to even know how many black folks are in France. His rise to prominence has restarted this black pride movement. People are standing up and being proud about their heritage and their culture and where they came from and demanding to be heard and recognized. That’s not just change, that’s a paradigm shift and that’s what Barack Obama’s rhetoric of hope is promising. But it’s our job to hold him to it.

OKP: Last question, sort of related to change: can you ride a bike with no handlebars? Because I can’t. What’s the technique?

BR:
Yeah, I can turn corners and all of that! Anyone who can ride a bike normally can ride with no handlebars. Put your seat lower: it’s easier to control your center of gravity and keeps your feet close to the ground. It’s almost like you’re controlling the front wheel with your hips. If you’re going at an okay speed, it gets easier and easier to stay riding. It’s kind of like riding a unicycle. Jonny 5, who wrote the song “Handlebars,” was like 26 or 27 when he learned how to do that. That rush of learning something new, he was like “whoa!” You need to do that! Before you put this article out, you need to do that so you can have that same feeling of achievement!

Writer’s note: I tried and I skinned my knee. Thanks, Flobots.