Jack Straw Productions, the studio where KCMU radio tapes "The Live Room," looks a bit like a post-collegiate living room; it's got a dowdy thrift-store sofa, several uncomfortable chairs, and a carpet of an unidentifiable murky color. This Saturday night, there also happens to be thousands of dollars worth of musical instruments and equipment—a tenor sax, a trumpet, turn-tables—because the Seattle funk/hip-hop crew Hi Fi Killers will soon play for the show's 2,000 or so listeners.
Hi Fi Killers
Endfest, Kitsap Pavilion, August 1
The band gets some coaching from producer Cheryl Waters, including a request not to mention any upcoming club gigs, because the station will re-run the program. "How about profanity?" quips Hi Fi Killers DJ/multi-instrumentalist Kevin Lee Oakland. "Let's just put it this way," Waters replies, "I'm the only one here who can lose my job. I'm not so concerned about the music, it's more in the interview."
"So you can do 'Hardball,'" says the other, more visible half of the Hi Fi Killers, Johnny "Guitar" Horn, to guest MC Sampson S. "Hardball" contains not only the "MF" word, but also the "B" word and the "GD" word.
Lyrics are a fairly new concern for the Hi Fi Killers, whose first record, Loaded (Loosegroove), was an all-instrumental affair, with the exception of dialogue samples from '70s B-movies and TV shows. The influence of Al Green and James Brown jockeys with hip-hop, early Rolling Stones, even a bit of jazz in the Hi Fi Killers' music. For their recent second full-length, Possession, Horn (who also DJs the KCMU reggae show "Positive Vibrations") and Oakland wrote tracks with guest vocalists Sampson, MC Dope, Meganut from labelmates Weapon of Choice, and Tobias Flowers.
Waters asks about their lineup. For their live shows, Oakland and Horn are usually joined by at least six other people—two horn players, a drummer, a keyboard player, a DJ, and at least one MC. "If you show up, you're in it," Horn jokes, before recalling with a straight face how he met Oakland "in the service in Asia, back in '69 or '79." Looking owlish in large glasses, Horn gently counts down each song. The band turns in a relaxed nine-song set surrounded by friends and label personnel.
"Nowadays, more than ever, music is a total melting pot," Horn says later in the week. "You've got reggae that's in Spanish; you've got every possible influence in hip-hop; hip-hop's spilled over into the mainstream rock shit. There's still pure styles, but it's all kind of melted."
His band's mélange of influences—many of which Horn shares with his father, Jim Horn, a popular session musician who was responsible for the distinctive flute on "The Hustle"—are part of the reason for their current appeal. But Horn has a more pragmatic explanation: "I think a lot of people are liking us because they think we're going blow up, so they want to be friends with us," he muses. "The direct approval from an audience is kind of fun . . . but when you sit back and watch how a record hits people, it's a little different."
In fact, a couple of Hi Fi Killers fans are DJs at Seattle commercial-alternative station the End, and they lobbied for the duo to play the private, industry-heavy after-party at Endfest, the station's annual outdoor concert. Eventually, though, the Killers got some airplay on the End shows "The Young and the Restless" (a locals-only program) and "Ultrasound" (which spotlights electronic and dance music), and they were offered a slot at the sold-out event itself. "There's been a lot of turmoil about this show," Horn says. "It's been on-again, off-again.... Our stuff is on [the station], but it's not the first choice, the main tune."
Another factor in the equation is money. The Hi Fi Killers have to pay all of their own expenses to get out to the concert in Bremerton; neither their label nor the End is giving them even gas money. Though Horn says he's looking forward to the show, he's also skeptical of its power to sell records or gain the duo larger exposure. "I'm 35," he says a bit wearily. "I've been hearing 'Things'll come from this,' for years."
A few days later, at Endfest, the Hi Fi Killers' "hip-hop lineup" debuts. There's no live instrumentation: Behind a curtain at the side of the stage, DJ Soul One mans the turntables, and Oakland supervises the DAT backing track; Horn is center stage with vocalist Tobias Flowers and MCs Sampson and Dope. The predominantly teenage audience in the "Electronic Pavilion"—an air-conditioned, hangarlike structure with the ambiance of a high school gymnasium—appears confused. The Hi Fi Killers' music is funky and danceable, but it doesn't have Puff Daddy's blatantly recognizable samples, nor does it have the Beastie Boys' fast-talking humor. It doesn't help that the stage set-up emphasizes the MCs, who aren't interested in free-styling for 30 minutes straight, and so fall into a repetitive wave-your-hands-in-the-air rap.
To some listeners, the set recalls the sparse, repetitive sound of early-'80s hip-hop. Yet, as Horn pointed out earlier in the week, the current vogue of '80s "old-school" hip-hop is a fraught situation. "By the time that stuff faded," Horn recalls, "I was glad to see it fade. . . . The old foundation cuts are pretty good, but the bad stuff from that time is horrible.
"We are nostalgic, though," he concludes. "Part of it is that we bring back old memories, but part of it's that the classics just won't go away."