The clock hasn’t struck 11 on a rainy Thursday night in Belltown, and Seattle hip-hop group Champagne Champagne is already causing trouble.
The trio of local musicians—Pearl Dragon, Thomas Gray, and Mark Gajadhar—are inside the Crocodile downing tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a lightning pace, and are livelier at the back of the bar than touring act Sebastien Grainger is onstage. While Gajadhar, who also plays drums in local post-punk outfit Past Lives and is a famed Blood Brothers alum, mostly keeps his cool, Gray, with his scraggly beard and highly animated demeanor, looks like he could have starred in Fraggle Rap if such a show had ever existed. He’s bouncing all over the place and beaming from ear to ear, while Dragon, who was drinking Jameson for free earlier at a bar down the street, heads to the back of the Crocodile to see what food he can pilfer from the green room.
Based on attitude alone, they’re just as much hip-hop as they are punk rock, but if you even try to squeeze them into a single genre category, they laugh. “We just want to make good music,” Dragon says, as if people keep missing the point. “It’s not just hip-hop or rock or whatever. We make music that feels good to us, and that can be anything.”
Indeed, their self-titled debut album, released last month, has songs that run the gamut from ’80s new wave (“Cover Girls”) and art rock (“Tropical Trina”) to experimental disco (“What’s Your Fantasy”) and emo (“Molly Ringwald”), all layered under surging hip-hop vocals. It’s a singular sound not comparable to anything nationally or locally—although critics are constantly, and quite lazily, throwing them into the hipster-hop category due to their friendship with Mad Rad. While they’ve got lots of love for their lighter-skinned counterparts, and the two acts hang together frequently, Champagne Champagne doesn’t want to be associated with the hipster-hop movement at all.
“It sounds like a dying genre already, even though it’s barely even been successful,” Dragon says. “We don’t want any part of it. I’m definitely not a hipster myself. I’ve come in the lineage of Bad Brains or Prince or Arthur Lee, black dudes that did their own thing. Besides, I can’t be a hipster, man; I don’t wear bright-enough colors.”
The group is aware that people don’t know how to accurately categorize their oddball brand of hip-hop, but typically that works in their favor. Knob tweakers, street rappers, and, yes, even hipsters know they can come out to a Champagne Champagne show and hear something they can relate to. At the end of the day, it’s all party music, and nobody in the city is better at mashing it together into one cohesive sound than these guys. They’ve already been booked to play Sasquatch this year, and recently played three raucous shows at SXSW in Austin.
If anything, it’s the group’s inability to blend in with contemporary artists that gives them more luster. “Molly Ringwald” was played on England’s Radio One a week after they returned from Texas, and it gives them hope that they’ll be able toperform internationally in the future as well. Says Gajadhar: “A year from now, we’d like to be in Europe playing those festivals like Reading and Leeds, but it takes a lot of planning, it doesn’t just happen overnight.”
Gajadhar knows on a practical level what it takes to get there. He toured nationally with the Blood Brothers for over a decade, and has lived the crusty, rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle for the bulk of his adult life. If anything, he worries that things are happening too fast for Champagne Champagne, and wants to plot things out rather than just play every show offered to them.
“Sometimes I think we’ve skipped the stage of paying dues as a band,” Gajadhar says. “We played [the Capitol Hill] Block Party as our third show ever. Who plays Block Party as their third show?”
At first glance, Gray and Dragon appear as though they could be brothers. They’ve got two of the best afros in Seattle, and are locked in musically like twins. They’ve rapped together as friends for years, first in neighborhoods like Skyway and Rainier Valley and then in the Capitol Hill scene, as the two cool black weirdos who could outrap and outparty everyone. They’ve got a bond that goes beyond music, which contributes to them being so tight when rapping as a tandem.
Combining their raw energy with Gajadhar’s polished musicianship is a dynamic that works. Gajadhar, who also uses the alias DJ Gajamagic, programs all their beats and effects live. Playing a private birthday party for a friend at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery on April 5, the trio hits the stage with roughly 50 of their closest friends in the audience, and plays an hour-long set, house-party style. The MCs spend just as much time in the crowd rapping and being draped by their friends as they do onstage. But they’re like that wherever they play, and it’s that connection to their audience which keeps their fan base growing.
“We’ve got a friend base, not just a fan base,” Gray says. “We kick it with everybody, so people just love us in general.” But then he pauses. “That makes it hard to figure out who’s a real fan of our music, and who fucks with us ’cause we’ve got good vibes. But whatever, people feel us and that’s what matters.”
Somewhere in the midst of their Lo-Fi set, Dragon punches a hole in the wall mid-verse, Gajadhar plays tambourine, keyboards, a drum machine, and a melodica, and Gray gets playfully molested by nearly every girl in the club. As far as precision goes, the show is a shambles, but the energy they’re giving off as a band is encompassing, and you can’t help but laugh and throw yourself into the fray.
But just when you think Champagne Champagne are little more than party rockers with rabid fans, they play a song like “Radio Raheem,” a tune Dragon wrote about his younger brother, Samuel Curry, who was killed by an off-duty police officer behind Pike Place Market in 2007. It’s a deeply emotional track that adds depth to their catalog. Much of the group’s newer material, which most of the public hasn’t heard yet, revolves around more introspective topics, which suggests they’re growing as well.
“The longer [we] make music together, the more cohesion we have as a group,” Gajadhar says. “We’ve got work to do, but this can definitely turn into something real special.”