Stanton Moore, drummer for Galactic, knew that the release of his band's latest album would prompt an outbreak of head-scratching among certain long-time fans. The New Orleans quintet had earned a reputation as hard-working road dogs who delivered loose, limber funk to patchouli-doused crowds. With the departure of featured singer Theryl de Clouet in 2004, the all-instrumental Galactic had effectively become the Booker T. and the MGs of the jam-band set.
Then in August came From the Corner to the Block (Anti-), a scintillating collaboration with a legion of underground rappers: Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif, Gift of Gab, Boots Riley, Chali 2na and others. The disc features only one star turn — Crescent City emcee Juvenile grabs the mic for the title track.
Galactic has shared stages with alt-rappers before, and the band has never shied away from reinvention during its decade-plus run. Still, some fans just weren't havin' it.
Moore is philosophical about alienating a few core backers. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "You can keep doing what you're doing without changing it, stick to a formula and get bored with what you're doing, and some fans are going to get restless 'cause you aren't doing anything new. But when you do something new, you lose fans because you're not doing what they're used to.
"In that respect, it's kind of a no-win situation. So we've found that the best thing to do is create music you're excited about. If you stay with music you're not excited to play, it's gonna show; the band winds up losing interest and disbanding. Our approach is to grow as a band and explore things that we're interested in musically and sonically."
After the briefest pause, Moore adds a caveat of sorts: "Of course, we want as many people to like it as possible."
The project forced Moore, Galactic's only New Orleans native, to set aside the flowing groovesmanship that is his stock in trade.
"It was definitely different," he says. "Before, we'd have a bass line or a keyboard part, and I'd come up with a drum beat and I'd play along for four, five, six hours while the tune got fleshed out," he says. "This time, I'd lay down a bunch of grooves and leave."
Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman, who produced From the Corner to the Block, "cut the tracks up and added effects in a way that made it interesting," Moore continues. "I'd come back in later and re-record what he came up with."
If Moore was stultified by the methodology, he's not letting on. Lord knows, he gets to lay down plenty of NOLA-sauced beats on stage. At any rate, the drum tracks fit the music. For Corner to the Block, Galactic did not cast itself as an ensemble inviting rappers to spread some verse over their jams; rather, the group focused on crafting tight songs that involved considerable long-distance back-and-forth between the players and their guest emcees.
"We came up with embryos of songs and would put them up on an FTP site," Moore explains. "They'd write something to it and send it back to us, then we would structure what we were doing around what they were doing."
Moore cites the title track as an apt example of the process. Juvenile handed over a couple of tight verses. "We thought it might make a cool interlude," Moore says, "but there wasn't much of a song there." Galactic then enlisted the Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band, which came up with a call-and-response hook and rowdy horn part. The result is a rollicking party anthem that broke new ground. "Juvenile is essentially a bounce artist who raps over very programmed beats. We took his work and basically put it on top of a second-line beat," Moore says, referring to the Crescent City's signature syncopated rhythm.
Despite the fact that the current disc was not made by piling everyone into the studio and letting it spill out, Corner to the Block comes off as a particularly organic effort. The funk has that innate sense of swing indigenous to Galactic's hometown. And there are a few tunes sure to get concertgoers jumping out of their shoes, especially the heavy-grinding "Hustle Up" with a vibrant rap courtesy of The Coup's Boots Riley.
Lest anyone infer that Galactic has wandered from its New Orleans roots, the disc features two musical stalwarts from different ends of the city's generational spectrum: Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, head of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, serves up a hoodoo chant on the Afro-tinged "Second and Dryades," and up-and-comer Trombone Shorty sits in for the instrumental rave-up "Tuff Love."
Galactic did not end the endeavor in the recording studio. During their current tour, they've featured at least two rappers per show, interspersing hip-hop workouts with tried-and-true instrumentals. Boots Riley and Mr. Lif are scheduled to appear at the Jannus Landing gig.
"We're having a lot of fun with it," Moore says. "We're not trying to re-create the [rap] songs in a sterile way. We're staying truthful to the songs, but something might happen live and we'll incorporate that into the tune. We've reworked some of the songs to sound a bit better live."
The studio versions are notably devoid of instrumental solos, but that doesn't hold true for the stage, Moore says:
"Oh yeah, we've opened it up for solos and stuff."