By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
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By Nathan Smith
Guitarist Vernon Reid is describing Front End Lifter, the album that he and DJ Logic (né Jason Kibler) released a few months back under the band name Yohimbe Brothers. "The songs are about entering different vibe spaces," he continues. "Some of them have kind of traditional structures, but a lot of them don't. They're just very ... odd. Each piece definitely has a thing or a vibe or an image associated with it."
Some might expect a summit meeting between a famed guitarist and hotshot turntablist to produce little more than a scratch-and-shred cutting contest. But Front End Lifter easily subverts such expectations. The fifteen tracks are dense sound collages of jazz, rock, blues, deep funk, electronica, hip-hop and, on one occasion, even square-dance music. There are vocal passages here and there, both sung and rapped, plus a few snippets of comic dialogue. "One of my favorite moments on the album is right after the second track, 'Tenemental,'" Reid says. "Then, suddenly, you're in '6996-Club-Yohimbe.' When that loop comes in, it's so different. Even though they both have a hip-hop thing, they take you into a completely different space."
For Reid and Logic, this was a collaboration long in the making. The two have known each other for more than a decade. Reid, of course, is most celebrated for his pyrotechnic guitar work with the rock band Living Colour, which broke up in the mid-'90s but reunited for a tour last year. (The band members are thinking about making a new album.) But he's also a musician brought up on the downtown New York jazz scene, where he played with Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. More recently, he produced an album for avant-blues iconoclast James "Blood" Ulmer. Reid has also recorded with Carlos Santana, Bill Frisell and Salif Keita, among others; composed music for dance companies; scored films; released the solo album Mistaken Identity; and created a multimedia piece, My Science Project.
Logic gained his reputation as the turntablist in the funk band Eye and I. He's recorded and performed with artists of all musical stripes, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Don Byron, Joshua Redman, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, String Cheese Incident, Marc Ribot and Ratdog. And he's released two albums on his own, Presents Project Logic and The Anomaly.
"He's from the Bronx, the crucible of hip-hop," Reid says of Logic. "I've known him since '87 or so. He was literally a child when I met him." Both Reid and Logic are founding members of the Black Rock Coalition, a collective representing black artists and their supporters and (as stated in their manifesto) dedicated to "development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music."
"It's survived," Reid says of the group, which formed in the mid-'80s. "People have not simply let it die and said, 'OK, that happened.' At the time the organization started, blacks in rock were either your hired help or were few and far between [as artists in their own right]. I guess the ultimate thing is that things have changed. You know, Arthur Lee and Love are out playing again. People like India.Arie and Ben Harper are out there -- like, Ben Harper has a boxed set! Lenny Kravitz is a rock star! At the time we were coming out, these things were kind of unthinkable. But the idea is that blackness and black culture, the breadth of it can't be narrowly defined."
Still, certain perceptions need correcting. "It bothers me that War is not considered one of the most important rock bands," Reid says. "If Little Feat and Steely Dan can be considered important rock bands, then War is an important rock band -- not R&B band, not funk band, even though it is funky and all. They were an important rock & roll band. That's my problem with rock history -- it's like there's this shadow history of rock & roll. The idea that the Isley Brothers are not as important as the Stones drives me nuts. It's kinda like, in what world is Funkadelic not a rock & roll band?"
Yohimbe Brothers isn't necessarily designed to strike further blows against the empire; rather, Reid approached the project with the idea of creating some interesting music and having more than a little fun. Even the name of the group is a bit of a goof. Yohimbe, sometimes called "natural Viagra," is an African root used to enhance male sexual performance. "It's got this sexual and alchemical meaning," Reid says. "Everybody knows that yohimbe is kind of the Spanish fly of the '90s or whatever. It's an herbal energy tonic, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
"Over the years, there've been all these brothers projects, from the Everly Brothers and the Isley Brothers," Reid continues, "and then there was this whole thing happening in the '90s, people coming up with the Dust Brothers and the Chemical Brothers. Jason and I do have a kind of brother relationship -- older brother, younger brother. We have a very personal connection. He's someone I love a lot. But there's another level to the name as well. Yo-him-be. It's so ghetto. It's like ebonics. When I mention to people, 'Yeah, me and DJ Logic have a thing called the Yohimbe Brothers,' people that know what yohimbe is bust out laughing, or they smile. They say, 'Oh no you didn't!' And people that don't know, they go, 'Hmm ... yo-him-be. I can dig it!'"
Even if they can't, they can certainly dig the sounds these guys make. One of the most stunning tracks on Front End Lifter is "That Obscure Object of Desire," which features skittering drum & bass beats scraping against a swinging jazz pattern played by Soul Coughing's Yuval Gabay. Over that are ambient sound washes, muffled voices and an elegant violin solo by Mazz Swift. "There's a stillness to that track, as well as this propulsive thing that Yuval is doing on the drums," Reid says. Mazz is really interesting. She's classically trained, but she's also got this giant tattoo on her back. She came into the session with this stringy thing on and she had this tattoo, and I just said, 'Wow.' You know, Yohimbe Brothers is not just about male energy -- it's about the play between male and female energies. It's about desire. What do we really want, what are we looking for? Are we looking to erase ourselves, or are we looking to become ourselves? And is the desire just sexual, or is it spiritual, too?"
Such deep thoughts occasionally must take a back seat to simple horseplay. Much of that element is supplied by legendary DJ/producer Prince Paul, Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover and rappers Red Rum and Slick Rick, who offer up the hilarity on "6996-Club-Yohimbe." Working with such notable guests was a goal of Reid's for this record. (The other two Living Colour members -- bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun -- also appear.) "They're people I respect and I love," he says. "Slick Rick ... it's horrible what's happening to him. [Slick Rick, who earlier served five years and twelve days for attempted murder, is being threatened with deportation because U.S. law prohibits any immigrant who's served more than five years in jail from living in this country.] The INS is running around unchecked. It's just sad. He's already done time. He's such a humble and wonderful guy. I was talking to Prince Paul about working with people in hip-hop, and it's incredibly hard. They ask for outrageous sums of money or they never show up. And Rick came on time; he was, like, 'Yo, man, whatever.' He played on the track, and I was, like, 'Oh God, I hope he likes it.' He listened to it and got totally into the spirit of that tune. I'm trying to get some information on what exactly is happening with him now, trying to make sure he doesn't get deported or something."
Sounds like a job for the Black Rock Coalition.
"Right," Reid says. "Where is that phone booth?"