Some hip-hop acts sound dope on their records but fall flat on stage. Others complain about the St. Louis scene but do little to actually improve or support it. And then there's the rare hip-hop act that sounds great through headphones, puts on an amazing live show and fully embraces the (thriving) St. Louis scene. Earthworms is just such a group. The four members (Mathias, Black Patrick, Kama and DJ Mahf) live to make music, and while they play to packed houses in St. Louis, they're far from complacent. "We don't want to just be known as a 'local band,'" Mathias says. "Our sound works well out West," offers DJ Mahf. "There are underground hip-hop scenes emerging in Phoenix and all over California."
"We want to tour in Europe," adds Kama. "London. South of France. Toulouse would be nice."
The guys laugh, but they're also dead serious. Earthworms is in this for the long haul, and they've already put in a ton of work. They started on their newest album, Bottle Full of Bourbon, immediately after finishing their debut record, No Arms, No Legs, Just a Head and a Body. That debut sealed Earthworms' reputation as a seriously talented crew, but Bourbon is even better. Drawing on rap, rock and funk influences, these seventeen tracks showcase the group's range. And while such a high track number usually sends up some red flags — as in, oh great, another overly bloated hip-hop album — each song sounds fresh and essential. Earthworms collaborate with STL wunder-producers Crucial and Helias, and an impressive roster of performers (including Chicago emcee Hi-Fidel and the Urge's Steve Ewing) contribute their talents.
Earthworms has found many fans in St. Louis, and they give much of the credit to their label, the locally owned F5 Records. "Everyone respects the F5 label," says DJ Mahf. "They keep vinyl alive by constantly dropping wax."
F5 is taking over digital distribution of Bottle Full of Bourbon, while the Earthworms themselves are hitting the streets to make sure the album is available in record stores. F5 is also releasing Earthworms ringtones. (Thanks to such ringtones, says Mathias, F5 labelmate Nato Caliph "is blowing up in Norway!")
This week's CD-release party — which will truly be a party, complete with a live band and guest performances by Midwest Avengers, 40 'Til 5 and Steddy P, plus on-the-spot T-shirt screen-printing by artists Ben Shepard and Ben Goeke — isn't all the crew has planned. They're planning a fourteen- or fifteen-date Midwest tour and may make a series of music videos (with an LA filmmaker who works with DJ Mahf's brother, the comic artist Jim Mahfood).
The Earthworms are refreshingly humble, but the fact is: Their schedule wouldn't be so packed if their music wasn't so good. The tracks never sound dashed-off. The album is completely free of obnoxious skits. The songcraft is consistently excellent.
"We put a lot of work into our verses," says emcee/b-boy Black Patrick. "We work on them for months at a time."
On Bottle Full of Bourbon, the hard work pays off — and then some. Raise a glass to Earthworms, won't you?
— Brooke Foster
9 p.m. Friday, January 25. Lucas School House, 1220 Allen Avenue. $5. 314-621-6565.
"OK, so imagine this," video-game composer Tommy Tallarico reminisces from his studio in Orange County, California. "We're in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra behind us, and we're doing our show. Suddenly this dude jumps up onstage and starts dancing around, dressed like a purple L-shaped Tetris piece." Absurdity like this would be inappropriate at most orchestral performances, but not at Video Games Live. B-Sides spoke to event producer Tallarico as the multimedia spectacle prepares to ambush the fabulous Fox Theatre on its current 60-date world tour.
B-Sides: What is the simplest possible explanation of Video Games Live?
Tommy Tallarico: VGL is all of the greatest video game music of all time played by a symphony and choir, but what makes it really unique is that everything is completely synchronized to video screens and rock & roll lighting. There's a stage show production, special effects, interactivity with the crowd, and a pre-game festival with a costume contest and gaming contests.
The Video Games Live Web site has a lot of statistics about how video games have become more present in our culture. Is your show a reflection of those stats, or do the numbers legitimize VGL and make it OK to perform video game music at the Fox Theatre?
That's an interesting question, because one drives the other. It can be very difficult to convince promoters and symphonies how big games are. In those instances it's great to have those growing numbers behind us. We may talk to a local promoter and they say "Oh, so it's a kid show." We can say "Well, look at these statistics. The average gamer is actually 33 years old." On the other side of the coin, some non-gamers are finding out about how incredibly huge games are because of our show.
On the other side of that coin, you're exposing younger crowds to the symphony.
Younger people tend think of the symphony as a stuffy experience where everybody is wearing tuxedos or something. People don't think they relate to the symphony, and we've broken the mold and we're actually making it relate to them. We all grew up on Star Wars and video games and MTV and using computers in our daily lives. We're used to interactivity, so we've kind of taken all those things and combined them with the orchestra.
If I can play devil's advocate here, musically speaking, what is VGL doing for the symphony that somebody like Trans-Siberian Orchestra hasn't?
Well, TSO is amazing because of the lights and the big rock show, but they don't have synchronized video like we do. And there are some great pop culture multimedia symphony shows with synchronized video, like Howard Shore toured around his Lord of the Rings music, but they didn't have the rock & roll lighting.
So you're unique because you have synchronized video and lights, and not just one or the other?
Well, yes, but we also have the interactivity. We have the pre-game show and the costume contest. There's even parts in the show where I pick people out of the audience and come up onstage, and they will play the video game while the orchestra is playing the music. They change the music in real time on the fly with what the character is doing on the screen.
What's the first video game that you played where the music stood out to you?
I'm going to say Pac-Man, because I would play the game when I was younger and I noticed "Wow, this is actual music, and it's catchy and it's not just noises."
— Ryan Wasoba
7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 26. Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. $32.50 to $42.50. 314-534-1678.