The Galactic album that became From the Corner to the Block was originally going to be all-instrumental, and in its initial stages was a little loose on concept. That was two years ago, when the band found itself on tour with Bay Area emcee Lyrics Born as the opening act and nightly sit-in guest, and was really enjoying itself as it figured out the next direction.
It was a transitional time, for sure, and 2004 had been a bittersweet year. The band was celebrating 10 years since their formation, but then there was the loss of longtime vocalist, Theryl "The Houseman" deClouet, who parted ways with the group after mounting health problems-congestive heart failure and kidney failure, resulting in hospitalizations that nearly killed him.
Galactic shows post-Houseman have been a melange of the deep, swampy funk jams and rocking grooves for which they’ve always been known, along with a gallery of guest appearances and intriguing collaborations. Even with Houseman they were a dichotomy; in other words, trusting their own ability to be adaptable and their audience’s affection for that adaptability is nothing new. "Stay with us, and you won’t be disapointed," they seem to say. If it makes their course uncertain at times, you can be sure Galactic will never be a "settle in" ensemble, retreading its steps album after album.
From the Corner to the Block is a big, ol’ hip-hop party, and if you’ve been following the group at even a slight length this year, you know the story: Galactic as backing band for various emcees in the spirit of old school beats and the best live hip-hop has to offer, which is a lot when it’s done right, as any fan of the Roots will tell you. Saxophonist/harmonica ace Ben Ellman, also the album’s co-producer, maintains it’s "just a funk record." Whether that explanation is accurate or not, it’s still true to Galactic: no need to explain, just enjoy it.. friend.
"We had a lot of ideas-what we were calling "beds" at the time," Ellman recalled.. "Some emcees picked from a few different tracks, and most had a few options. A lot of them were collaborative; they’d send [the track] back and forth, and it pretty much worked out for everybody. We got pretty lucky."
The emcee collaboration concept-which dominates the album but with more "traditional" New Orleans guests and some scattered instrumental breakdowns isn’t all emerged from the band’s work with Lyrics Born, who was originally on tap to produce the disc. "Corners" and "blocks" were the theme; meaningful street scenes on which the band wanted the emcees to focus so that the album overall could have organization and wouldn’t just be a disc of guest appearances whose lone link was the project’s novelty.
Lyrics Born is among those emcees, and it was his affiliation with Bay Area collective Quannum Projects-as brainy and adventurous a group as there is in hip-hop circa 2007-that got the ball rolling.
"He was the nucleus and got us our first batch of emcees–Gift of Gab and the Quannum Projects crew. It was really exciting to work with those guys," Ellman offers.
There were no problems with the emcees and of all to whom the band extended invitations, most were on board right away. The biggest name in the group is probably Juvenile-a logical fit given his New Orleans roots-though that’s only relative to mainstream superstars like 50 Cent and Kanye. The album’s talent roster is a dream lineup for intellectual hip-hop connoisseurs, and the band was also fortunate enough to book a number of them, including Mr. Lif, the Coup’s Boots Riley, and Jurassic 5′s Chali 2na, to go on tour.
"We’re usually doing one set instead of two, but it’s not like it’s a short set," Ellman said of the tour. "It’s a momentum thing, and we have great opening [acts, including Lifesavas], so it just works. The focus is on the emcee part, and on collaborating and variety."
Working with the emcees was a logistical challenge, Ellman said, because as producer he had to play traffic cop with everyone’s schedules. But that sort of back-and-forth was already a reality for the core Galactic fivesome, anyway; since the displacement brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it hasn’t been often the band members have found themselves together, unless it was on stage, on tour.
"Writing was a new process," Ellman admits. "We had to figure out how to work together when we weren’t in the same city, and make ideas work when we weren’t all there at once to stretch them out."
As for post-Katrina New Orleans, "it’s not much different than [a year ago], because it’s a slow, slow recovery. People that live there care a lot about it, of course," he says. "It’s taken a while, and I think people should understand it’s not really big shifts, but little things."
The emcee tour winds to a close and Galactic is already gearing up for its annual New Year’s Eve blowout at Tipitina’s Uptown. Then, the band returns to work, as they’ve already amassed much in the way of new music, though Ellman reports an organizing principle hasn’t yet emerged. It won’t be emcee-based, regardless; though Galactic never truly abandons any idea, Ellman says he doubts they’d be able to arrange recordings and tours so luckily with so many different guests again, at least not enough for a full tour package.
Galactic is looking forward, but Ellman does allow himself one bit of nostalgic reverence: this past July, Galactic appeared at a pair of benefit concerts at San Francisco’s Independent to raise money for the Houseman’s mounting medical bills. By all accounts, they were wild nights, with Galactic at the core, deClouet in the limelight, and a tasty guest roster with marquee names like Claypool, Nocentelli and Neville.
"It was a blast, man," Ellman says. "I really miss playing a lot of those songs, and we really can’t do Houseman songs without Houseman, you know? Plus, we raised a lot of money that he needed for medical bills. He’s having regular dialysis and he seems a lot healthier."
Though it’s been three years since the band trudged on without an official vocalist, Ellman said he still receives questions at almost every interview as to what the band’s vocal "direction" is.
"We’re not actually seeking anybody-we’re just not," he clarifies. "I’m not opposed to it. I guess if we happened to meet the right person it’d be ‘Sure, why not,’ but I’m not sure when and if that’s going to happen."
It’s the whole "stay with us and be rewarded" mentality again, and after so many blowout nights and exciting albums, Galactic’s earned that trust. Next adventure?
"We’re just starting. We have a studio again, and we’re working all the time," Ellman assures. "If there’s something to report, it’s that we’re really enjoying making records right now."