Black Moon Rising

Tucson's Black Moon Graffiti waxes large with a hip-hop/funk mlange that always comes correct @

For "Soldier's Story," Leo busted out with the aggressive, staccato, rat-a-tat-tat delivery of a hard-core rapper, roving the stage in his usual long, brown leather coat and white shell necklace. But the man is versatile--also at his disposal are a velvety monotone, where he rhymes with a smoothness most rap MCs can't match on wax, let alone live; and a crooning, R&B-flavored sing/rap, the latter usually employed to double chorus parts with Stuenkel.

Speaking of . . . the lady of the hour has arrived, and since Leo's done with breakfast, conversation moves to the living room, where they both watch the game with interest. "Yeah, I like football, and I'm a girl," Stuenkel says.

Adopted as a baby, Stuenkel was raised by a Lutheran pastor and his wife in Madison, South Dakota. "My parents were white, and I was the only black person in a 1,000-mile radius," she says. "If I do ever become famous, I'm prepared because it was like an E.F. Hutton commercial whenever my family walked into a restaurant."

Stuenkel reports that her early musical exposure was limited to Barry Manilow and the Carpenters. Cringe. Then, glory be to cable, Amy saw an Earth, Wind and Fire concert on HBO when she was 10. "I was like, 'Wow, black people singing,'" she says.

As a teenager, Stuenkel traveled the world with 250 peers as a member of the multiethnic, feel-good kids choir Up With People. "You know, the Coca-Cola, teach-the-world-to-sing kids," she says. By that time, she had taught herself to sing by seeking out singers she liked and imitating them. "I blended Madonna with Whitney Houston with Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday, just taking the parts from each I liked best and trying to wrap them into my own style," she says. "Generally, I was moved by jazz singers, stuff with lots of dynamics. I learned how to breathe in eighth-grade choir, but the rest was all me teaching me."

The result is awesome. Stuenkel has the control of a Jedi mind trick, superlunged power and a kaleidoscope of styles she reaches into at will. A remixer's dream, she can rap, trading rhymes with Powell on some tracks in the same effortless, yin-yang flow achieved by the Digable Planets and the Fugees at the top of their game. Or she can sing soul (pure blue smoke and golden honey), pop (she drops tasty high notes like candy), rock, even underground dance. When she isn't singing lead, Stuenkel uses her voice as another instrument in the mix, either scatting or soaring over the top of the beat like a house-music diva. On "Echoes of My Tribe," she surfs the same wordless, wave-form vocal line over and over, jacking the intensity up and down in synch with Black Moon's rhythm section in a cycle of tension and release that's pure techno.

Pure chance pushed Stuenkel into Black Moon's vicinity. She went on a date, and Powell was along for the ride. Stuenkel sang the Anita Baker song "You Bring Me Joy" a cappella in the car, and Black Moon's rapper invited her to a rehearsal the next day. "Before then, I had always been in a choir, where everything was strictly prescribed," Amy says. "That practice was the first time the notes were mine to do with as I wanted, and I liked that."

Also in the band by then was Alex Skelton, an old-school funk/R&B keyboard and guitar player who manages Club Congress and moved to Tucson from Cincinnati in 1974--when he was 17. Now 39, Alex is the granddaddy of Black Moon Graffiti. He joined the group after a long hiatus from music, he says, "because I wanted to do some kind of funky thing that broke all the niches, and they seemed to be of similar thinking." Alex says his role in the band musically is "to provide the umph and flow." All the other members say he's also the mediator of disputes. "Huh," is what Alex says to that. "Yeah, okay."

Skelton is a nice fit as the strong, silent type--laconic, laid-back and self-assured. "A lot of our best moments you can't put in words," he says. "When we really get there, busting out a beautiful song, when everybody clicks, it's just magic. That's all."

Black Moon played its first gig about three years ago. It was a going-away party for a Club Congress employee, and about 150 people came. Today the band packs any venue it plays in Tucson, and draws a crowd whose diversity is unmatched by any band there or in the Valley, in terms of age, race, sex and look (b-boy to alt.rock, frat rat to hippie).

The audience at recent shows has been peppered with A&R reps from a variety of record companies--including Warner Bros., Epic and Elektra. Band members and management confirm they are negotiating with several labels, but won't say which ones or how close they are to a deal. Leo flirts with specifics: "We're talking with less than 10, more than five, majors and indies," he says. "We're at the point where the ball's clearly in motion, and it's hard to keep track of which label's here this week, who just left, who's coming to the next show." The rest of the band closes ranks, although Crawford says it's already working on video concepts. "Mine are the best," he brags ("Little Quentin Tarantino protege wanna-be motherfucker," Leo mutters under his breath).

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