By Lauren Wise
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Although Pie Gomez is too humble to admit it, his band was initially conceived--much in the tradition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--as the local MC's personal creation. Six months ago, this local lyrical mad scientist awoke from musical hibernation and pieced together seven musicians--each from unlikely and unrelated circumstances--to spawn a telltale experiment that's still unfolding.
That creation abruptly gained life as Cousins of the Wize--a band considered by some to be the Valley's premier live hip-hop act. Although Gomez is quick to point out the dizzying array of divergent backgrounds and influences that flavors the band's sound, it employs hip-hop as its main vehicle and steers it through some interesting and entertaining musical territory.
In a relatively short time, this Tempe-based newcomer has developed a solid local following and a well-deserved reputation for bringing down the house. It bends the rules of traditional music genres, attracting and entertaining people who wouldn't ordinarily share the same breathing space.
By blending elements of hip-hop, psychedelic jazz-based grooves and aggressive yet contemplative poetry and rhymes, Cousins of the Wize is able to dutifully exploit the essence of numerous musical forms. In doing so, it creates a unique pocket of musical expression that lies on the four corners of hip-hop, hard-core, jazz fusion and rock.
"If we end up having to be in any one musical category," says bassist Steve Faulkner, "then we want to create a new category. If we become something we've already heard before, we'll throw it away."
Members of Gomez's former band, Brothers Grim, went their separate ways more than two years ago. Gomez continued writing songs and lyrics, and participating in various musical projects, but it wasn't enough.
"I can't say that I was too happy the two years that I was without a band," Gomez says. "So I needed to do what made me happy. Some of these guys were musicians, some just partied together, and some were friends. But I knew all of these guys, and I knew they were all talented musicians. At the time, they were each doing their own thing--they just weren't doing it together. I had this idea to combine all of these different styles, get these guys in the same room, and just let it develop."
Led by two intense, nomadic MCs--a third MC, RAS13, recently left the band--and fueled by discerning musicianship, Cousins of the Wize has jelled into an autonomous six-piece musical machine, capable of instantly raising the collective energy in a club by a good 10 notches. In terms of style, it capitalizes on the benefits of having two experienced vocalists/MCs who layer intricate combinations of lyrics on the tracks. The rhymes both complement and contradict each other in a slick, machine-gun fashion.
The four musicians of the band--composed of a keyboard player, bassist, guitarist and drummer--create a delicately balanced counterpart to the intensity or gentility of the lyrics. Through often repeated trancelike grooves, they lull the listener into an almost hypnotic state, while the rhymes seem to break in aggressive, poetic swells.
The presence of a keyboard player provides Cousins of the Wize with rich undertones that smooth the edges of its sound. For many songs, it acts as a subtle liaison between audiences and the MCs, bridging gaps by creating vivid musical imagery with layered chords and quirky sound effects. The recent addition of X-Factor DJ, Needles, provides the sound with a smattering of electronic accents, as well as a dose of hip-hop authenticity.
While some bands prefer a stripped-down stage performance, Cousins of the Wize incorporates elements of animation, tenacity and impromptu stage antics that often snag an audience's attention for an entire show.
Given the band's opportunity to vent, inform and entertain, the message behind the microphones yielded a simple notion and, fittingly, became the band's name.
"The idea wasn't to call ourselves wise," says Gomez, "but, rather, call ourselves the cousins of [the wise]. We wanted to say something where we weren't actually calling ourselves wisdom, yet wisdom was the end goal, almost like a steppingstone."
The appeal of the band's sound grew from a willingness to incorporate each member's musical influences, as they collectively represent a comprehensive array of styles. From Mr. Bungle to N.W.A to Bad Brains, diversity is the anchor of its wide-open sound, as well as what keeps it original and seductive.
"Whatever the hook is for some particular lyrics, we start with the mood," guitarist Jason Reynoso says. "I'll hear a few rhymes, and right away I'm hearing this song in my head. We all start wondering how can we make the music scream. We pull that sound from everywhere and everyone. That way, we custom tailor the sound to the emotion of the lyrics."
Just six months into the venture, the band has decided it has generated enough interest to begin laying down tracks for a debut, self-released CD. By pooling capital from outside investors, and by spending its own money, the band is currently working with Red Mountain and Porcupine recording studios.
"From the beginning," begins Faulkner, "we knew we were going to record. All the money that this band earned went into a jar. Now, we're using that money for something that's important to all of us."
From the start, Cousins of the Wize was adamant about handling its promotions, recordings and distribution needs independently--the members each agree that control of their image is essential. "We want to keep it grassroots and do everything ourselves," says Faulkner. "We don't want to get caught in the whole corporate music machine or whatever."
In fact, the band has gone so far as to produce the CD itself, with various members often at the helm of the mixing board. "A good producer can completely change a band's sound for the better," keyboardist Kevin Pope says. "Especially if it's a talented producer. But, with our budget, producing the CD ourselves just made sense."
However, like many of the area's local hip-hop acts, Cousins of the Wize struggles with the challenge of booking itself into Valley clubs and venues. "We're almost to the point where we might lie about our style of music just to get booked," Gomez jokes.
"A lot of people try to pigeonhole hip-hop as this typical urban, gang thing," says drummer Stephen Pond. "So it's difficult to find places for hip-hop music to thrive because a lot of club owners automatically think 'trouble.' As soon as you say those two words, they put up a front."
Frustration is inevitable when club owners see hip-hop as a threat to their livelihood and bands see it as their outlet for musical expression. Ironically, while Cousins of the Wize is likely to pack any venue it plays, it hasn't attracted the problems associated with some hip-hop acts, nor does it claim hip-hop as its sole musical genre. Yet, because that genre of music is one of its more visible and obvious elements, the band finds itself forced to disprove its connection to those fears--and hoping it's right.
"Straight hip-hop doesn't necessarily even have music in it," Reynoso says. "Sometimes, it's just sound. But, for our ears, we write tunes so people who are used to hearing harmonies will still be able to listen to and enjoy it. On the other hand, our music diversifies the crowd by attracting people who aren't used to hanging out together. But that's a good thing."
Through compromise, a series of peacefully uneventful gigs and sheer drawing power, Cousins of the Wize has begun the arduous process of infiltrating mainstream music venues.
"People talk a lot about the negative things that can happen in the parking lot of hip-hop shows," says Gomez, "but it can happen at any show. You could play a frat gig, and it could pretty much turn into a bloody mess. I believe once club owners see us play, they'll realize that we're not going to bring anything to their club that they're not going to be happy about."
Onstage, the band heavily contradicts the stereotype of handgun-toting thugs oft-derided by hip-hop opponents. And, since hip-hop's potential violence factor--inspired from both a national and local level--occasionally eclipses the true entertainment value of the music, Cousins of the Wize has been forced to find positive alternatives to the traditional don't-fuck-with-us attitude. In that respect, the band has embraced the approach of not taking itself too seriously.
"As far as categorizing hip-hop," says Gomez, "the music is expanding. It's like a huge backyard, and we fall into that field. We definitely graze somewhere in it, too. But it's not this tiny yard that people make it out to be.