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By Anthony Sandoval
By New Times Staff
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By Chase Kamp
Bullfrog guitarist Mark Robertson could feel the heavy gaze of the audience as he took the stage. Slowly plugging in his Stratocaster, he looked out upon a packed house, only to find a sea of angry, disdainful faces staring back up at him and his bandmates.
Robertson had expected as much. Playing to a room crammed with electronic-music purists did not seem like a very welcoming proposition for a funk outfit rooted in the traditional muse of artists like the Meters and James Brown. Still, the group had agreed to back their friend and fellow bandmate DJ Kid Koala as part of a package tour of turntable superstars. Now the real challenge came.
With the assembled masses eyeing the band's amps and drums suspiciously, Bullfrog started to play.
Slowly, and with each passing number, the group beat back the crowd's resistance -- first with some muscular rhythms, then with searing jabs of melody -- until finally the entire place was all but consumed by the music emanating from the stage. By the end of Bullfrog's brief set, the scowls of the audience had completely melted away, leaving beatific smiles of acceptance in their place.
It was a scene that would repeat itself as the band passed through the electronic-music dens of Europe and America, converting audiences with an effusive brand of showmanship and a funky resolve capable of swaying even the most hardhearted club cynics.
"It was a feeling of winning people over," recalls Robertson two years after the fact, a trace of pride lingering in his voice.
"After they saw how we were playing together, they could sense the musicianship in the band," remembers Eric "Kid Koala" San. "Those audiences, even the purist types, they appreciate the performance aspect. That's something you can't deny, and we gave it to them."
It was there that the group -- Robertson, San, bassist Peter Santiago, drummer Massimo Sansalone, percussionist Joanna Peters and MC James "blurum13" Sobers -- first convened, staging a series of weekly revues that mixed turntablism and live music in a giddy party atmosphere.
"It was about having an evening that was a total party, a celebration, and getting things going that way," remembers San, who would spin several varied sets before joining the band for its night-capping slot.
Mostly though, the long evenings at the Voltaire found Bullfrog engaging in a brand of unmitigated funk, a far purer strain than the watered-down grooves of the acid-jazz movement of the day.
Along the way, the group began crafting material that bridged the band-DJ divide, somehow housing the tightly wound R&B of Booker T and the MGs and the chaotic break beats of Mantronix under the same roof. The experiment would go on to have profound impact on both sides, eventually changing Robertson's songwriting methods and proving equally pivotal in shaping Koala's spinning style.
"It completely altered the way I approached playing," says San. "Before I met Mark and these cats, it was a lot of practicing by myself in a vacuum in my bedroom. Just prepping for competitions -- which was a whole different thing. Those are situations where you get up for 90 seconds and try to show off what you can do. With a band, I learned how to play more supportive parts. 'Cause not every song was 'Hey let's show off our DJ.'"
Throughout the latter half of the '90s, the group's popularity grew steadily in and around the Montreal club scene. Undertaking a series of regional tours in Ontario and Quebec, band members realized they had unwittingly become part of a musical crusade.
"Being a Canadian band, we were playing in a lot of places where it hadn't really hit [audiences] that DJs can be musicians," says Robertson, "that you can be as much of a musician on two turntables as on a traditional instrument."
"So in a sense we were turning this 'band audience' on to hip-hop. And then later, when we went to Europe, it was the opposite. The [club] crowds there hadn't seen guys holding guitars unless they were playing grunge or something. So, in one way or another, we've always been crossing over and reaching different audiences."
About three years into Bullfrog's run, a funny thing happened: the group's DJ, Eric "Kid Koala" San, became a solo star.
Having already made sufficient noise in scratch circles, Koala found his profile raised considerably in 1997 when he signed a deal with the U.K.'s Ninja Tune label, an imprint owned by famed Brit freestyle-DJ tandem Coldcut.
Ninja Tune quickly issued a 10-inch version of Koala's by then legendary underground mix tape, Scratchhappyland. He followed that up with the release of the popular Charlie Brown 10-inch and a memorable appearance on the second volume of the Bomb's Return of the DJ compilation. Soon Koala would contribute to a string of high-profile projects from the likes of Peanut Butter Wolf, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030, among others.
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