Black Moon Rising
"Welcome to the Nappy Jungle." Black Moon Graffiti vocalist Napoleon "Leo" Powell divides the air with his hand, magician style, and whisks open the door to his Tucson home. From the emerald abundance of plant life inside, it's clear where the "jungle" comes from, but what's up with "nappy"? Powell won't say if that's a reference to his given first name, or the Predator-head of dreads that caps off his stocky, five-foot-five, get-down-with-his-bad self.
"Little black motherfucker with dreadlocks named Napoleon--that's kinda humorous to you, isn't it?" Well, Leo, now that you mention it. "Yeah, there was a time I took offense. Then I just said, 'Fuck it.' Got the whole costume together one Halloween in high school. Had the sideways hat and everything. Walked around all day with a hand stuck inside my uniform like Bonaparte himself. That was the shit."
In Tucson, Black Moon Graffiti is the shit. The five-piece (two vocalists, keyboards/guitar, drums and bass) is packing every venue it plays down there, including a recent show at Club Congress that drew 576 paid. Typically, most Valley promoters are behind the curve on the Black Moon tip. The band's shows here have been limited to a recent series of gigs at relatively small venues like Nita's Hideaway (which broke the band in the Valley), Balboa Cafe, Big Fish Pub and Long Wong's. Cracking the Valley scene is rapidly becoming a moot effort for Black Moon Graffiti, however. Record labels are swarming the band with deal memos that, within the next few months, should raise the band to a national level.
Soundwise, Black Moon takes a nickel bag of funk and rolls it up inside a hip-hop blunt with R&B, some deep, ambient house, a few choice loops and samples, modern rock guitar licks and a sprinkle of jazz. Don't mind the metaphor--it's just that Black Moon's co-lead vocalist, a fine, 24-year-old, young Aretha Franklin look-alike named Amy Stuenkel, is supposedly on her way to Powell's pad--sorry, the "Nappy Jungle"-- with a Buddha sack. Powell, meanwhile, is cooking up eggs and chorizo, periodically bopping from his kitchen to the living room, where the air is rich with incense and where Nebraska is losing to Texas on a TV opposite a painting of Miles Davis.
"According to the original game plan, I'm supposed to be in the NFL right now," says Powell, 25. "I was bred for football since I was 6 years old. I was roboback, man." Leo's got the press clips to back up his big talk. A high school star, he was recruited by the University of Michigan, where he played running back for a couple of years before realizing that he just wasn't big enough for the pros. "Then I burned out fast," he says. "No one had ever told me about a plan B, and I had to find one for myself."
Powell grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the youngest of nine kids. "There was always somebody ready to pop me in the back of the head," he says. "So I was never caught slippin'." He remembers his childhood like this: "Get up, eat some Froot Loops, watch cartoons, go to church for the free lunch." When Napoleon was a freshman in high school, the Powell clan relocated to Canton, Ohio, where he played ball and started freestylin'--rapping spontaneous poetry--at house parties. He also got to be friends with a little white dude named Shawn Crawford, who played bass and shared Powell's taste for hip-hop in the form's golden age.
"I remember one time in 1988, Shawn saw LL Cool J play on MTV Unplugged, and he called me up right after the show going nuts," Powell says. "He was yelling about how somebody needs to put together a hip-hop group with live instruments. I was like, 'Man, you crazy.'" Powell stops scrambling for a second and waves his spatula for emphasis. "That idea came back and bit me in the ass, though, didn't it?"
You could say that.
Crawford moved to Tucson after he graduated high school, and when Powell started casting about for a new direction, the bassist talked his homeboy into joining him. This was mid-1993. Powell moved in with Crawford when he first got to town, and worked as a bouncer at Club Congress (despite his small, stout frame, Powell is chiseled and quick like a cat). Then he trained as an EMT and took a job in Tucson Medical Center's trauma unit. He and Crawford would jam together at night, Shawn laying down bass lines and Leo freestyling over the top. Then, like now, Powell says, he rapped about what he knows--everyday life, just trying to maintain. "None of that gangsta shit."
"Man, there are rappers out there talkin' about being players who don't even have a girlfriend. Talkin' about being drinkers, can't even handle eggnog. And the worst are the ones talkin' all about their hard, criminal lifestyle, and the colors [bandannas/gang insignias] come off soon as they're not on stage. I call them paper gangsters, they're so thin."
As the band's name implies, though, Black Moon Graffiti walks the street level. At the recent Congress show, the group debuted a new track called "Soldier's Story," a gritty lament of street violence Leo dedicated "to all the soldiers in all the cities who died for no damn reason. Tupac Shakur, R.I.P." After the show, a bartender came up to Leo and said a friend of hers had been gunned down in Louisiana just a few days before over some bullshit. "See, that song reached her," Leo says. "People can relate to guns and violence, because it's creeping into all of our everyday lives. It's a valid topic, approached from the correct perspective."
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).
To a degree, Black Moon's way has been paved by the Fugees, Spearhead, the Digable Planets, Arrested Development, and the Roots--hip-hop-flavored acts with a penchant for live instrumentation, jazzy, urban sensibilities and a positive message. In those groups, however, the spotlight is on the vocalists, and the band, while live, is a revolving lineup of hired guns. Black Moon is clearly more of a whole--the band's tight, and it's only going to get tighter. Plus, it's on top of the post-rock/ambient trend with the loops and samples. Bottom line: Black Moon smoothly pulls together so many elements of pop music that are hot right now that the band sounds like a sure bet. Which makes lead guitarist Bill Mericle's recent decision to leave the band all the more curious.
Mericle, who had been with Black Moon since the first show, told the band in early January that he was out. "It didn't come suddenly, and it was an amiable parting," he says. "I have no doubts the band will go far and that it's about to happen for them, and there are a lot of musicians who would stick with them just for that reason. But honestly, this band is not my passion. I have to find my own direction, probably something that leans more toward classical guitar."
Powell is succinct: "There's much love there, but we're about to go to the next level, so bam, it's like that, he's gone. This was friendly, though. There have been people we had to cut out like a cancer, and they left kicking and screaming. Shit, we went through drummers like Spinal Tap."
The band's current pace setter is Brad Kemp, who industrial-music fans will recognize as the former drummer for Machines of Loving Grace, who scored a crossover hit in the fall of 1993 with "Butterfly Wings."
"Machines was essentially industrial music your mother would like," Kemp says, sitting cross-legged on the wood floor of his apartment in the Julian Drew building, an old hotel in downtown Tucson renovated and subsidized by the Tucson Arts Coalition. The Drew building is essentially a hive of artists. Kemp has a claw-foot bathtub, and Crawford lives two doors down.
"Black Moon Graffiti is a little more balanced than Machines, a little more mutually supportive, and not as angry a band," says Kemp, 29. After he fell out of Grace in 1995, Kemp bought a Tucson pizzeria. "I gave it a year, worked my ass off, the store did very well, and I was bored as hell," he says. So he sold the pizzeria and started playing out again.
Brad charged Black Moon to play with the band for the first two gigs. "They'd just let someone go, didn't want to cancel the shows, and I was in a mercenary mood. But I liked what I heard and felt, and talked with them about joining the band. I said, 'Pay attention to me, I get a sixth of everything, and let's make sure to have fun.' So far, it's been good." Kemp's a precise rhythmatician, but he also helped advance Black Moon to the creative cusp of pop music with his knowledge of sequencer/sampler techniques.
"When we brought on Brad, we also got a horn section," says Powell. "Now, none of us plays horns, and we don't want three more members in this group, but we can all think of a jammin' ass horn line to throw in a song. Or some violins, or some Middle Eastern voices, or some movie samples. And now we have all that. We're taking our music to the next level. We're elevating, and you have to elevate or you sink." Leo stops and snorts. "Look at Hammer."
Also, of the five members still in Black Moon, Kemp's the only one who's already been to the show. "Yes, I remember this phase," he says. "It's this miserable, torturous exercise in patience while management negotiates, and then finally a conclusion is reached and everything moves at warp speed."
Caution is paramount, Powell says. "We're at a critical stage. It's got to be right, every last detail. Because when you introduce yourself to the nation, first impression is a motherfucker.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.