Run-D.M.C. created the perfect dramatization of what can happen when rap and heavy metal collide in their landmark 1986 video for "Walk This Way." The now-classic image of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler and Joe Perry crashing through the wall of D.M.C.'s rehearsal studio to discover a parallel universe of tough attitude and over-the-top braggadocio established the connections that were so obvious, few people at the time could see them.
But that wall-shattering piece of drama was pure fiction, a touch of made-for-MTV poetic license. If you're looking for a true example of these musical forces merging, the formation of Phoenix rap-metal powerhouse Bionic Jive would be a solid bet.
Picture this: It's late in the evening at guitarist Larry Elyea's recording studio, and Elyea, bassist Richard Gartner and drummer Chris Elsner are still waiting for their tardy lead singer to show up for a session. After slamming down the phone in his umpteenth attempt to locate the missing front man, Elyea and crew launch into a loud, aggressive instrumental jam.
Meanwhile, in a corner of the studio, aspiring local rapper Ako Mack, still hanging out after putting in some earlier studio time on his own hip-hop album, cocks a curious ear and begins bobbing his head approvingly to the snarling, hard-core metal workout.
"We were just kind of fiddling around," recalls Elyea backstage at Boston's nightclub in Tempe, looking every bit the modern metalhead with a tight black bandanna crowning his shaved skull, "and Ako kind of leaned in to the mike and started making up some rhymes."
Gartner, an amiable redhead with a boyish grin recalling Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, imitates the tough, arms-crossed stance of the bearded, brooding Ako, who preferred not to be interviewed. "Ako kind of leaned in a little," mimics Gartner, "then a little more, and a little more . . ."
"He started freestyling over the music," Elyea continues, "and we were just blown away. To this day, I wish I had a tape rolling that night."
Fast-forward to another night six months later, when the imposing, rotund rapper Emerg McVay -- a longtime hip-hop partner of Mack's -- arrives at the studio to check out his buddy's new band.
"We had been doing it with Ako for a few months, and we recorded a demo," Elyea says. "And Ako had been doing a lot of intricate vocal overdubs, and we said, 'We wanna sound like that live.' So Ako said, 'Well, I got this hype man!' You know, somebody who could back him up. And it turned out to be Emerg."
"I remember his first day," Gartner says, laughing. "We were just jammin', Ako was doing his thing, and in comes this guy, all thugged-out. He had some, like, homey with him, walkin' in all bad."
"He's like, 'Aw, these white boys,'" Elyea drawls. "'Why's Ako bringing me down here?'"
"And then right in the middle of our jam," Gartner says, "Ako gives him the mike. And it's like his first time with loud rock music behind him."
McVay, sitting commandingly between the two rockers, wearing the requisite silver chain and stylishly braided hair of the hip-hop hova, finally chimes in. "It was my first time with live instruments, period," he rasps.
"And he was like, 'Whooaa!'" Gartner continues, emitting a loud, throaty howl. "After his first take, the look on his face was like . . ."
"Elevated," McVay interjects. "I went home that night and told my wife, 'Dude, you don't even know what just happened to me. I mean, the bass drum was thumpin' me in the back, the guitar was slappin' me around the shoulders." McVay's rocking his beefy frame back and forth in his chair now, imitating the moves of a battered prize fighter. "I was like, 'Oh, Gawd!'" he moans, "what is this?'"
To hear these guys describe the momentous birth of Bionic Jive -- whose debut album for Interscope Records, Armageddon Through Your Speakers -- drops in stores October 16, you'd think the disparate, interracial quintet invented the whole rap/rock fusion genre already populated by the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Korn and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But for Ako and Emerg, at least, the rush of rapping at full venom over ear-splitting heavy metal grunge was indeed an entirely new thrill.
"To give you an idea of how genuine it is," says Elyea, "when we met those guys, they were straight hip-hop. They had never heard Rage or Korn or Limp Bizkit. They'd heard of them, but they'd never bought their albums or listened to the stations that played them.
"So when they do their thing over our music, it's like the first time for them. It's genuine, it's real, because they weren't influenced by any of those bands. So everything they do is like doing it for the first time."
That thrill of invention comes through on Bionic's raucous, daring debut. Bouncing between metalicized hip-hop "woof-woof"s on the party-hardy "Hands to the Roof" and demonic fright-rock manifestos on shockers like "I Shot Lucifer" and "Break the Chains," the thugs-and-metalheads collusion manages to stir together fresh forbidden fruit from familiar ingredients.
"What Merg and Ako bring is credibility," Elyea explains. "It's like, they're real MCs. They've been doing hip-hop for 15-plus years. So they're like the real thing."
Making the fusion work has required some adjustment from both camps.
"Richard, Chris and I, we come from a totally different background than Ako and Merg," Elyea admits. "So to fit what they do over what we do . . . well, some of it happens naturally, and some of it is a little work. Because you have to leave pockets in the music for them to be able to work with."
"The best thing about it for me and Ako," McVay adds, "is that these guys are such dope musicians, they give us the room we need without compromising what they do. Whatever we're not feeling, they're able to change. And whatever they're not feeling, we're able to change. It's not a compromise," he insists, "it's elevation."
The merger has changed the listening habits of both circles in the band.
"Now we listen to Power 92 all day long," Gartner says, laughing, referring to the Valley's leading hip-hop station, "and Merg and Ako are listening to the rock 'n' roll station. They'll be rockin' out to 100.3, and we're like, 'Turn this crap off!'"
If Bionic Jive's tale of the band's formation is as good an account of rap and rock's unholy union as you're likely to hear, their recollections of how it felt to finally get signed to a major record label provide a great take on what it's like for a hardworking local band to suddenly "blow up."
"We played the TV show Farmclub," Elyea recalls. "And Jimmy Iovine [veteran producer and now head of Interscope Records] came up to our dressing room after the show. And our attorney, who was shopping our demo around and trying to get us a record deal, was all cocky. He's like, 'Y'know, Jimmy, we're doing a big showcase for, like, 25 labels at CBGBs in New York next weekend.' And Jimmy just says, straight up, 'No you're not. I'm shutting that down.' And within three days, the deal was done and we were signed."
The other guys remember Elyea's call on that fateful third day. "I was working in Oregon for Intel," recalls Gartner, who was funding his rock 'n' roll dream as a repair technician for the computer giant. "And I had the hugest machine you've ever seen ripped apart into a million pieces. Suddenly I get a page from Larry, and I call him back and say, 'Hey, Larry, what's up?' And I hear, 'Hey, bro -- it's over, dude.' And I'm like, 'What do you mean, it's over?' I'm thinking it's something bad. And he says, 'It's over. We got signed. Congratulations!' So I'm looking at this pile of parts, and looking back at the phone, and I'm thinking, 'Forget this! I'm ready to take a flight home!'
"Mike McGregor, the guitar player who used to be with us before we got into this new formation, he was my partner at Intel who was working with me to repair this machine. And he saw it in my eyes. He said, 'No. It didn't happen.' And I'm nodding, 'Yes, it did -- we're signed!' And he grabbed a crescent wrench and went, 'Boom!' Threw it down, kicked it and walked away. And I'm just sitting there in the middle of all these parts in a daze."
"It's weird when you finally get a record deal," adds Elyea, who still works at his own recording studio, Minds Eye Productions. "It's like your whole life has been leading up to this one point, and now what? And you really have to search for new goals. You have to fill that void with something new."
For Bionic Jive, that void will be filled fairly quickly with lots of touring, opening for Eminem's group D-12 on its fall tour and landing a coveted spot on next year's Ozzfest. "We probably won't be back in Phoenix for a while," Elyea says wistfully, before taking the small stage at Boston's -- his and Gartner's stomping grounds for the past decade. "It's definitely weird."
On a closed set in Los Angeles, just 12 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, the five members of Bionic Jive are wrapping up the last of an exhausting two-day video shoot for their first single, the sure-to-be-controversial "I Shot Lucifer." With the intense Ako firing off brutal rhymes about every demonic figure in history from Charles Manson and Son of Sam to the devil himself, the song is given an unsettling relevance by the recent events. Indeed, the track's unflinching personification of evil makes it a kind of aural target: You can imagine the U.S. troops in Afghanistan listening to it on the jets while they aim their artillery.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"We're hoping that becomes the anthem for what's going on," Elyea says.
Given today's nervous national mood, Interscope's legal department nearly ordered a couple of the more political tracks off the record, but finally let it go pretty much as planned. "They're pretty excited about us at the moment," McVay shrugs, "so they're like, 'Let it ride!'"
Listening to the furious and ferocious tracks on the CD, it's hard to reconcile the tough, angry personas the band puts on tape with the funny, dudes-next-door personalities that show up in person.
"We've dealt with enough in our lives," explains McVay, "where there's a lot of things we've always wanted to talk about and we finally have an outlet. So that's where a lot of it comes from. But we know enough about who we are to know there's no need to be angry and crazed in person," he adds, laughing jovially. "We save that for when we onstage!"Crushing Groove