Music News

Bring In the Funk

Somewhere in north Tempe, tucked away behind the corrugated door of an industrial park storage space off Smith Road, Brandon Lawson, a.k.a. MC Mesi, lifts his head.

The smell of stale smoke is heavy in the rehearsal space. There are half-packs of Parliaments and Marlboros littering the floor and scattered across a few cheap coffee tables, the pressboard kind you can buy at a yard sale for four dollars. There is but a single battered ashtray in the building, and it's two rooms away, sitting beside a television set that's broadcasting The Drew Carey Show to an empty couch; all the smoke, all the activity, is in here. Empty beer cans serve as makeshift receptacles.

The whole room has the feel of a battered landscape after a war. It's not just the thick air, and it's not solely the flotsam of a thousand nights of practice just like this one -- the power cables, patch cords and DJ gear that have accumulated over time. It's the huffing and puffing of six people who have spent the last 20 minutes doing their best to blow the rehearsal space's door off its roll track.

Dislocated Styles is coming to the end of its first stretch of the night's run-through, and the band members are out of breath and perspiring. Sweating like pigs, not to put too fine a point on it. Everywhere in sight, in every conceivable space toward which one of the six players here might gravitate, there's a gallon jug of Arrowhead water. To sew up the first leg of the night's work, Lawson, visibly exhausted, calls for "Utopia," a long and surprisingly accomplished funk-soul workout that might have been lifted whole from Blue Note Records' "Blue Break Beats" series.

"Utopia" isn't on D-Styles' soon-to-be-released Roadrunner debut Pin the Tail on the Honkey; it's a reworking of an older song from the group's out-of-print full-length Elevator Music. But it nicely sums up everything about this band that's most intriguing, given the ironclad aggro mold of modern rap-metal, and it's surprisingly sweet and soulful and funked-up all at once.

Things are good right now for Phoenix-based D-Styles. The new album is set to drop on April 24, with a release party at Bash on Ash on Cinco de Mayo. They're young and they're still working day jobs to make rent, but they've got excellent label support and their music is complex enough to appeal to unreconstructed headbangers and traditional funk fans alike. That's a rare talent; it's also the reason Pin the Tail on the Honkey deserves airplay, and not just on the basis of the hometown-heroes scenario.

While the rest of Tempe goes about its business, Dislocated Styles is getting ready to check in with an album that bears more similarities to Rage Against the Machine and Parliament-Funkadelic than it does to Papa Roach. Cock your ear in the night, and you can almost hear the metal door creak against its frame.

We should get the ugly hyphenate out of the way right now, because if we make the mistake of pegging Dislocated Styles as white-boy rap-metal, we're going to miss the heart of it.

Let's say it once, and clearly: When we all go to heaven and Screamin' Jay Hawkins greets us at the gates, he's going to shake his stick at us and ask what the fuck all that Limp Bizkit horseshit was about. Isolated moments like Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause notwithstanding, the lion's share of contemporary rap-metal crossover is a febrile mix of pose and surface-noise, a slope-browed, Neanderthal-jawed thalidomide baby of a musical subgenre, possessed of all the grace, creativity and warm humanity of a retard joke.

Dislocated Styles isn't rap-metal the way you and I are thinking. The music is rap-based, that much is clear, and the overlay of hard-rock guitar with turntables and samples is recognizable enough to modern ears to pass first muster. But there's something else at work in D-Styles' music, and if there's any justice in the universe, Pin the Tail on the Honkey might help push the whole tired genre to another, more rewarding level.

Listening to it come together at rehearsal, it's hard to peg exactly why the music kicks its way out of the boneheaded stereotypes of modern hard-rock-rap crossover, and that's not to say that D-Styles' tracks are totally devoid of macho postures. Despite being a maddeningly infectious jam, "Fire in the Hole," a mostly literate track about relationships gone wrong, slips too quickly into a bitch-done-me-wrong mode in its earliest verses. Coming as it does in the leadoff slot on Pin the Tail, it might turn off listeners who would otherwise find a wealth of enjoyment in the positive vibes of the remainder of the album.

But moments like that can be counted on one hand, and they're happily overshadowed by tighter, more affirming cuts. The members of D-Styles are more about fusing genres than following the lead of less creative acts (into which category we're lumping the obvious heavily rotated contenders). Furthermore, D-Styles is made up of accomplished and intuitive musicians -- a factor you might miss if you attribute the cohesive sound of Pin the Tail to postproduction work, which would be another grievous error.

It might be the George Clinton-style four-voice breakdown in the middle of the harrowing "Possessed by Demons." It might be Lawson's buzz saw vocals, or DJ Jason Dubree's solid and confident MCing, which sounds like 10 tons of concrete slag being unloaded from a dump truck in a bad part of town. (The vocal crossfire delivered by Lawson and Dubree is one of the most compelling elements of D-Styles' music.) It might be the remarkably adept keyboard work of Greg Forney, crossing easily from blues breakdowns to soul riffs and back again. It might be the guitar-bass-drum backing which serves as the music's rhythmic core. But in all likelihood, none of these elements would mean much in isolation. The proof, finally, is in the mix.

D-Styles is Lawson on vocals; Dubree on turntables and vocals; a large and silent fella with the untouchable given name of Joe Boogie on bass and backup vocals; Chuck Epperly on guitar; Forney on vocals and keyboards; and Clancy McCarthy on drums. They've known each other for years, and for the past half-decade or so, they've been stomping the perimeters of the Valley (with the occasional foray into California, where they've built a strong following). They played Edgefest in Phoenix with Kid Rock and Primus; they tore up 1999's That Damn Show and released two records, the Spanking the Funky EP and the aforementioned Elevator Music, but quickly sold out of both at their live shows. Pin the Tail on the Honkey thus represents Dislocated Styles' best chance so far to break into wide airplay.

"It was Spanking the Funky, I think, that brought us to Roadrunner's attention," says Lawson. The EP had made the rounds, and several A&R men had been trying to track down the band on the strength of a series of shows in California in 1998.

"The guy who finally signed us wasn't even working at Roadrunner when he first heard us," adds Forney. "But he liked us and he kept us in mind, and when we finally started getting approached by labels it was Roadrunner that felt best."

"Really," interjects Epperly, "it felt right from the first handshake. "We've always gone with gut instincts. Some reps would talk to us and say, 'Well, okay, you guys are good, but . . .' and they'd go into some hesitation about the way we sounded."

The group didn't want to tinker with the sound; they'd spent nearly six years playing together, feeling out each other's strengths and moving in the directions they wanted. When they finally signed with Roadrunner in 1999, they had the opportunity to hit their stride in a full studio setting. Individual songs on Pin the Tail took "between five years and five minutes" (as Forney phrases it) to put together, with producer Howard Benson (P.O.D., Motörhead) at the helm in Sherman Oaks, California. Over six weeks in 2000, D-Styles reworked older jams and built new ones from the floor up.

"Liquified," the album's first single, is one of the new tracks, and it went into early rotation in California and on The Edge radio in Phoenix earlier this month. In case you've missed it, "Liquified" is two minutes and 40 seconds of utter irresponsibility, as gleefully and unremittingly stupid as the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey" and the Ramones' "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue." Over a classic James Brown sample and Joe Boogie's thumb-pop bass, Lawson and Dubree face off: "Now I'm twisted, who got the herb?/Let's get lifted/Carryin' around two drinks, double-fisted"; "When I get drunk I act real stupid/Always shitfaced, it's just undisputed." The chorus is a guaranteed club shout-along as well: "Raise up your cup and drink up, it's as simple as that/When you see me in the club, show me love, 'cuz I'll give it right back." Scottsdale accountants and club skeeves are put on notice: This is the song you're going to be dancing to in the summer of 2001.

D-Styles' workout on "Liquified," though it shows off the group's prodigious musical talent, offers but the barest hint of the musical confidence and lyrical technique on Pin the Tail. The band's expressed mandate is to "override and revise your traditional thought/No matter how many Limp Bizkit albums you bought." (Yes, yes, y'all; some of us have been waiting two years for that line.) And on songs like "Riders of Silence" and "On-Line Virus," the vibe gets downright creepy, the way Cypress Hill's Black Sunday took rap to a sinister level; music and vocals slip and slither like a black snake in high weeds.

All this slithering might lead them out of Phoenix -- probably will, if Pin the Tail blows up half as much as they want it to, or anywhere near as much as it deserves to. "But I want to come out of here," says Forney (who's actually a New Jersey transplant), speaking, to judge from the nodding heads, for the entire band. "I want to come out of Arizona. Nobody's really made it from here the way they deserved to, or the way it should be done."

Discussions of the local music scene soon lead to a long (and wholly justified) gripe session about the state's club laws for all-ages shows. Used to be, says Epperly, that high school kids could come see the shows in clubs, when you could drink with just a wristband. "When the state laws set up the cages to divide the adults from the underage ones, it separated us from the kids, and they were the ones who came out to see us. We were all just out of high school ourselves. A lot of our friends were still in high school, and now they were way the hell back, behind the fence. It was fucked up."

"High school kids make the local scene," adds Forney flatly. "They make it. They're the ones who create it, they're the ones we always played for. That's what we all came out of. And when Gibson's shut down, and the [Electric] Ballroom shut down, when those venues were gone, it really killed a lot of the scene out here. I don't even like using that word, 'scene.' There isn't one, now, really."

Fair enough. But D-Styles would be hard-pressed to fit into any easily defined category even in a thriving area, which means, ultimately, that they'd have to create their own context regardless of where they found themselves. Luckily, the band appears to have its chops. When the album and the release party are safely behind us, we'll find out just how receptive the Valley is to D-Styles' formidable genre bending.

"When I was growing up in New Jersey, Bon Jovi and Springsteen were like a couple of towns over. It was exciting to see somebody from your hometown make it."

Forney's totally straight-faced mention of Jon Bon and the Boss prompts a brief good-natured ribbing from drummer McCarthy. "I can't believe you just said that," he says, giggling.

"What?" says Forney, smiling a little sheepishly. "It's true."

This connection between them, finally, is what lifts the sometimes-familiar sound of Dislocated Styles to new and different heights. "By now we're a family," says Epperly. "We yell and fight and say 'Fuck you' a lot, like families do. But we've known each other for so long now it's all good."

Cock your ear in the night: That rattling metal door is the sound of the family bringing it home.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Waggoner