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Street Beats 

After five albums and more than a decade together, Galactic is comfortable stepping out of its own spotlight -- or at least sharing it. Its sixth effort (and first since 2003's Ruckus), From the Corner to the Block, sees the band, at first glance, acting as a backing band for a lineup of rappers who contribute lyrics about a literal streetcorner -- any corner. The map of intersections on the record ranges from Second and Dryades streets in New Orleans to a generic urban any-corner, with the common backdrop being Galactic's futuristic funk.

"We wanted to make a collaboration with some of our favorite MCs," explains bassist Rob Mercurio. "We thought we'd just combine our old-school funk style with the MCs, and it came out as the hip-hop album. We've always been changing and experimenting, and at one point it hit us that we were a killer rhythm section and could back up vocalists."

Galactic wasn't a stranger to backing hip-hop MCs, having worked before with the Roots and Talib Kweli. The band also shared bills with artists like Lyrics Born, Blackalicious' Gift of Gab and Lateef the Truthspeaker, all of whom contributed vocals to From the Corner to the Block. The hip-hop label and collective Quannum -- home to Lyrics Born and Blackalicious -- has been a mainstay of politically conscious hip-hop since the '90s, and the band brought in Quannum veteran Count to share production and engineering duties with sax player Ben Ellman.

"I read a review that said it sounded like, on some tunes, we were the guests," Mercurio says. "But we didn't think everyone in Galactic had to be on every song. There doesn't always have to be sax; there doesn't always have to be keyboard."

"If it sounds like we're hanging back, it's only in service to the song," agrees drummer Stanton Moore. The MCs, often more accustomed to working with samples and drum machines, he says, also dug the back-and-forth that working with a band afforded them.

"Working with a DJ, usually the MC has to mold to the DJ," he says. "It's not a very interactive medium. Working with us, there's a lot of energy that we can raise and lower throughout the track." The track that Juvenile contributed to, he says, evolved organically, as the band and the MC built it up slowly. The band peformed with Juvenile on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and asked the rapper to contribute to From the Corner to the Block. They recorded the instrumental bed for the song, but it took a few more steps to perfect. "We had to have some kind of second-line element to it," Moore said. "Ben took [our track] and added some claps and snaps. And Juvenile put in his part, but it still wasn't a song. So we brought in the Soul Rebels." The Rebels' horns transform the song into a second-line rave-up.

"This is an album we wanted to make forever," says Mercurio. "It's always exciting for us to switch it up, but there's always an element that's very Galactic to it. At least I hope so."

Like their predecessors the Meters, Galactic created the recipe for their ever-flexible signature sound by mixing New Orleans musical traditions with additions and flourishes of their own to create something fresh and contemporary. For longtime Galactic fans especially, the tracks that will stand out are the ones in which that wizardry is the most apparent, where New Orleans grit meets clever studio tricks and judicious snatches of analog purity -- like the looped echo of a Mardi Gras Indian tambourine sound on the track "Second and Dryades," where Big Chief Monk Boudreaux guests, clangs and rattles up and out of an electrified funk march like a spirit. The opener, "What You Need," which features fast-spitting rhymes from Lyrics Born over freaked-out keyboard and guitar grooves and a honking sax, is the pure essence of a street parade. The title track features the syncopated rat-a-tat-tat of Stanton Moore's popeye beat, the joyful cacophony of the Soul Rebels Brass Band and vocals from Juvenile -- the only local MC on the record. It is exactly the kind of addictive New Orleans rhythm that could drive a second line for miles or tear up a playground party. "Tuff Love," the only instrumental tune on From the Corner to the Block, has Trombone Shorty's horn in the lead, and it's a seamless blend of cool, contemporary-jazz attitude with a core of hot brass-band fire; laid-back and controlled at the same time, it absolutely means business. Out of all the intersections that get name-checked, referenced and remembered on From the Corner to the Block, the most important one is the place where the different sounds -- evident and singular, but complementary -- meet up with one another. Galactic couldn't have done it better if they'd drawn a map.

click to enlarge Galactic collaborated with a host of guest MCs on its latest - release. - RYAN MASTRO
  • Ryan Mastro
  • Galactic collaborated with a host of guest MCs on its latest release.

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