By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Somewhere up around 40,000 feet, while Neil McIntyre was flying over the desolate, expansive state of New Mexico on his way to Phoenix, the woman in the next row let him know that she had seen his band, Yo, Flaco!, play months before at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. She was an older woman -- grandma-age, maybe -- and not normally a fan of hip-hop music. But McIntyre's band was different, she said, from the image that she held of rap music. The players were talented. Positive. They made her want to shake her aging bones. She wondered, would the boys in the band -- all nine of them -- mind signing a copy of their CD for her daughter?
McIntyre and his mates complied. They passed around a copy of their new full-length CD, Skeptamistic, just released in March, and signed their names: McIntyre (MC), Ben Hadwen (flute/tenor saxophone), Brandon Martin (guitar), Doug Lipford (MC), Ethan Raczka (tenor saxophone), Loren Comfort (drums/percussion), Matt Piazza (keyboards), Steve Mercer (trombone) and Wes Coplen (bass). The woman thanked them. Such nice boys.
"People are always coming up to me and saying things like that," McIntyre says. "They're like, 'I don't like hip-hop, but I like you guys.' Or, 'I don't like jazz, but I like you.' I think what they're picking up on is just a vibe. One guy told me he had never danced in public before in his life, but he danced to us."
Approximately 36 hours later, Yo, Flaco! was on a plane again, heading back to Denver. The visit to Arizona had been a quick but important one. The band had landed, checked into a hotel, headed to a crowded club near Arizona State University in nearby Tempe and proceeded to smoke the final round of the nationwide Jim Beam Rock Band Search, a competition judged by Smithereens leader Pat DiNizio and a panel of music-industry bigwigs. When Yo, Flaco! returned to its practice space on the eastern fringe of Capitol Hill, it was the Best Unsigned Modern Rock Act in the United States.
Things have been going well for Yo, Flaco! this past year. In late 1999, the band was awarded its first Beam-related honor when it grabbed one of 27 monetary grants the Kentucky company awarded to emerging artists across the country. The cash helped finance and promote Skeptamistic, an equally funky, melodic smooth- and urban-sounding release that was primarily recorded live at the Boulder Theater in September of that year; the recording also includes guest stints from DJ Timbuk of United Dope Front and vocalist Yvonne Brown. Officially, Yo, Flaco!'s second album (a self-titled disc released in July of 1998 that features a very different lineup and includes now-departed vocalist Venus Cruz), Skeptamistic sold more than one hundred copies at the band's CD release party back in March. Constant gigging helped increase the number of Flaco fans -- people whose votes in the 2000 Westword Music Showcase helped the band win the Best of Showcase award, as well as one for best eclectic band, in May. (Yo, Flaco! also took home the Latin/World award in 1998.) Now this title.
Yet the bandmembers insist the year's biggest victory was nailing down a lineup that works, something they accomplished by adding Mercer on trombone just over a year ago.
"I almost didn't show up to the audition after I heard that first CD," Mercer says with a laugh.
"Not that it was bad," clarifies Comfort. "A lot of people love that CD. But what Yo, Flaco! is doing now is just so much more interesting."
"We've been through so many people in this band," says Martin, who, with Piazza, founded the first Yo, Flaco! about four years ago after moving to Denver from Atlanta. At its biggest, there were eleven players in the band. "In a way, it's like Darwin. It's like survival of the fittest, where only the strong have survived. We need people who understand that no one person can get in the way of the music. The people who came and left didn't like the evolution of where the music was taking them."
"I think the tension that sometimes existed came from people looking to establish the band in a particular genre," says Mercer. "And, really, the pureness of Yo, Flaco! is that we don't really know what it is we're making."
Some thoughts on what it is that Yo, Flaco! is making:
The band might be the curious but inevitable result of combining studied musicians (Raczka, for example, is currently wrapping up a music-studies degree at the University of Denver; Coplen graduated from the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston) with reformed jazz snobs (Martin is a devotee of artists like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, and it wasn't until his exposure to the infamous Jazzmatazz release in 1994 -- in which Guru of Gang Starr paired bebop with emceeing -- that Mercer considered "hip-hop" on a level with live jazz) with students of the old-school hip-hop tradition (McIntyre learned to rap by immersing himself in acts like A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde as a youth; Lipford began freestyling in North Carolina before moving to Boulder, where he and McIntyre joined forces and eventually became a staple of Boulder house parties in 1996) and players with funk and world traditions (Comfort's hyperactive drumming and percussion sometimes smolder with Latin flavors). More directional and structured than a jam or acid-jazz band, Yo, Flaco! emerges as more than the sum of its sonic parts. Flaco's music is a dizzying, busy but purposeful blend that might offend purists of hip-hop or jazz, but is complex enough to appeal to musicheads and accessible enough to dance to. At a time when underground hip-hop is attracting more and more listeners -- and younger listeners are beginning to turn an ear toward jazz tradition -- Yo, Flaco! is the kind of band that can provide a pleasing primer for both. Throughout Skeptamistic, McIntyre and Lipford lay down sometimes-frenetic, often-witty rhymes against an ever-changing sonic bed that recalls everything from P-Funk and James Brown to Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. A listen to Skeptamistic or a live Flaco gig is as likely to induce bootay-shakin' as it is to inspire individual listeners to pursue a deeper investigation into the band's influences.