By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Hip-hop like it used to be in 1985, 1988 -- the golden years of hip-hop -- that's gone," says MC Iomos Marad. "All of that is over." Rather than lamenting that fact, however, the Chicago-based, seven-piece Family Tree is planting seedlings culled from the collective gospels of Rakim, Public Enemy and EPMD. By channeling the spirits of those legends into its music, the group hopes to breathe new life into a post-jiggy era.
The first fruits of this mission can be heard on the crew's latest release, Treehouse Rock. Like an urban Schoolhouse Rock, the new record is a syntactical primer on the essential elements of hip-hop. Featuring stellar production by two of the Windy City's nicest acts, Molemen and Mad Crates, the album has already received praise in publications such as Vibe, XLR8R, Elemental and the Chicago Tribune. Each track affords the individual MCs -- Marad, Capital D, Mr. Greenweedz, Rita J, and Spotlite and his twin brother, the Mighty Allstar -- an outlet to establish an identity of his or her own. There's the straight boom-bap hip-hop ("Spit It") alongside battle hymns ("I Am") and political songs that sample noted foreign-policy critic Noam Chomsky ("Move"), as well as a smooth yin-yang male-female joint ("Virgo"). While maintaining a progressive B-boy/B-girl stance, Treehouse Rock also makes you want to party like it's 1989.
"I think we were really trying to be creative and just have a good time and have fun with it. It's kind of playful -- the artwork is playful, the lyrics are playful," says Rita J, who, as the lone female in the group, keeps the guys in check. "I think we just had a good time doing it."
The Family Tree
8 p.m. Sunday, July 13
Tulagi, 1129 13th Street, Boulder
The Family Tree fits together like Voltron and operates like rap's version of the X-Men. The indie supergroup, made up of various cliques (All Natural, Daily Plannet, Unison) from Chi-town, wants to revise the blueprint of hip-hop for 2003 by toppling what it sees as the evil forces out to destroy it. Like the comic-book supergroup's Wolverine, this Family believes in the art of healing. "We're reviving her," says Marad of the genre. "We're bringing her back to the feel-good days, when hip-hop was strong and the heartbeat was steady."
Though each member has individual powers, each also has an identity that works in concert with everyone else. Iomos (an acronym for "I'm on my own shit") breaks it down further: "What Rita brings to the table, in a mad crew of fellas -- she brings the feminine aspect; she got mad flava. Daily Plannet [Spotlite and Allstar], they in their own world; they like sports fanatics. They like the lyrical flame-throwers; they be heating it up from the three-point line, down low, crossing you over with lyrics. Greenweedz -- the knotty vegetarian brother -- he can go from folklore to hardcore; he's, like, mad creative. And Cap D from All Natural, he's like the intellect, book reader, philosopher; he's like the teacher who's into spiritual strength."
Greenweedz is quick to deliver the goods on Iomos, who raps and plays drums. "IO is straight-up Mos Def with Buddy Miles mixed in. Imagine if Buddy Miles was rhyming like Mos Def: That's who IO is like."
Much like the Mighty Mos, the Family Tree favors message-oriented rap that comes across loud and proud on tracks such as "Push, Move, Build" and "Move." Both songs deal with community empowerment and touch on social and political issues. The group is intent on flipping the script on the materialistic, misogynistic messages that dominate rap today. While latchkey kids gaze at their MTV and BET and watch their idols flaunt often-borrowed jewelry and mansions, members of the Family Tree ponder whether a disease has taken root in the organic life-form called hip-hop.
"You got cats talking about cars and a fast way of living. Hip-hop is dead; it's gone. It's like a business; it's not a culture no more," explains Marad. "Cats just want to roll with cats with all of the dough," adds Allstar.
This current state differs from the days when hip-hop served as an instructional manual on living a more productive life. "I was raised by a single-parent mother, so my moms wasn't always around to see what I was watching. I had cats like KRS-One, Rakim and Poor Righteous Teachers coming on the screen, telling me, 'You ain't a thug; you've built nations and civilizations,'" says Marad. "I had them raising me along with my mother."
For the Family Tree, hip-hop culture in its purest state nourishes the mind as well as the body and soul. It has also influenced members to make healthier lifestyle choices.
"Hip-hop is the reason I'm a vegetarian," says Mr. Greenweedz. "I stopped eating pork because Chuck D and them stopped eating pork. I stopped eating meat because Kris [KRS-One] made a song called 'Beef.' I was eating chicken and dairy. I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to quit eating beef, then.'"
This natural-foods aesthetic also influences the way the Family Tree handles its business. Its label, All Natural Inc., run by DJ Tone B. Nimble, operates like a health-food store staffed by the Wu-Tang Clan. Everything is done in-house, from marketing to distribution.