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Flobots Fight With Tools

This insurgent hip-hop crew will move you by any means necessary.

Stephen Brackett's intuition was unbelievably strong — when it came to Jamie Laurie, anyway. On his first day at Bradley Elementary, the wide-eyed fourth-grader took one look at the fifth-grader across the schoolyard and whispered to his father, "Hey, Dad, that guy's going to be my friend."

"And then," Brackett says, looking over at Laurie, "you introduced yourself to me, didn't you?"

Flobots' Jonny 5: I can lead a nation with a microphone.
Matt Walker
Flobots' Jonny 5: I can lead a nation with a microphone.

"Uh," Laurie demurs, "that part I don't remember."

"Ha, ha!" says Brackett, laughing. "That's where the story breaks down. Whew! Cue the sappy violins."

Clearly, Laurie, aka Jonny 5, isn't as sentimental about their first encounter. Nonetheless, his friendship with Brackett, who performs alongside him under the name Brer Rabbit, is the foundation on which Flobots built their insurgent hip-hop crew. Beneath the passionate words calling for social change, railing against injustice and decrying the current war effort, there's a kinship and a deep, sincere mutual admiration.

"The music that we make is pretty weighted with messages," Brackett declares. "And it wouldn't be effective if it was just Jamie's vision and the rest of us were just like session guys. That's another thing that's really helped us — we have people that we already knew, so we could trust each other to make the music, and in that way, like, we've sort of become the musicians that we needed to be to do what we wanted."

But they started out as nerds of a feather, classmates in the same gifted-and-talented program. Laurie and Brackett killed many an afternoon hashing out the details of a comic-book universe they jointly conceived, with 300 characters and fifteen different titles. "I remember some of my first feelings of actual envy were looking at his drawings," Brackett confesses. "We'd act out what the comic book was going to be, and then we'd sit down and draw the characters afterward. His stuff was sick. I was so jealous. I'd go home and I'd be, like, drawing things and working on it with the image of what Jamie drew in my head, and it was like, 'Aargh!' He was ahead of me for years. And then there was one point in time where I worked on a drawing for like eight hours. He came over and I saw his eyebrows raise. I was like, 'Yes!'"

That sense of playful one-upmanship continued when the comic-book geeks turned their attention toward hip-hop. "It was the same thing with the MC stuff," Brackett explains. "It hasn't been like a competition, but it's fun to seek that level, to get an eyebrow-raise out of him. I also believe it's one of the things that keeps hip-hop sharp, at its best. You've got your crew, and you guys are just battling each other back and forth, and the whole time, your swords are sharpening, and the whole thing gets elevated. So I felt the same way with the rhymes: What I'm trying to do is just get an eyebrow-raise out of Jamie."

And early on, that wasn't easy. Laurie was drawn to the sheer wordplay of hip-hop, while Brackett was more compelled by the content and delivery. "Stephen is more visceral," Laurie points out. "He understands the energy that needs to be behind something, the emotions behind it. I'm the kind of person, at the very beginning, I was counting the number of syllables in each rhyme: 'That rapper's no good; he only rhymes two syllables. You hear Gift of Gab? That's five syllables....' I'm large like a hippopotamus, trip, I gotta dis. Sip a bottomless cup of brew and I'm getting raw to this....

"So it took me a while to realize that Biggie is good, not because of his rhyme count, but because of his presence," he continues. "It took me a while to get to that point. And I feel like we converged a lot and we're at a much more similar place now than maybe at other points. And Stephen is also a dancer; I'm not a dancer at all. I've had to work on being fully present on stage in a way that's natural."

For Brackett, who was introduced to hip-hop by an older cousin who was a DJ, dancing provided a way to express himself. "It was this whole kind of cathartic connection to hip-hop," he recalls, "of really being able to get out there, more than just speaking your pain, like making something beautiful with it, exorcising whatever those demons were and then feeling empowered afterward. That's what kept me hooked."

That sense of empowerment started driving the Flobots founders over a decade ago, when Brackett's mother died of breast cancer when he was just fourteen. She'd suffered greatly, but never used that as an excuse. "My mother showed me what sacrifice was," he explains. "Like the idea of making yourself a resource, not a tool of judgment, but actually trying to satisfy the needs of the world around you. 'As long as you're alive,' she said, 'you can make a difference.'"

During his senior year at Brown University, when he got arrested at the WTO protest in Seattle, Laurie reached a similar conclusion. After school, he joined AmeriCorps in Providence, working with Youth in Action on immigrants'-rights issues, lobbying for police accountability and engaging in anti-war activism. One day, as he reflected on his efforts, he realized that if he really wanted to make a difference, music provided the perfect platform. "I thought, 'You know what? I wouldn't want to do music if it's just an indulgence, but if it's really an actual path to making change, then I would be willing to go whole hog,'" Laurie relates. "So I thought it through and thought, 'You know, if I'm going to do this, I have to really do what I can; I can't half-ass it and do it on the side while I'm working as a community organizer or something.'"

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