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?"
"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.'"
So Laurie moved back to Denver, where he reconnected with Brackett and met viola player Mackenzie Roberts. Longtime friend Andy Guerrero offered to back up the trio. Their debut show, in October 2005, was essentially Guerrero and his Bop Skizzum bandmates playing Flobots songs. "The first time we played with a band, it was a Rock the Vote show," Brackett recalls. "Andy sat with me, Jamie and Mackenzie, and was like, 'Here's the songs we can really back you up on and make bigger.' So we did that show, and that show was pretty much the turning point. It was just like, 'Whoa!' Somebody had your back when you had a band behind you. There was just so much more energy that you were creating on the stage, and there was so much more that you could give out to the audience, as well."
Within a few months, Guerrero recruited more players, including trumpeter Joe Ferrone and Jesse Walker — the heart of the band, Brackett says, because of his undying passion and commitment — who joined on bass, replacing Jimmy Stofer, who left to tour with the Fray. The rhythm section and lineup were completed with the addition of drummer Kenny Ortiz, a seasoned player who's been in numerous acts over the years, including Phantasmorgasm, one of the area's first rap hybrids.
"It was clear right from the start that everybody was on the same page in terms of wanting to push musical boundaries," Walker remembers. "But at the same time, everyone was still coming from very different influences. So it took us at least a year before we finally really rolled it into something that was presentable and that we really understood each other."
With seven members, there are not only divergent sensibilities at play, but also some very strong, distinctive personalities. Laurie is the ideological nerve center of Flobots, but he's also all over the place. "He's totally unconstrained by reality when he's coming up with ideas," Walker notes. "He just doesn't bother to wonder if something can be done."
Brackett is the band's harshest critic. There are times when he walks away from a performance disappointed, he says, and then he'll see the fire in Walker's eyes and have to reconsider. "I might be wrong," he says, "or even if I'm not wrong, I know somebody's having a great time. It helps keep me there."
Ortiz is a calming presence; any obstacles the group might face, the ace timekeeper has already seen. "He has a way of being silent for a two-hour practice," Walker says, "and then, all of a sudden at the end, saying three sentences that just resolve everything." Ferrone adds the levity. And Guerrero just keeps the band on track and focused. "He makes sure things are happening with the manager, the tour, the equipment," says Brackett. "It's fascinating. There's certain things that he does, that he's savvy about, that I wouldn't even think to ask, like, 'Okay, if we're playing this venue, where's the stage?' Or 'Where are the outlets?' Things like that. Whereas Jamie and I are like, 'Sure, you got the space? We'll do it.'"
At times, Guerrero is almost too pragmatic. He and Roberts recently got into a tangle over whether she needed a new amp. Fortunately, at Laurie's suggestion, Flobots had implemented a problem-solving system specifically designed to deal with interband conflicts. Rather than let issues fester, the members agree to table their concerns and discuss them later at a band retreat in the mountains.
"The great thing about the retreat is that it's helped us bring out into the open any of those unspoken disagreements that can often tear a band apart," Brackett says. "Just listening is important. It means so much when you're in the middle of a really heated argument and you know that the person is really listening to you. It takes away about 50 percent of that emotional vacuum that makes the conflict.
"So with those kinds of things," he goes on, "you want it to get to that boiling point. Because that boiling point is where the issues are, and when you get there you're really talking, and that rage can burn away and you've got your actual argument. If you frame it properly, if you give it a real space for it, it can be productive."
The retreats have also helped the players to clearly define their goals and determine how to work together to reach them. The group is more committed than ever to community involvement and is in the process of forming Flobots.org, a non-profit organization that will recruit and train members of their fan base to be foot soldiers in the field of community activism. In the past, the musicians have worked with organizations ranging from PeaceJam and Art From Ashes to Veterans of Hope; right now, they're focusing their efforts on Denver Children's Home, where they've been conducting workshops.
"Most people's idea of volunteering involves soup kitchens," Brackett notes. "But if we give people an actual skill set, we make that available, the amount of empowerment and the idea of change that they can bring to the world increases. And so the lies of our limitations start fading away, and the truth of what our potential is starts coming to the forefront.
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"We're trying to create a holistic, sustainable model with our musicianship," he adds. "We want to walk the talk. I think a lot of what we respond to in hip-hop is what it does with the community. It's easy to have that rhetoric of positivity, where we're like, 'Hey, yo! Everybody be positive.' But we want to go past that, where people who are in the community see us visibly there. Our commitment to service is a core value of the band. We're trying to do whatever we can do to make music a full-time, sustainable gig, where we're sustaining ourselves and our community through our music and our message."
That message comes through loud and clear on Fight With Tools, Flobots' new album. Taking its title from a WWII propaganda poster, Tools finds the act pleading for an awakening with salvos like "There's a War Going on for Your Mind," "Mayday!!!" and "Stand Up." Despite at times seeming like a dystopian mash-up of Rage Against the Machine politics filtered through 311's sound system, the well-worn approach sounds fresh, thanks to Roberts's exceptional viola playing and Laurie's engaging rhymes and forceful cadence, perfectly augmented by Brackett's verses.
"I think our relationship in the band is very intimate, because it's also a friendship," Laurie explains. "So growth within the band is also growth of our friendship. I don't feel like there's a separate time where it's like friend time and then here we have band time. In the rehearsal space, a lot of times we're just playing around. Yesterday we were pretending to be video-game characters and walking into walls."
"The nerd stuff doesn't change," Brackett concludes. "Doesn't matter how many people come to your shows."