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Last time we checked in with San Francisco's Marginal Prophets, they were . . . poised to take over the hip-hop universe!
Uh, well, they would have, if their first album, Twist the Nob, hadn't employed so many unauthorized samples. To get the samples cleared would've cost a bundle for a big corporate record label, so Keith Knight and Jeff Kramer, the pair who front the Prophets, put it out on their own. Of course, they didn't bother getting the proper legal clearances either (Haven't you heard? Musicians are poor!), but then Twist the Nob never sold well enough to the point where anyone they knicked from would have cared, be it Tori Amos, Led Zeppelin, Glenn Miller, ZZ Top, Billy Squier or whoever plays on the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack (they did at least credit all samples in the album's liner notes).
That was back in 1996, and now, seven years later, Knight and Kramer have finally managed to record and put out a proper follow-up, Bohemian Rap CD (say it out loud—get it?).
To go that long between albums is usually deemed career suicide, but as with all struggling-to-rise bands, real life got in the way. While Twist the Nob did snag Marginal Prophets some major-label interest, all the leads eventually petered-out. They laid low after that, playing sporadic shows in the Bay Area. Knight kept busy with his other career, drawing his syndicated comic strip The K Chronicles (he has since published three K Chronicles compilation books), while Kramer—not the Register's unfunny humor columnist, by the way—got into stage management and went on the road with James Taylor, of all people, and worked the Salt Lake City Olympics.
"I wish we were all 17 and lived at home so we could put our creative stuff into Marginal Prophets," Kramer says of the long album gap, "but now we got girlfriends and wives and rent. And it doesn't help that we're such perfectionists."Bohemian Rap CD is a Marginal Prophets evolution, but not a huge one. Like Twist the Nob, it's a smart, musical hip-hop/rock merger, with real guitars, bass and drums backing Kramer and Knight (but without that angry-stupid Limp Bizkit stink), who take turns belting out funny rhymes about wanking, women, tight pants and hip-hop hypocrisies, peppered with pop-culture references that would make Quentin Tarantino cream. They're still not above a good turd joke or five. And there's "The Difficult Song," all about a day when Kramer took a bunch of speed, smoked way too much weed and had a nasty panic attack—fulfilling their own self-description of "semi-conscious hip-hop," intended or not.
Ah, but here's something new: this time, they get political, flipping a little education without getting preachy. On "Do It Like That," Kramer asks, "Ever wonder why the fastest-growing industry is prisons and jails?/Why the lowest common denominator gets the highest record sales?/Why some people spend their money on more junk they don't really need?/While other folks are just happy if they got enough to eat?"
"We're just moving a little forward," Kramer says, reflective of the fact that he and Knight are both 36 now ("I can now officially and legally date girls half my age!" says Kramer), and they probably aren't nearly as horny as they were at 29. They kind of had to grow up, anyway, to stand out somehow, since the concept of rap and rock and funk mixing together—and the idea of a Jewish guy and a black guy trading lines onstage—isn't nearly as exotic as it was back when they first started.
"What we do isn't so strange to people anymore," Kramer says. "Back in the old days, bizarre looks were fairly common when people would see me and Keith rapping together. But now, especially with kids under 18, when they see us, they just don't question it. There are kids who find out about us from our website, who take the time to write me and tell me they feel it. To hear from a stranger in Bumfudge, Iowa, that they love our stuff is wonderful."
Meanwhile, Kramer has been seriously pondering a move south to LA, where he feels he could help get the band more exposure; a one-off Marginal Prophets gig at the Viper Room earlier this year, which got a great response, was a big factor in that thinking.
"We're sort of elder statesmen up here in the Bay," Kramer says. "We run into people who saw us nine years ago—it's like we're waiting for a lifetime-achievement Oscar or something. But times up here are tough, too, and a lot of clubs have closed. I mean, it's still good, but the music scene was better when all the dot-com money was flowing in. Attendance is down, and bands who used to draw 300 people are now drawing 150. So I'm excited to be branching out.
"But it pays to have stuck around for as long as we have. Things are starting to get a little easier for us. We've got a pedigree and a story to tell. In a way, we're sort of positioning ourselves to be the Barenaked Ladies of hip-hop. We'll all be way over-the-hill, but we'll still be writing catchy stuff."The Marginal Prophets perform at the Cal State Fullerton Pub (bottom floor of the Student Union Building), Orangethorpe and State College, Fullerton, (714) 278-3503 or (714) 278-4216. Thurs., Nov. 20, Noon. Free. All Ages; Also on The Argyros Forum Patio at Chapman University, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6871. Nov. 21, Noon. Free. All Ages; and the Gypsy Lounge with The Ziggens, Bargain Music and Sound Of Urchin, 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Ste. 3A, Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990. Nov. 21, 9 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.