By Sarah Bennett
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It's oddly encouraging to note that the biggest artist to ride the Zeitgeist in 2005 was Kanye West. While West is indeed a self-important wad of ego, his lyrics indicate a familiar struggle with what is right and what is wrong, be it in regard to the scruples of the diamond industry or what is fair in love and war. It's this brand of introspection that similarly informs Oakland's Crown City Rockers, who make politely upbeat, jazzy, funked-up hip-hop, kept in check by solid beats and the rhymes of MC Raashan Ahmad, who has a more precise flow than any set of true jazzers could contend with.
Crown City bounces happily alongside artists like the Roots and De La Soul, and has a set of coming tour dates with Digable Planets. Ahmad is clearly enthused about Butterfly et al. a decade after their heyday and says of the band: "People are so excited to see them still! The movement they helped create has spawned so many groups, and to see legends like that onstage is great!" That points to a certain welcome positive attitude—sometimes it's just a sunny day at the Popsicle stand.
So Crown City Rockers aren't exactly rockers, nor do they live in Crown City (a.k.a. Pasadena, though Woodstock and Ahmad have lived there). Three of the five band members (keyboardist Kat Ouano, bassist Headnodic and drummer Max MacVeety) met at music-nerd headquarters—Boston's esteemed Berklee College of Music. Soon enough they'd recruited Ahmad and producer Woodstock and dubbed themselves "Mission," after their Boston neighborhood of Mission Hill.
The band's sound is expansive but remains focalized around jazzy-soul keys and hip-hop beats and flow. Says Ouano: "[Hip-hop] is what binds us together. It's the culture that we all can relate to. Everyone is from different backgrounds and musical tastes, but the one thing that everyone has in common is hip-hop."
In 1998, the band moved en masse to Oakland, released an unremarkable album (One) and changed their name. They've since earned a rep for having an uncommon live show—it's often impossible for rap-oriented acts to own the stage the way they do the studio, but for Crown City, the appeal is largely based on performance, a testament to their formal training and years together as a somewhat musically disparate collective.
"Everyone's a character, and you can see that onstage," says Ouano. "One of the hardest things to do is to translate the energy of a live show onto recorded material. We cater our shows to what kind of energy the audience gives us. Y'all are coolin' out, we might give you a more chill set. [But] y'all are hype, we'll get hype!"