The Oakland-based Crown City Rockers are a five-piece hip-hop band rooted in competitive classical music—the founders met in Boston at the Berklee College of Music—and their viciously tight musical compositions make them not only one of the most refreshing acts in hip-hop but also in contemporary music, period. They combine live instruments and samples into a frenzy—such as their song "Heat," which sounds like it could have come off Bitches Brew—and they just released their second album, a tour de force called Earthtones, which Meanstreet called "the dopest album" of 2004.
The momentum behind Earthtones came from more than a decade of growth. MC Raashan and producer Woodstock started as dancers and dedicated hip-hop fans while growing up near Pasadena.
"I watched Raashan bust his first rhyme," says Woodstock. About 10 years ago, they went to an audition together for House of Pain, where the director told them he didn't need any more dancers and asked if they could rap. So after taking a long drive from Altadena, they improvised on the spot: Raashan grabbed the mic and Woodstock beat boxed.
Raashan found writing rhymes easy—he was a lifelong musicologist and had always enjoyed writing—and Woodstock started experimenting with instruments and samples. Soon, they were spending all their time making tapes. Looking back, Woodstock says, "we've come from spectators to full-time players."
Crown City (another name for Pasadena) were originally called Mission, after the Mission Hill district of Boston where the band members lived when they first started. Keyboardist Kat Ouano—a Kansan enrolled at Berklee—joined the early Rockers, along with Moe Pope, who split MC duties with Raashan ("[They were] as fluid as Q-Tip and Phife," remembers DJ Josh One).
Pope eventually left the band, and Crown City's current lineup includes Ethan Parsonage (a.k.a. Headnodic) as producer and bassist and Max MacVeety on drums. They changed their name after a potential lawsuit from the '80s British band called the Mission U.K. and relocated to the Bay Area, releasing their first album One in 2001.
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You can hear Sun Ra, Fela Kuti and Coltrane in their music: Raashan rides the beat like a surfer on Hawaii's North Shore, and Ouano sinks into intense cosmic improvisations. ("She's the real star," says Raashan. "She has a lifelong education in music.") And their devoted fans have put countless Crown City Rockers stickers from Haight Street in San Fran to the Lake Merritt district of Oakland.
That kind of adoration doesn't surprise Miles Tackett—his own band the Breakestra mines a similar section of hip-hop history.
"Before there were drum machines and raps on record, there was the live band," he says. "The foundation of American hip-hop grew from MCs rhyming with live musicians. And Crown City Rockers are keeping the spirit moving forward."
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