For almost six years, Funktelligence has been bringing its own brand of alternative hip-hop to the good folks of Ann Arbor. With their unconventional mix of two rappers, an R&B vocalist and live four-piece band, Funktell has defined itself with an organic eclecticism that veers clear of forced, prefab diversity for diversity’s sake. A staple of the Blind Pig and other local clubs around Southeastern Michigan, the group has persevered through constant line-up changes and fickle college crowds to establish themselves as a unique fixture of the Midwest rap scene with their two releases ’99’s Until Now and ’02’s Earthtones. A forthcoming live disc recorded in July is due this winter.
Recently, the band returned from their first West Coast tour, playing dates in Los Angeles and San Francisco and sharing the stage with the likes of Atlanta’s Alt-Rap hereos, Arrested Development. Based on that success, Funktell is debating leaving town in pursuit of bigger dreams, possible on either coast.
The band took time out from their latest recording sessions at 40 oz. Studios to speak with the Daily about their music and their futures.
The Michigan Daily: Tell me a bit about the history of the group.
Ian Lawler (guitar): You got about five hours?
TMD: Well, the short version then.
Jackson Perry (MC Jax): In ’96, my senior year in high school, I started (the band) with two other cats. We played our first show April 31 and just went on from there.
A couple months into the band, Mike came into the group, like later that summer I believe. And Quentin, our drummer, came in not too long after that. We just got members here and members there.
TMD: How many members have you had over the years?
Lawler: Maybe 27-28 different members. It’s like Spinal Tap.
Perry: But in the past year, year and half, it’s pretty much a new band.
TMD: Okay: Ann Arbor hip-hop scene – is it real or just a myth?
Perry: There isn’t like a regular supporting audience. There are a few crews that do pretty well, but you put on a hip-hop show and there is no guarantee there’s going to be a crowd. We’re trying to leave Ann Arbor; let me just put that out there.
Michael Demps (MC IX Lives): Well, the lack of a real scene here has developed where we’re coming from, let us have our own voice. And it depends on how you define a scene, because talent-wise, there are some insanely talented cats here – guys like Athletic Mic League.
The talent is here; there’s just not a lot of venues that are open to hip-hop, and the venues that are open to hip-hop are just opening up.
Lawler: It’s really forced musical exploration too, because you’re not typecast to a scene necessarily. Members have looked further and further out for influences, which has really helped, and it is especially going to show on the stuff we’re doing right now.
TMD: Building on that, let’s talk about some of your musical backgrounds.
Perry: We all grew up listening to different music, but now I think there are some cross pollinations. I grew up listening to hip-hop but also everything else from Stevie Wonder to Steely Dan.
I went through my whole Poison, Skid Row, Bon Jovi era and then into the grunge scene, but throughout all of that, I was always listening to hip-hop and funk music. And I know there are some cats that have grown up playing music in the church, and some grew up playing jazz.
Melody Betts (vocals): I think I bring jazz and a little bit of gospel. I did some classical training too. All through high school and college I studied classical voice.
Lawler: Before I joined Funktell, I really didn’t even listen to that much hip-hop at all. I came from like classic rock, The Beatles, Zepplin, Pink Floyd.
Then in the end of high school and beginning of college, I got really into funk like P-Funk, Sly and lots of Stevie Wonder. I mostly did like instrumental jazz. And when I joined with these guys, they just flipped me on my side.
TMD: That explains the wide range of material you guys play live.
Lawler: The live show is basically the opportunity for us to showcase our talent, where we let loose and do our own thing.
Quentin Joseph (drums): It’s wild; most crowds respond pretty well to everything.
I think we’re versatile enough that we can shape our sets so that there will be something in the set that will appease anyone. You’ll catch anything. From drum and bass, you get some rock. You’ll get some of everything.
Lawler: We’ve played for some very contrasting crowds. We’ve played for like young kids; we’ve played for like geriatrics.
TMD: What’s the weirdest crowd you guys ever played for?
Joseph: We’re playing in Lansing with a bunch of punk groups…
Demps: And a riot broke out when we were leaving the stage.
TMD: You recorded a live album at the Blind Pig back in July, which is supposed to be coming out this winter. How did it turn out?
Matt Henninger (bass): We all came off stage and we were hypercritical of ourselves.
Everyone thought it was horrible and the worst thing we had done. But you go back and realize that actually it is really good. Some of the tracks are just going to blow people away, honestly.
TMD: Does it mean anything to you that this is an integrated hip-hop group? Or is that just who you are?
Joseph: It’s pretty much always been like that.
Perry: Yeah, we’ve always been a real diverse group, and it doesn’t seem unnatural or like a special thing – that’s just how it was. Ann Arbor is a very diverse place, and that’s one of its best assets. And a band like this, being so diverse is just a natural occurrence.
Joseph: It doesn’t seem weird here, but sometimes when we go to another city it’s like “Whoa. You guys are all different colors? Oh man!”
Betts: We have so much in common, but we’re all individuals and very strong about our individuality, so it’s a learning experience, and I think that it is helpful, cause in this world you have to know more than what’s in your comfort zone.
TMD: But with everybody being so different, such an individual, how do you hold it all together?
Joseph: With a group this big, it’s definitely hard to have everybody on the same page. It takes a lot of meetings; it takes like a lot of discussing. That’s probably the biggest challenge in this group.
Demps: It just comes with territory; like we’re here to make music, and you can tell where peoples’ focuses are and who is really trying to do it and who’s not.
And that’s the experience we’ve had with all these musicians, and you can just see what’s really going on with people’s heads and minds.
Henninger: It really impressed me when I joined the crew; you could see even the first time I played with them, everybody was coming from somewhere different, but down the road everyone was staring at the same thing.
The goal was set, and everybody knew the work that had to be put into it. Having that is something very few bands have.
TMD: You all recently drove out to the West Coast for some shows. How was the experience driving to California?
Lawler: We spent three weeks together, like all seven of us, 24 hours a day, and we got along famously.
Demps: There was like the World War III of pillow fights in the van.
Perry: Instead of releasing our aggression for real on each other, we do it in a joking way and just front like it’s a joke.
TMD: What else did you learn out there?
Perry: That there isn’t much happening around here. We felt like in the three weeks we were out there, we made more headway and progress than the five years we’ve been here.
We came to some big realizations in terms of our music. We’re trying to make this a career -we’re trying to make a living. This is what we wanna do, but unfortunately there are certain things you can’t do.
TMD: Like what?
Perry: You can’t be all over the place in terms of our direction. You have to define yourself. You have to bring your focus down to something we’re all in favor of going for.
You can’t be having a funk song here, a rock song, the next track a hip-hop song the next track, a jazz song next. You can bring other elements into the mix, but you can’t be all over the place.
Demps: You can, but that’s not what companies want.
TMD: You’re working on some new demos right now, hopefully to shop around for a deal with a label.
Does that give you a different sense of purpose when you go into the studio, or do you just approach it like you did your earlier records?
Lawler: Whenever we’ve recorded stuff before, there hasn’t been much of a difference between the sound on a CD and the sound of the live show. That’s a criticism that we’ve heard in the past. So we’re trying to get more of a studio sound.
Betts: We’re trying to get (the songs) radio ready.
TMD: That’s going to be quite a shift for you guys. How do you start to refine such a wide range of styles into something more focused?
Perry: Everybody has to bend. Not everybody is going to be 100 percent satisfied. Somebody may bring something to the group and it might get …
Betts: Smashed! They might have to rewrite it.
TMD: Did that recently happen to you?
Betts: Yes, but it didn’t hurt my feelings or nothing (laughs). That’s just the way it has to be.
TMD: Have you guys figured out what that new focus will be more along the lines of?
Perry: Alternative hip-hop soul.
Lawler: A little less old school funk, more modern hip-hop.
Joseph: It’s hard to nail down. Production-wise, maybe like Jay D of Slum Village to the Neptunes to Jill Scott-type production.
TMD: Can you make big changes like that and still be true to the band’s spirit?
Perry: We’re not going to sell out and become the next pop extravaganza. We wanna write our own material; we wanna have influence on the production. We want it to come from us.
Lawler: We can’t not be funky. The live show is still where there are no limits. We can always take the live show wherever we want to go.
Funktelligence will be playing Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor.