Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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October 19–26, 2000

music issue

Gold Sounds

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Poise on the keys: James Poyser tickles the ivories.

Erykah Badu? The Roots? Cherokee? Talib Kweli? The bucket drummer? It’s all in a day’s work on North Seventh.

What started as an idea in the minds of young Ahmir-Khalib "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, who sat in study hall at High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and ironed out a plan thirteen years ago, has played a huge part in turning Philadelphia into Soulquarian central — a musical Mecca of sorts for cutting edge soul music. There is simply no denying that the years their band The Roots spent weathering the storm for live instrumentation in hip-hop has given birth to a distinct sound and spirit that is causing one hell of a gravitational pull here for artists from everywhere. Even French duo Les Nubians got their band members from Philly. And it seems everyone wants to be in on the Soulquarian sound. To get in on the vibe, the best place to go is Larry Gold’s The Studio on the 400 block of N. Seventh St., where much of the action takes place. The Studio building also serves as home to Axis Music, Motive Records and The Roots’ Web and publicity arm Okayplayer, making for a rich collaborative environment.

"People come here for a lot of different reasons. They come here for the musicians mostly, though," says producer Larry Gold, industry veteran and owner/operator of the building where so much of the recording and collaborating takes place. "I think without The Roots, you wouldn’t have any of this at all. You wouldn’t have [Jazzy Jeff’s] Touch of Jazz, you wouldn’t have Axis Music, you wouldn’t have any of that… [The Roots] made live music become popular again… In other words, without these forefront people, the people coming out now wouldn’t even exist."

I had the privilege of hanging out and eavesdropping on the goings on of a couple typically hectic days.

It’s A Lazy Afternoon. Hardly.

Axis Music isn’t easy to find. In fact, the entire third floor of The Studio may seem like a maze to a newcomer: several twists and turns and doors that bear no names.

Axis, the home of producers James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix, is at the end of a long hallway. Though cramped for space, the very narrow rectangle that is the office has the familiarity of a home. There is a fudge-brown buttery leather sofa so cozy that many a musician must’ve melted into it. Next to it, a bookcase overflows with music magazines. A microwave and fridge are handy. Framed platinum and gold records awarding Vikter and James’ production on songs by Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, The Roots and others light up the walls. Real photos, not promotional "glossies," of the Axis team and a color-copied article on Vikter, also a DJ, from Jockey Slut magazine are tacked to the bulletin board above one of the two desks. Vent ducts protrude from the ceiling. A big window lines the back wall.

On this late Tuesday afternoon, there are a handful of heads present changing work hats as needed. And a number of artists are in and out. Not just because Axis Music is home to two producers who are quickly emerging as soul’s most sought after, but also because, in the studio down the hall, hip-hop giants and fellow Soulquarians The Roots are practicing for the Okayplayer Tour. When I enter, Chauncey Childs, in charge of Axis’ business affairs, immediately pulls me up a chair and begins playing a slew of new tracks produced by James and/or Vikter. One is a remake of Fela Kuti’s "Water No Get Enemy," featuring his son Femi Kuti, D’Angelo, Macy Gray, James Poyser, Ahmir Thompson, Nile Rogers and Pino Palladino. It sounds really vibrant.

A new face appears in the office. "That’s D’Angelo’s drummer, Franklin Walker. I sent him on the audition and he got the gig," Chauncey says proudly, "Whenever somebody needs a band, they call me."

Chocolate, who does his drumming for Lauryn Hill, walks in from the Axis studio. I ask him how he got the name: He explains that Hill found similitude between his voice and Al Green’s and encouraged him to sing, dubbing him "Al Chocolate." But wait a minute. Isn’t this the original bucket drummer? The one whose gift was featured in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk? The same one who has played on the streets of New York for eons, though he doesn’t look a day older than 20? "42nd Street for 20 years!" he declares, not bragging. Inside the studio, Vikter is polishing a demo for the song "Shining" so that Chocolate can play it for RuffNation, his label, in hopes that they’ll approve it for his debut. This song must be sacred to Chocolate: It conveys all those years of struggle, morphing an empty bucket into a pot of gold.

Today is a rest day for Poyser. Well, not exactly. Even fresh back from a five-day trip to the panhandle state to work with Erykah Badu on her new album, Mama’s Gun, which he’s co-producing, James Poyser stops in the office to make a few phone calls and connect with Duplaix and Childs. On this day of no airports or train stations, James sits at a desk, tied up in a half-hour phone conversation with Badu about wrapping up the recording. He holds up a note to Chauncey: Erykah’s deadline has been pushed up a month. James has no look of surprise, it’s as if news of sudden time constraints motivates rather than worries him.

"James doesn’t have time to digest his influence," marvels Tayyib Smith, assistant publicist, event coordinator and promoter for Axis who handles overseas licensing. "[Being too self-congratulatory] is not Axis’ plan. We’re just gonna dig in, work hard for the next ten years and wake up with a fantastic catalogue."

Carpe Diem

A lightbulb can go out quicker than it flashes on. You’ve got to seize an idea before it runs the risk of being lost forever. It’s kind of how Vikter explains the necessity of fostering musical concepts while they’re fertile. "When we started Erykah’s album, we flew to Dallas and literally started working on it in her living room. She had an old, beat-up piano; her son, Seven, had a baby drum set. She was in the process of putting a studio in her home," he recalls. But they had to work with what they had right then. Erykah might get flashes of inspiration around the house: in the kitchen cooking, watching television or just humming a tune. Together, they’d compose. So much of the creative process takes place outside studio walls.

Carpe Nox

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Okaypractice: (From left) Ahmir, Kamal, Omar Edwards, Phat Kat and Bahamadia.

He’s been in the studio all afternoon with Chocolate, but the day’s not over for Vikter. The whole team snatches a moment to enjoy Black Lily at the Five Spot before calling it a night, but Vikter will be heading back to the studio to finish up a song for Cherokee, the crazy-funky-cool singer, songwriter and performer who is also taking a minute to soak up the Philly vibes at "the Lily" tonight before she leaves tomorrow. Working on her sophomore effort, she’s in search of an edgier sound. The West was too laid back, too money-oriented. Philly had what she needed: the musical vision, atmosphere and attitude of Axis and Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz. "The first album, I did in L.A. The second album, I was like, ‘I’m going home!’" says the Brooklyn native who’s lived in North Hollywood since 1992.

Time Traveling

Thursday. Not a minute after I’ve entered Axis Music, in walks Ahmir. He must be taking five from tour practice. He sits down on the sofa. This is the first time I’m meeting him formally, and he asks me where I’m from, insisting he’s heard of Danbury, Connecticut. "What’s that college in Danbury called? We did a show there a few years back," he says. It’s as fresh in his mind as yesterday. It was the same night Bill Cosby’s son had been murdered, he offers more than twice, as if telling time by tragedy. That frigid evening’s stormy weather seemed to want to hold back The Roots. Even after the release of Illadelph Halflife, their third album, they really needed the gig.

"Because of finances," Amir says, half of the band had to go via automobile. They packed as many heads as possible into the car and whoever was left took Amtrak. The plan caved when the blizzard worsened, slowing the car’s arrival down to the point where the show had to go on without them. Only Amir, Tariq, Rahzel, and James Poyser made it to the stage. James filled in on keys and bass. Did things fall apart? Not exactly. Ahmir describes the show as off the hook. "Everyone had their little gimmicks-theatrics thing," he says, "Rahzel was beatboxing. I was drumming on everything — drums, rim, floor, speakers, stands. James topped that by playing keys with his mouth and tongue." Just then Tracey Moore, the taller half of the Jazzyfatnastees, peeks in to remind Ahmir that the two ladies don’t have much time to practice before they have to leave. Not only will the tour showcase their material, but they will be doing some background vocals for others on the bill. "Okay, five more minutes," he says.

The Lesson: Part I

Tayyib has invited several media outlets to a press day for the Okayplayer tour which will bring Talib Kweli, Slum Village, Dead Prez, Jaguar, Bahamadia, Guru and the Jazzyfatnastees around North America backed by The Roots. Around the hall from the Axis office is the studio where tour practice is taking place. A handful of young men sit and stand in the area outside of the studio door. Maybe they are friends of staff members. Maybe they are hip-hop hopefuls following what they believe is the gravy train. One of them busts a rhyme, but he probably won’t be getting anyone’s attention any time soon.

When I step within the soundproof doors, I am expecting to see much more press. Band rehearsal’s already started on songs from Train of Thought, the debut from Reflection Eternal (Kweli’s pairing with DJ Hi -Tek). A CD Walkman, playing the tracks to be practiced, is hooked up to the studio’s speakers and is being fast forwarded and rewound by Ahmir who acts as drummer, orchestra conductor and mediator. Kweli and the Jazzys enter momentarily and immediately take their places at the three microphones. "This song is tricky," Kweli warns the Jazzys, but they pick up the vocals from the slow but contagious "The Blast," quite quickly, jotting down their lines in notepads during pauses. Roots bassist Hub’s rendition of the bass is a little off, so Ahmir pauses to phonetically mimic the bass line. Before long the Walkman is no longer in use and I start to feel really lucky. I’m getting a free concert by some serious history-makers, sitting incognito in the corner bobbing my head. For Blackstar’s "Knowledge Of Self," Kweli makes like he’s talking to a revved up audience: shouting the chorus and insisting they echo him. Jokingly, the Jazzys repeat after him, masking their feminine voices in masculinity.

Don’t See Us

Yesterday, the Okayplayer tour kicked off in Boston. But downstairs from The Roots’ empty studio, Okayplayer.com is still hard at work. The office looks like there should be tumbleweed blowing through because there are only about six desks in the mostly unfilled space. When I walk in, there are three young men working on computers. I walk up on Dan, one of the few full-timers, and introduce myself. He seems startled, then confused, until Angela Nissel, the site webmaster who does too many jobs to try to name, comes out from her office and says hello. She introduces me to Shawn Gee, the business manager for The Roots, Motive Records and Okayplayer.com. It’s not a job I envy. "We’re a small company, so folks wear a lot of hats," Sean explains. A six foot-high stack of priority mail envelopes and boxes full of orders for t-shirts and CDs sits near the hall outside of Sean’s office. Back in the main room, I notice a fake window on the wall. Well, it’s a window, but you can’t look out of it, so a palm tree, a sandy beach, and water are painted on it. Apparently Sean and Dan, feeling claustrophobic, put it up. "We have no windows, so we’re all kind of depressed," jokes Angela — who spends many overtime hours pulling things together at Okayplayer — with a degree of honesty in her voice. "Sometimes, people walk by," she laughs about the window. "If you listen very carefully, you can hear the waves crashing," adds Dan.

Outro

What’s to come for the Soulquarians? For Axis, Badu’s return with a second joint. A debut for Musiq. A live album with the Ty Tribbett Gospel Choir. In the Roots camp, Ahmir Thompson just cut a record with bass man Christian McBride and pianist Uri Caine. He’s also in the lab on Tariq’s debut. Jaguar’s premier is in the works on Motive. Okayplayer.com has added Dilated Peoples and Reflection Eternal to what’s becoming a super-site. Nationwide exposure for "the Lilies" on the Okayplayer tour. "The guys that have been in the trenches, have been working hard — they’ve been doing it for a while," says Poyser. "It’s only [being called] a renaissance in the sense that [the mainstream] discovered it."

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