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July 10, 1997 * Vol. 7, No. 27

It's a Wonderful L.I.F.E.

Knoxville's heavy hip-hop vets command you to get the funk out of the way

by Mike Gibson

It starts with an off-hand drum lick, a sly, supple cadence that skips like a flat stone across smooth water off Jeremy Skalet's snare. Then keyboardist Steve Hawk checks in with a kinky wurlitzer noodle--limber, greasy, and fat with distortion.

Moments later, bassist Adam Bucco is slapping rubbery exclamation points, while six-stringer James Mooreleghen doubles Hawk's funky ostinato with a tone that would cut steel. What ensues is an edgy, kinetic space jam, a psychedelic groove-metal maelstrom that's first furious, then pensive, and always inexorably funky.

Unhampered by the shackling confines of their tiny practice space--a grubby West Knoxville garage choked with lawn tools and sundry suburban clutter--the members of L.I.F.E. (a.k.a. Living In a Funked-up Environment) have boarded their own little mothership and taken sudden, rapturous flight.

And they've done so in more ways than one. After nearly five years of toiling as perhaps the city's least-heralded long-running band, this Knoxville seven-piece has seen its stock rise with the recent re-ascension of Funk, from the eclectic shuffle of multi-culti jam bands to bare-naveled, butt-shakin', '70s revivalism to the mosh-ready aggro-funk vamps of heavy alt-rockers like 311 and Rage Against the Machine.

"Funk never went anywhere--it's always been with us," declares lumbering vocalist R. Frank Bowman, the band's elder statesman at age 32. "I wouldn't call it a re-birth, by any means; George Clinton and James Brown never stopped working. I think it was more a matter of people finally starting to catch on."

L.I.F.E. began--so to speak--in 1992 when Skalet, vocalist Brendan "B.C." Coleman, and a local D.J., Todd Smith, conspired to lay rapped vocals and turntable gymnastics over live drums. But what began as an attempt to inject warm blood into the often cold, mechanical underpinnings of hip-hop became something else entirely as new members came on board and slowly chipped away at Smith's old-school vision.

Smith eventually left the group, and L.I.F.E. circa 1997 owes as much to the heavy rock and punk fixations of Skalet and Mooreleghen's youth as to the founding funk of Brown, Clinton, et al.

"The original idea was to have rappers backed by guitars," says Mooreleghen. "We were a hip-hop band, basically, but then the live instruments started moving to the front. We added more hooks, more tempo changes, more multiple parts. The rock influences started coming out."

"I think we all hated going to see rap acts where there's nothing but samplers and machines up front," adds Hawk. "What we've done since has really been a conscious effort to get away from that."

And L.I.F.E feels the resulting synthesis of distortion, groove, and soul positions the band uniquely--and propitiously--in an increasingly funk-centric world.

"I think a lot of the retro-funk thing is more tied into the look--the clothes and stuff," says Mooreleghen. "I think we're more progressive funk; we identify more with bands like 311 or the Beastie Boys."

"But we can still turn out some hippies when we play around UT," Skalet adds with a laugh. "They still do their little funky chicken thing; it's just a little bit faster. One thing we've always been proud of is that we can turn out different crowds--hippies, rock fans, whatever--and still move them."

What's next for L.I.F.E. is anybody's guess. The band's recent locally-released double CD, Soulstuffin'/Living in a Funked-Up Environment, is a sprawling showcase of steel-toed funk, svelte post-modern R&B, and shades of latter-day Chili Peppers. But Bucco (former bassist for the funk-metal outfit Revolution Block, now the newest member of L.I.F.E.) believes the coming months will see the band groove in all new realms, mining territory even further removed from its spare drums-and-a-turntable roots.

"We're in an evolutionary period right now," Bucco says. "Our CD no longer accurately represents us. The three of us (Bucco, Skalet, and Mooreleghen) listen to each other a lot more now; there's a bigger pulse, a better groove."

And he's right. L.I.F.E.'s sound and chemistry have, from day one, been in a constant state of flux--vital, organic, mutable, much like one of the band's levitating, galvanic jam sessions. But Skalet says one thing remains constant through musical transformations and membership upheavals alike--the band's unwavering devotion to Funk (with a capital 'F') and to the ideals of the prophets who've shepherded it all the way through its second coming.

"We just want to travel and keep playing good, funky music," Skalet insists. "Whether we make a good living or a bad living off of it, that's what we want to do. We want to be like George Clinton and P-funk, still out there rocking at age 60."

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