Heat in the kitchen

Addict Merchants combine soul, funk, jazz and other musical forms with rap and then let the mix simmer

What does an Addict Merchant look like? Here are six of them.

What does an Addict Merchant look like? Here are six of them.

Wednesday, March 26, at noon on the campus of California State University at Sacramento, 6000 J Street. Free.

It’s an ordinary kitchen, in a suburban house in sleepy East Sacramento. It’s a bachelor’s kitchen—sink piled with dirty dishes—and it’s crowded. Quincy Frazier and his drum kit are pushed into one corner. Guitarist Chris Wind has to pull up his legs when someone opens the door. E.J. has set up his Fender Rhodes in front of the counter. Nino Machado and his bass are next to him: standing room only. When Freez comes in to drop some vocals, he has to sit on the amp he plugs his mic into. Crowded but cozy. This is the rehearsal space for the Addict Merchants, one of Sacramento’s hardest-working—and most underappreciated—bands.

The Merchants have spent a lot of time in that kitchen. The rhythm section is Ziploc tight, laying the foundation for warm harmonic interplay between the guitar and the keys. As with other instrumental hip-hop bands, the Merchants’ sound is grounded in jazz—bearing the mark of innovators like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock—along with funk and classic soul. Improvisation is key to the group’s songwriting process. “We’re just sitting here, fiddling around,” Wind offered. “One cat’ll feel that vibe and wanna change up. Another cat’ll just grab it and feel it right away—he wants to go into jazz; another cat’ll drop into jazz with him. It’s enjoyable.”

The jazz influence is a longstanding one. Machado and Frazier played in a jazz trio while they were students at Valley High School. It was there that they hooked up with emcees Freez and Illafied and became the Addict Merchants. That was 1996, and since then, the band’s roster—along with its sound—has expanded. Dot Com completed the trio of emcees, and E.J. joined a couple of years later. Wind signed on last September.

By now, the Merchants are underground veterans. They’ve released three albums, including the recent, outstanding Matters of Fact, and are working on their fourth. Along the way, they’ve developed a reputation for ferocious live performances. The live setting highlights the Merchants’ organic sound, allowing them to give free rein to their improvisational instincts. “At the show, everything is off the top,” Wind said. “Even though it’s been rehearsed, at the same time, you’ve got this certain energy.”

Though they love touring, the Merchants are weary not only of making music but also of producing, distributing and promoting it themselves. “There’s only so many places you can distribute in Sacramento,” said Machado, who runs Twelves, Sacramento’s premier source for hip-hop vinyl. “Hip-hop’s not the most favorite music in Sacramento, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you’re doing. Every single group in Sac tries to do their own shows and put themselves on.”

Still, the Merchants sometimes wonder if they’re fighting an uphill battle—if the city in which most of them were raised will ever be truly receptive to the Merchants’ music. “Do they just see what TV is selling them in terms of the blingy, flashy side—the guns and negativity?” Freez wondered. “That’s one side of hip-hop. But there’s this other part of the culture that focuses on other things.”

Part of the problem is that the Merchants, like that “other part,” defy easy categorization. Without turntables or drum machines, and in making music that incorporates rap with jazz, funk, soul and pop, what marks the Addict Merchants as “hip-hop”? “There’s no one answer,” Machado said. “You put constraints on any kind of music, and it’s not going to grow. As long as people know where it came from and give credit, that’s how you consider what’s hip-hop.”

One way or another, the Addict Merchants will keep pushing their sound and promoting their cause. During the day, the band members have jobs ranging from EMT to substitute teacher. Nights find them cooking up their distinctive brand of hip-hop, jamming in the tiny kitchen and playing the frustrations of the outside world away.