New old school
The sound of Sacramento’s Deep Fried Funk Brothers is rooted in hip-hop history
Nate Curry, a.k.a. N8 the GR8, holds an invisible Walkman to his ear, rolls his eyes back in his head and travels two decades back in time. He was just a punk-ass teenager then, riding the bus to school, listening to Erik B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” blast through the headphones. The same song now throbs from the monitor speakers in the Deep Fried Funk Brothers’ West Sacramento recording studio, where Curry, Pete Bettencourt and George “DJ Mad G” Loera have been explaining how the Deep Fried Funk Brothers, the greatest local hip-hop group you’ve never heard of, came to be.“This sound is dope,” Curry says. “You’re going to hip-hop school.”
Class is in session as Curry, Bettencourt and Loera, now in their mid-30s, spin vinyl featuring the rap influences from the trio’s formative years in the 1980s: Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, Chuck D, Ice Cube. The beats are tight, the sound is stripped down and the lyrics flow endlessly but with measured aggression. Loera deejays while Bettencourt and Curry play emcee, matching Rakim word-for-word on “Paid in Full.”
“Cos I don’t like to dream about gettin’ paid / So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made / To now test to see if I got pull / Hit the studio, cos I’m paid in full.”
Getting paid, in full, in part or otherwise, is the dream of every aspiring artist, and DFFB has enjoyed more success than most. In one form or another, the threesome has made it in the Sacramento hip-hop scene, such as it is, since the early 1990s. Local rap aficionados will be most familiar with their previous incarnation as the CUF, California Underground Funk, a multiple-member crew that produced five full-length albums, toured the United States and Europe and performed with national-caliber artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre and Run-D.M.C. They even picked up a couple of Sammies.
Various external forces gradually pried members of the CUF away, leaving Curry, Bettencourt and Loera to carry the “grown-up hip-hop” torch two years ago. A DFFB album featuring members of the CUF came first in 2005, followed by the release of the first DFFB-only album, Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire, last October.
Those accustomed to the lush production on, say, the latest Beyoncé hit may struggle to catch their breath in the sparse atmosphere of Out of the Frying Pan. To avoid any licensing issues, the album uses no samples; Loera and Curry composed all of the minimalist beats and melodies themselves. Bettencourt plays main emcee, with lyrics driven by a quest for social justice, as on one of the album’s best tracks, “Sign of the Times.” Against a simple rhythm comprised of hand claps and a “boom, boom, boom, boom ” bass line, he raps: “I know what my job is, a young Hugo Chávez / I don’t believe in Congress or the judicial process / It’s dishonest, like a politician’s promise/ Concerned with their profits and superficial progress.”
It’s serious music, both in substance and style, with a rhyme scheme that rides, à la Rakim, between the lines. The rants are original, well thought out and flow in a near-seamless stream of consciousness: “Before the pilgrims and slave ships / Before they burnt the land, cut the trees down and paved it / This land was free from all that chaos and politics / Now teen-aged kids is packing hand guns and hollow tips.”
Bettencourt draws inspiration from “reality, what’s going on out there.” To him, old-school rappers are more than mere musical influences.
“They’re who made us the men we are today,” he says. “They taught us how to eat and live.” He notes that KRS-One is a vegetarian, a fact that blew him away as a teenager. “You don’t eat hamburgers? In the 1980s? Are you kidding me? Chuck D, KRS-One, Rakim—they were the teachers.”
Bettencourt flirted with vegetarianism for a short time, but since has returned to omnivorism. However, after prolonged listening to Out of the Frying Pan, it’s clear that most of the lessons taught by KRS-One, et al., have not gone for naught. Even when Bettencourt’s cracking wise—“used to walk five miles uphill to school both ways” he claims impossibly on “Beatin up Speakers,” another stand-out cut—there’s an attention to craft that forces the listener to take the group seriously.
“We wanted to make music that makes us feel the way we did when we first listened to this shit, old-school stuff,” Loera says.
Of course, in Sacramento, getting taken seriously on a local level has its pitfalls. Curry recalls that one of the band’s first forays to the former Cafe Montreal (now the Golden Bear), one of the few local clubs that featured hip-hop, didn’t go exactly as planned.
“Emceeing was really big back then. Battling was real big, just getting on the mic and saying something,” he says, adding that admission to the club was supposed to be free that night. “When we got there, they wanted to charge us. We started rapping to the beat outside and everybody begged us to come in.”
Those days seem like heaven compared to the ethos that now surrounds live rap music in Sacramento, which the trio says is best summed up by the question nightclub owners are asked by police, who inevitably turn up at every event, whether they’re needed or not: “Why do you keep fucking with this hip-hop shit?”
For the Brothers, the answer is easy.
For one, they’re getting paid. They won’t say exactly what Catz Go Round Records paid them up front for their latest record, but Loera says they got “a chunk … more than in the past.” A short Pacific Northwest tour is in the works for February, possibly followed by a return to Europe, where they remain popular thanks to previous touring as the CUF. Out of the Frying Pan is doing well on college and independent radio stations and is available on iTunes and in Target and Best Buy stores across the country.
Then there’s Lil Nate, son of N8 the GR8, who’s already a rapper of some note at age 10. The youngster was bottle-fed KRS-One tunes, and actually performed a song live onstage with the legendary hip-hop star during his last Sacramento appearance. KRS-One was stunned that a 6-year-old knew the song backward and forward.
“He killed it!” N8 the GR8 beams.
The student becomes teacher, and the circle begins again.