Heiruspecs play live hip-hop
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., July 8, 2002) – Rap music has been around for over 20 years now, and in spite of the wishes of some, it’s not going to go away. Rapping – high-velocity talk-rhyming, usually over a bed of hip-hop music bearing some relationship to funk or r&b – has become a common tool in the arsenal of performers in all genres, including folk, rock, pop and jazz music.

The one area where rap is still finding its way is in live performance. This is partly because the demands on a rapper – as well as the listener – are exhausting. The words typically come at a torrential, fast and furious pace, and there tends to be a lot of them. Also, a lot of hip-hop music that accompanies rap is created in the recording studio and hard or impossible to replicate live, other than just playing the recording for an audience.

In spite of these difficulties, there are plenty of groups trying to find a way to make rap a viable performance music. Most notable among them are groups like the Roots and Michael Franti and Spearhead. A lesser-known group in that vein is the Minneapolis-based, interracial ensemble Heiruspecs, which performed before a small, young crowd at Red on Sunday night.

Heiruspecs (pronounced Hi-roo-specs) had a lot going for it. Rappers Muad’dib and Felix were virtuosos, fleet of tongue and rhyme whether rapping pre-written lyrics or freestyling – rap’s version of jazz improvisation. Their hard-hitting, conscious raps worked well with the musicians, coordinated with the music like percussion beats.

Perhaps even better were the group’s musicians, who skirted the common ground among jazz, funk, fusion and rock. At one moment bassist Sean McPherson and drummer Conor Meehan were laying down a steady groove atop which guitarist Josh Peterson was sprinkling dreamy chords, answering keyboardist Tasha Baron’s lacy, Ray Manzarek-like lines. Steely Dan-ish jazz-rock collided with state-of-the-art drums ‘n’ bass beats on occasion, and nursery rhyme chats about the music business were answered with Zappa-fied, hard-rock riffage.

As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned out, and the volume was noticeably jacked up to ear-splitting proportions, however, the band seemed to get sucked into a vortex. Maybe it was function following form; the telescopic effect of the dark, basement nighclub’s tight, narrow sightlines are unforgiving. The rappers’ incessant verbal assault grew tedious, and towards the end, an instrumental number was a welcome tonic, especially as the band itself rivals many jazz-funk jam-bands for chops and creativity. Baron pulled out her flute and there was a more forgiving, airier space and feel. Momentarily, the jackhammer effect had ceased.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 9, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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