December 21, 1998

CitySearch Rock, Jazz, & Pop

fun lovin' criminals
by Anicee Gaddis

fun lovin' criminals They say that, in the end, it all goes back to the neighborhood. In New York City, some say, the block where you grow up may well determine who you do or do not become. The Fun Lovin' Criminals are definitely the type of guys who not only embrace their roots, but actually make a living from writing dark, funky love songs—with just the right touch of street sentimentality—about the place where it all began. In this case, it's the Lower East Side—more specifically that dividing line between the East Village and the Chinatown barrio known as Delancey Street.

The trio met back in '93 at the Limelight, where two of them worked. Not long after, they played their first impromptu gig at a friend's birthday party, and soon thereafter found themselves pressing palms with label execs at EMI. The first album, "Come Find Yourself," came out in '96 on that label, the single "Scooby Snacks" (written with Quentin Tarantino) was a hit, and a somewhat multi-layered audience—everyone from Latin homeboys to whitebread industry types—started to gather 'round the mosh pit , enticed by a new take on funk-rock. Then a funny thing happened. EMI went broke in the U.S., and the band trekked overseas and wound up signing with Chrysalis.

The trio's sound is a variation on Bodega funk (Huey's thoughtful guitar chords adding a touch of neo-folk), spliced with hip-hop-based rhymes over Fast's '70s-style synthesizer riffs and Steve's drums. The bandito bandname fits them like a glove. These boys shift between rabble-rousing rawk and low-key jazz, with the grace and alacrity of tea-sipping gentilhommes driving in the Grand Prix.

Cut to 1998. The new album "100% Colombian," due out in January, is mellower and sexier than its predecessor. It's also less jokey, though the Barry White tribute song, "Love Unlimited," is pure retro-soul standup ("If Barry White saved your life/Or got you back with your ex-wife/Then it's aaallll right"). But the stand-out songs tend to be reality-loaded, bittersweet, string-laced ballads like "Back on the Block," "Up on the Hill," and "The View Belongs to Everyone"—although the country-rock, hoe-down inflected anthem, "Korean Bodega," is just plain boot-stompin'. Despite the hiatus between albums, the dedications are the same ("This one goes out to my Aunt Lois") and Huey's between-song one-liners ("You don't smell the shit on the New York streets in the winter, 'cause it's frozen") are still stoked with old-school charm.

I spoke with the main man before a New York show at the Bowery Ballroom, one recent winter evening. "I can't believe there's such a nice place in my old neighborhood. I can't believe they let us play here," he said as we huddled around a table in the back. He kept a watchful eye on the new replacement drummer, Mackie (Steve broke his hand in a mysterious tour mishap), like a pleased papa. Huey is a fast-talking ex-Marine, who looks the part of the quintessential B-Boy—big leather jacket, swift and constant hand gestures, and cornrow braids.

CitySearch: So you're from the Lower East Side, which street?

H: Sixth Street, for a while, then we moved uptown for a little bit. All down that way.

CS: You're in your neighborhood now.

H: Yeah. Funny enough. And I actually wrote a song about Delancey Street, on the new album. It's called "Southside."
CS: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. But we'll get to it later. Where are the other guys from?

H: Fast was born in the Naval Academy. His father was a naval officer. He was born in Annapolis. And then his father worked for IBM, so he lived in Chappaqua, which is like Westchester. Then I guess when he was about 17, he moved out of his house and came down to the city. He was a musician, tryin' to be a musician.

CS: Steve is from New York as well?

H: Yeah, he's from around here.

CS: And you all met at the Limelight?

H: Yeah, me and Fast. That's how we hooked up. We were both working there. I was a barback. You know, doing that [makes scooping gesture with hands]...puttin' ice in the bars. And Fast was answering the phones.

CS: You met in '93. But when did the group actually start?

H: Well, we didn't really start it as a group. It was just me and Fast makin' music and kind of goofin' around. A friend of ours was a party promoter at the Limelight. She came over to the house sometimes and heard this music. "You should play it for my birthday," she said to us one day. And me and Fast had no way of playing it. But then our roommate, Steve, was a drummer. So we said, "Steve, you wanna play drums, please?" [tents his fingers in prayer]. So he said, "OK, fine." He played some drums and we did the gig. I guess that's when the band the gig. But before that, me and Fast were always goofin' around.

CS: Have you been back to the Limelight since?

H: No, I don't know if I can. I don't know if I can go back. It's a different place now, isn't it? It's all clean. It's all Disney and stuff. People used to go to that place because it was wack. It was a little off-center. There were a lot of freaky people, and everybody was doing drugs.

flc CS: What would you be doing now if the band hadn't worked out?

H: It's hard to say. I don't know what I'd be doing. I was trying to be a fireman, you know, before we got our first record deal. I had taken the test, and I did pretty good. I was waiting for my lottery number to come up. Seemed like a cool way to make money, bug out. Because I'm kind of a crazy dude a little bit. I was in the Marines for a while. You get a little weird, I guess, in the head. It's good to do something where you can be a little weird in the head and it's not breaking the law. Givin' back to society and stuff.

CS: That sounds good. So I heard this rumor that you guys bought a garbage company. Is that true?

H: We can't really talk about it now because we're getting so much attention with our garbage business. We've got a lot of people calling, wanting us to pick up their garbage because they don't know about the garbage business. You can't just stop using who you use and then call us because the people you use are....

CS: Oh, you do private stuff?

H: Yeah, we do private stuff. There are routes, you know. The companies own the routes. And we don't wanna mess with the companies. We also do asbestos removal.

CS: You're so enterprising.

H: Well, there are three constants in life...death, taxes, and garbage. I wouldn't want to be a mortician, you know, that's morbid. Hangin' out with dead people. And then you accountant, it's not my thing. But there's always gonna be garbage. No matter what happens. If you can expand with the times...get new trucks... [lights another cigarette].

CS: You just got back from touring in Europe. How was that?

H: We did this whole 12-week European tour. It was wild. We played all these different places. And every show we played, we sold out, which is bugged. Except for that last one in Geneva, Switzerland. It was funny.

CS: Uh-oh.

H: No, we got a great gig. The people who were there loved it. But the place was huge and so it wasn't really full.

CS: But you have a huge fan base in Europe.

H: Yeah, because our record company in the United States kind of fell under. You know EMI records... I don't really think they put a lot into it, because they kind of knew they were going under, a year ahead of time. So then we switched to Capitol. Then we switched to Virgin and they started to get behind it. [The music's] not for everybody, I don't think. It's not like REM, like everybody's gonna cry when they hear it.

CS: Thank God for that.

H: Yeah, I think that's the way it should be. I wouldn't want that either.

CS: Why did you release your album in Europe first?

H: Because of the whole record company thing in the United States. You don't have a record company at the moment, you can't know. [Virgin] had to get their ducks in a row. They had to line up promotion and marketing. But it was nice. It went in at number two [on the charts] in England. We gave our boys a run for their money.

CS: Where else in Europe have you been?

H: Pretty much everywhere.

CS: Which spot was the best?

H: We played at the Brixton Academy, two shows in a row, in England...sold out. In London, we had 5,000-capacity joints. We had pyrotechnics and shit blowin' up on stage. We have a big production we can do. Paris was cool. Barcelona. We had a cool show in Stockholm, Sweden. You go around and see all these different people, and they all just wanna chill out and relax. So if you don't get in their face when you play your music, it's all right.

CS: What do you think of American hip hop?

H: It's a little bit like professional wrestling, isn't it? The new meanest, baddest guy. That's cool, I guess, if that's what people wanna get into. But the music is suffering. There are a lot of good producers out there, but they're not trying to do original stuff. If Puffy gives you four million dollars, you're gonna give him publishing on your song. Right? And they're just gonna keep using old songs, until they run out of old songs.

CS: I think it's really gone downhill. How about hip hop from France and England?

H: In England, they've got this stuff that's almost instrumental hip hop. There are no vocal tracks. The bands are really cool that do stuff like that. The Propellerheads kind of do stuff like that, but they're not cool. The stuff in France...I kind of almost giggle at it. Some guy from Marseilles is like the hardest guy from Marseilles. He's like [impersonates a French rapper], "Je la do do do I get you...I get you man."

CS: It doesn't work when they try out their bad-boy American impressions.

H: No. Well, I mean, the Japanese hip hop...remember that De La Soul record? They had that Japanese track. That was funny. [another funny impersonation] "Ah shit, cheeba, cheeba." But if music gives you an emotional response, whether it be funny or not, that's good. The music did its job: I got out of my bad mood.

CS: Would you call your music hip-hop based?

H: Its spine is the hip hop. But it's the boom-bap more than the vocal style. I struggle with the vocals a lot of the time. I just try and tell stories, rather than tell of my exploits on the street.

CS: How did you start singing? Because you don't just rap, you actually sing on the new album.

H: On the new record I sing a lot more than I used to.

CS: You didn't used to sing as much?

H: No, because I wasn't really comfortable doing the vocal thing. The only reason I'm the vocalist is because I have the lowest voice of the guys in the band. They're like, "You're it. You're Barry White. You go sing." I was singer by default.


CS: You write a lot of songs about the city. Is that where you get most of your inspiration?

H: Yeah, it's my home. There are millions and millions of stories in the city. They're fairly interesting and they're real and they explore the human condition. I think that's more important than getting paid. We're all pretty much the same. All we wanna do is take care of our families and so forth. Live our lives unimpeded by our governments. It's pretty general, but it's true.

CS: Tell me about that Barry White song you did, "Love Unlimited." It definitely speaks to me.

H: He actually likes it, too, Barry White.

CS: Did you have to get anything approved for that?

H: No. It's more like a tribute, I samples. We tried to emulate as best we could the sound of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Other than that, we just say Barry White like 13 times in the song. It's about when I was a little kid. I first realized that music could do a lot of stuff when I was listening to the Barry White record. I had a babysitter who used to come over. She was maybe 17, you know, this black girl. She'd bring the Delfonics and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I was chillin' and bobbin my head, and I was like, "Wow, I've never bobbed my head before." And all of a sudden, she looked really interesting. You know, I was like pull on girls pigtails and punch 'em in the arm. All of a sudden, I was like...babe. So I think Barry White was the catalyst.

CS: That's very romantic. Soulfully romantic.

H: My friend Drez from Black Sheep used to say it's like rock music for people with soul.

CS: You know him?

H: We just did a movie together. He and I played these two hoodlum drug-dealer kids.

CS: What movie?

H: "Once in a Life." Laurence Fishburne wrote and directed it.

CS: I live a block away from that park on East Broadway. I saw him filming there one day. I was like "what's going on?" Congratulations.

H: Yeah, I never thought I'd be in a movie, but Fish called me up and I thought he wanted music for the movie. I know him. I was like "Yo, if you need music, just take it bro, without even asking, just use it." He was like, "Oh no, I'm calling you up because I want you to play Hector." And I said "Hector?" Then my fax machine started going off. He said, "Those are the lines for the character." I was like "Fish, dude, I don't know what to say." He said, "Say 'yes.'" I was in Europe. I had to fly back in the Concorde. That was phat. He's the coolest guy. Me and Drez aren't actors, you know. We don't know what to do. But he made us very comfortable. He's coming down tonight.

CS: Really?

H: And Amon from "Oz." You know that show "Oz," on HBO? You know the black guy who plays the heavy Muslim dude? He's actually an Englishman. He's in the film, too. So they're all gonna come down and raise hell.

CS: I'll be on the look-out. So tell me about the song, "Southside." It sounds like a love song to the city.

H: It is a love song to the city. But it's through the eyes of this guy who lives in my neighborhood. We call him Jimmy the neighborhood psycho. That's the only name we know him as. He always walks on the side of the street that doesn't have the sun on it. And then at night, he walks on the side of the street that has the deli on it. He's a really strange guy. He attaches a female icon to certain problems he has. You know, the city is his girl, all of a sudden. He was telling me this story. He started talking like, "Yo, you see my girl. You see all these things they're doin' to my girl." I was like, "Wow, this guy's really gettin' into something." He started telling me this story about how he used to hang out on the southside of Delancey Street. So I talked to him a couple of more times, and said, "What's up with your girl?" He was like, "We gotta get 'em bro. We gotta throw 'em in the tracks." I said, "Get who?" "The mayor. The mayor is messin' with my girl." So through a couple of visits with this really crazy guy, I got a good story.

CS: It's a good song.

H: It is pretty bugged out. We never thought we could do a really heavy song. You know, heavy and dark. You can do heavy and be happy, like Ugly Kid Joe. I was listening to the song the other day. Mackie was playing the drums. You know, he used to be the drummer for Bad Brains. He's a mad drummer. And he was like, "Yo, this song is ill, dude. What's this song about, man?"

CS: You've got a love song to your dog on the album too, called "Sugar." I thought it was about a woman at first.

H: Yeah, that's my dog, Sugar.

CS: It's a pretty emotional song.

H: Yeah, my dog deserves a song. Sugar's a good girl.

CS: BB King is on the album. You have all of these amazing old black soul icons. How did you hook up?

H: That's the music I grew up with. Our parents weren't nerds, you know, they were cool. They listened to soul music...Ray Charles and BB King. Ever since I was a kid, when I started playing guitar, I was into it. I came from the less-is-more school. If you play a note and you really mean it, with all your heart, it's better than playing 500 notes that you don't really feel. So BB King was like the king of that. We met him at this award show in London where we got the Best New Act award from this magazine called "Q." He presented the award. And we all started crying when we met him. He was like, "What's wrong boys?" And we said, "Sorry Mr. King." He said, "No, call me BB." We were like, "Sorry, Mr. BB, you're the king." And he was like, "No, take it easy, son. Do you smoke shit? Are you high? Is that why you're cryin'?" And we said, "'Naw, it's just you man." We saw him again on this TV show he was playin' and we were playin'. I have this guitar that kind of looks like his. He said, "Let me see that." So he handed me Lucille. And I'm holding Lucille and starting to tear up again. He's like, "Hey son, anytime you want me and Lucille to come down and play, let me know." I said, "Can I let you know now?" He said, "OK, you can let me know now." He works a lot, so he was in Chicago and we sent him a tape and he did the solo and sent it back. It was pretty amazing.

CS: Tell me about your home lives. You don't have to get too personal. But are you close to your families still?

H: I think the reason we can do this is because we're pretty realistic about how things are. Our families are very important. We make sure they've got roofs over their heads. I'm not married, but I have a dog. I want my dog to be happy.

CS: OK, last question. How old are you guys?

H: I'm 30. Fast is young, he's like 25. And I don't know how old Mackie is. I don't get in his business.

CS: What's Fast's real name?

H: Can't tell you that. He asked me not to tell you that. Can't tell anyone. Because his mom and his girlfriend call him that. Are you coming back for the show?

CS: Definitely. You know there are already a few people waiting outside to get in.

H: Maybe they're waiting for the Italian rapper who's opening up. He's good though. You think of Italian rap, and you think of something like "Yo Pizza Pie." But he's not like that.

CS: Maybe I should see that. How do you know him?

H: He knows a friend of ours.

CS: All right, well thank you very much.

H: You're very welcome. I gotta go get my braids redone at this girl's house now. You're coming back later?


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