Hip-hop/avant-garde jazzists Junkyard Empire continue to prevail as one of the most amazing success stories on the Twin Cities music scene.
They started out as a band that couldn’t get arrested and in short order have blown-up like Fat Albert. At their 2007 Uptown Bar debut for a bill with Tickle Fight, the place was almost full. When Tickle Fight finished, the place cleared out like someone had phoned in a bomb-scare. Not five years later, along with owning a legendary local profile, Junkyard Empire have gone national and, by invitation, toured Cuba as cultural guests, chronicling that experience in the documentary Rock El Imperio.
Their new album Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 is a fine follow-up to brilliant offerings Reclaim Freedom, Rise of the Wretched, and Rebellion Politik. Listeners who were hooked into the audacious aural acrobatics of the first three discs will note a shift. The jazz here is less avant-garde than their trademark, more in a smooth-groove with leanings toward funk-rock. No worries. The musicians’ strong chops (founder Christopher Cox on trombone and key, Bryan Berry on guitar, Steve Hogan on bass, Graham O’Brien on drums) shoehorn nicely into a velvet soundscape behind frontman Brihanu’s percussive, hey-y’all-listen-up vocals.
Cut from the cloth of seminal figures like The Last Poets and Sugar Hill Gang, Junkyard Empire have never gone in for run-of-the-mill spoken word. Brihanu is an ingenuous prose-poet, fluidly forceful with social oppression on his mind and bitterly fed-up, dead-on-the-money indictments on this tongue. More’s the regret that Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 doesn’t come with a lyric sheet.
If you came for the usual crap of posturing and posing as some guy glorifies his own image of bling-bling with hooker-bimbos falling off him left and right, you’re in the wrong place. This is music for the mind. “Manifest” snatches the covers off America’s two-faced ramming of democracy down throats all over the globe while in reality sustaining the same old tenet by which the country ran over Native inhabitants to steal every acre of land on with this nation stands. “Catharsis” is a sweetly somber reflection on, among other plights, a woman who grew up so tortured by what our world does to females she can scarcely understand, herself, why she didn’t commit suicide.
There are miscues. “Original Assumption,” a tribute to the hip-hop artist as renegade voice in the wilderness, is beautifully done—save a guest appearance by area icon Desdamona, who is uncharacteristically clichéd and static. “Alright” similarly is marred by renowned singer Alicia Steele sitting in, derivative and slick. Ironically, “Regla F. Obsesion,” one of the album’s truly incredible cuts, is a collaboration with guests who, unidentified, add enormous dimension, kicking it on am irresistibly infectious Latin tip.
Junkyard Empire’s Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 launched last month with a 7th Street Entry show boasting a supporting bill of Toki Wright, Guante, and City on the Make. A most effective way to build a head of steam right out of the gate for this singular outfit’s newest triumph.