Best Served Cold
Possibly the great lost hip-hop platter of the early '90s is a little release called My Field Trip To Planet 9 by a youthful MC named Justin Warfield. Unpredictable, rubberized beats (many by De La Soul's bratty sonic mastermind Prince Paul), collegiate-level cultural references and Warfield's hyperactive, verbose flow make it a true, buried classic. Which, of course, means nobody bought it.
Cut to over a decade later, and Warfield has emerged, somewhat bafflingly, as vocalist, lyricist and guitar player for pitch-dark, '80s new wave rock revivalists She Wants Revenge. Musically the band hearkens back to stuff like Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs and Bauhaus. Lyrically it's an emotional bloodletting, each song a psycho-sexual-pharmacological nightmare, most unique in how much blame Warfield's narrator takes for his own patterns and problems. "She's pretty and I like her but she's too well," he admits in Bowie-esque tones on the first track of SWR's self-titled debut CD. "'Cause I need red flags and long nights and she can tell."
So how does a California-based rap MC make the successful transformation to British-derived synth-rock frontman? Warfield's Revenge-mate, keyboardist-beatmaker-bassist Adam "Adam 12" Bravin, offers some biographical insight.
"We met about 15 years ago," he explains. "I was DJing a party in a friend of mine's backyard and Justin was back there and I put on 'Boyz-N-The-Hood' by Eazy E. Justin came running up with his skateboard and asked me, 'What the hell is that?' I told him, he freaked out, and he went and got a pen and he wrote it down. We lived in the same neighborhood, so after that we would bump into each other. Eventually he started to MC, and a little bit later I got into producing beats. We had a mutual friend, and she was always tryin' to get us to hook up and work together, but for one reason and another it never worked out until about three years ago.
"Justin had just finished working on an electronic-type dance project for a friend of his, and I'd just finished working on music for Esthero's last record," Adam continues. "Since we were both from hip-hop backgrounds we started with the idea of creating a production team to sell beats to MCs. But after a while we were starting to get a little frustrated with the music that we were making. We grew up listening to everything from Public Enemy, Run-DMC to Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, all that kinda stuff. Hip-hop today is a lot different than it was. And what constitutes a banging beat for a club now...it's not the same, it's very simplistic, and coming from two guys that are pretty creative, there's not a lot of emotion that you can express doing those kinda beats.
"So one day I was at home, and I was pretty bored doing what we were doing, so I switched it up a little and did an uptempo dance beat and threw some keyboards on it that were a lot darker than anything I had ever done before...really trying to make it sound like something I would have listened to in the '80s. And Justin came over that night and I told him, 'I did this track I want you to listen to.' And he said, 'Wow! I'd love to put some guitars on that and maybe even sing on it.' So he took it home and brought it back the next day. He'd thrown some guitars on it and sang something on it and we kind of looked at each other and were like...this evokes feelings from us that we haven't felt for a while in music, and we didn't feel like there was anything really out there that was really going in that direction and decided from that point that we'd continue doing that type of thing.
"When we were young and we were in whatever kind of mood," Bravin elaborates, "like if you broke up with somebody or whatever, you always had albums that you could turn to, whether it was The Queen Is Dead or The Cure or, for me personally, it was Depeche Mode...And we thought it would suck being a kid today and not having those things. At the same time we're both DJs, so along with the sound and along with the lyrics, we do know what makes people dance."
Having reached backwards into their pre-hip-hop musical past for inspiration, the duo of Warfield and Bravin recorded She Wants Revenge's debut disc by themselves. Once the record was done, though, it was time to think about how to present the songs live.
"Originally, our idea was to do something similar to what [groundbreaking '70s electronic duo] Suicide might have done, where it would be just the two of us up there with, like, a drum machine. But we went to some shows to check out bands that do that and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. So we decided that, just to bring the level of energy up a notch from the album, we were gonna need a drummer and another guitar player."
This decision opened whole new vistas of challenge for Bravin personally. First came the realization that keyboard players generally aren't bastions of visual panache.
"This is my first band, and Justin's got years of experience onstage and he's a total perfectionist. Now, my primary instrument is keyboard but I'd see the keyboard guy, in whatever band, and I'd think, 'How boring does that look? I don't wanna be that guy.' There's only so many neck moves, y'know? So I told Justin, 'You know what? I wanna play bass.' And he said, 'Well, look you work on the bass and if you get it to the point where you can be onstage and play and not fuck up and continue to evolve as a bass player, then go for it. But if you're not capable, we have to agree that we're gonna get somebody to do it.'" Bravin chuckles, slightly abashed. "I'm still not the best bass player in the world but I'm finally getting very comfortable being up there and not worrying about fucking up. In the beginning I'd just stand there like a deer in the headlights and kinda stare at the bass and just pray that I got all the notes right."
Although She Wants Revenge has been garnering plenty of positive response from both audiences and critics, one common point of comparison has got the band good and rankled.
"Pretty much every interview we do, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, somebody tends to bring up Interpol," Adam practically spits. "And I think it's just somebody being lazy that says that. So I was just curious to see, like, do those guys think we sound like them? 'Cause we know we don't! So I went up and introduced myself to [Interpol bassist] Carlos D and I told him what band I was in and asked him, 'We're really curious - what do you think? Do you think we sound like you?' And he said, 'No. We don't think you guys sound anything like us. To start with, you guys have electronic beats! And your chord progressions are completely different. We think it's ridiculous that people compare you to us. There are other bands out there now that sound way more like us than you guys do.' So...that was a nice conversation."
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