The Lower End Theory
UrbanDictionary.com defines "lowlife" as "one who lives on a low budget, drinks heavily, and often forgets about common priorities in order to party first." But a lowlife may also be a part, or fan, of Houston hip-hop crew Lower Life Form: someone who resides in the South and believes drinking is a sport or hobby, and not just a social activity.
By their own unabashed admission, the members of Lower Life Form are well, lowlifes.
Most Thursday nights, LLF can be found practicing at their hideaway in the Heights. A very well-stocked fridge bears the promise of general acts of lowlifery, backed up by the trash cans overflowing with beer cans. But these are more than mere jam sessions. "It's not that we just want to get together and play," insists bassist Wayne Bertone. "We do have a project mind-set."
This project is the recent addition of the Lowlive Ensemble, the LLF family's live-band appendage and brainchild of DJ/producer Ish.
Ish, along with rapper PhD, is one of the founding members of LLF. In 2005, the two were joined by producer C.O.S. and rapper Brew. Before adding Lowlive Ensemble, the crew maintained a formidable reputation in Texas underground hip-hop, and thanks in part to PhD and Ish's skateboarding history, scored an Adio Footwear endorsement and status as the only non-rock act on the "Rock Adio" music team.
PhD and Brew became known for their lively onstage dynamics, rooted in their very different styles and upbringings. PhD, a clever and brutally honest storyteller, was reared in a rural Pasadena community. Brew, a battle rapper and fluid freestyler, comes from a predominantly black Missouri City neighborhood.
With the MCs' complimentary relationship broadening LLF's fan base, the group originally figured it had all its bases covered. But six months ago, LLF decided it was time to up the ante and push its live shows over the top with a live band.
"About the time I wanted to start doing this was when Scion started bringing these national artists through with live bands," says Ish. "Everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, De La Soul was so sick with a live band! Ghostface was so sick with a live band at SXSW!'
"People are getting tired of sampling and these ridiculous radio beats that are nothing but drum machines and programs," he continues. "We wanted to do something more organic."
Ish began contacting musicians the group respected and knew through friends, family or the skateboarding community. The first, and so far final, Lowlive Ensemble includes horn player Jon Durbin, keyboardist Drew Shane, bassist Bertone, sax/flutist Cory Wilson and drummer Ryan "Eggy" Eggbert.
"It's so funny because I can guarantee you that every one of these fucking guys is a first-generation person that I brought in," swears Ish.
"When you get live musicians together, usually there's this audition period where you get people out to play," agrees Eggbert. "Normally you can go through two or three musicians of that instrument. There was no audition period."
Making a band has never been an exact science, and in the case of LLF and the Lowlive Ensemble, membership came down to instinct. "You didn't even have to say it it just feels right," says Wilson.
"This feels like home," offers Brew. "It's real, and it feels good."
The end product is a refreshing departure from most Southern hip-hop, both above and below ground. The fusion represented by Ozomatli on the West Coast and the Roots back East now has able ambassadors on the Third Coast.
Both Lowlive Ensemble's jazz- and funk-inspired sound, and the MCs' laid-back rhymes "come from where we are," says Bertone. "Ozomatli, they sound the way they sound because of where they come from. Same thing with the Roots, really.
"We sound Southern because we grew up here," he explains. "This is where we learned how to play. It's not something we try to do; it just happened. It's in the Texas water."
Nowhere is this more evident than on LLF's upcoming album Time Cards, a nod to the working-class folk. "We might have different bosses, different coworkers, but shit's still the same," reasons PhD. "We're dealing with shit that the average employee would: going to the job, begging for vacation, putting in your two weeks, going home to a wife that's bitching at you."
"We're making grown-folks' music," says Ish. "This isn't a bunch of fucking teenagers getting together. The time-cards thing, we look at it as we go to work every day, put in our 40 hours, and our release time is doing this music thing. But at the same time, we're punching cards when we come in to record because we look at this music thing as us trying to get paid."
As hard as they do work, fun is still LLF's bottom line even more so now that they've added the live band. "Usually with hip-hop, once the track's over, it's over," says Bertone. "With a live band, you can milk the crowd, get them pumped up and get them dancing."
After a trial run Saturday at Proletariat's monthly hip-hop showcase The Bench one of the new group's first ventures outside the practice room, and the premiere of "Face It," their first video from Time Cards LLF and the Lowlive Ensemble will find out how well this Southern fusion travels on their summer tour.
"We have fun when we're onstage, and that's the biggest thing you can pass on to a crowd," says Ish. "And I think that's what most of the people in our peer group respect about us. We are who we are. We're not trying to be anyone we're not.
"I'm not gonna fucking sit here and be bashful," he finishes. "I believe in all these fools. I believe in them as musicians, and I believe that we can do some fucking damage and put Houston on the map."
Lower Life Form and the Lowlive Ensemble perform live Saturday, August 4, at The Bench, Proletariat, 903 Richmond, 713-523-1199.
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