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Best known for their energetic live shows, the African-American hard rock group 24-7 Spyz was formed in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1988 by Peter "Fluid" Forest (vocals), Jimi Hazel (guitar/vocal), Rick Skatore (bass) and Anthony Johnson (drums). The quartet drew from funk, heavy metal, punk, rap and reggae to create a unique sound that quickly won critical praise. Their 1989 debut, Harder Than You, included several highly political songs, as well as covers of Black Uhuru and Kool and the Gang compositions, illustrating the wide range of influences that inspired the band. Following the release of 1990's Gumbo Millenium, Forest and Johnson left the group and were replaced by vocalist Jeff Brodnax and drummer Joel Maitoza, who made their debut on the 1991 EastWest release This Is...24-7 Spyz. After the disappearance of 1992's Strength in Numbers the Spyz ceased recording in the United States for a time, releasing their new two albums -- 1994's Temporarily Disconnected and 1995's 6 -- on the European label Enemy Records. With new drummer Carlton Smith the group returned in 1996 with Heavy Metal Soul By the Pound, issued by the Colorado-based What Are Records? label.
24-7 Spyz likes to break all the rules of funk and rock
By Nicky Baxter
ALONG WITH Vernon Reid's Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz was black rock's flagship. But there were definite disparities between the two bands. Reid's outfit always came off as an integrationist's dream: loud, powerful and unrelenting but somehow polite and intelligent. These were Africans who wouldn't wreck the place. Not so the Spyz. Vocalist Peter Fluid, guitarist Jimi Hazel, bassist Rick Skatore and drummer Anthony Johnson were wild boys; take them to a swank soiree, and they'd turn into four (Iggy) Stooges, dangling from chandeliers, spliffs hanging from their lips. And no one, save Funk Overlord George Clinton could have cooked up a crazier gumbo of howling guitars, earth-quaking bass and zap!-pow! drums. Then again Jimi Hazel's name--a combination of Jimi Hendrix and Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel--gives away what the group is up to. And if he hasn't quite lived up to his name, the failure is less attributable to Hazel's own shortcomings than the rigidities of a rock biz that continues to view black guitar bands as freak shows. But despite all odds, 24-7 Spyz has rarely relinquished its sense of humor. Harder Than You, released in 1989, contains the quartet's raucous declaration of intent: to rock the world of would-be funkers and boogie boyz like never before. If Hendrix had lived long enough to sign on with Clinton's funky Mothership, this is the groove he'd inhabit. Harder Than You skitters almost randomly from an inspired version of Black Uhuru's "Sponji Reggae" to an amphetamine-propelled rendition of Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." The Spyz' second release, Gumbo Millennium, managed to bypass the sophomore jinx. The song "Valdez 27 Million?" puts the famous spill under the microscope and pronounce's it not too slick; "We'll Have Power" is a pro-democracy screed boasting Fluid's acrobatic vocals and a pulverizing sonic attack. Some of the band's social consciousness comes off as wack, particularly in "Some Defender's Memories," which is essentially a poorly argued excuse for Uncle Sam to go worldwide, military ammo in one hand, King James version in the other. On the 1991 EP, This Is ... 24-7 Spyz, the crew returned to its booty-rock basics. After several years away from the recording studio, 24-7 Spyz has just released Heavy Metal Soul by the Pound.
"It's funny", says Jimi Hazel. "People kept asking 'What made you play this?' and we were like, 'What made you think I wanted to stay home and listen to Def Leppard'?" If, per chance, you are the type to sit back and wait for AOR radio to serve up another platter of reheated rock, you'll miss out on 24-7 Spyz. The band that Hazel leads as guitarist (and by now also singer) and chief songwriter is as likely to come across mainstream airwaves as my grandmother's veal piccata is to come across the counter at McDonalds. "Radio doesn't play music that people want to hear," Jimi explains. "They play music that they want to convince people to think they want to hear." To be convinced that the Spyz are worth a spin, consider a bit of band history. At six years old, Hazel was hoisted onto his brother's shoulders to peer over a Randall's Island, New York crowd at Jimi Hendrix. ("I kind of went home and yelled and screamed about wanting a guitar and got one for my next birthday.") In time Jimi II would stand on the shoulders of Hendrix and another hero whose name he adopted, Eddie Hazel of Parliament Funkadelic, sending easy-listeners running for cover from the Spyz' 1988 debut Harder Than You, which was followed up strongly in '90 by Gumbo Millenium. When two members of the foursome split from the band, rumors spread that 24-7 Spyz had broken up. Those claims were trounced by the intermediary EP This Is...24-7 Spyz which introduced new vocalist Jeff Brodnax and drummer Joel Maitoza. The pair went on to help Hazel and original bassist Rick Skatore develop their most complete package to date, Strength In Numbers. "I think this is the album we've been meaning to make for the last two albums," says the guitarist. "Before it was a little bit unfocused. Everything is a lot more cohesive at this point". The 14 cuts on Strength not only stick together, but stick with the listener. Those listeners already attuned to the Spyz' sound will recognize a moderate shift away from riffs and toward melody, particularly in Jimi's playing. "It's not underplaying as much as being respectful of the music. I hear a lot of records where it's like Masturbatory Techniques for Guitar, Volume One...I try to play what fits the song. It's a pleasant, listenable record, easy on the ears - but it still kind of slams." Hazel has always had a talent for combining taste with agression. On [new] cuts like Judgement Day and the swirling instrumental Sireality, Hazel squeezes bright, fluid leads through a Crybaby and then stomps into house-shaking unisons with Skatore. Don't get too comfy with any single element of this band; if you feel safe with the Rundgren-influenced Earth And Sky, they'll throw you to the dogs in Room #9. There's no telling what's up next with the Spyz, as Hazel affirms by pitching another curve: "I hope a couple albums down the line to use a full string section. I love cellos and violas and stuff like that, but at this point it's gotten so trendy...We're just gonna play kazoo," he laughs. "Nobody plays kazoo anymore!" Admittedly, 24-7 Spyz hasn't exactly caught fire yet, at least not in the States. Nonetheless they've preserved where many - including former band members - have thrown up their arms and walked. "It trips me out because I know so many good players who could play rings around some of the people that [others] claim are 'exceptional players.' I've got people in my old neighborhood who I would just love to see at the front of this big musical spectrum. But they kind of lost sight," he adds regretfully. "You gotta have the faith and you also gotta be strong because it's not easy and it's not quick. And if it was quick, that doesn't mean you're going to get another go-round at it." "Music, man, is like God's greatest gift if you ask me," continues Jimi, calling to mind the soulfulness of his own music. "You can hear so much in music, and people tend to shortchange themselves [by not listening if] it's not trendy." For 24-7 Spyz, closed minds inhibit acceptance. "I guess that's why it's taken as long as it has, y'know what I mean? Because there's not a lot of openmindedness. A lot of people seem to think 'Yeah, I'm on the cutting edge. I listen to so-and-so.' Okay, want to really hear something, pal?"
Jimi Hazel (guitar), Rick Skatore (bass), Anthony Johnson (drums) and P. Fluid (Vocals) recorded a demo that would be remixed and released as 24-7 SPYZ "Harder Than You" on Relativity / In-Effect in 1988. The band's liquid mix of Metal, Punk, Ska, Reggae and Soul, plus P. Fluids overextended, yet enthusiastic, singing style and the band's energetic live show quickly created a buzz in the alternative music scene in the tri-state area. Critics noticed 24-7 SPYZ on the radar but were quick to dismiss it as derivative of Bad Brains and Fishbone (comparisons which would, over time, fall by the wayside). The Punk scene, however, took notice because of the band's overtly left-wing political stance and tight-knit, high-energy music. It seemed that the band's honest expression could not remain unnoticed in popular music circles even though it's sound could not be pigeonholed. The first single, "Jungle Boogie" (available only on 12" vinyl), was a brilliant cover of the Kool & The Gang classic that mixed the original funk with heavy guitars and beats and garnered the band a lot of attention. 1990's "Gumbo Millennium", also on Relativity / In-Effect, continued the band's eclectic approach to musical expression. With the addition of Jazz and Soul to the Metal, Punk and Funk and with stronger production, "Gumbo" once again displayed the ease with which 24-7 SPYZ could defy catagorization and maintain artistic integrity. The single, "Don't Break My Heart!", was a commercially viable single that failed to get radio airplay, and therefore didn't climb the charts. Exploring more personal lyrics, maintaining a sizzling live show and continuing the political ground claimed on the first album, "Gumbo Millennium" proved to be an underground success that garnished the attention of the major labels. Opening for Jane's Addiction on the "Ritual De Lo Habitual" tour exposed the band to a new audiencee. Unfortunately, the success of the "Gumbo Millennium" album and tour also led to the the departure of two original members, Anthony Johnson and P. Fluid -- Anthony grew tired of touring while P. Fluid got a bit arrogant and split to do the P. Fluid Foundation (with no success). This left 24-7 SPYZ at a crossroad as it prepared for the coveted major label debut, an important moment in any established musician's career. Jimi and Rick decided to continue with the addition of Jeff Brodnax (Vocals) and Joel Maitoza (Drums). Jeff added much needed vocal control to the mix while Joel's sturdy, yet technical, bashings contrasted with Anthony's delicate, jazzy beats for a new, yet familiar, SPYZ flavor. 1991 heralded the release of "This Is... 24-7 SPYZ!", an EP on EastWest America, that demonstrated to the faithful that SPYZ had not lost steam despite the loss of Anthony Johnson and P. Fluid. Though Jeff's cadence on the rap bits lef t much to be desired (and he contributed the most contrived lyrics) his on key singing and enthusiasm more than made up for it. Joel's metal-influenced beats and fills helped hone the SPYZ machine into technical excellence.
"Strength In Numbers", released in 1992 on EastWest America, is the band's most critically acclaimed release. Further exploreing Metal, Soul and Funk with seamless ease and deftly produced by Terry Date, true SPYZ fans will still hear the band struggle with commercialism. "SIN" really shines starting with track three, "Judgement Day", which is the first exploration into what 24-7 SPYZ would become years later. When Jimi and Rick take the helm in the studio the band really shines! "Strenght In Numbers" also saw the band depart from it's New York Punk roots and shift to a sturdy Metal- and Soul-influenced sound (thanks to Terry Date) with the help of prominant vocals by Jimi and Rick (and the lack of P. Fluids "out there" songwriting). Though still adept at shifting genres, the shifts were less dramatic and were used to better express the idea of the song, as opposed to genre shifting simply to show the ability of the band as a unit. Unfortunately for 24-7 SPYZ, the tide of popular music was shifting away from musical dexterity and towards the emotional, and musical, simplicity of the existential Seattle Grunge movement (Terry Date would go on to produce many SoundGarden gems). "Strength In Numbers" was light years away from Nirvana's "Nevermind", released a year earlier, both in terms of commercial viability and musical technicality, and would be completely overshadowed for those reasons. "Break The Chains", the single from "Strenght In Numbers", failed to get radio airplay and the major label machine stopped giving support. Jeff's lyrics sucked, the song was too long, it didn't express the band's heart, et cetera. Everything seemed to fall apart for the band even though they were producing critical acclaim...
In what appears to be a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time", or at least an attempt to "keep the dream alive", 24-7 SPYZ recorded with the original 1988 line-up for the European-only release "Temorarilly Disconnected", on Enemy, in 1995. Jimi and Rick's dominance in the post-"Gumbo" SPYZ seemed to rub against the resurgant influence of P. Fluid (now going by the name Forrest) and the resulting album is a solid SPYZ release that flexes the maturity of the band without busting at the seams of difference. The strongest tracks on "Temporarilly Disconnected" are those written and sung by Rick and Jimi yet they aren't necessarily as interesting as the tracks written and sung by P. Fluid (though he did tone down the vocal acrobatics a tad). The Jazzy and soulfull cuts stand out with Anthony's often fragile drumming offering an alternative to Joel's heavy-handed and solid Metal stylings. Terry Date's absence at the helm leaves the sound a less polished and more vibrant. January 1996 saw the European-only release of "6", again on Enemy, a fresh and soulfull collection of Metal, Funk and Soul with the return of Joel on the kit and the help of Carlton Smith (Drums & Percussion) and Doug Pinnick (Vocals, of King's X fame). "6" sees the maturity and worldliness in the songwriting of Jimi and Rick and explores more personal issues, lyrically, than other albums, resulting in some of 24-7 SPYZ finest moments of harmony, songwriting and storytelling. Further, "6" has Jimi and Rick taking over the vocal chores with great success. Their voices alternate and harmonize with the dexterity that they take to mixing genres with their guitars. The band's mix of Metal, Soul and Funk seems totally natural and uncontrived as it convolutes. Late in 1996 What Are Records? released "Heavy Metal Soul By The Pound" in the U.S., which was essentially "6" with slight track adjustments -- a cover of "Along Comes Mary" was omitted and a few of other changes. Totally ignored by critics and the music media, who were too busy oogling over Korn and Dr. Dre to notice something inspired, "HMSBTP" didn't even raise eyebrows though musically it was, arguably, one of the strongest releases of the year and it was 24-7 SPYZ most mature release.
Unfortunately, Joel had to leave the band while on tour supporting "HMSBTP" to take care of his ailing mother and was replaced by Carlton Smith. (If you care, Joel's mom got better!) "If I Could", a 1997 "Fan Club Only" CD from What Are Records?, is the band's final output. Containing the U.S. release of "Along Comes Mary" from "6" and some live tracks (with great musicianship but often uninspired vocals) the EP covers material from 1990 to 1996 in a "far from greatest hits" package by Jimi, Rick and Joel.
cytaty:"When I listen to the Spyz, I smell the mosh mist, even in my living room. Lyrics tend toward the surreal and introspective, but they do lash out at the lame demographics of music appreciation... " -- Musician (1/97, p.86)
Rating: A- " ...the songs keep sprouting unexpected new musical limbs, and the band's combined speed metal, funk, and jazz attack has never been launched with such pinpoint virtuosity... the record leaves me dazzled with admiration... " -- Entertainment Weekly (8/7/92, p.60)
3 Stars = Good - "The scenes and grooves on these 14 songs whiz by like a subway train... the Spyz shift gears often and effortlessly. The effect is as dizzying as it is exciting and challenging... 24-7 Spyz' diversity has never been so rich... " -- Rolling Stone (11/26/92, p.72)
" ...the Spyz strike back with what has got to be their crowning achievement to date... funky, heavy, soulful -- and above all, it's cohesive... The songwriting is several cuts above anything they've done in the past, and the Spyz have evolved into a terrifyingly tight unit." -- Reflex (11/10/92, p.76)
"Sleek, metallic funkystuff... uncompromising... the Spyz still withstand comparison with their more celebrated collegues..." -- Melody Maker (9/12/92, p.44)
4 Stars - Very Good - " ...features the fiery guitar work of Jimi Hazel... the Spyz wail on top of thick grooves... " -- Down Beat (3/92, pg.38)