Not many of the alt-rock and hip-hop acts that MTV made famous in the '90s are still kicking. G. Love & Special Sauce is the exception. Nearly 20 years ago, the singer-guitarist G. Love and his two-piece band released their self-titled debut and had an instant hit with the woozy blues-meets-hip-hop number "Cold Beverage." In the two decades since that album's release, Love and crew have consistently toured and recorded; they received a good second wind in 2003 when Love and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson collaborated on the Johnson tune "Rodeo Clowns." We recently phoned Love as he was about to embark on a short winter tour that brings him to Cleveland this week.
This year marks 20 years of G. Love and Special Sauce. Are you doing anything to mark the occasion?
I think December of 1992 is when we brought the band together and the record came out in the spring of 1993. We gigged a lot in Boston and started going up and down the East Coast Corridor. Probably in 2014 is when we'll try to do something. I don't know if we'll re-release the first record or something like that. We'll try to make it a special year and take a look back at that first release. It's crazy to think about it, though.
What was that first rehearsal like?
God, I guess I was living in Jamaica Plains in Boston. Jeff [Clemens] the drummer and I had met a week or so before. We might have done a couple of gigs with just drums and guitar. Jeff was running the jazz jam at this Irish pub in Brookline, Massachusetts. He had a bass player, who ended up being Jimi Jazz who ended up being the bass player, for 13 years, that he brought along. We had it in the basement of the apartment I was living. Jeff was playing on a cardboard case with brushes. I had my 1939 Dobro and Jimi Jazz had his upright bass. It was acoustic and stripped down but immediately we had a sound. It was that old blues blending the hip-hop and it had a vibe and a sound right away. We were excited about it from the get-go. Things just started happening. I had about half the tunes that ended up being on the first record and the other half were written during that first nine months. I had been a solo acoustic player my whole life. I was really green.
Who initially introduced you to the blues?
I was playing harmonica and guitar by the time I was 15. I didn't know anybody who did that except for Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I was writing in that style and I would go to open mic nights and no one in my high school in 1986 was doing that. I would see a lot of people influenced by Dylan and Neil Young. I wanted to be original. I found John Hammond who was another white boy blues guy. When I put [Hammond's Country Blues] on, from the first note of him doing "Statesborough Blues," I knew that's what I wanted to do. John was doing dub blues and was riffing and playing the rhythm guitar and the mouth harp. There was so much going on there. To me, it opened my eyes to how far you could take the performance of the harmonica and acoustic guitar. Watching him perform, he mostly played solo acoustic. It blew me away to see him play live. He was like a tornado on the guitar. I would sit in front of the mirror and try to emulate and imitate him. He recorded that album when he was 20. Dylan recorded his first record when he was 20, too. I was 17, and I thought, "I have three years to get that good." Over the years, I've gotten to be good friends with John Hammond and his wife, and we had dinner last night in New York. He has so many great stories of being on the road with everybody from Lightnin' Hopkins to Muddy Waters.
So how'd you get into hip-hop?
One side of me was this flower child kid playing folk music and blues and the other side was a city kid growing up in Philadelphia doing city shit whether it was playing basketball or breakdancing. Hip-hop was coming on strong in the '80s. Philly was a big epicenter and it was happening. I never thought I could do that. But I kept searching and my writing when I switched to playing more straight ahead blues music, the lyrical content was also changing and becoming less singer-songwriter and more descriptive of what I was seeing around me in the city. I was writing urban poetry. I was writing about the basketball courts and homeless people and the racism I felt. I was writing about drinking underage. My writing became more of this urban thing. Once I started rapping, I realized I could express myself like that. We were doing shows with A Tribe Called Quest and Run-DMC and Guru. We were these three white boys. Jeff and Jim weren't hip-hop at all. They were Boston blues guys. We'd be opening for Guru and it was an all-black crowd. Now, hip-hop is more diverse. But then, the only white boys were the Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass. Mostly, the crowd didn't want to have anything with a blues garage band playing hip-hop. We hated playing gigs with the hip-hoppers. The artists were warm to us but the crowd was really tough.
You and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson are kindred musical spirits. When did you first meet?
We met through a surf photographer that I grew up with from the Jersey Shore. That was another aspect of growing up — I would spend the summers at the Jersey Shore. Jack and this guy, who is well known now, came to me one day and wanted me to know about this kid who works on surf films. We met and quickly hit it off. Jack played me his whole first record that first day and I was blown away. He was flowing in this unique way. It was not hip-hop but influenced by hip-hop and things I had done. It had great lyrics and melody structure. I asked him for his demo and played it for my producer and we both agreed "Rodeo Clowns" was so poignant. I asked him if I record it, and he wanted to do it as a collaboration and that was a launching pad. It's great because Jack and I have never stopped making music and it's been this great musical friendship over the years. He produced my [unreleased] solo EP that I recorded at his studio earlier this fall.
Who's the better surfer?
Who do you think? I'm a good surfer but he could have been professional. Through him, I've gotten to know all the best surfers and gotten to surf with all of them. That's been so awesome, surfing with guys like Kelly Slater. One thing about those guys if you look at their eyes, they never have any fear. Those guys will surf a 30-foot or 50-foot wave and if you messed up on a wave like that, you could die. It's a life or death sport in those situations and you have can see it in their eyes. I see it when I watch Jack perform, too, he has no fear when he performs on stage. Half the time, I'm kind of terrified when I'm on stage.