For plenty of bands, performing outside the usual circuit of clubs and bars can prove to be a good thing. That was certainly the case with Sophistafunk, a heady trio that combines hip-hop, rock and spoken word. The group came together in Syracuse in 2007 after band members met at house parties hosted by keyboardist Adam Gold. Gold put together a series of such events that then morphed into his popular Funk-N-Waffles restaurant. But in the early days, he'd take the party to the people, and that freeform approach led to the formation of Sophistafunk.
"[Gold] would travel around every week and play at house parties in Syracuse University," says the group's front man, Jack Brown, via phone from his Syracuse home where he was waiting on a shipment of the band's 2011 self-titled debut that the group is reissuing and will have for sale on the current tour. "He had the waffle maker set up in one corner and he had a band playing in another. The shows became cult classics. It was unique and different."
By the time Brown formally met Gold, he had turned the informal house party set-up into a more formal jam session that would take place at his brick-and-mortar restaurant.
"I was part of a different group at the time," he says. "We would play at his restaurant, and I walked in and there was a holder Clavinet set up and they said Adam [Gold] was going to sit in with us. He did these wild Clavinet solos and was literally opening up the top of the Clavinet and making ambient noises. He seemed to be from another era. We thought it was cool. I had a good time there. We had a unique sound from the beginning. The textures and tones from the Moog synth bass and keys have carried us through. We have worked on our presence and gotten bigger through time. That initial thread of what made us unique was there from the first night in the basement at Funk- N-Waffles."
Through mutual friends, Gold and Brown met drummer Emanuel Washington, and Sophistafunk was born. The group was originally a much larger act, but over time it would whittle down to a trio. Shortly after graduating from Syracuse, Brown moved to New York and considered bailing on the band. His mother gave him some sage advice and he's been firmly committed to the group ever since.
"I was working in New York City and would drive up once a week for practice," he says. "My mom told me to move back up to Syracuse if I wanted to stick with the band. At the time, it was counterintuitive because everyone goes to Syracuse and goes off to the world. But at the time, this is where the promoters were and the nucleus was. You could be a big fish in a small pond."
The band instantly gravitated toward the upstate festival circuit that Brown says is really just an extension the spirit of Woodstock.
"That was the watershed movement," he says. "That was directly related to being in Syracuse and traveling to Ithaca and Rochester. It's oversimplified to say it's the Phish/Dead/reggae/jam scene. It's the culture of live music that has remained since Woodstock and before. I was used to playing 20-minute sets with an iPod and now we're playing two or three-hour sets and our subject matter is such that it can connect with an audience. They relate to music that sounds like Michael Franti or Rage Against the Machine or any of the underground MCs that I'm inspired by. That includes KRS-One and Atmosphere and the Roots. The list goes on and on. It's that kind of tradition. We bring a hip-hop hybrid to the live scene."
A few years ago, the band received a big boost when spiky-haired celebrity chef Guy Fieri became an avowed fan. He came to Syracuse to profile Funk-N-Waffles, and the band plied him with free CDs and T-shirts. He took notice.
"When he left, the show's producers told him to check us out," says Brown. "He loved Rage Against the Machine and Sublime and Chili Peppers and he's a big Mötley Crüe guy," says Brown. "He pops in our CD and he's loving it and bouncing his head. He comes to a song where the lyrics reminded him of his sister who had passed away from cancer. Those synchronistic lyrics resonated with him deeply. That was the tipping point."
Within an hour, Fieri called and invited the guys to play his birthday party.
"When he says something, it's not sugarcoated or exaggerated," says Brown. "He's very humble and a good person. He looks out for us. He didn't become famous overnight. He has a wide network of friends. He lived north of San Francisco and was outside the specter of Los Angeles. He has a rebel, outsider mentality and it's evident in his show that celebrates local grassroots venues. He gives recognition to smaller, off the grid restaurants. It has been an incredible relationship with him. I consider him a close friend and we've played several shows with him. We're friends with his family and his Knuckle Sandwich Crew. They're great people."
Even though the group is only a trio, songs such as the funky "Livin' to Rock" make it sound like a much large ensemble (think of the '70s funk act Parliament) is backing them up. And Brown's positive lyrics and in-your-face style recall a time period when hip-hop had an activist edge to it.
"The sound is huge," says Brown, adding that the group has plans to release a new single in early 2015 and will perform the tune on the current tour. "People remember us. If you go see a hundred bands, you'll remember those three guys who mixed hip-hop and funk and had everybody dancing and singing. Each is a complete star in his own right. It's hard for me to say that about myself. I try to keep up with that and bring content that matches the level of musicianship."