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Galactic Kicks Up a Ruckus

New Orleans funk band turns to hip hop

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Suspended over a stage looking down at the top of Whitney Houston's head isn't the usual way a funk saxophonist breaks into show business. But for Galactic's Ben Ellman, being a lighting tech for Houston in the 80s had a few unexpected perks. "Her sax player was Kirk Whalum. I had just started playing and he was kind enough to give me a couple of lessons and some pointers," Ellman says. "I was kind of on the fence on whether I wanted to do lighting or play music, and Kirk was very encouraging. You don't hear many people say, "Aw, fuck a job, man -- just go ahead and play music.'"

Ellman's next musical move was just as unconventional. Moving from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 1989, he played jazz funerals with the Rebirth Jazz Band and the Little Rascals Brass Band before co-founding the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, a wild and wooly group that merged jazz, funk and traditional Klezmer music. Future Galactic drummer Stanton Moore was also in the band. Ellman admits that at first the All Stars was a joke gone wild, but when future Neville Brothers drummer "Mean" Willie Green joined the band, "it really started to help to define the (group's) sound of New Orleans and Klezmer combined. Sort of took off from there."

Ellman was well-schooled in musical diversity before joining the former Galactic Prophylactic, a jazz-funk-rock aggregation founded by former punkers Jeff Raines on guitar and bassist Robert Mercurio. The band dropped the Prophylactic suffix after expanding to six pieces and adding vocalist Theryl "The Houseman" DeClouet. Their focus changed as well. Funk was still the bottom line, but they brought in hip hop influences and started working live with DJs, including the Triple Threat crew.

But classifying Galactic is no easy task. Asked if the group considers itself a funky jam band or a funk band that jams, Ellman just laughs. "Oh, I would probably say that a lot of people jam -- that's an ambiguous term. But we're more of a funk band. We certainly never classified ourselves as a jam band -- that's something other people did."

Ellman says that although the band never sat down and defined themselves, their heaviest influences would be the seminal New Orleans funk group the Meters. "There was a point in the beginning of the band where we just really learned a lot of Meters tunes." But Galactic are no Meters clones. While previous albums -- Coolin' Off ('96), Crazyhorse Mongoose ('98), Late For the Future ('00) and We Love 'Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina's ('01) -- have been more funk fortified, their latest, Ruckus, is their most experimental work to date.

Ellman was playing around during the recording with sequencing gear favored by a lot of hip hop artists for their beats. Taking music the band had been working on, he re-mixed it, reconfigured it with Pro Tools, and then played it back for the band, who used it as a foundation to build on in the studio. "We've always been a band that recorded and worked very organically so this was just sort of trying out different things," Ellman explained. "It's really not on all tunes, just sort of a portion of it that comes from some influences we've been listening to which have to do with DJ style music and a little more hip hop stuff."

Galactic will continue to use the DJ concept live, and Ellman wants to record with them. "I'm really interested in these turntablists as musicians," the saxophonist says. "We were working with Triple Threat DJs last year, and they're the kinds of turntablists who make their own beats. They can do all the other stuff too, but they're really good at making their own beats and doing this on the fly and rearranging. We've done some live stuff with some of these DJs but we really haven't done any studio stuff. But I hope we can do some of that."

The band's recent onstage company came from a totally different genre, as they toured with blues legend B.B. King. And although the bluesman was gracious, Ellman says that he didn't share any of his wisdom with the band. "He was extremely nice, but he's 78, so he sort of stays on his bus."

There's a generation gap in Galactic as well. At 50, vocalist DeClouet has a couple of decades on the other band members. But Ellman says it's not a problem. "He's our patriarch. We get schooled. His vocal style, and his influences, the things he listened to growing up are of course much different than ours. To that extent there is a generation gap, but I think it's been more of an educational thing. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge."

Some critics are saying Galactic went too far with this album and that in a few years they will disavow the new sounds on Ruckus and go back to more straight-up funk. Ellman just laughs it off. "It's way too early to say," he chuckles. "You never know about those things. It's quite possible, but ask me again in ten years."

Galactic will be appearing at the Visulite Theatre on Tuesday, November 11, at 9pm. (Doors open at 8pm.) For more information, call 704-358-9200 or log on to www.visulite.com.

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