By: Dennis Cook
Asheville, NC's GFE ("Granola Funk Express" or any of a number of lively variations including "Geniuses Formulating Equations" and "Grassroots Foundation Employment") reclaim hip-hop's fundamentals – massive smarts and irreverent humor, dizzying skill and seemingly reckless abandon, beats and basslines, mics and dope rhymes. As fine as they've been in the past, Broken Time Machine (Granola Funk) is an album one can stack next to A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, Pete Rock & CL Smooth's Mecca and the Soul Brother, Third Bass' Derelicts of Dialect and Souls of Mischief's '93 till Infinity - each a bouncing, exuberant reminder of hip-hop's artistic potential that sacrifice nothing in terms of entertainment value. Broken Time Machine inspires one to work it like a cage dancer at Ike Turner's house, discovering hitherto unknown depths of booty hiding inside their root chakra, AND tickles the mind like Rakim channeling George Carlin, Carl Sagan, JFK and Joseph Campbell. Weed positive, brighter than most monkeys and decidedly musical, the no-bubblegum-ever GFE is, as they rightly observe here, "a little too LSD for MTV/ A true showstopper like the FCC/ Unleash the ammo on tracks with more bump than camels."
Launching with their traditional ohm and then a punishing crush groove and their right-in-the-kisser energy, GFE's latest reminds us out of the gate they were meant to make this music, hip-hop's real disciples who need no gimmicks, brainless refrains or anything else that diminishes the essential rawness of folks driven by "a beat and the air in their lungs." Their politics and highbrow social discourse are marbled in a far more subtle way this time. Even the most forthright diatribes like "The 4th Estate" and "Sleepwalkers" are grounded in a nasty kind o' robo-funk, the latter cut beginning with a droid voice saying, "Join the dark side, bitch." Increasingly, GFE find ways to put the party in their polemics, yet still never shy away from calling kettles their proper color, sometimes in the bluntest terms ("Sean Hannity is a douche bag, Tony Snow lies, Limbaugh is a druggie, Ann Coulter's a guy.") There's much of The Clash's bumptious truth telling to GFE and one dearly hopes they end up in a studio with Mick Jones one day. Now that'd be some big audio dynamite!
Powered by three marvelous, always-captivating MCs - Adam Strange, Foul Mouth Jerk and Agent 23 - and a smokin' hot band - Josh Blake (guitar, keys), Chad Hockenberry (drums, production), Dave Mack (bass, piano), Jenni Hockenberry (percussion, keys) and Marisa Albert (vocals) – there's multiple layers to their considerable hump attack, flashing intellectual rapiers stabbing at squirming synths, shuffling drums and guitars that crawl all over you. Despite being part of hip-hop's cul de sac, GFE actually share a lot in spirit, execution and talent with freak aggregates like Os Mutantes and Devo…with oodles of ass shake thrown into the strange mix. There's a social agenda inside but it never overtakes their musical instincts. Time Machine isn't hard to get at. It makes your head nod, hard, but never dumbs down anything, from the base rhythms to the skittering syllables floating on top.
"Black Market Red Carpet" bobs and weaves over sinewy, slippery guitars reminiscent of early Gilberto Gil while the boys pass the potato with neck loosening dexterity, one of those songs you'll find yourself hitting repeat on while you blast it loudly from your car, smiling at strangers while you head for the closest flea market to get your fingers dirty. "Regular Basis" is the nasty child of Digital Underground and early cassette Too Short, a dance floor grenade sure to inspire lewd gyrations. Counterpoint can be found in "New Gods," an ambitious, jam-ready exploration of faith and its daily impact, and adventurous closer "Clock Keeps Ticking." Their parody of the current state of hip-hop, "Rich Prick," announces, "Well, baby, I gotta tell you there's nothing quite like it. I'm a jiggy rapper now. I highly recommend it. I ride the bus, drinking a martini with my pinkie out. I'm not bullshitting you, I look like the Monopoly guy." It's full of butlers with their own butlers and boasts like "I don't travel/ I have cities delivered." Adding insult to injury, "Prick" is followed by "The Movement," a lean, boombox slammer driven by Foul Mouth Jerk's body blow prose and knockout delivery.
With slick sleight of hand, GFE unveils the inherent ridiculousness of what most people call "rap," and then slice off limbs with insightful acumen, in between their humorous hyperbole (though it's not THAT unreasonable to think of one of these corporate beat goons putting out a video game about them smoking weed). Their jabs arrive without bitterness, and like true jesters, GFE just bruises the meatheads that fully deserve every black n' blue.
GFE are unsentimental humanists, fighting the good fight for good things. Their refusal of orthodoxy, even within their chosen genre (which they are helping stretch to bold new lengths), extends to all areas. They're shit-stirrers of the highest order and we're fuckin' lucky to have them. It's impossible to come away from Broken Time Machine and not question some of the assumptions you came in with. That's real art, people, and in this instance it's the best motherfunkin' hip-hop album of 2008.
Club owners and festival organizers take note: GFE are a monstrously great live act, too. Only The Roots really compete today, and put bluntly, GFE is often a bit more interesting and fun. Here's a couple servings from 2008 to wet your beak in.