Dysfunkshun Shakes It Up

Vermont Collegian editor Tom Huntington got the 411 on our favorite Vermont hip-hop band. Who, what, where, when, how.

Dysfunkshun may very well be the Rodney Dangerfield of the local music scene, which is to say, they just don't get no respect, no respect at all.

Or do they?

If you listen to some of our slightly esteemed local music critics, you may have heard the longtime Burlington crossover crew being referred to as perhaps "the most oddball band in town," one that plays a blend of music that "has a lot of folks in town scratching their heads" and wondering what in the hell a bunch of white boys from Vermont think they're doing mixing mostly black styles of music like rap, funk and reggae here in this, the whitest state in the union.

Sometimes its not just the critics and sometimes it can even get a little ugly. "We've had people get mad and, like, want to fight us," says guitarist/vocalist Richard Bailey. "We had this guy in New Hampshire, like, wanting us to stop [playing] and go outside and fight him." "He got up," adds drummer/vocalist Troy Pudvah, getting into his impersonation of this deranged lunatic by standing up and shaking his fist in the air, "and, almost crying, he's like: 'You rappin' bastards!'" Vocalist Marc Daniels recalls the last of the insults: "'Go back to New York you fuckers!'"

"A lot of people thought that we weren't legitimate, for some reason or another," explains Marc, "that we were either perpetrating or that we were doing something that people thought we ought not to be doing." This mildly annoying and fairly infrequent phenomenon was not lost on the band, however, who - in classic Dysfunkshun fashion - used it as inspiration for the creation of a song. "Shake" - one of my favorite tunes on their solid new CD Gravy - is a Dysfunkshun anthem if there ever was one, delivering a declaration of sorts as to what it is they're all about, with the telling chorus: "The groove is our credo/The funk is our savior/We cut through the bullshit straight/We're like a razor/Amazing Grace how sweet the sound/We rock it so hard we shake the underground."

Perhaps a more revealing incident in Dysfunkshun's distinguished 6-year history, however, occurred during the band's swing through the south a couple of years ago, where they were extremely well-received in places like North Carolina and Florida. Ricky "Swann" Richardson, guitarist for the legendary reggae band Culture, came to check out one of the shows and was inspired to come up and talk to the band afterwards. "He said he really appreciates that we pay tribute to a black style without ripping it off," explains Troy. "And that's exactly what we're trying to do, so to hear it from the perspective of an older person that's part of that culture makes us think we're probably on the right track even if people around here are too provincial to see it."

"We make sure we don't ever tread on black culture because we respect it," adds Richard. "I mean, we certainly criticize ourselves enough and we're always yellin' at each other about what we like to do musically. So, its like, we have to just do what we enjoy. And more and more, we're getting a fanbase that agrees with us, and I think a lot of it is that there are enough bands out there that we're not that strange anymore."

Indeed, the fairly recent commercial success of crossover-style bands like the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and those that followed in their footsteps like Sublime and 311, among others, has certainly broken down barriers and cleared a nice swath through the forest of musical possibilities, evident in the increasing number of crossover bands - 2 Skinnee J's, Shootyz Groove, Incubus and Phunk Junkeez, to name but a few - that can be found on major record label rosters these days. "Its nice to finally have it carved out so that we're not hoein' a new fuckin' row through the woods here," admits Troy.

And while this has certainly helped them as far as reaffirming their own musical path and also opening up people's minds and ears to new sounds, the guys in Dysfunkshun have actually been more inspired by bands that can be found a little further underground, bands known more for their incredible live performances than for their units sold. "We're inspired more by The Goats [now defunct but some may remember their killer show at Club Toast in '94] and Fishbone than any of those bands," says Troy. "Those are the two that have had the biggest impact."

Needless to say, it was definitely a big thrill for the band to celebrate the release of Gravy in grand fashion at Toast in April opening for their heroes Fishbone, who proved that they can still deliver the goods after all these years and despite recent personnel changes. "If I was 18 years old," speculates Troy, now in his late twenties, "it would've been like opening for Van Halen."

Still, they have found it somewhat hard to shake comparisons to one band in particular - the band known as 311 - which has been fairly vexing to them and is kind of ironic because Dysfunkshun was able to score a prize spot opening for 311 (and Shootyz Groove) at their big sold-out Burlington debut at Toast in the fall of '94 (still one of the biggest - and best, in my opinion - Toast shows ever), which was - needless to say - an inspirational event for the band, to say the least.

And Dysfunkshun would be the first to admit to certain similarities, like the fact that they blend similar styles of music and have a fairly similar approach to things, that Rich's voice sounds a lot like that of 311 vocalist SA Martinez, and that the classic Dysfunkshun song "Jump In" from their debut CD Home on the Range sounds a lot like "Offbeat Bareass" from the 311 album "Grassroots." Let's just get that out of the way right now, shall we?

I myself have always been somewhat clouded by the fact that I have been groovin' to the Dysfunk long before I had ever even heard of 311 - who I am also a big fan of and have seen several times now - and its clear to me that Dysfunkshun has always stayed true to their own vision. Yes, they mix similar styles as 311 - not to mention The Goats and Sublime, etc. - but I think they have always done so in an original and interesting way that I have found to be both unique and quite refreshing, actually. Plus, with Dysfunkshun, the emphasis is way more on rapping and on extended jamming - more of a laid-back groove kind of experience with the emphasis on shakin' your booty as opposed to slammin' in the pit (although Dysfunkshun still manages to kick your ass live every time, baby).

Similarities are even harder to find when you consider the change of direction that 311 has taken recently - evident on their latest album Transistor - and compare it to the latest effort from our Green Mountain Boyz in tha Hood. "They're so progressive," argues Richard. "I mean, we're like three lines tops in a song - they've got 15." In any case, the magic numbers have been showing up less and less lately, for better or for worse. "I do all the follow-up calls for the CD," says Rich, "and now I don't hear that at all."

George Clinton once suggested that one should "free your mind and your ass will follow," and this is good advice if you're listening to Dysfunkshun or experiencing one of their dynamic and always-entertaining live shows, where its not too hard to lose yourself in the thick and addictive groove. The band itself went through a period of freeing their own minds and attitudes towards their music a couple of years ago, lightening up in general and jamming out more on stage, a side that they had only tapped into at practices and during the writing process. "We were always afraid to do that live because we were scared," says Rich, "but then we said 'screw it, let's give it a whirl and we'll do it.' We end up writing parts of new songs." "Part of it was just letting go and not being too uptight about being on stage," adds Troy. "Sometimes it sails and other times its a little frumpy, but if it sails, we have a tendency just to do it and stay there. It plays a common theme in our growth, which is, basically, utilize everything that we have at our disposal as far as talent."

Dysfunkshun has had a lot at their disposal over the years, and it is safe to say that their sound has continued to evolve since their first gig at the Bennington Sun Fest on May 20, 1992. A four-man crew featuring Richard and Marc and a rhythm section consisting of Mike Blair on bass and Erik Sherman on drums, the original lineup produced an aggressive mix of rap, funk, and hardcore a la Rage and the Chili Peppers, and put out a tape in '92 appropriately titled A Lesson in Rage. About a year-and-a-half later, Troy - who had been banging the skins in Peg Tassey & Proud Of It - jumped in the mix and was present and accounted for on the bands 4-song demo tape, Not In My Name, in 1994.

In 1993, Dysfunkshun had attracted the attention of a Middlebury College student named Geoffrey Marx who had his own production company and lots of cash and was looking to turn Burlington into "the next Seattle" by attracting major labels to the area and getting all the local bands signed to biggies. While the advance was pretty nice and allowed the band to focus almost exclusively on their music, the deal slowly soured as Marx tried to change them into a "grunge" band and wear spandex and shit like that (go figure). "He was ridiculous," says Richard. "It was out of hand." Still, Dysfunkshun managed to make a great song out of it, their classic anthem Homegrown.

The debacle forced the band to re-evaluate the whole thing. When Richard, Marc and Troy decided that they wanted to go in a different direction and be more hip hop-oriented, Mike wasn't down wit it and decided to leave the band, but things pretty much clicked right away when they found Johnson State College music student Ben Dunham, who helped them "put the funk in," as Troy puts it, as well as help them define their direction musically. "Ben, at the moment, was exactly right," adds Troy, "because he was like a phat bass player as opposed to like a really aggressive lead bass player [like Mike]. That was definitely a necessary step in the development." Right around this time, Troy was also playing with the Channel Two Band band and was experimenting with "all these great new beats," and reggae was also gradually thrown into the mix with nice results. Shortly after Ben joined, Dysfunkshun put out their first CD in late '95, an EP called Home on the Range that is a good document of their sound at the time and remains a surprisingly popular local album to this day.

Not too long after that, scratchmaster DJ Frostee jumped on board and helped take the band to another level of hip hop madness as Dysfunkshun really started to open things up live, pulling out a new song or surprise at every show, it seemed like, and even developing three-part vocal harmonies in some songs. With a solid foundation already formed, the loss of Ben at the end of '96 was not too devastating, and his shoes were ably filled by Tyler Neilson in early '97, who, for the most part, stayed true to Ben's style but in a more laid-back style.

A highlight of 1997 was definitely their show at Club Metronome during the Burlington Music Conference in September - which was so packed they had to close the club doors - a show that attracted the attention of many of the label people in town. Dysfunkshun was writing lots of quality new material, and for once decided not to record for awhile ("Dysfunkshun has a history of throwing in a new member and then recording immediately," explains Troy) in order to let the songs develop over time. This time, Dysfunkshun wasn't going to forget the gravy.

Recorded over the course of a month at Toast co-owner Justin Wygmans' new Rock It Science Studio in Jericho, Vermont, Gravy documents the evolution of the Dysfunkshun sound since the release of their "Home" EP, and finds them right at home with their potent mix of groovy hip hop reggae rock that they have continued to develop over the years, both live and in the studio. Gravy ladles up nine new Dysfunkshun tunes - as well as an updated version of their classic song "Get Out of Babylon" ("Babylon '98") and also the ever-popular "Hip Hop Girl" - that showcase the band's musical prowess as well as their growth in the songwriting department, making it clear that Dysfunkshun has gotten a lot more comfortable both in the studio and also with their direction musically. With exceptional production and a phat, analog sound, Gravy offers up a fun and cohesive mix of a wide range of styles that is sure to make you move.

The album has helped the band attain the services of entertainment lawyer Wayne Rooks - of Serling, Rooks and Ferrara in New York City - who has already begun to shop the CD to record labels and management companies. He has already gotten interest in the band from manager David Connelly, who represents Boston band Fatbag (Polygram Records), and this past spring Dysfunkshun also got word that the Don Law agency will start doing the booking for them this fall. Needless to say, the band is keeping their fingers crossed that some of this stuff will work out, but the ball is already rolling. In the meantime, Dysfunkshun continues to tour throughout New England and New York - booking themselves while they all still hold down full-time jobs - averaging about 5-6 shows a month, and have been winning over fans in places like Portland, Maine, and in Boston, where they have been hooking up with other like-minded bands that have helped them to develop an audience in that area.

Dysfunkshun has also had their own PA system for the past year, which has made it a lot easier for them to do out-of-town shows, and they've recently upgraded it yet again so its now even bigger and more powerful-sounding than ever. And, in true Spinal Tap tradition, Dysfunkshun has yet another new bass player in the form of Paul DeGasta (Die Trying), who played his first show with the band at Toast in June and brings a heavier funk edge into the mix and seems to be working out really well.

Tom Huntington likes Dysfunkshun and he doesn't care what anyone thinks.

Dysfunkshun has a new website that can be found at www.accessvermont.com/dysfunkshun. Check them out live at the Nidecker Snowboards new showroom at the Burlington Waterfront on September 12, Castleton State College on September 27, Johnson State College on October 9 and at Club Toast on October 24.