By Alan Cho
Describing a new band to the uninitiated is like watching your band teacher in high school snort his virgin rail of coke. Spouting a mishmash of band names and wildly gesticulating, he claws at invisible fairies snatching at the powder caked under his mustache–you’re not going to get anything out of him except a deep regret for coming in after class to discuss music. Long past their days in high school, the Toronto based hip-hop instrumental collective known as the Pocket Dwellers still contend with the difficulty fans have in conveying the septet’s sound to their friends.
“That’s always been the hardest part of us, trying to classify us. Where exactly would you find us in a record shop?” Christian McKibbin, a.k.a Fabio Poutiney of the Pocket Dwellers muses during a short respite from the band’s current tour with Sweatshop Union. “What’s great about our band is that we can hit off a lot of different genres. Someone comes to our show and is like, ‘You know what, I never really liked rap, never liked hip-hop music, but I love the band; you guys are killer players.’ Then you got hip-hop heads who are like ‘I don’t really like the live band’, but they’re really into Nige and Sheldon. There’s that emcee aspect of us, so we can hit off a little more heads that way.”
Listen closely enough and you’ll hear the rattling of skulls echo across the nation as the Pocket Dwellers continue to amass a large following since forming in 1996 when McKibbin joined the aforementioned emcee Nigel Williams and DJ Sheldon Moore. The rest of band is flushed out with Dennis Passley Jr. on the tenor sax, Johnny Griffith on the alto/soprano sax, bass player Gordon Shields and drummer Marco Raposo. Wherever they go, whether touring with legend Maceo Parker or playing club gigs back home, they put on a stunning live show shifting from the Earth, Wind & Fire/Tower of Power flavored “Come With Us” to the electronic slink of “Shine”–giving audiences an eclectic blend of jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop and whatever else catches their fancy.
Fans and critics may have trouble pinpointing the band’s sound, but it doesn’t stop them from trying to dress the Pocket Dwellers in the clothes of their peers; from like-minded instrumental hip-hop bands Youngblood Brass Band or Kid Koala’s Bullfrog to jazz great Charlie Hunter. Some have dubbed the band as the Canadian Roots, though with a stronger connection to the world of funk. McKibbin’s has no problem with the comparison, though with one contention.
“Whenever you put that Canadian label on, not that it’s a bad thing, but people assume they’re inferior,” says the guitarist. “But The Roots, that’s completely flattering. We played the Monterey Festival in Switzerland with them and it was incredible. A lot of times, though, that’s the problem with us. People see us and when their friends ask ‘What do these guys sound like?’ and that’s the big comparison. ‘They’re like the Roots, but they got the horns and stuff.’”
Not that the band is ignorant of their roots and their musical debts. Whether classically trained or self taught, they recognize their place in the Canadian underground hip-hop landscape. The rising popularity of the Pocket Dwellers, along with the Swollen Members and other Canadian hip-hop bands who don’t need to resort to getting shot multiple times or getting arrested for pimping to sell records, McKibbin ensures to give props to one particular artist.
“I think K-OS is the leader of all us, basically. He’s great in that he brought that genre [Canadian underground hip-hop] into the more mainstream. And that only benefits other bands like us and Sweatshop. Maybe this urban music or hip-hop music can be more accepted by the mainstream; it won’t be so foreign to people’s ears.”
Regardless of what pseudo- wanker category the band becomes entangled in, they’ve made their mark on the underground hip-hop scene in Canada. With their upcoming deal with a major international label, new management, the imminent release of their new album (PD-atrics) and a new music video on its way, the Pocket Dwellers plan on ensuring everyone in the nation and the world will froth and flail in an attempt to define them.
“I think that’s what attracts people,” says McKibbin. “They want to dance, have a good time, leave the show sweaty from having a good time, you know?”