By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
On December 31, 2000, downtown Fort Lauderdale simmered, set to boil over with giddy tourists. Inside Lord Nelson Pub, though, it seemed that Hashbrown's bubble had burst. The hard-funk quartet had already played one set from its cramped corner of the British tavern and had just launched into its after-midnight set when the band's PA fizzled.
In addition to spewing an acrid electrical odor, the short-circuit silenced the husky voice of singer-bassist Jay Spencer and the torrid turntables of Boogie Waters -- a diminutive, dreadlocked DJ-vocalist who seems to pack a keyboardist and full horn section into his traveling case. Did this signal some Y2K+1 catastrophe? Far from it. In fact most patrons probably never knew anything was amiss: Exchanging sly glances as Waters left the stage, Spencer, guitarist Duncan Cameron, and drummer Rick Kanner just kept it grooving without interruption, kicking into a pared-down, improvised instrumental funk.
"It all goes back to personality," Spencer recalls a few weeks later. The late-afternoon January sun adds a deeper hue to the orange walls inside Shed Records,Cameron's downtown record store. "We mesh really well." Clad in a conservative sweater vest, with a shaved noggin and goatee, Spencer likens the ability to keep music going when there's no set list -- or escape route -- to athletics: "It's like basketball, you know? You run down the break, and you see your man's on the wing in the corner. So you pop him one there for three."
Spencer and Cameron have been pickin'-and-rollin' together for nearly ten years. Along the way they have crafted some of the solidest and decidedly party-friendly jams in Fort Lauderdale, a city infamous for its ability to ignore great art in its midst. And Hashbrown hasn't exactly made it easy on itself, either. In a classic Spinal Tap parallel, Hashbrown has suffered a revolving-door procession of percussionists. Cameron, a tall, thin fellow with a wild tangle of dark curls, says the problem with "flaky drummers and flaky situations" threatened to erode the local fan base that has remained stalwart for almost a decade, since the two operated a pre-Hashbrown outfit called 40 Below.
Example: Just last summer Hashbrown was derailed by the unreliability of Steve Williams, a new father at the time. The band would often arrive at a venue to play a gig, but Williams would pull a no-show, says Cameron. A subsequent attempt to bring back a past skin-banger from the Hashbrown fold, Wayne "Cutmaster Crash" Walters, also ended unsuccessfully.
Enter Kanner, who had known Spencer, Cameron, and Waters in various circles for years. Kanner also hooked the band up with his practice space at a Margate warehouse. Since joining up he has brought much-needed stability to the Hashbrown ranks. Arms folded across his loose white sweater, Kanner mostly stays quiet. He leans back in his chair, eyes shut, exhaling an ever-growing cloud of smoke.
Spencer moved with his family from Toronto years ago but not before experiencing his musical epiphany there. "Michael Jackson on the Victory Tour," he says without embarrassment. "That's what made me want to do music."
The Gloved One's hand is hard to spot in Hashbrown's music. It's much easier -- especially where Spencer's bass-playing is concerned -- to draw parallels between Hashbrown and Tackhead, a late-'80s, industrial-funk outfit led by bassist-singer Doug Wimbish. He and his bandmates, percussionist Keith LeBlanc and guitarist Skip MacDonald, made up the Sugar Hill house band responsible for rap's famous early salvo of hits including "The Message," "Rapper's Delight," and "White Lines."
Hashbrown has been nowhere near as prolific. The band released 50 ft. Doubledoor Boxcar a full five years ago on the now-extinct Pompano Beach imprint Noiz Boiz. The debut is a long-winded grab bag of styles, never remaining in one place for long. From the faux-ska rave-up of "Hollow Disco" to the countryish "Better Than Me" and the miniature mosh pit of "Segue @#$^!!!" Hashbrown's debut succumbs to excess, piling on too much of a good thing, like a four-page illustrated résumé. The band had improved substantially by last year's homemade Fuzzy Logic EP, which fires a much tighter, simpler, less indulgent statement across Broward's bow. Waters is instantly the star of the opener, "HOD," nudging the tune forward with a perfectly placed undercurrent of silky synth.
Waters came aboard almost two years ago, adding a most unshow-offy but tasteful turntable style. He usually works with one record at a time, letting simplicity be his guide, shading the band's songs rather than overpowering them. "He opens up the sound," Spencer relates, "and makes it a little bit bigger than a three-piece."
"HOD" and the smooth "Over & Done" (also from the EP) are now live staples; the New Year Eve's show found Hashbrown using the deep, floor-trembling grooves of those cuts to incite the sexualized, subwoofer-hungry crowd. As Spencer forced a booty-shaking buttquake with the fat, thick thunk of his bass, a buxom mama became lost in a Phish trance. The band soaked up the pheromones emanating from the crowd, exchanged a few smiles, and locked the groove down tighter still. Many of the gold-plated street crawlers stayed to drink. Some left. Most danced. Finally the band plunged into a deceptively simple Latin groove, while Kanner, bored with his assortment of toms, employed Lord Nelson's wooden windowsill as a surrogate cowbell. "In times of war," he chuckles later, "any trench will do!"