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Brown Sounds

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!"

One month later, well past midnight: The Poor House is filled to capacity, the men's toilet has overflowed, and people are dancing deliriously. Waters selects vinyl from his three crates, ready to drop Macy Gray, Jill Scott, and Branford Marsalis' "Breakfast at Denny's" into the mix. The snippets float over the bobbing heads of the crowd as Cameron busts out a string-bending solo. One grinning glance and rumbling bass line from Spencer and they're off onto a new plateau, Cameron coaxing waves from his wah-wah pedal as Waters pipes in Samuel L. Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 monologue from Pulp Fiction atop it all. Close your eyes, and for a second, it sounds as if Barry White is up there with Meat Beat Manifesto. The energy at the Poor House roars into a conflagration. With the crowd already reeling, Cameron lays down the indigo opening notes of the Beatles' "She's So Heavy." Kanner throws a cigarette butt to the 80-year-old floor before he loosens up and launches into one of Ringo's familiar offbeat patterns. The crowd goes into orbit. Jaws drop. The dancing has stopped, but no one can take his or her eyes off the band.

During Hashbrown's third set, beginning just after 2 a.m., the group decides to toast the blues-buttered bread the Poor House's crowd has come to expect. From a Black Oak Arkansas/Allman Brothers­style vamp, Hashbrown ambushes the audience with a vigorous, polyrhythmic take on Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," with Waters singing backup from the decks and Cameron adding the searing power chords. Then another cover: the Police's "When the World is Running Down." These versions aren't the populist fan-pleasing panderings of a common bar band; they're treats for the faithful.

Although many of Hashbrown's tunes use an improv-friendly format ("structured with a head, an ending, and some stuff in the middle," Cameron says), the band members know they're not packing the Poor House on Friday night with bespectacled snobs, and their crowd isn't looking for a bebop education -- from them, Ken Burns, or anyone else. "How can I get mad about that?" Spencer says over a late lunch and a joint back at the Shed. "Popular music is popular music for a reason. That's why 11-year-old girls like 'NSync. Do I want 'em to go home and slap on Sketches of Spain?"

Cameron and Kanner laugh at that, but they soberly realize the reality of limited opportunities and the ever-present threat of stagnation Fort Lauderdale seems to cultivate. "You'd think," Cameron muses, "that being so small, shit here would be concentrated and that much cooler."

Spencer bursts into another outbreak of guffaws. "That's what you would think!" he acknowledges. The three realize that, by treading water here, they might be missing a big break elsewhere. They talk about moving away, about the possibility of new horizons. The band has nabbed some good gigs, opening for national bands coming through (most recently Fishbone), but a long career as the house band at the Poor House isn't on anyone's agenda. Maybe, the three say, they should bail on Florida and find greener pastures in which to nurture the Brown sound.

"I have faith, though," Kanner throws out. "If one way doesn't work, you've got to find another. I just wish there was more of a happening, experimental scene down here."

A freight train rumbles past the shop, rattling a neon sign against the front window. Spencer stares outside at the rusty brown boxcars rolling northward. "I love Fort Lauderdale," he says with a note of frustration. "I love Florida. I love everybody's support, everybody who loves Hashbrown, I love 'em dearly. But how long can you be the dopest shit in your own hometown? How satisfying is that going to be?"

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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