Some people," laughs Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio, "think we're just a bunch of college kids playing old New Orleans music."
That may have been so at one point. But the funk-based, mostly instrumental quintet has garnered plenty of respect over its nearly 15-year existence. Thanks to crossover success with younger listeners as well as its high visibility in the jam-band scene, Galactic stands poised as Crescent City ambassadors to an audience that otherwise may have not found acts like the Meters, Dr. John, or Professor Longhair. Still, when he considers his band's place in the city's storied pantheon, Mercurio politely demurs.
"We're not trying to present ourselves as being on the throne of New Orleans music or anything like that," he insists. "And I don't know where we fit in, to be honest."
For Galactic, credibility didn't just come out of years of practice and persistent touring. When the band formed in the early 1990s, all but one of its current members had relocated to the area for college. (Mercurio arrived in 1990 to attend Tulane; the others were already there and going to Loyola.) While drummer Stanton Moore is Galactic's only NOLA native, the other members immediately fell in love with the city's rich musical climate — so much so, in fact, that they all decided to stay.
Mercurio emphasizes that the band put in the time and energy to absorb and relate to the city's musical culture, modernizing the music with the proper sense of respect. From Galactic's sophomore album, Crazyhorse Mongoose in 1998, through its latest, From the Corner to the Block in 2007, the band has shown a staunch progressive streak, throwing fresh twists into the funk formula with each release.
"When we first started out, we were in our 20s playing music that was written 30 to 40 years before us," Mercurio says. "So no matter what, our interpretation is going to have somewhat of a modern or new approach. At first, it wasn't as conscious, but lately we've thought about it a little more."
Even a cursory listen to today's funk music reveals how endemic the retro craze is and how much bands can get stuck in the past. And although it's arguably a great thing that younger musicians have taken to classic funk, it's also dismaying to see bands trying to approximate an overall aesthetic and playing more like anthropologists than people capable of coming up with fresh hooks.
"There are bands that are doing the retro thing very convincingly and great, like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. But it's been done, so why do that?" Mercurio says. "We've been there too. Our first album, Coolin' Off, is very retro. We even recorded at the same studio that the Meters recorded at. But after you tour with a band for a while, it hits you: What are we doing? We've got to do our own thing."
On From the Corner to the Block, Galactic's own thing took the form of the band collaborating on every song with guest rappers, including the Coup's Boots Riley, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Blackalicious' Gift of Gab, Chali 2Na of Jurassic 5, Lyrics Born, and a host of others. After parting company with vocalist Theryl DeClouet in 2004, Mercurio says that the band found itself free to pursue an inspiration that first struck in 1992, when British funk band the Brand New Heavies released the like-minded New Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1. That album also featured a roster of guest MCs who, at the time, were up-and-coming.
"We'd always wanted to make an album like that. In a way, like us, they weren't setting out to make a hip-hop album per se either. They were just doing what they do and combining it with the MCs that were current at the time. And now there's a slew of new current MCs that we were friends with or that we appreciated. I really do think that a lot of hip-hop is where funk has gone. I mean, if the Meters were now, they'd probably have a rapper in the band."
And true to Galactic's forward-thinking nature, From the Corner to the Block bears a distinctly futuristic sensibility. Additionally, the band was striving for more than rhymes just laid over music that was already written.
"We sent them pretty basic stuff," Mercurio says. "It was usually just some drums and bass and maybe some type of other instrument on top, like a guitar or keyboard. So then they would do their vocals, and then we would add and arrange a lot. For the title track with Juvenile, he literally rapped over a metronome set to a tempo, and we built that whole track around what he gave us. So, in a way, it was a true collaboration."
Unsurprisingly, after a year of touring with guest MCs, Galactic is already looking ahead. Current dates feature guest horn players who only occasionally drop a rhyme or two. "We really hope people aren't like, 'They're a rap group now,' " Mercurio says.
At the end of the day, Galactic is still an instrumental band, he says, which he admits presents some creative limitations. "You have to make broader strokes. When there's a singer, it's very obvious: 'This is the chorus coming up.' With instrumental music, it almost has to be overly done for people to be affected."