In the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina, much of the music made for and by the broken city of New Orleans was understandably mournful, the sound of a city and people shattered and abandoned. It's not that there was a want for ambition - those months saw a heartening flurry of post-storm records and tribute concerts from the music community. But it was tough to get over the sense that that they were there to make sense of the melancholy.
This summer, Galactic released a post-Katrina album that could wake up the whole Gulf Coast.
The New Orleans-based outfit primarily traveled in jam-band circles until their August release, "From the Corner to the Block," a roaring block-party of a disc that marries the band's slithery bayou funk with cameo vocals by some of the smartest, most progressive minds in hip-hop - Lyrics Born, Chali 2na of the defunct Jurassic 5, Boots Riley of the Coup, Mr. Lif, Gift of Gab and the Digable Planets' Ladybug Mecca - as well as Crescent City all-stars like Trombone Shorty and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and up-and-comers the Soul Rebels Brass Band.
The idea of loading your record with a grab bag of guest stars has been sort of a gimmicky fallback since it was popularized most recently by Santana's "Supernatural." But "Corner" is a rollicking and often thrilling stew of styles that has very little time to look back. It's less a tribute to New Orleans than a fire under it.
The project wasn't always intended to focus on Katrina, said Galactic keyboardist Rich Vogel. In fact, it was already underway when the floodwaters came rushing in and the band found themselves, "like everybody in New Orleans, adrift for a while."
After tending to their homes and families, the band regrouped a bit north. "We didn't think we'd ever get to work in our studio again - which turned out not to be the case, thankfully - but we got together at this place in the Poconos and recorded the bulk of the music."
Those tracks were then sent out to the roster of MCs they'd assembled They were only given the instruction to think about "corners."
"We were talking about how street corner names in New Orleans can be so evocative, so exotic. That was our one little thematic idea," he said. "Truthfully, some of the more New Orleans elements just came together by reaching out to some people," Vogel said.
Those people were mainly drawn from the the progressive, alternative hip-hop scene - "stuff you don't always hear on the big stations," Vogel said.
"All these guys - Lyrics Born, Chali 2na - take more of a conscious approach to hip-hop, more back to the early days of De La Soul and Digable Planets. All these guys share the quality of being really thoughtful and interesting and poignant. It's really the art of rap with these guys."
The biggest dice-roll, he figured, was Juvenile, a NOLA-based Cash Money all-star best known for club tracks like "Nolia Clap" and "Get Ya Hustle On." Since the storm, Juvenile's been one of hip-hop's leading forces for hurricane relief, and his cameo on the horn-powered title track is the closest "Corner" gets to a second line, and one of its highlights.
"He seemed the longshot on our list," Vogel said, "but it goes to show you if you take people out of their comfort zones, you never know what might happen."
The same could be said of the band itself. Galactic had dabbled in hip-hop before; it's 2004 record "Ruckus" was produced by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. The difference now? "We got a lot better at it," Vogel laughs.
Throughout the assembly of the record, Vogel said, the shadow of Katrina wasn't so much a conscious idea as a lyrical inevitability.
"All those things found their way into the record naturally," Vogel said. "Some of the tracks seem a little more pertinent to New Orleans than others. But I'm really happy that element came out."