Groud Dwell

Hip-hop band Pocket Dwellers wants to make intelligent music in a landscape of stupidity. Sean Flinn tracks its success.

The Pocket Dwellers rumble through the mountains of Montana following a show in Tofino, BC. “It’s beautiful and desolate, man,” observes MC/vocalist NiGel (AKA Nigel Williams).

The rocky landscape hurtling past Williams’s window couldn’t be more appropriate considering the shout-out he gives on “Stop,” the first track of the band’s new album, PD-Atrics: “This is high on top / Mount Pocket Dweller.”

They present their live take here November 26.

For now, the seven-member band is hauling ass to Boston—the other side of the continent, just to make the point further, from British Columbia—where they’ll play a couple of short, but high- profile NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) showcases. “They’re short gigs, a half hour maybe, but check you out for the American college circuit,” Williams says.

Listening to PD-Atrics, Pocket Dwellers will arguably make a solid case for themselves even in 30 minutes. A skilled lyricist and rapper, Williams is but one element in a band with backbone. “Oh yeah, first and foremost we’re a band,” he exclaims. “We’re a band of musicians and we’re proud of the musicianship.”

“Stop” blossoms into a deep, funky groove, dressed up with brass courtesy of band member Johnny Griffith. Later, “Critical Acclaim,” one of the album’s strongest tracks, sounds like an update on songs you hear from the excellent Blue Note series Blue Break Beats, which rounds up the obscure and famous anthems of acid jazz, deep funk and rare groove. Like The Roots (though it’s easy to overstate this comparison), k-os and Common, Pocket Dwellers sound like mantle-bearers of those storied 1970s sessions.

“Jazz was so transient then,” Williams enthuses.

Transient in the good sense, the sense that artists like Donald Byrd, David Axelrod, John Coltrane before and Guru (the Gang Starr MC who put together the seminal Jazzmatazz records in the ’90s) and Blackalicious afterwards have shown: you never stop moving, exploring, hitting the mark and then looking for the next one.

Like Blackalicious and The Craft, Pocket Dwellers give you the sense they’re getting there—they’re reaching out for and are close to those sublime moments, those albums as events.

It helps the band got signed to EMI this past summer. EMI owns Blue Note. EMI “pitched us and liked the record,” Williams says, adding: “When things are tough or whatever, I just say to myself, ‘You’re on Blue Note, dude. How bad can it be?’”

Transience for purposes of this discussion also means you’re always busy, active, working. And Pocket Dwellers are always working. The band opens up their songs on stage, breaking out to let each player explore his limits.

“I write all the time,” says Williams. He mentions how “Photogenic” pivots on “a lyrical idea that’s probably three years old.”

“Photogenic” shows the Pocket Dwellers at their most fun-loving, taking the piss out of “synthetic”-looking girls. With a great piano chord repeating in the background, an uptempo beat and some great harmonizing, this is the album’s party track.

Contrast this with the closer, “Poor Little White Girl,” a vignette about a young white woman carrying her black lover’s baby, and you see the two sides of the band. Still, Williams is weary of the socially conscious label. Clearly he can feel the party vibe in the likes of blinged out rappers or the current whipping posts of the “real” hip-hop listeners out there, Black Eyed Peas.

“Is anyone unconscious? People, they’re conscious about something,” Williams says. His slight impatience hints at a live and let live attitude. “We just try to make intelligent music. And I write about stuff around me.”

Indeed, labels trap you in a category and a certain time period. Pocket Dwellers aim to be timeless, like KRS-One, one of Williams’s heroes. “We’re just pushing through, man. You don’t shine forever.”

Pocket Dwellers, November 26 at The Attic, 1781 Grafton, 11pm, $8, 423-0909.

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