It seems that every so often I find myself lamenting the fact that today's popular music scene is devoid of originality and intelligence ... just before something comes along to renew my faith. This time it's Denver hip hop outfit Flobots that has kept my spirit afloat. On the back of their breakthrough hit "Handlebars," Flobots are bringing creative music and powerful messages back to the mainstream. Sure, they're not Katy Perry or Hannah Montana big, but having a single that's climbed the Billboard Modern Rock charts faster than anything since Semisonic's "Closing Time" is a pretty good sign.
Flobots have a sound that can appeal to a wide audience despite their unique style. They're a hip hop group led by two MCs (Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit), but they also have a strong rock flavor thanks to guitarist Andy Guerrero, bassist Jesse Walker, and drummer Kenny Ortiz. Oh, but there's more. They also have a trumpet player (Joe Ferrone) and a violist (Mackenzie Roberts). Those two bolster the rap/rock hybrid by providing sounds rarely heard in hip hop and giving the songs added boosts of energy and emotion. They may be a hip hop group with heavy rock airplay, but don't let that fool you into thinking Flobots are anything like Linkin Park. No screaming or self pity here. Just energetic grooves and intelligent, fast-paced flows more akin to Jurassic 5 or the Roots.
Their latest album Fight With Tools is an excellent blend of styles that comes together into one fun, head-nodding, fist-pumping package. Though the album contains many memorable tracks, its centerpiece is "Handlebars," one of those songs that's quirky enough to grab your attention, catchy enough to hold it, and brilliant enough to give it staying power. It begins slowly with Jonny 5 rapping about his hands-free bike riding skills along with other minor accomplishments ("I can show you how to do-si-do / I can show you how to scratch a record"). But this isn't some goofy novelty track. Jonny's list builds to include more serious achievements ("I can design an engine / Sixty four miles to the gallon of gasoline") and ends in a dramatic fashion as he threatens to "end the planet in a holocaust." "Handlebars" is tons of fun, but it also serves as an examination of human potential: we all have the power to perform acts that are mundane, great, or catastrophic.
Much of Fight With Tools, however, is more blatantly political, making Flobots a more palatable version of Rage Against the Machine. Though their live show features a rocking snippet of "Killing in the Name," the 'Bots are more interested in inspiring than in starting riots. And Fight With Tools has plenty to be inspired by, from the jump-inducing rally cry of "Rise" to the mournful, Hurricane Katrina-inspired "Stand Up" (We shall not be moved / Except by a child with no socks and shoes / If you've got more to give than you've got to prove / Put your hands up and I'll copy you"). "Same Thing" rattles off a laundry list of grievances the band has with the way the U.S. government handles foreign situations and name checks leaders we've overthrown or assassinated while imploring us not to let those things keep happening. One of the most stirring tracks is "Anne Braden," a tribute to a white, southern American who fought for racial equality in the midst of mid-twentieth-century segregation. Here they rap about Braden's life while Mackenzie Roberts provides the beautifully soulful backdrop "She always knew there was something wrong."
But I feel that the most important political message the band offers comes right away in the form of spoken word intro "There's A War Going On For Your Mind." This track warns us that the media, the government, just about anybody is trying to get us to let our guard down so they can do our thinking for us. Toward the album's end, however, they remind us that "If you are thinking, you are winning." If real peace, prosperity, and equality is to thrive in this world, it will take more than electing new leaders. It will involve people thinking for themselves, staying informed, and not surrendering their minds to other people's agendas. The fact that Flobots and Fight With Tools are getting mainstream notoriety shows that we have already won at least one battle.