As magazines and sites compiled their year-end “Best of 2012” lists, several pointed out the Menahan Street Band‘s sophomore album The Crossing. After releasing their debut project, Make The Road By Walking, in 2008, and taking time to work with soul artist Charles Bradley and others, their follow-up project didn’t miss a beat. Pulling musicians from Antibalas, the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck, Homer Steinweiss (drummer and co-founder), Nick Movshon (bassist), Dave Guy (trumpet) and Leon Michels (saxophone), the Brooklyn-based instrumental band set the scene with rich, dark, triumphant soul.
Life+Times talked to Brenneck about their latest album, their influences, supplying the “Roc Boys” sample and more.
Life+Times: How was the recording process for The Crossing compared to you all’s first album, Make The Road By Walking?
Thomas Brenneck: The biggest difference was that the first record [Make The Road By Walking] was recorded in my apartment in my bedroom on a small half-inch 8-track tape machine. Because of a couple things that happened to that record, it led to me being able to invest in a proper studio. Me and the drummer from the band, Homer, partnered on a recording studio and rented a loft space. So this record, sonically, is much nicer sounding because it wasn’t recorded in a bedroom with the window open, the train going by and all this crazy shit which kind of make for really cool circumstances to record a record and the first record kind of has that energy. It’s a little more raw, we’d wait for the train to go by then we’d press record. The drum break on “Make The Road By Walking” you can hear the train going by, a whole bunch of cool elements. But this record is a little more isolated.
L+T: Talk about the chemistry you all have developed now.
TB: We’ve been recording records together for like 10 years now. The thing is, it’s a studio band, so all of that plays a big part. The reason why we all met in the first place is because we were all playing in this soul scene in Brooklyn, whether it was Afro-beat, funk or soul, we were all kind of the younger guys of that scene of music. So we were all drawn to each other, being like-minded musicians. Whenever you find somebody who’s into the same music that you’re into, and doing at the same level that you’re doing it, I think it’s a pretty natural thing to gravitate towards those people. The first project of this sort was spearheaded by Leon Michels, the saxophone player in the band. He made the record El Michels Affair, and that record set off this trend of cinematic soul music that was different with the records that we were making with Sharon Jones and Lee Fields. Taking all those influences and also taking influences that we grew up with – all the ’90s hip-hop – and embracing that as much as we wanted to embrace James Brown and Fela Kuti, that’s what brought us together.
L+T: You used the term “cinematic soul.” Expand on that. What is cinematic soul?
TB: That’s just a phrase that’s been used to describe our records before. I guess it just has to do with the drama or the emotion that we can evoke through music without having a lyric be a guide to that emotion. Without someone saying something about heartbreak or something, we just let the melody do it, which is the same thing that a soundtrack would do for a movie. Cinematic is just something that people use to [describe the music], but I think it hits the nail on the head.
L+T: How has New York helped mold your music?
TB: There’s definitely a pride that we all take. We’re all New Yorkers and we’re all from different parts of New York. A couple guys grew up in Manhattan, I grew up in Staten Island, Homer grew up in Brooklyn, so there’s definitely a commonality between all of us that kind of goes with growing up in the same city together even though we all had different backgrounds. The thing about being in New York is we were exposed to this music. I was a teenager in Staten Island and was tuning into radio stations in the city. There were shows like the Night Train on Saturdays, which I think was coming from Columbia University Radio. I was being exposed to all this obscure ’60s music. In the late ’90s to early ’00s, the funk 45 scene was really big in New York and myself and a bunch of guys in Staten Island – the Budos Band – were all exposed to this thanks to the radio. That didn’t happen anywhere else in the country, it happened in New York. The East Coast has dirt and grime. Nobody else delivers soul music the way we do because there’s this New York-ness in there, and it’s our own. We’re not trying to do it, it’s really natural. I definitely think it’s a regional thing, because there is a lot of soul music coming from the West Coast, and we’ve always had this attitude that our shit is better.
L+T: You all often cite Afro-beat and Fela Kuti. What’s the influence that he’s had on you?
TB: I got turned on to Fela around 17 or 18 years old, and the music didn’t hit me at first. The first time somebody played Fela for me I thought it was great, but it did not blow me away. But when I went to go see an Afro-beat band for the first time in New York City, that was an experience I will never forget. It was a band called Antibalas. They’re still around now, they did Fela on Broadway and everything. Antibalas were the pioneers. When Fela died in the late ’90s, Antibalas started in New York as a tribute band to Fela. When me and a bunch of my musician friends from Staten Island went to SOHO to see Antibalas play in the basement of a restaurant, and we saw 12 guys playing Fela’s music, that was when I became obsessed with Afro-beat. Seeing it performed live, chomping away at this rhythm track, raw, soulful and very disciplined, and how this music made a crowd erupt and start dancing, I went out and started buying Fela records. I read his biography, got into his music, started playing Afrobeat music and ended up playing guitar in that band Anitibalas. And this was before it went to Broadway and put into mainstream culture. There were not many people in the country that were hip to Fela, and around ’98-’99 that’s when it started in New York, and Antibalas was spearheading that. As an 18, 19-year-old, seeing it live affected me way more than listening to a Fela CD. The more you learn about Fela, his life was incredible. He came from a really amazing family, he was the musician that started revolution in Nigeria, it’s incredible. Why he’s not as Bob Marley or James Brown blow my mind, because Fela needs to be recognized as a parallel of those artists.
L+T: Talk about the JAY Z record, “Roc Boys,” and what that did for your recognition.
TB: It was a real boost in self-esteem, I tell you that. We had been making records in this soul scene in New York for a long time. It would be little samples here and there. Kanye West sampled a Sharon Jones song, but there was never a hit song. In the history of hip-hop, it has always been – in the ’80s and ’90s – you sampled from the classics: Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, The Meters. You sampled the cream of the crop of soul music. So when the Hitmen sampled Make The Road By Walking, first of all it was a sample for JAY Z, second of all, it was on Hot 97 all the time. It wasn’t like we were getting props, it was a JAY Z song, but it boosted our self-esteem because it was like, “Damn, everybody thought it was an old soul record.” That just gave us credibility. Also, I didn’t realize it when we made the first record, but a difference between Make The Road By Walking and previous records from the soul scene was that there was an undertone of hip-hop sensibility in the record. So not only did it have the soulfulness, but it also had a beat that hinted subtly towards hip-hop. A record being sampled is like a needle in the haystack, and the chances of it being a hit song is even slimmer, so it was a real fortunate thing that happened to us. Then being credited as a songwriter on a JAY Z song does a lot for the songwriters. Up until then our records sold 5,000-10,000 copies; American Gangster sold a million copies, so got thrust into this thing and we learned a lot. A lot of our heroes – James Brown, Phil Johnson – their samples weren’t cleared in the ’90s and they were hit songs. Those guys had to chase after that money, but JAY Z was amazing. Roc-A-Fella reached out to me – I remember this – I was rehearsing with the Dap-Kings when they called, got on the train not knowing what song or anything. I went to the studio, JAY Z and the engineer played me the song on the spot, we hung out for a little bit, I played JAY Z some of the Charles Bradley stuff I was working on and then we shook on it and that was it. It was real gentleman-like, and a lot of my heroes had to fight it out in court to make something like that happen. It was bona fide all the way.
L+T: Curren$y, Kid Cudi and others have since sampled the Menahan Street Band, too. Does any of that surprise you?
TB: It doesn’t surprise me at all really because I know what the music is, I know it lends itself to hip-hop really easily. Curren$y, he didn’t even change it. He just took the instrumental of a Menahan song called “Tired Of Fighting” and rapped over it and it’s dope, but he didn’t put it out on a record, it’s on a mixtape. And there’s a whole issue there that I have with mixtapes; when you use something on a mixtape, you don’t have to pay for it, because they don’t sell it. So as flattering as it is, it’s nice for them so sample our shit, something needs to change, not with the artists but with the record labels. 50 Cent and this guys Frank Dukes made a really, really nice beat out of a song called “The Traitor.” “The Traitor” had been sampled by three people: Kid Cudi, Billy Blue and 50 Cent. 50 Cent’s was the nastiest, and it was on a mixtape and it never came out. It was on the radio, but it never was released. And it’s a full-blown production, it’s a great production. That’s how the business has changed, that’s how the business has slanted. I’m disappointed with the use of samples [in general]. Kid Cudi’s sample, I just don’t like it. Billy Blue’s was Southern, had a twist on it, really cool. 50 Cent’s, really cool. I love this music so much, it’s like a personal statement, these records for me, and I want it to be sampled. I don’t make pop music, but I know it lends itself to hip-hop which is a form of pop. I want what happened with JAY Z to happen with other artists. But the direction that hip-hop is going in, I don’t particularly like. When JAY Z sampled The Moments recently for “Empire State of Mind,” an obscure soul band from the ’60s, that is the shit, and it’s not happening enough in hip-hop because people can’t afford to pay samples anymore. People don’t wanna pay for samples, they just wanna make beats with a synthesizer and the music suffers. So I’m not surprised by the samples, I’d just like for people to put it on records and not just give it away. The same thought and emotion I put into it, I just want the hip-hop production to show that also and for record labels to not be so cheap and pay for samples. Imagine if [Wu-tang‘s] 36 Chambers didn’t use all those classic soul samples, it would not be a classic hip-hop record.