Groovin' On Up

Local soul band Groove Stu aims for the next level, and wants to take Baltimore along.

February 07, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

There's just enough room to jam. The dimly lighted studio on Franklintown Road is packed with instruments, microphones, metal chairs and amplifiers. Thick cords snake across the dingy carpet. Life-sized black-and-white posters of Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon adorn the red brick walls.

It's around 2 on a marrow-freezing Saturday afternoon. But the ice-slick streets don't deter Groove Stu from rehearsing. Pulling off coats and caps, the nine members file in - slapping fives, hugging and teasing one another. The talk is jive and profane but loving, familiar. All of it ceases as each member warms up his instrument.

Pretty soon, things get seriously funky in this cramped space.

Groove Stu is an urban soul group from Baltimore. For three years now, the band, which plays Fletcher's tonight, has been toiling away in a city with no fervent "scene" - a string of diverse venues or a cluster of recording studios where artists and producers work regularly.

And it's been that way for years. The Charm City has produced many talents: Billie Holiday, Maysa and Dru Hill are just a few. But to "make it," to snag recording contracts and other career opportunities, those artists left the city. Holiday was the toast of New York City throughout the '30s and '40s. Jazz-soul stylist Maysa, the former lead singer for the British band Incognito, is more celebrated overseas. And Dru Hill's multiplatinum success in the mid '90s still didn't bring much attention to B'more.

Groove Stu hopes to change that. With its music and unwavering allegiance to its hometown, the band wants to put the city on the musical map. "We wanna do what the Roots did for Philly," says group founder and bassist Myron Missouri. "In the '90s, [the hip-hop band] played around Philly with folks like Musiq, Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright. They produced D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. They pretty much made a scene in Philly. And when they broke, they took everybody with 'em. That's what we wanna do with Groove Stu: Bring some attention to the city, 'cause there's so much talent here."

The independent band released its debut, Authentic 4.10 Sessions, in September. A well-produced, nicely packaged set of urban love ballads and slick midtempo joints, the album has been popular on the Internet, and singles from the record - "I Don't Know" and "Cool With U" - have charted high on station lists in Belgium and Japan. Even with that success, the band receives almost zilch local support.

"There aren't as many venues that promote live music," says Omar Sharif, the band's co-founder and lead keyboardist. "And there aren't any black-owned venues here that would be open to the kind of music we do. Radio is also very hard to break into, because a lot of the major stations are owned by big corporate companies like Clear Channel. That makes it hard for local talent to get any play on these stations."

Fletcher's, Organic Soul Tuesday on West Saratoga Street and the Funk Box are basically the only local clubs where Groove Stu and similar bands find work. In trying to carve out a place within the narrow parameters of the city's music scene, where punk and house are the predominant styles, Groove Stu is certainly not alone.

"There's a lack of transient energy in Baltimore, and it's not a rich place, either," says local singer-musician Niela (pronounced Ny-EE-luh). The urban-rock artist has shared the stage with Groove Stu. "It's not a city that's open to different stuff. If you're not doing what's on the radio or some club stuff, it's seems that nobody is trying to hear you."

And as Groove Stu's rapper Jerrod Simpson says, "It's like crabs in a barrel, man. Everybody here who's making music is trying to be the first to break out, the first to make it out. So they're not trying to reach back and bring attention to the city. But Baltimore is my home. I'm probably one of the few who love it here."

Missouri chimes in, "We're gonna make it happen here. It hasn't been easy; it won't be easy. And it's not like we haven't talked about leaving. But none of us can just up and move."

The other members of the group are Earl Campbell (the energetic drummer with wiry hair), Ramel Nicholson (the second keyboardist; he doesn't talk much), Tony Love (the dreadlocked guitarist with intense eyes), Antiwan Decatur (the friendly percussionist), Jerrita Davis (sweet-voiced back-up singer) and Tiffany Countess (stylish lead vocalist).

A self-contained band is a throwback of sorts in modern R&B. The genre is mostly producer-driven these days. Back in the '70s, though, the charts were crowded with groups that often produced, wrote and performed its own material: the Commodores, the Bar-Kays, Con Funk Shun, Brass Construction. Groove Stu, whose members are in their mid to late 20s, extends the spirit of those bands.

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