From laughs to a tear 

They're a hip-hop group that laughs publicly, though their music is decidedly underground and rugged. They actually believe in having fun. Go figure. What's more, they're a pack of closet music geeks who get excited about being able to hear the sound of Max Roach's kick drum moving around on the floor while listening to the legend's old jazz recordings.

Joining them is collaborator-turned-extended group member Blake Eerie.

In their own words, the trio describes what they do as "Viking Music."

"It will start a fight," says Nicholas "BlackReign" Thompson, a wide-eyed smile on his face. The emcee and group engineer leans back in a chair in his dusty basement on Detroit's west side as he speaks his piece. Or peace. It's hard to tell. I think he's joking.

"No, seriously," Eerie adds, "a full, all-out war." He's laughing. He doesn't seem to be too serious, either.

"What we tryin' to do," producer-emcee Ohkang says, grinning like his cohorts but speaking more as a voice of reason, "is give you hard track, soft track, hard track, soft track. We call it CBS — the Congressional Beat Sessional."

They're talking about their upcoming album, BlackReign & Ohkang featuring Blake Eerie are the Funtouchables. It's the sixth project that BlackReign & Ohkang have recorded, but only the third they've actually self-released to the public. They recorded it here, in BlackReign's basement, using Garage Band Apple software.

The basement is bachelor-pad bare, but is equipped with dude-survival essentials. There's the music gear and turntable; crates of records; the requisite Nintendo Wii; a washroom and an unseen wailing cat (put away for company) whose particular whine has made its way onto several of the group's tracks. The vocal booth (er, vocal corner) sports a mic and stand cordoned off by a single sheet of egg crate. In this dingy environ, however, this group has produced music that would put grins on faces of J Dilla, Wu-Tang Clan and any producer who favors minimalist, creative hip hop over overproduced, radio-friendly formulae.

Blowout gives these guys an opportunity to revel in the fruits of their rather mirthful labor. It's gonna be a busy week. On March 4, they'll present their official album release party at Northern Lights, Detroit's most highly respected underground hip-hop spot. (Ohkang also spins rare grooves there each Thursday night.) The next night, it's Blowout.

"We gon' do it like we do the music," the 30-year-old BlackReign says. "We gon' have fun. We gon' crack jokes. We gon' make comments. 'Cause, if you're not having fun with this, what's the point of even trying?"

"Hence, the name, Funtouchables," Blake Eerie, 23, adds. "We have fun, but you still can't touch us."

BlackReign & Ohkang (the latter's real name is Bomani Ohkang Diop) got together in 2003. It began after BlackReign's previous group fizzled — at the precise moment he decided to tackle the Apple program. He and Ohkang spent a few days staring at the technology and then began messing with its presets. Time passed, education took over, and they produced Sample Techtronic, their first unreleased project. It was novice, sure, but no less an accomplishment. Another unreleased project, Big B & Lil' Young, began as a parody of gangsta-hardcore hip hop, but morphed into a serious hood album. They abandoned it when it began to feel too real. Or unreal.

"I don't wanna take on that character," Ohkang says. "When you take it on, you gotta live it. That's a serious responsibility. We weren't ready to accept that responsibility."

Their recording skills improved until they felt comfortable enough to start releasing it publicly.

The next two projects, Bass & Brass Knuckles and The Oriental EP, hit the Internet. The latter chopped samples of Asian music and cultural clips (film, video, etc.), making it hip-hop-compatible. They've never tracked sales, but they've shipped a lot of product overseas and to other states.

Kenneth "Blake Eerie" Bruton, who has known the two since they all attended high school together at W.E.B. Dubois Preparatory Academy, had been rhyming at local hip-hop spots. The first BlackReign & OhKang project the emcee appeared on was Below Sea Level, an album they're still sitting on. They won't release it independently because, as they say, it's too good; instead they're looking for a record deal.

"That's actually why I started working with these cats on a full-time level," Eerie says. "They didn't go, 'OK, we gon' do this, this, this.' It was actually planned out, over a nice period of time, with some real thought."

The three often finish each other's thoughts in conversation, sometimes finishing sentences. It's a natural chemistry that flows directly into the music, of course.

Whenever Ohkang cues or introduces a track during this interview, the other two gesture in amazement.

"Ooh," BlackReign says when he plays a song from The Oriental EP. Eerie shakes his head and steps a few steps away, as if the record is too dope to handle. It's as if they each represent different angles of a pyramid. No shit: Ohkang is tall with dreads and a clean, healthy appearance. BlackReign is grungier, almost midnight black, and he carries himself as if he's your funny uncle. Eerie's a cross between the two with a springy, youthful way — only tempered with a gentle gruffness, a bit of weather.

Funtouchables finds the group equally distinctive on record. Ohkang's is the mellowest voice. Stylistic, he raps in semi-whispers, using punch lines and clever cadences to get his points across. Eerie is unpredictable. He may growl every now and then, space one bar out, and cram words into the next. BlackReign is a steadily baritone, almost unconcerned with impressing you, but he's got some things to say. Musically, Funtouchables at times nods to the aforementioned Dilla or, as on "Contra," delves into uncharted territory by compressing the kick drum and accenting the snare. It gives the song an incredible groove that would be a delight to radio without a loss in integrity (musical or otherwise).

The trio characterizes its music as a response to the too-often bloated and laughable trends that hip hop has passed through in the last decade. The culture, they assert, has collectively promoted "gettin' money," pimpin' and partyin' at various junctures. They're keen to not dumb down their music, that shameful attempt at mainstream homogeny.

BlackReign puts it in context: "You can hear an artist on a mixtape spit rhymes so intricate, but as soon as he gets an album out, it's dumbed down. A lot of 'em will say, 'I can't bring that hardcore hip-hop stuff to the masses, 'cause they won't get it.'"

"If you wanna snap, pop, go ahead and do it," Ohkang adds. "It's just that, nowadays, people do music for teenagers. So people like us, who came out of the era of Slum Village, Rakim — when hip hop was tangible — you hear this stuff and it's like, we can't relate."

But they can relate to a good time, with some good music. At Blowout, they plan to deliver just that.

Blackreign & Ohkang - Wednesday, March 5 at The Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With I Crime, Eons and Human Eye.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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