Bottoms up

It takes moxie for a band in its prime to step back and reinvent itself. Outkast does it effortlessly every couple of years, as did the Talking Heads and Kraftwerk. But in Detroit, the idea of forward musical movement is rather rare. Bands with a sound will play it to death, and if the groove drops, they often become human jukeboxes or break up.

When Detroit’s Black Bottom Collective saw their mojo take a leave of absence a couple of years ago, they avoided the human jukebox-breakup scenario by stepping back and looking hard at themselves in the mirror. On the surface they didn’t need the self-analysis: The band’s shows often sold out and they had amassed scads of press praise and Detroit Music Award nods. Local suits were saying BBC was the next big thing out of Detroit. But BBC checked their heads for reinvention anyway. The result is the group’s just-released People Mover. You might say the BBC mojo is back.

Local urban heads have long been familiar with BBC’s sound and wordplay. Led by local poet-journalist Khary Kimani Turner (full disclosure: Turner is a frequent Metro Times contributor), BBC has developed a core following since its 1999 inception. In 2002 and 2003, BBC honed its chops weekly at Royal Oak’s Fifth Avenue. There, BBC whipped a generally sleepy Thursday-night crowd into a shimmying frenzy with uptempo poetry, hip hop, gospel and ghetto soul. It wasn’t uncommon to overhear someone say that a BBC show was a downright “spiritual experience.” Tate McBride, lead drummer for hip-hop groove ensemble Gorilla Funk Mob, calls BBC “fucking amazing.” Even Platinum Pied Piper guru Waajeed says Turner’s lyrics were pivotal to his own growth as an artist and emcee.

BBC’s sound is a mash-up of various musical genres, and there’s enough poignancy in the lyrics to make the neck hairs stand up and salute. A detectable inner-band harmony — musical and otherwise — is at work here too; the guitar, percussion and DJ accentuation blend well without sounding forced or calculated.

“This band is a family,” producer-guitarist Edward Canaday says. “We’ve experienced children being born, folks getting married, companies launched — all the things that can bring a band together have been happening to us since we started recording this last album.”

The Collective (Turner, his vocalist wife Tunesia, singer Karen Bennett, keyboardist-producer Mark “Swami” Harper, bassist Kamau Inaede, drummer Ivan “Groove” Prosper, Carl “DJ Invisible” Hollier and Canaday) are all well-traveled musicians.

The 18-track People Mover is the album the band says it has long envisioned. Unlike the group’s 2002 debut, Stay Low, Keep Moving, which was peppered with home-studio production trickery and automated drum programming, People Mover is 90 percent live instrumentation. There’s more feel, warmth, heart and humility. The record is damn close to a live BBC performance.

“We realized that our strength is essentially in the high energy from our live shows, so that’s what we try to give listeners on this album,” Turner says. Canaday — who joined BBC during the making of Stay Low, Keep Movin’ — says, “our first album was more like garage hip hop — it was good at capturing the band at its inception, but now we’ve gone someplace totally new and a new album was necessary in order to reflect that.”

That’s not to say the band’s debut album was crap. Hardly. It got the band support slots on major shows (Talib Kweli, etc.) and colorful splashes in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

And while BBC soars live, the band admits it had a lot to prove to its listeners. A pivotal piece of the band’s reinvention was allowing Canaday — who brings years of studio and video production experience to the fold — to join Turner and Harper as the group’s third producer on People Mover. The decision helped the band’s writing process evolve and gave the eclectic group a more focused sound.

New drummer Ivan “Groove” Prosper — who joined BBC last year after Djallo Djakate Keita departed — also made an impact; the nom de plume says it all.

“Drummers and bass players have to really lock in, and Ivan brings that groove,” says longtime BBC bassist Kamau Inaede. “Our last drummer was good too, but as a bass player, I’m like a kid in a candy store when Ivan is on the drums.”

People Mover is a sonic gem. It was recorded at Studio Chicago, one of the best sound rooms in the Midwest, and mastered at Bernie Grundman’s lauded Los Angeles studio. To cover the album costs — to, in the words of DJ Invisible, “call out the big guns” — BBC went into debt, DIY-style.

And making the record wasn’t as easy as climbing aboard the people mover and heading down to the recording studio. “There were a bunch of times when I’d hop off a plane, grab my DJ equipment and record until 4 or 5 in the morning, drink some coffee and get on another plane a few hours later and fly back across the country,” says Invisible, who’s also Xzibit’s tour DJ.

Listening to People Mover — its soulful and social aesthetics, its beat verses — the spiritual elements rise to the fore, without preachy or self-righteous undertones. The album’s lead-off single, “L-O-V-E,” is an upbeat song that transcends glossy R&B pillow talk and tells listeners exactly what the hell love is. It’s also getting love on local radio.

The song’s inspiration? Turner says Scripture.

“It’s my 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13 version of ‘love carries me over, love saves souls,’” Turner says without irony. “I know sometimes people get a little sensitive with religion, but in our band, we have Buddhists, Catholics, Christians, Native faiths — all of which carries over into the way we write music.”

“Interview With a Porn Star” could be interpreted as a divisive album cut. It’s, um, a tag team of sorts. In it, the Turner husband-wife duo mimics a 1991 interview with black porn star Angel Kelly. The song goes deep; it addresses issues of female sexual liberation and child molestation through the eyes of a porn star. It’s a remarkable idea, handled with empathy.

“We have some songs on there that definitely aren’t radio friendly,” Inaede says. “For us, lyrically, the message is always going to be there, but musically, we try to push the envelope.”

Glimmering press and music awards are cool for any band, but BBC wants to win respect. The sound isn’t for everyone, but who knows?

“With this album, we want as many people to hear it as possible and get booked on as many gigs as we can,” Turner says. “If we can get a million fans to swing our way over the next few years, we can write our ticket.


Appears Thursdays at Fifth Avenue Billiards (215 W. Fifth St., Royal Oak; 248-542-9922). For album info go to

Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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