Two MCs trading verses is commonplace in hip-hop, but having a live band bringing the noise instead of a DJ isn't quite as prevalent. Combine that with two distinct physical presences — one guy who looks like a homeless Jesus and the other an intimidating, "6-foot-8 dude with an afro" — and people are bound to take notice.
Charlotte's Eyes of the Elders are a concoction of two politically conscious rappers backed by four musicians who blend blues-rock with funk. The combination forms a cohesive group in which the MCs deliver agile and introspective lyrics over tight percussion and feral riffs.
The six-piece will help celebrate April 20 — or 420, in stoner speak — along with a few other Charlotte acts, including One Big Love and Mr. Invisible, for a night of eclectic, live hip-hop at Neighborhood Theatre.
Eyes of the Elders' formation stems from a few chance encounters — a testament to the miscalculated musical talent that abounds in Charlotte's slacker, hipster and hippie communities. MC Ricky Radar studied poetry at Appalachian State University in the late '90s, and eventually switched to rhyming his words along to music. It was there he became acquainted with his future rap partner, MC Bearcat.
Radar, who moved to Charlotte in 2002, ran into Bearcat when the two worked together at Mellow Mushroom a couple of years later. The two joined forces to form a rap duo, playing in punk clubs and eventually adding a live band as they went through several lineups.
Jacob Gresham, the band's drummer, says people are sometimes taken aback by the band's look. "Bearcat's a 6-foot-8 dude with an afro, power glove and gold shades on, and Radar could possibly be dressed in a kilt or looking like we picked him up on the side of the road on the way to the show," Gresham says. "It takes people a couple of songs to figure it out, but they always like it."
With band members hailing from the Charlotte suburbs and nearby rural towns, Eyes of the Elders bided their time playing smaller venues — places such as the Philosopher's Stone — as they fashioned a sound as difficult to describe as it is to replicate.
"When you listen to old-school hip-hop, you hear something that's from funk music, something that's from classical music or blues music," says Boss Jones, the group's guitarist and singer. "And that's really what we do as a band with instruments as opposed to just cutting it from records."
The current lineup took shape with the addition of Gresham, a free spirit with the swagger of Will Smith. He and the two MCs are joined by the soulful Jones on guitar and bassist Jason Pentecost, who brings a jamband flavor to the stew. Keyboardist Majikai, a recent addition, will play his first Eyes of the Elders show on April 20.
"I'm really excited about this lineup change," Radar says. "It's the most solid unit I think we've ever had. I mean that musically (as well as) on a personality level, with how everybody clicks and is on the same page."
The music isn't without a message, either. EoE seems to understand life in Charlotte and what it takes to work hard and make ends meet. One of the band's more recent songs, "Occupy," is a locally inspired tribute to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"I came home from work and got a letter that Duke Energy was raising their power bill 17 percent," Radar says. "I picked up a pen and wrote the first few lines and it stuck. That was right around the time everything was going on with [the Occupy movement]."
While other EoE songs venture sonically into psychedelic territory or are observations of living and working during the tough times of the 21st century, "Occupy" signifies an awakening and connecting of the dots.
"I was amazed at how American citizens were being treated by the police department and the powers that be," Radar says. "It was really disheartening."
Eyes of the Elders, having already released four albums and a mixtape, plan on debuting three new songs at this weekend's gig, including an epic about an abused child who joins the army as an escape. The subject of the song comes back home as a war hero, only to be haunted by his past and the violence of war, which leads to a tragic shooting rampage.
While that song may be dire, the band keeps the vibe upbeat on other material. "We want you to enjoy yourself, but at the same time, think," Bearcat says. "All this stuff is going on, and you're living your day, so apathetic to it. Like it doesn't matter to you."
With its new lineup and raw material, Eyes of the Elders will showcase why some consider the band to be one of Charlotte's best rap groups (CL's Best of Charlotte critics' pick in 2011). At the very least, the 420 package show will give you a reason shake and bake outside the house.
"It's 420," Radar says. "I don't even smoke weed anymore, really, but most people in the neighborhood do. It's a great excuse for a party."
With Eyes of the Elders, One Big Love, Mr. Invisible, Tribal X-ing, DJ Dolphin Sound. $10. April 20. 9 p.m. Neighborhood Theatre. www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.
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