For hip-hop trio Lifesavas, the fine line between fact and fiction has temporarily become blurred. With their new album, this Portland, OR-based crew–consisting of Jumbo the Garbageman, Vursatyl, and Rev. Shines–tossed out the old blueprint and created a cinematic concept effort as intricate as Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves, with a narrator, segued scenes, and a fictionalized backstory.
When they talk about Gutterfly: The Original Soundtrack, MC/producer Jumbo and MC Vursatyl tell stories outlandish enough to be urban legends. When Jumbo recalls recording the album at their rundown garage studio, The Promiseland, he speaks of baseheads wandering around the premises and neighbors posting angry letters on the door telling them to keep the noise down. But, like the controversial blaxploitation flicks of the early-to-mid-'70s that inspired Gutterfly, this album delights in goofy exaggeration.
As the original story goes, Gutterfly was the creation of one Baraka Feldman–a Brooklyn-born writer/activist who moved to Portland in 1989 and eventually befriended the Lifesavas. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Feldman chose to pass along the incomplete screenplay for Gutterfly to the group. But, as Jumbo readily admits, Feldman never really existed, except in the group's imagination.
"I really wanted to expose to people how multifaceted me and Vurs was," Jumbo says, explaining why they made Feldman up. He says the group had a greater goal than deceit–they wanted to create a persona that had a mutual respect for hip-hop music and blaxploitation cinema. "It was similar to how Charlie Ahern [made] Wild Style," says Jumbo. "Like, 'How can I attach to this movement?'"
Jumbo explains that the Feldman character provided a bird's-eye view of the story arc. "It's like, 'Maybe I can do it through this guy's lens and actually take a look at myself and help people see me taking a look at myself.' The only way to do that is to give [Feldman] a real scenario–like, 'This is where he's from, this is what he does, this is how he sees things,' and then just leave it."
Feeling boxed-in following the release of their 2003 debut, Spirit in Stone, Lifesavas wanted to redefine themselves. This might seem odd, considering critics and fans largely embraced Spirit in Stone, an expansive album that saw Lifesavas dip into everything from Peter Tosh-inspired riddims ("Fever") to hardcore hip-hop activism ("Resist"). Still, the desire to completely flip the script on their second full-length remained.
"Underground hip-hop groups have a [stigma] that everything has to be this real positive, overly conscious type of vibe, so being able to hide behind characters really freed us up," Vursatyl says of Gutterfly.
Of the many blaxploitation movies the Lifesavas drew inspiration from, the crew especially took note of Ralph Bakshi's notorious film Coonskin. All along, it was the group's goal to do something along the lines of this animation-meets-live-action flick about three prostitute-seeking cartoon criminals who cause havoc on the streets of Harlem. "The animation in that movie [featured] such grotesque stereotypes that it made sense," explains Jumbo. "It challenged you, like, 'Yeah, it's animation sometimes, but it's not light.' It still has this adult tone to it."
The characters in Gutterfly aren't nearly as objectionable as those in Coonskin. The slick playboy Sleepy Floyd (Jumbo), the ruff-'em-up enforcer Bumpy Johnson (Vurs), and the loud-mouthed white dude Jimmy Slimwater (Shines) sound like some of the most likeable criminals ever imagined. The protagonists of the original blaxploitation flicks were meant to be heroes of the 'hood, mired in the contradictory racial politics and realities of the 1970s. On Gutterfly, Lifesavas update funk sounds while showing that the triumphs and trials of ghetto life haven't become less relevant over the last 30 years.
In the setting of Razorblade City, Sleepy, Bumpy, and Jimmy make an actual habit of uplifting their brethren. On the haunting, George Clinton-assisted "Night Out," for example, Bumpy the burglar screams 'foul' when he's pulled over and harassed by a racist cop on the prowl while his daughter cries from the backseat. On "Shine Language," the characters encourage the disenfranchised citizens of Razorblade City to hustle any way they can to get ahead atop an epic string loop."
We get off into different things [that] we're dealing with in America and across the world, in terms of that power struggle," Vurs explains of the album's universal feel. "It was important to try to paint it so that people could relate to it in their personal situations today."
But a blaxploitation flick wouldn't be complete without a little flossing and inflated thug talk, which the Lifesavas capture on the funky title track with Camp Lo and the rugged number "The Squeeze," featuring Smif N Wessun. These aren't the collaborations you may have expected but, as Jumbo explains, that's the point.
"You're like, 'Y'all did a song with Smif N Wessun? Those are the gun clappers! Y'all did a song with Camp Lo? Those are the fashion, pimp slang-talking-type cats.' And we're like, 'Yeah, that's us. That's a side of us that people don't know.'"
Mack Movies: Lifesavas pick their favorite blaxploitation films.
Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin wasn't the only blaxploitation flick to inspire Lifesavas. Sure, they've seen their share of garbage from this era of cinema, but Vursatyl and Jumbo are proud to share the films they feel changed the 'hood for good.
The Mack (1973)
Vurs: "It was definitely a major motion picture but it was still kind of like a documentary, if you go deep into it. They were using actual pimps and actual macks and all of that. They were really catching the essence of the culture."
Vurs: "It defined an era and it left so many people trying to live that dream to really become Superfly. There's even cats today in the 'hood–older dudes who are still pushing those Caddies and El Dorados. It became the symbol for what a mack or a player was."
Jumbo: "Since he screamed out The Mack and Superfly' got to scream out Dolemite!"
Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Jumbo: "To see a black super-heroine, and she's fine? That gave me hope [laughs]. Like, Wonder Woman is cool, but Cleopatra got an afro and she's strong and she knows kung-fu? Oh yeah' love her."