After close to two decades as the go-to guy for gut-grilling fusion of gritty blues and witty rhymes, singer, rapper and guitarist Garrett Dutton - known to you and me as G. Love - went all the way back to his roots with the 2011 album Fixin' to Die.
Produced in two weeks by Scott and Seth Avett - known to you and me as the Avett Brothers - the album set aside the raps, the flash, the snotty-boy snark and the fabulous funkiness of G. Love and his tried-and-true backup brigade, Special Sauce.
Fixin' to Die is a straight-up Americana album, packed groove-to-groove with Delta blues, old-time folk and even a touch of bluegrass, a handful of G. Love originals and some choice covers (the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover").
G and the Sauce - drummer Jeffrey Clemons and standup bassist Mark Boyce - are back on the road, and fixin' to play for y'all at Live Wire Music Hall on Wednesday, June 20.
Expect a full-tilt, high-energy G. Love and Special Sauce show. Dutton might have taken an Avett Brothers detour, but at the end of the day there's still no one who does what he does quite the way he does it.
Not that he hasn't been doing some serious thinking.
What did working with the Avetts do for you?
G. Love: It's great to branch off and do different projects with different people. Jeff, my drummer with Special Sauce, he played on about half the record with the Avetts so he was kinda in on the project. I learned a lot from those guys; the creative process working with Scott and Seth was really great. I spent a great week and a half with those guys and we worked really well together. They really helped me to get great vocal takes, and re-work some songs. It was a real open environment.
Why was this the time to do a record like this?
G. Love: My last three records before them kinda went together, they were more along the hip hip-infused blues and rock ‘n' roll that I do ... and we felt like, you know what? Let's just go back to the roots. It's funny, ‘cause Brushfire Records has really been wanting me to make a record like this for a while. When I sit at home and play my guitar, this is the kind of stuff I generally play. And unless I'm writing it, I usually save the more hip hop stuff for being on the stage. The music on Fixin' to Die, that's really me. That's the kind of music that I naturally make when I'm sitting around and practicing stuff.
So it was like "Just do it." Because I've been trying to make this record for 20 years, but it's always been "Oh, well, you can make that kind of record after you have a big commercial record." But that's been a real elusive thing for me. I mean, we've had some commercial success but we've had more of a cult following, and a live touring thing that's perpetuated our whole career. Our success with radio and record sales hasn't always been so great.
So I was like "Fuck it, man. Let's make it now." It really was like coming home. And it opened a lot of doors for me in my own head, like saying "OK, I can do this." And also, waiting 20 years to make it was good, too, because just being seasoned on the road for so long .... This records sounds more authentic now than if I had made it when I was 19.
Were you literally the first guy to mix acoustic blues with hip hop? Did I miss something - was there a precedent?
G. Love: It just kinda happened, it wasn't thought out. Philadelphia, where I grew up, had all the elements of my music. New York and Philly were the birthplace of hip hop. When I was 13, it was exploding all around you. It was like this new sound, rough and rugged, and it was real, and it was cool. So everybody and anybody was listening to hip hop.
It wasn't really something you thought you could fuck around with if you were a white kid. Yeah, we were break dancing and playing basketball and everything, but rhyming ... we all listened to Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys ... I was a hip hop kid, but I was also like a folk guitar player. And I got into the blues after checking out a John Hammond show. So one side of me was sitting in my room, writing my own kind of blues about living in the city - about basketball, about homeless people, and anything I saw outside my doorstep in Philly. And the other side of me was running around in a hip hop, street-life kind of thing.
When I was around 18, I was a street musician and I was shucking on this blues riff that I had, and I just started rappin' the lyrics to this old Erik B. & Rakim song called "Paid in Full" over it. And I was like "Holy shit!" It was a real big musical epiphany for me. I clearly remember that moment.
And the next day, I wrote my first rap, about being a bicycle courier.
I just knew it man, I knew I had got something. I knew I was the only kid playing a Dobro and a slide guitar and a harmonica, and rappin.'
The next I heard about a white kid rappin' was when my producer was in L.A. meeting with the people from Columbia, trying to get a record deal.
He said "There's another kid that's white, and raps, and plays the guitar."
I said "Well, what, wha, uh, who is it?
He said "A kid called Beck."
So you and Beck dropped right around the same time?
G. Love: Right, and so did the Roots. I remember the Roots being real salty at me because I got signed first. They were like "Yeah, white boy, whatever." It was interesting, because in a 20-block radius of Philly you had the Roots come up, and me come up. Our generation was like the next generation of hip hop kids that came along and pushed it into a different direction, you know?
I gotta ask you this. You're going to turn 40 this year. You've been rapping since you were a teenager ... are you pulling away from it? Are you thinking, "I'm a serious musician, and this isn't serious"? Do you think about shit like that?
G. Love: I do, man, I think about shit like that all the time. I've been thinking a lot about turning 40. It's crazy, because you can break your life into segments: You grow up, and then you're 20, and then you spend 20 to 40 trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life. Get into a career. And what's 40 to 60 like, settling down?
It's total confusion all the way, let me tell you.
G. Love: OK, great. Great to hear.
Seriously, though. Did you get more satisfaction out of doing this more roots record? Like "Maybe I don't want to do so much hip hop any more"?
G. Love: Yeah, it opened a lot of doors for me - I'm a bluesman, and that's what I've always kinda considered myself to be. I've been doing a lot of solo acoustic shows; originally I was a solo artist. And re-connecting with those skills, doing my Delta blues shit.
Certainly, when I'm rockin' a crowd ... people know me more for my hip hop, and as far as getting people dancin' there's nothing better than hip hop music, I think. To get the crowd moving. But I'm finding more and more ways to bring in the Delt blues and the slide guitar into the hip hop songs that I already have. And that's been cool.
I do feel like hip hop, in a lot of ways, is like a young man's game. That particular form of expression. But I still write raps all the time. I think music will always make me feel like a kid, you know?
G. Love and Special Sauce
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 20 (doors at 8 p.m.)
Tickets: $25 advance, $30 day of show