Adam Gold’s keyboard swells were building slowly, swirling around and gaining intensity on top of drummer Emmanuel Washington’s playful beat until the music could barely be contained when Jack Brown stepped on stage. Launching into the song “Colors,” Brown, lyricist and rapper for the hip-hop/funk/soul group Sophistafunk, began spitting the words &-&- “I was born seeing all colors / Different hair, different eyes, different skin, all brothers,” &-&- a song with an inspiring message, but one glaring issue.
What if you were colorblind?
“I was born red-deficient,” explained Brown after Sophistafunk finished its opening show at the Middle East Upstairs March 5. “It’s about more than that.”
That assessment isn’t far off when considering Sophistafunk’s genre-destroying range of musical ability and mix of socially-conscious lyrics. Much of the trio’s hour-long set was spent rifling through thick instrumental funk, fluid vocals, soul crooning, metal, reggae and intricate interplay between Gold’s four-keyboard setup and Washington’s drums. Every time it seems like they have settled into a groove, the band explores more, taking each song and expanding it until it is much more than it started out as.
“We are definitely a blend of a lot of styles with an emphasis on musicianship and improvisation,” said Brown in a phone interview. “Our style is very improvisational, so you’re never gonna hear the same song the same way at any live show.”
That improvisation is largely born out of the musical understanding between Gold and Washington. With his wide range of sounds covering everything from the bass to the melody and all the ups and downs in between, Gold is every bit a keyboard master. Most songs, such as “Livin’ to Rock,” off the band’s self-titled EP released in June, started out as keyboard riffs before Washington would fill in with tightly constructed drum beats. The duo were constantly in sync, with Brown letting his lyrics flow effortlessly over the top with all the fluidity of influences such as KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots. “Lyla’s Tune” showcased how in-tune all three members are with each other, as the song shifted between Gold-led soul and Brown-led hip-hop, grooving to a funky conclusion.
In addition to the regular gigging and traveling that comes along with the task of building a band’s following, Sophistafunk also has strong ties to the burgeoning Syracuse music scene. Gold is the co-owner of Funk “N Waffles, a Syracuse University-area restaurant which delivers just what its name implies &- waffles any style (including brownie waffle sundae if you’re into that) and live funk multiple nights a week.
“It’s [Adam’s] brainchild,” said Brown. “It’s an incredible networking tool… we’ve done big shows in Brooklyn and Burlington where Funk “N Waffles catered.”
The new venue was a factor in the re-opening of the Westcott Theater, a concert hall converted from an old movie theater (roughly the same size as Boston’s Paradise Rock Club), a mid-level location that has been missing from the Syracuse scene for years.
“Once the Westcott started pumping, all of a sudden we had a strong music-going crowd [in Syracuse],” said Brown. “The audiences at our shows suddenly started tripling, quadrupling.”
As the band started touring in a wider and wider area, its live show expanded as well. Covers such as Rage Against The Machine’s “Renegades of Funk” showcased the group’s versatility, as Gold meshed pure metal with Brown’s rapping, and new song “Space” might present the band at their most eclectic best. A soul-funk intro at the show gave way to a juicy heavy metal chorus that then bled into a light, bouncy reggae interlude and back again &-&- an infectious journey that left the full crowd gasping for air.
“Space” is one of the new expanded repertoire of songs that Sophistafunk has been working on ahead of their first full-length release, for which recording will begin in May. The band recently reached a deal with SU Recordings, a marketing and PR team that works out of Syracuse University and has a publishing distribution deal with Sony.
“This is basically the full thumbs up to go where we want to go and record it with the people we want to work with,” said Brown.
With the full-length feature on the way and an intense touring schedule ahead, the group is looking toward expansion in the future &- expansion of its sound, expansion of its crowds and most importantly, the room to grow as a band.
“There’s always room for music in your life,” said Brown. “Even if you drift away from it, it just pulls you back in.”