For roughly five years now, The Ill Funk Ensemble has straddled the line between two worlds on the Capital Region’s music scene.
The Albany-based five piece band, fronted by singer and rapper Jermaine Wells, is a live hip-hop band in the vein of The Roots. As such, the group often finds itself playing shows with local MCs who are backed by prerecorded music or a DJ. But the band is just as comfortable on the rock club scene, and has the chops to keep up with the four-hour, three-set nights that are the norm in many of the region’s bars and clubs.
“The hip-hop community and the live band community in this area are very separate,” said guitarist BJ FitzGerald, during a band interview in Schenectady. “We’ve done some functions with hip-hop guys, and it’s a totally different world. I come from that world of hustling for gigs and playing full nights, three-set nights, and stuff like that, and I don’t know of a single other hip-hop band in the area that does a full, three-set night like we do. I can’t think of one.”
Gift Wrapped in Sound Charity Toy Drive
With: Ninepin, The Red Lions, Atomic Tom, Jermaine Wells and the Ill Funk Ensemble, Mirk and the New Familiars, Flakjacket, Rawthentic, Wyte Boy & B-Way, Milly Warbucks
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Red Square, 388 Broadway, Albany
How Much: $10
More Info: 465-0444, www.redsquarealbany.com
With a covers set that features songs from artists including Biggie Smalls and The Jackson 5, the band — also featuring keyboardist Joe Stoner, drummer Dennis Brooks and bassist Duane Etienne — has the material to perform in either situation.
The group is up to roughly four or five shows a month in the region, and just completed a tour of the Cape Cod, Mass., area this past summer.
Toy drive show
The band’s next show is at one of its favorite haunts, Red Square. Friday night’s “Gift Wrapped in Sound,” a toy drive and benefit show for The Langan School and the Albany Center for Disability Services, will also feature performances from a bevy of artists, including fellow Albany hip-hop inflected band Mirk and the New Familiars, Flakjacket, Atomic Tom, The Red Lions, Ninepin, Rawthentic, Wyte Boy & B-Way and Milly Warbucks. The Ill Funk Ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m.
This is the kind of show that allows the group to focus more on its original material. Usually, the band will slip in its originals during cover sets — and often times, the audience is none the wiser.
“All of us are willing to do the covers so that we can push some of the original stuff,” FitzGerald said. “A lot of times we don’t even mention that we’re playing original stuff, and the audience members, they end up going, ‘Really? That was an original tune?’ Yeah, man. And they end up looking at it and not realizing that’s what it is, and they get more interested in it.”
While the cover sets are what makes the band money, the group doesn’t approach its versions the way most cover groups do. FitzGerald, who started his musical career and still plays with The Alan Payette Band, first conceived of the Ill Funk Ensemble in 2005, trying to move away from the “party band” scene.
“At first the idea kind of came about that there was something a little more funky, a little bit more groove-oriented,” FitzGerald said. “The idea kind of came, when Jermaine came into the picture, to add a lot of hip-hop to it, and from there it went.”
Wells, a Bronx native who relocated to Albany to attend the College of Saint Rose in 1996, had experience performing as a solo rapper prior to joining the Ill Funk Ensemble, making numerous appearances at The Apollo.
The rest of the band’s members have been playing on the local scene for years — in Brooks’ case, over 25. All this experience jelled together pretty quickly into the group’s mix of hip-hop, R&B, funk and rock.
“We all came from doing different things,” Brooks said. “It was a growth of, I guess, what each of us were doing. It’s a unique sound to the genre, I think, because there’s some bands out there playing hip-hop, but our sound is unique to us.”
“BJ and I both have jazz backgrounds, too, so we wanted to — hip-hop was kind of a double benefit there,” Stoner added. “We can actually explore that and get paid to do it, and also it’s an under-served market in the area, live hip-hop.”
Bulding a base
Although the group has recorded a full-length album, titled “Get Down,” it has yet to be released. The band’s primary focus at the moment is, naturally, gigging and building a fan base.
“Some people do the exact opposite: they release an album and then they try to build a fan base around it,” FitzGerald said. “None of us, I think, feel comfortable with nobody knowing who the band is, and then investing a lot of money into a CD, and then hoping and praying that we sell those CDs. It doesn’t really work. Above all, we’re an artistic outlet, but we’re also a business outlet — we need to be professional, make money.”