St. Louis Hip-Hop Fusion Band iLLPHONICS Goes Its Own Way
In a St. Louis basement one recent weekday evening, the six members of local hip-hop fusion mainstay iLLPHONICS plugged in their gear and got to work.
Emcee Larry Morris read his lyrics from the screen of an iPhone placed on a music stand. Keyboardists Chaz Brew and Keith Moore traded licks and vocals just a few feet away from each other. Simon Chervitz offered funky basslines while guitarist Kevin Koehler alternated between rhythm parts and solos.
It’s a tight group, musically and otherwise. The newbie there was drummer Jerren Garrett, who joined last year — but his friendship with most of the group stretches back to high school.
The pandemic offered iLLPHONICS plenty of time to fine-tune its new album “Moonglow.” This rehearsal was one of the band’s final opportunities to get the new songs on their feet for their live debut. The six musicians worked out song arrangements, tightening some parts and finding other spots to stretch out.
It’s a familiar scene for them. Koehler is the only band member who didn’t go to University City High School, but he met Morris when they were both studying at Webster University.
When asked during a rehearsal break what musical flavors they each bring to the group, the men of iLLPHONICS give a long list of answers: hip-hop, gospel, soul, old-school R&B, rock, metal, funk. A listener can hear all of those styles in their work in different amounts and combinations depending on the song.
“Hopefully people have gotten to know over the years, we have a sound,” Koehler said, “and the sound is the defiance of genre.”
It’s not unusual for musicians to declare themselves creatively independent from genre conventions. But the group’s eclecticism is in evidence on new album “Moonglow.” Parts of the track “My Wave” wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1990s-era alt-rock album. “Sexy Carmel Drizzle” is sultry and seductive.
“We could have settled into any one of any different versions of our sound over the years,” Koehler said, “but we were never happy with staying the same.”
He compared 2017 album “Gone With The Trends” with “Purple Piano Society,” released the next year. The first, he said, sounds like the work of a soul band while the second leans harder on hip-hop and computer-crafted beats. In 2014, the group released a live album recorded with only acoustic instruments.
“A lot of the people I’ve encountered over the years that say they like us, you can tell they have an eclectic music taste,” Morris said. “They get it. They get it in a deep sort of way. We’ve always catered to people that just love music."
An essential ingredient to creation of the band’s sound is that each member actively participates in the creative process. For the songs on “Moonglow,” Morris wrote the lyrics inspired, in part, by conversations with other band members during the pandemic. The other four founding members contributed two compositions apiece.
They’ve been making music all of their adult lives, and the new album is a portrait of where they stand now, all in their 30s. Morris' mother died in 2018, and Garrett’s grandmother, with whom he was very close, died two years earlier. Others have friends who lost people to COVID-19.
“As we grow as men, our music’s gonna change. When we wrote this album, a lot of us were at points in our life where things happen — losing family members, relationships. I think lots of that just poured that into the album,” said Moore, who produces music under the name William Grey.
On new song “Level Up,” Morris offers encouragement to folks who find themselves struggling during these strange days.
“How can I motivate you to get through it? We want people to hear the album and say, this is something that motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which of drummer Jerren Garrett's family members died, and when.
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