Currently comprised of Gilbert Elorreaga, Mark Gonzales, Greg Gonzalez, Josh Levy, Sweet Lou, Beto Martinez, Adrian Quesada, John Speice and Alex Marrero, the Austin, TX-based act Brownout was formed ten years as a side project featuring members of the Grammy Award-winning Latin funk act Grupo Fantasma, but interestingly enough, the project has evolved into its own as a unique effort, separate from the members’ primary gigs. Over the past few years, the act has garnered critical praise — they won their third Austin Music Award last year, while composing and arranging work that’s unflinchingly progressive while evoking the influences of WAR, Cymande and Funkadelic. Unsurprisingly, the members of Brownout have been a highly-sought after backing band, who have collaborated with GZA, Prince, Daniel Johnston and Bernie Worrell, and adding to a growing profile, they’ve made appearances across the major festival circuit, including Bonnaroo, High Sierra Music Festival, Pickathon, Bear Creek Musical Festival, Utopia Festival, Pachanga Fest, and others.
Throughout the course of this site’s history, I’ve written quite a bit about the Austin-based act, and as you may know, the band has released five full-length albums: 2008’s Homenaje, 2009’s Aguilas and Cobras, 2012’s Oozy, 2015’s Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath and 2016’s Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath, Vol. II — with their last two albums Latin funk interpretations and re-imaginings of the legendary work of Black Sabbath. Of course, during their run together, Brownout has released a handful of EPs, including 2017’s critically applauded Over the Covers, their first batch of original material in some time.
As a child of the 80s, hip-hop was a nothing short of a revelation to me and countless others. Every day after school, I practically ran home to catch Yo! MTV Raps with Ed Lover and Dr. Dre and BET’s Rap City and during the weekends I’d catch Yo! MTV Raps with the legendary Fab 5 Freddy — all to catch Run DMC, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Biz Markie, Das EFX, A Tribe Called Quest, X Clan and Public Enemy among an incredibly lengthy list. (Admittedly, I didn’t watch Rap City as much. Even as a kid, I hated their host and I found their overall production values to be incredible cheap. Plus, I really loathed how they almost always managed to either cut to a commercial or the end credits during the middle of a fucking song — and it was always during your favorite jam. Always.) 28 years ago, Public Enemy released their seminal album Fear of a Black Planet, and unsurprisingly, the album wound up profoundly influencing the future founding members of Grupo Fantasma/Brownout. The band’s Greg Gonzalez (bass) remembers how a kid back in junior high school hipped him to the fact that Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” was built on James Brown samples. As a teenager, Beto Martinez (guitar) speaks fondly of alternating between hip-hop and metal tapes on his walkman (much like me). And Adrian Quesada remembers falling in love with Public Enemy and their sound at an early age. “When I got into hip-hop, I was looking for this aggressive outlet . . .,” Quesada says in press notes, “and I didn’t even understand what they were pissed off about, because I was twelve and lived in Laredo . . . but I loved it, and I felt angry along with them.”
So as true children of the 80s and 90s, the members of Brownout, with the influence and encouragement of Fat Beats‘ Records Joseph Abajian have tackled Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet — with their own unique take on the legendary material and sound. And although they were eager to get back to work on new, original material, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay homage to one of their favorite acts. As Abajian says in press notes “I thought their sound would work covering Public Enemy songs.” He adds “it was good to know they were P.E. fans . . We came up with a track listing and they went to work.”
Understandably, translating sample-based music to a live band turned out to be more challenging than everyone anticipated. Quesada tried to get into the heads of the legendary production team the Bomb Squad in order to reinterpret Public Enemy’s work. “Imagine the Bomb Squad going back in time and getting the J.B.’s in the studio and setting up a couple analog synths and then playing those songs.” And while some songs closely hew to the original, other songs use the breakbeats as a jumping-off point for Mark “Speedy” Gonzales’ horn arrangements, synth work by Peter Stopchinski and DJ Trackstar‘s turntablism. “Our approach is never in the tribute sense,” Adrian Quesada explains. “We’ve always taken it and made it our own, whether it’s the Brown Sabbath thing or this Public Enemy thing.”
Fear of a Brown Planet comes on the heels of several Brown Sabbath tours, and while being an incredibly tight and funky band, the members of the band are incredibly psyched to bring revolutionary music to the people, especially in light of both the current social climate and that they’re not particularly known for having an overt political agenda. “If there’s any way that we can use the already political and protest nature [of P.E.’s music], we would like to try,” Beto says. “The album’s title, Fear of Brown Planet is definitely a relevant idea today and we’re not afraid to put it out there, because we want to speak out.”
Fear of a Brown Planet‘s first single is Brownout’s take on “Fight the Power,” and while retaining the breakbeats that you’ll remember fondly, their instrumental take is a funky JB’s meets Booker T-like jam, centered around an incredible horn line, bursts of analog synth and sinuous guitar line. As a result, Brownout’s take is warmly familiar but without being a carbon copy; in fact, they manage to breathe a much different life into the song without erasing its revolutionary sound or its righteous fury. Check out how it compares to the original below.