Hippie-hoppers

More Than Lights has local rap veterans attracting jam-band fans.

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More Than Lights

Photo: Kyndell Harkness,

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Zach Combs just shook his head in mild disgust when I brought it up.

"The day I got the fliers back for our shows is the first time I saw his dates," said the rapper also known as Big Zach, who literally wrote the book on Twin Cities hip-hop (more on that later).

Combs was referring to the fact that his band, More Than Lights, scheduled its two release parties Friday and Saturday, the same nights Brother Ali takes over First Avenue on his "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color" tour -- stiff competition for any local hip-hop act.

Fortunately, More Than Lights is more than just a rap group. Originally pigeonholed as the live-band offshoot of Combs' old DJ-based hip-hop trio Kanser -- in which he and fellow rapper Harry "Unicus" Philibert inundated the scene in the early '00s -- the seven-member act has carved out a new unique identity, one that has earned them as many jam-band fans as rap fans.

That all comes to a head with their second album, "Sights & Sounds."

"Zach and Harry have really pushed themselves to make this into something different," said MTL singer Natalie Fine. One noticeable difference is how much Fine has been pushed out front and center. Her sultry vocals get as much mic time as the dueling rappers, adding a soulful, Erykah Badu-like energy. The rest of the band also plays more of a forceful role, slapping out stop-on-a-dime funk-rock and jazzy hip-hop jams.

How fitting that this weekend's shows at the Cabooze will also feature groups from both sides of MTL's personality. The short-lived but fondly remembered coed hip-hop crew Traditional Methods (which also featured Combs) will reunite Friday. On Saturday, poppy jammers Shoeless Revolution will return from hiatus after singer Reed Grimm's run on "American Idol" last spring.

Most of the non-rapper members of More Than Lights were classmates at Perpich Center for Arts. They had already started playing together when drummer Corey Hess and guitarist Matiu Unga approached Combs -- 10 years their senior -- about backing up Kanser.

"In a way, we joined their band, and they were just kids at the time," Combs, 35, remembered. "It just felt like a spiritual connection." That hippie-ish underpinning proved pivotal as More Than Lights rolled into one of its first gigs, 2007's Hip-Hop & Harmony Festival, where they played to a crowd of mostly tie-dyed rock fans. "A light sort of went off," Combs says now.

There's flowery, feel-good vibes all over "Sights & Sounds," starting with the organ-pumped opening track "Space Tracks." But there is also still plenty of hip-hop flavor. Philibert delivers a rap epic about a troubled relationship in "Power Now." Combs, meanwhile, shows his wry, snake-tongued side in "More & More."

Combs released a warmly received if not hot-selling book last year, "Headspins, Headshots & History: Growing Up on Twin Cities Hip-Hop." He's working on a follow-up, which he described as a continuation of the first book but also a "sci-fi superhero" story.

"It'll make sense when you read it," he promised.

Sounds unlikely, but so did the thought of a rapper-fronted jam band a few years ago.

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