The live-band offshoot of Kanser has carved out its own identity, and a niche that bridges hip-hop and jam bands.
More Than Lights hung out in the back yard of drummer Corey Hess’ house in Brooklyn Center. The seven-member band comprises, standing from left: Zach Combs, Harry Philibert, Ruben Rodriguez, Josh Holmgren, Matt Unga, Hess and (seated) Natalie Fine.
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 group has carved out a unique identity the past couple years, 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, and not just a repeat of what they were already doing," 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 acts 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 high school pals from the 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, offering this for an explanation: "It just felt like a spiritual connection, like we were chosen for each other."
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 a festival's worth of flowery, children-of-the-sun good vibes all over "Sights & Sounds," starting with the organ-pumped opening track "Space Tracks" (sample lyric: "Consciously, I let my energy increase / And when I'm rhyming I release") to the meditative, slower-steaming, nature-worshiping title track.
But there is also still plenty of hip-hop flavor. Philibert delivers a powerful rap epic about a troubled relationship in "Power Now." Combs, meanwhile, shows his wry, snake-tongued side in "More & More" -- the skills that earned him a deserved spot on his own list of Minnesota's 25 best rappers.
Combs' tally was featured in his warmly received if not hot-selling book of last year, "Headspins, Headshots & History: Growing Up on Twin Cities Hip-Hop." He said of his author experience, "I still get e-mails almost every day about the book, which is humbling." 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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