All three being longtime DJs and producers, the members of East Liberty Quarters are no strangers to the stage. But when the group made its live debut last October, opening for Dam-Funk at Shadow Lounge, there were some butterflies.
"None of us came up playing in bands," explains Pete Mudge, a.k.a. Nice Rec (who, like the others, plays various analog synths and sequencers). "This is my first foray into actually being in front of people, playing an instrument. I was definitely nervous as hell."
A veteran of DJ gigs throughout the East End over the past decade, Nice Rec is still the baby of the group, which is rounded out by Blane Britt (a.k.a. Grand Ear, or Geeman for short) and Orlando Marshall (who's known around town as Buscrates 16-Bit Ensemble, but whom the others generally just call B.J.). Grand Ear and Buscrates met in the mid-'90s; both encountered Nice Rec when he was going to Pitt in the early '00s.
All three are known primarily for their hip-hop work, either as DJs, producers or both. Grand Ear produced for Lone Catalysts, and has more recently worked with Varsity Squad; Buscrates has produced for Varsity Squad as well, along with Mac Miller. But it was late 2008 when the two began trading files in earnest and collaborating on something new — a music project that was by and for them, without having to rely on an MC. Nice Rec joined up later in 2009.
"You get to that point [where] you kind of want to do something on your own, where you don't have to rely on an MC or a singer, to put stuff out," says Nice Rec. "You can trade hip-hop beats for five years and not have anything to show for it."
"This can stand alone," adds Grand Ear. "It doesn't necessarily need to have a vocalist."
And to this point, none of ELQ's recorded output does: The band has released a six-song EP on 12-inch vinyl and a 7-inch single, both through Curt Jackson's fledgling Rotating Souls label, based in Atlanta. (See sidebar.) Both are inspired heavily by the early-'80s electro-funk and boogie that all three have bonded over. One track made it onto a compilation simply called The Boogie, released last year by Tokyo Dawn, a German label.
On the records, fat synths play lines that are repetitive but also a step beyond conventional pop progressions in terms of complexity. They're dance-floor jams, but are also subdued.
Aside from the songs themselves, the similarities to that music stem from the equipment ELQ chooses to use: All three are certified gear nuts, with Grand Ear taking the lead.
"Gee's probably got one of everything either of us has," Nice Rec says.
For a moment, Grand Ear looks unsure — then he concedes: "Yeah, that's probably about right."
They go through a catalog of synths and sequencers one or more of them has: an Ensoniq ASR-10, a Minimoog, a Korg MS2000 ... "We each have a different Fender Rhodes," Nice Rec adds with a laugh.
Last fall, after the successful release of the EP, ELQ got the call from the organizers of the VIA Festival to open for Dam-Funk, the contemporary boogie-funk hero from Los Angeles. As well as being unfamiliar with playing live for an audience, the trio wasn't necessarily sure how to make everything happen in a less-controlled environment.
"We had to work on figuring out how to make a live show," Grand Ear says. "This was basically studio stuff, using effects to get that vintage sound."
"It's been cool now that we're actually working on the show," says Nice Rec. "Rather than just sending tracks back and forth, sitting down together and working on a track Geeman started, or a track B.J. started, and it can go in different directions."
"It's formed a new chemistry among us," Grand Ear adds. "Now we're getting used to each other's playing style and incorporating it into what we're writing."
ELQ's work skirts the line between improvisation and the song as solid form. The tracks on the EP, for example, are in the three-to-four-minute range. But they don't conform to a pop structure, and live, the three don't constrain themselves to that template.
"There's structure — we know what the songs are — but we're not sticking to it, exactly," says Nice Rec. "The main parts of a song will fall in line, but it's never the same."
"Before, I think we wanted to play it safe," says Grand Ear. "Now it's like: With the freedom of improvisation, we're more comfortable playing whatever."
ELQ got its name from, of all things, trash-can graffiti. "A long time ago, I was down in East Liberty," explains Grand Ear, who grew up in the neighborhood. "And there was an old trash can that said 'East Liberty Quarters,' and I was like, 'That'd be a cool-ass name for a group!' I think it makes total sense being that we're all from the East Side." Buscrates grew up in Wilkinsburg and Swissvale; Nice Rec is from the South Hills but has lived in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville for the better part of a decade.
Music critics relish the chance to coin a new term to describe a band's music, but Grand Ear has it covered with regard to ELQ.
"What I call it is, like, 'future funk,'" he says.
"It's inspired by a lot of those old early-'80s records," says Buscrates. "But we also take a step further."