As the video camera's red light blinks in the dim control room of Mr. Small's North Side recording studio, emcee Masai Turner holds forth in assertive soundbites on the future of the hip-hop band he fronts, Formula412. He's also playing me samples of their new recordings, including "Out on Front Street," with its dramatic cello intro and dark groove. It's June, 2006.
Fast-forward more than two years, and the much-anticipated album The Difference is finally being released. The band's gritty black-and-white music video for "Front Street" has logged more than 33,000 views this month on YouTube, and shows off the interplay between Turner and guitarist Byron Nash, drummer Young D, Akil Esoon on keys, Bigg Cliff on bass and Supa C on the turntables.
Back in early 2006, the local supergroup burst onto the scene with a couple of high-profile shows and immediately went into the studio -- "prematurely," Turner now says. "When you have hype and people interested in hearing you play, you think that that means you must have an album right now." As that hype turned into more live opportunities -- including lucrative college gigs and a headlining slot at this year's Three Rivers Arts Festival -- the album sat on the back burner.
"We kinda looked up after the smoke cleared and said, 'Wow, we still don't have a record,'" says Turner, "and our supporters started to say 'Wow, you still don't have a record.'" After playing a sold-out Shadow Lounge show in May, the band hit the studio for two weeks, and finished up the album over the summer.
The time away allowed Formula412 to hone their material live and grow in ways they didn't foresee. "It takes some time for a band to grow, not just musically," says guitarist Nash. "Everybody had to have room just to breathe, to be creatively intact and give their best to the whole project."
"I was completely unaware of those things -- I've never been in a band," says Turner, whose previous group Strict Flow usually performed with pre-recorded tracks. "Seeing people look at each other and making cues of what their about to do musically, just feeling the person's energy or rhythm, that was something I didn't anticipate."
The experience helped Turner open up to new musical possibilities -- and lyrical ones as well, with more personal material than he's known for. "My Diary," a slower, autobiographical track with guest vocals by Sonji, appears twice on the album, the second time as an acoustic hidden track. It details a period when Turner's world turned upside-down: When he was just 16 years old, his father, a professor at Pitt and single parent, suddenly passed away. With a strained relationship with his mother, "who had her own challenges," young Masai was left largely on his own.
The song starts with the line, "they said I didn't have a chance," Turner notes, "that's something a guidance counselor actually said while I was waiting in a room while they were figuring out how to tell me that my father died while I was in English class." He took it as a challenge. "That statement just really focused me immediately," he says -- and it probably still does. "I play that audio a lot," he says wryly.
"I've never been a very literal artist -- I like people to learn about me through my energy and my spirit and how I interact with you," says Turner. But eventually, "I just felt like maybe if people understood what came before, they might understand how I look at things now."
But The Difference isn't all shadows and travails: There's also the dancehall-influenced "That Haught Shyt," featuring guest vocals from Ras Maisha, the jacked-up funk of "Go Back," and "Higher," featuring Davu and Gene Stovall. While there's considerable variety, it's a lean collection of songs -- no skits, no interludes, no filler. "We kinda recreated a show for the album," says Turner.
While Turner says Formula412 has some interest from labels, they've chosen a more independent, grassroots path. "It just seemed like [the labels] have something in mind, especially for people who look like us -- and it typically isn't playing live instruments and being unified. Right now we just don't have the level of misogyny or violence that would support that kind of deal."
Staying independent is the best way for Formula412 to "say something fresh and say something original, and do it in a unique way, and be authentic," says Turner. "When the dust settles, I think those things will still be interesting to listen to."
Formula412 CD Release with DJs Nate Da Phat Barber and Selecta. 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 24. Altar Bar, 1620 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10 (presale tickets include free CD). 21 and over. 412-263-2877