The Freeradicals Projekt’s groove is irresistibly danceable, their lyrics consummately conscious. Convivial synergy embodied, their sound is a neoteric fusion of funk, hip-hop, jazz, soul and world music. And perhaps most uniquely—from the band’s name, to their formation, to their continuing creative process—they exercise a modus operandi of progressive inversion, flipping every coin to its most positive face.
Take their moniker. Sure, “free radicals” sounds cool, but in biology (while essential for numerous biological functions like eradicating bacteria on an intracellular level), free radicals are commonly understood to be disease-causing agents, and theory suggests they are at the crux of the aging process.
Guitarist Rama Covarrubias (the band’s leader, oft lovingly referred to as “Jefe”) came up with the name years before the band formed. “If the body is a system and free radicals work against that system, The Freeradicals Projekt works against the system,” he explains. (You know, Babylon, The Man, the Matrix, the Machine, Crazy Baldheads and whatnot.)
And if you find the “k” in Projekt jarring, you’re getting the right sensation. Intrigued by the “masters of propaganda” of mid-20th century Germany and Russia, Covarrubias studied their work, noting their usage of the letter “k” versus “c.”
“It really makes you notice the word,” he says. “So what if we use what they’ve done, but for good? It’s not about control, it’s about liberation.” Leave it to a funky, multi-ethnic band like The Freeradicals Projekt to take happy inspiration from the Nazis.
Even the band’s genesis involves efficacious reversal. Two years ago—frustrated by the difficulty of finding the right chemistry with fellow musicians—Covarrubias decided to take a break from the band scene and go it alone. Writing music independently he realized he “could only do so much myself, and playing out with others is the difference between—excuse me—sex and jerking off.” Realizing he had to “build the band backwards,” he vowed to let serendipity be his guide and only work with people who had a symbiotic vibe.
Enter MC Francisco “Frankie” Perez, a talented freestyle rapper who saw Covarrubias at a gig and approached him about collaborating. Soon after, Covarrubias was captivated by the strong sax sounds of Ami Shorr and (after some prodding and fortuitous happenstance) along with Perez, they began jamming as a three piece. The addition of percussionist Michael Lawton was a natural progression “because they’re BFFs” laughs vocalist Shea Derrick, who joined in mid-December after connecting with the group via the Source festival. In fact, the band’s large studio at the Haiku Town Center had, for several years prior, been a free-form jam space for Covarrubias and Lawton. The ear candy alchemy is rounded out with DJ Del Sol, who also bookends the band’s sets with his beats.
The group’s mutual musical magic was evident from the onset, and their first gig with the complete lineup (just two days after Derrick joined) was in front of a packed house at Charley’s, opening for Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Since—among numerous, beautifully-received shows—last month, the band did a live radio broadcast on Mana‘o—a sweaty, soulful session I was privileged to sit in on.
The band says its sound is inspired by Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Lee Perry, Groove Armada and John Coltrane, among others, and the “passionate vocals [of] Ella Fitzgerald.” I say you can add to that spicy concoction the traditional-meets-urban “jipjop flamenkill” of Barcelona’s Ojos de Brujo, amped-up elements of the ever-introspective Zero 7 and the melodic moments of Gorillaz. And, it should be noted, their performance chops are aggrandized by the gregarious band members’ star-quality looks and stage presence.
Complex and impossibly cohesive for only being at the threshold of their formation, The Freeradicals Projekt is a funky force music lovers will do well to pay attention to. Songs like “Pipe Smoke” and “Movement” are resounding, roiling and anthemic, replete with lyrics that the band hopes “challenge you to think.” And true to their MO, they make mood-changing music that will turn around even the downtrodden, uplifting both body and spirit.