By Jim Schutze
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By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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The unofficial turning point for local hip-hop came with the late 2009 release of Sore Losers' Free Loaders, a free mixtape that gave Dallas artists like The Mohicans, A.Dd+, Tunk and -topic room to explore new territory.
At the time, the freeloaders were emcee Vince Brown and producer Brandon Blue, a couple of hyper-ambitious hip-hop kids who slaved over the release while suffering parental pressure to get a job, hence the mixtape's name. Free Loaders was something that just had to happen, the ultimate overflow of creativity neither of them could hold in, but Brown and Blue seemed hindered by the emcee/producer dynamic from the start.
"Even when we were a hip-hop duo, we always wanted to be a band," Brown says of the early Sore Losers days. "We just weren't actual musicians at the time."
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That wish came true in the summer of 2010, when Sore Losers played a packed house at The Lounge on Elm. They surprised the crowd by playing their set backed by relatively new band HelloeARTh, who'd essentially learned the whole album. This combination proved to be magic, fulfilling their desire to be a band and getting them attention from ESPN execs who promptly hooked them up with the chance to play VIP events during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the 2011 ESPY Awards. It only made sense for the band — a five-piece outfit consisting of K Cooks on guitar, Matt Curtis on bass, Sir Tim on keys and percussionists King Robinson Jr. and Jordan Hughes — to become a permanent fixture. Sore Losers now had seven members.
But for Blue, who has been creating some of the most innovative beats in hip-hop over the past couple years, producing tracks for Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar, the whole setup was a bit of a disconnect. By June 2011, he had decided to go solo, a move that was misunderstood by the public. Rumors spread quickly, and no one seemed quite sure the five musicians behind Brown were actually Sore Losers reincarnated.
"I'm a producer, that's my career path," Blue says. "It didn't work out because they wanted to do the live band thing and I wanted to do my own thing and create a new sound."
It seems to have worked out for him, as he's now head of local outfit Brain Gang. His recent Numb EP has gotten plenty of buzz on the underground circuit, which earned him a spot opening Kendrick Lamar's Texas dates last month. "It hurt, but now looking at what he's accomplished and how he's recreated his sound, I'm glad it happened," Brown says of the split. There are even some Brown/Blue collaborations in the works.
The lineup provided Brown with a new set of challenges and opportunities. For one, he's taken to learning guitar, a huge step toward legitimizing Sore Losers as something beyond hip-hop. It's also changed his approach to writing songs, as he now collaborates with five other people before he puts pen to paper. The result on new EP We Are Sore Losers, the first collection of original music from the band's current incarnation, is a more serious, conscious tone, showing maturity in handling his newfound visibility. The upside is the band now naturally appeals to a wider swath, something any group of musicians would embrace.
It's almost not fair to keep calling it hip-hop, since the new sound is so driven by HelloeARTh's influences, which range from Foo Fighters and N.E.R.D. to classic funk and jazz. At times the only connection comes from Brown's lyrical involvement, as Sore Losers exist between hip-hop and live band, which will no doubt draw comparisons to The Roots.
Any questions as to whether they made the right decision should be directed toward the national exposure Sore Losers have gotten. They've seen Grammy.com run an exclusive debut of the song and video for "Euthanasia," the first single from the EP, and last month the band hit Sundance in Park City, Utah, as guests of AT&T U-verse, their second trip to the festival. They played shows at the ESPN Lounge during the NFL Conference Championships and were interviewed by Vibe magazine.
On the local front, January saw the band open up for hip-hop legends Wu-Tang Clan at House of Blues and their Saturday EP release includes another unbelievable co-sign, as French producer and harmonica maestro Frédéric Yonnet is set to be the band's special guest. Yonnet has played with both Prince and Stevie Wonder, and his local tie is Erykah Badu, with whom he's shared the stage on a number of occasions.
Given the success of the Free Loaders mixtape, it proved a receptacle too small to house the creative energies of Vince Brown and Brandon Blue. So now that they've reinvented themselves as a band, Sore Losers have the room to explore some new territory of their own.