Straight outta Luleå, Movits! take on America.
Riding a wave of underground popularity following their appearance last summer on ”The Colbert Report,” swingin’ Swedish hip-hop group Movits! returned to American soil this month for a 15-show tour. Their goal: First we take Manhattan – then, every place else.
The swingin’ Swedish hip-hop trio are in Minneapolis, Minn. On January 29, at the First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry - www.first-avenue.com then later in January, early February in Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland. Look for the show dates nearest you through the link at the end of review.
by Lisa Carr
The back story is just too fun not to repeat. The Luleå-based trio, now known worldwide for their irresistible amalgam of acoustic hip-hop, jazz and Benny Goodman-style swing, were in Uppsala last May when they first heard they were being hyped on some U.S. blogs.
Their debut album, ”Äppleknyckarjazz,” (”Apple-Swiper Jazz”), released in November 2008, spawned two engaging music videos (directed by Kalix-born Axel Söderlund). A Colbert staffer spotted one on social bookmarking site Reddit.com, shared it with his famous boss, and an invitation to perform on the show soon hit the group’s inbox.
Lead vocalist Johan ”Jivin’” Rensfeldt, 27, his multi-instrumentalist brother ”Mördar”-Anders Rensfeldt, 23, and jazz saxophonist Jocke ”One-Take” Nilsson, 25, thought it was all someone’s idea of a joke.
”We figured one of our friends up in Luleå put it together somehow,” Johan said, relaxing before the night’s show at the Mohawk bar in Austin, Texas. The guys figured it’d make a good story to share at their next gig – and it truly did. “We couldn’t believe the email was real, but it was.”
In July, Movits! made its U.S. debut with a charming interview with Colbert and take-no-prisoners rendition of ”Fel Del av Gården.” The next day, Äppleknyckarjazz shot up the Amazon.com charts and was released on iTunes in Sweden and the U.S. Thanks to "the Colbert bump," it actually topped hip-hop icons – some of the band’s idols - like Eminem in downloads for a while.
“We still look at a screenshot of that sometimes and can’t believe it,” said Anders.
Fueled by Colbert’s young, hip viewership, Movits! went from being complete unknowns (despite 7 years of making music together) to being recognized on the streets of New York overnight. The phone started ringing. And the opportunities started coming.
“I think we really underestimated the impact the show would have,” Jocke added. “Our hope was to get a lite more attention in Sweden… the next morning, we have 30,000 new views on YouTube and 400 unread emails.”
A bit of background: The band’s name doesn’t come from the fact that its music makes you want to get your ass out on the dance floor and “move it”, as two tipsy coeds speculated in the graffiti-spattered ladies room of the Mohawk (although that’s undeniably true).
In fact, its roots are almost three centuries old and couldn’t be more Swedish. It’s a musician’s homage to Fader Movitz, a key character in Swedish composer Carl Michael Bellman’s “Fredmans Epistlar” song cycle. (In another nod to Bellman, Äppleknyckarjazz even features a tune called ”Epistle No. 1.”) The band cite renowned Bellman troubadour Cornelis Vreeswijk and his bluesy renderings of Bellman’s classic pub songs as a major inspiration.
Vreeswijk’s influence coexists alongside “King of Swing” Benny Goodman—his “Sing Sing Sing” provided a creative epiphany, and the album opens to Gene Krupa-esque beats – scat jazz singer (and proto-rapper, if you think about it) Cab Calloway, gypsy guitar virtuouso Django Reinhardt, and the driving rhythms of Buena Vista Social Club.
“In some strange way, the swing, jazz and hip-hop combined to create something no one else had done before,” Johan said. “People are drawn to something new and fresh.”
On top and out in front are Johan’s syncopated rap vocals – cleverly constructed social commentary delivered entirely in Swedish. “Fel Del av Gården,” the thumping number the band performed on The Colbert Report, talks about an outsider born with the deck stacked against him. Others, like “A-Kasse Blues” and “Swing för Hyresgästföreningen,” perfectly channel the big-band era by evoking a working-class, pre-folkhem Sweden that would be all but impossible to explain to a non-Swedish audience.
But that doesn’t seem to have presented much of an obstacle, as the band’s sold-out shows across the country have demonstrated.
“Sometimes it’s weird that 95% of the people out there don’t know that I’m saying,” Johan says. “But we like listening to French pop and don’t understand a word. Sometimes the ‘flow’ is just great, and you get to enjoy the sound without getting caught up in the lyrics.”
American fans who discovered the Swedish trio via Colbert aren’t surprised to see a three-man line-up on tour. But the group’s full-strength sound on Äppleknyckarjazz is the product of a studio-layered big band orchestra – brass, strings, accordion, keyboards, harmonica. Of course, it’s too expensive to tour the states with a big band, to the Movits! sound is rolled up and reproduced onstage via DJ soundboard by Anders, who ably sets up the evening’s beats.
But Anders is more than the “maestro,” as he gets to demonstrate on a few numbers. He pulled out his guitar on the gently swinging “Stick iväg Jack Del 2” – a sequel to Ray Charles’s classic “Hit the Road, Jack” – to complement Jocke’s slick, jazzy accompaniment.
Joining Movits! on the tour is fellow Luleå hip-hopper Zacke, whose album ”Visst är det vackert” is set for release in February. He slipped right into the group’s energetic set (the artists guest-appear on each other’s songs) and the sweaty, dance-crazed crowds welcomed him as part of the scene.
What’s next? Europe, of course. The Germans and Hungarians, no strangers to YouTube, want their Movits! fix next, and there’s talk of a return trip to the States in March for the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival in Austin.
The Movits! First We Take Manhattan tour continues through February 1, ending in Cleveland. Check out www.firstwetakemanhattan.se for more info. And see the Colbert Report interview, at http://tinyurl.com/nnq9d7