On the night of Nov. 4, while President-elect Barack Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago, Flobots were performing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.
"We ended up performing just after McCain gave his concession speech, and then we stopped when Obama gave his acceptance speech," remembers Jonny 5, the rap band's lead vocalist, on the road to New Haven, Conn. He calls the moment "full of euphoric disbelief." Outside the club "there were people everywhere in the streets, giving each other hugs, and impromptu parades."
It wasn't the first time Flobots' career path had intertwined with that of the president-elect. In September, when the Democratic Party held its convention in the group's hometown of Denver, they participated in several ancillary events, including a concert with Rage Against the Machine. "The entire event was planned to support the Iraq Veterans Against the War, who had a march immediately after the event," says Jonny 5. "So we used the stage to rally people."
Flobots' rise from regional upstarts to modern-rock radio stalwarts mirrors Rage's emergence more than 15 years ago. Just as Zack de la Rocha and company did with their fuzzy emo-punk, Jonny 5 along with rapper Brer Rabbit adds rhymes to an exotic mix of jazz horns, funky breaks, and hard-rock guitar. And the six-member crew are equally consumed with progressive politics. Each song on Fight with Tools (Universal Republic/Flobots Music, 2007), the outfit's second album, overflows with righteous anger and activist fervor.
"We want money for health care and public welfare! Free Mumia and Leonard Peltier!" Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit offer on "Same Thing." "We say, 'Yes,' to grassroots organization, 'No,' to neoliberal organization! Bring the troops back to the USA and shut down Guantanamo Bay!"
"Handlebars," of course, was Flobots' breakout moment. Much of Fight with Tools, which Flobots released independently last year, before Universal Republic signed them and reissued the album this spring, feels overwhelmed by earnest slogans. But on "Handlebars," Jonny 5 weaves a stream-of-consciousness allegory about American exceptionalism while the rest of the band build, like an orchestra, to a cacophonous conclusion.
Jonny 5 says his influences range from hip-hop collectives such as Project Blowed to organic music ensembles like Ozomatli. The unusual chart success of "Handlebars," which soared into the Billboard Top 40 last summer, helped Flobots sell more records than any of their inspirations.
"Personally, I had this obsession or insecurity about whether we were really hip-hop, and whether we were representing the hip-hop community correctly. I don't know ... I was hung up on it," Jonny 5 explains. "[Influential indie rapper] 2Mex was with us for four or five dates on the West Coast, and the minute we would mention any criticism we'd get, he'd say, 'Fuck that, man. Keep expanding. That's what hip-hop is.'<0x2009>"
Sun/23, 8 p.m., $27.50<\d>$30
982 Market, SF