Seventeenth Floor: Rapidly Rising Funk and Hip-hop

Seventeenth Floor:  Rapidly Rising Funk and Hip-hop
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Copper Dragon, The
Pinch Penny Pub

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Funky Butt Brass Band: A Funky Good Time

Who: Seventeenth Floor
What: funk, hip-hop
When: 2012-09-08
For more than twenty years, the Chicago-based Seventeenth Floor has been has merged hip-hop, funk, r
Brian Wilson

For more than twenty years, the Chicago-based Seventeenth Floor has been has merged hip-hop, funk, rhythm and blues, and rock. Formed in 1989 by brothers Aaron and Greg Thompson, the group quickly made a name for themselves, first as the original backing group for TLC beginning in 1992, and as Usher’s first backing group from 1996 to 1998. The Seventeenth Floor has toured all over the globe, and has performed with industry giants Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Buster Rhymes, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Still productive after all of these years, the Seventeenth Floor has a new single called “She Won’t Leave Me Alone” and is are currently at work on a new full-length album they hope to release by Christmas.

In addition, alarmed by their hometown’s skyrocketing murder rate, the band is coming off a major benefit for Ceasefire Chicago on September 3.

The Seventeenth Floor will return to Southern Illinois when they play Saturday, September 8 at the Pinch Penny Beer Pub, with a rain location inside the Copper Dragon Brewing Company.

Nightlife recently spoke with founding member Aaron Thompson about the group’s history, how they have survived changes in personnel and shifts in technology, and what they have planned for the future.

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Can you just tell me a little about how the group formed?

Basically, I can say that just from being influenced by music, by Prince and Michael Jackson and all the old-school artists, we decided to get together and make a band and try to do the live thing. You know, just bring the energy of what we saw back in the day. So we started playing colleges, especially up towards Chicago. There were a lot of frats, so you get seen by one frat guy, a frat brother from another frat guy, and a frat brother from another frat guy, and it just blends. We were able to [play] from Chicago to Florida to Alabama to Los Angeles to all through association through frats knowing each other at that time.

Who were your major influences at the time the group started?

Definitely the biggest influence for us was Prince. Definitely, without a doubt. When Purple Rain out, we were all really young. The energy of being able to play rock and funk and soul, and the women and the people screaming, it’s always been about that type of energy and just trying to transfer that feel.

How have you kept your live performances fresh over the years?

What we usually try to do, even if we don’t like the song, we find a way for us to get into the song and find a way to like the song. I mean, there’s stuff we play that we’re like, ‘Wow, we can’t understand why people like it.’ But then you turn around and you do it live and you put your own feel to it, and then you appreciate it. You’re feeling what the people are feeling. Music now, we are changing with the times, but at the same time you don’t want to get away from the core music, which is actually playing the instruments, actually playing the bass guitar, and actually playing keyboards, rather than one person going in there and fixing all the stuff or pasting stuff and all that. I mean, it’s a completely different feel.

You guys have been doing it long enough that you’ve seen the transition from recording on tape to doing everything digitally. What’s that experience been like?

You know what? Recording the last album, because we perform live, it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right when you go in and say, “Okay, I play this part and okay, now we’re just gonna put it all over the song.” It’s a different feel to it when you’re actually playing rather than just taking something and cutting it, taking something and cutting it, taking something and cutting it. Technology is great because you can sit in the studio and you don’t have to be together and you can still record something together. But at the same time, you’ve gotta have where the music feels like music. You know, it doesn’t feel like it’s a robot. When you play and you got the crowd going, and the crowd’s feeding off your energy, it’s an energy that you can’t explain.... There’s nothing like live performance, something that’s soulful to me, rather than just plastic.

As a founding member of the group, what’s it been like to have seen all of those members come and go over the years?

Well, at times it can be very frustrating because you go through and you’ve got to get a lead singer or somebody... [but it can also be] kind of cool because you see people that come in that are raw and then you see them get really good. It makes it fresh and keeps it not boring.... Ninety-five percent of the guys that leave I’m still cool with. I mean, either they want to have kids or they just get tired of the road. It’s always something. But it’s fun for me. It makes it interesting.

What’s next for the group?

Well, I think the next thing is having that single that really takes off.... I’ve always wanted to go to another level, but for some reason, somehow, it just hasn’t been. You know, you get close. But I haven’t given up, because [we] play still 150 shows a year. We’re constantly on the road and we’re constantly playing. We have a great, huge fan base, from down south to up north and everything.... [We just need] that one song. We have our fan base so people know us, but to be really, really huge, it wouldn’t take much. It would just take that one song to get out.

But it must be so hard to figure out what that song is.

Well, I think in the past you try to stay with the times. What’s funny is the internet has made it to where [it’s easier to be yourself rather than just trying to shift with the times]. They think if you be yourself you’re more likely to break through because before Little John, there wasn’t nobody doing what Little John did. Then all of a sudden, everybody’s trying to do what Little John did.... I know our fan base, that they’re going to dig the stuff we’re doing. It’s gonna to be a combination of [rhythm and blues] and old-school and rock and hip-hop, but it’s gonna be revised for 2013. It’s definitely something that people will be able to feel.

who: Seventeenth Floor

what: funk, hip-hop

where: Pinch Penny Pub Beer Garden / Copper Dragon Brewing Company

when: Saturday, September 8