Mike Rimmer was in the US when he met up with GROUP 1 CREW, who are now making big waves with their exciting R&B gospel sound.
The release of the Group 1 Crew album has been much anticipated, at least it's been much anticipated in the Rimmer household since I witnessed them perform at a showcase in Nashville in April 2006. Compared to other acts who were recording their debut albums at the time, the trio came across as a well developed performers with songs that melded together soul, hip-hop and Latino influences. I immediately wanted to hear an album! Little did I know how long I would have to wait! As is the habit with these things, a few songs have slipped out on pre-releases to whet my appetite but nothing could prepare me for the superb display of artistry on their self-titled debut. With an infectious sound that at least one critic has compared to Black Eyed Peas, Group 1 Crew seem set to become a major Christian music act.
In April 2006, having seen them play I wanted to chat to the trio and explore the fabulous mix of ethnic origins and influences. Pablo Villatoro was raised in the USA but his family hail from Guatemala. Blanca Reyes is Puerto Rican whilst Manwell Reyes is also Puerto Rican but was raised in Germany where his father serves in the military. These days they all call Orlando, Florida home and their ethnically mixed music fits into the local culturally diverse music scene just fine. Pablo claims the role of tying together the music that the band are producing though the reality is that a lot of things are distributed within the band by MP3 and worked on by individuals. Pablo's influences are as diverse as the band's make up as he cites Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. "I listen to a lot of the roots, Common, Mos Def, stuff like that. Floetry even. But I also like a lot of Beethoven, Bach. Flamenco - Gipsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, stuff like that." So that explains the musical diversity on the album then.
The Saturday lunchtime showcase finds a bunch of record company suits and various promoters and distributors crammed round tables in the Global Café in downtown Nashville. This is a hard crowd to please. We've been around the block and we're inundated with music. There are plenty of debut bands introducing themselves and plenty of good music but I'm still waiting for something to knock me off my seat, and here it comes. Pablo is in charge of the music as the trio perform to backing tracks. He has them stored on his very small portable minidisc player which he places on the floor next to the bass of his mic stand right next to his foldback speaker. At the end of each track, he stops to switch off the track and fumbles to find the next number while his colleagues introduce the songs. There's something immediately catchy about their music, mixing great grooves with superb vocal skills from the boys and Blanca's diva vocals. The warmth of their music and the confidence of their performance arrests me. Blanca introduces the excellent "Clap Your Hands" by teaching a bunch of uncoordinated execs how to clap in a stylish fashion before we join in with the rhythm of the song. It goes down well
At least it goes down well with most people. As for me, when it comes to flamenco clapping, I just haven't got the co-ordination to cope with the complexities. Blanca laughs as I explain and confides, "It's hard for me to try to sing and clap at the same time! I'm always like, 'Guys, I can't! I don't have the rhythm to do it!'" I suggest that it should be in her blood! "Yeah," she agrees, "but when I try I guess I can't multi-task! When I try to sing and clap at the same time it just doesn't come out right." I tell her I can't believe that because she's got everything going for her. She's female so she should be able to multi-task. She's also got Latin in her blood so she should have the rhythm there. She pouts, "Hey, let's stop pickin' on me now!" She protests, "I have rhythm I promise!"
I ask the trio about writing the song as a way of illustrating how the group functions together. Manwell remembers writing "Clap Your hands" and explains, "We were in Pablo's studio when he showed me the track and we was like, alright! This track is hot! So we get in there and we start vibing on the chorus and I came up with this melody. Pablo went to get something to eat and I was like," he starts singing the song's hook, "'bah bah bah, bah bom.' Right? 'Bah bah bah bah bom.' Which is real simple. So I was like, 'Yo, let's lay it down.' And we laid it down. So me and him, we always throw melodies back and forth and then we just try to vibe on lyrics. So we went out to eat and we came back and we was like, we put the track on and it was like, 'You know, let's just leave the 'bah bah bah bah bom's' in there.' We were gonna put words to it and have her sing it but then we just liked the 'bah bah bah bah bom's' and threw some words at the end. That's how it came together. The hook's always the main part. It's the hardest part to get. The verses just come, you know what I'm saying?"
As a new group, I wanted to find out a little more about the group's background. Pablo is the first to share. "I was actually raised in church. I was pretty much born on the altar. So yeah, my dad's a pastor and prior to that he was always the right-hand man of the pastor. So yeah, pretty much all my life I've just been in church. Of course everybody has their downs and ups but yeah, I was raised in church all my life." So basically he's a pastor's kid! "Yeah pretty much!" he laughs, "A PK, yeah. You gotta watch out for those huh?" I promise him I'm going to keep an eye on him! My experience of talking to the many preachers' kids who are involved in music ministry is that often it's the teen years that are the most challenging. Pablo agrees, "Yeah I guess when I was in middle school/high school. I always went to church because my parents made me wake up on Sunday mornings to go to church. But then around high school, 18 or 19 and stuff like that, it was really when I started going after God's heart on my own. I did my things; I hung out with the wrong crowd. Did things I wasn't supposed to do. But I thank God for that seed that my parents always put in me. It came into play around 18 or 19, when I started going to church because I wanted to. Seeking God because I wanted to."
So that covers the faith part of Pablo's story but what about the music part? "Ever since I was young," he remembers, "I was always surrounded by musicians; piano players, vocalists, bass players, drummers. It was always around me. I never picked it up and I didn't ever think that's what I wanted to do. Not till later on, where I found myself listening to a lot of music and I found myself wanting to make music. Then there was just people around me that knew how to make music so they taught me how to record on a computer or an MPC or whatnot. I'm thankful for those relationships because they played a major role in me putting what I have inside of me - the music that flows in me - to put it on something that's actually tangible." Obviously with Pablo creating a lot of the group's tracks, it does take a little while to become proficient at doing that. "It takes practise," he agrees. "Just like with any other craft, you know? It just takes hours and hours and hours of just hitting it. I've always been that kid that never did homework. Never did his essays or anything like that. At home I would work on music. I was that kid. I actually went to school to learn the technical aspect of it. So I was always into studios and engineering and recording."
Just as well that Group 1 Crew took off or Pablo might be unemployable with his record of not doing his homework. Blanca is sat between the two boys in the band, the same central position she takes when on stage. She takes a deep breath and begins to tell me her story. "Unlike Pablo I wasn't born in a Christian home. I had a broken family. Divorced parents and living with my mom and my older brother. So I guess growing up was always a struggle. The divorce of my parents, I was about six or seven years old so I was really young. It didn't really affect me until, I guess older, being a teenager and seeing that my father wasn't around anymore and having to get used to new relationships in my mom's life. Just as a girl, growing up, it's always hard not being able to see my dad or speak to him because he lived in Puerto Rico and he didn't contact us."
She continues, "It was hard. It was hard but I had my older brother and my mom there. She's a really strong woman so she was always there supporting us so I'm thankful for that. I loved music when I was little and I was always in talent shows. I knew I had a talent and a voice. I was always plugged into music and my mom would always stick me in things. But it wasn't until the end of my junior year - my senior year of high school - that I got saved at Faith Assembly, a church in our hometown. It was funny because it was a play, like a musical play that they put on, but it just impacted me. I guess it was my time and God was like, 'You're my child and I need you to use these talents that I give you for me. To glorify me.' So it just hit me and ever since then he took people out of my life and let people in that I needed around me. And that's how I met these guys."
Blanca becoming a Christian had a major impact on her family. "My father actually is a Christian singer now," she explains. "He's a salsa singer. So for the last seven years he's been touring different countries and stuff like that. He was the first. And then came me. And as a repercussion of that I guess my brother got saved and my mom's been coming to our new church. It's been good in my family so there's hope for those who are struggling with hard families! Just do you and they'll eventually see that's true and that's honest and there's something different." So did she actually become a Christian the night she saw the play? "Yeah I gave my life to God the day I saw the play. They had an altar call at the end of the play and I came up. My father was there for like the first time in a while so I guess just having him with me and seeing where God had taken him really impacted me. He's so proud and I think he should be because he's one of the main reasons I think I'm where I'm at. My mom does not sing and she is like the shy mother who just sits back and let's me do me. But my father is just outspoken, outgoing. He's always dancing, always singing, always dancing around the house."
Manwell's history is simple. He didn't grow up a Christian either. He remembers, "My father was in the army, which is why I was born in Germany. Things were cool. We didn't have a lot of money in the world but my parents were always cool. As I got older I realised the complexities of our household. My father did a lot of drinking and then my mom was upset a lot of times because of the drinking. That turned me into the worst kid ever! I was kicked out of two schools doing the whole stealing, robbing thing, you know, just being a criminal basically." He thinks about it all for a second, "I think the lack of respect for authority was because of the turmoil in my house. I didn't respect anybody. I got kicked out of school because I fought my principal. I got kicked out of the other school for assaulting my teacher. It was just that I didn't care. Like nobody would sit and tell me what to do. I think the stealing and stuff was just because we had no money.! Well I had to get some clothes somehow so I just stole and did what I had to do. My friends got caught. That's how I stopped. Everybody I knew was getting locked up and from what they were telling me it wasn't too fun. So I was like, dang, I'm gonna have to stop. So I started cutting hair and that's where my money started coming from. Instead of robbing it was cutting hair."
Both Pablo and Manwell were hairdressers. Manwell explains, "That got me through high school. It got me through college. Just cutting hair. I started making so much money I didn't see the need to steal anymore. Then the changes happened. I got saved my junior year in high school. My girlfriend broke up with me so I was all sad, looking for meanings on life's stage! Someone invited me to church camp. I didn't want to go but I was like, man I'm dying to do anything to get over this feeling. They was like, 'There's gonna be mad girls there!' So I was like, 'Cool! We can do that! Let's just get over it.' Showed up at church camp and the first night God just literally showed up. Like he LITERALLY showed up. The Presence was crazy thick. And I wasn't saved. We were just all face down on the floor and all I kept remembering me screaming was, 'I'M NOT WORTHY! I'M NOT WORTHY! I'M DIRTY! I'M DIRTY!' And then I saw Jesus' feet walk right in front of me. I was blown away cuz I'm still not saved. So in my mind I'm cursing the whole time. I'm just cursing, like 'What is this?!' I couldn't put it all together. But it was real, you know what I'm sayin'? Because I'm not churched. I'm not the type of kid who's like, 'I saw an angel in my room!' Naw. Chill. Like I saw it. I felt it. It was just bare feet. Bronze feet, like it describes in the Word. All I could see was this feet and this garment, nothing else. It was just wild! It was wild that night. I got saved. Filled with the Spirit. And I was done. Like it was done. It was a wrap after that. I came back; no more sex, no more stealin', no more anything."
So why are the trio doing the music ministry? Pablo responds, "We got together because we all were in a crew of friends that made music. We all started off like a group of 13 and us three are the ones that remain, just because different people had different visions and different goals in life. I think Group 1 Crew is really a necessity to our culture and to our youth. A new style. As you can see we don't look hip-hop. We don't have the Timberlands on. We don't have the baggy jeans, the jerseys or the bling. Pretty much showing a generation that you don't have to look like that in order to rhyme or to produce or to even claim to like hip-hop, you know? And not only that but our hearts. You don't have to be hardy. If you see us we're always smiling. We're always cracking jokes. We ain't trying to put a front of a hard image. I think Group 1 is really gonna start a new wave, you know? Start a new wave in this generation. Not only to the hip-hop culture but also to just the youth in general or to people in general."
An obvious question that springs to mind when you first meet the group is why they're called Group 1 Crew? Blanca explains, "It came from a Bible study called Group 1 that we had put together. Manwell was our leader and there was another guy named Paul. They started up a Bible study in our community just for musicians and singers and rappers that had the same vision; which is getting together and meeting and just reading the Word together and praying together. To help out with everything and everyone. We performed together. There was always 13 and we were just like a crew of people. But everyone moved on and became pastors or did solo careers and we just stuck so we became Group 1 Crew's face I guess."
Manwell adds, "Group 1 was a descriptive of how we all felt. Like we all met for one purpose, which was God. We had one passion, which was music.and God. We had one vision; to make excellent music FOR God. So it was easy. The name kind of came easy because it was a group but at the same time we all had one thing in common in every aspect of our lives, whether it be spiritual or just in the physical. So the group always represented one mind, one faith, one God. And that's how we got Group 1."
So now that the group have their debut album released, it is only a matter of time before people discover the amazing music that they are making. But it's bigger than the music! What are Group 1 Crew trying to communicate with people? Manwell shares, "The heart of what we're trying to communicate is we want people to view God in a different light. We understand that around the world there's so many things that play a part as to how you view God. Especially over there in Europe. You have so much history that America doesn't have. All the way back to the Crusades, where I know people are still jaded by stories told from ancestors to ancestors on how Christianity even evolved, from tyranny almost, to how we try to present it today as a free religion, a freedom to worship God. People can't see that."
He continues, "So to us man, we feel like we're a pair of glasses to the world. We want the world to put us on and view God through the light. We feel that for people who don't know God, through our music they're gonna get a different side of who he is. Not your typical, 'You're going to hell!' type of thing or your legalism or your whatever man. We are going to appeal to people through love and through what we feel the cries of the people are. To give them a new definition of what God and what Christianity is. A new side of him that they haven't seen yet. To open their eyes. At that point we just step back. Our only goal is to get you to look at God because we feel he is so beautiful! He's so potent that all we need to do is to get you to look at him and then he does the rest. After that we can't make him look any better. All we can do is get you from looking from the floor up to the sky and see who he is. And after that, we're convinced that once you see the God that we serve it's a done deal. If you really want that true love and what he can offer, just take a glance man."