It’s only when you hear them again, you realise how much you missed them.
“No-one can really do what the Fun Lovin Criminals do,” announces vocalist, lyricist, guitarist and twinkle-eyed wise-guy Huey Morgan. “We aren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses ‘cos there are no Joneses. There’s just us, who sound like us. And we’re pretty bad-ass.” And here, his unmistakeable New York baritone cracks into a deep-throat cackle: “Heheheh!”
They are, still, the world’s finest and only purveyors of cinematic hobo hip-hop rock ‘n’ roll blues-jazz soul-review vibes. The planet’s best-loved “cousins from New York” who, through the mid-late 90s, chronicled life in their native city while bending the global ear to the sonic possibilities of exuberant hip-hop gangster-rock merged with lounge music, funk, Mariachi trumpets and bassomatic Barry White. While possibly smoking a cheroot, in a sweat-dripped Puerto Rican nightclub, somewhere on the Lower East Side.
Like The Killers and Kings of Leon today, the UK loved them first, the most; whip-smart story-tellers in smarter Savile Row suits, who told vibrant, satirical, comically tall tales of living large in the neon metropolis via music, drugs, crime and existential ennui. With a penchant for a beautiful “lady”.
They’ve been missing, now, for five frustrating years – forced into musical limbo while a court case with an ex-manager was finally resolved, the manager they fired in 2003.
“The ex-manager tried to take us to the cleaners,” adds FLC’s founding songwriter Fast (multi-instrumentalist, programmer and world-class trumpet impresario). “And it cost us loads; financially, mentally, definitely creatively.”
“When I joined the Criminals this lovely ship was sinking,” adds drummer, co-songwriter and backing rapper Frank Benbini (aka The Rhythm Man, official member since 2003). “And I helped plug it back up. The twin towers had come down; it really affected them as New Yorkers. Then the label, the manager, the court case… It was a killer because people thought we’d broken up. Now, the fun is back.“
Formed in New York in 1993 by nightclub-working colleagues Huey and Fast, FLC gate-crashed the euphoric Britpop party in 1996 and brought along some unexpectedly unique swag, the generational classic album ‘Come Find Yourself’ which gave us the cackling refrain “stick ‘em up punk, it's the Fun Lovin Criminal” and the Pulp Fiction–sampling ‘Scooby Snacks’, the Valium assisted stick-up stunner with its immortal refrain, “runnin’ around, robbin’ banks, all whacked on the Scooby Snacks”. Huey, at 27, was an ex-con, charismatic New York smooth-talker with Irish/Puerto Rican roots and immaculately tended goatee. Girls, you might say, responded. The mid-to late 90s was a twirling martini cocktail of world travel, acclaim and phenomenal album sales, including three weeks as support on the U.S PopMart tour with U2 in 1997 (Huey refers to Bono as “rich Uncle Paul”), through second album ‘100% Colombian’ (1999, featuring their Barry White eulogy ‘Love Unlimited’) and the early 2001 release of third album ‘Loco’ (its eponymous lead single also featured on a Miller beer commercial).
“1995 to 2000 was living the dream for us,” smiles Fast. “It was just non-stop fun. We were out on tour for five years, we lived it and we don’t have any regrets.”
Their reputation as a live band spectacular grew, which resonates today - “anybody who ever plays after us at a festival really does not like that spot,” guffaws Huey – playing Glastonbury 2008 (on the Jazz Word Stage) to thunderous reception.
“The guy who ran the Jazz tent at Glastonbury,” says Huey, “told us, ‘there were 40,000 people watching your set, Jimmy Cliff was on after you and had half that’. There’s still people who know. If they’re looking at the flyer at a festival, ‘dude! The Fun Lovin Criminals are playing in a half hour. Eeeeeey…’And those are our people. To get to them is why we make music.”
During their five-year hiatus, the three brothers Crim found other creative outlets. Frank and Fast share a love of Prince, resulting in a collaborative project to re-record ‘Purple Rain’ as a reggae album (because they are nuts). Fast also DJs while Frank writes kids books and is also working on a musical.
It’s 41 year old Huey, though, who’s become a Renaissance Man, a multi gifted (and gab gifted) radio, TV and media personality who had a waxwork in Madame Tussauds. He hosts award-winning ‘The Huey Show’ on BBC6 Radio in London (awarded the Bronze ‘Best Music Programme’ prize at the Sony Radio Academy Award in 2009), playing personal favourites from “Appalachian bluegrass to The Ramones to new stuff” and interviewing his heroes (from the New York Dolls to Mick Jones) while on MTV he presents ‘Slips’, a boy-racer series where kids and their customised cars compete for ownership papers (a 21st Century up-date of the car race scene from Grease). He’s also completed his first, as yet unpublished novel (a fictionalised account of London espionage, written in three weeks) is in-demand as a game-show panellist after appearances on ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ (once as the host) and has been asked to appear on QI. “Stephen Fry is one of my heroes,” he beams. He’s also been a wine writer, voice-over artist (he obliged his friends The Killers with a voice-over ad for their last album), cameo-role character actor - he played a transvestite in action/crime comedy ‘Head Rush’ (2003) and “an English hippy guy in a wig” in northern soul-based drama ‘Soulboy’ (2009) - and is now an accomplished gardener at the London home he shares with his wife Rebecca and dog Sugar. “I watered, pruned,” he says proudly, “and by the middle of last summer my shit was boppin’!”
Huey is a sociable man, has friends today throughout the musical and acting communities from the Gallagher brothers and Goldie to Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn. He’s also an entrepreneurial property businessman specialising in bars.
“I do business,” he nods. “We’ve always been pragmatists. When we got our first record deal, we invested in a garbage company, rather than a Rolex. To make music that isn’t necessarily flavour of the month and yet not have to compromise, you have to do other things to make sure you’ll be OK and your family is OK. It’s called being a mensch. A Yiddish word for a man who takes care of his family and his friends. In a positive way. Not being a gangster and doing stupid shit (Literal translation: ‘a person of integrity and honour’.) I was 27 when we got our record deal, I wasn’t a kid, I was a grown man. And I think the fact I got into it when I did means I didn’t ever lose my mind.”
He’d already been a marine, for a start.
“I’d been a lotta other things too. Heheheh!”
‘Classic Fantastic’, their sixth studio album, bursts out of the gloom like a glorious sunrise shooting infinite rays over a range of shadowy mountains, as spectacularly life-affirming as the last five years have been creatively death-defying. It also makes you dance like a whirligig and laugh like a kookaburra perched up a disco gum tree.
The trio, now all relocated to the UK (where they live with their wives) have left the cartoon New York netherworld behind for a colossal outdoors party, creating a self-produced summertime classic recorded in their London studio (released on their own label, Kilohertz, with independent distribution) featuring life-long “fourth member”, the Grammy-award winning hip-hop engineer Tim Latham (A Tribe Called Quest, De le Soul, KRS-One – and Britney Spears).
Over four years of official inactivity, Fast and Frank wrote some fifty tracks, now pared down to 13 stunners in the face of sustained adversity, songs which tell stories, notes Huey, “about the human condition”; from the bonkers psychedelic party-rock of ‘Mars’ (like OutKast never went away), to the sumptuous, summertime, trumpeting soul of ‘Classic Fantastic’. Summer shimmers on via the irresistible, piano-led, De la Soul-goes-Latino-carnival of ‘She Sings At The Sun’, (“a pro Cuban nationalism love song,” avers Huey), the sudden sex-rock gonzo geetar meltdown of ‘Jimi Choo’ and the comedy skit ‘Conversations With Our Attorney’ featuring “Mike Strutter”, Paul Kaye’s outrageous MTV character providing a stream of pungent profanity (they’ve been friends for years with our very own “Dennis Pennis”). A classic hip-hop soul-funk fandango follows with ‘We, The 3’, the first song to feature all three members on vocals (someone, during this track, definitely inhales), before the Funkadelic wig-out of ‘How Low Can You Go?’ (“pretty low, you’d be surprised”). ‘El Malo’, meanwhile, is the mellow groove before the blue-sky, loved-up, barbecue brilliance of ‘Mister Sun’ “a beautiful summer song,” notes Frank, correctly, “Mojito, on the beach, it’s gonna make girls wiggle and smile”. More bedlam-rock meltdown follows with ‘The Originals’ before ‘Keep On Yellin’ featuring Roots Manuva, our best-loved home-grown hip-hop bard riddling through a bewitching atmospheric: “….disco dollyin’, pushin’ in the trollyin’…you’re now rocking to the sound of the FLC, the people’s people, the geezer’s geez…” All we need, after that is the self-explanatory post-club reverie ‘Get Your Coat’…
A party album built in a psychological bunker; it’s a phenomenal testament to the power of unbound optimism.
“Well, we’re still guys from New York,” grins the incorrigible Huey. “We keep in the forefront of our minds that any day above ground is a good day. That’s No.1. No.2, you’ve got the love of your friends and family. No.3, you have to laugh a little during the day. No-one’s planting a flag here, no-one’s curing cancer but you have a hard week, you get home, whatever your poison is, have a glass of wine, smoke your spliff and go, ‘foo, I’m glad that’s over’ - that’s what we’re there for. For that exact moment when you can just put aside everyday bullshit. And maybe even laugh. That’s one reason my wife and I get along so great. She thinks I’m funny.” (cackles like the Devil)
‘Classic Fantastic’ is the first classic, fantastic, party album of the brand new decade. In 2010, the fun, the jokes, the unmistakeable life-force pulsing through the FLC soundscape is heroically undiminished by a punishing last five years. Their new music, like their optimism, is impossible to resist.
“There’s this thing called Noetics,” announces Huey, the wisest guy in wise-guy rock ‘n’ roll, now talking about metaphysical psychology. “Which says if everybody thinks the same good thoughts, good things will happen. Likewise, negative thoughts - it’s not rocket science. And we all want the same thing, to be a Fun Lovin Criminal. You have to go through hell to get to heaven and now we’re finally out from under a lot of our problems, it’s a brand new day. So let’s go out and do what we love to do.”