True to their name, Femi the DriFish & The Out of Water eXperience operate best in fish-out-of-water situations. The seven-piece band, fronted by spoken-word artist and rapper Femi Lawal, has just released its first live album, "OWX Live." Instead of recording it in the usual clubs where they perform, the Out of Water eXperience brought its funky, bombastic sound to a couple of unusual locations: the West Baltimore art gallery Ripp’d Canvas and South Baltimore's Orion Studios, where the band had been rehearsing.
The result is a live record that captures the band's eclectic sound, previously only hinted at on two studio albums, 2011’s "The Clown With No Circus" and 2013’s "Mad as a Hatter." It was a savvy solution for a hard-to-categorize band that often struggles to fit in to the local music scene without sacrificing what makes them unique.
"The problem with our band is that we don’t know where to classify ourselves, because you have to find a box to sell the product," says Lawal, whose difficult-to-place accent reflects his British-born Nigerian upbringing. Although the band has become a steady live draw in Baltimore and some surrounding markets, there’s no template for how to make it big as a hip-hop band, aside from singular success stories like The Roots. "It’s difficult to figure out where we belong."
Performing solo as Femi The DriFish, or as a member of the spoken word duo 5th L, Lawal perfected the art of commanding a room with just his voice, so he was reluctant to share his stage with a bunch of loud instruments. "If I’m onstage and someone started doing something behind me, I would turn around like 'Stop it!'" Lawal says as members of the band gather in keyboardist Maurice Carroll’s Johnston Square home.
"If you asked me about a band backing me seven to 10 years ago, I would’ve told you, 'No band, no band, I’m spoken word,'" says Lawal. "You did say 'No band'!" interjects the jovial Carroll, a friend and collaborator since the '90s, with a laugh.
"My strongest asset is what I say and how I say it," Lawal says. “You can get drowned out if you’re not strong enough to be onstage.”
But with the band’s current lineup, he’s found a real chemistry to play off of, and enough volume and stage presence to maintain the spotlight. While traditional rappers may depend on the static tempo of a drum machine, the spoken-word artist responds to the elasticity of the rhythms a live band lays down: "They’re all listening to what I’m saying while they’re playing. That’s the joy. They’re attentive to me, which makes it very easy for me to perform."
What the band, which also features bassist Kevin "KP" Powe Jr., singer Alexis Joyce, human beatbox and rapper Chuck The Madd Ox, guitarist Tony Love, and drummer Spyda, has done with Lawal’s compositions, however, is often so expansive and explosive that he began to feel self-conscious about the studio albums, recorded while the band was still coming together.
"The Clown With No Circus" and "Mad as a Hatter" often feature programmed beats and synth-heavy arrangements. "Don’t get me wrong, the two albums we’d put out are good albums," Lawal says. "But whenever we would perform and I’m selling the CDs, it made me cringe, because I knew that they were gonna pop the CD in and it wasn’t gonna be close to what happens onstage."
The sweaty atmosphere of those performances comes out on "OWX Live," which infuses Lawal’s songs with an energy not heard on the studio versions. The live record's highlight is a luxuriously melodic eight-minute rendition of 'Love Is...,' which was originally about five minutes long on "The Clown With No Circus." Joyce gives the song’s chorus a new heft, while Love, formerly of the long-running local reggae band Jah Works, jams out on the central riff.
Surprisingly, 98 Rock has been a strong supporter of the band since they first played its Noise In The Basement showcase in 2012, and made sure to bring out a big crowd and play a high-energy set. "From that point on, 98 Rock has always asked us to do other gigs, be part of festivals. Even though we’re not a rock band per se, we match the rock energy." There may not be a readymade niche for The Out of Water eXperience, but they know how to thrive, even if they often seem out of their element.
"OWX Live" is available for purchase on anartkeymusic.com.