The Empire of Chill: Thievery Corporation Helped Build U Street, but They Sound Homeless
In the 1990s, Thievery Corporation did not want to be a D.C. band.
“We are jet-setters,” Eric Hilton told Washington City Paper in a 1999 cover story. Hilton and his creative partner, Rob Garza, liked to wear suits. “In a suit, you can go anyplace,” said Hilton. “We’re living in a global marketplace.” Above all, it seemed, the downtempo group yearned to be suave international superstars.
That was four years after the opening of Eighteenth Street Lounge, the Dupont nightspot co-owned by Hilton that blazed the way for the clutch of stylish restaurants and bars in which he later invested—Dragonfly, Local 16, Marvin, American Ice Company, Patty Boom Boom, U Street Music Hall, and a trio of nightspots with Anglophilic, semi-rhyming names: Gibson, Dickson, and not-yet-opened Brixton. For a guy with worldwide aspirations, he sure put down local roots.
More than a decade after the City Paper story, Hilton has helped build the chic environment Thievery desired—a moneyed, cosmopolitan city where faux-hawked artists perch on the same bar stools as cufflinked lobbyists. Simultaneously, they’ve grown their music empire. Last year, the band sold out five consecutive dates at the 9:30 Club; the group’s homegrown label, ESL Music, now flaunts a classy, multinational roster; and Hilton’s establishments have helped redefine nightlife on U Street NW. Twelve years ago, the duo had almost given up on selling their records in D.C. Now, D.C. is their castle, and they should be kings.
Instead, they sound more homeless than ever. Their sixth studio album, Culture of Fear, isn’t roaming the world, like previous Thievery full-lengths. It’s just lost.
In a sense, it fails in the same manner in which past Thievery albums have failed. It’s boring. Rudderless. Refined, but anesthetic. And unconvincing, because it’s apparent that despite their long-term commitment to chill music, these guys probably don’t just get into the studio, light up a spliff, and let the vibes flow. No, there’s a regimen. You can’t build the chill empire by being chill. To build the chill empire, you show up every day 10 minutes early and do your job. In a suit.
The best track is a vintage-tinged ambient number—the slinky “Light Flares” sounds like a Stereolab take on the La Planète Sauvage soundtrack—but other songs emit only a faint plume of joie de vivre that evaporates quickly. Most of the album attempts bead-curtain atmospherics, and winds up somewhere between plodding and comatose. There are zero jams. Gone are the high-profile guest stars of The Cosmic Game, the multilingual acrobatics of The Richest Man in Babylon, and, most surprisingly, the group’s trademark sitar. It’s kind of shocking to hear Thievery without that instrument, actually, despite all the criticisms lobbed against the band’s cloying, Putumayo-grade multiculturalism over the years.
The absence of bright, acoustic elements makes Culture of Fear even lonelier. It cuts back on dub-reggae influences—the patois-fluent Steele brothers, known as See-I, are nowhere to be found—and doubles down on feminine cooing. With their airy sweetness, LouLou Ghelichkhani and newcomer Kota float, whisper, and linger with the complexity of an inexpensive Chardonnay. “Take my soul,” Ghelichkhani sings, on the track of the same name. “I don’t need it anymore.” Oh, how you do.
Where the album isn’t weakened by soullessness, it sags under the weight of George W. Bush-era paranoia. On its cover, a creepy surveillance camera is turned toward the world. “All that they weave/is a web of deceit,” belts Tamara Wellons—the lone strong voice on the record—over a funk riff that disappears into a gas cloud. On the title track, rapper Mr. Lif opens, “Seems to me like they want us to be afraid, man. Or maybe we just like being afraid.” Thievery has long peddled undercooked lefty politics, but here they sound late to the table, too.
That, or the group has sunk into a quicksand of bizarre politico-mysticism. Hilton made his directorial debut last year with Babylon Central, a film that was, by most accounts, ridiculous. Set here, the film fetishized D.C. as a cradle of multinational evil; the protagonist was, naturally, a Vespa-riding DJ. The film’s synopsis: “When he fails to deliver an important package for his boss…Seb finds himself an unwitting participant in an economic power-play with a Saudi Prince as the Saudi government attempts to divest from the US dollar. As Seb begins to fall for the Prince’s daughter, his friends are dragged into the conflict. Throughout his struggle, the dark powers that operate in Washington, DC (modern-day Babylon) are revealed, and the Achilles heel of the US Empire is exposed.”
What the fuck?
Babylon Central seems light years away from the beautiful D.C. we saw in the video for “The Numbers Game,” the strong, funky cut from 2008’s Radio Retaliation, with guest vocalist Chuck Brown. In it, the go-go godfather was the star—Garza and Hilton just drove the sweet Caddy that escorted him through Southeast. Brown hung at a barbecue, shook hands, posed for photos, and basked in a happy, communal glow. On Culture of Fear, Garza—who moved to California last year—and Hilton have misplaced that spirit entirely. Lost in a placeless haze with no clear destination, Thievery Corporation needs to find a home.
“This is the real See-I sound,” announces the first track on See-I’s debut LP—and it’s a wonder we’re just hearing it. After two decades performing inside and outside the Eighteenth Street Lounge incubator, the duo is overdue for a proper album. It’s a dynamic release that struts with the confidence of experience.
Outside D.C., reggae vocalists Archie “Zeebo” Steele and Arthur “Rootz” Steele are probably best known as veteran Thievery Corporation collaborators. The brothers’ job, it seems, is to make Thievery Corporation more interesting. Zeebo’s toasting breathed life into “38.45,” the still-beloved drum and bass cut from the group’s 1997 debut; in concert, Rootz and Zee are the stars of Thievery’s gigs. But in D.C., See-I is the star of its own show.
If you’ve seen the band live (it’s not hard—they play often), you should know what you’re in for on this disc: roots reggae raised on rock and funk. Smooth, bottom-heavy, and ominous, “Dangerous ” carries a sweet melody on top of a deep groove; “Dub Revolution,” probably a reference to dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, is a catchy tribute to the soul and dub reggae roots See-I sprouts from. The D.C.-repping “Homegrown” —one of See-I’s most raucous live songs—starts out sounding like Funkadelic, then just becomes Funkadelic: One of its refrains is cribbed from “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.” “Haterz 24-7,” a pretty standard haters-gonna-hate track, also doesn’t win points for originality, but is propelled by the brothers' charismatic, easy synergy. Zeebo is the cool toaster, Rootz the sweet crooner. It’s an appealing dynamic they have honed since childhood.
The album unravels toward the end; none of its trippy, space-traveling material is particularly memorable. But at its most focused and energetic, See-I seals its reputation a versatile and magnetic party band. It’s too bad they’re missing from the latest Thievery record. Culture of Fear could use the adrenaline shot.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield