It started with a haircut.
A.J. Hall needed one, and a mutual friend recommended New Orleans rap renaissance man Nesby Phips. (The prolific hip-hop producer and rapper also is a barber.)
Hall called Phips and asked where to go — neither realized they're neighbors.
"I said, 'I'm on Hickory Street.' He said, 'I'm on Hickory Street,'" Phips recalls. "I was like, 'Walk outside.' We both walk outside looking at each other. Our relationship grew from there."
The GRÏD features Hall on drums and vocals, bassist Max Moran, guitarist John Maestas and keyboardist Jason Butler, forming sort of a hip-hop supergroup of versatile jazz mercenaries — Hall also performs with Jon Cleary as a member of the Absolute Monster Gentlemen and with Nigel Hall and Bonerama, and Butler, Maestas and Moran play in several progressive jazz outfits. Phips later joined as the featured MC.
"Like Frankie Beverly featuring Maze, if you will," Phips says, "but on some hip-hop shit."
Resurrecting golden age hip-hop production and testing the boundaries of live hip-hop, The GRÏD's liquid future-funk collides with psychedelic, chilled-out R&B. The band's debut EP Evasive Maneuvers is out this week.
"We wanted to sound like a human drum machine," Phips says. "Given the range of musicians, we're able to go in and out of all types of genres. Our set for Jazz Fest, we'll do my songs, covers from Parliament to Snoop Dogg, bossa nova shit — we're able to do what a DJ can do with an entire band. ... We're gonna take it there."
Phips also joins the band for a J. Dilla tribute at Dragon's Den with Khris Royal at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, April 28.
"We're bringing what our generation does as millennials — I'm an '80s baby, they're millennials — sort of an acoustic vibe," Phips says. "But at the same time, we got the keys, we got all the synths and shit. The guitars, he's got a f—k ton of pedals. He can make that bitch sound like anything."
Hall also uses a voice processor on his vocals and alternates acoustic drums and Roland TR-808 drum pads and samples.
"We've gone from the front porch to the trunk — we've got range," Phips says. "There's nothing we can't do on stage."
Phips made his debut with the band in 2014 at the AllWays Lounge with Fiend — to a sparse audience. "It wasn't crowded at all," Phips says. "There was 13-14 people, including the bartenders. But everybody was f—g stunned. ... I was supercharged."
Following acclaimed releases like The Catchup and Simply Phips and appearances as a member of New Orleans rapper Curren$y's Jet Life crew, Phips unveiled his star-studded 0017th project ("My side project, Wu Tang-type of deal there," he says) and continued his ongoing, near-monthly "Phipstapes" series.
"It's been at least eight years running at this shit full speed," he says.
As a versatile producer, Phips glides tracks from minimal, ambient hooks with razor-sharp snares to headnod-heavy, cinematic sweeps propelling his day-in-the-life verses and honest reflection. His 2016 release Phipstrumentals assembles eight heady instrumental beats, from haunting trap-in-space to low-key G-funk.
In 2015, he performed with rapper Fiend and the PresHall Brass at one of Preservation Hall's coveted midnight gigs, bridging the Hall's storied jazz and brass traditions with their rap counterparts.
Phips also aims to release an album in 2018 to "bottle up the 300-year musical history of New Orleans into one album," he says, a sort of "historical compilation" spanning brass, rap, bounce, opera and jazz. "I guess I have my hands on a lot," he says. "My goal is to put music on everything I can."