Tuesday, December 1, 1992

311 in Progress (Daily News of Los Angeles)

Make no mistake - the members of 311 are one lucky rock-rap group and they know it.

Formed less than three years ago in its members' hometown of Omaha, Neb., the five-piece band moved to Van Nuys last March and quickly closed a multi- album deal with Capricorn Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. The group recently released an extended single compact disc, and its debut album, ''Music," is due Feb. 9.

A few weeks ago, the band's members, who are all 22 or younger, were introduced by Capricorn chief Phil Walden at a small showcase performance in North Hollywood as "a reflection of the future of Capricorn."

The Atlanta-based label was known in the '70s for its roster of Southern rock bands, including the Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band. Capricorn vice president and general manager Don Schmitzerlie said 311 "flows from genre to genre with ease, but not at the expense of musicality."

The Nov. 18 performance, at a darkened high-tech rehearsal hall off Lankershim Boulevard, was full of Warner Bros. executives and music insiders.

Fronted by two singer-rappers, Nick Hexum and SA (Doug Martinez), the 311 sound is an energetic meld of the rap vocal style and hard rock, with a touch of reggae. Hexum said he would like his band to do for rap what Led Zeppelin did for blues, which is to bring the once-underground music to a wide range of pop music fans.

"We're part of a new school that says we can put anything and everything into our music," Hexum, 22, said after the show. "New school bands do it their own way."

He named Urban Dance Squad, the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains as part of the genre, which he labeled "rock-style rap."

During 1992, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were at the forefront of the movement in terms of commercial success, even though their breakthrough single, "Under the Bridge," was actually a medium-tempo ballad.

"Rap is the punk rock of the '90s," Hexum said. "It's the only fresh music form around."

The group, which relocated to the Valley to be close to the music industry, has played just a handful of local dates since finishing the debut album, completed in several weeks at a Chatsworth recording facility "under schedule and under budget," according to Mark Pucci, Capricorn's publicist.

Bassist P-Nut (Aaron Wills) said he realized pure rap has certain limitations in a live setting, because most rappers perform with tapes or a disc jockey rather than musicians on stage. Along with SA, Hexum and P-Nut, 311 includes guitarist Timothy J. Mahoney and drummer Chad Sexton, both 22.

"Rap is more interesting with a live band," Wills, 18, said. "It has much more potential with real instruments. That's the way to really grab an audience."

Bay Area disc jockey Trish Robbins, who attended the six-song showcase performance, said 311 has radio potential but needs to make a splash with a catchy first single. She said the band's sound is "timely."

Eddy Offord, whose credits include Yes and ELP, produced 311's debut album. He agreed with Robbins that the group must get some early attention out of the gate, but was optimistic it could happen.

"These guys are blessed," he said. "Everything has kind of fallen right into their laps. They have the sound and personality to do it."

Mahoney, the band's guitarist, said he spoke for the rest of the band when he expressed gratitude for how far the group has come in a relatively short time.

"We've worked hard on the music, but at the same time we just feel incredibly lucky," he said. "It's a great feeling; we know we won't let anybody down who believes in us."

The group's believers include a strong hometown following in Omaha, where 311 turned a Monday night residency at a 300-seat club during the summer of 1991 into "an event," said Matt Markel, owner-manager of Nick & Eric's Place.

"They're a hot group," Markel said. "If anybody had a chance to make it out of Omaha onto the national level, these kids did. They're willing to work hard, and they always had focus on their careers. Nobody could tell them differently."

Markel said 311's draw started with about 100 people on Mondays, "and last February, we had 1,500 people at their farewell performance."

Hexum recalled 311's Omaha audiences as "some of the most enthusiastic anywhere. It was a great place to hone our skills."

Hexum said he senses local music fans will respond well to a rap-metal hybrid that mixes the bombast of hard rock with rap's rhyming topicality.

"The kids here look the same as our Omaha crowd," he said. "They dress the same and listen to the same kinds of music. But we didn't have an alternative-rock station like KROQ-FM."

The band plans to launch a national tour in Omaha shortly after the release of its debut album early next year. The 311 moniker, by the way, doesn't signify anything particular, except "it sounds urgent and cool and nobody else has it," Hexum said.

Meanwhile, as the five musicians prepare for their shot at success, rap continues to make headway in the national pop charts. At least half the songs on the top-10 singles list this week are rap-based.

"I think the scene is ready for a band as diverse as us," Wills said. ''The timing seems to be just right. We'll see what happens."

Sound: Metal-based rap, along the lines of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Urban Dance Squad and the Beastie Boys.
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.
Current residence: Van Nuys.
Members: Nick Hexum, vocals; SA (Doug Martinez), vocals; Timothy J. Mahoney, guitar; P-Nut (Aaron Wills), bass; Chad Sexton, drums.
Influences: Public Enemy, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin.
First show: Opening for alternative-rockers Fugazi in June 1990, in Omaha.
Album: "Music" (Capricorn), due Feb. 9.