- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Disregard all attempts to pigeonhole Scratch Track into an existing musical category. Will Gray, DJ Lee and Jason Hamlin adore blues, folk, gospel, hip-hop and classic rock, and they have reassembled their influences in new and ear-bending ways.

Scratch Track avoids the slick, robotic production that undermines the spirit of many young bands. In fact, Scratch Track records and performs without drums or electric instruments — just an acoustic guitar and two soulful vocalists who sing and, to quote an old rap lyric from Biz Markie, “make the music with their mouths.”

Leave any preconceived ideas at home before Tuesday’s show at Iota, Mr. Lee advises. Onstage, the trio exudes energy that is “minimalistic but powerful,” he says during a phone interview. “Something unique and special happens” during a Scratch Track show, he says.

It’s not a boast, but a sincere reflection of his band’s abilities.

If it all sounds very organic and informal, that’s the point. Scratch Track came together five years ago when Mr. Gray, Mr. Lee and Mr. Hamlin began to play music at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “Three guys hanging out in a dorm room,” is how Mr. Lee describes the band’s origins.

After graduation, the trio believed their chemistry, songwriting and unique style could lead to a career in music. Two albums later, Scratch Track tours constantly and is hoping for a breakout year in 2005.

Since mid-January, the band has stayed on the road except for one week in March. During those brief windows when Scratch Track isn’t on tour, Mr. Gray lives in Arlington.

“The band is starting to outgrow the three of us,” Mr. Lee says during the drive to a show in North Carolina. Crowds in the college and club circuit grow larger with each visit, and the group’s desire to release its definitive record burns stronger each day.

Scratch Track plans to release an EP with nationwide marketing this year, followed by a full-length record in spring 2006, Mr. Lee says.

The group’s most recent disc, “Unreleased Sessions 2004,” reaches deep into the musical and thematic legacies of the band’s heroes as it steers into new directions.

The band sets the gritty soul workout “1972” in the era of Curtis Mayfield while it comments on the cycle of drug addiction from a modern perspective. The vocals, guitar and beatbox — the use of lips, teeth, tongue and breath to make low-end, percussive sounds — fit together as naturally as a turntable needle on a vinyl record.

“Wake Up” exhorts fellow musicians to drop the gangsta act and get real.

“Now everybody here rappin’ wit’ the same flow/Don’t buy into the system/Be careful what ya listen/To and let’s go back before the rims and the gats.”

To Mr. Lee, the “music is positive and socially aware. We try to be conscious of today’s society” in songs such as “1972” and “Homeless Man.”

Like many of the group’s hip-hop, rock and soul inspirations, Scratch Track imbues its songs with dual meanings.

“In some ways, it’s about rebelling,” Mr. Lee says. “In other ways, it’s a celebration of life.”

• • •

Snoop Dogg and the Game are two guys who definitely won’t heed Scratch Track’s call to “wake up.” The gangsta rap legend and the fast-rising newcomer, who team for a show Sunday at the Patriot Center, move more records than McDonald’s sells Big Macs by populating their lyrical landscapes with pimps, playas, money, guns and girls.

It’s a perfect team-up. Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Broadus) no longer rages against the machine. Like Will Smith, LL Cool J and Ice Cube, he’s a member of Hollywood entertainment royalty who crosses over to fans of all ethnicities.

He appears in films, pitches cell phones, hosts “Saturday Night Live” and releases hit singles. To gain back hard-core street credibility, Snoop Dogg goes on tour with the Game (Jayceon Taylor), a confident young pup who already refers to himself as a “legend” in the liner notes of his debut disc, “The Documentary.”

The men share the same mentor, Dr. Dre. Rap music’s top hit maker wisely surrounds the Game with a crew of top producers, including Kanye West, Eminem, Timbaland, Hi-Tek and, of course, the good doctor himself.

The menacing piano and sparse beats on “Westside Story” punctuate the drama of the Game’s tales of gangbanging and near-death experiences in Compton, Calif. Mr. West inserts weeping strings to add depth, hope and heart to “Dreams.”

The Game’s rugged background may have resurfaced in January. A former DJ at local radio station WKYS accused Mr. Taylor of punching him after an on-air appearance. Another man who was at the station reported similar violent activities and filed a lawsuit against the Game and his crew.

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