Flipping the Rhyme

By Kate Holloway

The Goonies redefine local hip-hop scene

When was the last time a skinny white kid raised his asthma inhaler in the middle of a hip-hop show and the audience went crazy?

“It’s always been kind of a joke,” said Peter Cappelli aka Clam Weezy, half of Syracuse’s hip-hop duo The Goonies. “It’s not that serious. I don’t have the privilege. I’m a skinny, white kid with asthma. You’ll never see me walk in with a chain and big shoes.”

But The Goonies — Cappelli and Langston Masingale (aka Illumination) — packed the Empire Brewing Company Aug. 22 with a crowd that was definitely taking the duo seriously, even after a seven-month hiatus.

Masingale and Cappelli met while working at a telemarketing company in 2003. Masingale sold Cappelli a copy of his solo album Victors Circle. Cappelli told him he was also an emcee and the two agreed to work together as The Goonies, named for Cappelli’s asthmatic wheeze that he shares with Sean Astin’s character in the 1985 film of the same name. In 2008, before the dissolution of their first backing band, they won the Syracuse Area Music Award (Sammy) for Best New Band.

Cappelli and Masingale form the sole creative force behind the sound of The Goonies and are quick to make sure everyone knows it. They recorded their self-titled debut alone in the studio. Their three-month-old band — Kinyatta King on drums, Andy Willis on bass, and Adam Fisher on guitar — exists to replicate the sound on the CD for their live performances, even though the backup musicians ripped into some crowd-pleasing solos.

“I really like their new band, said Masingale’s wife, Dionne, as she worked the merchandise table. “The other band wasn’t bad, but you could tell they were amateurs. They get more energy from this band, they vibe off each other more. Everyone in this band enjoys what they do.” Cappelli wasn’t convinced yet.

“This is the litmus test,” he said before the show as he drank a Red Bull and beet beer and doled out set-up instructions to the band members and sound engineer. He was unsure if the new band was really going to take off and was reluctant to book any more performances after this one. “If this goes well, I’ll be on the phone.”

The new band had only a short time to learn their parts and develop what Cappelli called both synergy and a dynamic.

“We weren’t ready until this week,” Cappelli said, still swaying his lanky body. “We have expectations of how something is supposed to sound. Three months is not a long time, but we’re ready now.” He did his best to appear calm, but he shifted his weight in his New Balance sneakers and frequently adjusted the brim of his hat. Friends and parents call him a perfectionist while he considers himself the realist behind the duo.

“He’s the balloon and I’m the grounding weight,” Cappelli says of his collaborations with Masingale. “It’s like a potluck lunch. We keep what works.”

Masingale acknowledges that he is the dreamer. He hears the music of a big band with winds, strings, or an entire orchestra in his head and will mix it on a track. He’ll play it for Cappelli who will have to remind him that they only have a guitar, bass, and drums to work with on stage, but that’s really the only accommodation they need to make. “We don’t compromise our values to meet in the middle,” said Masingale.”What’s beautiful is that these two people intertwine at some point and it’s hip-hop. We don’t agree on anything but this band.”

Masingale searches for a universal appeal when composing his music. He loves to produce tracks that speak to a diverse crowd the way he believes Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” did in the early 1980s. He said he remembers standing outside his “shitty” apartment building in Syracuse and watching a punk rocker, a suit, and a brother with a boom box all bob their heads to the new Jackson track. A cop pulled up. Masingale waited for an inevitable command for silence. The cop yelled for the kid to turn the music up.

“This band is harkening to that time for all people to come together,” he said while eating eel sushi and drinking herbal tea from Starbucks before going on stage. “That’s what touches me the most. When I can look out and see someone who looks like me, you, that guy.”

Cappelli designed The Goonies album cover as an extension of the universality he and Masingale desperately want to embody. It rejects their identities as a 28-year-old single white guy and 32-year-old married black father of two by portraying each figure with a bright white outline on a black background with track titles emblazoned overtop.

“I like the fact that people can’t see us until they see us,” Masingale said. “It’s very easy for people to see hip-hop as urban and say ‘I don’t like that.”

The Goonies hit some pitfalls this year when their original drummer, Liz Strodel, quit their backing band. The duo decided to start over with an entirely new supporting crew though rumors of the group’s split spread throughout the Syracuse music scene.

“The Goonies are me and Clam,” said Masingale. “If James Brown fired his bassist, he’d still be James Brown. From January onward we’ve been training musicians.”

What was difficult for Masingale was not that The Goonies were on hiatus, but that no other group stepped in to fill the gap.

“There was something missing. The diversity wasn’t there,” he said. “I would hope I would gain some peers. My peers now are rock bands.”

The diverse crowd at Empire definitely appreciated The Goonies. Fans in baseball caps danced next to girls in sequined tops while accountants mingled with head-bopping hippies and do-rag-sporting urbanites. A nerdy, white boy danced alongside a tattooed biker guy and they all cheered when Masingale shouted, “Hold up! Weezy’s wheezing!”

Photos courtesy of The Goonies