For a good time, sit next to the beat-happy, Krishna-crazed love machine known as MC Yogi (AKA Nick Giacomini) as he works his creative magic up in his Northern California studio, Photoshopping all kinds of dazzling personal India travel photos into wild collage art that will serve as backdrop for his “cosmic, electrifying” new shows with one hand, while simultaneously blasting tracks from his latest record, Pilgrimage, with the other.
Do this while Yogi casually spins the hip-hop, zig-zag, indie-flick story of his life to date. Do all this and be charmed, amazed and hooked.
“This record is the soundtrack to my journey to India, circling the sacred mountain Arunachala in the heart of Tamil Nadu, and discovering the intricate root system of yoga,” Yogi says, eyes gleaming, as if casually describing the recipe to a funkified cocktail made of time and incense and God.
“It’s a sonic trip, a journey toward the Self, toward what the yoga masters call the Supreme Soul,” he adds, as chaotic street sounds of India blast through the speakers, mixing with madhouse beats, old-school turntable scratches and oh my Shiva those horns, with Yogi effortlessly rhyming over it all, and all of it so hook-laden and sun-blasted you can’t help bobbing your head and aching to find a dance floor somewhere, preferably one with lots of Nag Champa and chanting.
The influences on Pilgrimage are all over the musical map. World beat, hip-hop, Bollywood, reggae, dancehall, house, dub. The late DJ Solomon, who suffered a freak accident in early 2012 while Yogi was in India, appears on this record, his final project. Karsh Kale shows up on Shedding Skin, a track that serves as homage to one of Yogi’s foremost teachers, the late Larry Schulz. Death and rebirth, you might say, are prominent themes.
Then there are the world-renowned Indian musicians, from celebrated sitarist Deobrat Mishra to vocalist Mahesh Vinayakram (son of Grammy-winning Indian percussionist Vikku Vinayakram), all giving the record a rich, multi-instrumental feel like few others in hip-hop.
As for Yogi himself, the basics are easy enough: he was born the same year as the Sony Walkman and the Cray supercomputer, 1979. He has a beautiful, powerhouse wife named Amanda with whom he co-teaches yoga in their sumptuous little studio in Northern California. A rescued pit bull, Mahatma, is the couple’s personal guru.
Nick himself is as devoted a yogi and truth-seeker as you’ll find anywhere. He reads the Bhagavad Gita every day, follows Gandhi’s humble practice of not speaking a word on Mondays. The rest of the time is split between creating art, running the couple’s yoga studio, and of course, the music.
Here’s where the story gets...colorful. A tranquil early childhood was cut short by a surprise family implosion that led Yogi to all kinds of messy rebellion: dropping out of school, graffiti punkdom, pre-teen drug abuse, stealing cars, lashing out at everyone and everything and not quite knowing why. Hey, it happens.
It all led to the honor of being kicked out of no less than four schools by the time he was 17 before finally, by way of an unexpected introduction to yoga and classical Hindu philosophy, a complete rediscovery of self, of the yogic path, of the true meaning of music, love and the million faces of God.
Wait, not done yet. Mix in all manner of pop culture influence: The Doors, the Beatles, the Beastie Boys, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Star Trek, Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, classic comic books and lots of wonderfully insane Bollywood movies. Overlay it all with a preternatural gift for rhyming, and you’ve got a story for the alterna-rap record books.
“I’m just a working class mystic,” shrugs the enviably laid back Yogi, grinning a little as he adjusts his trademark fedora, kicks up his Adidas and cranks the volume on “Born to Fly,” an instantly addictive new track from Pilgrimage, one of those bouncy dub-rap songs that’s so catchy it can stick in your head for a year. But in a good way.
Do not be fooled. Mellow though he may appear, when it comes to the music and the art, Yogi is positively supercharged with a love of message like few others on the yogic path, and probably no other hip-hop musicians you can name. And Pilgrimage proves it.
And not a moment too soon. Yogi’s 2008 shoestring-budget debut, Elephant Power, still floats atop the world music chart on iTunes. Problem is, he wrote most of that one way back in 2005. And while Elephant Power’s extraordinary success brought Yogi invitations to play in dance clubs and yoga festivals all over the world (and still does), the time has come for the next phase.
And Pilgrimage is definitely it. “Everything went into this record,” says Yogi, shaking his head in amazement -- meaning the travel, the teaching, the years of yoga study, tirelessly honing his craft on stages large and small, ever improving upon his powerhouse mix of hip-hop and yoga lore. The ultimate goal? “A full, authentic, transformative yogic experience...on the dance floor.”
Wait. Hip-hop and yoga? The Ramayana with a backbeat? Stories of Shiva and Shakti, Ganesh and Hanuman and the rest of the ancient Hindu gods, all funked up and slamming up against potent, propulsive graffiti beats custom built to drive eager listeners into a divine frenzy? It’ll never work.
Unless it does. Unless it works so well you wonder why no one’s thought of it before. The truth is, you’ve never heard anything like Pilgrimage. You’ve never heard anyone like MC Yogi. Together they just may change the world. All over again.