Clad in spandex dresses, spangly neon tights, and fingerless material-girl gloves, the three lady emcees of Oakland electrorap group Hottub look like an anachronism. They resemble girl groups of the '60s, but have the peppy vocal hooks and sing-songy rhyme patterns of '80s-era rap groups like J.J. Fad and L'Trimm. Not to mention their music — composed by local producer Jason Stinnett and keyboardist Mark Gregory — has a dry recording sound and party-jam style that harks back to its old-school source material. Even their spontaneous dance moves (which have the appearance of being choreographed) recall an earlier genre of hip-hop, when show-style presentation amounted to more than flossy jewelry and a big entourage.
But Hottub resists the retro label. "I think that sound is due to the fact that Mark and I love old gear," said Stinnett, a former punk bassist who served as the electronic music buyer at Amoeba Records from 1999 to 2006. Indeed, much of Hottub's old-school affect stems from its instrumentation. Gregory uses an Ensoniq ASR-10, which is a sampling keyboard that prevailed in hip-hop during the mid-'90s. His other main instrument, the sequential circuits multi-track synthesizer, emerged in the mid-'80s and isn't manufactured anymore. They use MPC samplers, drum machines, and 808 bass beats because they prefer the tone over stuff that's coming out of contemporary software programs. "We're trying to push those pieces of equipment," Stinnett explained, but indicated that they're also influenced by dancehall, punk, mash-ups, and favela funk: "We're definitely trying to push stuff forward rather than sound like old music."
Stinnett is, in essence, Hottub's analogue to Motown's Berry Gordy. In 1999 he and producer Ben Jerde founded an electro-hip-hop outfit called Concepts, which featured two MPCs, synthesizers, a Vocoder, and turntable scratches provided by Oakland Faders' DJ Joe Quixx. Its sample-driven sound resembled the beats he currently uses for Hottub, though it lacked the aesthetic draw of three hot, girly emcees (i.e., "Hottub minus the babes," said Hottub emcee Nicole Feliciano, who met Stinnett while working as a buyer at Buffalo Exchange). He formed Hottub with Feliciano — aka Co-Co Machete — in 2004. They debuted at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Tenderloin, with Feliciano sing-rapping in Tagalog — "about food, basically," she said — and Stinnett backing her on an MPC sampler. "I was scared as hell, it was really creepy," said Feliciano. "That's when the speakers caught on fire."
Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the thing had legs. Hottub went through various incarnations before getting its current lineup — Feliciano, Jenifer Ackerman (aka Loli Pop), and Amber Nicole Griffin-Royal (aka Ambreezy) — in 2006. Collectively, they could walk into a crowded party and within five minutes have the whole room basking in their reflected light. Filipino immigrant Feliciano spent half of her childhood in a majority-white suburb of Orange County, where she tried to act "like a badass" in high school while surreptitiously joining an off-campus show choir that required her to wear sequined costumes and pink lipstick. Ackerman drives a white Volvo luxury sedan named "la Leche." She's studying to be a dental hygienist and hopes to design limited-edition collectible Hottub toothbrushes and floss — "'cause flossin' ain't just for gangstas." Griffin-Royal is working on a clothing line called "A Virgin's Perspective on Sex." The group's MySpace slogan, borrowed from every rap artist to ever pick up a microphone, is "Humble and Hungry."
Hottub's intentionally campy, nostalgia-based ensemble goes over really well at big dance parties like the Rickshaw Stop's weekly Blow Up, or a popular monthly event at Uptown Night Club, hosted by Hottub's indie record label, LeHeat. Less cutting-edge venues like Betty's Rock Club in Walnut Creek — where Hottub recently shared a bill with local bands Maldroid and Scissors for Lefty — take a little more work. Formerly an Irish rock pub called O'Kearney's (best known for its weekly calendar girl contests), the newly rechristened Betty's has pinball machines, pool tables, and TVs playing vintage No Doubt videos. On the eve of Hottub's performance, the bartenders wore Chuck Taylors and daisy dukes, and the clientele was generally WASPy.
The ladies of Hottub were pretty easy to spot. Feliciano had a rainbow boa in her hair. Griffin wore turquoise-green tights and a bathing suit. Ackerman's pink sleeveless dress exposed the tattoos on her arms. They performed eight songs in roughly half an hour, with no breaks; the idea is to keep it as seamless as a DJ set. Stinnett and Gregory hover in the background, forming the group's two-man rhythm section. Though they have all the beats and samples programmed into their MPCs and keyboards, there is some room for improvisation. The beats, however, are often intricate and surprising. "Man Bitch" — in which the emcees carp about suckas and sensitive girlymen — features a drumline with horns, whereas "Plastic People" is a rock track with heavy kick-drum and guitars.
The main attraction, though, is Hottub's crazy, hammy stage antics. They bust Carmen Electra pole-dance moves, squat down and play patty-cake, beatbox a cappella, and pretend the microphone is a dildo or a deodorant stick. At one point, they break into a barbershop-chorus cover of Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)," singing the lyrics completely straight, but in a wink-wink nudge-nudge kinda way. (The line Cause you gave me all your pussy/And ya even licked my balls has a girly shriek at the end.) Toward the end of their set, the three emcees jump offstage and skip out into the audience, jumping up on barstools, sampling people's drinks, and sidling up to the bemused alt-rockers of Walnut Creek.
The following week at the Alley on Grand Avenue — where Gregory ends up singing Chet Baker tunes with pianist Rod Dibble — the band members admit they got a little static from the crowd that night. Not that they're really tripping, said Stinnett. "Anywhere we go we try to just bring it."
And they really have no need to worry. After all, Hottub is slated to play Live 105's BFD Tour at Shoreline Amphitheatre this June. They may sound like old-school hip-hop, but luckily, they're operating in a medium that's becoming increasingly nostalgic for its '80s-era roots. By combining a punky, girl-group aesthetic with obsolete machinery, Hottub is, in fact, using old trends to create something pastiche and contemporary. As Stinnett assures, they're pushing everything forward — right back to the past.