In the summer of 2004, a band formed by recent Brother Martin High School graduates picked the perfect name—Flow Tribe.
For 13 years, the band has literally been a tribe, busting out music made to shake a tail feather to. The band’s self-described “backbone crackin’ music”—a gumbo of funk, rhythm-and-blues, rock, bounce, hip-hop and zydeco—flows directly from the players to the people. Flow Tribe has that communal, celebratory connection so characteristic of New Orleans music.
Flow Tribe’s members, all of them products of Catholic schools in New Orleans, grew up with local music. Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Kermit Ruffins, R&B and funk classics of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and hip-hop hits released by Cash Money Records in the 1990s and 2000s, inspired the music-crazy kids who formed Flow Tribe.
“Growing up in New Orleans, we lived in dual worlds,” says singer-trumpeter K.C. O’Rorke. “You’re raised on Dr. John, the Meters, Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas—those classic New Orleans figures. But we also heard national talent. We liked Sublime and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“And then the local rappers with Cash Money Records blew up at the national level,” O’Rorke adds. “For years, Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh were the biggest names in hip-hop. It was crazy seeing videos with all these girls backing it up in City Park. There’s always a period in time when New Orleans bubbles up to the surface in the national consciousness.”
Flow Tribe makes a big Cash Money connection with Boss, the band’s new album. Mannie Fresh—the DJ and studio maestro behind Cash Money’s Juvenile and Lil Wayne hits—produced Boss. In early May, the album debuted at number 53 on the Billboard R&B albums chart.
“Mannie Fresh is a guy from our childhoods,” O’Rorke says. “We listened to all the Cash Money stuff he did. Working with him was a thrill.”
“He’s professional,” says harmonica, washboard and keyboard player John-Michael Early (son of former New Orleans city councilman Mike Early). “But as you would expect of Mannie, he likes to have fun. There’s nothing better than showing up at the studio to work with Mannie. It’s a blast.”
The respect is mutual. Fresh says: “Flow Tribe is a great bunch of New Orleans guys who have that funkiness to them. Working with them was a pleasure. We had a great time working on this current project. I see it doing big things!”
Flow Tribe originally planned to collaborate with Fresh for one single only, the funk-and disco-flavored “You Know What It’s About.” The Roland SPD-SX sampling percussion pad the band had recently added to its shows inspired the song’s dance vibe.
Flow Tribe’s manager, Alex Bowen, who’d booked Fresh for headlining gigs at colleges throughout Louisiana in 2010 and 2011, connected the band with the famous hip-hop producer.
“K.C. and the guys were having a band meeting,” Bowen recalls. “They were like, ‘Man, it would be cool to do something with Mannie Fresh.’ I said, ‘Actually, I know Mannie. I can reach out and see if we can make something happen.’”
“Mannie was receptive,” Early recalls. “He’s open-minded and he’ll try new stuff.”
In March 2016, Fresh and Flow Tribe recorded “You Know What It’s About” at The Parlor Recording Studio in New Orleans. Despite the band’s excitement, O’Rorke says, “going into the session, we didn’t know what to expect.”
Ultimately, the studio production differences between the band and their producer—rock versus hip-hop and electronic music—didn’t matter. The chemistry and atmosphere in the studio turned out to be good.
“We were starstruck at first,” O’Rorke admits, “but Mannie is just a good dude who’s easy to work with. He’s so knowledgeable, but he’s really humble and funny, somebody you can have a real conversation with.”
Fresh went the extra mile for “You Know What It’s About,” returning to the studio for an unplanned second day of work. “That’s when Mannie got in the vocal booth and did the song’s intro,” Early says. “He was willing to do whatever it took to get the song right, which we appreciated.”
“Mannie and the band really clicked,” Bowen says. “It snowballed from there.”
Following Flow Tribe’s first studio experience with Fresh, Early says, the band wanted more. “We decided that we couldn’t put this Mannie Fresh track on an album without other Mannie Fresh tracks.”
“We were just going to do a single for release last summer,” O’Rorke adds. “But after working with Mannie, we were like, ‘This is cool. Let’s do a full-length album.’ He was down for it.”
Flow Tribe postponed the release of “You Know What It’s About.” The band and Fresh returned to The Parlor in September 2016 to record more music for Boss. They devoted an intense week of work to the production of nine more tracks.
“We got there every day around 9 a.m. and stayed until 10, 11, midnight,” O’Rorke says. “We cranked it out with a workmanlike mentality. Because we knew we didn’t have a lot of time with Mannie. He was so busy and we were about to go on the road.”
Flow Tribe recorded the new songs live in the studio as a full band. Fresh subsequently ran the songs through his production filter. He tightened things up and applied his hip-hop, DJ sensibility to the songs.
“Mannie picked out the pieces that he really liked and accentuated them,” O’Rorke says. “It’s definitely a different sound for us. It was a great learning experience, a great give and take.”
Fresh and Flow Tribe, despite their different backgrounds and studio approaches, nonetheless have much in common.
“It’s that New Orleans connection,” O’Rorke says. “Although this is a guy who’s from the same place as us, he’s had a totally different experience. But Mannie still loves the same music that we love. Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas. We talked with him about that for hours. People who create art in New Orleans are inspired by the same source material. But when they go off on their own, it’s cool to see the tributaries forming from the river.”
Two weeks before the album’s April 28 release, Billboard magazine premiered the music video for “You Know What It’s About” on its website. The band found the perfect location for the video, the Airline Skate Center in Metairie. Fresh guest stars in the clip, sitting at a grand piano.
“Skate Center is a place where we always went when we were kids,” O’Rorke says. “And the song has that dance vibe.”
Fresh didn’t hesitate to join the video shoot, O’Rorke says. “He’s always been really behind our project. Sometimes the bigger producers, working with an up-and-coming band, it’s a paycheck for them, not something they’re super-invested in. We never got that vibe from Mannie. He was like, ‘Let’s do something cool.’”
Flow Tribe features five graduates of Brother Martin High School and one Jesuit High grad.
“I’m surrounded,” says Early, the sole Jesuit High grad in the group. In addition to Early and O’Rorke, the band features Russell Olschner (drums), Chad Penot (bass), Bryan Santos (guitar and timbales) and Mario Palmisano (guitar).
“We have a lot of different personalities,” Early says. “But one thing we have in common is being obsessed with music—especially New Orleans music. Music from as far back as when the first recordings were made through the current stuff. As early as we could get into the music venues, we went to hear local music. Anything we’d hear on WWOZ, or elsewhere, gave us great leads to explore. And it seems the longer we search through the city’s music, the more it unfolds. The legends who played through the last century keep being revealed to us.”
Flow Tribe has had much the same membership throughout its 13 years. The band began with summertime jams in Penot’s backyard. By summer’s end, the musicians knew they were into something good. But then college in Baton Rouge and Alabama and National Guard duty scattered most of the band’s members beyond New Orleans. A major obstacle followed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
O’Rorke watched his hometown’s agony from Alabama. “I could see the city was hurting,” he says. “We all felt it. Our families’ houses were destroyed and everything else. But I had a really strong desire to return to New Orleans. All of us did. We felt New Orleans calling us home. Katrina woke us up to the fact that nothing is permanent. After Katrina, I really wanted to do the band and make it a full-time thing.”
By summer 2006, despite a few members still attending LSU in Baton Rouge, Flow Tribe reactivated. “We took the opportunity to come back, establish the band and be a part of the rebirth of New Orleans,” O’Rorke says.
That summer, too, Flow Tribe secured a Sunday night spot at Friar Tuck’s Bar & Grill on Freret Street. Early dropped by one Sunday and sat in with Flow Tribe. He never left. Brian Santos joined in 2006, too.
The Sunday night Friar Tuck’s residency helped Flow Tribe cultivate its performance chops. The band also played birthday parties and any other gigs it could get. In the next few years, Flow Tribe played the first real music venues of the band’s career in New Orleans. It also took road trips to Baton Rouge, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Destin, Florida.
Financially, these were challenging times. “Sometimes we had to play a house party the next day to pay for gas,” O’Rorke says. “Just scraping by. Sleeping on floors. Whatever it took.”
Flow Tribe continued its progression to better venues and small festivals. “Over time we became more selective,” O’Rorke says. “My advice to any new band is just keep playing. Play as many shows as possible. Do whatever it takes. And it takes time to develop your live sound. The live show is where it’s at. That keeps people coming back.”
In spring 2017, Flow Tribe combined the release of Boss with its usual hectic schedule of festival-season gigs. The band’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival-concurrent gigs included Tipitina’s, the Little Gem Saloon, Wednesday at the Square, the Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center and, in Lafayette, Festival International de Louisiane.
“Those two weeks are crazy,” O’Rorke says. “It all runs together. There’s so much stuff going on. Everybody’s doing music and parties. Not only do the local musicians get to hang out with visiting national musicians, they get to shine for people coming in from all over. It’s great for everybody.”
Unfortunately, stormy weather forced the cancellation of Flow Tribe’s Jazz Fest show. “We were ready,” O’Rorke says. “Van packed, trailer loaded. We met at John-Michael’s house. And then we got the call. Cancelled. We saw the wall of lightning on the radar. As much as we wanted to perform at Jazz Fest—a great opportunity—nobody wanted to get electrocuted.”
A disappointment, but this year Flow Tribe will play some 150 shows throughout the United States. That’s about 180 days on the road. The band’s spring and summer tour will take it across the Gulf Coast, up the East Coast, through the Midwest and to the West Coast.
“It’s crazy that we’ve made it this far,” O’Rorke says. “I chalk it up to everybody buying into it and our general love for music. We started as 18-year-old kids. Now half the band is married. Two guys have kids. Life keeps happening, but we keep rolling. We still have the same focus and desire to play as many shows as possible. We still want to make the best music possible and spread as much as love as we can.”
And along the way, some only-in-New Orleans experiences have come Flow Tribe’s way. In 2015, songwriter, producer and pianist Allen Toussaint sat in with the group at Tipitina’s. In 2016, their heroine, Irma Thomas, joined them in a performance of “Proud Mary” during a WWOZ pledge drive.
“There have been moments like that throughout our career,” O’Rorke says. “It’s like, ‘Is this really happening? Allen Toussaint, an architect of New Orleans music, is sitting in with us?’ It blew us away.”
“Unbelievable,” Early agrees. “It’s going to be tough to top those two as far as career moments. Me, personally, Toussaint is my number one. Toussaint and Stevie Wonder. I can listen to them all day. Sometimes I do.”
“The Irma thing was crazy,” O’Rorke says. “My DJ buddy at WWOZ was like, ‘Yeah, if we get 10 calls, we’ll ask Irma to sing with Flow Tribe.’ And Irma said, ‘I love those guys.’ I thought, ‘What! Irma Thomas knows who we are?’ And she killed it. It’s that connection between New Orleans musicians. It’s special.”
The joyful link between musicians and their audience, O’Rorke adds, is special, too. “That’s always been our mantra. As long as we focus on that, that keeps people coming to our shows. We realize that people have endless entertainment options. So, when someone does come out to our show, we give it everything we’ve got. And there’s nothing better than when the audience and the band melt into this weird musical organism. That reflects New Orleans culture, second-line culture, Mardi Gras. You don’t know where the band starts and the crowd begins.”
Having toured throughout the U. S., Flow Tribe wants to bring its backbone crackin’ music to the world.
“New Orleans has such a good brand across the globe,” Early surmises. “We have a New Orleans-influenced sound, with that New Orleans backbeat. It’s rhythm and dance music.”
“But that’s the one area where we really are chomping at the bit,” O’Rorke says. “We’ve always gotten a lot of good feedback from international folks. They love what we do, but we haven’t made that leap yet.
“Even now, when we go on the road, we’re ambassadors for New Orleans and Louisiana. We love having that responsibility. People say, ‘Man, I really enjoy what you guys are doing.’ And we say, ‘Come to New Orleans. We’ll show you a good time.’ Other New Orleans musicians have been ambassadors. Allen Toussaint. Dr. John, the Neville Brothers have been seen as embodiments of New Orleans. That’s the tradition we strive to be part of.”
A serious mission, but the uninhibited entertainers in Flow Tribe don’t take themselves too seriously, despite being serious about their music. Anyone who saw them busting moves in nuns’ habits at the 2012 Voodoo Fest knows that.
“It was Halloween in New Orleans,” O’Rorke says. “You gotta dress up. And, obviously, we all went to 18 years of Catholic school. Voodoo Fest was a nice little homage to the sisters.”