Despite his place at the forefront of Eugene's thriving underground hip hop scene, Marv Ellis, a bilingual rapper with a penchant for funk and world beats, doesn't like the label "underground" — even as he achieves modest fame among its subterranean dwellers. "I believe completely in the underground," Ellis explains. "I had a problem being labeled as underground hip hop, though, because I don't feel like I'm really hip hop anymore. I feel like I'm this twisted amorphism of a bunch of different styles."
It's been a slow but steady progression. Ellis, a Spanish-speaking Eugene native, got his start as a live performer with Papa's Soul Kitchen, the funk band that preceded the existence of Eugene's premier Southern comfort food restaurant (and yes, Papa was in it). Unfortunately, the band dissolved once Papa's Soul Food Kitchen took off, and Ellis formed Genus Pro, whose wild local popularity caused the group to burn out, bringing Ellis full circle back to performing with a live ensemble.
"I'd always fantasized about having a band called 'My Imaginary Friends,'" Ellis says. Temporarily setting aside the all-digital composition he'd become accustomed to in Genus Pro, he cobbled together a 10-person band. With the help of his very real Imaginary Friends, Ellis has incorporated more Latin jazz, funk and soul than his previous efforts, focusing more on perfecting his live performance than on his studio work. And while the instrumentals on his brand-new album are still digital renderings rather than live recordings, he'll be celebrating the July 5th release of Dreamcatcher Juice with all of the Imaginary Friends backing him.
Ellis says he owes Justin Dodge, a multi-instrumentalist and member of funky Eugene hip hop troupe The Juice to Make it Happen, for working with him on the record, composing digital beats that could be easily replicated by a live band. Ellis calls Dreamcatcher Juice his poppiest work to date, but he still rhymes more than he sings (though he calls one track "Bobby McFerrin hip hop"). But hip hop is still the album's focal point, musically and lyrically. At its core, Dreamcatcher Juice is about relationships: not just romantic relationships, but the relationships we have with our ambitions and the sacrifices we make to stick with them. Listen to the record straight through, and you'll notice the progression — what Ellis refers to as "the love cycle" — which concludes, he explains, with one important revelation. "In the end, my one true love this whole time has been hip hop," he says. "And I don't care if hip hop gets clubbed out, if it's being exploited, I don't care anything about that. Because my love for it is unconditional."