This story began with hamsters and a squeak toy over 20 years ago and evolved into a unique contemporary jazz project called Four80East. In their own words: “We make groovy, jazzy, trippy music.” The Toronto-based duo of Rob DeBoer (keys, guitar) and Tony Grace (percussion, drums) started the group as a studio project, but their growing popularity set them out on the road after several years in the studio. Their résumé prior to Four80East includes remixing and producing tracks for others, as well as recording several tunes of their own, under the name The Boomtang Boys.
From their first album in 1997, The Album, they’ve since expanded their theme of jazzy groove music to include elements of funk (such as on their 2009 album Roll On, which begins on a nod to mid-’70s funk) as well as an homage to the disco/dance tunes from the late ‘70s with the 2018 Four on the Floor EP. All are based on their signature sound that combines electronic production and live instrumentation.
I’ve listened to them for a few years now, and it’s always a welcome respite from other music I may have played throughout the day. I do appreciate “pure” genres like jazz, but my interest is always piqued by groups who can combine styles and make them into something unique and instantly recognizable. While they are sometimes associated with “smooth jazz” and have made frequent appearances on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz airplay chart (with “Cinco Cinco Seis” from their Four on the Floor EP topping the chart in 2019), I’ve found their music is outside the repetitive cookie-cutter sound that so many of their contemporaries offer.
Don’t worry…we’ll get to the hamsters.
For this article, I wanted to highlight a few favorite tracks of mine, which are also representative of the group’s sound. If you like what you hear, Four80East has all their albums posted for listening on YouTube. Their albums are also now available on Bandcamp, so you can support the band directly. Their most recent releases are the 2020 album Straight Round, as well as 2021’s Mixed Up, which features their own house-infused remixes of eight classic Four80East tunes. 2018’s Cherry Picked is a well-chosen eight-track anthology of their music up to that point.
Here is the tune that put them on the map: “Eastside,” from The Album. This track gives us a good sampling of their signature elements.
The streaming service Pandora may be to blame for me discovering Four80East. I have been “training” a fusion/jazz station since 2008 (seeding it with a couple of different artists and issuing dozens of thumbs-up and thumbs-down votes), and this came up one day in the rotation. Here is “Shakedown,” from their second album Nocturnal.
“Noodle Soup” predates Four80East by several years (it was originally a Boomtang Boys recording), but I like the subtle dance vibe that it lays down. This peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart in 2007. Another signature tune that highlights their sound, this is a live version from the SiriusXM studios, originally from their fourth album En Route.
Have you ever heard a song that made you think, “This would make a great driving tune”? The title track to En Route is one of those tracks. In a way, the title was symbolic in that they also “hit the road,” assembling a band and touring after this album was released.
This propulsive track will take you “to the east side….to the west side….” via “The Walker,” which opens their 2012 album Off Duty. The track got its name from a pedestrian the duo would see near their studio regularly, who used to walk from the east side of town to the west.
Their newest full-length album’ 2020s Straight Round, is like their other albums where they have an ear to the future as well as the past. This tune reminds me of the great 1970s and 1980s jazz fusion/funk albums that I consumed by the bucketload back in the day. Here is “Busted Flush.”
In 2018, they released a five track EP called Four on the Floor that shoots an arrow straight back to the late ’70s Saturday night dance floor. The dance groove on these tracks is irresistible. The title track – hell, all of the tracks – pushes all the right buttons for me, recalling the greatest dance tracks back in the day while sideloading some of their sophisticated harmonies on top of it all. (Rob DeBoer even channels his inner Nile Rodgers on the title track.) The second song adds the vocals of the great CeCe Peniston, who herself had chart and dance club success back in the early 1990s. “Are You Ready” for this next track?
This look to the past is a perfect segue to the duo of DeBoer and Grace, who with Tony’s late brother Paul Grace, worked together as The Boomtang Boys. In addition to numerous remixing and production credits for the likes of Econoline Crush, Cory Hart, Bif Naked and Camille (“Deeper Shade of Love”), they made their own recordings under their own name, the biggest of which topped the Canadian Billboard charts for four weeks, the over-the-top “Squeeze Toy,” featuring Kim Esty on vocals.
About those hamsters…
Borrowing a few bars of the tune “Whistle Stop” (written by Roger Miller and used in the opening of the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood), the Boomtang Boys expanded on what was one of the very first Internet sensations, the Hampster Dance Page (featuring “Hampton the Hampster”), which was a website featured rows of dancing hamster GIF images set to a sped-up nine second loop of “Whistle Stop.”
Since Disney would not allow the Boomtang Boys to sample the sound clip, the group recorded a soundalike version (DeBoer singing the “Dedodedo” verse and Tony Grace doing the rap) and turned it into a complete song, accompanied by a cartoon video, which would also top the Canadian hit singles chart and result in an entire album of hamster-themed tunes, a la The Chipmunks. The ensuing (and surprising) drama behind the site, the novelty hit, merchandising, attorneys and other involved parties makes for interesting reading.
Here is the track at the epicenter of all that attention: The “Hampsterdance Song.” A silly novelty earworm at best, but…you’ve been warned!
If you visit the Boomtang Boys’ official YouTube channel, you can get an idea of the work they’ve done over the years, as well as keep up on current activities. 2013 brought us “Hamster Dance 2.0,” a slightly reimagined version of the original. And by the time you read this, they will have released their version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” featuring what they call the “classic Boomtang treatment.”
Similarly, pay a visit to the Four80East channel and sample some more of their music, including tracks from their 2021 release Mixed Up, which features new house-style remixes of tunes from their catalog. And as mentioned above, their albums are available on Bandcamp on CD and as downloads, with Cherry Picked and Mixed Up also on limited-edition vinyl.
Finally, since all the tracks are available on YouTube, I’ve assembled a playlist which includes a handful of their radio hits as well as personal favorites of mine (below).