Smooth Criminals

A "Rolling Stone" investigation into the music and lives of Fun Lovin' Criminals

Huey Morgan and Fun Lovin' Criminals, Glastonbury Festival. Credit: Nicky J. Sims/Redferns/Getty

HIGH ABOVE WEST THIRTY-THIRD Street in a seedy patch of Manhattan is the space that Huey of Fun Lovin' Criminals calls the Clubhouse – part office, part studio, part bachelor pad, with a penthouse view. The top-floor loft is also a recording studio and has hosted sessions by hip-hop luminaries like the Jungle Brothers and Afrika Bam-baataa, and today it's thick with blue herb smoke as Huey, Fun Lovin' Criminals' congenial vocalist-spokesperson, blows another plume from a finger-size joint.

He's kicking back on a leather couch in the Meat Locker – the chilly room where the band recorded demos for its funkafried second album, 100 % Colombian – enjoying time off after a grueling six-month tour of Europe. "When I get home, I eat only pizza for, like, three days," Huey says in true New Yorkese. "You can't get it better anywhere else. I've got one coming up now. You like pepperoni?"

The surname-free Huey (FLC don't admit to last names) is fast-talking, fast-walking and proud of his crib away from crib. "We come up here in the middle of the night – it's beautiful up here," he says, gesturing out the bank of windows that frame the twinkling lights of Manhattan and New Jersey. "Our song 'The View Belongs to Everyone' comes from this view right here."

This perch is the ideal spot for FLC to reflect on their muse. Huey, 30, eats and breathes New York, writing lyrics about jailed Mafia leader John Gotti ("The King of New York"), drug-dealing corner stores and the city's numerous nuts, many of whom are Huey's friends. The group's music is also a melting pot of local flavors: hip-hop, funk, blues and rock blended into a heavy, spliffy groove.

"New York is my home; it's a big small town to me," Huey declares. He looks like a gene splice of Robert De Niro and Tony Danza, though he is Puerto Rican and Irish and was raised by his mother on the Lower East Side. "We got our shits on as kids," he says. "We had what we called 'fun for free.' We'd look in the Village Voice for art openings. We'd try to get suited up with a blue blazer and some ill tie and sneakers, and crash the party to get fucked up on white wine." Yes, friends and neighbors provide a deep well of inspiration for Huey. "There was a kid who was about ten, and his mother would dress him up in a blue ski suit," he recalls. "When he went down the street, everyone in the neighborhood would shout, 'Skisuity!' " The lad, apparently overwhelmed by the gibes, pushed a peer out a window, and his family moved away. "I was going to write a song called 'Skisuity!' but I thought, 'Poor bastard, he's a grown man now. What if he's in a bar hanging out with some girl, and he hears 'Skisuity!' – he'd start screaming, maybe run off a building, some shit. I couldn't do that to him."

Most of Huey's lyrics on 100% Colombian arise from the same storied soil. "Southside" paraphrases the delusions of Jimmy, a resident psycho who patrols Huey's Chelsea neighborhood and is convinced that (a) the city is his girlfriend; (b) she lives on Delancey Street; and (c) he must save her from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani by throwing him in front of the F train. "10th St" details the cons of buying weed from the street's dealers.

Huey stands and points at a window opposite the band's equipment: "Know what's in there? The Fred 'Re-Run' Berry Dance Studio." Hey hey hey! Yes, it's true: The What's Happening!! star is alive, well and showing people how to pop and lock. "He teaches right in there – all the moves," Huey says. "We watch Re-Run break-dancing and all these bugged-out white theater people trying to get down. There's a shower in the back, so we get a lot of naked Re-Run sightings, too." Re-Run concurs. "I'm still kickin', doctor," he says later. "I love it when the Criminals are up there. They're off the hook, man."

FLC began their musical high jinks back at New York's infamous Limelight nightclub, where Huey was a bar back, Fast manned the phones and original drummer Steve (who has taken a leave from the band and been replaced by Mackie) was a barfly they'd sneak onto the guest list when they were working. "There was a guy who worked there whose dad was a pharmacist, and he used to show up with 1,000-count jars of Valium and give each of us, like, fifteen to twenty every day," Huey says, rolling his eyes. "We were so fucked up for a period of four months." The result was the band's loopy single "Scooby Snacks," from its 1996 debut, Come Find Yourself. After playing a birthday party at the club for a promoter friend, FLC were asked to fill in when other bands canceled – hell, the club didn't have to pay them if they were already on the payroll. But dreams do come true: At their sixth gig, they were discovered by an EMI Records rep and signed soon after.

The band spent 1996 and 1997 touring relentlessly, eventually landing spots opening for U2, Garbage and Oasis. "We spent most of our lives being music fans, so to get into some of the situations we've gotten into is strange, man," says Huey. "I mean, when we opened for U2, every time we saw the Edge, we freaked out." Both on- and offstage, that is: "The last night of their tour, he brought us out when he was doing his karaoke thing, and we just ran around shouting, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Edge! The motherfuckin' Edge!' The crowd was screaming so much, he had to stop singing." FLC's touring and wise-ass stage banter won them a rabid following in England. After their first tour of Australia this winter, the band will tour the States and then England. "We're personalities over in England," Huey says. "We're like the token New Yorkers of Europe."