Genius Rap

Out in the Burbs and Boonies, Hip-Hop Connects With Its Inner Weirdo

Barman's tomfoolery is only aided by his delivery, which sounds roughly like the words a Slinky would say as it descended an irregular staircase—quickinthemiddle and s-p-r-e-a-d-a-t-t-h-e-e-n-d-s, with sporadic hesitations in between. He teeters near the beat, always perilously close to losing it, but somehow recovering to save himself from utter rhythmic ruin. Charming, but hardly for the hardcore.

To me it don't matter how dope you write or look/MCs without a voice should write a book.—Evidence of Dilated Peoples, "Guaranteed"

I want to write a book but up 'til now I've only done raps/So is Sole gonna put out my 200-page album?/Can I rock a crowd with ex-cerpts?—Dose One, "Questions Over Coffee"

Kid yourself not—most hip-hop is written, penned to page before being committed to tape. Yet there's a certain kinetic energy to most mainstream hip-hop, with verses that accommodate silence as easily as they do the words themselves, evoking the potential for spontaneity. Listening to these newer MCs, though, can be like slogging through Ulyssesat triple-speed. Words battle each other for placement in the dense verbal matrix. For example, four bars of Radio Inactive's "Starch" (from Inside Out Vol. 1—A Foolblown Compilation) read as follows: "Drinking orange juice out of a thermos in a plastic Thundercats lunchbox with Bermuda shorts and sweatsocks pulled up to my knees playing Atari 2600 Combat on the 10-inch black-and-white TV with a big antenna with foil wrapped around the top." It's thick description to make Clifford Geertz blush, delivered in a robotic whine with a touch of glottal reverb.

Radio's verse is only indicative of a greater flow-obscurantism in this subgenre, one not unlike that of Southern hip-hop. Even fans can't figure out all the words to Juvenile's "Ha," and these upstart artists' cadences are often strikingly similar to those of their Southern compatriots, though whether the homage is intended is debatable. Producer Slant laces the Foolblown compilation with two outright bounce beats, one of which appears to nod directly at Mannie Fresh. "It's Them" (on Anticon Presents) comes from the other side, with Dose One's Southern-stutter style coordinated with a mis-syncopated beat that sounds like skipping vinyl. The kinship between the two worlds isn't always so plain, but their similar fetishization of complexity makes them equally inscrutable to the masses.

Occasionally, though, such oddity can be a formula for transcendence. In "Odessa," closing his AppleseedEP (Hungry Tired), Aesop Rock plays verse-for-verse against Dose, evoking what A Tribe Called Quest might sound like today had their thought and rhyme schemes turned futurist. The duo have an easy rapport, each clearly in touch with the other's vision.

By exploring idioms so far from the hip-hop center, with almost no checks and balances on their work apart from the constraints of their own creativity, performers like these have cultivated a peculiar style and, riding the coattails of the independent climate established by labels like Rawkus and Solesides, created their own spaces even further afield. Yet one can't help but wonder at the sheer volume of their output—putting out multiple albums culled from back catalogs—and the indulgence that goes along with such prodigiousness. Dose alone has released two concept poetry albums in addition to his work on Circles, each with just a pair of tracks clocking in at around 30 minutes each. Two years ago perhaps, before independence was cool and before technology placed power more firmly in the hands of the artist, such experiments wouldn't have been seen outside of the bedroom studio. Yet today they're a legitimate scene, helping to expand hip-hop's geographical and conceptual reach. Dose, for his part, is humble about it all: "I'm not a leader/I just can't see myself following you."


MC Paul Barman plays Wetlands April 12. Most of these albums are available at www.foolblown.com. See also: www.anticon.com,www.fourwaystorock.com, www.dirtyloop.com, and www.mcpaulbarman.com.

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