There’s always a joker in the pack/There’s always a lonely clown. —crooned in the introduction to MC Paul Barman’s It’s Very Stimulating (Wordsound)
If you believe what Hot 97’s chirping in your ear, rap’s a bulky monolith. Dammit, it’s just so hard to be anything other than a big pimpin’ hot boy these days that to try something different is, like, whoa! In the post-Rawkus era, even independence isn’t alternative; it’s just a budget version of the real thing.
Some new artists, though, to paraphrase a more famous sonic transgressor, just don’t give a fuck. Lyrically enigmatic, sonically eclectic, stylistically experimental, their music embodies nearly everything the hip-hop mainstream isn’t—not a polar opposite, but rather an art birthed to fill in spaces left open by standard-bearers.
I’ll take seven MCs/Put ’em in a line/Shoot ’em and sell they clothes to get my wisdom teeth pulled. —Deep Puddle Dynamics, “Rainmen,” on Anticon Presents: Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop (Anticon)
They don’t even waste an inordinate amount of time lambasting their jiggy peers (though, this being underground hip-hop, vestigial “independent as fuck” sentiments do remain). Rather than emphasize their structural differences, which are of course very present, they expand the language of the art, often rendering it in ways that would leave parochialists scratching their heads. Rapping about foreign film. Rapping about food. Rapping about sports. (And I don’t mean “Basketball” here. Buck 65 has a three-track retelling of a mythical baseball game interspersed throughout his album Vertex [Four Ways to Rock], pretty much apropos of nothing.) Rapping about animals. Rapping as animals. (Don’t believe that last one? Try “Farmer’s Market of the Beast” from last year’s Beneath the Surface compilation [Celestial], on which a group of MCs take on the roles of an iguana, a snake, a walrus, a lion, a goat, and a lab chimp. No hamster style, though.)
There’s no ersatz authenticity here. Old notions of the “real” have been discarded as easily as those ABAB flows we’ve gotten used to. This next generation of artists—Slug, Dose One, Buck 65, MC Paul Barman, Aesop Rock, Radio Inactive, Sixtoo, Awol One—all take hip-hop and mold it unconventionally. Representing environs as unlikely as Halifax and suburban New Jersey and Cincinnati and northern Minnesota, these outsiders dabble in styles with all the quirkiness befitting their assorted backgrounds.
I am the only one like me/Subtitled—’therefore’ symbol—I am no better than anyone for it though. —Dose One, “Questions Over Coffee,” Circles (Mush/Dirty Loop)
Originality without arrogance. Quite refreshingly, these MCs seem to care little for conceit, instead using their time on wax to hash out their personal problems—lyrics (and music) qua therapy. Circles, Dose One’s collaboration with producer Boom Bip, is a collection of 29 poems in which the rapper takes himself on a journey of self-analysis. In “The Bird Catcher,” he laments people’s lack of humanity, implicitly indicting himself in the cycle: “I will write forever and wonder why some men change lives/My ears go back and mouth runs dry at how few truly make friends amongst themselves/Ship in a bottle/It’s frightening, in all my daily routines, how few I’ve truly shared a moment with another/Boy in a bubble.”
Or perhaps Buck 65 strikes closest to the truth, admitting, “I like human contact but I don’t like to play-fight,” instead preferring quiet time “in the bed, naked, watching movies on the VCR.” But isolation itself can be as painful as false communitas. Either way, anxiety must run in this crew. Fellow Anticon Records affiliate Slug brings the trauma on “Want,” from the Ropeladder 12 compilation (Mush/Dirty Loop)—”I felt a lot of love from these people that don’t know me/Now I never go home ’cause I hate being lonely”—finding the fans’ adoration not enough to sustain him through crises.
But one listen to “Nothing but Sunshine,” Slug’s contribution to Anticon Presents, should explain why. Reminiscent of “Last Good Sleep,” El-P’s confessional (from Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus) about overhearing his stepfather abuse his mother, it’s a startlingly revealing tale of childhood confusion, rooted in the death of Slug’s parents, one after the next, when he was almost too young to notice: “When my mother died, I had to take it in stride/There ain’t no room for pride in watching your father cry/Dad made it until maybe a year later/When they found his suicide inside of a grain elevator/Got over it/I had no other offers or options.” Parts of the track are clear hyperbole (one hopes), as he acts out murdering cattle while crooning a refrain from “My Girl,” but the pain remains the same. Slug’s depth of candor is atypical for any genre, but particularly so in a hip-hop nation that values posturing over conceding.
MC Paul Barman, to his credit, engages in a bit of both of these, each one threatening to undermine the sincerity of the other at any moment. He writes “I’m Fricking Awesome” from a female perspective, but then just as he’s on the verge of empowering her, she visits the Met, spies Barman himself (dirty dog!) working the donation stand, and rushes him off to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing to engage in a bit of headbanger boogie—an odd degree of vanity, even among rap’s proud braggadocio addicts. Yet Barman’s too insecure to truly be self-aggrandizing; the remainder of the album is practically a paean to his dubious sexual prowess. He’s hung like a birthmark, his girl runs off with Ione Skye, his condom turns out to be Hanukkah gelt, he’s outed as gay (but isn’t): a veritable cornucopia of sexual dysfunction, all on display like a peep show of the libido.
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 Ulysses at 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 Appleseed EP (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.”