Grand Buffet’s Joke-Rap Odyssey


Things that go hump in the night

It’s basically impossible to write about Grand Buffet without making them sound like the worst shit that ever happened to music. Self-consciously weird and satirical white-kid rap groups don’t who rhyme over dinky synths and maintain vague Anticon connections don’t, after all, scream awesomeness. And virtually everything they do seems guaranteed and possibly even engineered to annoy someone: jumping around like spazzes onstage, dropping constant semi-obscure pop-culture references, rapping over dinky new-wave synths, changing their nicknames constantly, elaborately praising Satan. I have vivid memories of one Baltimore show where they sang a straight-up full-length cover of Journey’s “Lights,” changing nothing, and of another where they made a point of talking shit about the Ravens, not something you do in Baltimore. Basically, you’ll probably hate Grand Buffet. There’s not really any reason why you should believe me when I tell you that they’re great, but you should anyway, because they are.

If you Google Grand Buffet, besides getting a whole lot of restaurant listings, you’re going to see the word “nerdcore” a lot. The whole nerdcore rap movement is one of the worst indications of how the internet has affected music scenes. Basically, dorky white kids who are afraid of rap make music about being dorky white kids afraid of rap, and the whole thing has sort of blown up on the internet among dorky white kids who want to hear songs by and about people like themselves. There’s no attempt to engage with or even to recognize actual rap as it exists outside the confines of their lameass little subculture, and there’s rarely any evidence that the people involved have heard any non-nerdcore rap music made after 1990 or so. Superficially, Grand Buffet seem to have a lot in common with these tools; they are, after all, vaguely dorky white guys who make hermetic rap music that doesn’t attempt to engage with rap outside themselves. But the ways Grand Buffet stands out from the whole nerdcore mess are pretty instructive. For one thing, they don’t write songs about obvious dork-culture signifiers; Star Wars conventions and HTML codes, for instance, never show up in their lyrics. Instead, they let fly with vivid and intricately rendered nonsensical narratives. Their pop-cult references are usually of the suburban junk-culture variety, but they can show an unexpected grasp of the uncanny. (One lyric that’s always stuck with me for some reason: “The flashing lights and the cracking sounds / Of the world’s last Applebee’s burning down.” No context given.) For another thing, they can actually rap, a skill the nerdcore dudes never seem to consider worth developing. And they actually put work into their music. Their new-wave synths may be cheap and crappy-sounding, but their hooks register just the same, and those hooks are serious.

In the three years I lived in Baltimore after college, I probably saw Grand Buffet ten times. They’re from Pittsburgh, but they had an inexplicably huge local following, and they were in the city constantly. They’d usually end up on bills opening for indie-rock bands, so it became fairly commonplace to see a whole bunch of kids showing up to see them and then disappearing before Deerhoof or whoever took the stage. None of those bills ever made much sense, but, then, I can’t think of too many groups it would make sense for them to play with. They’ve done a ton of shows with Sage Francis, even though their oblique joke-raps couldn’t have less in common with his gruff agitprop. More recently, they’ve fallen under the pink sequined wing of Of Montreal, which makes about as much sense as the Sage Francis thing. Grand Buffet shows are both completely entertaining and weirdly unsettling, largely because you can rarely tell when they’re joking. As entertainers, they put in work: climbing on balconies, jumping on each other’s shoulders, attempting ill-advised backflips. But they also have a whole lot of fun fucking with their audiences, thus the Ravens-baiting described above. Their albums are all short and freeform: choruses only show up once per track, songs dissolve into static noise, we’re rarely given much indication what individual songs might be about. And so Grand Buffet always seems like this prolonged inside jokes between two dudes, which would be unbearable if they weren’t so good at it.

All of which is to say that King Vision, the first new Grand Buffet album in a while, is pretty great. For a joke-rap group, King Vision is a pretty daring departure: not many jokes, very little rapping. Only four of the thirteen tracks feature actual rapping. Lord Grunge, the bigger and funnier half of the group, has always sung on their records, but here he does little else, and his singing voice is pretty great: a big assured mall-rock baritone that always somehow sounds at home on cheap synthpop tracks. Both Grunge and Grape-A-Don, the other half of the group, still write in overblown video-game language: “We’ve been warriors of light / We were angels in the night / Now the kingdom is in sight / And we are taking it.” But this time there’s a point; almost every song here is somehow about the necessity of living outside the lines in late-capitalist society: “We access alternate channels / Of like-minded people and instrument panels / And fighter-jet cockpits and pirate stations / Overcoming controlled information.” Grand Buffet have aired out their political convictions before, mostly in the form of extreme sarcasm: “We think abortion is pretty messed up / If you don’t want a kid, then don’t be a slut.” King Vision is the moment where these guys decide to show those convictions as concretely and sincerely as they ever will, and the result is something sort of inspiringly defiant. It’s a seriously catchy new-wave rap album from two Ron Paul guys, and part of what’s great about that is the mere fact that something like that exists.

Anyway, go vote today. Preferably for Obama.