From the Archives: Colson Whitehead’s Music Criticism At The Voice (Part 1)


Before he was writing novels about zombies, elevator inspectors and summers on Long Island, the man behind 2010’s best literary twitter account worked on staff at the Voice, writing mostly about television but often about books and music as well. To coincided with the release of his new Zone One, we spent a couple hours in the archive room using the old-fashioned card catalog to unearth what turned out to be some of the best pop criticism we had read all month. Below we’ve reproduced his review of Basehead’s We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, an album Whitehead takes to task for “[signifying] rap without playing it,” and will continue tomorrow with his take on Digable Planets and Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Long form album reviews, remember them?

Say It Slurred
(April 6, 1993)

Basehead’s debut, Play With Toys, was eagerly embraced by white alternative fans for the same reasons it was ignored by hardcore rap fans: the record signified rap without playing it. They were branded “alternative rap,” music industry shorthand that sidesteps discussion of hip hop’s current dimension. When they played last summer with Me Phi Me, Divine Styler, and the Disposable Heroes during a New Music Seminar Hypefest, the bill was half an event, half a marketing gimmick, and 100 per cent pure gumbo, with everything—industrial, hardcore, soul—thrown into the pot. The recipe often failed, but more important than the flavor was each band’s incorporation of their favorite hip hop ingredients.

Play with Toys was basically indie rock with hip hop flourishes. Early rappers produced their songs by stitching their rhymes and the music they grew up with together with the limited technology at hand—an extra turntable, a mike, and the B-side of your favorite record were all you needed. Michael Ivey, the base head, took the music of his youth, hip hop, and used the equipment in his Howard University dorm room to borrow some of its phrases. He grabbed at scratching, drum machine rhythms, and samples the same way he approached his handful of chords, ponderous bass, and subdued voice—as equal tools in his repertoire.

On Not in Kansas Anymore (Imago), Basehead drops most of those hip hop gestures—a little half-hearted scratching is all that’s to be had—leaving only the band’s mellow, minimalist arrangements. A college boy to the core, Ivey’s lyrics are pure middle-class angst, which means racism, beer, and girls are all of equal importance. From Kansas‘s git-go, Ivey adopts a more active voice than the easy mumbling of Toys. On the can’t-we-all-get-along tip, he rails on about getting the evil eye from store clerks, cops, and hot-tempered brothers who would rather use a gun than reason. Tempering, or rather, undercutting that anger, however, is his love for joints and a cool one to wash it down. “Brown Kisses,” where Ivey tells the world to pucker up for his booty, closes with “Now we’re going to do a cover of ‘Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud’… of being drunk,” diminishing the impact of his newfound ire.

As for romance, Ivey’s grown up a bit; no longer asking the question which defined the first album, “What about our love,” he now wants to know “Do You Wanna Fuck (Or What)?” But even when he gets a little vulgar, he knows his parents are going to listen to this record and retreats to respectability. “Hoes on Tour,” about his seduction by a groupie, ends when he walks away saying, “I like the girl that I have.” Ivey has more of an edge this time—life on the road and all that—but he’s still a suburban boy at heart.

The best parts of Play With Toys were its digressions: the Schooly D drum riff on “Brand New Day” altered every four beats for different effect; the radio station surfing intended to lighten up a heartache song but finding only Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)”; and the television dispute that opens and closes “Evening News,” which underscores Ivey’s point about senseless violence better than his lyrics could. Formalistic invention is limited here to swiping part of an answering machine tape (a tactic also employed by fellow artisans De La, Digable, and 3rd Bass), which carries on the rap tradition of recognizing that any sound, any device, is fair game.

Kansas would have benefited from some of Basehead’s early playfulness, as well as some of the melodies; each song on Kansas sounds partitioned, each instrument playing along in a tunnel instead of in concert. Pared-down, the album rarely kicks. Play With Toys was aptly titled, for Ivey came up with new and interesting games; if he wants his playmates to stay, however, he’s going to have to think up some new diversions.

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