The Uncluded

If you dug the sloe-eyed undie-rap science Aesop Rock dropped over Kimya Dawson’s hyperactive folk plaints on the latter’s Thunder Thighs, the Uncluded is right up your alley. What the pair fosters, for better or worse, is the experience of two strong creative minds brainstorming simultaneously, out loud, often in confusing contradiction. It’s thrilling sometimes, exhausting at others. There’s something to be said for passing the mic and, you know, playing hypeman or just acting hard while your partner is breaking off something.

Sat., June 1, 8 p.m., 2013


WARNING: Serpentine Path Don’t Like It When You Call Them A Supergroup

It’s tempting to call Serpentine Path a supergroup, but the band members would like you to refrain from doing so immediately. The New York City metal outfit rose from doom trio Unearthly Trance’s ashes when vocalist Ryan Lipynsky, bassist Jay Newman, and drummer Darren Verni brought former Electric Wizard and Ramesses guitarist Tim Bagshaw onboard for a new project. The quartet’s ensorcelling and terrifying self-titled debut was released by Relapse in September; soon after they added Winter’s Stephen Flam as the second guitarist. Even though this seems like an optimal time to utter the S word, when Serpentine Path play on Saturday night at Saint Vitus Bar — the band’s first show ever — DO NOT CALL THEM A SUPERGROUP.

“You’d better be fucking super if you’re gonna call yourself a supergroup,” says Newman. “Those are pretty lofty expectations for a band that hasn’t played its first show yet. People can spin it however they want, but we’re all just likeminded musicians into the same style of music. Maybe we all have a bit of experience playing in the genre because of our previous bands, but we’re all just friends that happen to live in New York. At the core, we’re all really fascinated with pushing the boundaries of what heavy music can be; we all drink from the same water.”

While Unearthly Trance’s 2010 masterpiece V experimented with tempo variation and expressive pluralism, Serpentine Path is a far more single-minded beast. The songs are all heavily concentrated and nightmarishly slow, which effectively magnifies even the slightest melodic contortion and provides Lipynsky’s despairing growl the opportunity to distinguish itself from the grim sludge. Though difficult to decipher, the lyrics read like an Aesop Rock bar: so surreal they flirt with the edge of gibberish (but, of course, infinitely more dismal). Lipynsky’s grunts are primal and infected, as if the torment is so overwhelming it’s destroyed the possibility of a complete sentence.

“Crotalus Horridus Horridus” begins with a rattlesnake bite, and ends with a hallucinatory plunge into the afterlife. “Awoken to the slithering, shadow coils hidden,” observes Lipynsky. Disoriented by the venom, he accepts his fate, “Surrounded with no retreat, forced to confront what lies ahead.” On “Bats Amongst Heathens,” which closes with the sound of vampire bats feeding on hot flesh, death’s pathway is once again revealed within the swampy, knuckle-dragging gunk: “Hunt conquer mammal spirit, cross the threshold of dusk, embrace the black saturation.”

“It’s a horrific atmosphere–dark and negative and super-depressing,” says Newman. “This sound, and these nasty feelings, come naturally to us. We put it in our music, and we don’t wear it in our shoulder. It calls out to us, so we wanted to see how heavy and grotesque of a record we could make. Unlike Unearthly Trance, which dealt with the occult, many of these songs are about the end-of-days and humanity’s extinction and humanity’s destruction of the world. We don’t sit behind our computers all day and wait for the world to end, but there’s nothing positive about this music.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with that spectrum of positive and negative,” adds Flam. “It’s like an escape from reality, similar to watching a horror movie. When we play this music, it conjures certain images in my head, like being a fucking gladiator and just fucking slaying people. I don’t think those images are necessarily negative.”

Serpentine Path, Tombs, 16, and Pyrrhon play Saint Vitus Bar Saturday night (8 p.m., $12).


Aesop Rock

Ian Matthias Bavitz’s irresistible egghead wordplay and abrasive, gravelly bark made him a a centerpiece of underground hip hop, even though he was a scrawny Jewish kid from Long Island. His acclaimed label, Def Jux, packed up shop last year, but thankfully that hasn’t slowed him down one bit: tonight, he performs with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, with whom he has a new rap group called Hail Mary Mallon, and more surprisingly, indie-folk singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson, who heavily features his exceptional rhymes on her upcoming new album.

Sat., May 14, 9 p.m., 2011


Camu Tao Gets His Due

On a spring evening in 2005, Camu Tao stood in a nook across from the Max Fish bar in the Lower East Side, supping from a stash of PBR cans he’d stowed in his jacket pocket. Metro, his fellow MC in the hip-hop duo S.A. Smash, stood beside him; soon, El-P and Aesop Rock, their cohorts on pioneering NYC underground-rap label Definitive Jux, joined in, and they all made their way inside, leaving behind a trail of crushed cans. There, the quartet chased beers with shots of Jameson and generated the drunken patter of rap nerds: The conversation took in the unheralded genius of Camp Lo’s second album, an unreleased Stezo project that dissed E.P.M.D., bad-taste jokes about the relationship between Jermaine Dupri and Kris Kross, and Metro’s story about the time Björk kissed him in a dive bar whose name he wouldn’t reveal.

Tall, gregarious, and constantly grinning, Camu was a beacon of entertainment. On exiting one of the bar’s grunge-encrusted bathrooms, he stuffed a long piece of toilet tissue up his left nostril, parodying a familiar Redman photograph from The Source. As the bar tab increased, they resembled nothing more than four close friends out for a good time. But just three years later, the 30-year-old rapper would pass away from lung cancer—a condition he hid from his friends, instead offering cryptic messages about his debilitating state through the solo album he was working on but hadn’t quite completed: the soundtrack to his own death.

That album, King Of Hearts, has now been released via Def Jux/Fat Possum in a deliberately unpolished and unfinished state. “He was dying and all along making this record,” laments El-P, once more sitting at a table in the corner of Max Fish, nursing a midday Stella Artois. “We kept it faithful to the source material. The lyrics take on a new meaning when he sings, ‘Death, where have you been all my life?’ “

Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Camu ingratiated himself into the Def Jux circle in the late ’90s through a brash move: Having somehow procured label boss El-P’s phone number, he cold-called him. They hit it off. Soon, Camu, who had made a ripple in his hometown scene as part of the MHz crew with RJD2, Copywrite, and Tage, ditched his job at a water-testing plant to move to Brooklyn, where, as El puts it, he partied and “ran amok.”

This was back when independent New York rap directly opposed the commercial scene: You were either Puffy or El-P, wore a shiny suit or a backpack. Fans bought into the dichotomy. So while Camu’s contemporaries dropped albums in tune with their perceived milieu, full of tracks more concerned with boasts of lyrical purity than actually having fun, his Smashy Trashy project with Metro, an album full of upbeat, party-leaning songs, failed to resonate. “It wasn’t what people wanted to hear from Def Jux,” El says now.

So Camu searched for his voice. He toyed with impromptu alias projects like Blair Cosby, a conceptual comedic fusion inspired by Blair Underwood and Bill Cosby. Then, frustrated with an underground circuit fellow MC and one-time roommate Cage describes as “a bunch of guys rapping about how great they are,” Camu decided to “re-examine the idea of rap-rock,” big hooks and all. The lane was open: He started to sing, in a timbre akin to André 3000’s high-strung squawk, and recorded songs into Garage Band on his laptop, often through its built-in mic. He interpolated “My Funny Valentine” and Elvis Costello’s “Big Boys.” King of Hearts began to take shape.

During this period, from 2005 onwards, friends started to suspect something was wrong. El-P and Cage both noticed that Camu, usually an insatiable ball of energy, would sleep all day on tour. Eating even soup would cause him to double over in pain. “But he didn’t want to put it on us,” says El, who believes Camu was diagnosed late because he was scared: He knew something was wrong and was waiting until the last minute. Once diagnosed, he finally confided in his friends; given two weeks to live, he lasted a year and a half, finally succumbing on May 25, 2008.

Aesop Rock broke the news onstage at a show in Minneapolis; soon after, El-P announced that Def Jux would release King of Hearts. But instead, in-fighting broke out. Multiple accusations emerged from within the camp, based around alleged attempts to profit from Camu’s death. The very private debate raged publicly on MySpace and various message boards. Asked what prompted what he calls the “bickering within the crew,” El-P pauses, then says, “It’s really tough to process death. I regret that stuff went down. But there’s no manual—you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. People get defensive, angry, emotional. It’s like any family. You just have to forgive us all for not knowing how to deal and move on.”

For Camu’s musical family, King of Hearts is part relief and part fulfillment of a friend’s last wish. Cage, who has lived with the record since 2005, says he no longer listens to it: “It’s too haunting—there are too many messages in there.” Preserved from files on Camu’s laptop and sequenced as listed in an iTunes playlist, it’s a respectful release without peer in a hip-hop world that regularly scours the vaults of its dead. But it’s also like reading someone’s diary, only to realize they’ve passed away when the words stop mid-sentence. It’s an album of ghostly ellipses: songs without verses, ideas for choruses left hanging, raw thoughts unedited. It’s almost taboo. “Fuck Me,” the album’s closing song, is Camu’s bare voice amid a layer of audio hiss. When he sings, “Come on and kill me,” it’s tempting to turn it off: You’re not sure you should be hearing this.

But it’s the possibility of King of Hearts that stings most. Conceived in 2005, it foreshadowed rap’s increasing tolerance of indie rock. “When Camu got sick, Gnarls Barkley came out,” Cage recalls. “Everyone on the inside was like, ‘Oh, shit, someone else is doing it.’ “

“The fucked up thing is, if it had come out two years ago, it would have been unprecedented,” says El-P, lighting a cigarette and settling into his booth. “Now, lots of people are making the transition [from rapping to singing]. You have Kid Cudi, who incorporated that. Camu couldn’t have done this in the MHz days, and there are people now who won’t accept him, but Camu wouldn’t give a shit.” He taps ash into his empty beer bottle. “I just wish Camu was here to see he was doing good.”


Murs Hits the Big Time, If ‘the Big Time’ Even Exists

Odder than anything beaming in from Planet Weezy is Warner Bros.’ decision to take a chance on indie interloper Murs just when hip-hop sales have gotten as terrible as the rest of the music industry’s. Pitchfork noted that “mainstream hip-hop has little time for ordinary dudes,” and I’d add that neither does the underground, which prefers to lionize principled nutcases like El-P and MF Doom and Kool Keith. Even with a whole album (Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition) of dick-talk behind him, the 30-year-old rapper may be a man’s man, but he’s no pimp. Murs has always been an oddly middle-class, blue-collar straight-talker, conscientious but not too p.c. to pick up a girl who wants a “Bad Man” and violate her with a glow stick. In 2003, he advised us to “keep it gangsta in your CD changer, not your residence,” and, on the same record, did pills with Aesop Rock and let Humpty Hump trash his house (“Yo, is your Rolls blue? Cuz I got bad news”), so count “balance”-obsessed regular doods as his peers: Akrobatik, Rhymefest, etc.

There’s odd whimsy in the title of the one-time Living Legends alum’s sellout move: Why not elect Murs and throw him into the void? What do the majors have to lose anymore? It’s not hard to imagine the power ballad–styled “Everything” making MTV2 waves, though he remains a curious signing—nothing about this man screams “hit single.” So with Murs for President, he just did what he does, churning out another strong album of choppy retro samples that pretend chipmunk-soul and snap never existed. Like Portishead’s Third, it’s been so long since beats like this were prominent that it sounds beautiful now—and maybe wiser in the long run. All he asked for in return from his new label, apparently, was a decent sound-effects team for an intro skit that builds to a supposed inauguration speech (the concept ends there), and a guest spot from Snoop Dogg—just for a personal photo-op, maybe. The fast-fading (the Pete Wentz of rap) probably showed up for free. If this regular dood never gets to make another one for a major, at least he won’t be able to complain that the money changed him. They don’t have any money.



When they arrived in 1997, art-hoppers Anti-Pop Consortium were a dizzying Pollock splatter of Nuyorican Café verb-spray, blipping outré electronics and retro-future punchlines. After they called it quits in 2003, they were the whipping boys for a hip-hop underground that wanted to rewrite itself as less “weird” and an indie-rock press that was pretending it liked coke rap. Thank God that’s over: APC are reuniting to take those blippy PlayStation beats back from grime and those lightning-fast verses back from Aesop Rock, and play live MPCs like a four-man version of the Star Wars cantina band. No word yet on what their new music will sound like, but it’ll be guaranteed to push whatever boundaries are left since they pushed them last.

Sat., March 22, 8 & 11 p.m., 2008


Time Waits for One Man

For a guy who bemoaned the demands and expectations of increased exposure on his last album, Aesop Rock has since been one surprisingly ambitious dude, releasing new EPs, dabbling in book publishing, composing film scores, and participating in that completely weird project where Nike hires you to make a 45-minute instrumental track for joggers. And now here’s his third Def Jux LP, a thematically focused album that belies the fact that he made it over the last two years when he was doing all that other stuff. Taking a similar approach to 2001’s work-obsessed Labor Days, None Shall Pass forgoes hip-hop’s favorite subject—hip-hop itself, and one’s proclivity to excel at practicing it—and instead examines the concept of time, how memory operates to create a blurred, impressionistic view of the past, and how it’s going to catch up to us all on Judgment Day. While “Fumes” is an ugly story of a relationship hollowed out by drug use, “39 Thieves” and “Catacomb Kids” both relate lighter tales of Long Island delinquency: “Garbage Pail Kids unite at the mall food court/And chase cheese fries with Binaca/They had to shut the school down early/There were bombs inside the lockers” goes the latter.

In typical Aesop Rock fashion, his barrage of lyrics creates moments of nimble genius that make you forgive his more willfully obtuse stream-of- consciousness blather—you can’t decipher most of what he’s saying, and sometimes you’re better off. And the beats, provided variously by Blockhead, El-P, and Aesop himself, are rarely more than serviceable. Still, when things come together, as on the title track, we’re reminded why many consider this guy the reigning champ of indie rap. As the album’s best beat swaggers along, our hero drops a triumphant Evel Knievel reference: “Woke to a grocery list/It goes like this: duty and death/Anyone object, come stand in the way/You could be my little Snake River Canyon today.”

Aesop Rock performs September 9 at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza,




Rapper with dense album upstaged by self-important CEO

At the beginning of Aesop Rock’s October 4 Bowery set, El-P bopped out on the stage and promptly declared his own importance. The cut is called “We’re Famous,” and El-P’s portion of it is mostly concerned with the Def Jux CEO flashing his underground pass and arguing for his own centrality in a world where 50 Cent doesn’t know his name. It’s an argument El-P can’t win. But damn if he didn’t spend the night engaging in it—at Aesop Rock’s expense.

On its own merits, Aesop Rock’s performance should have been transcendent. In a world where rappers happily lumber across stage and call it a show, Aesop is that rare visual rapper, an MC so in sync with his own lyrics that every movement seems to accentuate a drum lick. On Saturday, his renditions of “Super Fluke,” “Freeze,” and “Daylight” were more colorful and urgent as Aesop punctuated his scattershot vocals with serpentine steps and flailing hands. Every motion added an extra layer.

But Aesop also had to contend with El-P’s demerits. Whereas Aesop’s live MC’ing gains heft from his frenetic energy, El-P’s actually flattens, burdened by his heavy-handed proclamations. “Patriotism” is hip-hop’s greatest tribute to the double entendre, but not when El-P strips away all mystery by offering a rambling screed against the war on terrorism. For that matter, why was he even performing “Patriotism”? It’s Aesop who has the new album out—the dense and enigmatic Bazooka Tooth. Yet there was his co-star, rummaging five years deep into his catalog.

Maybe it would have been bearable had Aesop’s set not been preceded by three acts of negligible skill. The Fun Action Committee came off like a lesser Majesticons; Hangar 18 were just forgettable. The middling nihilism of S.A. Smash seemed almost refreshing in comparison. For Aesop, the assembled Def Juxers offered more weight than lift. But when the show ended, the crowd was still chanting his name. Hopefully his label was listening. Ta-Nehisi Coates


Yaks? Mammoths? Musk oxen? Bigfeet? None of the above

Undeniably hirsute but otherwise genus-defying, Super Furry Animals are pop’s ultimate hybrid bastards—love children of more phyla than seems biologically possible. For once forestalling the mutations programmed into its genetic code, the Welsh quintet’s psych-prog seizures attained an improbable (if still rowdy) equilibrium amid the extraterrestrial vistas of 2001’s Rings Around the World. The new Phantom Power (also available as a DVD of lysergic screen savers) is both dreamier and messier, and more explicitly concerned with the state of the planet—the anti-war party album of the year.

Assailed with eggs by offended patriots on their last U.S. tour, the Super Furries found a politically kindred audience two weekends ago at Irving Plaza, where they continued their longstanding tradition of upstaging the headliners (in this case, the agreeable though all too docile Grandaddy). They kept the proceedings strictly English-language (i.e., nothing from 2000’s Mwng, let alone 1995’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwl), though frontman Gruff Rhys was self-conscious enough to wonder at one point, “Do you understand anything I’m saying?” Celtic inflection and grubby sound mix notwithstanding, there was no mistaking the sentiments. The Phantom Power songs took on a harried urgency, while the video projections bluntly reinforced the agit component.

“The Piccolo Snare,” a mournful vision of hawkish bloodshed, was accompanied by a cartoon of falling missiles morphing into crosses, hitting their targets as gravestones in a cemetery. For the flailing holy-war deathstomp “Out of Control,” a familiar, sickening hue of night-vision green flooded the backdrop—Baghdad blitz as CNN video game. Rings favorites “Receptacle for the Respectable” and “Juxtapozed With U” got the warmest receptions, but the climactic “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” left the crowd reeling. A Steely Dan-sampling anti-authoritarian anthem cum ode to pro-pot campaigner (and onetime smuggler) Howard Marks, here introduced with a looped Bill Hicks sample (“All governments are liars and murderers”) while onscreen Bush and Blair wear expressions of evil self-interest, it occasioned a costume change into super furry yeti suits. And for a few surreal moments, it seemed like there was nothing the world needed more than stoner protest rock, especially the kind that wears its broken goofball heart on its very hairy sleeve. Dennis Lim



My Def Jux Baby Tee

“We’re putting all these old routines to bed tonight,” announced El-P when he took the stage at around 11 p.m. Anyone expecting the Definitive Jux post-Christmas party at Bowery last Friday to be a victory lap, a communal high five, or a pat on the back for a year well-done was about to have their mesh hat knocked crooked (if it wasn’t already). Just days after “Santa Christ,” as El-P referred to him, visited all the nice rhymesayers and beat junkies, Definitive Jux pulled one last batch of presents out of their bag: new acts, new songs. Dig the new breed.

Definitive Jux v. 2.0: Made up of Camu Tao (Nighthawks, MHz Crew) and Metro, S.A. Smash was the evening’s curveball. With a full-length due soon, the duo’s set was new to almost everyone not on the label. And while their odes to throwback jerseys, shout-outs to the Ohio State Buckeyes, and choruses of “That’s gangsta” seemed to throw some of the more straight-fat-laced kids in the audience for a loop, Aesop Rock and El-P certainly got open to it, shouting along to every chorus.

El’s set was shared with the West Coast legend Murs, who brought a welcome bit of fun (he rocked pajama bottoms for most of the night) and whose End of the Beginning is waiting in the on-deck circle with an early 2003 release date. Sharing the stage was Aesop Rock, who had been MIA for much of the second half of the year. Backed by RJD2, the group passed the spotlight and freestyled to Freeway’s “Line ‘Em Up”; Murs did the running man, and Aesop Rock debuted some punishing tracks off his upcoming Bazooka Tooth, including a stunning manifesto-style screed with El-P called “We’re Famous.” Ending with a dedication to Jam Master Jay, and making room for RJD2, who lowered the blood pressure on the evening with his cut-and-paste act, the Definitive Jux massive bounded off the stage. It was just a sneak preview. —Chris Ryan

On the Metro

A “sedate library” is how Morgan Geist, one half of Metro Area, described the setting at their Joe’s Pub gig last Friday. He wasn’t far off—with the dark, lush interiors, and grown-up dinner tables, the hushed atmosphere seemed more appropriate for a jazz band than a dance outfit. But as a testament to Metro Area’s supremely catchy material, audience members could be caught wiggling involuntarily in their seats.

The duo performed live hook-laden house music with the assistance of two violinists, Mike Kelly and Rohan, a trumpet player, James Duncan, a percussionist, Carlos Hernandez, and singer Dei Lewison. One song after another showed that house doesn’t have to be thumping, browbeating, or bombastic to make a point. Geist and Darshan Jesrani take their cue from the last days of disco, updating it with tech-house techniques. They use vocals sparingly to augment a section; they don’t blast every available instrument at once. Whole minutes languish in robotic shimmer, extending the groove into a long, playful trance, an occasional hard edge or abrasive shock slicing through the softness.

On record, the songs sound simpler than they really are; in a live setting, they’re rounder, more complete. They fill out, become more voluptuous, the live strings adding sharp, bright flourishes to songs already shining with optimism. Latin influences are more readily discernible, and the cheeky claps on “Miura” seem less cheesy at full blast from a big system. But for all their improvisatory complexity, Metro Area hold true to their less-is-more aesthetic, setting their continually sublime instrumental head music to an infectious, wicked beat. —Tricia Romano

Making the Banned

Since the release of their debut, 2000’s Let’s Get Free, dead prez had their label collapse from under them, were rumored to have signed to Roc-A-Fella, have been practically banned from performing in most city venues, and, despite strong socialist leanings, are meant to be dropping a new album on Sony in the spring. In the meanwhile, though, the collective-minded and contradiction-happy duo—M-1 and—have been displaying a keen gift for small-scale capitalism, generously doling out what the industry’s invisible hand can’t provide.

Their show at S.O.B.’s the night after Christmas drew a sold-out crowd of the type of folks who booed the opening DJ when she played Jay-Z and cheered vociferously both when burned an American flag and when M-1 brought his mom onstage midway through the set and presented her with flowers courtesy of his R.B.G. (Revolutionary but Gangster) family. dead prez have also filled the gap by self-releasing a mix tape of new songs, the most politically incendiary of which is “Know Your Enemy,” where the group asks, “Wanna stop terrorists?/Start with the U.S. imperialists/Ain’t no track record like America’s.” But from dead prez’s grassroots perspective, the real foe is the corporate homogenization of artistic expression. The solution: Fight fire with fire. They may have named their new project Turn Off the Radio, but if you do that, you’ll never catch their message. They turn Aaliyah’s “We Need a Resolution” into “We Need a Revolution,” crooning at the hook, “I’m tired of strugglin’.” On an update of their hit “Hip-Hop,” they borrow a phrase from Khia: “My neck, my back/They put a noose on my neck/Put whips on my back.” Slickly merging high and low, the group got the crowd certifiably crunk. Not bad for a couple of socialist moralists with no sense of humor. —Jon Caramanica

Some You Just Believe In

It started out on a high note. A swirly, syrupy, recorded sax-and-strings intro with colored lights reminiscent of the game show set in Magnolia. A dapper band walked on. And then there she was: diffident, bemused, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder, tallish and skinny with a red shirt and black guitar, trying to break your heart again.

Aimee Mann‘s show at the Beacon last month was like a date with an old crush: full of vague, sweet, unresolved feelings, but inevitably tinged with disappointment. The lush melancholy her music invokes in the privacy of your rainy-windowed bedroom was diminished in the 2800-seat theater, washed out by the starlights rotating off the disco ball. Save for a few loungey space-pop fillips by the extremely able keyboardist, her arrangements barely departed from the recordings, and the nearly uniform tempos lulled, sometimes dragged. The fucked-up sound mix didn’t help, blurring her sharp-witted lyrics even as the audience mouthed along (Aimee Mann fans are too respectful to sing).

“There’s lots more people here than I ought to be playing for,” Mann confessed disarmingly, if correctly, a few songs in. “It’s gonna be one of those nights where I start forgetting stuff and breaking strings.” Sure enough, she muffed the words to her 1995 hit “Ray” even after inviting a thrilled female fan onstage to whisper them in her ear. But somehow, as the night wore on, we only felt closer. Buzzing on caffeine, Aimee riffed nervously with the audience in her low, dorky voice (“I love rock n’ roll? I live rock n’ roll?? I am fuckin’ rock n’ roll! Is that what you meant to say?”), and told how her bitter-rock-star song “You Could Make a Killing” was actually inspired by a searing crush on Noel Gallagher. By the second encore, when she got everyone to clap along to the old “I Should’ve Known,” the whole thing was more than good enough for people like me. —Anya Kamenetz

Change Is Gonna Come

By all cynical accounts, operating a volunteer-based community choir that preaches change to the modern age seems neither artistically challenging nor financially appealing. But tell that to the Polyphonic Spree. And tell that to David Brown, the founder and choirmaster of New York’s 100-person Metro Mass Choir, who’s obsessed with conveying his non-denominational take on faith. The MMC’s holiday show Friday, December 20, at Town Hall opened with a film montage of kids proselytizing change, featured a yuletide medley sing-along, and closed with Broadway diva Daphne Rubin-Vega and an all-female African drum circle leading a rumba-fied take on the gospel standard “Children Go” that threatened to turn the theater into a dance party for the older set. To get with the MMC, you gotta internalize “All You Need Is Love” as part mantra, part stand-up routine. Brown, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, has a minister’s insistence when addressing the flock—whether he’s goofing on his own homosexuality, or telling a story about racial sensitivity. He’s funny and pulls few punches (though his oratory could still use a stronger jab).

It’s the choir that makes the message flow. Non-professional singers whose body language betrays the moment the songs simply take them over, the Metro Mass are a force in numbers alone. But Brown’s arrangements give them something progressive to shout. Tying Bruce Springsteen’s post-9-11 lament “Into the Fire” to the heart of “Amazing Grace,” or recasting a Phil Collins tune as an excursion into Graceland—vocally raging, the drum circle rolling—are joyful acts of one-world populism, staged by a pickup crew. And when you see a petite, middle-aged woman unironically sporting a Berliniamsburg haircut, contorting to sing a Phil Collins tune with all the power she can muster, you have to imagine her soul’s somehow involved. —Piotr Orlov


Genius Rap

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.”

MC Paul Barman plays Wetlands April 12. Most of these albums are available at See also:,,, and