Hip-hop's Anticon collective
by Alex Pappademas
Once a multi-purpose forum for the young, gifted, and black,
hip-hop enters its late 20s as a hetero-
geneous music that's likely to be consumed as well as written, produced, and
directed by the weird, white, and wired. No surprise there: the Beastie Boys
went from sampling the Beatles to being them, and Eminem will (please) stand
(up) as the white Jackie Robinson of 21st-century rap if he can avoid becoming
its black Sid Vicious. As underground hip-hop's economy of skills continues to
give shine to nonstandard talent, we'll undoubtedly see more and more
brainy-ass crackers get thrown into the Chex Mix. But right now, the stylistic
self-immolators of the Northern California-based Anticon collective stand in
marked contrast to their brethren in cool-white-guy-ville.
Anticon's core crew are based in the Bay Area, but if they really live anywhere
it's on the Internet -- the space rents cheaper, and the low-tech word-drunk
qualities of the music lend themselves well to scrolling hypertext and
late-night listening through computer speakers. (When Anticon's Sole feuded
with former Rawkus recording artist and grimy-white-rap standard bearer El-P of
Company Flow, the beef was played out not on stage or vinyl but in a pair of
"singles" -- Sole's "Dear Elpee" and El-P's caustic answer "Linda Trip" -- that
were more read on the Web than heard.) Most of all, the Web serves these guys
well because it's a medium where no one has a body and thus is perfect for rap
that reckons almost full-time with the philosophical, forgoing the concrete
anecdote in favor of abstract intellectual hunger. Hip-hop's standard
ideological split separates nouveau-riche guys who rap about money/cash/ho's
from old-guardians stressing beats, lyrics, and -- uhh -- lyrics about beats
and lyrics. On Deep Puddle Dynamics' The Taste of
Rain . . . Why Kneel (a collaborative album featuring
nine MCs and DJs from the Anticon ranks), one chorus goes, "Fortune, health,
knowledge, success, woman, man, trust, progress, culture, loyalty, heroism,
destiny, endurance, humanity, science, society." "Faith," "music," "innocence,"
"time," "security" and "family" are also mentioned, even as underpinning vocals
repeat, "What is the meaning of life, life?" I don't think the Deep Puddlers
are claiming that hip-hop is incapable of addressing these topics, only that it
too rarely makes them the focus -- which is a legit criticism.
For beats, they favor rainy mood-subduing samples and shuffling drum tracks
(reminiscent of DJ Shadow's early chain-gang funk) that don't punch up the
rhymes so much as unspool them; in terms of lyrics, they're highly linear,
preferring tangent and digression to the crisp one-liners and carriage returns
of more classical hip-hop. The Taste of Rain works best when its
contributing rappers home in on a single extended metaphor, getting inside an
idea and putting it through its paces. The album's biggest depth charge in this
respect is the first track, "Deep Puddle Theme Song," where swimming stands in
for open-mindedness the way it did in Parliament's bubblelicious "Aquaboogie"
suite. Only here, the result is less a bacchanal on the reefs than a wake
beneath the waves. The rappers boast of slashing their throats to create gills
"while anxious bathers fill the beach"; one lyricist says, "I'm in love with a
fly mermaid/She brings me glasses of air, and plates/And sings me songs of how
we used to love concrete."
Elsewhere, you get plenty of quality testifying but also the lack of focus
that's endemic to everybody-on-lead-vocals multi-MC albums. And though the
crew's maverick uncoolness is cool in its own way, the group-therapy vibe gets
tiring. Lines bemoaning day jobs and "the fact that I have to travel
extensively to work with others in my circle" (from the four-movement
complaint-rap cycle "June 26th, 1999") are enough to make you want to go listen
to somebody like Jay-Z, who may be "shallower" but always presumes that if
you're not buying what he's selling, it's because of a deficiency on your part,
Anticon poet/MC Doseone has the one voice that truly leaps forth from the pack
on The Taste of Rain, a delicately enunciated nasal twang evocative of
Ween doing their impression of prog-rock dweebs on "The Stallion Pt. II" or Dr.
Evil or Cypress Hill's B-Real doing the electric slide with a monocle on. If
words are alcohol to the Deep Puddle crew, they're drugs to Dose, and on his
latest "solo" record (a collaboration with DJ Jel under the moniker "Them"
that's called Doseone), he sounds as if he didn't love concrete at all.
It's weirdly evocative free-verse pretending to be stream-of-consciousness
doggerel pretending to be hip-hop, with an occasional hair-raising use of
English ("Being disengaged only counts in escape pods and hand grenades") to
make it a taste worth acquiring. If the soundtrack to the Lord of the
Rings movie needs a guest MC, Dose has the gig locked down.