By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Still, Antipop was further out there than most. On subsequent singles (many collected on 2000's Tragic Epilogue, released on 75 Ark), the Antipop aesthetic was firmly established: In the hands of Beans, Sayyid and High Priest, the microphone became a baton in a relay race, three sets of poetry-slam-perfect rhymes digging their spikes into each song. And E. Blaize gave them the perfect track to run on, restless rhythms built on beeps and blips and sound-effect snips, sinister squiggles of emaciated electronics that made Dr. Dre and Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA seem like castoffs from the Brill Building in comparison. The only reason no one calls Blaize a genius is because no one has heard of him. Yet.
Thanks to Blaize, the group that set out to deliver a state of the union address to the hip-hop community eventually gerrymandered its way into electronic music, crossing over without crossing anything off the list. Or, if nothing else, proved, once and for all, that those two worlds were equal but not separate. Which is as it should be: Afrika Bambaata nicked Kraftwerk's bleak beats way back when, giving hip-hop its Soulsonic Force, and both sides have been playing tag ever since. It makes sense, then, that Arrhythmia and last year's Ends Against the Middle EP come courtesy of Warp Records, a label best known for its affiliation with and affection for the laptop lullabies of Autechre and Squarepusher, the intelligent dance music made by Aphex Twin, Plaid and Boards of Canada. Well, it makes sense, but not much more than that, according to Sayyid. (Then again, he admits his CD changer doesn't have much room for Warp bands: "I like Nas, E-40," he begins, ticking off some of his favorite MCs. "Shit, I like everything. I like hip-hop. I like underground, pop--I like it all.")
"Warp is more of like an incidental thing than it is anything so premeditated. They gave us an opportunity to do what we wanted to do, and they threw us some money," he says, echoing a line from Arrhythmia's "Conspiracy of Myth": "Things I require from this industry is money and autonomy." "Beans has a relationship with a lot of that music and with the label. I have no relationship, because I don't listen to any of the music. My relationship is just, like, I deal with people at the label working on the album. OK, cool. Other than that, man, I don't know anything else about it."
Then, almost apologizing, "Really, I'm being honest." He pauses. "I don't think it really matters," Sayyid continues. He thinks about it a moment, before blowing a raspberry into the phone, lowering his voice as he repeats himself. "It doesn't really matter. It's going to be in HMV and in Tower. That's all that counts. People are going to be able to go to a listening station and hear APC."
What they'll hear is a disc by a group that doesn't stand on the lowest common denominator to reach the top of the charts, an album that relies on its audience's intelligence instead of insulting it. As they say on "Mega": "So what if it's popular?/I got to infect you in order to affect you/And I don't expect you to get it at first." The easy way out is never considered if there's another door in the room, producing a record that's more likely to use the sound of a pingpong ball skipping across a table as percussion (you guessed it, "Ping Pong") than to succumb to an R&B chorus. It decimates what passes for experimentation in hip-hop these days--say, Jay-Z backed by The Roots for an Unplugged special on MTV. (Good for what it is, sure, but it doesn't break new ground as much as it tills the earth already being worked.) Given that, some might call Arrhythmia hip-hop's answer to Radiohead's Kid A or Amnesiac, but that's too easy, and not completely accurate, a crossword puzzle with all the difficult clues already filled in by a dyslexic. (They toured together, after all, so it doesn't take Encyclopedia Brown to solve that particular case.)
Instead, Arrhythmia is the place where "absurd" turns into "of course" ("We...kill...soap scum!"--the hook from, uh, "We Kill Soap Scum"), where hip-hop can be broken in two by an opera ("Mega," which lives up to its name and then some), where skits (including the playful "Tron Man Speaks") are part of the fun not the problem. And it is fun: Arrhythmia is experimental music in the least academic sense of the term; no idea is turned away--bells, whistles, baboon bellows--but at the same time, the song comes first, second and last.
Not that they ever think about it too much. As it turns out, they threw out their blueprints along with the rulebook. "'Yeah, I think this would be cool'--that's basically what it is," Sayyid says, referring to the way Antipop puts it all together. 'Oh, this'll be cool.' And then you spit your verse. Then that song is done. 'What's the theme for this song? Oh, all right, cool. I got a verse for this right here.' 'Hey, yo, I got this track. You guys get up on this. Let's do this.'" Which doesn't always work: "There was one track on the album--it never came on the album--that I told Earl [Blaize] after we did it to burn it," he says with a laugh. "Make sure no one ever hears it." And he laughs harder. "I hated it. But that's rare."