Pop is Dead
The man on the phone, M. Sayyid of Antipop Consortium, is furious. A minute into the conversation, he's spitting out words for distance and accuracy; his voice is one part disbelief, two parts disgust, with a twist of disappointment. He's tired of thinking about when DMX left the group awhile back to strike out on his own. He doesn't want to be reminded of what happened when Antipop toured with Radiohead, when they returned home to Brooklyn with swollen pride, resulting in a decision to split up the band for a bit. Doesn't want to deal with any of it anymore.
You can't blame him, because, well, none of it actually happened.
See, DMX--the gruff Ruff Ryder behind such hits as "Who We Be" and "Get At Me Dog"--never left Antipop Consortium because he never was in the group to begin with. And while APC did, in fact, open for Radiohead on a number of dates last year, the rest of it--the part where the band turns on each other and splinters apart--that's all the figment of one writer's imagination, the man hired to write a bio for the band that would go out with advance copies of Arrhythmia, Antipop's new full-length for London-based Warp Records. It's standard PR work, a few paragraphs getting music writers up to speed on the group's past, present and future. No big deal. Except, as Sayyid (one of Antipop's three MCs) explains, no one was ever supposed to see this one, unless they happened to be fans of fiction.
"Fucking asshole, man," Sayyid says, as if the writer in question, the man behind the "sarcastic, cynical, angry, angry bio," is in the room with him, cowering in the corner, waiting for a fresh one. He was, at one point, friendly with the group, at least before High Priest, another Antipop MC, asked him to write the ill-fated bio. "This guy had issues, man. For real, for real. He wrote crazy stuff, like, 'Then they go on tour with Radiohead and blow up and get big egos and break up.' Like, whoa. Dude. Easy. Easy. The thing about it is, the last person who called me on an interview level, called me from Canada, and he was like, 'Yeah...so, what's this thing about DMX?' 'Oh, my God, you got it?' I thought, when it came out, 'Yo, he's a fucking asshole. Don't even fuck with him. Let's just go with somebody else.' And somehow, this shit fucking leaked out. And it's so bad. It's like, 'Yo, what the fuck is that?' The dude at the label just has no fucking clue; he sent out 300 of those shits, man. Oh, man, I'm heated--I just found this out a little while ago. I'm heated. But anyway."
Anyway. Here's the real story: Antipop Consortium formed in 1997 when lyricists Beans, High Priest and Sayyid, along with producer E. Blaize, united against the sorrowful state of hip-hop at the time. Puff Daddy and the Family's No Way Out was fertilizing Notorious B.I.G.'s fresh grave; Nas and Foxy Brown and Dr. Dre were being softened up by The Firm (The Album, their one-off 1997 collaboration, looked good on paper and sounded just as thin); shiny suits and happy Hype Williams clips injected mainstream hip-hop with rubber soul and platinum promises. Hip-hop was urban punk rock (or "Black CNN," if you prefer Chuck D's version) once upon a time; in 1997, it was bloated with the same excess that the Ramones and Sex Pistols had in their crosshairs a few decades ago. "Disturb the equilibrium" was the Antipop motto; returning hip-hop to its rights (beats and rhymes) instead of its wrongs (Bentleys and recycled riffs) was the goal. They missed the days of Ultramagnetic MCs, Boogie Down Productions, the Native Tongues Collective.
The Rap Meets Poetry night at NYC's Nuyorican Theatre was a stronghold for those who wanted hip-hop to be about skills instead of bills, including the musicians who would eventually form the Consortium. Through a mutual friend, Sayyid had met Beans at a Rap Meets Poetry gig and tagged along to an open-mike night they were heading to later. Sayyid had been writing rhymes since around 1994--"Something that was an actual joint," he remembers, "like, 'Yo, my first rhyme'"--but the rest of the prospective members of Antipop were further along in their hip-hop apprenticeships than he was. Watching Beans on the mike, Sayyid witnessed the future--his and theirs.
"I saw a bunch of people just kill it," he says. "And I was, like, 'Yo, I gotta do this.' So I just had to work, work, work on skills, because everybody else was much more advanced. Cats had already been rhyming and making songs, on records damn near, yo. I just had to bust my ass real fast."
Soon enough, they were all on a record; Beans and Sayyid teamed with High Priest and E. Blaize, releasing the cassette-only Consortium Tapes (under their own Antipop Recordings banner) before the quartet had even decided on what to call itself. (Obviously, they had a pretty good idea.) Consortium Tapes paid the fare to ride on hip-hop's underground railroad, and over the next few years, they became conductors, leading by example. They weren't alone: Kool Keith (in his various guises, including Dr. Octagon), Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Talib Kweli, Blackalicious, cLOUDDEAD and producers Dan The Automator and Prince Paul, among others, were all getting their tickets punched, as well.
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."
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