Back in the day, when I just a lil’ playa, if people asked me what kind of music I listened to, I always responded with the ubiquitous “Everything but rap and country.” Looking back, that statement certainly belied a fair amount of ignorance on my part. But keep in mind that I was just a white farmboy from Nebraska whose only exposure to “urban” culture was North Omaha.
Also, keep in mind that this was during the rise of so-called “gangsta” rap, when the genre seemed primarily concerned with the Big 4; gats, ganja, bitches, and bling. The East-West rivalry was starting to flare up, and friendly battles between MCs began to have deadly consequences. As far as I could tell, the genre’s merits were quickly getting lost amidst all of the noise, gaudiness, and tragedy, quickly becoming a self-parody.
It wasn’t until much later that my attention turned back to hip-hop, and I discovered an underground teeming with music that was, in its own way, absolutely mind-blowing. It began with my discovery of turntablism and the DJ. While the DJ has always been the backbone of hip-hop, they had become overshadowed by fame-whoring MCs and producers. But hearing albums such as DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing… refocused my attention. (For more info on turntablism, check out the awesome documentary Scratch.)
And then there were groups such as Blackalicious who were returning back to hip-hop’s roots — creating music that wasn’t just great for block parties, but also as a vehicle for social commentary and poetic introspection. But my perception of hip-hop really turned on its ear when I discovered its avant-garde side, thanks largely to one thing: Anticon.
A collective of MCs, producers, poets, and DJs, Anticon eschews much of what characterizes hip-hop in many people’s minds — no bitches or bling here. Instead, Anticon’s artists approach hip-hop with a surreal, experimental mindset. The result is hip-hop that owes as much to Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp as it does to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And it was specifically cLOUDDEAD, a trio consisting of MCs Doseone and why? and producer/sound collagist Odd Nosdam, that did it for me.
Before cLOUDDEAD, I never would’ve, in a million years, used terms like “haunting,” “psychedelic,” “ambient,” and “mercurial” to describe a hip-hop album. But when I heard the group’s debut full-length, those were the only terms that seemed to fit. But whereas their debut was often as sprawling and unfocused as it was fascinating (mainly because it was a collection of 10″ singles), Ten is a much more focused and concise, though perhaps slightly less ambitious, recording. Of course, terms like “focused” and “concise” are entirely relative when talking about cLOUDDEAD, thanks in large part to Odd Nosdam’s sonic (de)constructions.
Odd Nosdam pilfers a number of antiquated and offbeat sources, resulting in a number of memorable moments, such as the powerdrill solo and British children’s singalong that coexist on “The Teen Keen Skip.” Or the “squeaky shoes on creaking floorboards” squelches that serve as “The Velvet Ant“ ‘s beats. But there are also subtler, more restrained elements as well, like the drowsily somber atmospherics that drift through “3 Twenty” and “Our Name.”
However, and not to diminish Odd Nosdam’s role in the trio, it’s the distinctive vocals and surreal lyrics of Doseone and Why? that are cLOUDDEAD’s defining aesthetic. I first heard their nasally, sing-song style on Hood’s Cold House, and it was one of the best parts of that album. But getting a full dose (NPI) of their style is something else indeed.
Lyrically, it’s next to impossible to decipher what the duo are trying to say. Their lyrics seem less concerned with what’s being said than how it’s being said, and their lyrics often seem chosen based solely on how the words sound rather than any meaning intrinsic to the syllables. It’s their structure and sound that give them meaning, rather than their definitions according to Webster.
It’s not that the duo’s intricate rapping is incoherent; they aren’t babbling in some MC version of Hopelandic. Their lyrics do convey images and scenes, but they register more like barely-remembered fragments of half-forgotten childhood memories. How else can you explain lines such as “Two small girls and a handful of dressed men/They walk a cage full of goats across the b-ball court/Goats with the rectangled iris” (“The Velvet Ant”)? However, they can also conjure up imagery as macabre as it is fascinating to hear.
“Dead Dogs Two” begins with a superbly rapped/sung/“whatever it is that they do” image of two dead dogs in a baseball stadium (“From the height of a highway onramp we saw/2 dogs dead in a field/Glowing on the Oakland Coliseum green seats wasteland/Dogs we thought were dead…”) before transforming into a sick fascination with automobile accidents (“We secretly long to be some part of a car crash/Long to see our arm stripped to the tendons/The nudity of swelling exposed vein/Webbing the back of your hand”) — and yet I get the distinct impression that the song is about neither one of those things, but something much, much more meta.
Or maybe it’s all just a merry prank evolving out of boredom, a thesaurus, and a nice, fat blunt. Who knows?
In any case, it’s unlike anything else out there in the hip-hop world (though I’m admittedly still very much a novice and probably shouldn’t be making such sweeping statements as that). The only problem with Ten is that it sometimes feels too much like a novelty. It’s fascinating to listen to the group’s rhymes, juxtaposing words that you’d never expect, but I also find myself often skipping around the disc to get to my favorite parts — the power drill solo in “The Teen Keen Skip,” the breakdown of “Rifle Eyes” (“A single long-stemmed rose resting between two mounted antlers”), etc.
At times, a sense of drama bubbles up. A mysterious moment of regret seems to appear on “Our Name,” the album ending with the lines “Oh what has our name become?/A guilty pleasure and Nosdam drums.” And elsewhere in the liner notes, the band admits “Although slated to be done for all the wrong reasons, this record happened naturally,” with each member then voicing their thoughts on the group’s future (though rumor has it that this is their last release). But whatever glimpse we might get into the group’s soul is always clouded (again, NPI) by the obtuse lyrics and sonics.
That being said, it’s still unlike anything out there to my ears. Ten manages to balance being wildly unpredictable and perplexing with being accessible and intriguing. (The only other hip-hop artist that comes close to this feat is Soul-Junk… maybe). Just don’t ask me how they do it. Even after reading the production notes, which are just as fragmentary as any of Doseone and Why?‘s lyrics, I’m still at a loss to really explain how it works. It just does.