I Might Blow Up, But I Won’t Go by Chris Martin
“I Might Blow Up, But I Won’t Go…”
Growing up in Colorado Springs, bastion of New Life Church and its concomitant conservatocracy, Focus on the Family, my gradual drift toward experimental poetry was, to put it nicely, unexpected. The odds in that realm seem reasonable, however, when compared with my other affinity: rap. Early on I fell into the brash arms of Left Coasters like NWA and 2Pac, but it was the Native Tongues who really woke me up to the brave new world of avant-rap to come. My first love was one of the least heralded Native Tongues: Black Sheep.
Their 1991 album, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, was my first model in wordplay. Though DJ Mista Lawnge mostly spat cheap dick jokes, the primary rapper Dres wove more sophisticated humor into his thick syllabic tapestry, tackling sex, race, sexism, and gangsta rap along the way. The content is what initially hooked me, but soon I found Dres’ form and flow subcutaneously latching on for good. Among the several standout tracks, “Try Counting Sheep” has my vote for eponymous “black sheep” laid-back banger of the album.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t also shout out the party favorite “Choice of Yours,” whose remix is superior to the original. Unfortunately, I pretty much slept on De La Soul until Stakes is High sent me packing through their back catalogue, especially Buhloone Mindstate.
I wouldn’t find the flow and intelligence to match Dres until college brought me to Minnesota, but I’ll get into that later.
For a white boy growing up at the outset of the rap generation, it was at the far end of ridiculous that I only dug the Beastie Boys with the release of Check Your Head. As with De La Soul, it sent me clamoring back to older material, most significantly 1989’s Dust Brothers-produced and recently reissued Paul’s Boutique.
What I lost in my lateness I made up for in immersion tactics, aided by my two best friends who styled themselves after Ad Rock and Mike D. That left MCA and together (ask anyone who saw us rock summer camp) we fashioned our Beastie simulacrum with a frightening ardor. True to our tripartite role-playing, we each had a different favorite; Colin’s was “Car Thief,” Brian’s was “So Watcha Want,” and mine was “3-Minute Rule.” Listening to it now, I can hear many parallels with “Try Counting Sheep,” and wince a little at MCA’s tough-guy lines, but am more than a little fascinated to find two nascent but closely approaching influences mentioned in the song: Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac.
Early into college I summarily ditched the Beastie Boys for more arcane territory. As expected of a budding wordsmith, I was totally into “underground hip-hop,” a designation that would soon lost whatever clarity it may have otherwise contained. Luckily, underground hip-hop was just then proffering some unbelievable talent, beginning at home with Minnesota’s Atmosphere, led by the incorrigible, unfazeable, unclassifiable Slug, also known as Sean Daley.
You see, this was the beginning of my face-to-face relationship with rap, and I not only respected Slug immensely, but also knew Sean by face and name, which completely altered my understanding of what it might mean to be a rapper. The first and forever anthemic Atmosphere hit was/is 1998’s “Scapegoat.” With this track, Slug immediately assumed Dres’ crown in my somewhat limited estimation. Not only was it a confessional rap wet dream (almost like a late ‘90’s hip-hop Howl), but it raised expectations for what a rap song could be, what form it could take, and how close to “real life” one could cleave. After “Scapegoat,” keeping it real wasn’t about some urban-fabricated thug stereotype, but applied to whatever felt authentic about the relationship of your words to your world.
Following Slug’s travels (and Sean’s) led to both coasts simultaneously. Out East it was Def Jux, which would soon add Aesop Rock to founding members Company Flow, among others on the label. Looking back, Aesop Rock was a goddamn revelation.
I copped his self-released Appleseed EP while it was still a hand-copied CD. I was seriously digging the “Lonely Woman” sampling “Dryspell,” but from the moment I played “Same Space (The Tugboat Complex Part 2),”
I knew shit had changed. Rap, poetry, syllabic blast-off. Not that the Aesop Rock flow didn’t get a little wearying after a couple of years. Luckily, Appleseed also heralded a parallel blooming on the Left Coast, represented on the final track in the guise of the brainsploding though somewhat grotesque Doseone.
Doseone (or Adam Drucker) was/is one of the founding members of Anticon, a rap collective hailing from Ohio, Maine, and other anti-bastions of the rap game. These erstwhile wordsmiths relocated to the sunny Bay Area, setting up shop on the border between Berkeley and Oakland. Even before Appleseed, I became familiar with Anticon through their collaboration with Slug on 1999’s bizarrely titled release The Taste of Rain…Why Kneel under the name of Deep Puddle Dynamics.
Joined by Doseone and Slug were Anticon mainstays Sole (Tim Holland) and Alias (Brendon Whitney).
The pivotal track on this (their only) album is probably “The Candle,” but I have to place my loyalties with the creepier, solo trading “Purpose.” The latter actually reminds me of “3-Minute Rule” with its slow, one-MC-at-a-time approach.
Another avant-rapper Sean introduced me to, by way of his Minneapolis record store Fifth Element, was the inimitable Buck 65.
Buck, also know as Stinkin’ Rich (his real name being Rich Terfrey), is best known for his old-man delivery, his ability to spit and scratch simultaneously, and his technical though unrushed verbiage. Hands down my vote for best pure rhymer in the business, in 1999 Buck released what I still consider the greatest rap song of all time, “15 Minutes to Live,” which can only be found on the B-side of his “The Centaur” single, put out by no other than Anticon Records.
Among the trillion of arresting, unexpected thought combos, Buck slips in some real couplet work: “You can’t hurry beauty / like you can’t escape jury duty.” Also, “I’ve got diamonds in my eyes / but I’m looking for a harder crystal, / I’m feeling for something smoother / I’m listening for a starter pistol.” One part self-help soothsayer for the underground soul, one part sound/word collagist who darkly insists “Two legs good, four legs bad,” Buck only released one full album with Anticon, the majestic Man Overboard, before dashing for the big leagues only to falter somewhat. Though anyone who calls himself a rapper and can still drop “50 Gallon Drum,” which comes courtesy of his Tom Waitsian Talkin’ Honky Blues, deserves continued adoration.
But back to Anticon. In terms of the holy fuck variety of avant-rap, with the exception of fellow Californian’s Busdriver and Shape Shifters, Anticon really dropped the doozies. First there was Greenthink, the experimental omnibus posse cut. Then there was Doseone and Jel’s (the producer Jeff Logan) seminal (and henceforth sued) eponymous 1999 release Them. In fact, it was the album’s central song, also called “Them,” that stood as the new poster-track for avant-rap. For the next few years, all experimental MCs would be asking themselves Them’s unanswerable question: “It doesn’t look like an ice sculpture…or does it!?!” At the same time, Chomskyian iconoclast Sole/Tim was making a name for himself with his mature debut Bottle of Humans, though I think it’s fairly undisputed that his real gem is 2003’s Selling Live Water, which features a song indispensable to mixtape making poets and MCs alike, “Da Baddest Poet,” produced by budding talent Telephone Jim Jesus (aka George Chadwick).
My personal vote, though, for Anticon’s apex goes to cLOUDDEAD, the brainchild of Dose, Why? (Yoni Wolf), and Odd Nosdam (Dave Madson).
The cLOUDDEAD releases have been both scarce and legion of the years. Listening to the early singles brings me headlong back to my Bay Area days, hour upon hour spent listening to records in our Inner Sunset apartment, subsisting on discounted Peasant Pies, and collating the latest chapbook from Bench Press, our two-bit publishing house. Taking a long-term view of cLOUDDEAD’s production, I’d have to single out two singles: “This About the City” and “Two Dogs Dead.”
Though the latter’s Boards of Canada remix is the shiznit, it sadly lacks the original’s Werner Herzog sample, swiped from Les Blank’s breakthrough documentary Burden of Dreams.
Of all the Anticon artists, Why?/Yoni has been the most successful at blurring the lines between rap and song. The night Dose/Adam and Pedestrian/Brandon first took my friends and me out to Oakland’s famed Ruby Room, Adam told us how Yoni had freed him from the false limitations of “rapping” through his insistence that all rapping is, finally, singing. Although I’m crazy about his latest album Alopecia
and even crazier about his previous album Elephant Eye Lash,
what has proven most durably inspirational for me as a poet is his experiment with fellow crooner Andrew Broder, who releases music under the moniker Fog. In 2002, the two sequestered themselves in the dusty recesses of the beloved Twin Cities record store Hymie’s. The next year an unclassifiable recording surfaced called Hymie’s Basement. I always bitch that contemporary poets don’t draw from the well source of rap forms and this album provides some of the most compelling evidence of why they should.
This little rap-round-tongue-twister has been tangled in my mind for half a decade now and I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.
Since this could, in all probability, go on forever, I’ll instead wrap things up with a couple of my very personal favorites; personal because I consider both artists close friends. The first is the professor of avant-rap: Brandon Best, or Pedestrian as he’s known on record.
Brandon has gradually evolved from a glottal syllable spit machine to his more recent incarnation as a slick-tongued speaker for the dead. Anyone who peeped Anticon’s 10th anniversary show at the Knitting Factory last December heard an example of his stage-as-pulpit death-is-a-coming sermon. They operate in the Spicer Admonitions arena, but are rooted in both old school Pentecostal preachin’ and new school “real talk” a la R Kelly or Lil Wayne. I think they’re brilliant, hands-down. Last year saw the release of Telephone Jim Jesus’ second album Anywhere Out of the Everything, which featured my favorite rap single of the decade, “Dice Raw,” anchored by Pedestrian and Why?
It’s a jammer that won’t leave your brain windy and Brandon manages to wax hard while simultaneously pulling the majestic into question. The final performer I’ve got to throw out there is the aforementioned Colin Guthrie, who puts out music under the name newageynofriends, or NANF for short.
He’s the one rapping at the end of that Ruby Room track, a bar where he used to be resident DJ. Like Why?, Colin likes to blur the rap/song border, usually falling into the latter camp when he gets his serious croon on. His new album Yeah is just about the best thing to listen to when strutting out your door on a Saturday night, but for rap experimentation, I head back to his first album Bird’s Breath for conceptual gems like “Bogart,” which is basically Humphrey’s IMDB page turned gansta rap.
Like Dres said way back in 1991, don’t sleep.
 Dose, Odd, and Why? are originally from Cincinnati, Jel is from Chicago, Pedestrian is from SoCal, and Sole and Alias are from Maine.
Jokes for Schoolchildren
A beautiful girl broke my window with her fist
I missed the sound of subway doors closing
I got a job translating the smoke
Of extinguished oil wells, well let me tell ya
Cezanne was an asshole, Sage Francis is an asshole
What good are pretty things that come from shitty people?
I got a job erasing my nickname
From all the bathroom stalls in New York City
It took me a lifetime, see, me in my right mind
Needs to check the left for signs of despotism
I write these jokes and leave ‘em in the schoolyard
To enter scraped knees, the kids can’t get enough
I take a bit of gruff and mix it with a penchant
For talking to invisible faces like I care
For battling the air and paddling sideways
Preaching for five days to the fat and dispossessed
You guessed it, I wrote these poems for myself
They melt every time I eat a birthday candle
When I was a child I ate spiders in my sleep
Now that I’m a man I eat spiders in my sleep
Some things never change, abstraction is tyranny
Torture is barbaric, behavior is a mask
Don’t ask the disciples of disciples for wisdom
Ask rifles and warheads for advice that seems to matter
Or go ask the ocean or go ask a blackbird
Bask in the minutes before the universe turns backward
And we all fall apart and we all fall together
I weather the stupidities in hope against bitterness
Most days are hit or miss, there’s no way of knowing
If knowing will be enough or if ignorance is gospel
What is not possible is not to choose
I bruise my right foot as the left is left behind
The rest never happens, the best you can do
Is keep your eyes open and keep your eyes close
The most you can do is less than is necessary
Carry every person that you love inside your ribs
Not beside your money and not besides the point
I coin a new term every time I bust a gut
Here’s laughing at you, trapped inside a photograph
Here’s laughing at me, I live a math that happens slowly
Laughing at you, a splinter choreography
Laughing at me, light light dark
Chris Martin is the author of American Music,chosen by C. D. Wright for the Hayden Carruth Award and published by Copper Canyon in 2007. Some of his recent work can be found in Lungfull!, Big Bell, minor/american, Sixth Finch, Tight, Tool, and Forklift, Ohio. An essay of his about the ontological properties of rap was published in Poiesis: Canadian Journal of Philosophy. His latest chapbook, The Small Dance, can be found online at http://scantilycladpress.blogspot.com.