Cex Education

Rjyan Kidwell enters the school of hard rocks, leaving his electronica stardom behind

Rjyan Kidwell knew about Cex way before any of his friends did. While still in high school, he took on the moniker and self-released his first album, Cells. (Cex Cells, get it? Ha ha.) The CD reached the ears of Oakland's Miguel Depedro, better known as experimental-electronica WunderkindKid606, and the two artists became fast friends. With some moral and logistical support from Kidwell, Depedro founded the Tigerbeat6 label, and soon, although neither of them was old enough to vote, they were touring the world, appearing in magazines like The Wireand Spin, and being called the poster children for the "intelligent dance music" (IDM) genre.

Characterized by its tendencies to take conventional forms of dance music -- house, drum 'n' bass, techno -- and eviscerate them with noisy glitches, damaged beats, and a caustic sense of humor, IDM was to popular electronic-music what punk was to rock 'n' roll. Kidwell -- along with other artists like Lesser, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher -- rode this wave of revolt against predictable rhythms and prepackaged arpeggios. Because he was a mere 18 years old in 2000, he was considered something of a prodigy, expected to do great things in the world of thinking fellers' electronica.

But not long after the release of his 2000 LP Role Model, Kidwell grew dissatisfied with IDM's static mannerisms. With increasing frequency during live shows, he'd come out from behind his laptop and write on his body, strip down to his underwear, and jump into the audience. Soon he was rapping over simpler beats and adding long, confessional monologues in between songs, putting more distance between himself and his anonymous-nerd persona.

Chris Woodcock


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When Kidwell's Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed came out in September of last year, it was the final nail in the coffin. Gone were the melodic, introverted glitches of Role Model, replaced by full-fledged hip hop tracks in which Kidwell rapped about bike riding and "Molotov dodge balls."

His brand-new CD -- Being Ridden, which he finished after he moved to Oakland from Baltimore three months ago -- is even more of a departure. Easily his most complex work to date, the album is comprised of 40 minutes of personal lyrics, indie rock guitars, industrial-strength breaks, and electronic beeps that buzz around the songs like mosquitoes. As hip hop, the record is a letdown; as IDM, it's unrecognizable. So why then do kids continue to turn out in droves to Cex's shows? What exactly do they see in a 21-year-old kid who can't rap, can't sing, and can't even decide who the hell he is?

Kidwell's new place of residence is a turquoise, '50s-style home built on a hill looking down on West Oakland. When he answers the door, he is wearing wire-framed glasses and a tight blue T-shirt that reads "Real Men Watch Dynasty." Standing over 6 feet tall, he is rail thin and his bleached-blond hair is perfectly messed up. There is no doubt about it: Kidwell is a nerd, albeit a sexy nerd.

Born in Annapolis, Md., and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, Kidwell enjoyed an upbringing filled with all the comforts afforded the upper middle class. He got decent grades, experimented with drugs every now and then, and rarely wanted for anything. In other words, he couldn't have been more of a typical suburban white boy if he tried. This struggle -- or lack thereof -- is at the center of his music.

"It's funny because even a dude that's kind of complicated like Eminem, he's still got tangible problems," says Kidwell. "His mom was fucked up, he was poor as shit when he grew up, and he was the only white guy rapping. Those were actual conflicts. And I don't have actual conflicts. But neither does the majority of the people walking around, so what the fuck are we gonna do?"

At first, Kidwell did what every other antsy adolescent does when searching for an outlet: He taught himself to play guitar and started a few bands he describes as "screamo metal." But as each group crumbled for the various reasons that groups crumble -- personality conflicts, creative differences, etc. -- he got sick of the wasted effort and decided to go it alone.

As a freshman in high school, he holed up in his parents' basement and experimented with an old computer, with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Vol. 2 as a blueprint. Founding his own Underscore label, he released the aforementioned Cells LP in 1998 and was sucked into America's underground IDM scene. Before long he was toting his laptop across the country with Kid606 and Lexaunculpt on the Soundboy Yakuza Tour.

But Kidwell seemed disenchanted by the IDM crowd from the beginning. In an article he wrote describing his experience on the Yakuza tour for Grooves Magazine(Kidwell had a brief stint as a journalism major at Johns Hopkins University), he proclaimed, "I can't think of another arena where being purposefully vague, mysterious, and inaccessible to your fans reaps as much adoration as in this scene."

In rebellion against all things vague, mysterious, and inaccessible, Kidwell began a diary on his Web site, www.rjyan.com, which contained his every thought and experience, his most embarrassing moments as well as his greatest triumphs -- an idea that was anathema to an IDM star like Aphex Twin, who's so reclusive he occasionally sends other people to play shows for him.

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