"Oh, you from Anticon?" the rapper asks, already knowing the answer. "Fuck you guys."
Words are exchanged, the rapper's scowl is met with a goofy smile as Whitney explains that they have met before and there was not a problem. But the rapper is adamant: "Either we fight or you leave." At 6 feet, 2 inches, 220 pounds, Whitney probably wouldn't have much trouble with the pint-size MC, but that is not how he solves problems, so he goes and finishes his beer on the balcony.
Cut to four weeks earlier: Sitting outside Gaylord's Cafe in Berkeley, with his friendly pit bull Linus at his feet, Whitney is discussing the label he helped start, Anticon, one of hip hop's most revered and despised crews. "The music that we make has always been different," he says. "But we always wanted it to be different, do different things and take different approaches. It's bound to piss off somebody."
Indeed it does, but that doesn't seem to bother him. Instead of conforming to the rules of his chosen genre -- act tough, never expose any weakness or emotion, make music that follows suit -- Whitney, like the rest of Anticon, does what he wants, does it well, and just deals with the consequences. However, unlike some of his labelmates -- and pretty much everyone else in hip hop -- he does so in a most uncharacteristic way: He smiles.
Whitney grew up in a small town in Maine called Hollis. It's a far cry from Hollis, Queens, birthplace of Run-D.M.C., but Hollis, Maine, birthed another kind of hip hop. It was through rapping on a local college radio show that Whitney met fellow rapper Sole and producer Moodswing9. Along with DJ Mayonnaise, the Mainers formed Live Poets, a rap group with forward-looking ideas and thought-provoking lyrics. But conservative New England was not ready for them, and in 2000 all four moved out to Oakland and founded Anticon with friends and fellow rap revolutionaries Doseone, the Pedestrian, Odd Nosdam, Why?, and über-producer Jel. Loaded with talent, sarcasm, and a biting sense of humor, the boys set out to make "hip hop for the advanced listener." Void of nearly all of hip hop's traditions, the music they ended up making was something many would be moved to call "not hip hop at all": It doesn't always rhyme; sometimes it sings or talks; and sometimes the beat, well, doesn't have a beat. Nevertheless, it works.
As Anticon grew a legion of fans, it simultaneously grew a legion of enemies, "haters" if you will. Members of the crew were called faggots, racists, and, perhaps worse for a genre based on toughness, nerds. Doseone rhymes in a high-pitched voice, Why? dresses funny, and Whitney raps about his feelings. Perhaps afraid of their own inner nerdiness, a number of underground hip-hoppers strung Anticon up. Battle raps were written and recorded, the most famous being the riff between Sole and NYC indie label owner and rapper El-P. (Not-so-subtle Anticon disses can be found throughout El-P's album Fantastic Damage.) But Whitney was never one to jump into the fray. While he defends his friends to the end, he's not interested in antagonizing his enemies. He's too busy creating his next masterpiece.
After making beats for his labelmates and recording with Deep Puddle Dynamics (Sole, Slug, Doseone, and Alias), Whitney released his first album in 2002, The Other Side of the Looking Glass, recorded mostly in the Anticondominium -- Anticon's former East Oakland commune that housed Sole, Mayonnaise, Whitney and his wife, and whatever rapper happened to be passing through. Plywood walls and bullet holes in the window made for a less than happy living arrangement, and looking back, Whitney recognizes the dark tone the situation gave his album. "Sad how bad times make good music/ Hope I can maintain this great depression," he raps on "Getting By."
Muted is Whitney's new record, a mostly instrumental affair that sounds more like brilliant electronica than most of Anticon's nerdy rap (either way, it's still nothing close to conventional hip hop). With his latest, as well as the recently released Eyes Closed EP, Whitney's melodic pieces are likely to garner him more comparisons to ambient pioneer Aphex Twin than legendary hip hop producers like Pete Rock or DJ Premier: Human beatboxes are broken down by machines, classic hip hop samples by Bob James and Deodato are dissected and dismantled, and an orchestra of found sounds is conducted. The album is full of poignant moments, like the melancholy singing of the Notwist's Markus Acher on "Unseen Sights," but those are contrasted with the hard-core drums of tracks like "Am I Cool Now?" Such juxtapositions work to create a record that is not just technically brilliant, but emotional as well.
"I really started paying attention to melodies and musical arrangement instead of just sampling drums and a loop," says Whitney, explaining the new maturity found in his work.
Oddly enough, it's his sensitive side -- and his affinity for sensitive music -- that's helped Whitney create his unique aesthetic. "Doing music and meeting people like Notwist and Boards of Canada, who I listen to, meeting them and having them say that they like our music too is a lot more rewarding than being accepted by whoever's big in hip hop now," he says. "Hip hop has all these set rules that you have to abide by and if you don't abide by them, you're cast out." And while being cast out is not always a bad thing, it can make for some sticky situations.
Whitney and the rapper never squashed their beef that night at the Fillmore. After another hour of back-and-forth arguments on the balcony (with friends anxiously standing close by trying to get a listen), it became apparent that they weren't going to see eye to eye. It's sad that that's the case more often than not, but Whitney, as always, shrugs it off. "I think everybody has a little nerd inside of them," he says, flashing that grin. "They all want to watch SpongeBob SquarePants, but they don't want to admit it."