A New Light

Relax, Subtle's A New White isn't going to change hip hop as we know it. It's just a great record.

As Subtle band members Dax Pierson and Jel, aka Jeffrey Logan, place their orders with the barrista at an East Bay coffee shop, MC Doseone, aka Adam Drucker, offers to pay for my coffee -- an overtly friendly gesture that doesn't at all seem out of character. Despite what his oftentimes dark and nearly always obscure lyrics may lead you to believe, in person Drucker is instantly likable and surprisingly accessible. He not only pays for my coffee and compliments me on the shirt that I'm wearing (which is indeed a dope shirt), he takes great pains to decipher the logic behind his cryptic lyrics and freely relays stories from his distant past as a freestyle MC -- where he cut his teeth battling the likes of Eminem and Freestyle Fellowship's PEACE.

We're in Oakland's Piedmont district, which the musicians in Subtle confidently refer to as "our strip." And while it's hardly news that a journalist has befriended his subjects -- it's a poorly kept secret that critical opinion is often swayed by personal allegiance -- this case is a bit odd.

After all, I'm supposed to hate the music that Drucker, Logan, and all of their über-nerd Anticon labelmates make. Less than three years ago, while a fledgling hip hop critic for the infamously opinionated online music journal PitchforkMedia.com, I wrote a review slamming Drucker and Logan's previous project, Themselves. And it wasn't the sort of constructive criticism that a disappointed fan gives to a lukewarm album; it was a complete rejection of their approach, their execution, and the philosophy and rhetoric behind it.

Back in White: Subtle fumbles around in the 
Back in White: Subtle fumbles around in the light.

At the time, there was an internal battle going on in underground hip hop circles, a civil war between the traditionalists (who felt that the sort of deliberately obscure and brazenly pretentious hip hop that was emerging from the East Bay's Anticon crew was ruining hip hop as we knew it) and the experimental MCs and producers, the musicians who dared to make the stuff.

For those of us who grew up on Nas, Prince Rakim, and Guru -- MCs who strove to clearly communicate their brutally beautiful worldview -- this new sort of irony-laced, indie rock/hip hop hybrid that many were hailing as the future of hip hop had to be stopped -- at all costs. So in my review I lambasted Logan's production as weak "sonic flatulence," with no visceral impact and no soul. I tagged Drucker's rhymes as "horribly pointless and boring ... a baffling excursion down the rabbit hole of ponderous pretense." I observed that "if this was Cambodia in the 1970s, the butchered bodies of Anticon emcees would line the streets."

But you know what? I was wrong.

The underground hip hop wars have receded since that time. For better or worse, both factions seem increasingly irrelevant to the larger hip hop scene. The NYC lyricists and West Coast hustlers that I adored have been supplanted by crunk MCs who strive to clearly communicate their beautifully brutal view of the strip club. So while the boys at Anticon continue to do their thing, pushing boundaries and so forth, their cultural currency has diminished; the idea that Anticon is hip hop's future is now a thing of the past.

But in a strange way, Anticon's diminished stature has worked to its advantage. What many once viewed as a threat to the very fabric of hip hop -- a gentrification by neurotic grad school students -- is now a quirky and quixotically experimental offshoot that has grown beyond all of our grasps. Subtle's debut full-length, A New White (released on Anticon's equivalent in the UK, Lex Records), isn't the future of hip hop. And once both fans and critics allay those lofty expectations, we can see the band for what it is: a group of very talented musicians who aren't content with easy shortcuts, who are constantly morphing, evolving, and challenging their audience, as well as accompanying it down the blind alleys of experimental music.

"The record takes patience," Pierson says. "If you hate it the first time, then you're probably going to continue to hate it. But if you don't understand it, but you want to understand it, then you're onto something."

The thing about the music of Subtle -- as with most experimental/improvisational music -- is that it isn't supposed to make sense, at least not initially. It's supposed to be disorienting, breaking from well-worn paths to chase after that elusive shimmer of light hiding in the periphery. If you follow Subtle's recorded output -- from a series of noisy, free-form EPs released over the last three years to the more succinct, if still uncanny, The New White -- you'll see that the band members are only now beginning to grasp the parameters and potential of what they've created.

Subtle was formed in 2001 when Pierson, Logan, and Drucker were working at Berkeley's Amoeba Music. Logan and Drucker had already gained some notoriety as part of the Anticon collective, and Pierson had a long history gigging in noisy hybrid bands with, among others, future Subtle members Marty Dowers, Jordan Dalrymple, and Alexander Kort.

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