Say, did you hear the one about the rapper, the electronic noise sculptor, the experimental beats producer, the fey singer, the stream-of-consciousness writer, the punk band, the guitar shredder, the guys from Oakland, and the guys from Germany all getting together to make a record? No? Oh, cool, 'cause that's what this column is all about.
Oakland's abstract rap-tastrophe artists Themselves and Germany's too-many-things-for-one-adjective the Notwist are in love. Turns out they've been dating for a couple of years. But now, according to sources from both camps, an album is in the works. And that's great news for the planet: The group that remade hip hop and the group that remade electronic indie-pop are about to have a baby together. Finally the global underground independent-music community has its own Bennifer!
It's not an exaggeration to say that the Notwist's Neon Golden was one of the best, most talked-about records of 2002, as well as last year (it was released as an import in '02, then domestically at the beginning of 2003). While you didn't see a video for the album on TRL, within hipster circles (not to mention in the pages of somewhat well-known publications like, oh, the New York Times) it was drenched in praise. And for good reason.
For the uninitiated: The record is 51 minutes of processed bliss. If you're familiar with Radiohead's Kid A, imagine that dour masterpiece if you gave it three hits of Ecstasy and a blow job. Neon's songs average about four minutes, with choruses that feel like a back rub after a hard day at the office. Ahhhhh.
Of course, catchy hooks do not a genius album make. If you're like me, hooks are as liable to be a deterrent as an attractor, sounding all desperate, as if the band really wants you to like its music so it's gonna be G-C-D chords from here on out. But Neon Golden avoids this pitfall, because interspersed throughout are things like strange electronic textures, breakbeats, banjos, violins, and just a lot of weird-ass juju. What happens after you listen to the record a couple of times is that you realize it's not a pop record at all, but an experimental record disguised as pop. Which makes perfect sense.
See, the guys in the Notwist have been at it for more than 14 years, and they didn't start out playing the music they've perfected on Neon Golden. Listen to their self-titled debut from 1990 and what you hear is an angry, confused band; The Notwist is a punk-metal record full of embarrassing lyrics and loud, derivative riffs. Throughout the '90s, the band exploded this sound only to piece it back together in a different way, releasing albums like 1995's Nook and 1998's Shrink, which saw the musicians channeling the angst and energy of their early material into an aesthetic that wandered stuporlike through worlds of jazz and prog-rock and electronica.
Neon Golden is the net result of years of this kind of sculpting, of finding a sound and then misplacing it, of winning fans only to confuse and lose them. So while on the surface a collaboration between the Notwist and Themselves seems odd, it's actually a perfect pairing. As part of that zany Oakland-based hip hop collective Anticon, the members of Themselves — rapper Doseone and producer Jel — are no strangers to experimenting at the expense of popular acceptance.
“People were very into us because we were part of this underground hip hop thing,” says Doseone, speaking from a recent tour stop in New York. He's talking about the acclaim Anticon received after it formed a few years back, when white underground rap was all the rage. “They're getting into this white rap explosion thing, whatever that may be. But we've quickly dismayed most of those people that want to grab this. They're looking at us and going, 'Whooooaaa, too much texture. I don't have the time to [process] something like that.' And Notwist, they've done exactly what they wanted to do. They've let it go. They've lost fans and had them return and then found their sound. We're doing the same thing.”
While much of the collective's output borders on the opaque, Themselves' The No Music, released in 2002, reaches new heights of obfuscation; you may find it in the hip hop section of Amoeba, but that's the most it has in common with the records on either side of it. This is not an unexpected development, nor is it a bad thing at all.
Anticon's stated mission was to lob a cherry bomb down hip hop's toilet. At first, fans and critics applauded Anticon albums like 1999's Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop, which featured the whole collective, including Themselves, then known simply as Them, taking turns on songs that were out-there but accessible. Yet it was only a matter of time before this anti-pop ate itself — that's what you hear on The No Music, on which Jel's production consists of swatches of noise and melody wandering in search of a beat, and Doseone's lyrics stream out in manic, indecipherable bursts. Hip hop purists and critics did not care for the garbled mess, and they accused the duo of being self-indulgent and pretentious, despite the fact that The No Music is the natural result of that same spirit of advancement that these naysayers were drawn to in the first place.
Granted, while the art lover in me appreciates just about everything the Anticon acts, including Themselves, put their hands to, the music lover in me is almost always left longing for something that's not steeped in the so-ugly-it's-beautiful approach. That's why this collaboration is something to look forward to.
“I listen to Neon Golden,” says Doseone, “and it's one of those records where you go, 'Fuck, man, I wish I made music like this. How do you make music like this? How do you calm down and make this dope, fucking techie-great record with all this sound integrity?' And then [the members of Notwist] say the same thing about us: 'How do you make this lo-fi, shitty, sporadic, fucking attitude-negligent music that these guys make?' I think there's quite a bit of affinity between us for our eccentricities.”
As the mainstream continues to pilfer your wallet via big-budget collaborations between the Foo Fighters and Chick Corea, Prince and Beyoncé, Willie Nelson and Eminem (OK, I made that last one up — or did I?), it's nice to know that the underground equivalent is also thriving, and that the result is some of the best, most forward-thinking music out there. Last year, two underground faves, Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, released the rocktronic masterpiece Give Up as the Postal Service, and the mainstream went gaga. Will the Notwist and Themselves manage the same trick? Who knows. For the time being, Doseone is content to imagine their mind meld as the beginning of something even bigger.
“I don't know if it's a pipe dream or what, but I can see somewhere in the next five years, one of my major focuses of energy would be to get a fucking all-star lineup in the studio together. Of course, it's very difficult to pressurize a creation situation and shit like that. I don't know how it would actually occur, but I do have an intuition that it's one of my jobs.” He continues, “Anticon was that. Anticon was an assemblage of people that I valued and saw something in, and everyone of course in Anticon walks a plank in unison, and Notwist is ahead of us on the plank. … Those guys have been doing it for 12 years or more. And it's just such a relief to see them; they make you smile. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It took them that long, but now they are thoroughly embraced around the world. It's great.”