"Don't get too comfortable" is a recurring lyric on Late Pass, the newest album from East Bay producer and rapper Jel. But you can also think of it as a key piece of wisdom from Anticon, the shape-shifting record label Jel co-founded in the Bay Area 15 years ago this month. What began as a loose collective of rappers and beatmakers based in San Francisco — more like a clique than a company — has evolved into a Los Angeles label with more diverse musical offerings than we can adequately summarize. The one thing Anticon hasn't done — and doesn't do for the dedicated fans who follow its widely varying releases — is stay comfortable.
"We hear it a lot from fans, like, 'Anticon sucks now,' or 'Anticon's still awesome,' or 'Anticon's even more awesome now,'" says Jel, whose real name is Jeffrey James Logan. "We all started it with a big idea anyway, we didn't know where it would take us. I'm surprised that we're still going this long."
To keep going, Anticon has changed a lot. It was founded in 1998 by eight would-be hip-hop revolutionaries — Jel, Doseone, Alias, Odd Nosdam, Passage, Sole, the Pedestrian, and Why? — bent on forwarding the cause of smart, challenging, and independent beats-and-rhymes music. Anticon's first compilation album in 1999 was called nothing less than Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop. It featured left-field DJ textures, boom-bap beats, insanely acrobatic rapping, and stilted, stumbling rhythms. And it bore very little resemblance to mainstream bling-and-bitches rap.
But when the indie-rap scene fizzled out after the turn of the millennium, Anticon suffered some attrition, and underwent some evolution. Sole, a rapper and co-founder who had been closely identified with the crew, left in 2010. Why?, one of the label's flagship outfits, found success making offbeat rock music. Former intern Shaun Koplow was hired to run the loose collective as a real label, and moved it to L.A. He started bringing new acts into the fold. Many of them didn't share the radical social and political outlook of the label's founders, but their sounds were as adventurous.
Anticon's new generation includes Baths, the stage name of 24-year-old Will Wiesenfeld, whose elastic, melancholy vocal electronica lands somewhere between Flying Lotus and Elliott Smith. The label's artists, both new and old, are also friends and collaborators with the leaders of L.A.'s flourishing left-field beat scene, like Daddy Kev and the Gaslamp Killer. (Anticon now even shares an office with Kev's Alpha Pup records.)
Three of the Anticon founders, Jel, Odd Nosdam, and Doseone, still live in the Bay Area, though everyone else has moved elsewhere. But Anticon views San Francisco as important enough to hold one of two 15th anniversary parties here this week (the other is, of course, in L.A.), when much of the label's roster will take over two rooms of 1015 Folsom. And in some sense, the Bay Area is where the spirit of the old Anticon lives on.
It's been seven years since Jel released a solo album, but it's not like he hasn't been busy — he's put out three albums in that time with other projects like Themselves and 13&God. He chose the name Late Pass partly as an acknowledgment of just how long it's been since his last album, Soft Money. "The title came from how I was just late in delivering a third album and how motherfuckers are late onto me," he said in the press release accompanying Late Pass. "It represents where I'm at right now. I'm not falling the fuck off. I'm not getting super large. I'm doing my thing."
Late Pass definitely sounds like Logan doing his thing: The mood is dark, the beats are impeccably constructed, and his bleak rhymes are delivered in a mumbling deadpan, often barely present in the mix. Jel plays and raps everything himself, with the exception of one guitar part. His strangely textured soundscapes, as usual, are the highlight: The title track builds into a rumbling, shuddering stumble, layered with eerie synths and flecks of dubby guitar, before Logan's half-whispered vocals come in. The speedier "Look Up" paints slowly changing chords over a propulsive hi-hat and snare pattern. And the aforementioned instrumental "Breathe" is the album's most subtly gorgeous three minutes and 52 seconds, another spacey superstructure laid over a just-beefy-enough drum base. Though a consummate crate-digger, Jel resisted the urge to sample whole melodies here, instead writing his own music. It's hard to generalize about what exactly makes his compositions work, but there's a prevailing sense of intuition in them, a use of pacing and space that makes his music far more evocative than your average boom-bap hip-hop tracks.
"Don't get too comfortable" is more than just a lyric that appears in several of these songs. Jel's shit, to put it plainly, is weird, sometimes off-putting: When "Late Pass" starts groaning to life, you really can't tell where it's going to go. Even on a more conventional track, like the closing, antimaterialistic "Romantisch" (which samples a lyric from The Coup's Boots Riley), Jel employs all the elements of classic indie hip-hop without quite coming off as classicist. He says of that song's message: "We're all being duped by our society, that we keep buying and buying and wasting and wasting, and everybody thinks it's this romantic cool shit, but it's kind of depressing and detrimental."
Like Anticon, the label that's been his home, Jel hasn't enjoyed easy commercial success. You will find him on Instagram bitching about people illegally downloading his album: "This really helps me stay as broke as possible," he writes. "I really appreciate it!!!!" But 15 years in, we can safely say this about the unwillingness, and/or inability, of Jel and Anticon to get comfortable: It's kept them putting out interesting music.