First of all, I am not an expert on hip-hop. I’m not even a particularly devoted fan. I didn’t understand it and that embarrassed me. As I became an adult (long after I was legally an adult), I gave it another try. I was sure I was missing something. The “right” way in to hip-hop might be to start light and aim for the mainstream stars, but the fringes and dark spots are so much more interesting and, of course, harder to find.
So as a generous host, I bring you several artists somewhere in the fringes of hip-hop: Doomtree, Dessa, Gonjasufi, and Death Grips. None are truly underground, but none are Kanye either.
Doomtree and Dessa
The most accessible of these is a hip hop collective from Minneapolis called Doomtree who first got my attention with one song, “Drumsticks”, and its associated video. The video really shows the cohesion of the group, a bunch of people with a common musical purpose and a slightly offbeat manner moving through life. A more specific example comes from a solo project of group member Dessa in her song “Crew” (from her solo album A Badly Broken Code):
“My friends and my family, my clan is Doomtree”
I can’t describe where Doomtree fits in hip hop. I don’t know that much. Sonically, they come across like a blend of 80% El-P and 20% good indie rock. Since members of Doomtree also are part of Gayngs, along with other indie figures such as Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), members of Megafaun and Poliça, the indie rock contribution is not surprising. Their self-titled album is decent, with a few standout tracks and some other credible attempts, but the tracks sounds like a sampler of individual performers rather than a single group. Their next album, No Kings, is top notch with almost every song as good as the best of the prior album. With No Kings, they seem to have merged from a disparate bunch of talented musicians into a single group whose members talents vary (as in Fleetwood Mac, but without the drama). Imagine a salad. The album Doomtree is all the ingredients lying on the cutting board. The album No Kings is the fully prepared salad.
Along with Doomtree albums, the collective releases solo albums by group members on the Doomtree label. Each solo album features performances by one or more other Doomtree members. I’m particularly drawn to Dessa whose music is furthest from the hip-hop stereotype.
Dessa is a lyrically poetic rapper/singer who tells compelling stories of people in trouble or at specific emotional places. She does rap, but at times she’s just poetically telling a story over the music. A hardcore hip-hop fan might not even call it hip-hop. Her music is to hip-hop what post-rock is to rock: she uses all the tools and elements, but doesn’t bother to put them together in the same way. Don’t get me wrong, her work is not as odd as post-rock can be, but it is at the edge of the genre nonetheless. At the moment, Dessa doesn’t feature in my most heavily played songs, but I remain a fan and will be buying more of her work in the future.
In my collection, I have many strange artists, but Gonjasufi is easily among the strangest. If you relied soley on interviews to judge him, you’d miss out. He sometimes sounds like a stoned agitated man with an imaginary career. The stoned part … well … I’m guessing that’s sometimes true. His day job? Yoga teacher. As you can see, he resembles a Rastafarian yoga teacher, a pattern we all know well.
The music is … well … peculiar. The rhythm is often subdued, sometimes reggae-influenced, sometimes seeming to come straight out of a slow Barry White song. The music seems to come from a 1970’s psychedelic drug haze. Fortified with odd noisy components, it’s like what hip-hop would sound like to a person just waking up from anesthesia. In my first listen — while driving across Wyoming — I found it to be a bit creepy. Now, it fits well with a variety of trancey or psychedelic music such as Portishead, Goat, and the Besnard Lakes. The music didn’t change. I did.
Death Grips is probably the most alienating stressful music that I can handle. Certainly, others would find more intense choices in my collection, but, for me, Death Grips rests just barely on the good side of the tolerable/intolerable divide. Musically, it sounds like Nitzer Ebb went to jail and joined a gang. Know this about Death Grips: it’s brutal. There are no cuddles, no seduction, and no drinks at the piano bar.
I can’t tell their story well, because I don’t actually understand it. They’re angry and suspicious and I’m not sure why. They were either dumped by or dumped Epic, their record label. The breaking point happened when Epic and Death Grips disagreed about when to release their second album, No Love Deep Web. Death Grips proceeded to release the full album for free. Who dumped who? Who knows? More fun, the album’s cover art was a photo of the drummer’s erect penis with the album title written on it. To the band, this was an artistic statement that, when you read about it, almost makes sense. Almost. To me, it just seems silly. But then, as far back as 1985, the Dead Kennedys were getting in trouble for inserting a penis-themed poster into their album Frankenchrist. Maybe today’s Death Grips is just yesterday’s Dead Kennedys. Hmmm … I think I just stumbled on to a conspiracy … or my tin foil hat just fell off.