By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Pop is a loaded word. Some lazyboneses attempt to make it an all-inclusive term, lumping everything from bluegrass to dancehall under its aegis. But the stringent adherents of genre affiliations won't be having that: Pop is a dismissive term among anyone with a shred of cred. Britney is pop. Shania is pop. P Diddy is pop. But Fugazi or Merle Haggard or Common make "real" music.
Of course, they also make less money. The price of sniffing out false consciousness can be high, which may be why indie rappers still waste so much time griping about how expensive their major-label rivals' clothes are. Learn that a crew is called the Anti-Pop Consortium and you might expect the dullest sort of dour resentment. As someone who admires the masses so much that I refuse to call them (or should I say us?) masses, I find that "anti-pop" triggers the same sort of defensive response that Antichrist does among churchgoers. And yet, aside from a few protestations like "I get dough without a gat," the APC lives in a space where Jay-Z doesn't even exist as a bad counterexample.
Like Arto Lindsay or Vernon Reid, both collaborators with APC members in the past, these New Yorkers aren't upstart kids with as much attitude as free time. They're downtown musicians-as-artists, word slingers who'd probably be working on the page if rap hadn't come along when it did. In fact M. Sayyid, Priest, Beans, and producer E. Blaize originally hooked up at a poetry slam hosted by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Bob Hollman. And Blaize is such a pro that he pragmatically pays the bills by selling his production skills out to big-money acts. But that doesn't mean that APC and Blaize aren't prone to making the same mistakes as other low-budget acts.
There are two main traps that ensnare mediocre indie rap and indie rock alike. The first involves clinging to minimalist and/or lo-fi sonics as a badge of integrity--call it the Guided by Voices Fallacy. The second entails a surfeit of ambition, as musicians never seem content to leave a steady groove all on its own without tripping over its complexity--call it the Tortoise Fallacy. The APC's debut didn't entirely steer clear of the latter pitfall, but Tragic Epilogue was the best sort of creative mess. Too full of ideas and sounds to completely jell, its rhymes and soundscapes turned out abstract but not opaque.
APC's latest, The Ends Against the Middle (Warp), doesn't solve rap's ideological problems either. First off, it's an EP: a quick one-off rather than a major statement. Second, the rhymers take over the boards from the more experienced Blaize. Still, the results are surprisingly coherent. "Tuff Gong," produced by M. Sayyid, runs an ominous keyboard hook beneath the hectic clatter of some undisclosed percussion device, then switches mid-track to an equally satisfying bump. And thanks to Priest's synth noodling, "Dystopian Disco Force" lives up to all three words in its title, sounding kind of like Depeche Mode with no vocals and a snazzier beat. (Now there's an idea...)
The difference between Tragic Epilogue and The Ends Against the Middle is as much historical as it is stylistic: When the Consortium first convened in late 1997, big-money hip hop was, at the very least, entertaining. After years of humorless, antisocial ominousness bumping out of Cali, you really would have had to be a playa hater to resist the nouveau thrill of "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Then, we wanted underground hip hop to thrive: There can never be too many voices.
Today we need underground hip hop to thrive: Commercial rap really is largely as bad as the gripes will have it. Anti-Pop Consortium are a healthy sign of hip hop's progress, allowing lines like "Every time/I rhyme/It's code red, on a moped/With a cokehead/And a burned out shortwave radio" to propel a track. Pop goes the word.