Brother, Can You Spare a Sample?

What's wrong with turning tramps into pop music?

When Dan Huiting goes out bum hunting, he usually begins by scouting Loring Park, East Franklin Avenue, and the south end of the Nicollet Mall, near Peavey Plaza. Generally, he brings a friend along on these expeditions. This, he reasons, is likely to dissuade his subjects--transients, mostly--from liberating the $1,500 portable DAT recorder he carries. When Huiting spots someone with what he calls "mad bum style," he approaches him and strikes up a conversation. If the bum--the word he uses--is amenable, Huiting then records them as they speak.

"I always ask them the same question," Huiting clarifies: "'What's the most fucked-up thing you've ever seen?'"

Answers vary wildly. "One guy started talking about seeing this huge bumblebee the size of three buses," Huiting recalls. "Or this other guy talked about seeing a UFO rise out of a lake in Chicago. He kept saying 'hoovering' instead of 'hovering.' It was great."

Huiting relishes syllogism and hyperbole in the monologues he records: On one particularly memorable outing, he recalls, a voluble gentleman insisted that he'd seen a herd of elk in Loring Park. That story, in fact, suggested the title of Huiting's second album, Elk in Here, which he produced by editing the stories he recorded on the streets of Minneapolis into lyrical snippets, then setting them to music.

"I guess I've always been interested in anthropology or sociology or whatever you want to call it," Huiting says by way of explaining the genesis of his work. "I'm interested in these groups that have their own thing going on, that are totally oblivious to what's going on around them." Nevertheless, Huiting approaches his street recording without a social agenda, and he prefers humorous anecdotes or chemically lubricated flights of fancy. When people tell him sobering stories about living on the street--getting rolled for the change in their pockets, for instance--he is inclined to omit them.

Huiting's subjects do occasionally talk about their lives. On "Cops," for example, one of the songs on Elk in Here, a man tells a story about being rousted from sleep by the police. "Then you put your blanket down and then you cover up, and you got a good dark spot," he says. "All right, okay, but then the sun comes up and boom, all right, you gotta move again." The chorus, set to a catchy Wurlitzer organ riff and synthesizer bassline by Huiting, is "Don't let the cops come and fuck with you; sometimes they do and sometimes they don't."

Huiting tries to avoid explicitly narrative lyrics. Instead, he collects lines that he likes, or phrases that have an idiosyncratic rhythmic cadence. One of his favorites is from the song "Iowa": "There's a lot of people that can't be themselves," the lyric repeats over and over above a simple synth figure. "You got to be who you is, know what I'm saying?" When the line was recorded, Huiting says, the man who said it was sitting under an awning on Nicollet Avenue and smoking crack.

Huiting began recording street people as a lark, he says. "Being downtown, I was constantly talking to them, getting in these weird conversations. My friend John was like, 'You should record this shit.' And I was like, 'Dude, that's an awesome idea.'" His first album along these lines, recorded in 2001, was cheekily entitled Bum 'N Bass.

From the start, Huiting eschewed even the pretense of a humanistic purpose. "My goal was to make comedy albums that were cool and interesting, but also musically viable," he explains. "It's my feeling that anyone who's too political for their own good is heading down the wrong road.

"My friends and I like ripping on people," he adds. "It's their pain, and we're making fun of it, so I guess that's kind of mean."

Offered the suggestion that this attitude might be perceived as, if not political, then perhaps tasteless and mean-hearted, Huiting demurs. "Some people might see it as exploitative. But I don't know. I think it would be different if I were trying to make money off the bums." Huiting usually offers his subjects a few dollars on the spot and he plans to give 15 percent of the proceeds from sales of Elk in Here to the Salvation Army.

"Some people think it's tasteless," Huiting continues. "Other people think it's funny because it's tasteless. It means different things to different people." How one feels about Huiting's work may, in fact, hang on a rather fundamental question: Can good art spring from the worst of intentions?

 

Huiting works out of a warehouse on the East Bank, in a closet-size rehearsal studio that he shares with the four other members of Serious Buddha, a funk band Huiting has played with, on and off, for four years. He spends as many as 12 hours a day here, and the space has all the accouterments of a freshman dorm room: Photos of Britney Spears taped to the refrigerator; Marshall amplifiers stacked against the wall; song lyrics scrawled on a dry-erase board; nudie playing cards spread on the counter.

Huiting is 22 years old and looks like a punk. His brown hair is close-cropped, and he has large hoops in his earlobes. He is wearing a blue T-shirt, which reads "Keep the Lipstick on the Dipstick" (it's the CB-radio tag of a former trucker Huiting met on the street). Beneath the shirt, Huiting's torso is a veritable canvas of tattoos: A blue mandala at the nape of his neck peeks out from beneath the collar; vines run down either forearm and culminate in the image of a devil with a Tommy gun.

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