Celebrity Death Match
Tunde Adebimpe has had the rare good fortune--the "dumb, dumb luck" in his words--to spend his whole adult life as a not-wealthy-but-not-actually-starving artist. Since graduating from NYU's film school, Adebimpe has pursued moviemaking, painting, and stop-motion animation, the last discipline of which landed him a job with MTV's Celebrity Death Match. Lately his chief focus is on making music with TV on the Radio, a Brooklyn-based quintet that began as a home-recording collaboration between Adebimpe and producer-multi-instrumentalist David Sitek. The group's 2004 album, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, is a moody collection of noisy loops and guitars, sideways pop, and frayed harmonies. It's a hard-to-peg sound--very hip, but in that tuned-in-yet-out-of-step fashion that characterizes genuine hipness. "The Wrong Way," for example, sounds something like Morphine covering Golden Earring's "Radar Love," but with a strong current of Afro-centric radicalism in the lyrics. Adebimpe talked over the phone about 4-track tape loops, agitprop politics, and the man he disdainfully calls President It Thing.
City Pages: Just about everything I've read about you draws comparisons to Peter Gabriel. I figure one writer noticed a vague vocal similarity and the simultaneous presence of guitars and electronics, and everyone else followed suit. It's not a totally absurd likeness, but it's a rather casual one.
Tunde Adebimpe: I totally agree with you. The first time I read that, I thought, That's weird. And then I didn't think about it again, until everyone and their mother started saying, [mock pitchman voice] "Whoa! The band sounds like Peter Gabriel!" It's like, are you fucking kidding me?
CP: [Jokingly] I wonder if it has anything to do with the "Sledgehammer" video and your connection to animation?
Adebimpe: Yeah, I have no idea, but it's funny how it keeps showing up. We were in Rhode Island, and I overhead this kid from one of the opening bands talking to Daleel [Bunton], our drummer. And the kid said, "What's the best live show you've ever seen?" Daleel said, "I don't know, probably a Cameo show or something." And the kid said, "Well, I saw Peter Gabriel a few years back, and it was really amazing." And he just kept going on about this Peter Gabriel show, and edging closer to me, so as to make sure I could hear him. Like he wanted me to say, [affects nerdy, excited voice] "Yo, man, we should talk. We should have coffee. Dude, sit down, let me tell you about Peter Gabriel."
CP: The group has also gotten a lot of doo-wop comparisons, which are understandable, but maybe similarly misleading. The songs do have some vocal basslines, nonsense syllables, and a cappella passages, but the harmonies rarely evoke '50s or early '60s doo-wop.
Adebimpe: Yeah, it's definitely not doo-wop. At least for my part, it's not nearly as organized or well-trained as doo-wop.
CP: Well, the harmonies, and I don't mean this as slam, but they have a kind of random quality.
Adebimpe: Oh, completely. I mean, one of the instruments I play in the band is this loop pedal. I kind of sing notes into it, and maybe slow them down or speed them up. And that's the most consistently I've played any instrument in the past 10 years. I'm not against technique at all, but I'm also a big fan of taking whatever you have and seeing what that turns into. When I started to make music, I just wanted to put things down. About seven years ago or so, I got a four-track and a Radio Shack microphone, and I'd beat box a drum part, and then hum guitar lines, and put words over it. I wasn't really thinking about any style, I just wanted to hear a song.
CP: So you guys were on Carson Daly's show yesterday. What was that like?
Adebimpe: Surreal, completely surreal. The guests on the show were Donald Trump and Vivica A. Fox. I remember walking past her dressing room and she's talking to her handlers, and in the next room Donald Trump is there with his daughter, and I'm walking down the hall trying to find fruit.
CP: Like something you stuff in your jacket and eat later on?
CP: For legal reasons, we can keep this next question in the realm of metaphor, but is the line "Your guns are pointed the wrong way" [from "The Wrong Way"] revolutionary, suicidal, both, or something else?
Adebimpe: Well, Kyp wrote that song. That line, I think it's great because it works on a lot of levels. The song is about young black people pointing guns at each other--whether it's child armies in Liberia or street gangs here. It's kind of a punk-rock sort of statement, basically: What the fuck are you doing? You're kids, you just got here, and you're shooting each other. You need to stop and think about who did that. It wasn't you guys, you just showed up. Of course it's music, it's not a rallying call for everybody to find someone over 30 and shoot them, like Go for it, right now, buy our album, kill, kill.
CP: What does your gut tell you will happen in the presidential election?
Adebimpe: My gut feeling is that it will probably be very, very close, which is ridiculous to me. I have to allow for the horrible thought that the It Thing might be reelected. But I hope that he's swept out like a fucking rat and never heard from again--or heard from again as regards what's being done to him in punishment.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.