How much experimentation is too much? In hip hop, it's a difficult line to mark. Decades of braggadocio and party rhymes have created a populist standard where brainier, more "prog" elements are discouraged if they fly over too many listeners' heads. Experimentation is a matter of degrees: Ghostface Killah's Rube Goldberg-contraption lyrics and Timbaland's Bollywood imports are incorporated into chart-topping rap with nary a shrug. But if a rapper's vocab gets too postgraduate and his beats too sci-fi, then he's relegated to "strictly for horn-rimmed white boys" status by self-proclaimed hardcore heads. Assuming, that is, said heads even consider him hip hop at all.
Notable indie art-rap label Anticon got its fair share of grief when, in 1999, it released a compilation filled with space-poet lyrics and ambient beats and called it Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop. Underground hip hop's detractors have been holding up the label as an example of all that's wrong with book-hitting, "backpacker" rap ever since. ("Stick to Radiohead and let the rap kids have fun, snobs," one dissatisfied Amazon.com customer muses.)
But judging your typical Anticon release on the same terms as your average rap record is like judging Anthony Braxton by Charlie Parker standards. So if a rap record is considered less "real" the more experimental it gets, then for argument's sake, let's listen to The No Music, the latest release by Anticon stalwarts Themselves, and pretend it's not hip hop. Previously known simply as Them (probably until a call from Van Morrison's lawyers), the duo of doseone and jel made their first prominent mark on the aforementioned Advancement with the song "It's Them." That track offered six minutes of surrealism that turned breakbeats into the D.T.'s and spit out verses that read like Yoko Ono's Fluxus exercises ("It doesn't look like an ice sculpture...or doeeees iiiiit?!"). But while The No Music manages to retain the opaque dissonance and heavily cloaked meaning of doseone's previous ventures, there is one important distinction: The No Music bumps. Hard. Like Jackie Chan on painkillers. Not like a Honda Civic subwoofer--more like a pair of vintage Koss headphones.
Alternately futuristic and self-consciously playing into a retro idea of what "futuristic" should sound like, jel's elektrodink beats rumble like an '02 laptop uprocker possessed by a '72 wall-of-Moog Krautrocker. The No Music's opening track "Home:Work" sets the mood by Krazy Gluing together ColecoVision ping-pong blips, reconstructed levee breaks, subliminal vocal murmurs, and a closing piano loop that sounds like the opening to "Sister Christian" trapped in a two-by-two-foot box. A clip of Jean Jacques Perrey's "E.V.A." is dropped in the midst of the Warp-styled "Good People Check," ostensibly as a self-conscious parody of Gang Starr's "Just to Get a Rep" (doseone: "It was nothing/I did it just to save our rep"). The sample also serves, intentionally or otherwise, as a hallmark of those moments where head-nod hip hop and art-weirdo retroelectronics manage to coexist seamlessly. Throughout the album, sounds that seem like audio non sequiturs promptly shape themselves into catchy hooks, mocking the maxim "Fuck art, let's dance" and retorting, "What, those things are mutually exclusive?"
Amid all this instrumentation is doseone's voice, which seemed obtrusive and snotty on his more sludgy, moody releases like cLOUDDEAD's self-titled album. Now, it sounds more readily at home, surrounded by jel's audio chaos like a whirring engine in the midst of Le Mans. Doseone emits less drawn-out nyeaaaaaaaaahs, sounding more like a pitch-tweaked Andre 3000. As a result, the crunk-glitch stutter and machinegun delivery on "Live Trap" resembles a dream collaboration between Outkast and Prefuse 73. Elsewhere, doseone's voice is tuned down to a sinister whisper: The religious satire of "You Devil You" rides on the phrases You can't make Satan pray...You can't shoot guns down the sewer/Bang on the ceiling angry for God. Then it melts into a deranged preacher's sermon, replete with wobbly, malevolent sounds that could be called crack-pipe organs.
Unfortunately (though, one suspects, intentionally), a great deal of the lyricism is so buried beneath the noise that words become just another percussive instrument. And when you can hear the words, they're still hard to grasp. In "Mouthful," doseone mumbles, "Teeth clamped face first/You fell into the door/They took the doorknob out/They all feel falling/Shattered fishbowl rocks out into your mouth..." before collapsing into a breathtaking bout of logorrhea that would make the best transcriber stab hysterically at the rewind button.
All this art-hop allusion sounds mighty foreign and cold. But The No Music looks sideways as often as it looks forward, keeping pace with speaker-thumping art-rap standard-bearers like the Infesticons' Gun Hill Road and El-P's Fantastic Damage. It's easy to think Themselves' experimentation is probably too weird for radio, and that their underground status won't exactly endear them to the XXL crowd. But pretend the contrary all you like--it is hip-hop, and Themselves' indie principles are probably the only thing keeping the album from a larger audience. After all, we're living in an era where Prefuse scores Foot Locker commercials and Missy rides a beat that sounds like µ-ziq reworking "Heart of Glass" into a sure-fire hit.
Striving to move beyond boom bap, throw your hands in the air may not be a point of urgency. But in their attempts at musical evolution, at least Themselves aren't standing by themselves.