Notes of Some Nonnative Sons
Coming on Strong
They wanted to kill the whiteness inside. At least that's how the pale-faced kids at Williamsburg, Brooklyn's monthly "Kill Whitey" parties explained it as they rocked booty-bass jams, mugged their best thug-life poses, and threw down slang with East Coast private school accents. (If you'd asked their black friends about it, they might have psychoanalyzed things a little differently.) Trying to excise his own blue-eyed demons, Tha Pumpsta, the 25-year-old DJ and party ringleader, even told the Washington Post how he knew gangstaness came from within: He'd grown up in Georgia, admired Martin Luther King Jr., printed T-shirts with interlocking black and white fingers. But his biggest personal revelation came when he stumbled upon a party with thousands of black college students. That was, he said, when he knew he was part of the post-racial generation. Which prompts the question: If whiteness doesn't exist, how does one strike it dead?
Well, if it didn't exist, one wouldn't need to. That fantasy has been a way to circumvent racial issues in hip hop ever since Herbie Hancock made the video for "Rockit" back in '83. At a time when MTV wasn't playing many clips by black musicians, Hancock decided that, instead of appearing in his own video, he'd cast robots. These days, those tin bodies have become the equivalent of aliens in a Steven Spielberg movie, citizens of a race-free world we can only imagine--and a reminder that cultural identity is more complicated than we think.
Lately, white-boy appropriationists are envisioning hip hop as that same machine dream. (Check out any one of Beck's booty-funk videos, which often feature robots doing, um, the robot.) Equally inspired by Madlib, Anti-Pop Consortium, RTX, and Will Oldham, London's Hot Chip are the latest in this line. There are no turntables, no guitar solos, no musical cues readily rooted in genre or coded by race on their album Coming on Strong (Astralwerks). Instead, they roll with electro-funk that sounds like it could have been made by anyone from Postal Service to Junior Boys to Pharrell Williams to Clipse.
Plus, when the co-vocalist Joe Goddard gets vox-tweaked, he sounds like a deeply bummed Hal 9000. "The Beach Party" feels like Timbaland gone new wave, as lead singer Alexis Taylor slings his silliest playa-jam pickup lines: "Hot love on a platter/Let's consume together." The drum machine on "Crap Kraft Dinner" packs the crackle-smack shock of a Colt 45 bottle breaking on the sidewalk, then segues into a geezer-ennui lament that might have been inspired by Mike Skinner's spliff. And even though Taylor tries to claim cred on "Down with Prince"--"I was just a baby when I heard him playing Vanity 6!"--the beat (what sounds like a digitized faucet drip and an Aphex Twin-style loop of snipping shears) suggests the work of a laptop jockey who gets all his street slang off Wikipedia.
Which is kind of the point. Since no ProTools update will erase their origins, Hot Chip capture that sad/funny self-mocking of what it's like to love cultures you'll never be a part of. When Goddard calls his girlfriends "my boo" in the glitchcore ballad "Shining Escalade," the singers over-enunciate in that way only a text-to-speech compu-reader or your grandma can achieve. Yet it's no easy Goldie Lookin' Chain punch line. There's a tenderness to the slow synth plinks, and the words play out an us-against-the-world romance as tender as any park-bench graffiti: "I want a shining S-K-A/Live my life a different way/Ride round the block with you, my boo/Always with you."
That combination of silly and profound often comes together on Coming on Strong. On the R&B ooze of "Keep Fallin'," when Taylor sings, "I'm like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things," the joke's at his own expense--these white kids from England with lovely boys-choir voices know they're distinct from their hero in more ways than that. But identifying yourself in something or someone you're not--that's what art is. And for these guys, it lies in the intersection between name-checking Prince and "Who Let the Dogs Out," musing about Dean Ween and the myth of Sisyphus, quoting T.S. Eliot and Goodfellas. At their best, Hot Chip braid all those things together in a tangle of indie-geek self-consciousness, hip-hop bravado, and the melancholy that drives both. You can hear it on the slow-burn music-box thump of "Playboy": "April, the cruelest month/I reckon this March could be a contender/There's only so much sorrow a man can take...Driving in my Peugeot, hey yay/20-inch rims with the chrome now, hey yay/Blazing out Yo La Tengo, hey yay/Drive around Putney with the top down, hey yay."
It's no surprise that most of Hot Chip's best songs--"Playboy," "Shining Escalade," "You Ride, We Ride, In My Ride"--take place in cars. That Peugeot's gotta be a metaphor for Hot Chip's whole place in the universe. Behind the wheel, they're both in the world and divided from it. They know what the streets look like, but only because they've seen them from behind glass. "Why must I go out into the cold?" asks Taylor on the Yo La Tengo-ish "Baby Said." "My life is inside where safe we can hide...the outside world's not safe."
And yet, they keep driving. The title of the tricked-out twinkle-bass gem "You Ride, We Ride, In My Ride" is telling in its division of pronouns: "you," separate from "we," separate from "my." That's the loneliness of being, right there, and Taylor's soft, clear voice intensifies it: "Out on the nightlong road again/I'm leaving and turning upon a friend/Please close the door let us talk no more/It's out here I may find my reasons for." For what, he doesn't say. And maybe he doesn't have to.
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