Straight Outta Grumpy's
Is it possible to rock ironically? That's the question posed a few years ago by the Darkness, the British schlock-metal band that began with a single karaoke performance and went on to personify the nostalgia-tinged irony of the early aughts, with their Saved by the Bell reruns, Journey revivalism, and adult kickball leagues. But before we had an answer, the Darkness, in a word, fell.
But just when you thought the Age of Irony had passed, you walk into the Hexagon Bar to find two white dudes wearing matching Adidas tracksuits rapping about G.I. Joe, Russell Simmons, and Robin Yount. One bears more than a passing resemblance to a short, bearded Matthew Broderick. The other is nearly a foot taller, blond, and extremely animated. You scan the room, wondering where Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall are sitting.
Meet MC/VL, a.k.a. Mighty Clyde and Vicious Lee, a.k.a. John Henry and David Hansen, a.k.a. the Twin Cities' newest hip-hop crew to rock hip hop's oldest sound. At the tender ages of 25 and 26, respectively, MC/VL are only a few years older than the records they clearly love—Run-D.M.C.'s The King of Rock, the Beastie Boys' License to Ill, et al.—and one might think that two-decade buffer, not to mention whatever mental cartography separates 1984 New York City from 2006 Minneapolis, would provide adequate distance for these retrograde MCs to take a step back and update the art form that so enthralled them when they were tots. But that would be reading too far into MC/VL's mission. They aren't here to update anything. "We rock the party/We rock the party right!" goes the chorus to one of their best songs, and judging by the (old-) schoolboy glee with which they bounce around the Hex stage, it's hard to imagine them wanting to do any more than just that.
Two days later, the boys of MC/VL invite me to discuss their humble beginnings over a game of cribbage, a choice of activity that presages what Vicious Lee tells me as soon as I sit down: "We have the least possible street cred. It's actually one of our selling points."
He's not talking about MC/VL's taste for cribbage (but really, is there a less "street" card game?). Instead, he's describing how he and Mighty Clyde met three years ago, while Lee was helping run karaoke at Grumpy's bar. Clyde was taking a playwriting class down the block, and after class he made a habit of grabbing a beer and singing a tune. (MC/VL fans will be completely unsurprised to learn that Clyde met Lee while singing the Beastie Boys' "Get It Together." The Darkness, incidentally, trace their karaoke roots to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody.") Their friendship thus struck, the two proceeded to discover more common ground: Both were from St. Paul, but lived in Minneapolis. Both liked hockey (they still play NHL 06 on the Xbox nearly every day). Both liked to write (Clyde finished two drafts of his play—a story about "being overeducated, underemployed, and knowing way too much about pop culture"—before finally trashing it). And, more to the point, both wanted to make music.
"I've always had band ambitions," says Lee, who, like Clyde, hung out with musician friends he was too "crippled by insecurity" to join. "But despite the fact that I've always loved hip hop, it never occurred to me to start rapping." Then something drastic happened. He stopped loving hip hop.
"Somewhere along the line, modern hip hop kind of lost me," he says, putting down his cribbage hand in order to better choose his words. "The underground indie scene includes such unfathomably talented MCs, but in a lot of cases they're rapping about subject matter, and rapping from a place, that seems cold to the touch, antithetical to my association with hip hop." Mainstream hip hop, meanwhile, had the party sound he'd always loved, but he and Clyde couldn't get into the bravado that came with it. "I don't mean to sound like some puritan," says Lee, "but it's so violent. Even when it's sexual, it's violent and lewd and disgusting. And more than that, there seems to be a wholesale lack of humor in rap."
That's not to say, the duo points out quickly, that MC/VL is a joke. But there's a fine line between rapping with a sense of humor and rapping as a joke, and MC/VL ride it delicately. On one hand, you wouldn't be off-base to accuse them of wearing their track suits like Halloween costumes; on the other, lines like "I saw you lookin' for a lyric in the lost and found/But yo I think you better call Encyclopedia Brown" never fail to kill onstage. It's a problem they've temporarily solved by playing almost exclusively with rock acts, the audiences who eat up MC/VL like so many Pop Rocks (they open for the God Damn Doo Wop Band and the Awesome Snakes on Friday at the Hexagon). They've also increased their "legitimacy" (their word) by adding a DJ (first Professor BX, now DJ Tilt). And by the time their first record, tentatively titled Stance, drops in February, Mighty Clyde and Vicious Lee hope to have cultivated enough cred—and less crippling insecurity—to finally break bread with some other local rappers, many of whom are already MC/VL fans (Dessa Darling, of Doomtree, actually bowed down to them during our cribbage match).
For now, though, it might seem like MC/VL create their bygone hip hop in a cultural vacuum, without the support and critique structures of rap's natural community. But you could also say that MC/VL belong to a different sort of culture, one not only of appropriation, but also of imitation and appreciation. One that includes not only skinny white boys from St. Paul but also doo wop bands, country-western groups, chamber string acts, and many other young, bored artists having fun by trying something—everything—that's been tried before. A karaoke culture, you might call it.
Back at the Hexagon show, one of the more belligerent members of the audience vocalizes a different school of thought. "Look at me, I'm wearing Adidas and playing music!" he shouts. Just in case any of the bystanders fail to pick up on the subtle sarcasm in his slurred speech, he clarifies: "You're too late!"
Mighty Clyde and Vicious Lee shrug the heckler off, and during one song, Clyde leapfrogs off the stage and ends up as far up in the guy's grill as his stocky wrestler's stature will allow. "We rock the party/We rock the party right!" he and VL shout, and you can't help but wonder if this is, at last, ironic rocking. But then you remember that the only thing more annoying than irony in art is the debate over whether it exists, and, further, whether that even matters. So during the next song, when the duo entreats you to "Clap your hands everybody/Everybody just clap your hands," you shut up and just do it.
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