TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT IN THE DUMB DARK
It's widely held that the best art makes you question your perception of truth, but it takes a special kind of person to make you question the very fabric of your personality. And, after an email interview with MC/producer why? and MC Doseone from the ambient, slippery, hiphop trio cLOUDDEAD, I was forced to ask myself the painful yet relevant question, "Am I wack?"
This armchair soul-searching was the result of the interview. why? and Doseone responded to nearly all my carefully thought-out, musically journalistic questions (some might call them "in the box") with complete and utter disregard for the questions' holy seriousness (some might call that "irreverence"). Their very nice publicist seemed a little nervous, if you can seem nervous over email, gaily handing me the disclaimer, "The 'truth' is a very malleable thing when it comes to these guys. Should make your job fun, though!"
Of course, the truth is malleable for cLOUDDEAD; if anything, "malleable" is the best description for their music. Part of the famously artful Oakland hiphop collective Anticon, why?, Doseone, and producer odd nosdam blend pulpy, subtle sounds with stream-of-consciousness rhymes in notes so perfect, they sometimes combust into spontaneous, atonal chords. But none of their sounds are premeditated, and that's why their music is so elastic; as why? says, "What's a chord? You mean like a 1/4" to 1/4" cable? Everything with our songs is an accident... Dose was an accident." It makes their music hard to pin down. How do you describe a group that splices melodic rhyming over samples of classical cellos, scratching, and creepy laugh tracks from old television shows, all done on an eight-track with records and a Boss Dr. Sample? As a result, cLOUDDEAD's music has been called everything from triphop to avant-hiphop to atmospheric rap. But why? says "(People) should probably try to fit more meat in the middle, rather than trying to bookend, name and categorize everything." Indeed, cLOUDDEAD's meat transcends its casing, with audio so kaleidoscopic that it's practically visual.
The cLOUDDEAD story is a dramatic one. why? and Doseone, who had already collaborated in four-track tape project Greenthink before hooking up with Nosdam, "met at a pool hall," why? notes.
"We were each sharking some squares at a separate table, and I didn't like him snaking my business. We got in a bare-knuckles brawl, and at the hospital we shared a room, only separated by a yellowed white curtain. We got to talking and found we had a lot in common; we both preferred argyle socks to white, we both saw the same shrink and, most important to the pages of this publication, we both were making music under assumed names. We immediately started working together, but felt there was something missing. Nosdam answered the personal ad the day after we posted it: 'Teenage rapping males seek sampler-wielding weirdo.' Lightening... that was it!" why? exclaims. "The three of us started getting together at 7:30 on Wednesday evenings and for tea at four on Tuesdays, and the next thing we knew, we were a team."
At this point in the interview, I begin weeping. "GOD! What a beautiful story." But how did why? and Doseone hone their skills as MCs? why? is eager to explain. "We started in our teenage yearsÉ and we just kept honing and honing and honing and honing... you know what I'm sayin', hone man?"
Boy, do I ever. How else but from practice could their styles become so smooth? However, it did not come from battling a pre-fame Eminem, a rumor Doseone disputes: "That was a mistake in the press. It was actually a guy named Arinar and I mutilated him- devoured him before his peers- and then we rap-battled."
After Nosdam answered the personal ad, the boys made six ten-inch singles, on which they collaborated with different artists (Mr. Dibbs, Illogic, DJ Signify, Sole, The Wolf Bros., The Bay Area Animals). In 2000, Mush Records compiled and released a full-length CD of 10"s.
The singles were heady and lighthearted masterpieces, dollops of humor and wisdom in lyrics based in t.s. eliot as much as Andy Kaufman. Example: "The cloud is dead, the fog has cleared/the sun is peaking through a 'happy little tree.'/Bob Ross?/Yes./He's underground, way underground./Herbert Hoover/he's underground, stupid underground," and so on, to culminate in a list of dead (if not forgotten) presidents. Now, you may laugh at the suggestion that "Calvin Coolidge is hella underground," but such warmth emanates beneath each lyric, half-sung and half-asleep, that the song is actually sort of heart-wrenching. This is the truth in which cLOUDDEAD resides, where everything is a tad askew and very much unexpected.
why? explains the philosophy behind their music as such: "As well as we can, we abide by the classic postulate of associationism between certain tardy partisans and the theory of cerebral localization, the transformation into metaphysical materialism which asserts the need to employ analysis and synthesis simultaneously... but we make it rhyme."
He continues, "We usually make elaborate plans for songs months in advance and then totally abandon those plans when the record button's lit. I think the fact that we can never follow through on overly thought-out ideas makes our music fresh."
Individually, the members of cLOUDDEAD flex and experiment with the idea of space and how to fill it. It's resulted in a signature sound of muddiness, like you're listening to them talk through a telescope, or perhaps two styrofoam cups linked together with chicken wire.
"The first two Greenthink tapes were done on my four-track," why? says in attempting to offer an explanation for their sound. "cLOUDDEAD and the why?/odd nosdam split EP were mostly done on Nosdam's tape eight-track. Most of (Anticon comrade) Sole's stuff was done on his ADAT. Now we work on all kinds of stuff: Roland VS880s, Digital Performer [computer program], ADATs, four-tracks, eight-tracksÉ it's like an orgy of tape hiss and hard-drive space."
According to why?, the group's orgy is based in many different reference points- an aural orgy of different genres, if you will. cLOUDDEAD's musical interests lie in everything from Radioinactive, Freestyle Fellowship, and De La Soul, to The Beatles, Windy and Carl, My Bloody Valentine, and Stars of the Lid. cLOUDDEAD's affinity for dreamy British electronic quartet Hood led to an internet romance, of sorts, and an equally dreamy collaboration on three tracks from Hood's latest LP, Cold House.
"I emailed Hood a while back and told them how much we appreciate what they do, and they were like, 'You like us? We like you,' and all that, like a grade-school valentine. So they sent us some music to put words on, and that's what we did. We are planning to tour a bit with them in the states in the spring and possibly do more music at some point." A collaboration with Boards of Canada is also in the works.
I want desperately to get to the core of cLOUDDEAD, to figure out what goes on in the brains of people who make such lovely and curious music. Because their lyrics are so simultaneously ridiculous and profound, I assume there is a huge element of humanness behind them, and I ask how they "tap into" their honesty.
"Honestly, it's hard," why? says. "We're pretty big liars over here; our den mother/religious leader makes us show her our lyrics when we are done writing. A lot of red ink has been spilled in the pursuit of honesty."