What is Hip-Hop? Is it passing the mic or passing the cognac? Bling bling or bang bang? A concrete or a nebulous means of expression, by any means necessary?

If you said all of the above and none of the above, you are correct. Hip-hop can be as broad or as specific - as semantically challenging - as the person doing the talking. And talking to MC Why? about the music of his two groups, cLOUDDEAD and Reaching Quiet - two of the five Mush Records acts touring together for the first time this month - reveals something that's worlds away from what many would consider hip-hop.

"When I think of hip-hop, I think of it like punk rock, as anti-establishment," says Why?, born Yoni Wolf. "The things we're doing on record - not to sound pompous - to me are more hip-hop than most of the shit coming out today. Because most people aren't doing or talking about anything relevant or challenging. 'Bling bling' and that kind of shit. But as for the [cLOUDDEAD and Reaching Quiet] sound, when you sit sown and listen to it, that isn't traditionally hip-hop."

After all, it isn't every MC who namedrops avant-drone groups Flying Saucer Attack and Stars of the Lid as two production influences, or Guided By Voices and the Silver Jews as lyrical heroes. But it isn't every MC who has blissed-out dub soundscapes as hazy as cLOUDDEAD's to flow over. If Brian Eno had been commissioned to make hip-hop for an episode of "Twin Peaks," it still probably wouldn't have sounded like this. These are Wu-Tang beats over ambient washes. This is the "in" sound from way out. And it's coming out of Cali.

Along with fellow mid-20s pale-skins MC Doseone and producer Odd Nosdam, Why? fled Cincinnati in the late 90's to regroup in California as part of the DIY Anticon collective. Then cLOUDDEAD hooked up with Mush Records, formerly a downtempo instrumental label, for its abstract releases. In no time flat, copious members of Anticon and the Mush label has seen their share of accolades, touting them as "ones to watch' by top national magazines.

A schizoid sound sets cLOUDDEAD apart from more familiar hip-hop, but the group's sense of community, a hip-hop hallmark, pulls it closer to the subculture's ethos. Members of the Anticon collective work in different pairings as they see fit, none worried about stepping on the toes of any other - they all roll lavishly on the nonsensical side of life.

cLOUDDEAD's melodic counterpoint to Doseone's nasal thuggish-ruggish delivery, Why? recently split off with Nosdam to form Reaching Quiet, an experimental ode to broken instruments, 8-bit video gamers and 8-track home tapers. Why?, a follower of everyone from De la Soul to Dylan Thomas and bob Dylan, takes literal poetic license.

"Some people [including Nosdam] complain sometimes because there are lots of 30-second Reaching Quiet songs. But if it's a two-line poem, I'm not going to stretch it out into two minutes."

For the tour, Why? and his groupmates are translating their bedroom aesthetic with a more stage-friendly approach: cLOUDDEAD will feature a live electronic drummer, while Reaching Quiet is backed by a full rock band.

"Doing it live, you have to figure out a way to make it live," says Why? "In the recording process a single person can do it because they can tweak it. Live, you have to grab the energy right when you have it. There are no second takes."

No second takes, perhaps, but probably lots of double-takes, as listeners try to absorb what cLOUDDEAD and Reaching Quiet are emitting. Some will answer the question, "What is hip-hop?" by saying hip hop is played out. But groups like cLOUDDEAD and Reaching Quiet are playing out to show what hip-hop can be.


Mush Records