He may look nerdy / And his conversation wordy / But Subtitle know niggas gangbanging over thirty / And his mom’s from Santana block…
—Murs on “Crew Cut (for sale)”
Subtitle is the alter ego of mild-mannered Giovanni Marks, a Los Angeles underground MC who vaguely resembles a neurotic Jimi Hendrix grabbed by skull and ankles stretched until the joints popped. Having been involved with the landmark Project Blowed, Marks has spent the past few years filing away at his enigmatic rhymestyle while putting out homemade CDs and cassettes containing beats more likely to sample Sonic Youth than James Brown. This closeted activity culminated in the I’m Always Recovering from Tomorrow EP on GSL, which is described as “relatively bizarre” even by his own record label; you may draw your own conclusions as to why he ended up supporting the Mars Volta for two weeks of their European tour. The EP also saw his first collaborative work with fellow iconoclast producer Thavius Beck (aka Adlib, who released the superbly grim Decomposition last year and contributes a track to Saul Williams’ latest, as well as the title track here, amongst others), a meeting of minds that was to result in Labwaste. Their fantastic debut, a hypnotically anarchic assembly of grooves far closer to the salacious noise warfare of Garbage-era Autechre than the West Coast’s habitual G-Funk, was out earlier this year.
Now he’s finally stepping out for his solo debut, and even without prior knowldge you could tell the guy was a bit of a kook; look at the Shakespearian word order of the album’s title, hell, look at the album itself—it’s pink and brown, and the sleeve art features a bird dressed up Edwardian style and a massive robot falling out of the sky. All of which is explained personably enough by Marks on the album’s intro; pink and brown being his two favourite colours “as well as one of my favourite bands, rest in peace”, young being his age, dangerous being his lifestyle as well as the fact that his heart has a tiny pinhole in it, and heart being, well, “what you need to survive in the city”. Then the Alias beat of “Gio-graph-ick” rolls in, Subtitle acknowledges this fact, and we’re away: Crews are threatened and when he “strikes the spot / It’s like a cardiac attack / Or an aneurysm schism / Dump your mind into a chasm / All the while retaining rhythm”, though the violence is strictly lyrical and “hopefully a low death toll means a good soul”.
Nothing quite prepares you for Subtitle’s rapping timbre, which sounds for all the world like early voice reproduction software; the ubergeek anti-gangsta sound make audible. The LA undergound scene’s continued anonymity has to be the only reason the producers of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film enlisted Mos Def and then omitted to hire Subtitle to voice Marvin the Paranoid Android, if that gives you more of an idea. However, what Marks lacks in the KRS-One machismo department he makes up for in dry wit, openness and a strangely oblique approach to both flow and verse construction. To wit: “I stand in deep thought / Just like stasis / And hang words out to dry / That’s my style’s basis” (from “Palm Fronds”, on which he also idiosyncratically claims to be “Balling like Tupac / ‘Cos I’m 6’8” / And I can shoot well”).
The beats over which Subtitle wryly expounds—“My hardware bumper’s size exponential / I’m a brainstorm that’s torrential… making underground hits (even though only 17 people know about it)”—all stem from an understanding of breakscapes birthed in the time before commercial veneer glossed over and filled out so much of the aural space that the MC is forced to match his delivery to the track rather than impose his own rhythm and melodies vocally; which is to say they’re fairly simple boombap that ranges from the jazzy to the starkly bassy, but never stray far from propulsive minimalism, their occasionally intellect-only funkiness described by the man himself as “boombeep”. Subtitle himself weighs in with about half the production work, the rest being spread amongst extended (and lesser known) West Coast fam like Omid, Octavius, Cockamamie, Old Joseph, and Life Rexall without suffering much in the homogenity and quality stakes.
Yes, much of the music is cerebral, and indeed some of it is almost relentlessly nerdy (there’s an entire track, “Cray Crazy”, based solely on computer chip/robotics fetishism), but if you can’t stomach the odd reference to the Flash, then you probably hate on Black Thought, MF DOOM, and Ghostface Killer too, and a little single-mindedness that opposes the mainstream’s own tunnel vision can only be refreshing. Like the man says on “Fast Food/Fast Death”, “Most art is only out to ruin you—that’s the problem with society today / They don’t understand how to innovate”, and it’s hard not to fall for an artist who writes lyrics like “Business is primary in business / But in art that’s witless… I’m out to break the heart of a sensitive teen / Let’s make it / Make out / Or make up a new scene”.
Overall, this suffers from hip-hop’s tendency towards bloated albums (partially to make up for the long wait, perhaps); a few of the tracks seem to meander without any real point and the amusingness of “Crew Cut” being a term for exceedingly short hair that’s morphed into a mammoth eight-minute pun which pulls in what seems like the entire LA underground fails to hide the fact that the track itself isn’t very good. Yet for every brainy verbal doodle, there’s a line that will bring you up short, and the sombreness of the breaks doesn’t discount the fact that some of them rock bloody hard. I may not agree with URB‘s christening Marks a genius, but he’s certainly forging his own territory, and, more than a deep voice, R&B collabos, or plat pop appeal, that’s what hip-hop is about. Subtitle’s “out and about fighting crime for, by, from and against the people”, and Marks is such a polite, if confused, young man. Check out his melodies.