Diesel-U-Music? An award sponsored by a jeans company for best independent rock, hip hop, and electronica artist? I sense some cross-marketing plot here
Now hold on: in 2004, the awards were given to Fiery Furnaces, Madlib, and Prefuse 73. It may not be the Grammies, but awards have had far less promising beginnings. And this year’s hip hop winner, Busdriver, is sure to add to the fledgling ceremony’s rep.
Most of the Roxy crowd came either for the free booze or Out Hud, the headliner and winner of the electronica award (probably the only unhip slip in Diesel’s show is the use of word “electronica”). And so Busdriver’s early evening set found most of the crowd still home pre-gaming or sticking more closely to the bar than the stage.
Looking positively collegiate in thick glasses, polo shirt, and light beard, Busdriver, whose real name is Regan Farquhar, opened with “I Won’t Dance”, a suitable choice for the sparse, stock-still crowd. Busdriver was nominated for the award by Saul Williams, and the two men have a similar rampant intellectualism, taking greedy pleasure in twisting together elements of high and low culture. No offense to Williams, but the only real difference is one of talent (ok, I guess there’s no way to make that sound inoffensive, but c’mon, Saul, face it).
There are few rappers, indie or otherwise, who can keep with Farquhar’s pace. He never faltered live, even when skipping abruptly mid-song into a radically different track (and operating his own mixer to boot). I’d like to quote his lyrics but, honestly, I had to go home and look them up; they were too complex and the delivery too quick to catch right away.
Perhaps from frustration at the small audience, or perhaps from some deep-seated agitation, the L.A. native twisted and contorted on stage, switching mics repeatedly, and occasionally running his voice through a box that, for better or worse, brought to mind Li’l Jon’s usual effects blizzard. Without the effects, his tone ranges from a percussive, split-second recitation to a tenor drone as on “Party Pooper”. Witty and distant, his voice couldn’t possibly sound more bitterly contemptuous. After “Party Pooper” ran down, he impatiently flipped through selections from most of his catalog, including his new Fear of a Black Tangent and 2002’s Temporary Forever, tossing off a verse and then deciding to move on to another track in a hodge-podge medley. Whether planned or not, the survey did the job of proving that he can rap over everything from jazz flute to classical guitar strains; oh, and the usual rap backbeat as well.
I first paid attention to Busdriver after finding a bootleg of Th’ Corn Gangg, his collaboration with two members of Montreal’s tragically defunct indie rock act the Unicorns. With his erudite lyrics and eclectic backing tracks, it’s easy to understand Busdriver’s appeal, not just to that Canadian pair, but to hipsters everywhere. Farquhar has the sort of sound that rockists would enjoy creating Hornbyan lists of comparisons to describe: Jon Hendricks meets Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony over a Carl Stalling score. Fear of a Black Tangent seems set to become that one rap album wedged between Built to Spill and Caribou.
Which is a pity, really. Busdriver is too good, too talented, and too clever to become a token rapper for well-off liberal arts majors. He should be replacing Ludacris as the ubiquitous guest star on every major rap single for at least a year or two, not just laying in wait for a East/West rivalry with Aesop Rock (to be settled by a lightning round of Balderdash).
Of course, Busdriver’s sarcasm and sense of humor might not translate well into a remix of Gwen Stefani’s current Debbie Harry impression or into the middle of a Missy Elliott song (I can only dream). Diesel might have picked the best indie rapper around, but it remains to be seen if they can get him to stop criticizing the target audience. Eventually, the kids might actually catch on. When it comes to mainstream music, you can never be too skilled, but you can certainly be too smart for your own good.