“Hey San Francisco, it’s rhyme time! Make some noise Goddamnit”, Labtekwon yells out to the crowd near the beginning of Mush Records’ concert DVD Mush Tour Spring 2002 Live, sounding very much like a hip-hop MC in concert mode should. His two-song set is filled with sharp battle rhymes against a somewhat unconventional backing loop of drums and odd blips and crashes. For a hint of where the DVD will go from here, viewers should pay ten times more attention to the odd backing track than to Labtekwon’s old-school-style rhymes. The other four acts on the tour come off like kids who grew up listening to a little hip-hop and a lot of classic rock, in between rounds of Dungeons & Dragons. In other words, this is an alternate-reality version of hip-hop, where ghostly figures lurk between the turntables and the MCs fancy themselves to be wizards or demons.
Though between each act there’s a few minutes of candid, inconsequential footage of the musicians traveling from city to city, the DVD is essentially a shortened version of what you’d see if you went to see the show when it came to your town. Filmed in June of 2002 at the San Francisco and Los Angeles stops of a 30-city tour, the DVD was conceived as a record of what the tour was like, and on that level it succeeds without question. With a handful of songs from each act on the tour, vividly captured, as a souvenir for fans it’s a winner, exactly what they would expect it to be.
Besides Labtekwon, the groups here are hip-hop in name and spirit, but they’re pretty far out of the genre’s usual boundaries. Radioinactive, the second MC of the night, has a fairly straightforward rhyming style but supports it with a band playing ‘70s-style mellow jazz. They’re dressed like bird-men, or something like that, but musically their style is routine yet their musicianship is ace. Radionactive rhymes in the “so fast you can barely catch a word” style of many of the Mush acts, and has a light-hearted, sort of goofy stage presence. The showstopper of his set is a speed contest with guest emcee Busdriver, with the two showing that a raw display of skill can still drop jaws.
cLOUDDEAD are the tour’s headlining act, but before them are two offshoots of that group. First up is Boom Bip, one of the beat-making wizards on the tour, with Doesone (who rhymes with cLOUDDEAD and Themselves as well). Doseone’s presence on the stage is complex and alluring. He starts wearing a ski mask with an American flag where his face would be and a fur coat, but even without a costume his bizarre rhyming style alone is miles from anything on the radio or MTV. Calling him a proper hip-hop MC is almost off-base, even, as he makes his voice weirdly high-pitched and off-kilter in a way that’s more suited for some sort of off-the-wall art project than a rap album. The music is equally unusual. The first track is like an electrofunk track with a bit of Disney to it, and the other songs veer from country-blues to deep funk to psychedelic rock, all sort of within the confines of hip-hop. “Is anybody in the house in therapy?”, he asks before one song, hinting at the mood behind most Mush tracks, which is like the stream-of-consciousness interior monologues of someone on the verge of insanity. Or as Doseone puts it on another of the tracks, “I can’t get lost / I don’t know where I am”.
Reaching Quiet—which features cLOUDDEAD members Why and Odd Dosdam—veers closer to the “indie rock” world than any of the other bands, with a surrealist but smart-alecky attitude and a vocal style somewhere between rapping and singing. Their six songs on the DVD are like oddball poems set to mellow funk-soul music, provided by a live band.
cLOUDDEAD takes the spacey vibe that runs underneath most of the other groups and pushes it out to center stage. The group is like a Pink Floyd version of hip-hop, with rhymes and beats but also a completely spaced-out, slightly spooky mood. Wearing white masquerade-ball masks, they give off a cold and distant impression that echoes through their music, which feels both revolutionary and emotion-less. It all feels too heartless for my taste, but is still evocative and unique.
The artists on Mush Tour Spring 2002 Live draw from the furthest reaches of their imaginations to create music that is classifed as hip-hop but possibly shouldn’t be. Some of it strikes me as transcendent and exciting, much of it doesn’t, but all of it is on an edge, pointing towards new ground.