Themselves: The No Music of Aiff’s

[1 February 2004]

By Tim Stelloh

Since the release of its first full-length in 1999, the Anticon Collective has stirred up one hell of a fuss among the legions of hip-hop purists. All of its high-minded drivel, its sparse lyricism, and its convoluted beat structures have prompted many to pose the question: can ten white boys from cities that aren’t New York or LA get away with an album called Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop?

Front and center in the debate is Doseone, with his nasal, B-Real-sounding brand of anti-lyricism. The guy is easily underground hip-hop’s Mike Patton (of Faith No More and Ipecac Records fame); in addition to appearing on virtually every Anticon release, he’s released solo projects, collaborations, as well as a book (“not a novel, not a chapbook, but a real mixed bag, with stories, lies, poems, drawings, collage activities”). And this doesn’t even touch on the guy’s stage presence. It was once said that when the Beastie Boys hit the stage at Lollapalooza, they looked like they’d just gotten out of prison. Well, the same can be said of Dose, only change prison to loony bin.

Adding to his ever-prolific list of projects, Dose collaborated with producer Jel to release 2000’s Them and 2002’s The No Music. The No Music of Aiff’s (which remixes the latter) includes a new track, a host of re-workings by fellow Anticon artists Alias, Why?, and Odd Nosdam, as well production by Hood, the Notwist, Fog, and Hrvatski, among others.

While the original had its moments of brilliance, listening to Aiff’s is like listening to the Portishead live disc. The originals, which might have plenty of great qualities, never sound quite the same.

Almost everything on Aiff’s is amazing. A remix by Hood, however, simply layers a track of redlined guitars over the original cut of “Livetrap”. Which is too bad, because the original, in all its amphetamine-addled fury, was a bizarre hybrid of dub, a crunk-style beat, and creepy keyboard loops. It was disturbing and loud, and easily could have been the soundtrack to Nightmare on Elm Street. For this reason I can appreciate what Hood did; but actually having to sit through the remix is just a pain in the ass. Likewise, Fog stripped everything that made “Dark Sky Demo” a ridiculously fun jab at retro hip-hop; in it’s place they added some flanger and lo-fi tedium.

“Terror Fabulous”—the new track—starts the record off with a simple synth melody and Dose harmonizing over a guy named John Wolf before breaking into his usual flow. The track purveys the pop sensibility of Buddy Holly, and immediately sets the tone for the rest of the record: unlike The No Music, which is chock-full of cerebral anti-pop, Aiff’s is actually fun to listen to. Hell, you could probably hear “Terror” on the radio (if it wasn’t hijacked by Homeland Security first). Don’t get me wrong—the record is still really weird, and it’s still saturated with the kind of experimentation that’s made Dose the subject of many a hip-hop purist’s rant, but it finds a balance quite unlike anything else the duo has released. “Mouthful”, which is remixed by Controller 7 and Matth, uses sequenced live instrumentation, a Prefuse 73-like clutter, and is by far one of the most beautiful, most driving beats on the record.

Hrvatski’s take on “Good People Check” is easily Aiff’s most chaotic composition: it interweaves an acoustic guitar, drum and bass loops, African tribal-like breakdowns, the chorus (“Shove that gun up your ass / You’re as good as dead”) spoken through a blast of distortion, and a hip-hop beat that samples Run DMC. Yes, this sounds like way too much for five minutes, but some how it works.

Why?‘s ironic adaptation of “Poison Pit” is an equally dense remix: he turns the track into a multi-layered percussive jam, complete with a drumclick beat, handclaps, and an acoustic guitar. The guy’s super-catchy melodies easily eclipse Dose’s tale of American apocalypse, but they make for an interesting combination nonetheless. It’s somewhat disconcerting to hear a gently strummed guitar overlaid with “Poison pit / Poison pit / You ain’t gettin’ any younger”.

Most hip-hop heads hate Dose’s lyricism as much as they despise his forays into ambient noise. It’s not hip-hop to sound like Enya, and it sure as hell isn’t hip-hop to jabber on about a bunch of nonsensical crap. But for all of the guy’s Ulysses-style verses, he drops an equal number of one-line gems. After an indecipherable verse on “Poison Pit”, a single line does the work of an entire song: “Things look / Things look… just the same with no name”. Or, in the third part of “You Devil You” (after the stoner intro, the Depeche Mode middle section, and the three or so minutes of verbal incoherence and political commentary), the music cuts to silence, except for some handclaps and a preacherfied Dose, who’s beltin’ it out like Al Green: “The devil / The devil is a lot like you / He’s scared / Scared up to his horns of heaven”.

And I’ve always believed in the power of brevity: a poem that takes ten lines can be a whole lot more powerful than a poem that takes three hundred pages. Hip-hop is certainly no different. Yet it’s one of the most verbose styles in the history of pop music—a form that’s built on words as much as it’s built on turntables, drum machines, and block parties. So here’s Dose, essentially breaking all the genre rules and gnawing his form to shreds.

No wonder hip-hop kids are holding on for dear life.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/themselves-nomusic/