rustrated with what he perceived as the inherent limitations of the Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters created his own form of art in 1919 called Merz. The art was based on the work of collage: placing disparate elements together into ramshackle forms that made far greater wholes than the pieces that were used to create them. Merz art was composed of everything that Schwitters came into contact with: railroad tickets, newspaper clippings, and artifacts taken from visitors to his home were merely some of these items. Schwitters delved deeper and deeper into this sort of artistic output until his death in 1948, putting together three versions of an all encompassing artwork: Merzbau. This work, in all three of its incarnations, attempted to construct Schwitters’ living space into a living organism of art.
The world of hip-hop, it could be argued, has been formed in the same way. Disillusioned with the hedonism of disco and, more importantly, the “Quiet Storm” radio format; hip-hop emerged as the dominant artistic outlet for African-American discourse in the 1980s and continues to be today. (01) Sampling music from the past to create the rhythmic backing tracks for the present, hip-hop has embraced the idea of collage in its production. At the same time has been criticized for not having the traditional mode of instrumentation that rock ‘n roll groups do, leading many to claim that hip-hop is not “real music” and that anyone could create hip-hop if they wanted to do so.
It is, perhaps then, the collective of rappers and producers known as Anticon that have come closest to taking the world of hip-hop to the extreme of the Merzbau. Through releases on their own Anticon label and guest appearances in countless other venues, the motley group has pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop is and can be. Unable to be pinned down to merely one style, the collective defies and contradicts classification. Hip-hop was their upbringing, certainly, but at the present stage, it has merely become jumping off point. In this examination of the Anticon collective, I hope to illustrate the role of race and class and the negotiations that the group has made within these constructs to achieve the level of success that they currently enjoy. I also intend to argue that the collective has pursued their own particular authenticity in the world of hip-hop. By probing the contradictions that the group employs in their own art, I believe that the widespread appeal of the collective is a limited one, but one that is artistically viable in a broad definition of hip-hop.
Hip-hop came from the streets. So goes the common refrain among rappers, critics, and fans. The nascent forms of popular rap music in New York City were first truly shaped by Sugar Hill Records. In using a looped snippet of music, the musical backing to each lyricist remained a relative constant, allowing each performer to unleash a torrent of rhymes within a defined framework on the listener. In so doing, urban blacks have created and refined a “Nation Language”. (02) It is within this language that blacks have been able to communicate with one another- outside of white interference, but is ultimately dependent on the user’s knowledge of the language. As Bushwick Bill notes, “you got to be in there to know the police might know these words already.” (03) The fact that you must “be in there” denotes the ability to maintain a level of authenticity. In the creation and use of this language, the urban black has unconsciously protected its use by making it nearly impossible to understand for outsiders. Thus since the beginning of hip-hop, white hip-hop artists have had two options in their quest to be accepted as viable. One: use the language as their own- whether they have used it in the past or not. Two: ignore the language completely and attempt to bring in listeners that would not normally listen to hip-hop by making it accessible to suburban and rural audiences.
One of the first significant popular white MCs to enter into the world of hip-hop in a commercial fashion was Vanilla Ice. His movements towards authenticity in the world of hip-hop were an accentuation of his credibility in the street. Ice made the claim, in several press interviews after the release of his debut album To the Extreme, that he had been stabbed five times during gang fights in his youth. The assertion came into question when it was found that Ice lived in a relatively affluent white Dallas suburb, as opposed to his descriptions of his life on the streets. Duly criticized for what was considered a trivializing of the art form and an attempt to co-opt the commercial power that many saw in hip-hop, Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” still topped the Billboard charts in 1990. His lack of credibility, though, helped lead to his downfall as his second album failed to crack even the Top 200 charts. More importantly, the legacy that Ice left behind for future white rappers was an increased importance on the issue of “realness.” In more recent years, there have been two high profile artists that have traversed authenticity in popular hip-hop: Eminem and Bubba Sparxxx. Their initial acceptance, however, can be attributed to their working relationships with well-known producers, Dr. Dre and Timbaland, respectively. In the case of independent hip-hop, many white artists do not have the luxury of high-profile black artists bestowing upon them an instant amount of credibility. With everyone on the same level, these fledgling MCs must prove themselves through continual tests of authenticity- battles, tapes, and longevity in the scene.
The Anticon collective has faced these issues in two ways. The first, before they came together and were working in various suburban areas in Maine, Ohio, and Minnesota, was to adopt a strict purism regarding hip-hop. “We were all die-hard hip-hop heads at the start” states Doseone in an interview with Beat Magazine in 2001. (04) But as Doseone goes on to elucidate, “We were all the only white-guy rapping, which forces you through crews, makes you all solo. So, when we came together we had a lot in common, we'd had a lot of similar experiences.” (05) These experiences recounted by members of the group verge on the horrific. Sole, the unquestioned business head of the group remembers, “We would do shows in Portland, Maine back when if you were white and you listened to hip-hop you would get smacked in the face.” (06) Thus, by attempting to construct an identity that mirrored the lives of urban black youth, the members of Anticon began to feel ill at ease with the fine line between the braggadocio put forth by hip-hop artists and the insecurities that they found themselves dealing with- traditionally subjects that were not addressed within a hip-hop format. As Why? puts it: “I mean, if De La Soul can have a song that's an argument with a Burger King worker, I can have a song that's an advertisement for pet food.” (07)
Why?, in the Reaching Quiet project (Why? and producer Odd Nosdam), takes this aesthetic to its extremes by creating a sort of found-sound opus. Best described by an Urb writer as “[letting] loose their true feelings and honest emotions...which can be endearing or irritating depending on the audience,” the most representative track (if such a thing can be ascertained) must be “Jesse James’ Thesaurusical Advice.” (08) The song, clocking in at fifty seconds, matches Odd Nosdam’s carnival-esque musical accompaniment and Why?s distant poetic treatise on the proper way to rob a Wal-Mart. In this, we see one way in which the Anticon collective has taken the conceit of rhyming couplets and inverted it. For example, on the most hip-hop grounded member of the group Sole’s newest album Selling Live Water, each track is composed in free verse. When pressed about this climactic change in Sole’s working methods, he states:
I like to rhyme, I just don't like being stuck into that situation - rhyming is an ex-girlfriend that keeps coming round. But hey, the world don't rhyme, so why should I say anything other than exactly what I'm thinking? Why cut those ideas short because I had to rhyme cat and hat? (09)
When members of the group do have tracks that rhyme, though, they usually take on a different tone than most of what has come before. In what has generally been agreed upon as the highlight of Anticon’s most famous label sampler, Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop, Alias takes the role of God as MC, detailing the response that the Divine being might have to the current situation of the world and its inhabitants in the song “Divine Disappointment.” As might be expected it was a pessimistic take, but the key to the song was what it did: placing the listener in a situation where they were forced to face a perspective that they may have never encountered before. It is this and a myriad of other instances that leads Doseone to conclude that Anticon is “[a] sort of a Wu-Tang Clan for grown ups.” (10)
This claim, their music and the Anticon crew’s rejection of a forced recreation of the “Nation Language” shows that the Anticon collective is both firmly rooted in a hip-hop aesthetic, while moving forward towards an aesthetic that rides the line between the opposing poles of white and black. In so doing, the group has actually fulfilled what Tricia Rose defines as effective hip-hop:
Developing a style nobody can deal with- a style that cannot be easily understood or erased, a style that has the reflexivity to create counter-dominant narratives against a mobile and shifting enemy- may be one of the most effective ways to fortify communities of resistance and simultaneously reserve the right to communal pleasure. (11)
In this sense, Anticon is a clear proponent of hip-hop’s effectiveness as an agent towards constructing counter-narratives. With the proliferation of hip-hop as the most popular musical format in America, then, Anticon emerges as a counter-narrative to the hedonistic celebration of wealth that defines much of the genre.
Doseone, in an interview with Manifesto posits current rap as one rife with “rules, guidelines, regulations, codes and excessive posturing.” (12) On Alias’ debut solo album, for example, he recites lines about paying his cable bill, beating writer’s block, and an entire song devoted to his grandmother. While each element has been traversed by adventurous mainstream MCs, when taken together, the Anticon aesthetic becomes clear. And by the totality of its artistic output, whether consciously or not, Anticon has presented itself as a counter-narrative to the “the bullshit macho rhetoric and ghetto fantasies” of many popular MCs operating today. (13)
The other oppositional pole that Anticon has faced in their development as a hip-hop collective is the issue of class. The members of the Anticon collective have grown up middle class, mostly in suburbs. The majority of most hip-hop artists, however, have grown up in urban areas. As hip-hop grew to become a popular art-form, reaching to the suburbs, however, an increasing amount of artists have emerged from the suburbs of America. As Doseone puts it, “maybe it's just a symbol that hip-hop is becoming such a big part of American culture that in Portland, Maine, [hip-hop] is how kids want to express themselves, rather than writing country songs.”
Perhaps ironically, then, the greatest artistic growth of many of the members of the group has come when they have foregone their middle class lifestyles to move to the Bay Area and become a true collective. By letting go of the benefits that the security of college and full-time jobs had brought them, the group has seen a flourishing of their talents and a plethora of releases. Since the move to Oakland in late 1998, the label has released 30 different recordings with each member of the group releasing multiple recordings on different labels, such as Mush Records and Big Dada Records.
Before this, however, the solo members of Anticon negotiated whiteness and the associated middle class tag along with it. In musical terms, Russell A. Porter points out in his essay, “Not the Same,” the most common issues that critics tend to take with “black diasporic musical forms” is the simplicity of repetition that works as a backing track for hip-hop artists. (14) And with this conception comes the two competing poles of music: simple vs. complex. Or, implicitly in the words of Attali and Adorno- as Porter argues, black vs. white and lower vs. middle class. While Porter goes on to argue against Attali’s “imperception of the underlying Significance of acts of repetition,” these contentions have not made it out of academic discourse in a meaningful way. (15) Thus, the stereotype of hip-hop as non-music remains. And while many critics tend to take much of hip-hop as simply party music, there have been a number of groups that have emerged as critical favorites. One of the most heralded groups of the late 1980s, for example, was De La Soul.
Their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was hailed by many as the future of hip-hop. Instead of taking from the sonic palette of old-school rap, funk, or soul, the group used alternative sources (rock, jazz, reggae, pop) just as liberally. If mapped onto the two distinctions, De La Soul occupies a strange middle ground between middle class and lower class. The group, while ensconced in black urban culture, also presented a viable alternative to the dark and ominous undertones of the burgeoning gangsta rap movement.
De La Soul, understandably, then, is one of the groups that is most often name checked by the Anticon crew. Doseone explains the appeal:
De La Soul, they were out there. We're just picking up their torch and everyone else just ignored it. Two, three years after [1989's] Three Feet High and Rising came out...and I still don't know what they were talking about on some of that stuff, but I feel it. And they had that human energy, the way they see their lives, putting it down, making it accessible to everyone....People act like we are pouring intelligence into it, but it was always there. De La was hyper-intelligent. (16)
Author William Eric Perkins, in his essay in the Droppin’ Science anthology, continues on to note that “De La Soul represented a distinct middle class, high brow style of rap...[one that was also] slightly egonomaniacal.” (17)
Musically, Anticon has embraced the slightly egonomaniacal style. On Doseone’s 2001 collaboration with Boom Bip, Circle, he raps in a rapid fire manner: “I want to write a book but up till now I've only done raps/ sooooo is sole [of Anticon] gonna put out my two hundred page album?/ can I rock a crowd with excerpts?" over a spacious backdrop that every so often offers a distorted break beat to provide rhythmic support to Dose’s poetic wanderings.
In other moments, it seems as though the lyrics are secondary to the feeling that they evoke. In Jel and Doseone’s second album as Them, The No Music, very often the lyrical content is simply too fast too understand on first listening. This is most noticeable in tracks like “Livetrap”, in which phonemes are spit at a rapid pace, allowing the rhythm of the flow to become of higher importance than the actual message contained. In this instance, Doseone’s lyrical dexterity is apparent, leading one to believe that it is, once again, challenging the dominant narrative of sing-a-long choruses, simplistic verses, and musical backings that are frequently bought rather than being constructed especially for a particular artist. Rather than attaching a National Language to the music that is only intelligible to a small group of urban youth, Doseone moves even further into obscurity with his lyrics here towards an audience of one: himself.
But, for the most part, Anticon has been positioned as a group of young men that are exploring their insecurities and feelings in a liberating and innovative way. Peter Shapiro, in his recent article for The Wire, simplifies it further: “Anticon are simply a group of sensitive, intelligent, painfully self-aware young men trying to express themselves the only way they know how.” (18) The question, then, becomes of what use to hip-hop is the contribution of Anticon. As it has been presented earlier on in this paper, Anticon has provided a racial counter-narrative to the dominant tropes of urban black hip-hop, imbuing the genre with a degree of lyrical complexity that is not often seen or attempted by many hip-hop artists working within the preconceived notions of what hip-hop is allowed to be.
In addition to this, it seems that the group also believes that its choice of subject matter- related to its class status- is one that is relatively unique to the hip-hop community. One of the less heralded members of the group, the Pedestrian, makes the controversial point that:
I think introspection is a deeply middle class value and with rap being as verbose as it is, it seems to make sense that as middle class white kids take up the form, many are trying to map out new territory, so to speak, in songwriting. It's interesting though: at the same time rappers have traditionally presented themselves as units of sheer bravado, rap has always held something intensely human and personal about it. You could argue that one worthwhile contribution of middle class white kids in rap is an attempt to reconcile this deeply held contradiction between bravado and poetic honesty. (19)
Despite the seemingly relative ignorance of gifted MCs such as Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur and their introspective moments on record, among a myriad of others, the Pedestrian does seem to make the point towards a type of introspection that has, indeed, been missing from hip-hop: the introspection of middle class suburbanites, but more specifically, white middle-class suburbanites. If this is the case, then the hyperactive imaginations and wits of the Anticon collective are, undoubtedly, staking out a claim for a new authenticity in hip-hop that has little to do with an adherence to the authenticity that has come before it. Instead, as Sole eloquently puts it “If hip-hop is about the message, maybe, Anticon seem to be saying, the message needs to change, or at least its delivery.” (20) Or, perhaps, room could be made for the accommodation of both.
In this examination of the Anticon collective and a sampling of its artistic output, I have attempted to paint a portrait of a group that has worked hard to challenge artistic models of output in an established genre. While the collective has been increasingly adept at creating an interesting collection of artistic output, the product can only in the broadest senses be defined as hip-hop as it exists today. Instead, in the instance of Anticon as a hip-hop collective, it might be more useful to use the word as a term which moves away as you get closer, an unattainable goal, perhaps even a grasping towards transcendence. Through their rise, Anticon has introduced a meaningful and productive model for an authenticity to be gained by groups of artists that do not fit the preconceived model of what an MC should look or sound like. And, it can only be surmised that as hip-hop grows in popularity across the globe the new authenticities will be formulated- as the old ones are broken down and reformulated.