Hot Stuff

From street graffiti to body rocking, the Arsonists preserve the old-school arts

"Oh, man, don't ask me. I don't know where the fuck we're headed next. We had plans to go off someplace else on the next part of the actual tour, but our cuckoo label decided to send us out to play for some distributors' thing . . . in Washington? Seattle? Maybe? Yeah, Seattle. I think that's it."

The speaker is Q-Unique, from the Brooklyn-born-and-bred Arsonists. The "cuckoo label" is Matador, the New York-based indie-rock imprint, long associated with creative upstarts like Pavement and Guided by Voices. The location is Colorado, the context is the Arsonists' current tour with the Beatnuts, and the topic is how it feels to be this far along on the trail -- a journey that begins well over a decade ago, when street graffiti and B-boy breakin' was still the order of the day.

Put simply, the Arsonists' aesthetic forces us to consider that, had the chips fallen in a different order, contemporary "mainstream" rap and hip-hop -- as with any other genre, a small and unrepresentative slice of the whole -- might have developed along other trajectories entirely.

New York old schoolers the Arsonists stand tall.
New York old schoolers the Arsonists stand tall.

In 1992, Dr. Dre's The Chronic improbably dropped a rejuvenated West Coast sound, funk-heavy and nearly laconic in its vocal delivery, onto receptive pop audiences. The resultant crossover success and stylistic influence largely dictated the sound of chart hip-hop throughout the 1990s. In the long shadow of the L.A. riots, and with the concomitant media attention to deplorable quality-of-life problems faced by the African-American community -- problems which had been largely ignored by the mainstream press up to that point -- The Chronic became not just a remarkable hip-hop record, but a full-on sociological text.

What followed in the music industry, however, was sadly predictable. Countless bands and labels and promotional offices bit the style without understanding why the album itself was so necessary. And 10 years later, a watered-down version of the West Coast model, more sound than substance, has only recently begun to loosen its hold on the charts.

"Yeah, [today] it's either the West Coast sound," says the Arsonists' Q-Unique diplomatically, "or it's people imitating a formula. People who say, 'Oh, this kind of sound is really popular, so let's copy that and make some money.' It's the same thing that happens in every kind of music."

Unfortunately, what that meant was that the Arsonists' own New York-flavored hip-hop, as represented on 1999's critically acclaimed but commercially underappreciated As the World Burns, went lightly noticed by mainstream standards.

"Still, though," he continues, "there's always stuff that surprises you. People are always working on pushing it forward. Outkast's [Stankonia], that was probably the last record that really bugged me out when I first heard it. He definitely took it to a new place, it was creative and all that. Or somebody like Eminem; even with all his controversy, it was exciting to me to see somebody who was so talented at the writing like that. Yeah, I remember Eminem when he was traveling around, just battling anywhere he could. I guess he was just kind of waiting around for his turn in the sun, you know?" Q chuckles slyly. "And what a turn he had."

Speaking of turns in the sun, Q and fellow Arsonists Jise One and Swel Boogie may yet enjoy their own. The current trio, down from the five-man crew that dropped As the World Burns, recently finished the follow-up titled Date of Birth; however, the new album isn't slated for release until September.

Resigned to a three-month wait, then, Q, Jise and Swel are filling the time between by doing what they've done for the past two years: touring without pause, at least for the foreseeable future.

"The crowds have been good, mostly," reports Q. "But we know we have to work hard at it. Some nights you go out and people just yell for 'The Session' [the 1996 single that blew up New York stations and prompted label offers from all sides], or they're fans who are more into Jay-Z than the kind of thing we're doing, you know? So it's tricky; you have to kind of fool people in a way, like by playing a beat or a track that they know, and then doing your own rap over that, so even if they don't know it's yours right away they can get hooked into it."

This kind of playful sensibility speaks volumes about the Arsonists' idiom -- witty, articulate, and what communications researchers call "high verbal" -- and it also hints at why As the World Burns received unfairly light radio play, despite glowing notices from every major rap publication.

"I think [the album] didn't do so well because it was really different from what was getting played at the time," muses Q.

The point is easy to concede. Released in a climate dominated by the conspicuous consumerism of "ghetto superstardom," As the World Burns seemed almost to emerge from an alternate reality, a world in which sparse beats, graffiti art, playing the dozens, and creative between-song skits replaced Guccis, Benzes and dollar bills as the prominent elements. It was the sort of album that a more consistent version of De La Soul might have produced, late in their career. "But it was scattered," judges Q, two years later. "There were a lot of different styles on that record and it seemed to go a lot of places at once."

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