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About eight years ago, the Anticon collective was known as an avant-garde and even revolutionary force within hip-hop culture.
Living and recording together in a warehouse in Oakland, California, the eight men of Anticon Sole, Alias, Doseone, Jel, Odd Nosdam, Baillie Parker, Pedestrian, and Why? created unusually named projects like Them and Deep Puddle Dynamics, referenced Oliver Wendell Holmes, and made songs about manic depression and bicycles. Their logo was an ant (ant-icon), symbolizing the triumph of the small, resourceful indie label over mainstream rap's omnipresence. The crew's artistic worth (or lack thereof) was fiercely debated, and magazines flocked to cover what looked like a takeover of rap music by Kerouac-styled bohemians.
Today, Anticon is something completely different, more of an experimental indie-rock label than an indie-rap imprint. "Basically, I think everybody got burned out on underground hip-hop," says Sole, who currently lives in Flagstaff. "It was like, we're either going to have to keep pretending it's 1998, or everybody evolves in their own direction."
Most of the music on the Anticon label can now be classified as experimental, presenting several forms, from freestyle raps and glitch beats à la Boards of Canada to twee electronics and winsome rock melodies. In fact, Sole may be the only one who can still be considered a traditional rapper. "Everybody's focus has changed," Sole says.
While mostly a vehicle for the collective's projects, Sole says Anticon sometimes signs artists that "put out the music that we like." Minneapolis musician Martin Dosh has issued three albums through the label, including last year's The Lost Take. Its songs, mostly instrumental save for occasional breathy vocals from Dosh, are melancholic dream-pop with jazzy asides and textures.
"His whole aesthetic inspires the hell out of me, man," Sole says of Dosh. "His shit started off with him bringing his bedroom on stage. He [had] a looping pedal and a Rhodes piano, and he'd just experiment and play improv shit. And now his music has gone from being less improv and sporadic to carefully crafted songs. Dude's a hell of a performer.
"I never thought it would be like this. I thought we would be the underground No Limit," Sole continues, referring to the New Orleans rap label owned by Master P. "Basically, I think everybody got burned out on underground hip-hop."
Though he's happy with the direction Anticon took, Sole adds, "I miss the days when you'd have six dudes, 20 years old, psyched as hell to make a song about how it feels to be a rug, or whatever semi-way-over-the-top ambitious shit we used to do before we knew anything.
"But I'm excited. I want to put out stuff that's along the lines of Xiu Xiu, A Silver Mt. Zion or Jeff Mangum. The direction I want to push it in is to be more challenging."