"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.
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."
Here, Q might be speaking too harshly. As the World Burns, though all the material was newly recorded, actually featured joints the Arsonists had been performing as far back as a half-decade (including that first breakout single, "The Session"). As such, it put on display a prominent stretch of the band's roots, which were firmly planted in the New York sound. In many ways the most astonishing track on the album, "Rhyme Time Travel," made that connection explicit, composed of self-contained, suitelike sections that mirrored chronologically the developing sounds of New York pioneers like the Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc. (Q himself has an untouchable NY pedigree, as 10-year-plus member of the breakdancing squad the Rock Steady Crew.)
If As the World Burns wasn't quite scattered, it did emerge from and pay homage to a large and diverse body of influences, and it plays accordingly. But in moving freely between slickly produced performances and raw, gleeful DJ battles like "Lunchroom Take-Out" ("The only thing that's big about you is your forehead"; "Your eyebrows are connected, and so long your lips-a feel it."), even for a first album the record sounds multifaceted, rather than diffuse.
But radio largely missed it, and the tour that followed was long and often arduous.
"We practically lived in Europe for a while," recalls Q. "But the more we traveled, the more educated we got. Like in France, hip-hop is big, but it's French artists, French hip-hop, that's really the [dominant] style. They mostly don't give a shit about American hip-hop. So early on, we realized that it was going to be like, 'All right, how are we going to make these people like us?'"
In the face of that realization, the Arsonists developed a frenetic and much-talked-about live show, employing skits and B-boy breaks in addition to the musical content; they also built the material that would eventually become their inevitable sophomore release. Energetic performances and good word of mouth surrounding As the World Burns kept the Arsonists current in the minds of discerning hip-hop fans, particularly in their native New York.
And with recent shifts in the general direction of commercial hip-hop, mainstream crowds might finally be ready for the Arsonists' brand of beat science. If they are, they'll find that the Arsonists themselves have grown as well. "It's about maturity," says Q firmly. "We've all grown up a little bit. The record that's coming out in September is a reflection of us having gone through some difficulties, losing a couple of members to solo projects or whatever, and also hopefully becoming a bit wiser."
Having produced a handful of tracks on the Arsonists' freshman album, Q found himself mostly occupying the main chair during the mixing of Date of Birth, which was recorded during short breaks from the road.
"Everything was scary at first -- the production, the writing, all of it," he says. "But Swel and Jise were so supportive that it became less scary as time went on. At first we all just looked at each other like, 'O-kaay, what are we going to do?' But we'd worked out a lot of the tracks already, just while we were touring, trying out new things. I don't want to give too much of it away, but we had a small listening party for it recently, and the response to the new album's sound was really positive, very encouraging."
Whatever its sound, upon its release Date of Birth will reflect a continuing union between the Arsonists and Matador Records, a teaming that drew quizzical looks when it was first announced a few years back. From the start, Q and his bandmates always dismissed suspicions regarding how rap artists meet indie rock distribution, and two years later it seems their faith was well-placed.
"Really, wherever you go you're going to encounter some difficulty," Q says. "Like whenever I hear promoters talking about, 'Oh, we always lose money on these hip-hop shows,' my response is always, 'Well, motherfucker, then book something else.'" He chuckles again. "You know? Why did you let my ass drive all the way down here from Brooklyn, and now you're complainin' about 'I can't make no money'?
"But Matador's been really good with us," he continues. "The whole time we were recording the new album, you never saw one representative from the label in the studio. A lot of times people say, 'Why don't you guys go for a bigger deal on one of the bigger hip-hop labels?' But they were the only label that gave us complete creative control, and that was more important to us than signing a bigger contract.
"They're still learning about hip-hop, definitely," he says by way of qualification. "But really, in my view, a lot of actual hip-hop labels still have a lot to learn about it, too."
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