This Secret's Out
My friend Billy used to always wear a button that said "Who Cares" on the collar of his jacket, until "some bitch" stole it off of him at a dive bar near our neighborhood. Billy was pissed, not because he'd lost some expression of apathy he was aiming at the world via his garmentry, but because Who Cares is one of his favorite rap bands, underground kids he met back when he lived in Reno (the members split their time between there and Sacramento).
I totally understood his frustration -- when you find a band that really speaks to you, that the whole world isn't jocking yet, that most of your friends have never heard of, that band seems like your own secret sculpture you keep hidden under a sheet. After hearing Billy playing Who Cares' self-titled LP all the time in his car, it was obvious why the band -- an MC named Borg One, producer and Rhodes piano player Maximus McMaster, sax and winds player Jamal Tarkington, and drummer Jake PebRock -- made Billy so possessive. The foursome, due to perform here at the Old Brickhouse on First Friday (March 4) with Aceyalone, and Abstract Rude, plays elegant, jazzy, downtempo jams with heartfelt, heartbroken stories written over the waves of soul.
Soon I was a convert as well, wishing I had a damn "Who Cares" button.
It's because Who Cares embraces an aesthetic that hip-hop is often missing; as Borg One told me on the phone the other day, "I just want to be able to play with other people who play pretty music and make sure it's pretty first, more than anything. That's all I really care about; I like it to be beautiful all over, as much as it can be."
The Who Cares LP is a 14-song opus with woodwinds and piano riffs filling in the infrastructure of PebRock's cymbal-heavy jazz stylistics, but it's also an inspirational story of kids looking for family among their friends, yearning for love when there's none on the horizon, and struggling to stay positive as drugs and violence strip away at the institutions that are supposed to lift you up.
"This album is all just stories from my life, growing up as a kid," Borg One says. "It's pretty much a little autobiography -- each song is like a piece of a paragraph." To that end, the first track on Who Cares' LP is titled "Topic Sentence," a one-minute-long rap intro over a drumbeat that asks, "Who cares about the stories of a lonely little boy, who wanted something better and believed that he was worth it?"
I ask Borg One if the band gets hit with the "emo-rap" tag often, to which he replies, "All day. It's pretty emoed out. It's real personal -- I'm always talking about being fat, being a depressed little fat kid, so I can't really come across any other way. It's all just stories of growing up being sad. I'll probably never make music that's about anything except hard times and bad luck."
What separates Who Cares (the band self-released its own album and has no label support or extended touring on the horizon) from the recently blown-up "emo-rap" acts like Sage Francis or Atmosphere is the soul of the music itself. Sure, if you strip away the lyrics, it wouldn't be labeled emo-rap, but the instrumentals would land it squarely in a dark, smoky lounge where single guys sip scotch and stare at the bar in overcast contemplation. "We definitely don't want to not have instruments," Borg One told me. How Who Cares has escaped the limelight thus far is beyond me, especially considering the popularity of artists doing similar things musically and lyrically.
Actually, the popularity of Atmosphere and Sage Francis has been something of an albatross to Who Cares. "What I hear more than anything is, 'You sound just like Sage Francis, man . . .'" Borg One says. (Personally, I don't think the comparison is apt.) "It's a huge compliment, but at the same time I'd rather they say, 'Hey, man, I like your rap.' It just makes me feel funny."
That's cool, though, because when Borg One feels funny, it makes for inspired, searing rhymes, like on "Much To Do About Nothing," where he raps, "At times I'd rather die than live through a broken heart, I'm notorious for not finishing what I start. . . . At times like these the fear breaks me to the ground, I couldn't give a shit about myself, but I can't let my mom down. . . . I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking for reasons why I'm still standing here unhappy, I don't want to spend the rest of my life watching dope and glass have its way with my family."
Once Who Cares hits town this Friday, it's unlikely that Billy and I will be the only ones leaving the Brickhouse sporting the band's merchandise. Who Cares is a band that gets inside of you and shares your pain; as antithetical to hip-hop's orthodox anger and misanthropy as that is, it's what makes Who Cares the real fucking deal.
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