Interview – Anti-Pop Consortium
October 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, October 16, 2009.
Rising out of New York’s slam poetry scene at the close of the ’90s, Anti-Pop Consortium became the leaders of a cerebral, near-scientific brand of exploratory hip-hop. Recalling ’70s electro-noise extremists Suicide as much as the expansive palette of first generation hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa and Public Enemy production clique The Bomb Squad, the four-pronged outfit –MC/producers High Priest, M. Sayyid and Beans, and production wizard Earl Blaze — turned East Coast hip-hop’s golden era revival on its head.
After dropping their brilliant debut Tragic Epilogue in 2000 and follow-up Shopping Carts Crashing the next year, they went onto become legendary London label Warp Record’s inaugural hip-hop signing, releasing their seminal monster Arrhythmia in 2002. But by the time news of a new collaborative album with Matthew Shipp surfaced in 2003, the group had already disbanded citing creative differences.
Six years on, Anti-Pop have released one of the year’s defining hip-hop statements in the noise and static-shrouded Fluorescent Black. We got over a rocky start to speak to enigmatic MC Beans (who will play a solo set at the Beck’s Rumpus Room as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival) about all things Anti-Pop.
Hey Beans, what’s going on?
Hey man, I’m good. How are you doing?
Good, man. So, it’s you’re first record in about six years, how are you guys feeling?
Are you serious?
Are you saying it’s the best record in seven years? Are you crazy?
I said the first record in six years…
Oh. Oh! I thought you said the best record (much laughter). Sorry about that man. That’s why I was like ‘what?’
That would have been a friendly start to the interview!
Oh man, shouldn’t it be friendly?
Yeah, friendly is good. Back when you started, one of the main talking points about Anti-Pop was that perhaps people weren’t ready for what you were trying to do with hip-hop. Do you feel they’re more ready this time around?
Ah, well, I think the times have sort of caught up to us in some ways. Our approach to the music hasn’t deviated, but I think that the climate of where music is now, people have become used to the particular sounds – like the use electronics in hip-hop – a little more than they were. So it makes it a lot easier. We’re not going against the grain so much; it’s more concurrent with the tide.
I’d love to hear a little about the starting point for this record. What made it crucial that you guys got back together and did this?
Well, it wasn’t really too thought-out. We met up around my birthday a couple of years ago, even though we were broken up we still kept in touch, and we just decided that we wanted to work together again. So we had a meeting and were like ‘Yo, this is our template – our template is Dark Side of the Moon, so that’s what we were all feeling and it kind of just happened really quickly.
For example, only like a month or two after we’d got back together we had already started touring. Our third tour out, we were on tour with Public Enemy, Kool Keith and Edan, and then we were just touring while we were making the record. That’s the reason it took so long. It took two years – well, a year and change – but it kind of happened gradually as we were getting re-acclimated with one another.
Did the material come together quite easily when you actually got the chance to sit down and work things out?
Well, as I said, we had to get re-acclimated but it wasn’t like anything too crazy. We just had to get used to being around each other and working with each other again. It was a long time not to see or work with someone on a consistent basis.
It’s sort of strange at the moment, there don’t seem to be too many hip-hop groups coming through, as opposed to solo artists…
But that’s what – to my mind – has always been the key to Anti-Pop: that really unusual group dynamic between three very different MCs and four very different personalities.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s those differences that brought us together, but it was also those differences that divided us. But those differences now, being older men – creaking at the knees and cranky and damn-near close to the cane (laughs) – it’s really keeping us together and keeping us interested.
You were talking about that kind of impromptu reunion before. Who originally brought the idea to the table?
I don’t really know what else to say except that we had the meeting and then just started gradually started doing tracks, and as we were doing the tracks we just kept on touring. So it was actually the touring that kind of helped out the chemistry of being around each other and making this album the way it is. That’s really what it was.
I really don’t know what else to say. We didn’t have a fistfight or anything. Nobody threw no one down the stairs or no shit like that (laughs). We weren’t in therapy like Metallica or nothing.
Listening to Fluorescent Black, I can only imagine that sequencing would have been super-important in terms of handling the really divergent material on the record.
Yeah, well, I do all the sequencing. I’ve done every Anti-Pop sequence. This one took months, you know, a lot of long, sleepless months just listening and listening and listening to the material. To be honest with you, if I had my way I would have made the album a lot longer. We took off like three songs. There was meant to be one more instrumental and two more vocal performance tracks and we removed them to make a shorter record, so it would be under like an hour. But it was originally going to be like an hour and fifteen minutes and if I had my way, it would have remained that long. We had a five-minute instrumental track and all kinds of stuff. I would have made it way longer.
Who shouted you down?
Well, it was a group decision. Instead of anyone telling us that we had to edit, we decided to edit ourselves. Plus, Priest wanted to make a shorter record because he didn’t want people to get tired of it. But for me personally, that wasn’t really my concern.
Does that typify your approach to making music? Not really having an audience in mind?
To most great artists, the audience is kind of secondary. Like, when I go to a show, I don’t necessarily go to a show to have a performer talk to me. I go to see him do what he does. That’s why I’m going to see him, because I appreciate him for what he is doing, not because of his contact with me. What I’m attracted to is how well he is doing his thing and I feel that that’s what people gravitate towards.
I understand that. Tell me a little about your writing process personally. It seems to me like your work had a really spontaneous quality. Does that kind of reflect the process?
Nah, not really. Everything we do is very constructed, like, Earl spends a long, long time mixing those tracks. This guy is like tweaking a snare for two weeks – he’s so meticulous, this guy.
But me personally, I start off the title and then either the lyrics or beat come next. But I usually start with the title and just build on that phrase. Some of the other members work in the opposite direction, but for me personally, I need the title to be able to do anything. It kind of enables me to make a reference to where I’m coming from.
In that context, tell me a little about the title Fluorescent Black.
It’s a lyric in one of the songs on the album, ‘Apparently’, so that’s really where it comes from. I say “fluorescent in black” and that’s it really. We just liked that phrase and its connotations.
The discourse surrounding you guys has always been to do with experimentation, hut in many ways, that’s kind of what early hip-hop was all about. Bambaataa, The Bomb Squad, people like that, were always kind of about taking influences from many different places. Did you guys see yourself as experimentalists perse, or did you understand yourself more in terms of those first two hip-hop generations?
Yeah, definitely the latter. That early hip-hop. I call it old-school next-shit, because for us it was always about looking to the past but being creative enough move forward and acknowledge it and pay homage to it by adding new things to it. You have to be open to experiencing other types of music, you know. If Bambaataa never heard Kraftwerk, we wouldn’t have Planet Rock, and you know, Planet Rock was the first ever record I bought with my own money and I never would have carried that sound with me throughout the rest of my life.
To me, you guys and contemporaries of yours like Dalek really seemed to reference a late ’70s kind electro-noise-punk aesthetic really reminiscent of Suicide and bands like that. Were they quite influential for you?
I didn’t really acknowledge any of that stuff until my early teens, but yeah, Suicide were definitely an influence. Big time.
Where did poetry fit in?
I was rhyming before I got into the poetry scene. Poetry just sort of allowed me to open up.
What was the interest in that scene in the first place?
A girl (laughter). To be honest with you, a girl brought me there and then I just god hooked. I met Priest and everyone else through that scene, but the reason why I went was because of a girl. A lot of things I do are because of girls, man! (more laughter)
At least you’re honest…
I’m very honest.
Before we go, I’d love to hear a little about the collab with Roots Manuva. I love that guy and it’s really good to hear him in a different context…
Thanks Dan. But yeah, we had known him for a long time, even before we signed to Big Dada, and because of the concept of the track ‘NY to Tokyo’ it kind called from an MC from elsewhere. So it was just perfect really.
Fluorescent Black is out now through Big Dada/Inertia. Read our review here.
Beans plays the Beck’s Rumpus Room at the Forum Theatre on Friday, October 23. $15 http://www.melbournefestival.com.au