"Yo, let me clarify that. Early hip-hop was always electronic." MC Beans, in an interview with the Indy, is speaking from a buzzing NYC office discussing the crackling underground hip-hop group he performs with, Anti-Pop Consortium. APC will be hitting the Cat's Cradle (and the Triangle) for the first time this Friday, April 5. The group has been slammed with well-deserved attention in recent months, especially after signing to pioneer electronic label Warp, being asked to fill a head-turning warm-up slot for Radiohead in Europe, and in anticipation of their new full-length Warp Record's debut, Arrhythmia. It's been tough getting through to anyone in the group; understandably, their time is in high demand these days. Beans is addressing the biggest, most misleading issue their blazing music brings up: the marriage of electronic music and hip hop. He agrees it's a moot subject.
Beans spills on the topic as freely as he rhymes: "I feel that all the electronic cats listen to early hip hop. Autechre is an extension of Mantronix, you know what I'm sayin'? It's all relative. It's all a tool. I don't make that distinction."
He agrees that the tag of "a new direction for hip hop" involving synthesizers, programmed beats and minimal production is an easy out for some journalists trying to define their sound. It also doesn't apply to APC, since they're hardly green newcomers to the style.
The cooperative's members--MCs Priest, M. Sayyid and Beans, with producer/collaborator Earl Blaize--watched each other individually perform before joining forces in 1997. They were engrossed in a scene that merged rap and poetry through live club shows, fueled by the slam movement and Nuyorican poets like Saul Williams.
All three MCs apply skills from their artistic backgrounds, while Blaize's diverse soundboard credits range from Foxy Brown to KRS-One to fresh poets like Williams. As a trio, their exceptional lyrical flow pulls from both rap and poetry camps.
Says Beans, "We switched off. I know I did, and Priest did too. That's where we came from; that's the umbrella we met under."
There's a fine balance between Beans' rapid-fire, often trance-like delivery, Priest's baritone-deep cryptic declarations and the mischievous, contorted wordings of Sayyid. They all contribute adventurous beat structures and acidic analog jolts that are cemented by Blaize's solid production skills--not much in the way of turntables here. APC chose their name according to the arid climate of hip hop at the time they formed.
Beans puts it bluntly: "Really, a lot of the '90s stuff was bullshit. I think we were a lot darker then than we are now. It [the name] was a real description of what our music wasn't. It wasn't pop. We came up with a name that was striking and to the point."
After a DIY start by Priest through tape-only releases on the APC imprint, they began to press their work to wax and CD. In 2000, APC released their debut full-length, Tragic Epilogue, and last year had a Japanese-only B-sides/outtakes CD, along with several singles and EPs.
The delicious secret of their abstract music spread to hip-hop heads everywhere, including here in Carolina. Chapel Hill's L in Japanese, aka Peter Daye, of 2nd Third Party, and opener for the Cradle show, was an early convert.
"When I heard the 'Fuck Rap' 12-inch for the first time I knew then and there that I wanted to make hip-hop music. It's just one of those things where you'll hear something from them, bug out, and if you bug too long you'll miss the very next line of pattern thrown at you," he says of the song. "It's like someone sat down and gathered these sounds and made a song without loops, just this on-going sound ... amazing shit."
APC's lyrical prowess and diversity was obvious to many: As APC's Sayyid proclaims in the track "Ghostlawns" on Arrhythmia: "With the beats/Or a cappella/In the streets/We can do it anytime."
Their ability to tweak the sound, without using it as a crutch for weak rhymes, silences those who would criticize APC's abstract leanings. "Though they're different, they're also incredible rhymers and poets," says Hollin Norwood, another Triangle hip-hop artist and APC fan. "Sometimes they'll let the beat sit ignored in the corner; sometimes they'll come down so hard on those kicks and snares you shake. They all produce, and there are a number of instrumental tracks--just one of the things that forces you to look at them in a greater context than hip hop."
But the group's poetic style and approach to language belies their literary, as well as musical, heritage. They cite such equal yet disparate influences as Beats William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Bob Kaufman, hip-hop icons Public Enemy and Jay-Z, and post-punk innovators Joy Division, as well as D.C. hardcore group Bad Brains. APC moves forward in a growing resurgence of cerebral hip hop exemplified by such challenging, positive-mindset groups as the Jurassic Five and the Quannum Projects crew's DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, along with the new school of the Def Jux label. What makes APC stand apart is their fearless ability to play with things, including broken beats and De La Soul-esque skits. This does nothing to weaken their impact in the head-nodding department, however. Arrhythmia fuses this playfulness with Parliament-worthy dirty funk and jabs at lame commercial rappers.
When asked about this point, you can hear the chair squeak behind Beans as he rises from his seat, as if to emphasize his answer. "At the end of the day we try to be forward-thinking and progressive and experimental," he says. "But we still try and bring heat, you know? We still wanna spit."