On record, Snoop Dogg is the smoothest murderer, the hardest, coldest gangster ever to walk Earth. A gangland master, he unites warring street armies by rocking one red and one blue shoelace.
Off record, he is a man called Calvin who does things like coach junior-league football and love his wife, but The Myth of Snoop is infinitely more intriguing.
On record, The Wu-Tang Clan is nine samurai from New York City who have been gifted a divine system of lyrical mathematics. They are super-emcees with at least five aliases apiece who never fail to keep it real in the street. Some members (Ghostface) can beat up six people at once. Others (GZA) are chess masters. They have individual talents, but each is enlightened with abstract knowledge of the universe that sets them apart from normal people, enabling a cosmic sixth sense that renders the Clan unmatchable by conventional competitors. Wu-Tang's mythology is so developed that they -- let alone the public -- simply cannot go back to reality.
Other rappers, such as Lupe Fiasco, have analyzed persona-building techniques as coping mechanisms.
Enter the Spokane rapper Knothead. You'd know him if you saw him. He makes quite an impression. For starters, it's a specific breed of rapper who decides to rap like the lead singer of a death metal band. Knothead's guttural style -- somewhere between yelling and coughing -- is 100 percent affected and immediately abrasive. Very aggressive, and impressive for its commitment to sonic gravel. Like Snoop and the Wu, everything about him, appearance to vocal tone, is contrived.
Cannibalizing his previous life as Steve Margraff -- a Port Hadlock meth addict who came to Spokane, ironically, to get clean -- Knothead is a rap persona who ate Margraff's personal struggle and spat out second-wave goth-hop. Knothead was saved by hip-hop, and now he wants to save hip-hop. Most of his lyrics center around (1) how much his life has improved since he began rapping, and (2) how good he is at rapping. The former is probably true.
Knothead's persona is rich, if somewhat derivative of Detroit shock-rappers Insane Clown Posse. Knothead further specifies his breed in that he would not be offended by that comparison: a shared affinity for dark beats and in-your-face verbal intensity is apparent, and both acts aim to pull off the elusive trick of remaining hardcore while wearing tons of face paint. Recurrent image patterns include crack rocks, razor blades and blood.
The best thing about Knothead is also the weirdest thing: the creation and maintenance of his out-there persona has done tremendous things for his personal development. Stalking the stage, rapping extra-hoarse in his clipped shout, Knothead performs alongside intimidating guys with fake blood all over their faces. On stage, it's the land of off-color contact lenses, acid humor, and heavy amounts of implied weightlifting. You either accept it as bad-ass or write it off as an unintentional joke.
Whatever reaction Knothead fetches, it's moot. He raps not for accolades, but for his own salvation. All criticism misses the point. He's in it for the purge, the bellow, the kill, the release. For Knothead, rap's all about catharsis.
It's polarizing music and the flipside to immediately turning off a large audience is that the people who stick around tell all their friends -- the kind of thing that's either a really bad idea or becomes a movement. To hear Knothead talk about his 100,000-plus MySpace plays and 20,000-plus friends, it's a movement, at least in select enclaves around Eastern Washington, North Idaho and even Portland.
Knothead is like Snoop Dogg: his persona is so strong that the public will take it for his essence, disregarding his personality. Knothead is like Wu-Tang: drunk off his own mythos, he's uncertain where man ends and idea begins. Knothead is like Lupe Fiasco: desperate for rebirth, willing to go to the edge of sense. But Knothead is also a lot like Insane Clown Posse, and to most people -- for good and ill -- that's all that matters.
Knothead with Livid Undead at the Grail on Saturday, July 7 at 9 pm. $5. Call 208-665-5882.