Pin It
Favorite

Redefining the Wheel 

by ANDREW MATSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & t ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."





Rakim's late-'80s axiom expresses something foundational about hip-hop, the most continuously reimagined music since jazz.





For Subtle, an experimental Oakland group, Rakim's line works two ways. On one hand, where Subtle is at has everything to do with where it's from. Subtle's difficult yet danceable mix of dense lyrics, lo-fi psychedelia, and big-sounding post-rock makes a lot more sense when you consider its connection to anticon, the intentionally lower-case rap label and collective that Subtle members Doseone (primary lyricist) and Jel (lyrics, instruments) helped co-found in 1998.





Famous for wild experimentalism -- anticon is known for releasing some of the most personal, atmospheric, and weirdest hip-hop ever -- the label launched the careers of introspective rap superstars Slug and Sage Francis. This free-thinking, re-visionary hip-hop movement is Subtle's pedigree, and it shows.





In interviews, Subtle's members (Dose, Jel, Dax Pierson, Jordan Dalrymple, Alexander Kort and Marty Dowers) refuse allegiance to any one genre. Despite that, though, and with the rock well upfront, the group's aesthetic consistently relies on sounds found nowhere else but in hip-hop: scratched horn stabs from a turntable, drums and bass from a Roland 808 (the drum machine on early Run DMC/Beastie Boys albums), and no-rules rapping. Subtle is a hip-hop group in denial about being one. When you consider where they used to be, that makes an odd sort of sense. It also makes Rakim's statement relevant to Subtle, whose artistic vision is so focused on the future of music. Subtle demands to be taken on its own terms.





Certainly there has never been a band that sounds quite like this. Dose's diarrheic stream of consciousness -- perhaps the quintessential "acquired taste" -- is a fluid gift that creates its own momentum. The backgrounds are unfailingly strange: unintelligible muttering abounds and quotes from movies are dropped in for esoteric ambience; sirens get used as instruments while chimes give off airy twinkles. As Subtle's drums do their stutter-stop drama, it becomes unclear if someone is holding drumsticks, pressing buttons, or splicing tape. It's art-school stuff, music designed to sound like it has no distinct origin.





Compared with the floundering inconsistency of the previous A New White (2004), For Hero: For Fool's coherent originality is far more inventive than derivative, a clear statement of hybrid science which purposefully obscures "from" and is totally concerned with (re-)defining "at." Though it's not supposed to remind you of anything and you're not supposed to be able to describe it, Subtle's music isn't alienating.





Collaborators from outside the anticon circle (members of white-hot indie-rock bands TV On the Radio and Wolf Parade) breathed new life into the group, finally making good on its cross-pollinated, propulsive, speaker-blowing potential.


Forever reinventing the wheel, Subtle's heady, pretentious ambition hangs on the "don't look back" flavor of Rakim's adage.
  • Pin It

Latest in Music

  • Mystery Man
  • Mystery Man

    What we know about musician-actor-puppeteer-comedian David Liebe Hart, and what we don't
    • Sep 29, 2016
  • Rolling Stoned
  • Rolling Stoned

    The revivalist rock and hijinks of Twin Peaks
    • Sep 29, 2016
  • Play On
  • Play On

    Years after they were crafted, vintage and antique instruments still have their place in Spokane
    • Sep 22, 2016
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Today | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed | Thu

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Andrew Matson

Most Commented On

  • Feminist First

    Through her music, Dolly Parton has always shown women how to stay strong
    • Sep 15, 2016
  • Art of the Deal

    Local indie labels offer artists another marketing option, but not everyone is convinced they're necessary
    • Sep 1, 2016
  • More »

Top Tags in
Music & Film

COUNTRY


Readers also liked…

  • Fire From the Depths
  • Fire From the Depths

    It took Soblivios two years to finish an album; now they're ready to ravage the world with it
    • Apr 1, 2015
  • Space to Spare
  • Space to Spare

    Exploring the darkness is always in season for Disappears
    • Apr 8, 2015

© 2016 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation