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.