Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ah, the Halcyon Days Of Anticon

Man, remember the great days of Anticon Records? When they were hip-hop and ingenious and releasing great records and CDs as fast as you could collect them? It seemed like you never had to worry about them running out of material, and even if some of their hand-made, limited CDRs were sub-par, you could be confident it would still be full of compelling moments and great samples. But man, I just had to check right now to make sure they were still in existence. I don't even know who's on the label anymore - just a bunch of folk singers and Alias making techno beats I guess. But all you guys who spent the early 2000s hating on them missed a Hell of little thunderstorm in Hip-Hop, at a time when the rest of the genre was going through a slow drought.

What about the time they all came together to do a track for DJ Krush's album called "Song for John Walker?" That was his 2002 album, The Message At the Depth; but you can just do what I did and get this sweet little 12" single of it. There are a couple other non-rap album tracks on the 12", too, but who cares? I sure don't. I only listen to "Song for John Walker."

In case you've forgotten, or just aren't a big news follower in the first place, John Walker Lindh is the white kid from California who got shot and captured while fighting against the United States during our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. What was he doing there? Well, some kids join the school marching band and some kids lean towards something a little edgier, like the taliban. He shot some Red Cross workers while he was over there, plead guilty when he was brought back, and President Bush (the first one) got in trouble for calling him "some misguided Marin County hot-tubber."

The song surely shares inspiration with the piece Black Like Me that The Pedestrian had published in the East Bay Express a little while after the song was released. That article uncovers the surprising and under-reported fact that John Walker was, prior to leaving the country, a huge hip-hop fan who wrote battle raps on newsgroups and pretended to be a black man named Mr. Mujahid, calling out rappers who didn't live up to his ideals of blackness, i.e. calling Dr. Dre a "sellout house nigga living honkey dory," and "a disgrace selling out to the talcum. He'll be left dead and naked in the outcome; word to brother Malcolm." Yeah, you won't learn about all that in many other sources; you should totally go read the whole article.

Ironically, the song focuses less on Walker as a hip-hop figure, though; and more as a political icon. Like all of their best work, it's both directly sardonic and perplexing abstract at the same time. At one point, Dose One is chiding, "he wanted Hammer pants. He joined the tali-hey-ban. He sought an absolute truth, the alpha cliché; But he got the omega and fucked," at another you'll be struggling to decipher what he means as he repeatedly sings, "again we use the magnets poorly; again we use the magnets poorly." While Why? comes in, getting at least close to rap (longtime Why? listeners will know what I mean) to represent the non-voting, slacker generation:

"Well, I heard the two parties split platforms at the turn of the century;
But. I. Know. I'm. A. Mer. I. Can. By the coins I carry.
And that's fuckin' scary.
Bla-bla-bla-bla-blah blah blah.
And even the worn-wigged hard news anchors are un-affected;
And every psychic and small-time prophet is aloof.
We've been injected to the point of immunity;
It takes an F load of S to stimulate the desensitized taste buds of the sugar expecting community,
'Till we can barely detect... the weather man's insincerity."

Passage and Sole team up, reminiscent of their classic duet, "Isn't It Sad How Sad We Are?" ("Become a smart happy healthy pet rock if you can eat like us; you'll make great soup and hot new imports for domesticated devils. Don't worry, in thirty years we'll all be Johns and Sarahs"), while Alias provides a more omniscient perspective a la his great "Divine Inspiration." The Pedestrian only really chimes in for the song's opening lines, but I'm sure he was deeply involved with the writing of the whole thing, which has often been his role. The whole gang really pulls together, often with quite divergent styles, into a cohesive whole, thanks in no small part to DJ Krush. At the time, I know Krush's production for the Anticon collective received a lukewarm welcome by fans; but I actually think he does an excellent job capturing the dark, bitter joke; and subtly shifts the music to fit the different segments of the song, rapped or sung in styles you'd otherwise think could never be parts of the same song.

Krush remixed this song on an album called Stepping Stones years later, but it really doesn't retain the energy or effect of the original at all. It's kinda cool once or twice as a variant - he adds some slick scratching during one of the breakdowns. But the newer, earnest instrumentation takes things too seriously, losing the feeling that these are courtroom jesters singing a coded message of our extinction. Stick with the original, which is conveniently available on 12" already. The idea that Anticon has been moving on without Sole for years feels like some kind of a morbid joke. But that's the great thing about records, they last even as the times change. We can plop 'em on the turntable and go back whenever we want.

1 comment:

  1. Most of cLOUDDEAD is still affiliated to Anticon, they just don't release as much music as they used to.
    Check out Why?'s podcast, he's publishing pretty regulary (when he's not on tour):
    And this is Pedestrian: