clipping.: Hip-Hop and Chaos

Grayson Haver Currin

By Grayson Haver Currin

on 06.10.14 in Features

File under: Harsh rap, harsher noise
For fans of: Death Grips, Public Enemy, Clipse, Death Comet Crew, Prurient
From: Los Angeles
Personae: Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

The hook for “Get Up,” the song that starts the second half of the stirring Sub Pop debut from Los Angeles hip-hop trio clipping., is a pure radio lure. “Here when they turn on the street light,” purrs Mariel Jacoda, her voice unfurling with the curls and cadence of Rihann, “I hustle ’til they cut ‘em off/ That’s the street life.”

But don’t expect “Get Up” to creep across the FM dial anytime soon. The song begins with a sample of an alarm clock, beeping repeatedly, as though it’s going off in an empty room. It’s a noxious beat, sure, but by the time emcee Daveed Diggs has finished his first staccato verse, it’s moved mostly to the background. When Jacoda finishes that third line, “Get Up” goes from harsh to impossibly abrasive. clipping. allows the alarm to harmonize with itself, to shift in and out of phase in a moment of Steve Reich-inspired aural torture. It’s a threat to the listener’s sanity, the opposite of commercial.

That move is emblematic of clipping., a group out to reinforce the relationship between rap grit and sonic growl. They pit the harsh noise of two experimental music veterans against the complicated, prismatic storytelling of Diggs. Their second LP, CLPPNG, puts the addictive and the aggressive into direct conflict, demanding that you toughen up or turn away.

On rejection:

Jonathan Snipes: A year before midcity came out, we sent the first five songs to a bunch of labels. We received absolutely no interest. clipping., too, was the only thing I had done that I remember playing for my friends and receiving — not a negative reaction, but a confused reaction. We would play the first few songs from midcity and get this blank stare. What people would say, time and time again, was, “This is cool, guys, but I don’t know who this is for. It’s so weird. I get why you think this is interesting, but I don’t think anyone is ever going to listen to this.” That’s exactly why we put midcity out ourselves.

‘The funny thing is that, by and large, the people who are claiming that we aren’t real rap music are hopeful that it isn’t. Liking rap music doesn’t fit into their identities.’

On “This isn’t real hip-hop”:

Daveed Diggs: We get plenty of that. Rap is referenced constantly throughout these songs. I’m usually borrowing from cadences we’re hearing on the radio, particularly on this most recent album. The source material for this is radio rap. The funny thing is that, by and large, the people who are claiming that this isn’t real rap music are hopeful that it isn’t. Liking rap music doesn’t fit into their identities. We are making rap music and probably know more about the genre than most people. We grew up listening to it and are constantly listening to new music and studying it. I’ve been rapping for 16 years now. That is what it’s from, but we understand people not being able to necessarily to see it that way up front.

On the sounds of trash cans and cinderblocks:

William Hutson: For every track, the sounds are made differently, based on what the requirements of that song are. We use a lot of synthesizers. We use a lot of pedals. We also use a lot of computer synthesis and a lot of field recording and musique concrete collage techniques. There’s a lot of going out on field recording trips to collect sounds. For “Work Work,” for instance, one of the main elements of the beat — one of the drums — is a backward-then-forward drop of a cinderblock, shattering onto concrete. We were out in the middle of the desert, and there was a knocked-down shed. Jonathan got his microphone out, and we started dropping cinderblocks from different heights to get smashing sounds. There’s a beer can crumpling, tapping on a Thermos, and a ball bearing rolling in that same Thermos.

That’s how a lot of this stuff works: We’ll be working on a beat and we’ll say, “Oh, do you know what we need? This beat needs the sound of a trashcan falling down a flight of stairs.” We’ll pack up in the car, drive somewhere we know there’s a big stairwell and throw the trashcan down a flight of stairs.

On Nirvana’s assistance:

Hutson: When we were trying to work with other rappers and get features on this album, no rapper had heard of Sub Pop, turns out. They don’t care what that is. But if you say “Nirvana was on this label,” at least they know who that is. They’re like, “Oh, yeah! That’s dope. We like Nirvana!”

On Death Grips:

Hutson: We’d been doing this for a little while before Exmilitary got released, but we got a lot more attention after Death Grips showed up. For the first two years of existence, not a single article got written about us that didn’t have the words “Death Grips” in it. Clearly, there was some door they kicked open. I’m not sure if they helped people realize that rap and noise have been close together for so long, though. The reaction to them was always, “This is really, really new. This is unprecedented.” What we’re doing is part of a continuum, and we don’t think it’s that different from Bomb Squad production. We’re trying to draw attention to that and our place in that history.

Diggs: Hip-hop is a genre that does well with aggression, so it makes sense that it would be noisy.

On first-person rap:

Diggs: Halfway through the work on midcity, we decided that there is no more first-person narrative in this band. That frees me up to figure out how to tell stories from a different perspective. There’s a lot of stuff to work with, especially when you stop worrying about it being a personal narrative. I don’t have to feel constrained by the fact that it needs to feel like something I would say. When I write my solo music, coming up with that many things I care about can be difficult. With this band, it’s more about exploring scenarios.

But the challenge is mostly that there’s not a ton of precedent for that in rap music. We borrow really heavily from rap music styles. I’m always quoting something. It’s really important that it still feels like a rap song. How do I work this idea so that it still feels familiar to the genre?

On the noise scene:

Hutson: That’s where I come from. I’ve been an obsessive harsh noise collector. I still play noise all the time and I write about noise for The Wire. That’s the social group I’m closest to. We’ve all been part of that scene.

‘There are people in the noise scene not because they like it but because they hate other things and noise is somehow a rejection of all those things.’

A lot of people in the noise scene — at least in Los Angeles, and I find this more in bigger cities — genuinely love noise, but it’s one of a number of genres they’re generally interested in. If rap happens to also be a genre they like, then sometimes they really like us. But noise is also a genre that people discover as a reaction formation against “normal music.” There are people in the noise scene not because they like it but because they hate other things and noise is somehow a rejection of all those things. The people who listen to noise because, in high school, they got picked on by people who listened to rap, don’t like us. We’re comfortable with it, but it’s disappointing sometimes. Considering where we came from, where we expected to be making music for only the three of us, maybe that reaction is disappointing, but it was the one we were expecting from the beginning.

On format and content:

Hutson: Hip-hop is a very singles-driven genre now, but we are old-fashioned in the idea that we like albums, and a complete project that somehow feels cohesive. At the same time, the songs on the album for Sub Pop go together, but they are not conceptually linked. This record is more a collection of singles than is our tendency or taste.

We’re interested in the cohesiveness and completeness of a project, but if that’s a single or an album, we don’t know. We can just wrap our heads around the format. We think, “What is the format for this release? Let’s make the music fit that.” We like the packaging and completeness of a project, and we can adapt to the size of it. We’re not interested in releasing a bunch of loosies on the Internet, a steady stream of half-finished songs on YouTube. We’re too obsessive-compulsive.

On making scary music but being nice guys:

Hutson: Our new video just got posted. People were posting, “It’s this scary, fucked-up video.” That shocked us until we remembered, “Oh, right, it’s this really fucked-up idea.” After months of talking about the concept of the video and a day of shooting it and seeing versions of it, we’d gotten so desensitized to the content that we forgot how violent the video is. It’s about Daveed getting curb-stomped. We’d gotten so focused on the effects and how adorable the little rats are that we forgot. We are nice guys, but we don’t present ourselves that way necessarily, in our music.

Tony, our A&R rep from Sub Pop, came down and saw us play at The Smell, an underground, all-ages space in LA. We didn’t know who he was. We didn’t know who to look for. We just knew some guy from Sub Pop was coming to see us. We didn’t figure it out, and we started playing. There were a ton of kids there; it was a noise show. With the first blast from the first song, some kid apparently just elbowed Tony, the A&R rep, square in the chest and started moshing. It became this giant pit. The dude from Sub Pop was just pressed up against the wall, hiding.

When he met us, he was worried that we were total monsters, because the music is so aggressive and mean. I think he was vetting whether or not we were even tolerable to talk to. I think we’re all right.