Reinventing R&B

Alias, one of the founding members of revolutionary hip hop collective Anticon, takes a fresh approach on his fourteenth full-length album.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a decade since Oakland-based collective Anticon redefined independent hip hop with their unique mixture of lysergic production, idiosyncratic samples, unashamedly-intelligent, often-introspective lyrics and needlepoint precision raps . Musically and lyrically, hip hop is still largely playing catch-up to the deluge of consistently-astonishing releases that marked the first few years of Anticon activity, while their announcement of a fully-formed, radically new rap aesthetic (as dissimilar to the drearily earnest stereotype of ‘conscious rap’ as it was to the misogyny and materialism of much mainstream hip hop) has very few precedents.

Alias, AKA Brendon Whitney, produced and, in the early days at least, rapped on a good number of those classic early albums. His perfectly named new solo LP, Fever Dream, sees him apply to R&B and electronica the techniques he once used to reshape hip hop.

Whitney spoke to Wheel Scene from his home in Portland, Maine and offered his thoughts on Fever Dream, fatherhood, the current state of hip hop and coming out of the R&B closet.

Wheel Scene: Can you tell us a bit about how the album came together?
Alias: I started working on it at the end of 2009, beginning of 2010, and then my wife and I had a daughter, Aiko, in August of 2010 and I didn’t touch any of the music that I had worked on for at least three months or so because I was just focusing on being a new dad. I think the songs probably turned out differently doing it that way as opposed to sitting down and working on a song ‘til I felt it was finished. It was cool to come back and rework things and have that space to let it sit there and do its own thing, I guess. I found this huge amount of inspiration from not working on music and just spending time with her for those three months. I thought my music-making was going to slow down quite a bit but it’s been the exact opposite. I’m really psyched about working on music and it’s really opened up a lot of creativity for me. There’s no one thing about having her that’s done that, it’s just having her around and how happy she makes me; it puts me in a space where I can really open up my creativity.

There’s a strong R&B influence on the new album.
It’s something I’m definitely influenced by. I grew up listening to lots of hip hop but also listening to a lot of R&B. I was a huge Jodeci fan when I was 17, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted to it then – it was like a guilty pleasure back then. I used to listen to a lot of Jodeci, Shai – a lot of R&B groups. I wanted every song on this album to draw people in with vocals but there’s no way I can sing like that so I started swiping little bits from sources here and there. There’s a girl who does music here in Maine under the name Lady Lamb the Beekeeper and I became friends with her and I took little bits of a song of hers and kind of pitched it up and did different harmonies with it and stuff. I was definitely a closeted R&B fan back in the early ‘90s.

I feel like R&B has kind of eclipsed hip hop in recent years.
Yeah, definitely. I think people who are into R&B are more open to experimentation in production as opposed to some hardcore hip hop heads. They like their beats a certain way and don’t mess with that formula. Timbaland is probably one of my favourite producers, the way that he pushed things, and he’s been doing it since Missy Elliot’s first album. That’s when I first really started noticing how he was sampling babies mewling and birds chirping and just throwing anything into the mix and making it work. I think that people who are really into R&B don’t so much need their music to be in a certain box for them to enjoy it.

I wanted to ask you about your feelings regarding the current state of hip hop. 12 years ago, Anticon released a compilation called Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop and it feels as if hip hop hasn’t advanced that much since then. Indeed, with the irresistible rise of Odd Future it feels like it might actually be regressing, lyrically at least.
I honestly don’t listen to too much hip hop nowadays, but there are some people who are trying different things that are successful with having a different approach to it. I mean, the Odd Future guys are doing something different but it’s not something that I listen to on the regular. It’s just not my sort of thing and it’s not the music that I’m into now, but I can see why an 18 or 19-year-old kid is latching on to that and can get down with that because I feel like their music is honest. I mean, they have songs about rape but I don’t think that they’re actually going out and raping people, it’s more just a storytelling thing. But they seem completely honest in all the interviews that I’ve seen and read about them; they just seem like they’re doing their own thing and that’s commendable. But there’s not a lot of hip hop out there that’s really doing much for me.

What’s the situation with Anticon at the moment? With you moving back to Maine and Sole leaving last year it doesn’t seem to have quite the same collaborative, communitarian vibe as it had at the start.
It’s got a different feel to it, for sure. Everybody’s kind of living in different places and we still collaborate but it’s easy to do that now with the internet. It’s a hard thing to balance art and friendship and business, to make those three things mingle with each other and have it be successful, it’s pretty difficult to do and have it work 100% of the time. I’m not saying that there’s bad blood between any of the Anticon guys, it’s just I think because we started out so strong together and we were so tight and around each other all the time, eventually it was like ‘Well, I have done that, done the whole collaborative thing, now I’m gonna start focusing on my own stuff.’ I enjoy collaborating with people, but I also enjoy shutting everyone else out and focusing on my own thing and not having to worry about whether the snare is too loud for someone else’s ears, all those sorts of things. But it’s progressed in a way that’s healthy I think, because it started out as a collective and now it’s more of a label and we’re all still on the same page about what kind of music we want to put out: we just want to put out honest music that’s interesting.

Words: Ian Macbeth                       Photo: Stuart Lawson

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