Stream: Cloudy October “inlaw (alternate take)”
Stream: Blackalicious “Lyric Fathom”
Stream: Siah “Repetition”
When I first listened to relative newcomer and Portland, Oregon native Cloudy October’s The Aviator Is Dead EP,1 I failed to comprehend most of its lyrics. Very few lines, verses, or ideas were rendered lucid in that first encounter. I knew for certain that I liked the sound of the record, though. Cloudy October’s decision to use dry sounding drums and eschew the sludgy low-end that suffocates the vocals of so many indie rappers is a wise one. His rhymes land in and out of pocket and he switches up his style frequently but every syllable comes across crisp and clear, rendering his strange and diverse style less beguiling to those encountering it for the first time.
I concluded that I understood The Aviator Is Dead at its most basic level, and felt slightly less guilty about procrastinating on the daunting task of interpretation. To reward myself, I replayed the EP in its entirety and just sat back and soaked it in, not stopping to contemplate anything, even the meaning of its title. During this session my mind wandered nearly as often as Cloudy October switched his delivery or new and confounding sounds were introduced into the mix. At some point I realized that it had been ages since I had been this mystified by a recording; I had nearly forgotten what it felt like to relish the act of deciphering lyrics, to sit down with a cassette tape or a piece of vinyl and play it until it made sufficient sense.
I’ve never been one for overly familiar second rate comfort rap; if I want to hear a Gang Starr record I’ll put on a Gang Starr record. Let the bizarre and the seemingly unknowable records make their way down the pike along with the famously proficient and the grandfathered tried and true acts, I say. I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ from 1997 to 2001, and during most of that time an electronica-centered record shop on Easton Avenue called Planet X kept a fully stocked hip hop vinyl section and had four (!) Technics turntables set up for customers to sample potential purchases. I practically lived in the store in between classes; during that time I discovered dozens of challenging, astounding records.
While listening to Cloudy October, two records from that time period came to mind almost instantly: the version of Blackalicious’s Melodica EP released on Mo’ Wax and Siah’s2 “Repetition/Pyrite” single released on Fondle ‘Em. The Blackalicious EP was already old in rap years by the time I got to it, but it was as fresh and unnerving as anything else floating around in late 1997; I was particularly taken aback by the gleefully maniacal “Lyric Fathom.” I literally didn’t believe what I was hearing at first, having become accustomed to braggadocio that was straightforward and charismatic. Gift Of Gab did not engage the listener in a conversation. Instead he pummeled you into submission with unrelenting disconcerting threats that were far from gangster but also a millions miles away from cartoonish, on some cold remote planet.
Siah’s “Repetition” was also uncanny and difficult: I remember wondering if this could really be the same guy who seemed so D.A.I.S.Y.-ish and serene on his collaboration with Yeshua Dapoed. Where “Lyric Fathom” had beats and lyrics that pulsed and slammed, “Repetition” was sinewy and hazy; my immediate response was that the record sounded like it was lulling you into some kind of enlightened but subtly terrifying hypnotic state. Siah’s words are soothing and confusing at once, and like Gift of Gab, he takes delight in leading you farther into the corners of his restless imagination (which he terms the bewilderness) than you previously thought was appropriate for a rap song. Though I still listen to these songs from time to time, their true value is their capacity to instruct and prepare: if not for Siah and Blackalicious I simply would not know how to patiently listen to inspired nuttiness like Cloudy October’s “inlaw (alternate take).” — Thun