October 26, 2010

Word, Thats Weird

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For those of you who haven’t noticed, the Internet is a weird place: Between LOLcats, 4chan and Antoine Dobson, it’s become a place where fringe culture can captivate audiences who normally would not have discovered them. When sheer insanity such as “all your base are belong to us” or “The Bed Intruder Song” invite news coverage and mass media attention, why do hotly-tipped online musical sensations seem, by comparison, so damn normal? No offense to Arctic Monkeys or Vampire Weekend, but they hardly represent any sort of fringe element gaining widespread acclaim. Both are eclipsed in weirdness by the attention-mongering, major-label-supported (gasp!) antics of our generation’s media darling, Lady Gaga. Where, may I ask, are the strange, WTF-worthy musical sensations?

Surprisingly, for a genre that has been so co-opted into pop culture, rap music still proves itself a fertile ground for the weird. Take South African rave-rappers Die Antwoord, a group that, with its darkly hilarious video for “Enter the Ninja,” grabbed the blogosphere by its collective balls. They perpetuated their own mystery by dodging interviews early on, leaving only semi-documentary “Zef Side,” which introduces MC Ninja as a South African Ali G who lives with his parents. While introducing his crew, Ninja explains that DJ Hi-Tek makes “next-level beats” on his “PC computer” and that his own lyrical prowess is due to his “serious gangsta skill.” They come off as clueless outsiders who, in normal circumstances, would be dismissed as posers, and that’s expected; they promote the “zef side,” a reference to a sort of South African white trash culture that has its own slang and iconography (dildos and Jagermeister, if you’re curious) that is far from what one would deem a traditional “scene.”

But, inexplicably, the videos and songs are masterfully produced. And while Ninja and crew are undeniably capable performers, it’s the images and characters that ingrain themselves into your mind. “Enter The Ninja” has a stripping schoolgirl (Die Antwoord’s resident hook-singing sex kitten, Yo-Landi Vi$$er), sword swinging ninjas (of course) and one of the most absurd spoken breakdowns in recent history, where Ninja declares, “This is, like, the coolest song I’ve ever heard in my life,” and, subsequently, lauds his group’s newfound dominion of the “interwebs.” Follow-up video “Evil Boy” is even more ridiculous, with a visual preoccupation with dankness, vermin, penises and nippleless breasts. While the authenticity of their image can be questioned, who can deny the results? Captivating, bizarre imagery and music that, like Lady Gaga’s best, deserves praise for brazenly flaunting convention.

Another group investing in an image-conscious brand of weird is LA rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. While Odd Future does have its own mantras, slang and symbols — “Fuck Steve Harvey,” “swagged out” and swastikas — they hardly sound like another run-through of post-Wu-Tang culture. Tyler the Creator, the crew’s primary producer and leader, cites artists as diverse as Stereolab, Erykah Badu and Grizzly Bear as his influences. While the sonic atmospheres seem to have a mild art-school bent, Odd Future’s lyrics are more Doctor Octagonecologyst and Necro than anything that could be considered “indie-rap.” Lyrically, they’re obsessed with rape, absent fathers and how much they love their mothers. The songs, despite their content, are extremely listenable. Tyler’s flow is undeniable, and other members, including his younger brother Earl Sweatshirt and collaborator Hodgy Beats, complement his deep voice and spar convincingly, making every song sound like friends trying to top each other’s grossness. “Assmilk,” a collaboration between Tyler and Earl, not only features them detailing their own disgusting (and hopefully fictional) exploits but includes a verse interrupted by Tyler putting his younger brother in what sounds like a headlock, from which Earl can only be freed by apologizing and saying “uncle.”

Odd Future’s panache for perverse cinematics extends far beyond the actual music. Their videographer, Taco, has a talent for overcoming his amateur status and making suitably sick visuals, matching the lyrics of Tyler’s graphic “French!” with a dystopian, black and white view of Los Angeles and accompanying Earl’s self-titled track with a bloody combination of self-mutilation, skateboarding and puking. While their lyrics could be misconstrued as kids being disgusting for the sake of being disgusting, the videos paint truly scary picture of godless kids who love turning their audience’s stomachs. The combination of sound and image is truly disturbing, and that makes it some of the most exciting rap to come out in years.

Die Antwoord and Odd Future can attribute their success in sales and hype on the  Internet to their meticulous image crafting.  Thanks to 24-hour online music blogs, we know everything about an up-and-coming band four days after the leak of their buzzworthy single. Die Antwoord and Odd Future, on the other hand, have carefully controlled what information they release. Die Antwoord prevented its comic absurdity from being immediately dismissed by playing it coy about whether or not they were an authentic representation of zef, while all the while providing an interesting look into the cultural powderkeg that is modern South Africa (“Evil Boy” is actually about rebellion against backwards tribal traditions, I swear!). Odd Future has preserved its mystery via avoiding interviews, creating a singular culture and outspokenly promoting themselves. While this approach can, on some levels, seem masturbatory and self-righteous, it does add a certain level of attraction; these emerging groups, unlike the Arctic Monkeys, Kid Cudi or Vampire Weekend before them, are mystifying to an audience dying to know more. In a way, they are preserving the romantic notion of art being created by true outsiders and letting the human imagination help propel their mythologies. And in a type where Snopes will dispel any awesome rumor you hear, it’s nice to finally find something crazy to believe in.

Original Author: James Rainis