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||M. Sayyid, Beans, and High Priest are Antipop Consortium, the genre-bending hip hop group whose bread and butter is abstract rhymes and beats. In 1997 they released a series of underground mixtapes in which their multi-genre approach first appeared. These days they're signed to Warp Records, also home to such electronic groundbreakers as Autechre and Aphex Twin.
Their new album, Arrhythmia, is a carefully considered fusion of off-kilter samples, sparkly electro flourishes, and super-fast rhymes.
ERIC: Where does the name Antipop come from?
SAYYID: Priest came up with that when he started Antipop Records in 1997. But Antipop was also the perfect name for what Beans, Priest, and I were doing together, because our agenda was to not be popular. Most groups have an underlying motivation to blow up and sell records, but we just wanted to be as creative as possible.
ERIC: Can you talk about the rap-meets-poetry scene that originally brought you all together?
SAYYID: During the early '90s, there weren't a lot of live hip hop performances, but there was an open mike revival going on. In some venues, like the Nuyorican Poets Cafˇ, rap and poetry were happening at the same time. It was like, "Here's a spot where you can see Amiri Baraka and Nas."
ERIC: Do you have a background in poetry?
SAYYID: Actually, I was coming from more of an art background. My aunt is a pretty well-known painter. And I studied art at both San Francisco City College and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
ERIC: Who's your aunt?
SAYYID: Her name is Faith Ringgold.
ERIC: Oh, right. I know her work. So what brought you back to the city?
SAYYID: When I was in my early twenties, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I came back to New York and linked up with Beans. At that point I got into writing lyrics and rhymes. A couple of years later I started working on tracks and learning about production.
ERIC: Did you get your own equipment and just experiment?
SAYYID: Yes. I found I couldn't really depend on anybody else, so instead of waiting for the world to hand things out to me, I just started doing it myself. That was a blessing in disguise. People who know how to arrange and write songs who can create soundscapes are long-term. Look at someone like Quincy Jones.
ERIC: Do you produce any other artists?
SAYYID: Together with another producer, Architect, I just did a track in Oakland with this cat named Azeem. And I have some other people that I've been working with, too, but I don't want to namedrop.
ERIC: Antipop doesn't do run-of-the-mill hip hop. Where do your references and sounds come from?
SAYYID: I listened to all kinds of music growing up the Dead Kennedys, The Specials, Fat Boys, Skinny Boys, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Cool J, Butthole Surfers, Black Flag.
ERIC: What was it about those punk bands that moved you?
SAYYID: I liked the freshness of punk it was a whole other world. When I was a kid, that stuff sounded really dark and new.
ERIC: Did you go to punk shows?
SAYYID: I went to everything the Beasties, Bad Brains, KRS-One. I ran with a lot of skaters, I was into that scene.
ERIC: Do you ever think that your lyrics are so abstract that they might go over people's heads?
SAYYID: I make music for my own ears. Once my ears say, "That's tight," then it's a wrap. Someone once said that our stuff is academic. I consider myself an intellectual, but I'm not academic.
ERIC: Can you talk about the lyrics a little bit?
SAYYID: The lyrics reflect all of our different life experiences, as well as the art form of the battle rhyme.
ERIC: Battle rhyme?
SAYYID: Yeah, rhyming is all based on the concept of the battle. Rapping was originally a way of representing your neighborhood. When hip hop was just beginning, in '72 or '73, New York gangs would go to parties in different neighborhoods. If they wanted to shut down another gang, they would dance it out at a party. Rap grew out of those dances, beginning around '77 or '78. So as a Master of Ceremonies, your job was to master the party. Who was the master? The person who won the battle. That's why you always hear everyone rhyming about how good they are that's what hip hop is.
ERIC: If you had to describe your music for someone who had never heard it, what would you say?
BEANS: It's a mix of Suicide, Sun Ra, and Afrika Bambaataa, with lyrics by Richard Wright.
ERIC: That's a wide range of references.
BEANS: I never wanted to do standard hip hop. My heroes Miles and Hendrix didn't just listen to rock or jazz as they evolved to become better artists. I think that in order to bring something to the genre that you work in, you have to be open-minded.
ERIC: How do you feel about hip hop today?
BEANS: It has occupied definitive moments in my life. But as I've gotten older, I find I can't relate to it as much. I like to hear different interesting things, and I don't necessarily hear them in hip hop.
ERIC: When did you first get into rap?
BEANS: In sixth grade, I moved to White Plains from Mount Vernon, New York. My cousins would come out from the Bronx and Brooklyn to cut our lawn, and they would bring hip hop records with them. That's how I was first exposed. I was more into Kiss at the time I grew up really wanting to be Paul Stanley.
ERIC: Are you serious?
BEANS: Yeah, man, I was open on Kiss. I had Kiss dolls, the whole nine. They just caught my fancy. Then I got into DJ Red Alert and Chuck Chillout. There was also this guy in my neighborhood named Al who was really influential. He had a bunch of old-school tapes of actual park jams that he used to play me.
ERIC: Did that make you want to be a DJ?
BEANS: Yeah, but I was only sixteen, and I couldn't afford turntables. So Al said, "I see you as a bit more creative than that. Why don't you try rhyming?"
ERIC: And you got into spoken word?
BEANS: Right. In the rap-meets-poetry world your only background was yourself there were no beats so your words had to be strong.
ERIC: That must've been scary.
BEANS: Nah, it was natural. That's what good art is! The job of the artist is to be as honest as possible, to introduce something new, and to challenge perception.
ERIC: After you joined up with Sayyid and Priest, when did you first start to find some success?
BEANS: Our single, "Disorientation," started to do well in London in 1999. So with our own money we flew out there and toured for a week.
ERIC: It's curious that you were embraced first in Europe. That's not often the case with hip hop.
BEANS: Well, there's a tradition of avant garde musicians being accepted in Europe first. If you think about it, Charlie Parker had to fly to Paris, Hendrix went to London.
ERIC: What nonmusical ideas or artists do you draw from?
BEANS: I'm a fan of the Surrealists Magritte, the writing of Andrˇ Breton how they would delve into the subconscious, through states of somnolence in order to create. That approach has a lot to do with how I want my music to be received.
ERIC: Antipop Consortium is definitely a hip hop group. But there's also a serious link to electronic music.
PRIEST: Separating musical genres is kind of foreign to us. I mean, even the most staunch b-boy will still know about Cyndi Lauper and the Eurythmics. It wasn't ever a big mystery DJ Red Alert would spin all of that. That's just how it was. Plus, growing up, if you listened to an alternative radio station like WFMU, you heard Public Enemy's, "My Uzi Weighs a Ton," and then Sonic Youth. But to answer your question, overall, it's just beats and rhymes. The same way Timbaland can sample a tabla record and it's hip hop, what we synthesize is also hip hop.
ERIC: You once said, "The majority of hip hop doesn't speak to me anymore." Do you still feel that way?
PRIEST: Definitely. I check lyrics in terms of cadence, phrasing, and demeanor those things speak to me. But the overall topics are usually juvenile.
ERIC: I know you toured in Europe with Radiohead. What was that like?
PRIEST: It was interesting to play in front of fifteen or twenty thousand people, and then be at a small club like Joe's Pub in New York the next weekend. [laughs]
ERIC: Did the tour ever get wild and crazy?
PRIEST: No, nobody was ever backstage. It was like when you have the TV on really loud and then you turn it off that's how dead it was when we'd come off stage.
ERIC: The fact that you opened for Radiohead in Europe and not here is interesting. I think your audience is less downtown New York, and more of a global underground.
PRIEST: Seven years ago or so, if you wanted to know about underground artists, you had to be a part of all these different scenes. You had to really seek that stuff out. Now, due to the media and the internet, it's a lot easier to find experimental music. There's more of a community today you can suppose that a person who knows about Kool Keith would also know about Radiohead.
ERIC: What do you guys do when you're not on tour or working on your music?
PRIEST: We're all family men I have a daughter who's seven. When I'm home, I'll take her to and from school. We hang out.
ERIC: Does she make music?
PRIEST: If I'm making music, she'll join in. I usually set her up with the machines so she can do her thing while I'm doing mine. [laughs]
ERIC: When you're working on an album, do you spend a lot of time in the studio with Beans and Sayyid?
PRIEST: Since we all have home studios, each of us brings tracks to the table. Then we sit down, listen, and say, "This needs this, this needs that. You do this, you do that."
ERIC: When you started Antipop Records in 1997, you only released mixtapes. That was unusual for hip hop.
PRIEST: I was very influenced by the aesthetics of cassette-based labels like ROIR in the punk world, and free jazz labels like ESP and ECM. Also, that was 1997, right before the birth of affordable CD-R replication.
ERIC: So the aesthetics were really important to you. Do you have a design background?
PRIEST: Yeah, graphic design. Advertising art has always been my thing. Secretly, my dream job would be to design pedestrian signs basic, universal communication.
ERIC: That explains the cover on your EP. It had what looked like a pedestrian on a sort of virtual superhighway.
PRIEST: Up until this last record, designing the album art was pretty much my chore. The last album was a collaboration between all of us and an additional designer and photographer.
ERIC: In a past interview, you talked about the idea of "disturbing the equilibrium." Is that still your goal?
PRIEST: When the first mix tape came out, that quote was circulated quite a bit. As you get older, you get a little more hesitant to be boxed in as "those left wing guys from that subgenre called experimental hip hop whose whole credo is to disturb the equilibrium." Our aim was never to circumvent channels, or to create some new playing field. At the same time, we're always making conscious decisions to do things a certain way. That, in and of itself, is a stance.