Growing a single wing
Growing a new lung
Churning out a raw, uncut oblivion poem
Adam Drucker, better known by the alias Doseone, has said his initial attraction to rap was as much about the “persona/ego projection” as a love of words. Drucker cut his teeth on the rap-battle circuit, exchanging rhymes with Eminem and other MCs, until his friendships with like-minded musicians led to the creation of the Anticon collective/record label, which fuses hip-hop to indie rock, ambient music, poetry, and experimental noise.
Although Drucker has recorded several solo albums, his primary efforts have been collaborative. With the trio cLOUDDEAD, he worked with Yoni Wolf (Why?) and producer David Madson (Odd Nosdam) to create a pair of critically acclaimed albums that pasted non-sequitur raps onto sleepwalking funk beats and archaic keyboards. His most consistent collaboration has been with producer Jel (Jeffrey Logan) as Themselves. The duo has joined forces with German indie-rockers the Notwist as 13 & God and with other musicians in their current project, Subtle.
The six musicians in Subtle tackle Autoharp, electric cello, flute, a bevy of samplers, and both live and mechanized drums. They are known for their theatrical live shows that include plastic forks, winged hourglasses, cardboard Roman column facades, painted skulls, and red velvet outfits. Each of the group’s albums (A New White, Wishingbone, For Hero: For Fool, Yell & Ice, and, most recently, ExitingARM) has continued the story of Hour Hero Yes, a struggling rapper with a black-and-white zebra-striped face who, by turns, becomes stranded on a desert island, discovers he has the rarest blood type in the world, and is abducted to an underground bunker beneath the Hollywood sign, where he is brainwashed to write pop songs.
Drucker ignores not only the boundaries between genres but between mediums as well. He has published a book of poetry, painted portraits of his fans to raise money after Subtle was robbed on tour, created a board game, and made several episodes of a wildly inappropriate satire of the Garfield and Friends TV series. True to his prolific reputation, when I spoke with Drucker at his Oakland apartment he had just finished an appointment with his accountant to file his tax returns and was painting some enormous poster-size watercolors before meeting up with an animator to develop a potential series for the Cartoon Network, as a voice actor.
I. ON THE MOUNTAINTOP
GIVING BIRTH TO FIVE BABIES
THE BELIEVER: So you have all these different groups going. For you, what is the purpose of collaborating?
DOSEONE: I always liked Wu-Tang and how you had to follow each rapper from one record to another on different projects. We were interested in collaboration and not letting any project get stale, but in terms of listeners, I think it’s mostly just confused people.
Jel and I have been making music together for a long time. Our group, Themselves—that’s just the two of us—started off as Jeff and I trying not to be as wack as everybody else who was doing hip-hop. When I write lyrics for Themselves it’s intense, it’s personal: it’s my truth patch.
I keep these piles of poems lying around to be used as lyrics, and when I write something that is a little more sagacious it goes into the pile for 13 & God, which is me and Jeff working with this German group, the Notwist. Markus Acher, who is in 13 & God, hears these incredible sounds and melodies and then has to work them into oddly appropriate English lyrics. He’s approaching the language as an outsider and yet has somehow arrived at the phonetics and selective language of poetry. I had to unlearn years of grade school to realize if I take that and out, or that but, if I just keep the wrong suffix, this is money, just listen to that! That’s great. That’s like something a wise man from Brooklyn would say. I love the inappropriateness of age-old wisdom in modern slang. These things are all so wonderful to me.
Subtle formed because of Dax. He has always been the glue that holds the band together. Dax is who each of us in the band try to think like when we try to think like a Subtle member. Subtle has always had a code of its own, and for a long time I didn’t know what it was. I would just know when a poem wasn’t right for it. It’s become this epic story of Hour Hero Yes and these records that all interrelate with each other like the back of the Cap’n Crunch box where you have to collect all three and look at it with a decoder ring.
BLVR: You clearly have a lot more interest in melody in your more recent stuff. The new Subtle album, ExitingARM, seems like the first time where you’re doing more singing than rapping.
D: We wanted this album to be songs people would listen to in the car and sing in the shower. So the album is full of singing. You know how every Thom Yorke song has the mountaintop note in it? And Björk, too. It’s like they’re on the mountaintop giving birth to five babies, all the stars coming out of their bodies, celestial, planisphere touching all over the place. They hit that note all the time. I really respect both those artists and I can’t sing like they can, so what we tried to do on this record was apply one of the great truisms of rap, which is that you cannot kick the same style twice. So I transmuted this age-old, cockeyed rap tenet that should never be fucked with and applied it to vocals.
There’s all these rap truisms that I try to take very seriously: kick knowledge, don’t take shorts, and represent. On ExitingARM I tried to build my own truisms. I found words that I had deliberately kept out of poems because they had no weight; they no longer said anything. I learned that if I refilled them and used them the right way they are these age-old, perfect words that will not tarnish or disintegrate: obsession, beauty, luck. Love didn’t make the cut. It’s too brutal. That word is like the porn industry of meaning. I did pick a few big fights, though. Nobody tries to explain luck. Nobody writes philosophy about it, and I really went to town on it.
BLVR: You have a lot of different, distinct voices you use in your singing. There’s, like, a backup singer voice, a Snoop Dogg voice, tons of others. Do you give them names?
D: No, not names, but sometimes I’ll say that parts “are” someone. On each of the Subtle albums the single pays tribute to a pop starlet. Our first single, “F.K.O.,” was, of course, “Fuck Kelly Osborne.” The song “Mercury Craze” started because I heard that ridiculous Gwen Stefani song where she’s spelling banana and I decided I wanted to spell blood instead.
BLVR: I was listening to Busdriver on the way up here. He’s another rapper who will throw some melodic stuff in there, some singing, where he’s hitting the notes but also doing some crazy stuff with the rhythm. A lot of the time his subject matter isn’t all that ambitious, but his style is pretty impressive.
D: I’ll tell you what: rapper heaven. I may not be much else in this world but I guarantee you I am getting into rapper heaven. Bus is getting in, straight up, and of course Myka Nyne, who is the father of our styles. In rap there’s a line in the sand: you can’t bite a motherfucker’s style, but we both owe a lot to the guys from Project Blowed. Myka Nyne changed everything. Whatever you want to call it: he is the Jimi Hendrix of rap; he is to rap as Eric Clapton is to white jazz. He doubled the capacity of our avenue. He styled, he sang, he wrote content. To me that was the complete MC. He is the mold.
Another one who mostly didn’t sing but did sing sometimes: Saafir—absolutely rapper heaven: throne. Tupac has to carry his bags into rapper heaven. Shit you not. Tupac had better pick up his bags. They were both backup dancers for Digital Underground, and then Tupac became the drama-school embodiment of all low-rent urban energy, the anti-creativity—“Death is cool”—prepackaged dead rapper. He started all that while Saafir changed rap. Saafir’s the dude who served the Hieroglyphics crew. You know about that?
D: That was the first lesson in the freestyle class I’m teaching.
BLVR: Where are you teaching freestyle classes?
D: It’s with Youth Movement Records, YMR, this nonprofit that takes kids and teaches them to record, how to use the equipment. By the time they’re twenty these kids are making music. Until I moved to Cincinnati I didn’t know anyone who even had beat machines and four tracks. Because of YMR these kids have access to all this stuff, which is astounding.
I went in to talk to them about doing music and being a rapper. They want to know about battle rapping. That’s the thing they’re most interested in. They think 8 Mile is real. I was like: “Y’all don’t know shit about battles.” So on the first day I told them about Saafir-Casual.
I’ve listened to many versions of the story from reliable sources and this is what I’ve heard. It was around ’93. Hieroglyphics is huge. Del is huge. Casual is part of Hiero, he’s on a major label. Saafir isn’t yet, but is bound to get signed. Apparently the beef started because on Casual’s first album, he has Saafir on there, who freestyles for a minute-thirty and kicks the dopest shit on the record—totally steals the sun. He wasn’t part of Hiero, and after that he doesn’t really interact with Casual. Casual doesn’t like it. There’s the usual “Who’s the better MC?” shit-talking energy between them. So they battle onstage and at the end of the battle Saafir pulls out Casual’s wallet. Apparently, he’d picked his pocket while serving him.
I try to teach these kids that there’s a difference between freestyling and battling. You want to have a line between them: when you are battling someone you should be able to serve them into the ground; when you’re freestyling try to keep it creative, steer it away from a fight. With freestyling it’s not about “Say something funny!” That has nothing to do with it. It’s about becoming quicker on your feet and knowing that your entire day can go into your rap if you’re on it.
BLVR: When I saw some videos of you battling at Scribble Jam’s freestyle competition I was surprised at how physical it is. Like there’s the one where you drop your pants and the other guy is flailing on the ground. Is that an unusual example?
D: That was P.E.A.C.E. from Freestyle Fellowship. P.E.A.C.E. was amazing. That was the thing that made me want to stop battling in those stupid competitions. P.E.A.C.E. is an idol of mine. I grew up listening to him and he changed the way I rapped. The first time I met him was up there onstage and all I could think was: Jesus, I memorized all your songs, so to get up there and just belligerently berate him was just not realistic. P.E.A.C.E. fucked that up; I couldn’t do that.
BLVR: You were supposed to be serving your hero. It’s like you meet Marilyn Hacker and you have to diss her.
D: “Nice fucking face.” I’d rather serve people who are just body count to me. That’s how it should be. If I’m battling you I don’t want to be friends. If you are wacker than me then you are wacker than me and I don’t want to be your boy. Right now Jel and I are working on a new Themselves record, which is our group that’s all about raw raps, and so teaching these kids has been part of a metaphoric year in my life.
II. THE SPEAKING TEST
BLVR: You’ve recorded a couple of spoken-word albums and kind of a book-on-tape version of a collection of your poetry called The Pelt. How is that stuff different than what you might sing on an album?
D: It’s more like they feed into each other. If you go back and listen to Circle, the album I recorded with Boom Bip—I had just fallen in love with beat poetry: self-expression using human language, telling stories because of how it feels—and can it be spoken? Yoni and I started writing poetry and then we started writing better lyrics. Part of it was that we invented a “speaking test.” Even if a line sounded good when you were rapping it or singing it, if it didn’t sound good saying it to someone, we cut it. Everyone in Anticon used that for a while.
BLVR: You sent me a copy of the Ought Almanac of Amassed Fact, which is a collection of poems sort of in the form of an encyclopedia. You said you’re going to be printing copies, but then there’s also three hours of recordings where you read it aloud.
D: I’m making artifacts from this other world. With For Hero: For Fool I made a hundred board games; for this record I’ve made a hundred almanacs.
BLVR: But is the way that most people will experience that is through this website, exploring the world that these songs occur in?
D: The almanac is sixty-five pages, and I worried that maybe no one wants to read a book. I decided I could either bitch about that and not do it; or I can be digital. The writing is inspired by some of my favorite poets, like Marilyn Hacker and Galway Kinnell and also a graphic novel that Dax gave me called The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison. So, there’s a bunch of kind of superhero bad guys in it, and I use different language depending on which character the section is about. If I’m writing about Reverend Pittman it’s more biblical and so I write in all of these absolute terms. If he just enters a room to move a glass on the coffee table, then he gets described all over again—“Reverend Pittman, the sweeper of all take and his obsequious make—” So, he gets reintroduced constantly. If it’s about Dr. Moonorgun I wrote it in very clinical terms, like some sort of consumer electronics manual and used extremely long sentences that have many ifs, ands, ors, and buts. The idea of Dr. Moonorgun came from thinking about cancer and the phrase Shooting the moon—how you go to the doctor even though you know that it’s the end. The doctor just makes it more of an ambiguous death end; terminally black when your health goes cyst-y.
BLVR: The doctors and the mailmen in your songs are always evil.
D: I was always into conspiracy theory. The first record I was on was an Illuminati record. I don’t have health insurance and so to me, they’re just bad people who keep me sick. Fuck ’em. I diss ’em on my records.
BLVR: From my understanding of the story, I always pictured Hour Hero Yes as a contemporary rapper with a black-and-white-striped face, and then on the album covers he always appears as, like, a Prussian general. Is there any logic to it?
D: He’s a hero. For album covers I do him up to look courageous. On the front cover of For Hero: For Fool he has clouds and a halo behind him; he’s a general. His arm is raw and in the wind and he’s not flinching. His face is striped, his hair is on fire, and his eyes are open and clear. But the album title is about the dichotomy of oneself. So on the backside he’s wearing prison garb and doesn’t have eyes. He has one wing and he ain’t going nowhere. He has Death and Fairness talking in either ear—fingering either ear, actually.
It’s also about that feeling onstage during a live show. That’s where the pun came from: it’s about my hour onstage. It’s about this one solace: for one hour you are totally fucking “on.” People in the crowd are saying, “I’ll be damned! Look at that, he’s full of God!” Sometimes when I’m onstage I can drop a glass of water and catch it without any water falling out and then get up and say something hysterical and rap on beat, turn around, spin or sashay—shit that I do not do in normal life, that I never thought possible. Only up there am I completely galvanized. Recording is a lengthy process, but onstage it’s completely different; tape is not running—life is running, and cannot be rewound.
The image of Hour Hero Yes came from a poem I never wrote, which reveals what the stripedness is about. A long time ago I got this idea that after a poet dies, if you dig them up after they’re fully decomposed, their skulls are striped because they kept things fair. It’s like a referee thing. It was totally trite rap-thinking, wondering for too long about why the dudes at Foot Locker are wearing those shirts. I superimposed that idea onto one of my favorite things in the world: the skull. Ever since I was a kid I would feel my cheekbones under my skin. You can feel it coming just before you touch down on it. Before I ever had all of those ideas in a row, I drew stripes on a face from a magazine with black ballpoint pen and Wite-Out that [Odd] Nosdam gave me. I did that and thought it was just great.
BLVR: I always assumed that the black-and-white striped face was sort of a commentary on race in rap.
D: Of course that’s also true, but I can’t stop on any broad topics, it’s always personal for me. Sometimes I’ll use a weighted term, but generally my big motifs, where I pull a line out and stop there, the meaning is definitely not “Go out and vote.” Although, of course, that is important. I will never diss a politician on one of my songs. It becomes the most dated thing imaginable. You may as well include yesterday’s Cubs game’s score; it’s just that transient.
BLVR: I guess I was also thinking about lines like “The fate of your life may very well be determined by how good you look in white,” and the album title A New White.
D: A New White was a phrase my dad made up. He was driving me to the airport as I was wrapping up a visit home. I was sitting in the car and we were talking about my mom and I was feeling really dark. At that time it was hard to do music and I was second-guessing myself all the time. He responded by telling me how he doesn’t want me to be the kind of artist whose art derives from negativity.
That’s absolutely what I was when I first started writing raw raps. I’ve always been aggressive and an underdog, and my dad was worried that I would always be that: constantly seeking inspiration from negativity. He doesn’t want me to make dark art. He said a lot of artists make art for five years, some artists make art for ten years, a few make art for fifteen: very few do it until they die. Those who do—except for those who commit suicide and obviously took Dark Door Number 3—find a way to turn it on its ear and make it a positive affair. My dad’s right. He’s been an artist for longer than I’ve been alive. So after this long conversation about dark arts and not remaining a dark artist, he said: “Adam, I don’t want you to stay that way. You gotta take all the shit, you gotta take all these grays and you’ve gotta meld them and push them together into a new white.” And I got on the plane and “a new white” was all I could think about the whole time, because I am worried and I always will be. My blood is hot and this earth is wack, this place is fucked up, and I don’t care what anyone tells me, I don’t care what any Reiki-wielding earth mother wants to tell me about this being some kind of birth place, I will slap the shit out of you. This place is heavy and people go down hard for being nothing except up in the wind.
BLVR: There’s a song on your most recent solo album, Skeleton Repellent, about mothers, and the liner notes mention a surrogate mother. I wanted to ask what the situation was with your mom.
D: So long story short, I fell out of love with my mother at about eleven years old and I knew it. I was not confused about the feeling. She had abused it and I wasn’t in love. Now, I know: “You ain’t supposed love your parents like that,” but that’s what love is. You know when the bath mat is really dirty and you have to wash it and then it’s this fluffy new bath mat again? I don’t think I have a quicker or cleaner metaphor for describing what love does to you.
I am deeply in love with my male counterparts, all these musicians who I’ve met through this music. I will never lose it, because I know what love is because I lost it at an early age. I love them deeply. I can’t have a successful female relationship to save my life, but I mate with these guys like a motherfucker for life. Somehow, because we don’t have to share a bed and intimacy, it can last. I don’t know what that’s all about with the human character.
BLVR: A lot of the stuff on ExitingARM is about hope in the face of cynicism. You and everyone else in Subtle have been through a lot in the last couple of years. What keeps you from thinking the worst and calling it quits?
D: I just think about all of the people who are a part of me because of this music and how we’ve changed and I know I don’t want to quit. That’s why I still want to do music and that’s why I’m going to cry if I have to stop. I really do believe—not in people, not in God, not in hell, not in the afterlife and things that don’t exist in this world—but I see what has happened in my life and people around me have been cracked the fuck open and they’re amazing and their tendons are stronger than I ever thought possible.
It’s the closest thing to superpowers, which, from the time your brain starts sparking until death, is the coolest thing to think about ever. You could be on your deathbed and think, I wish I could just grow a lung. Wouldn’t that be cool? At age eighty you could talk to somebody over a beer and still be just as enamored with the small thought of “if you had wings.” To me, that’s a beautiful thing and that’s what Hour Hero Yes is. He has a superpower and it’s just that he can churn out a mean, raw, uncut oblivion poem, and that’s my power. I don’t have anything else.
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