May 4, 2017

clouddead

Ben Grenrock wrote this while having acid flashbacks.

It’s been sixteen years since avant-garde rap trio cLOUDDEAD released their debut album, but that self-titled offering from 2001 holds up impeccably. It’s aged less like a fine wine that improves with passing years, and more like a mid-century cubist painting, offering glimpses into a bygone era while maintaining the inscrutability and strange beauty that made it interesting in the first place.

For the most part, cLOUDDEAD wouldn’t sound out of place had it been released today; it would join the vast ranks of rap albums that bear the Bandcamp-tag “lofi,” and be bumped by many of the hundreds of thousands of YouTubers who treat the static-frosted beat tapes posted by STEEZYASFUCK like some kind of sample-based bible. But in the early ’00’s, no such venues for exposing niche hip-hop to a large audience existed. Back then rap’s underground remained underground.

Despite its half-absent audience, cLOUDDEAD received glowing (if mildly perplexed) praise from anyone who managed to hear it and bothered to review it. Critics were both intrigued and flummoxed by the way in which rappers Yoni Wolf and Doseone along with producer Odd Nosdam had cobbled together six 10’’ singles—recorded with little more than a bottom-shelf microphone, a Dr. Sample, an eight track, and the seven-speed emulsion blender that can be heard on the second track being manipulated into doing its best impression of a guitar solo—to create an LP unlike anything they had ever heard before.

To this day, it continues to appear on many a “Best Experimental Rap Albums” or “Best of the ’00’s” list, proving that critics’ love affair with the record was no passing fling. However, outside the realms of hip-hop criticism, there is less of a consensus as to whether the album is even worth listening to, let alone “utterly essential,” as an NME reviewer once claimed.

cLOUDDEAD’s cLOUDDEAD is a polarizing album. For some, it holds an unshakable spot in the canon of hip-hop’s margins. Others I’ve played it for, upon hearing Doseone’s nasally enfilades of bars, looked at me as if I’d just told them Fred Durst was my favorite rapper. But if there’s one thing about cLOUDDEAD that both its detractors and admirers can agree on, it’s that it is weird; lyrically, sonically, thematically, is very, very weird. And so, after all these years of the album being called “abstract,” “strange,” and “defying any description,” I’d like to take a stab at describing it: cLOUDDEAD is not simply bizarre, but the most holistically psychedelic rap album ever created.

From “coming up” on the first waves of opening track “Apt. A (1)”’s apprehensive chords, until “coming down” on closer “Bike (2)”’s post-coital folky sample, the listener bears witness to as many psychedelic tropes as are on display in your average Jodorowsky film (i.e. lots of them). The record is not just trippy, but a trip in itself. Its seventy-three minutes provide an odyssey in which environments mutate into intangibilities, egos dissolve, death is scrutinized, and the personal struggles cLOUDDEAD’s members dealt with in the late ’90s are faced and surmounted. Listeners and musicians alike are launched into the paisley clouds by the sonic psychotropic the group has synthesized, eventually floating back to earth murmuring, “What the fuck?” in confusion, awe, or both.

Much of the psychedelia I’m projecting onto cLOUDDEAD is a function of its lyrical content. However, in terms of making the listener actually feel like they’re tripping, it’s Odd Nosdam’s haunting soundscapes that do most of the heavy lifting. Like some sort of Dudamelian shaman, Nosdam conducts each track through vastly different movements, each eliciting their own state of consciousness. From melancholic to loony, meditative to scrunch face inducing, they utilize the eerie melodies and lumbering drums that are Nosdam’s trademarks in diverse ways. Several of these shifts occur within a single song, only a brief moment of silence or a ponderous drone to cover the transition. Still, the changes never feel abrupt. Nosdam manages to deploy his varied beats in such a way that they build momentum and tension, offering release at exactly the right moment. On this trip it’s not the walls, but the tracks that seem to be breathing.

Nosdam’s skill as a conductor may be a pleasant surprise, but his mastery of the art of sampling is exactly what anyone who’s heard his beats before would expect. The careful placement of these samples manages to superimpose pleasure and discomfort in a way that might have only seemed possible via shrooms or S&M before cLOUDDEAD existed. An 8-bit sample chopped from a The Goonies video game circa 1987 manages to contrast in the best, bizarre way with Wolf’s accompanying lyrics about coping with a friend’s suicide.

Vocal snippets of the free-associative performance of beat generation LSD enthusiast Lord Buckley (which is exceedingly strange all on its own) are brought in and out over pugilistic cellos creating a creepy, gritty, humorous, clot of dopeness. And the transitional pastiche of samples on Bike “(2)”, though lasting a mere twenty seconds, never fails to make me feel exactly as if I’m standing on a war-torn rooftop in Chechnya surrounded by a troupe of un-funny clowns.

It is into this hallucinogenic miasma of sound that Wolf and Doseone spit their respective bars. While Nosdam’s production is unique in the extreme, the hip-hop conventions peeking through the beats are nearly absent in the album’s rapping. Yoni and Dose eschew most lyrical and rhythmic traditions the typical head would identify as “rap.” They spew out vivid images and seemingly random blips of thought at a blistering clip, repurposing mundane objects or occurrences to offer glimpses into their respective psyches. The pair frequently overlap their verses or trade lines in fragmented bursts, which seems to downplay the meaning of the individual words in favor of creating a nebulous but undeniable mood. This can produce a synesthetic effect that will be familiar to anyone who has ingested a psychedelic drug. Like the thoughts one has while on LSD, the lyrics possess a tip-of-the-tongue understanding, felt but difficult to pin down before the next one hits.

From the “trim brushes / paint buckets / second story roof top tag,” to the “sylvan lot / it’s painted rail / a horde of cricket carcasses” and finally the “red / pipe,” Wolf and Dose take us on a tour of the shared apartment we find them in process of vacating on “Apt A. (2).” As their inventive deliveries weave the scene together, these images develop significance as nostalgia is sewn into each of them. The WHY? frontman directly takes note of these sorts of transformations towards the end of track as he intones, “Same old hat / big difference.” This process occurs more explicitly on Jimmy Breeze (2) in which he distills the absence he feels in the wake of the aforementioned suicide of a friend into this pair of momento mori: “The ram’s cumpled horn / An empty turtle shell.”

The themes of cLOUDDEAD tend keep to the dark and morbid, reaching their nadir on “And All You Can Do Is Laugh (1).” The song is a black comedy about death, in which existence is an “exit bound conga line / A busy junkyard,” and even the jollity of painter Bob Ross’s “Happily little trees” are quickly juxtaposed with the reminder that Mr. Ross “is underground,”—as in deceased. But by the end of the record, brevity returns in “Bike (2)”’s goofy opening, an interplay of “Dah dah dah”’s and “Nah nah nah”’s that are as rhythmically interesting as they are hilarious.

Having faced mortality and survived, the rappers now see the world with a zen-like detachment. “The streets,” may, “smell like beer and exhaust this Christmas” and on the T.V. there are, “flies in eyes, the corners of, and Sallie Struthers,” but each of these bleak images are followed by the words, “Don’t be depressed.” The final track’s refrain, “Are you scared the album will end before the doorbell rings / and you’ll be left to meet your guests with a tied tongue, cold lunch, and spent wick candle?” seems to highlight the pair’s newfound ability to see the world for what it is and face it head on, while the uninitiated—those that haven’t been turned on—are at a loss for dealing with the external without the buffer of escapism.

Being able to walk away with these kinds of insights makes it impossible to label cLOUDDEAD a bad trip. It’s just an intense one. Exhausted, the musicians and listeners “come down” from their psychedelic experience to a languid guitar riff and soothing drums. Over this final composition of Odd Nosdam’s, the two rappers chant these lines together:

Mother nature made the aeroplane / and the submarine sandwich 
with the sturdy hands and dead eye / of a remarkable sculptor. 
She shed her / mountain turning training wheels 
for the convenience of / the moving sidewalk
that delivers / the magnetic monkey children 
through the mouth of / impossible calendar clocks 
into the devil’s manhole cauldron.

Only to then marvel in childlike wonder over and over: “The physics of a bicycle / Isn’t it remarkable?”

I don’t know and don’t care if Yoni, Dose, or Odd Nosdam have ever experimented with LSD or if they were under the influence of it at any time during the writing or recording of cLOUDDEAD. Either way, they managed to create something in 2001 that is still undeniably unique to this day. Whether you revere it as a milestone in avant-garde hip-hop or dismiss is as the esoteric dorkery of three white kids making rap music in a Cincinnati basement apartment, cLOUDDEAD undeniably took something invaluable away from the psychedelic journey they embarked on and pressed it on vinyl. Have you?