Rick Ross was a corrections officer. But the plaques in his Miami mansion came from kilo raps and a few imaginary penitentiary bids. The XXL-thumbers and the all-nights-on-the-blog-sites cry hypocrite, but who can fault a guy for trying to build a persona that moves units, especially when it's as easy as lying about moving weight, the most famous past time in a genre built on individual bona fides?
On crownsdown, the first Themselves record in six years, undie hip-hop royalty Jeffrey "Jel" Logan and Adam "Doseone" Drucker have plenty to say about the state of modern rap, but authenticity tests like the one Ross rigged don't even rate on their list of complaints.
Instead, the album-pacing "You Ain't It" is a proud bit of litmus paper. Laced with Dax Pierson's buzzing autotune and a patina of glitchy gunshots, the track mirrors the dial while taking lazy lyricists (rap or otherwise) to task for their sluggishness. No surprise there, as its scattershot prose comes from a storied battle rapper (a self-proclaimed de-bragger) who recently started his own freestyle class. But over Jel's hydraultic jerk, Dose sounds as inspired as he has since the semi-eponymous 2000 debut that cemented Anticon as America's finest undie outpost, and Drucker as its most serious emcee. Here he re-proves, once again, that he's more than willing to hang for his words, rap's most foundational bona fides.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: In an interview before the record came out, you said there'd be a "What have you people done to rap" song on the album? This one sounds like it could be it.
DOSEONE: That one is more "Gold Teeth Will Roll," the one I'm citing in that interview. With "You Ain't It," I tried to globalize the concept of calling out an emcee. You know, you have to stand for your words. In theory, all the best do. And so instead of just keeping that to talking about invisible eminent whack emcees, I stretched it to include people like Bright Eyes and everyone else. So, the actual prose is about anyone, anyone who doesn't swing the big stick they drag around. So it's about weakness, where its opposite is broadcast and boasted. Yeah, that one is more the "Whack Emcees" track taken to the staircase of a 30-something man, who has performed with everyone from old school rappers to new school rockers.
Within the first few seconds, there's gunshots and autotune. Did you use those sort of modern hip-hop tools for their sonic merits or for what you could say with them?
A bit of both. It's definitely not all tongue-in-cheek. There's no real humor on this record. That stunt, to freak that shit, to do what they do, but do it our way—there's a lot of that on the record. Doing homage, freaking something that we hear so often non-freaked.
How about the non hip-hop side of the production? The glitchier elements mirror your vocals and really underscore the intensity.
The glitchiness on "You Ain't It", in particular, that was just what was sounding good. We don't over hypothesize too much. We kind of had some rules of thumb with this record, somewhere between texture and color, but we kind of tried to have everything express our affinity for the rap palette that kind of inspired us to make music originally. There was something about freaking the gunshots on that one, and then rapidity. I knew I wanted to have that. I guess we kind of had a clear picture of it right away, like, "we want vocals and gunshots and relentless good writing, and then pace." The auntotune thing was—ah, you know—I just hear so much of it. When we made the song, it was even less of a moot point. So we had to put Dax, who sings beautifully, through autotune, for the redundancy of having him sing tough guy lyrics through pretty autotuning.
Lyrically, there's the line in the opening verse about not calling someone a poet, and instead calling them a farmer. Can you explain the distinction you're drawing there?
I was trying to think of something an actual poet would be really insulted by, if you called him that after he'd just read his favorite poem. Like, if he was standing there saying, "This is my opus. This is my piece that expresses me the most," and then you were like, "What, are you a farmer?" That's very far removed from the cultivation of something coming across clearly in someone else's head after they read a poem. It's the exact opposite of growing a fucking peach.
It also is one of those things that just felt right from a rap place, but wasn't really a rap thing to say. "You Ain't It" is the capitol of that, trying to create these clauses that are how I feel about rap but not in some tongue or code that I pretend to speak on my records. So, like that one line, "I do rap words to you"—[It's about me doing] takes on classic rap truisms that I still regard as the gospel.
What are some of those, specifically?
Sticking to your truths and your guns, that "keeping it real" mentality. Rap phrasings have changed every three years, but the sentiment has always been the same. Like, who is the guy that 50 Cent found out he was a prison guard and not a prisoner?
Yeah, that shit's great. It's all about that. "You Ain't It" has the same tinge, but it's on the writer's take. You get hung by your words once you're dead and gone.
And you can't really escape that, no matter what genre. From mainstream hip-hop to underground stuff, there's always that authenticity test.
Right, doing this is taking that in stride. When I write, the big thing that I've always known is that I am not a bragger. I just un-brag everyone else. So I de-brag the competition on my own terms, speaking from my space, and my honesty that I know is in place at all times. So, in that regard, "You Ain't It" is questioning the grounds on which the hip-hop authenticity test is based—and extending that out to indie rock and techno and what else there is out there. Party rap? There're so many bands that do it right, and then there's a swollen handful of people who do it completely wrong and take all the money. There's the same parallel with the McDonalds's and the so on's and the so forth's of the world. But it's permanent in music.
That song is about execution, technically brushing the salt off your shoulders. Taking the arrogance, and wayward strength of macho frontmen, always breaking up frontmen, the guys who are always writing the break-up record every year...
The emo guys you reference in one of the verses?
Yeah, the emo weenie and the absentee tough guy, and taking all that energy and directing it into doing a completely technically difficult song and executing it to the best of our ability, but making it kind of bump. The other thing about that song was to, like a lot of the Subtle work, put a little pop in our punch and actually have the song reflect its contemporaries. While this song will never be played alongside some modern day hit, in the heads of those who care and hear it, you'll be like, "This is a strong version of the weak version we always hear."
Themselves open for Eyedea & Abilities tonight, Tuesday, Nov. 24, at Local 506. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are $10-$12, and Dow Jones opens.