It’s not that clipping. don’t want to be speaking to me. It’s just that they’d rather be doing it in person than via Skype, the three members of the rap group presumably huddled around producer Jonathan Snipes’ laptop, somewhere in their hometown of Los Angeles. At the time of our conversation, they should be a good few thousand miles east of their location – in London, playing ATP’s Jabberwocky festival, an event that was cancelled just days before it was to begin.
“We should be there,” says Snipes with a sigh. “We had two other shows booked too, one in Paris, one in Brussels. So not doing Jabberwocky means we couldn’t do those, as ATP was paying for our plane tickets. We couldn’t afford to do it ourselves, clearly. We were just about to leave when we found out Jabberwocky was cancelled. We had no real notice, at all. We’re probably done with ATP now.”
Unfortunately theirs is an account echoed by others – days after speaking with clipping. I meet up with The Bug, and he says much the same thing, adding that Jabberwocky’s cancellation seriously affected his own promotional trajectory for new album, ‘Angels & Devils’. But more on him in another feature – right now, clipping. and their phenomenal new album ‘CLPPNG’ are in session, and when they’re hitting their stride there’s not a modern hip-hop act that can touch them for visceral aesthetic impact and inspired, confrontational production.
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We got cornered by two guys (who) were like, ‘What happened, man? How come this album isn’t like the last one? You’ve gone soft.’ Yeah, yeah, alright…
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‘CLPPNG’ (review) is one of the more unlikely releases to have come out of the acclaimed Sub Pop stable in 2014. Razor-sharp and unrelentingly aggressive, it’s a rap collection that attracts comparisons to some predecessors – fellow Californians Death Grips maybe, perhaps the equally defunct New Jersey crew dälek – but doesn’t trade in simple-term, tried-and-tested formulas. It’s a record that, much like its preceding ‘Midcity’ mixtape of 2013, expresses itself with a singular abstraction, defined as much by what it doesn’t do – i.e. conform to many, if any, rap expectations – as what it delivers: uncompromised energy and production to make The Bomb Squad blush.
“We’re surprised by the great response to the record,” says MC Daveed Diggs. “I think we were so taken aback by what happened with ‘Midcity’, as so many people like that, that all expectations were off for this album. We really had no idea how it’d be received.”
“We actually had conversations, as we were finishing up the record, along the lines of: is this harsh enough?” says Snipes. “Are people not going to like this, because it feels a little poppier? I think we were worried about that for a second.”
Turns out that, despite the album’s evident shortage of compromise, some fans of the group weren’t moved as much as they were by ‘Midcity’. “We were just playing in Poland, at OFF Festival, at the beginning of August,” says co-producer William Hutson. “We got cornered by two guys backstage, who weren’t journalists or anything, I don’t think. They were like, ‘What happened, man? How come this one isn’t like the last one? You’ve gone soft.’ Yeah, yeah, alright.”
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‘Body & Blood’
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Soft isn’t really a word that sticks – at least, not unless it’s physically impaled on the drills of ‘Body & Blood’, one of the record’s more immediate cuts, relatively speaking. The video for said track had the Not Safe For Work warning affixed to it immediately – and it’s pretty easy to see why (uncensored version above).
“That video, that’s someone else’s perception of our aesthetic,” says Hutson – ‘Body & Blood’ is directed by Patrick Kennelly, who’s collaborated with clipping., on and off, for a few years. “The videos are made by directors who either approach us, or who we approach because we really trust them,” confirms Diggs. “We allow them to do whatever it is they want. We suggest what we don’t want, but none of us make videos. As involved as we are with every other aspect, when it comes to videos, we want other people to put their mark on them. We want them to do what they do best.”
As for the NSFW thing, it’s quite closely tied to how clipping. want their material to be seen, albeit not just on video channels. While the ‘Body & Blood’ video is an interpretation of their art as envisioned by someone outside of their circle, within it they were very keen to get the message across that ‘CLPPNG’ isn’t exactly something you might play to your mum when she comes to visit.
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I don’t actually think that you can shock anyone with sound, anymore…
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“We actually had to work a little bit to get the Parental Advisory sticker on our record,” says Diggs. “It’s not mandatory, right? And on a label that doesn’t put out many rap albums, it was never a given to have it. But for us, when we saw the first draft of the artwork for ‘CLPPNG’, which we thought was great, we wanted that little sticker on there. It somehow didn’t look like a rap record, to us, without that sticker on there.”
“I don’t actually think, though, that you can shock anyone with sound, anymore,” says Snipes. Hutson adds: “I wouldn’t know how to do that. Maybe when I was 18, I’d have thought that a certain sound might freak people out. But now, I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case.”
True enough, it’s not like clipping. don’t want people to enjoy their music – it might be challenging, but it contains its share of rewards, not least of all occasional nods to rap’s past, hidden within distinctly contemporary beat-building. There’s definitely a Biggie nod in ‘Taking Off’ – “Tired of living like this but not ready to die / Because he isn’t notorious yet” – and ‘Dream’ features lyrical references to the late New Yorker’s ‘Juicy’.
“I think, by virtue of our age, we’re in an interesting place,” says Diggs. “We’re old enough to have been conscious when this celebrated older stuff was coming out, the rap classics if you like. But we’re also young enough to be listening to what’s coming out now, and appreciate how it’s doing things differently. I don’t think we necessarily have an impulse to rebel against these things, like we might against our parents’ music, but we don’t have to be beholden to it either. And that’s because of our age, and the age that hip-hop is at.”
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With hip-hop still such a young musical movement, it finds itself in a position that rock or folk never has – where the masters are still making music while the students aim to overtake their achievements. It’s an exciting time, and clipping. are part of Sub Pop’s increasingly beguiling rap roster, beside Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. Their landing on the label was a remarkably quick process.
“We put out ‘Midcity’ in February 2013, on the first Tuesday of the month,” remembers Snipes. “And I think we had a contract signed with Sub Pop as soon as May. It was pretty quick. There was a guy who worked in their IT department who heard ‘Midcity’, and passed it on to their A&R department, who started to send us emails. And here we are.”
“We had approached labels before we put out ‘Midcity’, at a time when we had maybe five finished songs,” says Hutson. “We sent them to any little label we knew, who we’d worked with before in other bands. Anyone in promotions, or music. We certainly never sent a demo to Sub Pop – that never would have occurred to us.”
“But doing a mixtape proves that you’re capable of making a record,” continues Snipes. “Weirdly, the biggest problem that I think some creative people have is that most don’t actually make anything. Like, someone can be great – but where are the songs? So many people that you get interested in, they’re still riding off the back of two songs they put out two years ago. Where are their new songs? So putting out a whole, fully formed record like ‘Midcity’, it definitely helped Sub Pop to think that we weren’t total f*ck-ups.”
The band’s working practices support the ‘not total f*ck-ups’ impression, too. clipping. don’t go into the studio and simply play around with beats until something comes into focus – everything they put down has been comprehensively discussed and debated before a note is recorded.
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We’re constantly trying to be precise with everything we do, perhaps to the extent where we go overboard with it sometimes. But everything has to be tight…
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“The process is mostly a discussion about what the song is going to sound like, before we actually sit down and make a beat,” says Snipes. “Most of our working sessions are three hours of talking, and arguing, and looking on YouTube, and listening to records – and then deciding what parts of a song of our own are going to sound like. And that’s that, before we’ve even recorded it. We just sit down and make that. After that, I don’t think we ever do any ‘big picture’ revisiting – what we do in those first couple of hours, that stays as it is.”
Which doesn’t mean tracks aren’t refined later down the line – just that radical reinventions are at a premium. “It can get to three months later, and one of us will say, ‘We have to change this snare sound,’ in just this one song,” adds Hutson. Diggs admits to having had to change just one word, in one line, in the past, some time after the event of actually recording it. It’s a perfectionist attitude that contradicts the usual connotations of an outfit sometimes described as a noise act.
“There’s an assumption, when a genre is termed as ‘noise’, that it’ll be a really sloppy sound,” says Hutson. “Like, the artists don’t care, and it’s all one take. But we’re absolutely not that. We’re constantly trying to be precise with everything we do, perhaps to the extent where we go overboard with it sometimes. But everything has to be tight.”
With a quick turnaround between ‘Midcity’ – February 2013 – and ‘CLPPNG’, which came out in June 2014, it might be expected that another, third long-player will be upon us before long. But clipping. are intending to approach their next studio set in a rather different manner.
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“I hesitate to talk about new material,” says Snipes, “but one thing I will say is that something is changing for us is that we’re now ready to make an album. Both ‘Midcity’ and ‘CLPPNG’ feel like collections of pop songs to us, in a way. They’re all short and self-contained songs, with just a few exceptions. Now we’re talking about approaching the longer format with clearer focus. We don’t mean a ‘concept’ album, with one story all the way through – but we are talking about what sort of a record we want to make, as a whole. Like, every song might start with a certain set of adjectives in mind. Before, we’ve been making songs without an overall aesthetic beyond that of the band itself, we weren’t trying to compartmentalise a sound for an entire album.”
Whatever does come next, it’s sure to sound nothing like what’s around it, other hip-hop releases that are offering an alternative to what’s in the mainstream. Not that clipping. explicitly intend to be that ‘other’ option – this is music that feels entirely natural to them, without the perspective of what’s going on elsewhere.
“I don’t think we have any immediate peers,” says Diggs. “There are people who we like to work with, who have similar attitudes. We certainly admire other acts who I am sure don’t know who we are.”
“We have friends, and other artists whose work we like, and we play shows with them,” adds Hutson. “But their music isn’t necessarily of a kind that we’d immediately associate ourselves with. They don’t sound anything like us. I don’t think we know anyone else doing what we do.”
And long may it stay that way.
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Words: Mike Diver