Back to show how it's done

The future, when it comes to New York’s reunited convention-smashing hip-hop exponents Anti-Pop Consortium, is very much now. Returning with comeback album ‘Fluorescent Black’ after a hiatus dating back seven years, the time has come for them to show hip-hop how it’s done once more…

Around the turn of the Millennium, hip-hop as we knew it was being blown a new one via attacks on two left-leaning fronts. It was, many opined at the time and many more have prattled since, a simple reaction to the materialism of mainstream hip-hop, accused of losing sight of the art-form among clouds of cash as hip-hop began its ascent to the international bestseller of choice. The pop charts remained largely unscathed by the underground revolution, of course, but then commercial success wasn’t entirely the point. Still, true to hip-hop’s American seaboard-hugging traditions, both the east and west coasts were involved.

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Anti-Pop Consortium - 'Apparently'

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Leading the latter’s charge were the likes of amorphous collective Anticon. Take a trip east and New York City was repped by, among others, Anti-Pop Consortium. With arrhythmic aplomb, their hyper-reality mic styles a la Ultramagnetic MCs’ loose cannon Kool Keith rolled over bleep-hop beats often closer to all-out experimental electronica than regular boom-bap. After banging out two albums proper (2000’s ‘Tragic Epilogue’ and 2002’s ‘Arrhythmia’) plus a handful of 12”s, EPs and the like with quickness, as with so many groundbreaking acts, their star burned bright before imploding. Love from major players including Radiohead and DJ Shadow couldn’t stop the group’s split in 2002. It was, to quote their statement at the time, “an amicable dissolution”.

Now, seven years on, APC’s three emcees - Beans, High Priest and M Sayyid - sit in front of us in the homely South London headquarters of new label Big Dada, mere minutes before dashing to a last-minute DJ slot to coincide with European promo work. Your humble Clash scribe is sweating through a rare scorching British summer day; the trio are cool as ice. Beans, the most vocal of the bunch, dapper in smart-casual brimmed hat, a quiet and considered Priest sat to his left, next to the towering Sayyid, whose hard exterior softens once he gets talking (fourth member, producer Earl Blaize, is held up in the States by non-specific ‘weather problems’).

Like a divorced couple seeking reconciliation, APC have put differences to one side and resolved to give it one more go. The refreshed love has birthed a beautiful baby, too: ‘Fluorescent Black’, their Big Dada debut, picks up exactly where ‘Arrhythmia’ left off, chock with cerebral tongue-twister lyricism, elliptical subject matter, intelligent forward-gazing production and occasional free jazz approach to song structures that have become the group’s hallmarks. Despite later refusing to confirm their respective ages for fear of taking any sliver of attention from said music, time has treated them well; each member has barely weathered a day. The only downer, in fact, is collective jetlag.

“We haven’t changed that much,” Beans considers. “We just deal with things differently now. It wasn’t like we totally weren’t speaking in the separation. We still knew what the other was doing. We were in touch with one another.”

“We were in regular contact,” Priest confirms.

“We was on the phone,” Beans continues. “Finding out what was going on, how the families was, y’know, what was happening. And we came to each other’s shows.

“I had a birthday. They came through and were like, ‘Yo, you know what, let’s have a meeting’. I was like, ‘Word. Really?’ Maybe a month later we all met at Earl’s house. It’s way more cohesive [this time around]. It feels better to be honest with you.”

“A lot better,” Priest qualifies.

Onstage, at times the superficial conflicts between Beans, Priest and Sayyid have been plain for all to see: respectively an almost geekish glasses-clad hipster-with-dress sense, an old skool Run-DMC type, and a tall dude in modern day hip-hop colours of baseball cap and sports jersey. Whatever the past disagreements, however, it’s clear friendships between the three run way deeper than mere music. They’re even comfortable enough to joke, in Beans’ words, that previous friction was because ‘they hate me’, before shooting a sideward grin at his cohorts to all-round guffaws.

Did it ever come to blows, we enquire, tentatively?

“No,” Beans asserts. “No.”

“Well, almost,” Priest counters, with a hint of troublemaking intent.

“Nah, that’s bullshit,” Beans retorts.

We choose to ignore that Beans is conspicuously seated on a chair slightly separate to his two colleagues, who are perched on a nearby sofa. Whichever way you dress it up, adding the lightning wordplay throughout ‘Fluorescent Black’ as circumstantial evidence, in APC’s world you settle quarrels with mouths, not fists.

If APC version 1.0 were significantly ahead of their time (perhaps even detrimentally so), then the re-formed Consortium could be considered very much of their time. Much has changed in the spell they’ve been away - not least, of course, a black president in the White House - and Beans, for one, thinks the world might just be better prepped for Anti-Pop in the year 2009.

“People are more apt to being committed to certain sounds that we present,” he muses, “because electronic elements have been more readily introduced into the current mainstream, like dubstep. People are more acclimated in terms of the sounds, so right now it feels like ‘Fluorescent Black’ is a more contemporary step.”

Regardless of that name-check, don’t expect the album to rock any dubstep directions, though, even if more artists than we could list right here have already jumped the sinking ship of UK hip-hop for such sonic climes.

“We’re from New York,” states Priest, unequivocally. “We get our influences there. We do have global influences, but we don’t really run with anything as far as dubstep particular. We like it but…”

One Brit comrade welcomed on ‘Fluorescent Black’ is amiably insane rhyme king Roots Manuva, a colossus-sized guest adding unmistakable tones to ‘NY To Tokyo’ (the notional trip navigated via South London).

“We’ve known him for a long time,” Priest expands. “We first met him at a festival…”

“When this album was dropping,” Beans interjects, jabbing a finger toward a poster of ‘Run Come Save Me’ conveniently pasted on the adjacent wall.

“The thing I appreciate is that he was, for us looking externally, one of the first people that had an identifiable UK sound to hip-hop,” Priest continues. “Post-Tricky, post-trip-hop, the tangential relationships via Massive Attack and all of that, it was good to see that evolution.”

There’s no denying that ‘Fluorescent Black’ - its title plucked from of a Beans lyric on album track/preceding single ‘Apparently’ (key line: “Outside the machine / Apparently”) - is rife with ammunition for the contemporary b-boy and backpacker rap fan alike. From guitar-heavy squalls that greet opener ‘Lay Me Down’, through the weirdly compelling harmonies and acid-laced lines of ‘Volcano’, right to the closing title track, there are layers of depth fervent listeners will still conceivably continue to unravel for many years to come. With seventeen tracks and a distinct lack of skits, barely a second is wasted.

“We take our time definitely,” Beans explains of their writing and recording methods. “There’s no rush. Everything is crafted, everything is well thought out. It may not sound like it, but it is.”

Another outward impression suggested by wordy space-aged rhyming and, in the case of ‘Fluorescent Black’, asteroid-adorned cover artwork, is that science fiction plays an influential part in the APC template. Not so, though, definitely in the latter case.

“I like sci-fi,” Beans offers. “I read Phil K. Dick and comics. But I wouldn’t say it was an influence. It’s not an influence on the cover.”

Perhaps more so than any other genre, nostalgia has long dominated hip-hop, from multi-platinum stars like Nas sporadically throwing out self-important state of hip-hop addresses to back-in-the-day fans bemoaning how the current crop can’t rival the 1980s ‘golden age’. Slicing against the grain as ever, from where APC are standing all the conjecture is a touch unnecessary.

“I guess I could say hip-hop’s pretty much at the same place it’s always been,” Priest ponders. “Now that there’s more acts participating it’s a wider scope, but when people romanticise the ’80s they forget we had joints like [puerile Biz Markie comedy ‘classic’] ‘Pickin’ Boogers’. There was a fanciful side of hip-hop always.”

Anybody doubting APC’s straight-up hip-hop credentials, meanwhile, need only look to the Public Enemy tour dates that they opened up on shortly after reforming, when Chuck D and co recited ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ in its entirety on the road. It was something of a dream come true for Beans, Priest and Sayyid.

“They’re the Led Zeppelin of rap, you know what I mean?” Beans exclaims excitedly.
“For sure,” Priest concurs. “They’ve got maybe twenty songs back to back you’ve known all your life.”

“Those songs raised me man,” Beans continues. “[Flavor] Flav was cool, personable, but I didn’t know what to say to Chuck D. I was kind of star-struck.”

With marks on APC’s card of that gravity - and a future collaboration apparently not out of the question - it’s no doubt a touch frustrating for them when narrow-minded hip-hop theorists pitch the genre as a simple good-versus-evil scrap. What’s their reaction when observers suggest groups like APC are ‘the cure’ to mainstream hip-hop?

“The Cure like Robert Smith?” Beans blurts out, attempting to deflect the question momentarily.

Once his laughter subsides, Priest is more philosophical.

“One thing I’ve noticed and find interesting is a lot of the people who take those stances and make those type of statements have, at different points, pulled away from hip-hop, found us, and then said, ‘Hey man, I haven’t been involved in hip-hop for x amount of years’. It’s odd to me, a funny point of reference. Other than that, we can’t control it after it leaves the machine.”

With rough ideas already formulating for the follow-up to ‘Fluorescent Black’, the second in a two-album deal with Big Dada, and an LP of unreleased material available on prior tour dates, prolific is very much the watchword in APC’s world. Another album with acclaimed New York jazzist Matthew Shipp is imminent, after an original link-up full-length was released in 2003 post-APC’s disbandment. The freshly reinvigorated group dynamic doesn’t seem likely to significantly slow solo work and other sidelines either. Beans has a solo set in the works. He and Priest are lining up a new project under the charming mantle Animal Cruelty. Priest and Sayyid are breathing fresh life into long-time collaboration Airborn Audio, previously aligned with Big Dada’s parent label, Ninja Tune. Between times, we assume, basic bodily functions will be squeezed into the schedule. At the bottom of it all, a genuine mutual appreciation for each other’s work seems the real key to Anti-Pop Consortium’s triumphant renaissance.

“Can I be honest with you?” Beans asks humbly. “It’s really intimidating, because these guys are dope emcees. It’s kind of hard to match them, man.”

“Stop!” Sayyid tuts with good-humoured incredulity.

Beans laughs.

“It really is an honour to run with these guys.”


Words by Adam Anonymous

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