15 Weird Years of Anticon Records

15 Weird Years of Anticon Records
Image courtesy of Anticon

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

Anticon turns 15 this month but it has been imbued with a teenage spirit since its inception. The artists are frequently mercurial, rebellious, idealistic; emotional flash floods. Its catalog encompasses hieroglyphic experimental rap, angelic electro-pop, and post-TV on the Radio art-rock. The only constant is that its music is sure to inevitably leave parents perplexed.

Anticon coalesced in the Bay Area circa 1998, during one of the genre's periodic civil wars. Shortly after Biggie was buried, new battles raged between underground and mainstream. The nascent Internet united a diaspora of musicians and bootleg tape traders. Freestyle battle royals like Scribble Jam emerged to alternately nurture and annihilate the community. Anticon's roots emerged from this subterranean swamp: divisive, surreal, unapologetic in their pretensions.

When "keeping it real" was the operative cliche, Anticon co-founder Doseone rapped about strawberries getting lodged in ostriches' throats. They named albums after Jack Kerouac poems and whether you fucked with it or not, it was undeniably fearless. No idea was too warped. No song structure was immune to subversion. The experiments sometimes failed but, when they worked, they were brilliant in a way that combined '90s griots Freestyle Fellowship and Saafir with dorm-room seekers smoking salvia out of glass bongs.

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But abstraction can easily lead to alienation, especially when your crew comprises eight white B-boys mostly hailing from Maine and the Midwest. It hurts when your DJ is named Mayonnaise and you name your first label compilation Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop. Even though they had co-signs and collaborations with Slug of Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, the Anticon artists elicited venom from many backpackers who found them the late-'90s underground rap equivalent of Stuff White People Like.

I initially dismissed them, too. This was partly due to style and partly due to a feud between Anticon co-founder Sole and El-P of Definitive Jux. When the latter released a 1999 diss song so lacerating that it made Kendrick Lamar's "Control" look like the Care Bears theme song, it sustained my negative perception until the middle of the last decade.

Anticon 2.0 occupies the era between 2004 and 2008. The original octet started atomizing into bands that overlapped in members and ideas. Albums from cLOUDDEAD (Ten) and Subtle (For Hero: For Fool) didn't officially come out on Anticon, but they're overlooked masterpieces that refine the collective's original four-track and moleskin sketches. Along with Why's Alopecia, they remain rare instances where folk, rock and rap fused into something creatively significant.

 

The third iteration of Anticon covers the last five years. A former intern, Shaun Koplow, took the reins of the loose art collective, transforming it into a legitimate business and relocating the label's headquarters to L.A. Original members left due to ideological differences, while the label widened its scope to include outliers across all genres. It has released sleazy circus nightmare pop from Tobacco. Chicago's Serengeti has turned himself into the rap game's Andy Kaufman. Local beat-scene linchpins Daedelus and Baths continue the imprint's tradition of sonic futurism.

After a decade and a half, Anticon continues to splinter the status quo, channeling the ruptured genius of gifted kids figuring out what rules to break in the basement. They've grown up without the dull sobriety that usually accompanies maturation. Even though they may have gone pro, they've managed to stay weird.

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