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Cracking the Code of Clipping.’s Dense, Dystopian Hip-Hop

Clipping.
Clipping.
Photo courtesy of Sub Pop Records.

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Follow him on twitter and also check out his archives.]

No one could decipher Clipping. While recording last year’s Midcity, the noise-rap trio emailed feelers to friends and labels. The response was as meek as the music was loud.

“Everyone wrote me back and said, ‘I don’t know who this is for,’?” Jonathan Snipes reflects amidst the clutter of his Mid-City living room, overlooking the rush-hour clank of the westbound 10 freeway.

Board games, vinyl records and cassettes are everywhere. An empty snake tank lurks in a corner. “Indie-rock guys, breakcore, techno or noise labels — none of them got it or liked it.”

The druid-bearded producer and sometime sound designer huddles around a coffee table next to his partners. Daveed Diggs is Clipping.’s rapper. William Hutson is the other pin in the production nail-bomb squad behind last month’s CLPPNG, their debut on respected indie rock–leaning imprint Sub Pop.

“The only people who got it were a few rapper friends,” says Diggs, wearing a cutoff tee and a rich shrub of hair that puts to shame Huey from The Boondocks.

Prior to Clipping., Diggs was a Berkeley High sprint champion, Brown theater department standout and Bay Area stage actor who starred in The Tempest. He also rapped in the regionally recognized GetBack crew.

“Unfortunately, none of my rapper friends had any label contacts,” Diggs says.

The group eventually dropped the abstruse Midcity onto the Internet last February. Aspiring to elicit more than a shrug, they acquired a cult.

“I’d gotten used to making music, heaving it onto the Internet, and never hearing about it again,” says Snipes, who spent the last decade in the noise and dance underground. “Within hours of putting up Midcity on Bandcamp, managers were calling.”

An effusive review in Britain’s The Guardian frequently resorted to “OMGs” in lieu of actual words.

Sub Pop offered a deal soon after. But not before a label A&R executive got elbowed in the sternum in a mosh pit during a show at downtown L.A.’s the Smell.

Clipping.'s latest release, CLPPNGEXPAND
Clipping.'s latest release, CLPPNG
Photo by Christopher Cichocki

These are the rudimentary notes I typed while listening to CLPPNG: Demons thrashing, Gozer worship, twerk requests, Murder Dog magazine shoutouts, more yells of “bitch” than Jesse Pinkman, percussion that sounds like someone drunkenly pounding on a locked garage door at 4 a.m. Machines vomiting. Rap as scenes from a long-lost Fritz Lang dystopia.

Clipping. is a cryptogram in search of a cheat code. Third-person narratives zigzag with a Zodiac Killer’s malevolence. Sheets of white noise hiss add a torrid Greek chorus.

But it’s not necessarily obscurantist rap. Electrifying cameos also come from rising ratchet queen Cocc Pistol Cree, West Coast legend King Tee and the former first lady of Three 6 Mafia, Gangsta Boo.

Somehow, they all reflect elements of Clipping.’s DNA.

“As strange as it is, it’s the least pretentious way to make rap music, considering our upbringing, tastes and lifestyle.” Snipes says. “We made a decision early on to keep personality and ourselves out of it.”

“We never say ‘I.’ Everything’s a lie. There’s no authenticity, but it’s absolutely honest,” adds Hutson, a noise veteran and sometime writer for U.K. magazine The Wire, who’s currently finishing his Ph.D. in performance studies. “It’s not Kool Herc pillaging his dad’s record collection; it’s us lifting from our pasts.”

As ostensibly incongruous as they appear, Clipping. fit into a long tradition of experimental rap.

Contemporary peers include labelmates Shabazz Palaces, New York atom smashers Armand Hammer, and Denver velocirappers BLK HRTS. Sometimes, Clipping. summons the animistic spirits of cLOUDDEAD. Other beats recall the minimalism of DJ Mustard crossed with “The 900 Number,” a seminal 1987 track from Mark the 45 King.

“I hope the music feels dense enough that anybody, even if they’re confused, will feel like there’s enough to keep listening,” Snipes says. “All you can do is make a rich palette of ideas and sounds and hope someone grasps onto something.” 

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