If the Afro-futurist science fiction author Octavia Butler was correct that “God is change,” clipping. are eligible for special communion. In the 26 months since the experimental rap trio released their debut on hallowed Seattle indie label Sub Pop, their lives have been in constant flux.
One producer, William Hutson, finished a Ph.D. in theater and performance studies with a dissertation on experimental music. The group’s other sound designer, Jonathan Snipes, composed scores for a half-dozen films. And unless you’ve been stranded on an intergalactic space rocket, you’ve probably heard of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which until recently starred clipping. rapper Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. He won a Grammy and a Tony and became a highly sought-after actor, who has since appeared in The Get Down and black-ish.
“We just performed at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival in front of a bunch of huge Hamilton fans. It’s usually a seriously pretty quiet crowd, but all these kids got super turnt up,” recalls Diggs, who estimates that he’s had just four days off since his Hamilton stint ended in July.
“A bunch of the kids’ parents were there, thanking us for the inspiration. There I am shouting bondage rap at kids and their parents are like, ‘That’s art!’”
With this expanded fan base, the most lucrative move would have been to temper their most avant-garde impulses and use their Hamilton cachet to recruit big-name guests. But that isn’t and never will be clipping., one of rap’s most cerebral outfits, as fluent in deconstructing Derrida as they are Mac Dre.
The result is the brilliant, labyrinthine Splendor and Misery, a self-described “Afro-futurist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him.”
With Splendor and Misery, clipping. may be the first rap group to claim equal influence from Octavia Butler and Dr. Octagon. Released earlier this month on Sub Pop and Deathbomb Arc, it’s somewhere between Samuel R. Delany and Deltron 3030. Diggs flips the Jay Z phrase “all black everything” to describe the abyss of space. He tweaks a classic UGK hook into a “pocket full of stars.” Snipes and Hutson evoke a paranoiac lunar drift with ingenuity.
“We would have really specific practical ideas like, ‘OK, this beat takes place in a spaceship where artificial gravity has been turned off and tools and screws are bouncing around and hitting things,’?” Snipes says. “We’d make that beat 12 minutes long and give it to Daveed.”
“Obviously we couldn’t make field recordings in space and there’s no sound in space, so we had to fake field recordings from inside of the spaceship,” Hutson adds. “It was a matter of figuring out how to re-create oxygen being pumped to his suit, doing a spacewalk on the outside of the ship and debris hitting his helmet.”
Depending on whom you ask, the narrative varies slightly. What’s agreed upon is the underlying refutation of H.P. Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic insignificance. In short, Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown was fueled by terror of learning that he (a straight white male in 20th-century America) was not the center of the universe. By contrast, Afro-futurism and this album posit a theory of optimism rooted in the belief that almost anywhere else must be better than this oppressive and often racist world.
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“You just have to make the art that you love and assume that if there is an audience for it, they’re going to find it and get it,” Diggs says. “That’s the thing that Hamilton did really well — you don’t have to dumb things down for your audience.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.