I defy you to come up with one thing that’s more useless than white indie dudes parodying R&B music on their PowerBooks.
Britain’s Hot Chip fly close to the danger zone, but they respect the power in swearing sweetly over a gentle Hall & Oates bounce. “Give up, all you suckers, we the tightest motherfuckers,” warns singer Alexis Taylor on “Keep Fallin’,” a tune from the London-based outfit’s full-length debut, Coming On Strong. “You never seen this type of shit before now.” And like Dean and Gene Ween, Hot Chip also understand the value of a Prince reference. On “Down With Prince,” Taylor announces that he’s “sick of motherfuckers trying to tell me that they’re down with Prince.”
These two Brits started out as indie-folk guys-with-guitars-in-the-bedroom, then transformed into beat-dropping pseudo-rapping dance-music interlopers. And though Hot Chip have become something of a pop-cult sensation in the U.K. — they’ve already got a second LP coming out this spring — here, of course, they’re just another in an increasingly long line of young English imports. (Musically, though, they have nothing to do with the Franzblochead invasion.)
Hype and self-promotion are so integral to the British rock experience that a whole crop of meta-hype bands (e.g., Art Brut and the Cribs) have sprung up lately, making records that comment on how bloody daft it is for a dime-a-dozen guitar band nobody’s heard of to brag about how they’re going to take over the world with their unique and irreproducible sound. Still, Taylor’s kind of right about motherfuckers having never seen Hot Chip’s type of shit before now. Taylor’s voice is high and thin and very English — like what an R&B singer might sound like at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So each time Taylor drops the F-bomb, he does two things with it: He makes you laugh, because it’s funny to hear a curse word uttered with such care; and he plucks your heartstrings, because there’s something quite sad about someone cribbing slang from a culture that might not be willing to have him.
Throughout Coming On Strong, Taylor and his bandmate Joe Goddard tap into the same combination of humor and pathos that has motored much of Eminem’s work over the past half-decade. Only instead of doing it with superflashy hip-hop beats, Taylor and Goddard — who met when they were both 11 and started making music together when they were 14 — do it with endearingly ramshackle electro-soul grooves that Goddard says he tries to make sound slightly off, somehow. (And instead of rapping about driving off a bridge with a dead wife in the trunk, they sing about blasting Yo La Tengo while driving around Putney in a Peugeot.)
Does what I just described sound terrible? It’s totally not. When I reach Goddard on his cell phone as he stands by the side of a busy English motorway, he explains the group’s evolution. Goddard — who builds Hot Chip’s beats and often duets with Taylor in a deadpan baritone that only makes Taylor’s tenor funnier — reckons that six or seven years ago he really got into dance music. This turned him on to music-making software, which in turn gave him the means to articulate the deep love of hip-hop he’d harbored since 1993, when he and Taylor began discovering acts like Souls of Mischief and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“We grew up listening to a lot of old pop music, like Phil Spector and the Beatles,” Goddard says over the rush of oncoming traffic. “But in some way I’ve always wanted to have that element [of hip-hop] in our music. I don’t try and front and pretend that I’m some kind of rapper, but there’s always a desire to have that side to it.”
This isn’t an issue of credibility, or even of loving the source material for the “right” reasons. It’s an issue of the music, and Hot Chip speaks with eloquence and emotion about Taylor and Goddard’s attempt to reconcile their love of hip-hop with the fact that in reality they’re a couple of pasty English chaps who have to title their song “Playboy” because there’s no way anyone’s gonna mistake them for actual playboys anytime soon.
Even the way they sing about wanting a “Shining Escalade” (“I want a shiny SUV/people see me differently”) turns the usual brand-name-check routine into an act of total longing — for a car, for the trappings of a beloved genre, for love. It works because it’s absurd but it’s not a satire; there’s something genuine at the heart of it. Hot Chip’s heroes are pop icons, and Goddard says he has little interest in fighting the underground fight for long: “What I find really exciting is when the Beach Boys top the charts and it’s pop music, but it’s incredibly bizarre and different. Or when Destiny’s Child have a crazy record, but it’s top of the charts. I find that so great, when there can be pop music and everyone can get it, but it’s totally weird music when you dissect it. That’s what I’m always aiming for: to make something that touches a lot of people, but to do things slightly out of the ordinary.”