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2008 Year in Review: Why?’s Alopecia: What Hip-Hop Sounds like to Smart Jewish People?

Posted by December 31st, 2008 No Comments »

Why? – Alopecia
Anticon Records

My head in my hands, I rack my brain. “Is this really it?”

I contemplate the new albums I’ve bought, everything I’ve heard on the radio, the live bands I’ve seen, and the new shit my friends turned me on to. I come to my conclusion: 2:06 into the song “The Hollows” is, in fact, the most engaging moment of music in 2008.

When frontman Yoni Wolf yelps, “. . . I went back to get my money, but all my homies warned me, oh no those gypsies probably got knives,” the instruments cut except for a repetitive guitar line, then a second later the beat drops, and BAM! the chorus comes on like a lion running out of hell.

I only pray I stumble upon something next year that’s as imaginative and unapologetically original as Why?’s third full-length, Alopecia. Combining elements of “folk,” “indie-rock” and “post-rap,” this is a genre-bending curiosity. The beats are mostly stripped down and simple like the best hip-hop, but the instrumentation and vocal delivery is something you’re more likely to hear on the indie radio station. In preparation for this piece, I played the record for a number of folks, then asked, “what genre is this?” I mostly got back confused looks and answers like, “well, I guess it’s kinda hip hop, but also indie rock. . . I really don’t know.” Some of the best records I’ve ever heard have been impossible to categorize, and this is one of them.

Lead vocalist/songwriter Yoni Wolf has a flow-of-consciousness lyrical style, taking on any and all subjects. His delivery ranges from slow and spoken (“Good Friday”) to sweetly sung (“Simeon’s Dilemma.)”

Actual “rapping” is minimal. Wolf seems especially fixated on themes of life, love and death and random observations on pretty much everything in between. His stories often veer off into the absurd, and you wonder, “how much of this is true?” Did he really blow chunks at Whole Foods? Did gypsies really rip him off in Berlin? Did he actually have to “suck dick” for drink tickets at his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah?

Probably not, but the visual imagery is stunning nonetheless. On “Simeon’s Dilemma,” Yoni sounds like he’s personally addressing a lover that is just out of reach. “I still hear your name and wedding bells,” he sings. Then follows it by returning to the theme of his mortality, “will I look better or will I look the same rotting in hell?”

The story goes that Yoni discovered an old four track in his synagogue’s basement and began experimental recordings while still in Junior High. In art school at the University of Cincinatti, he was introduced to Adam Drucker, better known by the moniker “Doseone.” They formed a live improvisational group, Apogee, with DJ Mr. Dibbs and Yoni’s brother Josiah. At some point they moved to Oakland, California, the home for their collective of artists and label, Anticon.

The late 90’s saw the release of groundbreaking albums such as “Deep Puddle Dynamics,” which fucked with everyone’s definition of hip hop. Suddenly lyrics were intellectual and strange, the beats muddy and experimental. Yoni released Oaklandazulasylum in 2003 under the name Why? By 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, Why? had become a full band. Yoni enlisted the help of Josiah on
drums, Matt Meldon on guitar and “multi-task” guy Doug McDiarmid.

Every once in a while a record comes along that is so ground breaking it can’t be fully appreciated at the time it is released. Undoubtedly, Alopeica is one of those records. A decade from now, when Why? imitators are running rampant, the album will be looked back on as the landmark it truly is.

So, maybe this is what hip-hop sounds like to an artsy, Jewish, intellectual? I was fortunate enough to fire off some questions to

Yoni Wolf of Why?

Yoni What is your daily routine these days? And how has your life changed since the release of Alopecia?
Yoni: We’ve been on tour since Alopecia was released, so our daily routine is pretty much: wake up, eat, travel for between 2 to 9 hours, load in, sound check, eat, play a show, break down, load out, go to the hotel, sleep. At home, I am a lot less busy.

NM: Your sound has changed fairly drastically over the years. What artists or albums have influenced your recent songwriting?
Y: Bob Dylan, Li’l Wayne, Eminem, Joanna Newsom.

NM: “The
Hollows” presents some stunning visual imagery of events that went down in Berlin. How much of your lyrical content is based on real life experiences?

Y: My lyrics are a mix of personal experience, personal experience elaborated upon, other people’s experiences who I know or don’t know, things I see on TV, metaphor, extended metaphor, and pure fantasy.

NM: Is Anticon still a relevant label and collective? How has it impacted hip hop?
Y: We are not now, nor have we ever been, “relevant.” That is our appeal. We are perpetually un-now and superfluous.

NM: What can fans expect from your live show?
Y: Mostly we just like to party. Songs. Some acrobatics and synchronized guitar tosses and light fire play, some PG13 language.

NM: What level of popularity, both critically and commercially, do you aspire to?
Y: All of it. We want to go all the way to the top in the U.S.A. We want to be the second Black President. But in our case, “Black” meaning sullen and hopeless rather than half African.

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