Most hip-hop collaborations mix up styles, but rarely fans. Stoner nerds are flipping out over Dangerdoom, DJ Danger Mouse's imminent team-up with crazed rapper MF Doom and the Adult Swim nexus of freaked-out Cartoon Planet shows -- "All my favorite gags in one cool package!" they rejoice. But if you're familiar with Doom, you probably know all about Frylock and Meatwad. Ditto for Blackalicious rhyming with George Clinton and Lateef on the group's new LP The Craft: It sounds great, but who are you bringing into the fold, o, ye diversity whores? What about das Germans? Or zee French?
Here's some real synergy for you: Three experimental Oakland hip-hoppers (Anticon enclave Themselves) teaming up with three equally weird European electronica nerds (the Notwist) to form 13 & God, which has sired a totally original, catchy, and even beautiful self-titled debut, effectively doubling their respective diehard fanbases.
This newfound popularity takes a bit of adjustment. "I used to be terrified of huge crowds," admits Themselves beatmaker Jeff "Jel" Logan. "Now I only see the first two rows and I just keep going."
"We've played these enormous outside festivals with thousands of people, and we've outdrawn Bright Eyes -- I was especially proud of that," adds emcee Adam "Doseone" Drucker. "We'd be playing a show in Rome and all the Notwist fans would show up, and we'd maybe sell two or three Themselves CDs. After we'd play together, we'd sell fifty to sixty at the table, because the sounds are complementary. We're a unit."
Anticon needed this kind of boost. Seven years after creating one of the Bay Area's premier broke-but-honest hip-hop labels, the grind has taken its toll -- what was once a full-fledged musical revolution is now a fight for survival, and neither Logan nor Drucker is sure what the future holds. But that crisis pales in comparison to the plight of their friend and bandmate, keyboard wiz Dax Pierson. While on the road in February with their offshoot group Subtle, a freakish van crash left Dax with a broken neck -- he remains paralyzed from the upper chest down. For Dax it now comes down to surgery, rehab, and hope, and in the interim, 13 & God found a substitute keyboardist for its world tour. Needless to say, the loss of a near-brother has rattled his bandmates to the core.
"After the accident, I knew that there was one thing I wanted to devote my life to, and that was the music," the 28-year-old Drucker says, adding that he has since quit philandering and roaming, settling down with his girlfriend in Vancouver until she finishes college and they can get married. "I try to be better to myself after all that's happened."
Given such a traumatic near-death experience, what's odd is that the already completed 13 & God's first track attacks fears of mortality head-on. "The song starts with this sample from a Romero movie, The Crazies," Drucker says. "There's some virus or poison in the water, and everyone's dying, like Dawn of the Dead. Either they're killing themselves or someone else. And this little girl has just seen some of it, and she's quarantined, but it's inside her now, that everyone's dying. The poem is about being at that young age and beginning to understand mortality. It also applies to the perception of angst in our lives -- that all we have is this life."
So what did Germany's Notwist -- best known for the 2003 avant-electro breakthrough Neon Golden -- bring to this heaviness? A term for catchy bits of music that get lodged in your head: "Earvurm," pronounced like "earworm." Much of 13 & God's hooks can be classified as such parasitic little loops. Between the movie samples, mournful horns, skittish beats, and Drucker's nasally abstract raps, there's much to latch onto and get latched onto you.
"Dax was actually the one who got us into some of this," Logan says. "We listened to Neon Golden for days. And when we played a show in Germany, they were there, someone introduced us, we hugged, and that was it. We had sort of previewed each other through our music, so we knew we could work together."
What ensued was a cross-continental recording session via international mail, with Themselves sending samples of beats and vocals to Germany and vice versa; Themselves then flew out to the Notwist's studios to apply finishing touches. There was no head chef, no fighting over the knobs. "It was one of those experiences where you didn't have to look around the room to see who's nodding their head and who's shaking it," Logan says.
But reproducing 13 & God's delicate instrumental pastiche has been more of a chore, requiring a gorgeous mess of keyboards, laptops, sound pedals, drum machines, and all manner of weird electronic gear. "This whole tour's been, 'We played once together, here we go!'" Logan says.
"Yeah, we're doing some serious rocking out," Drucker adds. "We killed in Frankfurt."
Loading up clubs from Germany to SF, 13 & God ultimately might be the classic side project that quietly transcends and outsells everyone's regular gig, which suits the Anticon contingent just fine. "We're a real band now," Drucker says. "More is on the way."
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