When it comes to art-rap, the pair that make up Oakland’s Themselves—Adam “Doseone” Drucker and Jeffrey “Jel” Logan—are some of the biggest innovators in the game. In their first two years of working together (’97 through ’98), they contributed to three classic albums via the hallowed cult names Deep Puddle Dynamics, cLOUDDEAD, and Themselves. They also co-founded the Anticon collective/label, which has just celebrated its 10th year of turning hip-hop on its head. In honor of this milestone, Themselves have returned from a six-year absence to release two albums this year—a surprise considering how busy Drucker and Logan have been in the interim. Of their numerous sidelines, including a collaboration with The Notwist called 13 And God, the Subtle sextet has been their most widely toured and well-loved, but last year, the band declared a hiatus after releasing its third highly musical, imaginative album.
Now, it seems the duo at that band’s core is ready for something a bit simpler. Themselves’ first release for 2009 is theFREEhoudini, a free digital mix-tape that wrangles all Anticon’s founding artists, along with familiar names like Buck 65, Atmosphere’s Slug, Busdriver, and Aesop Rock, for a fierce showing of rap might. The mix-tape is interspersed with freestyles culled from a rap class that Drucker teaches in Oakland (he first made his name on the battle circuit), and with moments that tease the August release of Themselves’ forthcoming LP, CrownsDown. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Drucker about the new release, his teaching career, and what Rap Jesus thinks of rappers who don’t freestyle.
The A.V. Club: There’s an aggressiveness on theFREEhoudini that wasn’t heard in Subtle, or even in the last Themselves record. What inspired that tack?
Adam Drucker: We had to learn control. I had to do Subtle, 13 And God, and cLOUDDEAD. I felt like there was so much music that’d never been made, and I had to spearhead it, lasso it, and bring it down the earth. We did that so wonderfully, but Themselves is about controlling and executing what we are and what we stand for within rap. With respect to Subtle, the world wasn’t having us making art that didn’t say, “Hey, we are the rock stars, and I’m the frontman, and look at my lips.” There was a posse, but it was small, and the only way to come back and not be bitter about that was to have the resolve that Jeff and I are back to basics. We realized that while we are not Brooklyn-bound, backward-hats cats, we swore an oath to this music, and we really wanted to hear some awesome rap again. Plus, we’ve been doing this for 10 years and we’re totally broke, and we’ve been nothing but nice to everyone, and it’s some bullshit, so we’re back to put a little vinegar in everyone’s piss.
AVC: In the mix-tape’s opening moments, you mention people calling you and yours “faggot.” Did you have something to prove, personally or on behalf of your musical kin?
AD: Our vendetta is not personal. It’s the same way it was when we were 18—we’re just more educated about it: The world ain’t right and we’re here to set it straight by us. Jeff and I don’t have a neighborhood to brag about, or a criminal record. We have our honesty—the fact that we have stayed completely true to our music and friends. That said, people have been talking shit about me for years, and they know who they are, and I’m coming for their faces. I’m going to catch them backstage when their fans aren’t around and demand they freestyle—I don’t need MTV there to knit a sweater for a motherfucker. I’m an eater of men in this rap shit. I do it for the right reasons and I never white-boyed anybody. I don’t “take.” I “make,” and I took shit for it because I was figuring out my stage persona, swishing my wrists and using effects pedals.
AVC: To those who don’t know, what exactly is it to white-boy someone?
AD: [Laughs.] It basically means to shine someone on, which, wow—that’s also a racial term. Like when I met Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, I went up to him with my first tape, Hemispheres, and was like, “Dude, huge influence. I just gotta tell you,” and he was like, “[Groans.] You gonna get me a beer?” I try not to ever do that to people. You can’t be taking from motherfuckers. It’s such a crooked way to run the ship. I actually met the drummer from Shellac at ATP in 2007 and he totally white-boyed me, so you never outgrow it, but I think we’ve been lucky to be on that side of the coin, to not have the world at our feet. It’s kept us grounded.
AVC: There’s a feeling among your fans that you’ve held back from showing off since your battling days. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
AD: Yeah, I’ve heard Sole say it, and Aesop Rock and other friends of mine, and they’re not dissing, but they’re like, “Fuck, man, I wish Dose still rapped.” I’ve felt them all these years, but I had some shit to do, you know? I’m not here to work the carousel. Rap gave me wings, but there’s a dynamism to my personality that I refuse to deny. I’m also not trying to be from rap. I found rap, and I’m a lot more street-forged than any of the other Ant boys, but I’m not going to over-authenticate that. The way Jeff and I play our songs completely from scratch, that’s the rap that’s in me—not, like, punching people in the face just for breathing. There’s a song on CrownsDown where the rapping took me six weeks to get right, and now I’m ready to do it live. That’s what I’m about. I’m not gonna look like one of those horses with its back caved in when I get up on these later records. I’m gonna have a straight spine, and you’ll see my abdomen through my suit jacket, because I’m hungry, not because I’m sickly thin. For the next one, I want us to write the album, tour it for a year, and then go record it with Steve Albini as the first live rap record ever. I hear he says he’ll never record rap, but I wanna go serve him.
AVC: You’ve taken an uncommon approach in beat-making in the past. What was the process for making theFREEhoudini’s music and matching it to the various rappers?
AD: It’s literally the Subtle formula—the Can technique of building songs from improv. For years, Jeff and I had been accumulating the beats for CrownsDown, and the process for that is more like making a Gang Starr record—there are absolutely no B-grade beats. theFREEhoudini had to be fresh material, so when the day came, I was like, “Jeff, it’s jam time.” We got a case of beer and a batch of the green stuff, and we just ran reel for about five hours. We were in my living-room home studio, so I made sure everything was plugged in and anything you hit made a noise. We went all night. We would play, take a break, throw darts, put on some rap… The next morning, we got a case of breakfast beer, and started the next step: truncating everything and gold-starring the bright moments. The second we’d demoed out the beats, it was obvious who would rap over what. I sent each contributor their part, then wrote my words around theirs.
AVC: Most of the names on the mix-tape are pretty familiar, except for Lionesque, who appeared on your first album, 1998’s Hemispheres. Where’s she been all these years?
AD: Three years after I moved from Ohio to Cali, she had a baby boy. She’s been raising her son and working at a bank. When I heard what she recorded, I got chills. It’s my favorite thing on the record. Other people are killing it, but that’s where it’s at. You’re meant to do this shit; the world doesn’t really let you; it doesn’t fucking matter. That resonates. Her writing is phenomenal and she’s, you know, outside of Cleveland without all of Anticon around her. That’s the other thing: It ain’t a comeback without the person that is the most missing in action.
AVC: Through the record, it’s revealed that you’ve been teaching rap to kids in Oakland—you can hear them laughing during your freestyles. How did that come about?
AD: A couple years ago, I was invited to speak at YMR, Youth Movement Records, and I thought it was gonna be, you know, the white man talking to these underprivileged kids about, like, record distribution in the ’90s and starting Anticon. Well, turns out these kids are all using Reason software, and they know about publishing and everything. I get there and realize they just want to hear about me battling Eminem, so I’m telling them stories and the instructor says, “Adam, you gotta wrap it up. We’ve got freestyle class,” and I was like, “You got what?” I hadn’t freestyled in eight years. Nobody does it anymore, and, you know, I’m hanging around fucking cellists. Unbeknownst to me, it was like riding a bike. I got in there and felt like how people must after a sex-change operation: “I’m in the right body again!” So now I co-teach the class. The only thing that sucks about making all this new Themselves music is, I’m missing this semester. I want to start a crew with these kids at the end of summer where we meet up in subway stations with a boombox, bring that shit back, and YouTube it.
AVC: What do you get from working with the kids?
AD: Honestly, they brought the whole thing back. When I started battling, I was the person that made you quit and get a job at Foot Locker. The kids woke that up in me, and it made me think, “If I’m a good person, but I’m an amazing killer, what am I supposed to do? Well, I’ve just gotta align it, and go kill bad people.” All the name-calling and people keeping us out of reindeer games… I can’t say that just beaded up and rolled off me; I’m not an alligator. But these kids, they don’t have careers and they don’t have fans—they allowed me to see without blinders where all me and my contemporaries have ended up, our issues and identity crises. You know, no matter what color you are in the rap game, you’ve got a fake name. You’re filling out a shoe and making a persona real. That’s what I teach my kids and what they teach me: Be more than you are. They come in kicking rocks because they got fired from work, but we’ll just say, “Put it on your rap name.” I also jack the shit out of their slang. I feel like I’m cheating, taking their whippersnapper slang and integrating it into my ’90s archives.
The other thing they made me realize—and if people read The Onion and want to come fight me over this, fine—if you don’t freestyle, you really are bullshit. You’re a fish that if I push into the ocean will make cat noises and try to swim to the dirt. They know it, I know it, and Rap Jesus knows. Lil Wayne freestyles his verses, but that’s a function of laziness. They call it “swagger”; I call it grandma ethics. I asked the kids who they’re into, and they go to YouTube and show me Reed Dollaz, who’s kicking these immaculately written freestyles, and I’m like, “Uh, boys, this is not what we do.” It’s like showing me a Van Damme movie in karate class.
AVC: How will CrownsDown differ from theFREEhoudini?
AD: We wanted to make a record that puts us where we’d imagined Anticon would be in 2009. CrownsDown is a combination of [Gang Starr’s] Hard To Earn and [Nas’] Illmatic in structure: separated tracks with a couple interludes; the songs bang the fuck in and fade the fuck out. And we realized our favorite rap albums are generally about the same things. There’s a weed song, a song about girls, a song about jail, a song about defending your turf… perpetual motifs. So we wondered which classic themes are true today. We have a song about stealing music, a love song, a “don’t sleep” song, a story song, a “what the fuck did you people do to rap?” song, and of course, a “don’t fuck with my DJ” song. Nothing on the record is out of the gourd of what we think classic rap is, but we didn’t try to say we’ve been in the Bronx clubhouse the whole time, up on the wall between Flavor Flav and KRS-Done [sic]. We’re the dudes banging on the pipes in the boiler room of the rap hall of fame. We’re the janitors, and we’re touching the Public Enemy jerseys late at night when no one’s there, but we don’t need to get hung on the wall. We’re below that shit.
AVC: You and Jeff started making music together when you were 20 and 19, respectively. After more than 10 years, what keeps you two together?
AD: I’m gonna put it to you corny. I was at University Of Cincinnati. I lived in the dorms and I had this dream that [DJ] Mr. Dibbs came to my room and introduced me to this dude I’d never seen before. Three weeks later, Dibbs really does come over and he’s like, “You gotta meet my man. He makes dope beats. You guys are gonna be best friends,” and it was the guy from the dream: Jeff. We spent the rest of the afternoon throwing Lil’ Kim 12-inches off of my 7th-floor balcony. I gradually came to realize that we’re soulmates. We have been tried by the exact same fires in different situations, and the way rap excluded us brought us together. When all the women in the world break up with me and all the other group-mates have to go get jobs because life is real, Jeff and I will still be standing. The proof is in the name.