Friday, May 11, 2012

Mutant Liberation

Due to what he and I laughingly refer to as "a conflict of interest," I did not review You Dare Call That Thing Human?!?, the latest, greatest LP from pop culture rapper Adam WarRock. Some of you have probably noticed that. Y’know, because the album was a big fuckin’ deal.

The delicate nature of the internet means that I spend the bulk of my time attempting to distance myself emotionally from the work of folks that I both like as people and respect as artists as I thoroughly, clinically dissect their flow and lyrical content. It's not always easy, but it's the job I chose.

Eugene wrote most of YDCTTH?!? while in the throes of his first big tour with Random, MC Lars and mc chris. And at irregular intervals while on the road – which is, as I hear it, a lot like being in a war: long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of adrenaline-soaked exhilaration – he'd holler at me and we'd talk. As a result I probably know a bit more about the sheer quantity of blood, sweat and tears poured into that particular product than the Average Joe. How the sausage is made and all that.

I won't bore you with the details, but I will say that having a front row seat as one of the most creative cats I've ever known talked himself through his second proper full-length effort was pretty amazing. Not to mention goddamn inspiring.

Between the easy thematic cohesion of his debut and the runaway success of follow-up projects like his Firefly mixtape with Mikal kHill, Adam was rather concerned about the album that would eventually become this release. But he used that anxiety. He leveraged that energy.

The idea of the sophomore album slump is generally rooted in two distinct places; on the one hand a performer does not want to disappoint his fanbase, on the other he doesn't wish to limit himself artistically. Adam added to this an as yet unheard-of third hand: the disconnect between the booth and the stage.

But I've already said too much.

I didn't review You Dare Call That Thing Human?!?, because I was too close to the source. I was there, more or less at its birth, so I will instead flash back a few months to that more relevant moment in time. It’s a little interview I did with Euge right after the album’s proper release, and I think it gives you a real idea of his head-space at the time.


I imagine you've told this tale countless times, Euge, but never to me. So, uh, how does one go from being a lawyer to being a professional hip-hopper? What was your journey?

I think what it boils down to is that a lot of people with a creative background or urge try to convince themselves that they can relegate their creative impulses to hobbies, or side projects, and work a dayjob in the meantime. And somewhere along the way, you get a mortgage, you get kids, you settle down and your job becomes your life, because that's your responsibility. The creative stuff fizzles away. I was lucky (if that's even the word) to not have any of those things to contend with, and I was pretty miserable trying to push back my creative urges, and my creative urge happened to be making hip hop. So I quit. There's a long list of lawyers, PhD holders, engineers, etc., who have become comedians (Greg Giraldo), or TV writers (anyone on the Simpsons/Futurama), people who turned their back on a more sure thing, and did something wonderful and creative with their lives. There's a long list of success stories, more than you'd think there were. You just have to find them, and take inspiration from them, hope that it will give you the strength to believe that something good can happen.

The short story is that my boss sucked, and I was never really a very good lawyer either.

Your proper introduction to the nerdier side of the underground rap scene was 2010's The War for Infinity. Since that time you've repped every series from Chew to the West Coast Avengers. How long have you been into comics, and at what point did this interest begin to inspire you artistically?

It's funny, I still own the first comic I ever had, and remember very clearly what year it was. I was 9, I bought an Avengers annual at the grocery store, and I became addicted to comics. I had been a baseball card collector up until then, and when I found comics, I realized, "Wow! You mean there's something I can collect AND emotionally invest in?" And from there, it was off to the races.

I guess comics always sort of inspired me, I used to sketch and ink as a kid. There was a time when I took art classes and wanted to be an artist. But rapping about comics was never a conscious thing. I just wanted things to rap about when I started doing music again, and I was really into comics, so I did that. No grand plan. It just sort of worked out that way.

In addition to comics you've also begun to mine television properties like Firefly and Parks & Recreation. How important is pop culture in your creative process?

Pop culture is everything in my creative process. Everything I do, from watching TV, to reading comics, to seeing movies, I see through the lens of something that can give me inspiration, even if it's just for one stupid throwaway line. One of the great things about the era we live in, and maybe it started with guys like Chuck Klosterman or other writers like that, there's no stigma about low brow culture. Music has always been "low brow," or at least lowest common denominator. TV has always been that. Most movies are. They were seen as low brow culture, and yet, could still elicit these wonderful emotional reactions, these great binding experiences, and yet they still got stigmatized as something less important that purported "high brow" things. What a crock. If sharing an experience in popular culture brings you closer with other people, it's important. If you are moved by a Justin Bieber song, it's important. You can't point and say one form of art or expression is more important or worth more than the other, it's a subjective discussion. I don't care about Sartre or Monet, does that make them less important in history? No. But does it make it automatically important to ME because they are deemed high achievements in their field? No. I'd rather read comics and watch TV.

You've become quite the tour horse over the past several months. Has this transition from recording musician to touring musician been difficult?

It's not really more or less difficult. There is a certain amount of existential pain in sitting in an apartment and just waiting for the world to come to you, sitting in a cafe and trying to break a song. You trade that for the pain of lifting boxes of merch, getting through these long drives, but at the end, you're rewarded with great fan interaction and really satisfying live shows.

The only thing that I can't seem to get used to is how to figure out when to do laundry. I can never figure out how much clothes to bring on the road.

You hit the road last year with mc chris, MC Lars and Random as part of a national tour before teaming with Illbotz, The ThoughtCriminals, Dual Core and Tribe One for a smaller regional affair. And now you're playing a series of West Coast dates with fellow comic book geeks Kirby Krackle. Have you noticed any underlying commonalities between these contrasting settings and lineups? Are there any recurring motifs that you always encounter on the road, or is each experience vastly different?

The one unifying characteristic is the underlying current of positivity. People are so open to experiencing new music, and while you may not always win over new fans, they are at least going to give you the opportunity to appeal to them. That's a really new thing, something you don't see in a lot of traditional music shows, where most people (myself included) just wait through the opening act, or don't care about the bands they don't know. Again, it goes back to speaking on pop culture and common things that everyone can relate to, you have the chance to give people a new perspective on important things to them, and they most often respond really well.

Of course, every time we play The Milestone in Charlotte, that show always sort of stands out as way more… what's the word, insane? Punk? Hardcore? I don't have shows like that in many places, and I think my punk/hardcore roots come out when we're there. It almost makes it worth having to use those bathrooms…

You Dare Call That Thing Human?!? seems to harness a lot of your stage energy. Was it hard to reproduce that sort of performance in-studio?

I don't know if it was hard, I just don't think I ever even thought of that before. When I did The War For Infinity, I hadn't performed live in YEARS, so it wasn't on my mind. When I did Human?!?, I had just come off a 3 months of live shows, so it was still on my mind when I went to record a lot of songs.

You've got a number of really impressive guest stars this time around: Tribe One and kHill, Beefy and int 80, Lars and Doc Awk. Was there anyone that you desperately wanted to spit on a track that just didn't work out this time around? Any guests you're already eyeing for your next project?

Ha. This is one of those Z. trick questions, where you try to get me to reveal secret plans I'm working on. I will say this, I was really bummed that the schedule didn't work out to get any of the Fake Four guys on it, as I've gotten to know guys like Ceschi and Louis Logic recently, who I was already huge fans of. But I never even asked anyone, so it's not really a disappointment. I also am definitely going to do a track with YTCracker sooner rather than later, we've been talking a lot, and I think it would be fun.

As for people I'm eyeing for my next project, well, let's just say I have some surprises in line, and I'll let you know as soon as I can talk about them.

The songs on YDCTTH?!? are interesting in that, while you seem to be playing a number of different characters this time around (as opposed to the singular protagonist of Infinity), many of the tracks seem much more personal in nature. Do you feel you're putting more of yourself into your music or perhaps you're simply more comfortable adding more personal elements to your story-songs? Or am I just totally full of shit?

I think that Human?!? is just an overall more personal record than WFI by the nature of it not being a narrative concept album. I'm always comfortable talking about myself in a personal fashion, whether in conversation or music. I'm a pretty open book. I've always put it into my music, but I just kinda felt like coming out with a debut talking about myself, with no context, doesn't make a lot of sense. It's ironic, because Human?!? is much more of a "debut" than the last one was, but it never would've made sense to make it as my debut.

You tend to play around a bit with established hip-hop tropes. On this album, for example, you begin with a variation on the classic-style intro track, you include a vague skit or two and you even riff on the "no homo" thing. You also entertain a number of additional rap aliases (compliments of Baron Vaughn) at the conclusion of the song "Civil War," but I notice you missed a few. Most specifically Ahn Like Donkey Kong, Eugenics and Alan Moore-Rock. I realize that's not a proper interview question, but, y'know, I just kinda had to say it.

I find it so hilarious how many people think that's ME on the introduction. Yeah, that's Baron Vaughn, who is not only an incredible actor and stand-up comedian, but is also a fellow nerd, an amazing beatboxer and hip hop fan, and also just a great guy to talk to. He has a podcast called Deep Shit, which everyone should check out, it's amazing.

I just wanted this to be a regular ass album. It's my version of the regular album. There's some thematic things in it if you want to dig for it, but it's as regular an album as I'll ever make. Enjoy it. The next one will probably be weird and out there, in comparison.

Speaking of "Civil War," issues of race and culture seem to crop up regularly on the new record, both via the mutant allegory and through some pretty candid personal statements. Do you actually still encounter those who can't fathom why an Asian-American is involved in hip-hop culture, or was this experience more confined to your formative years?

Honestly, I have never encountered someone who has a problem that I'm Asian, and that I rap. It seems like a lot of people WANT me to have those experiences, want any success I achieve to be a big "fuck you" to those people, but I don't find that happening. The only thing I've ever experienced is: "just be good." Nothing to do with anyone's race. Fat, skinny, tall, short, Asian, black, white, whatever, just be a good rapper.

One of the many standout tracks on the new release is "Sensitive Side." What was the most recent movie that made you cry, and is 2012 the year of the sensitive rapper?

Oh shit. Probably The Grey. But I can't imagine any guy seeing that movie and not being kind of devastated by the end of it. It's just a movie about men coming to grips with death and their lives. I mean, what the hell.

I don't know, are there other sensitive rappers out there? I just know I am a huge pussy, and that's the reality of it. I think that came out of me writing some really aggressive raps, and laughing because I was like, "Man this is not what I am like at ALL." So I wrote "Sensitive Side," and put it all out there. I do love rom coms.

"I Kill Giants" also manages to make quite the impression, thanks in no small part to Vince Vandal's delicate backing beat that contrasts strongly against joints like "MLF." Was there any discussion about musical eclecticism during the creation of the project, or did the disparate nature of the production simply occur organically?

It's funny you say that, because I think Vince thinks the album is too cohesive in tone and sound. Honestly, the album started out as an EP, and we had so many beats lying around, it became an LP. So there wasn't a lot of conscious thought behind the beats and the nature of them. We just sequenced it as best we could when it was all done. I will say this much, "Beast I.Z." was the last song we did, literally a week before we sent it to masters, after we nixed a song off of the final album. And I think that's a beat that really stands out, because it's so different from the rest of it, probably beccause it was so late in the process after we'd listened to the rest of the album a million times.

There are a lot of obvious musical triumphs on YDCTTH?! – the interplay between opener and closer, the raw power of "The Kids Table," the fact that our eternally stone-faced buddy kHill actually sounds happy for a brief and shining moment there at the end of "Booster Gold." (Just playin', Mikal! :P) If you could distill the entire work into a single moment, just one brief line or passage that explains where Adam WarRock is right now and where he's going, what would it be?

I think "Retcon" is a pretty good slide of where I'm at right now. That was the first song I wrote and finished for the new album, and I have a feeling that it's going to be a recurring experience of starting over at new levels, of looking back on why you do the things you do. You can have a plan, and if you're lucky, the plan works. And then you get to this point where you stop and say, "Uh oh… what's next?" and just kind of look around, and hope that you can figure out some direction to go in. You can't plan out 10 steps ahead, you can only really see a few ahead of you and then get ready to have your whole world turned upside down again when you get to that next stopping point. "Retcon" definitely represents that constant metamorphosis to me, especially that third verse. It's that sense of triumph, without getting to enjoy it, because you're immediately back to wondering, "What the hell am I doing!?"

Lastly, Euge, when I think about Adam WarRock I think about both quality and quantity. How do you explain your inexhaustible productivity? What's the secret, man?!

I drink a lot of coffee. I eat a lot of high-sugar breakfast cereals. I also am convinced that this won't last much longer, so I'm trying to get as much done while this ride goes on, for as short or long as it goes.

I'll sleep when I'm dead.


I'm not sure if you've been fortunate enough to catch Adam live, but, as composed and well-tempered as WarRock typically is on wax, he is a goddamn monster on-stage. A monster!

If anything, You Dare Call That Thing Human?!? captures that. It leverages not only that energy, that dynamism, but also Euge's unique swagger. It's a rare bird like that.

From its poignant spoken-word introduction to the electric refrain of "Retcon" – merely the latest in WarRock's continued collection of personal anthems – to the gorgeous key-heavy hook of "I Kill Giants," it's every bit as eclectic as the lyricist at its heart. With stellar production by Vince Vandal, the requisite bevy of top-shelf guests and a strength drawn from a shared cause of quality, it set the bar for 2012's new releases unimaginably high early on.

But Eugene hasn’t exactly been wiling away the hours since. He’s continued to drop regular freebie singles via his site. He’s played another SXSW and rocked that tour with fellow comic nerds Kirby Krackle. And he’s released an incalculable number of EPs.

And now, as we stand mere days away from his proper foray into yet another proper flavor of pop culture music, I remain ever awed.

Because Adam WarRock is a genuine musical superhero.


MC-3PO said...

So... is this the reason you haven't reviewed Death*Star's "A New Dope", or are we still just lost in the backlog?

Z. said...

I'm merely attempting to silently undermine your success, 3PO. Seriously though, yeah, you guys are in the huge backlog. Right now I'm planning to edit your review into a larger piece alongside Karl's latest.

MC-3PO said...


Seriously, I get it. And this album? Friggin' great. I'd probably be wicked jealous of Warrock's success, talent, and output if Euge wasn't such a bona fide nice guy.

Z. said...

Tis true; it'd be easy to hate on him if he wasn't so goddamn nice!