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Every Sunday supplement worth its rock salt prophesied that "crunk" would be one of the cultural highlights of 2005. Crunk (combining "crazy" and "drunk") is a supposedly new hip-hop sub-genre that prizes hedonism, bling and no-brainer party rhythms over all else. It may not sound like a breakthrough, and that's because it isn't. The papers have been duped by old wine--or perhaps old Cristal--in new bottles.
Instead, I present the anti-crunk hip-hop with more on its mind than in its glass: specifically, Anticon, an independent label out of Oakland, California. Formed in the late 1990s by a core of eight rappers and producers who loved hip-hop but hated what MTV was feeding fans of the music, Anticon seemed happy to release its boundary-pushing work off the media radar while mainstream hip-hop became America's most saleable musical commodity. But thanks to some niftily progressive music and rhymes with more depth than the latest 50 Cent smash, the label has grown into a far-reaching cult, and samples of its music can be downloaded for free at www.anticon.com.
The least likely of Anticon's artists to go in for the strobes and strumpets common to crunk is Yoni Wolf, aka Why?, whose first solo album, Oaklandazulasylum (2003), features beautifully picked guitars, surreal rap narratives and gently tweaked piano parts. "Folk-hop" doesn't cover it, but gets closer than anything else. The best downloads are "Darla", a disarmingly sincere paean to a chicken, and the more sane love song "Early Whitney".
Doseone is the label's most out-there, artful rapper, and his ghostly, nasal rhymes are the centrepiece to the bizarre compositions of Themselves. The distorted drones and drum samples, clunking pipes, feedback and abrupt time signatures of "It's Them" and "Live Trap" do to hip-hop what Columbus did to world geography. Such experimental creations will not be to everyone's tastes, but repay repeated listening--with not a gold necklace in sight.