THEMSELVES: THAT SHIT GIVES ME A BONER

July 28th, 2009 | Interviews


jeremy szuder

Download: Themselves theFREEhoudini Mixtape

Themselves is producer Jel and rapper Doseone, who detach themselves from the Anticon hive mind to release their own ultra-fractalized riffs on hip-hop and experimental music. Their newest CrownsDown is built on the same frame as Nas and Gang Starr and to fit alongside Doseone’s side gig teaching kids how to rap. This interview by Matt Dupree.

What are you doing right now?
Doseone: Right now I’m working on this thing with Alan Moore. He’s got a book called Unearthing and [Andy Broder of] Fog and I are creating the score. We’re working on that—Andy’s coming out in a couple days. I’m going to have him on my couch. It’s going to be great. Unearthing is very striking and engrossing‚it’s two hours long so it’s not like working on a song. You don’t get to press play at the end of the day and say ‘I’m done with recording! Terrific!’
How exactly does one score an Alan Moore story?
Well, yeah—you’ll have to listen to it. We had a lot of ideas initially but It’s still taking shape. It’s completely different than making a rap record, so it’s been nice to have something else to concentrate on. But I still want to keep its scheme secret for a bit…
When you’re working on Unearthing, do you have to listen to Alan Moore’s voice over and over and over again?
Yes. For days and days and days and hours and hours. It’s like—to be honest, the writing is so dense and deep that it takes a lot of time to digest. The passages just blur past me until like the twentieth time, then they click into my comprehension of them.
Do you ever get any feelings of inadequacy as an artist—like ‘how could I work on something at that high level?’
I don’t know—fuck that. I read Watchmen. That shit got me through puberty. I think that anyone with something that’s formative for them, if they’re not an aesthetic retard, has a way of interpreting it. Alan’s shit worked its way into some of my poems and it affected the way I wrote the Subtle trilogy. So I think I’m man enough to step up and amp up. That’s like a Themselves thing—part of the rap aesthetic. You gotta step up to that shit. If I can wrap my head around it, I’m sure I can make something that sounds cool to go underneath it, and I’m honored to do so.
I’ve heard that you based the new album CrownsDown on Nas’ Illmatic and Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn.
They’re pretty much our template. The way those albums are structured—this album is very familiar to them. The songs, the interludes—not a bar is wasted. Then with each song itself, we greatly observe the records we consider to be classics—what it is that makes them timeless, like what the tendencies of their songs are. There’s a ‘style’ song, a ‘back in the day’ song, a ‘don’t fuck with my DJ’ song, so we did that—our way. There’s a lot of what we consider to be ‘classic rap beats’ and then the rest of it’s an honest-to-goodness Themselves record.
Would it be fair to say that of all your various projects, Themselves lies closest to you as an artist?
Subtle is all written with the epic of Hour Hero Yes in mind, so I’m just a conduit. And 13 & God—I’m speaking for 6 grown-ass men. Themselves is the one where I don’t gotta worry about what I’m gonna say—I’m speaking for myself, clearly. And since it’s been a while, I’ve got a lot of years of built-up writing to edit and project—there’s no like 86-bar over-emo ‘I can’t get out of my head’ verse.
So you’ve had time to figure out what you want to say.
Yeah. And I’ve got my first class teaching freestyle tomorrow at YMR, and that’s really got me back into it. It’s interesting—back when I was doing the cLOUDDEAD records I used to go out on the street and look for like a piece of paper with a word on it that struck me and I’d be like, ‘Uh, that’s it! I’m gonna make a song about this.’ But now I’m going out and teaching kids how to freestyle, and that aligns me. And at the same time Jeff [Logan, a.k.a. Jel, the other half of Themselves] and I were like, ‘We gotta write this rap record.’ So instead of it being more like this confusion on paper being worked out in song, it’s sort of a return to where we started and our strengths. It’s kind of a natural circuit. I got away from it ten years ago because rhyme and rap felt like such a restrictive way of getting ideas across—I didn’t feel I could say what I wanted to say. But our return to its angles and aesthetic have been very natural and healthy for us.
Have you been getting back into battling at all?
Kind of. With the kids I teach, it’s tricky. Some of the kids want to battle and it’s cute—some of them are even getting it pretty well—but you don’t really want that negative energy, you know? You don’t want it to be confrontational yet in many ways rap is about killing it… As Themselves, we invited some challengers on the last tour and it wasn’t all bad. Okay, there were a couple of guys who obviously weren’t ready for it and that was—that was kind of embarrassing. I’m going to do it again on this west coast tour if we can get organized. It’s kind of a fun thing to organize just logistically—it can be difficult with the driving and imminent traffic jams of touring. I was also going to do Skribble Jam but they cancelled it this year. But I will do something that results in rapper-eating this year for sure.
Canceled Skribble Jam? They must’ve been afraid of you.
Yeeeeaah. There was one kid who I could tell was a fan—that was awkward. He had kind of a tentative nature that I’ve had—like when I had to battle [legendary Freestyle Fellowship member] P.E.A.C.E., I’m like, ‘Uh, this sucks.’ So there was another guy—he reminded me of me when I was like sixteen, just trying to fight and not really rap, you know?
Is it weird seeing all your old battles come back to life on YouTube?
It’s pretty funny, man. You put ‘Dose’ in there and it’s like the first thing that comes up. I’d really like to battle again. I have a different perspective on it all. You know, back then I didn’t really know what I wanted out of it. I didn’t perceive what it means, clearly. It’s very much a certain type of rapping, those battles, and I was getting in there as rapper against rapper and I didn’t really have a place there. And then I was in there against like P.E.A.C.E.—whose songs I’ve memorized and whose music was formative to me—that’s how I had to meet dudes. That being said, there are certain rappers I would love to step to in cold blood, but I don’t know. It’s a fine line. I don’t think I’ll ever have a taste for serving somebody who I appreciate. That’s not my style. Because it’s kinda like—you got to have no remorse when you battle. You can’t walk that line—you have to cross it.
So it’s not something you think you could do amiably?
There’s just some people, who I appreciate, who I really can’t pretend to pull a knife on. I mean, eventually, when I get drunk I’ll probably… One time I battled in Portland—at our hotel at the Doug Fir—and there was this women’s roller derby team and they were all there and I started servin’ them shit-faced. After I was done with one, they’d walk away and the next one would step up smiling like, ‘Okay, serve me!’
Is it hard to translate that vicious style when you’re teaching your kids to battle?
No—when I’m teaching the kids I just try to be open. If they’re keeping it mellow, then I keep it mellow. And when they get into it, I sort of approach it like, ‘You know, back in the day, rappers…’ It’s all about showing them how to do it—there’s no exercise. It’s an interesting thing, freestyle. To a certain extent you got it or you don’t, but that’s not entirely the case. Most people can improve just by gradually forgetting where they’re at. So that’s not what I focus on. Every time I come into the classroom it’s like—I don’t know—other lessons come first. The kids barely raise their voices. So you know—I teach them to project, and how to pick their rap names.
Is that a tough lesson? Choosing a rap name?
Yeah—I got fucking stuck with this thing I was writing on my notebooks and on bus stops. My fucking tag name when I was sixteen or whatever. I didn’t really get to pick mine. Some of the kids get to come up with something dope. Some of them are good, and some of them are fucking hysterical. I appreciate all forms of rap names. One time in Europe we saw this guy whose name was Scarhead. Like the European Scarface. ‘Scarhead, comin’ atcha…’
Is it strange to hear non-English Europeans rapping in English?
Oh, I love that shit, dude. That shit gives me a boner. Have you ever heard of Johnny Bass? He’s like the Swedish Sage Francis. Well he’s nothing like Sage—he’s just uber-emotive, you know? And whenever he says it, he goes ‘Johnny BASSSS!’ Like the Chuck D octave drop on bass. And he does songs about his mom. Jeff and I love that shit. There’s something about slang being worded improperly that’s fucking the bee’s knees.
I know when you worked with the Notwist it was their stripped-down approach to English that enticed you, right?
Yeah, but that’s a whole other chord. This is more the genre of music being made with that accent and the amount of words per square inch are what makes it humorous, let alone the content. Whereas with Markus [Acher, of the Notwist], he’s got a great ear for words and content and poetic phrasing. I’m not trying to diss Johnny Bass—he’s got his ear, but it’s not the same. There’s something perfect about the way Markus picks out words and leaves certain words out that aren’t really necessary—that are just subject, predicate, a bunch of transitions or whatever. It has taken me years to unlearn English, in the manner that came naturally to Markus as an outsider to our language.
We talked in 2005 at the El Rey and you said that you were still going to do Subtle and Themselves as well as a new 13 & God record. Since you’ve done both Subtle and Themselves records, when can we expect new 13 & God?
We record in January, and it’ll probably be out next fall. Fall 2010.
I heard it was going to be moving toward the style of the song ‘Superman On Ice.’
We’re going to be doing like some Enya shit. No, we’re going to do it more like a band. The songs we got to at the end and the songs we were playing live were fucking really nasty. So we’re going to jam—eww, the ‘J’ word!—as a band in California this time with Dax [Pierson] because he can’t go to Germany. So we’re gonna do it and all record together, and then do a big edit and completion in Munich like we did last time, with some time in between so I can work on my vocals. I do all my best vocal stuff over time. I write a lot of cadences to the beat so that’ll be the last part of 13 & God to put down. We’ll have like 8 songs, and there’ll be 25 parts I have to come up with. I like having it hit me all of a sudden what I want to do here or there. It keeps me interested. I don’t like doing one song at a time in between long breaks.
I’m glad you mentioned Dax—he just won his lawsuit [against Ford Motors after his car accident] a couple months ago.
Yes, he did.
Has the money changed him?
Yeah—ha! He’s always swimming in fucking gold. No, of course not. I saw him the day it happened and he looked shell-shocked. It’s just a whole other world. He needs that money. He requires personal attendants on a daily basis, and moreover a healthy cushion to fall back on no matter what, so hopefully that money will help calm his nerves and eventually allow him some freedoms. I think though at the moment, he is just overwhelmed by his new tax bracket. In my opinion, this world couldn’t have put millions into better hands.
If it allows him to continue with his music, then so much the better.
Of course. It’s kind of the pinky-toe concern out of everything else he has to worry about, but it’s definitely the thing that’s closest to his heart in many ways. His fervor and ability to make music is just as strong as it always was.
The stuff he’s been putting up on Facebook has been amazing.
Oh, Facebook! I don’t know shit about that. My little sister is 15 and that’s it for her: Facebook! Kids today! I used to be on the corner battle rapping!
I don’t think they’ve made a Facebook equivalent of battling.
You know what I was tripping on was that computer battling. It’s really dead at this point but that shit was classic. These people would type-battle. I can’t even comprehend it. Like stenographers. Aggressive stenographers.
In ten years, that’ll be it.
Yeah, like some of the punks, who are really authentic, will be doing that.
‘YOUR RHYMES ARE OLD. YOU CAN’T STEP TO THIS.’
LOL.’

THEMSELVES ON WED., JULY 29, AT SPACELAND, 1717 SILVERLAKE BLVD., SILVERLAKE. 8:30 PM / $10-$12 / 21+. CLUBSPACELAND.COM. THEMSELVES’ CROWNSDOWN IS OUT THIS AUGUST ON ANTICON. VISIT THEMSELVES AT ANTICON.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/THEMSELVES.