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Career Opportunity

Alt-rapping Perceptionists trade their black vocals so they can share their black lives

book cover

Kanye West is the first hip-hopper ever to admit he's held a job only if alt-rappers don't count. Whether it's Pipi Skid manning the kitchen in an old age home or Sole hustling "free pens and long distance calls" at the office, economic necessity is a running theme in the anti-bling subculture. Alt-rappers are only free to brag about how good they are if it hasn't made them rich. That would mean they'd gone pop. Yeucch.

Boston-born Berkeleyite Mr. Lif has transcended this truism. He keyed 2002's I Phantom to two jobs--he quits one, descends into penury, then excels at the next, which destroys him by making him forget why he left the first: "Life is a gift to be enjoyed every second every minute/It's temporary not infinite." In a Pitchfork interview from that time, the Colgate dropout talked medical coverage versus disposable income, faithful employees cut loose, professionalism as social engineering, college kids flailing toward the wrong careers. Lif's Boston-based partner Akrobatik--who played three sports in high school, earned most of a Northeastern diploma, and in 2003 released the unspectacularly excellent Balance--is less cerebral than Lif, which isn't hard. But he lives Lif's theories. Akrobatik would be happy to sell 500,000 albums if it didn't involve turning 15-year-olds into "thugs and hoes." Like Vancouver beatmaster-entrepreneur McEnroe, he's proud to have chosen the right career: alt-rap. "It's still payin' my bills, I'm still havin' fun, and my catalog is growin'." Together with DJ Fakts One, Lif and Akrobatik form the hard-touring Perceptionists. Their new Definitive Jux album is Black Dialogue.

The title should clear up one question. Unlike every other alt-rapper named here thus far, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik are black. Mr. Lif, né Jeffrey Hayes, is the son of Barbadian immigrants; Akrobatik, né Jared Bridgeman, is the grandson of Barbadian immigrants. It's not unreasonable to suggest, as both Lif and Akrobatik do--with more heart and nuance than white alt-rap gatekeepers--that mainstream hip-hop sells demeaning black stereotypes to an audience it brutalizes. Nor is it crazy to say, although such charges greatly understate black fans' and artists' complicity in the sensationalizing process, that wigger race tourists are the economic motor of this exploitation. Still, six years and many dire predictions later, Eminem remains the only white hip-hopper who can top the charts, while Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, and Atmosphere are alt headliners, and the market for bestselling hip-hop is much blacker than the market for its undie variant. Just as scoffers claim, these embarrassing facts have musical consequences. At its best, commercial hip-hop is more compelling and original, not to mention pleasurable, than alt-rap. Jay-Z and Timbaland and The College Dropout and the new 50 Cent album have more jam than anything the hip-hop underground has produced, the Perceptionists included.

True true true, but let me tell you--when I first saw these guys toward the end of a 2003 show at S.O.B.'s, they tore shit up. Alt-rap bills often go on for five-six-seven acts, gaining momentum at a crawl. But though Murs's monologue about "opening for every white rapper in America" would have been an up anytime, it was Mr. Lif, small and lithe and bespectacled in a hat big enough to hold his hair, and Akrobatik, a genial fullback with spiky dreads, who slammed the warmup acts' old-school party pleas into gear. I assume the Perceptionists song that got me going was Black Dialogue's opener, "Let's Move": high-test rhetoric juiced by a Chem Bros homage. I didn't get many words, of course; no matter how adamantly rappers enunciate--a priority for both the staccato, argumentative Lif and the more broadly declamatory Ak--it's tough to make out songs you don't know when the DJ is bringing the noise. Maybe "Fuck a battle--we got nothin' to prove--let's move"; definitely not the references to Heaven's Gate, Miles Bennett Dyson, and "Strange Fruit." What I did grasp was that Lif and Ak were burying the sloppy democracy of preceding crews by actually trading vocals, phrase by phrase during the verse capped by Lif's faux-Caribbean "Everybody cool--hold on." This theater recalled the Holy Grail of conscious rapping, Public Enemy, except that the two frontmen were equals. Where PE's big man is a preacher, the Perceptionists' is a regular guy; where PE's little man is a clown, the Perceptionists' is a sage.

Not that Black Dialogue is Nation of Millions, which would have made history on its music alone. Black Dialogue's music is merely effective--a sharp, disquieting mix heavy on drums, bass, drum'n'bass, synth blats, and orchestral riffs, tending multiplex on its three El-P tracks and loopy on its three Fakts Ones. Hedonists want their beats more luxuriant, and why not? But though the songs dip a little just past the album's midpoint, they can move the crowd, and lyrically all that's missing is choruses as killer as "She watch Channel Zero" and "Don't believe the hype"--although guest chorister Humpty Hump approaches that level on "Career Finders," a wicked send-up of gangsta job skills. Beyond my man Buck 65, I can't remember the last rappers with so many good words. Among the standouts are the conscious braggadocio of "People 4 Prez," the universal soldier of "Memorial Day," the second-grade teacher of "Love Letters," and the metathematic "5 O'Clock": "Now this is dedicated to that little piece of mind/That you find every day when you leave your daily grind."

If the crowd at the Perceptionists' exultant CD-release gig March 24 was even 10 percent black, the Bowery Ballroom has a balcony I don't know about. But though these white kids may have been tourists, they weren't slumming or playing bad--insofar as they romanticize blacks, it's about the rebel status and moral clarity of what the title song calls "the most imitated culture on this Earth." Onstage, Lif especially put flesh on these abstractions--enjoying every second, he always looked like his head was in the game, and his gesturing left hand was as graceful as a hula dancer's. But it was Ak who delivered the lines: "It's black dialogue--go ahead, kid, try it on/It's much harder to master than precision with firearms/Corny niggas switch it up and rent it to Viacom/But it was taught to me early on by my Mom."

Amen, brother.

Village Voice, Apr. 5, 2005