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Nov. 4, 2004



Photo and headline -- Subtle

I WASN'T SURE WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN I SLIPPED THE DISC INTO my boom box. The New White is by a band called Subtle. Since Peter "Thanksgiving Brown" Agoston (of Female Fun fame) dropped it off, and told me that the band was loosely associated with the über-underground hip-hop label, Anticon, I guess I was expecting some mutant form of hip-hop, but the factory beat of the opening track, "Song Meat," was surely not hip-hop -- and I can't offer an easy pigeonhole to define it.

The music shifts in several directions over the course of 11 tracks with a crew of musicians layering atmospheric textures with looping guitar, cello, keyboards and beats from organic and electronic sources. Front man Adam "Doseone" Drucker's vocals have some of the rhythmic gait of rap, but his surrealist lyrics are a far cry from B-boy braggadocio or the plastic materialism of commercial hip-hop.

When I rang Adam at his Oakland apartment a few days before Election Day he was feeling under the weather: the result of a grueling Subtle tour of Europe. We began with talk of what he termed "the tape trading days" of the late '90s, when he met Agoston, one of the "leading traders on the West Coast" in an online community revolving around the exchange of underground rap tapes.

"There were a few Web sites where you could talk with about hip-hop in chat rooms or on forums," Adam explained. "And you could meet people who had tape copies of famous battles, or demos that came before prominent influential records. It might be Master Ace or Freestyle Fellowship or whoever -- in those days you could get stuff that started hip-hop, or that started the major changes in hip-hop. The origins all came from the basic eight New York power MCs, the changes mostly came from L.A. and Project Blowed (that was Peter's specialty). In between there were all these openings and closing of different eras."

The international web of serious underground hip-hop fans eventually became a basis for selling the idea of the forward thinking Anticon collective to a record distributor.

"With Anticon, no one even wanted us to play shows in our home towns because they were too purist hip-hop -- but we had fans in Japan. That's why we got our record into the one distributor we finally landed, because we had this printout showing we had a worldwide fan base, before we even had 80 people in our own neighborhood," recalled Adam.

Back then, Adam was "a street cred happy bruiser from Philadelphia" known as Doseone, or Dose One, or just Dose. "I rapped and rapped and rapped. This DJ kid I knew told me when I moved to Cincinnati I should look for [the turntablist] Mr. Dibbs. Through him I met Jel [now the beat master for Subtle] and I met Sole, then Slug from Atmosphere," the main players in Anticon.

Doseone's forte was freestyle rhymes with intelligent content. "I would roll my eyes back in my head and it wasn't like it was just cheese that sounds good. To be honest that ability was what got me where I am. I did that for a long time before I realized I wanted to put my time into creating something timeless, rather than, `That was pretty good for making it up on the spot.'

"Hip-hop helped me find my creativity and a way into writing. I wouldn't be doing this now if I wasn't writing battle raps when I was 17. There's nothing I owe to the tradition specifically, but hip-hop gave me my ethic, which is to say that I can take anything I want from anyone's music. It's one of the few perfect things: Borrowing and adding to other ideas is the story of invention."

Is that part of the overriding Anticon aesthetic? "It's sort of the trash art pastiche, a William Wrigley meets Ice Cube when-he-was-hard thing. It's very much what it should be: It lets in all truths and angles. We know how we got here, and at the same time we were inspired by the journey."

With Subtle, the journey take a different fork in the road, "a departure from self-centered lyrics to really intense wordings about a questionable young hero in a day like this, someone who chooses to use his time for his own devices per se, and how that brings the world to him.

"The New White is sort of a series of notes about letting go and letting the writing evolve [with] narratives pieces about nervous breakdowns and moments of clarity. That said, everything is about a million other things."

He concedes that despite the distribution deal, the Anticon label is still an underground thing, "a working man's version [of a label] with us exploring our individual personalities," but he's not sure where he wants to see it go.

"Another aspect of doing a lot of business is that nothing is sacred and there's less mystery. If I want to be as big as Beck, or as big as Eminem, or Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse, or as big as I am right now -- I know the Soundscan numbers, and I can figure out the basic revenue and know the companies I'd have to license to in order to leverage such things, the management I'd need to hire. It's interesting to have that knowledge, because when I got into this as a kid, I was seeking super powers or something, and only for the vainest reasons.

"One thing I'm trying to resist right now is the serious gravity to dumb down what I'm doing to make the work more successful. The only way to fight that gravity is to focus my efforts on creating something different. As I do that, I hope we can be some part of something new.

"We're on the verge of making it over into the popular spill of things. If we could do that, it would add content to the popular majority's scope. I see that as a healthy thing, something worthy and lofty. I hold out hope that pop can make room for something you don't get at first, something that gives back for the long run, as opposed to the breath mint/chewing gum sort of quality that all pop tends to have."

Subtle comes to the Placebo in Manila Monday, Nov. 8, for an early show at 6 p.m., along with indie rockers Frog Eyes, DJ Thanksgiving Brown and Arcata noise band Stereoprimer. For more on Subtle, see

Bob Doran



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