- Laptop legume: Beans blends IDM with avant-garde hip-hop.
Are you happier now working alone --
"Yes," Beans replies, before we can even finish our first question.
Are you sure?
"Positive," asserts the bald, bespectacled MC-producer (real name: Robert Stewart), who last year departed from the underground hip-hop mavericks Antipop Consortium. "It's a matter of freedom. I'd seen [former bandmates Priest and M. Sayyid] do a performance with Aceyalone . . . and it made me realize we're all in different headspaces. It reaffirmed that I'd made the right decision. I'm not saying anything against what they were doing; it's just not where I want to go."
To recap: White Plains, New York's Antipop Consortium radically altered the hip-hop landscape during their five-year lifespan, through five albums (including collaborative efforts as the Isolationist with DJ Vadim and renowned jazz pianist Matthew Shipp) and several EPs. The missing link between Mantronix and Autechre, Antipop Consortium fused brainy electro-funk with inventive IDM textures, lacing it all with unconventional flows and poetry that college students will be studying for decades.
Beans became the first ex-Antipop Consortium member to release solo material, with his singularly bold Tomorrow Right Now (Warp). Recorded over several years (the oldest track dates back to 1993), the album reveals Beans' multifaceted production skills and his multiplicity of vocal deliveries, all of which sound nothing like the inarticulate chumps you see on MTV or hear on radio. Housed in a deep pink Digipak ("So it can stand out on the record stands"), featuring his heroic visage peering meaningfully stage left, Tomorrow proves that Beans truly was the "weird one" in the seriously strange Antipop Consortium camp.
The group was improving as it went along, so its breakup in 2002 shocked fans and industry observers alike. "The thing was, everyone was doing individual things in the first place," says Beans. "So it didn't get in the way of what I was doing, because I was always doing it."
But Beans thought Antipop Consortium's split was premature; he believed the trio had one more record in them. So why the breakup?
"We didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things -- at least between Sayyid and me. Priest played the middleman; he tried to be the politician and keep the peace. But they wanted to do different things. They made their decision, and that was it."
Priest and Sayyid wanted to go in a more mainstream direction. "I didn't think we had to change what we were doing, because what we were doing is why people gravitated toward us in the first place."
Growing up in suburban White Plains, Beans got hooked on hip-hop through N.Y.C. radio jocks Red Alert and Chuck Chillout, after an early infatuation with Kiss ("I had Kiss dolls, the whole nine," Beans told Index magazine). Suburbia "allowed for a chance for solitude," he recalls. "I could get more into my head." At age 16, Beans began rapping, and by the mid-'90s he was making the fertile New York spoken-word scene as part of the Brooklyn Boom Poetic collective. While involved with that crew, he forged his distinctive deliveries, ranging from alien oracle to Ivy League professor to an avant-jazz version of Public Enemy's Chuck D. Occasionally stilted, Beans' parabolic flow keeps listeners off balance while forcing them to focus on his compelling rhymes.
"Poetry opened me up to experimenting with words in different ways and how to phrase words," he says. "You couldn't be so dependent on the crutches of music. The emphasis of the words has to be a lot stronger. So coming through that and being influenced by jazz and coming from an art-school background, that's where the lyrical content comes from.
"The main thing I discuss in the work is my introspective relationship to hip-hop. I comment more than attack. My stuff is more commentary than confrontational." While most rappers treat the art form as a machismo-mad pissing contest, Beans approaches it as intellectual sport; he may boast, but he does so much more cleverly than most MCs.
Inspired by writers like Ted Joans, Ishmael Reed, William S. Burroughs, E.E. Cummings, and Octavia Butler, Beans flaunts a formidable knowledge of symbolism and structure. His spoken-word prowess culminates in the harrowing, autobiographical track "Booga Sugar," an a cappella cautionary tale on Tomorrow about the degradation of drug addiction. "It's based on an experience that allowed me to reach that realization enough to write about it," he says.
At his recent gig in Seattle, Beans opened with "Booga Sugar," a bold strategy that caught much of the audience off guard. As the venue had no stage, Beans stood at crowd level, wearing a baseball cap with felt birds embroidered on it, moving his mic in a circular motion as he spat lyrics with cadences as asymmetrically jazzy as a Roland Kirk sax solo, while his manager fiddled with the iPod and laptop behind him. Working an audience more interested in hooking up than in his nuanced word paintings, Beans radiated an authority and charisma that could make him a star among Mensa members.
"It's just me and the mic -- no hype, man," Beans says of his live setup. "So I try to get to the point. But most of the time, I end up going too long. I see my show as being more in the tradition of spoken word. I'm more comfortable being by myself, but I do miss the spontaneity of creating things on the spot. I don't bring a lot of equipment onstage, but I'll probably get a band before I get a DJ."
An inveterate touring machine, Beans has been on the road supporting Tomorrow for several months and, given his druthers, would prefer to roam the globe indefinitely. Despite the busy schedule, he's started working on his next album, which he says will be in the more up-tempo vein of Tomorrow's "Walking by Night." One track will feature Tortoise drummer John Herndon, eccentric Chicago singer-songwriter Bobby Conn, and Prefuse 73; another will have Interpol guitarist Paul Banks. "The next album's gonna have only two instrumentals, and it's gonna be mad short, like 10 songs," Beans says.
When asked about his former group's place in hip-hop history, Beans laments, "People were just starting to know about APC when we broke up. It took APC three records for people to accept us on our own terms. Now it's kind of like being demoted. I have to kind of start over again, so people have to become familiar with the stuff I did. I don't know how long it's going to take for people to acknowledge me solo."
How about tomorrow right now?