Bombing the Pigeonhole: an interview with clipping.

Blake Gillespie

Though the reasoning is indeterminate, a suspicion exists, possibly even a stigma, that clipping. are rap voyeurists and tourists, and possibly even more egregious—satirists. It might be the quick ascension after the release of debut midcity., signing to Sub Pop, or the trio’s background in noise bands, film scores, and theatre. Hell, there was even the complication of inadvertently arriving too closely to the heels of Death Grips and grazing the noise rap coattails. Whatever the reservation may be (for fucksake kill the coinage post-Yeezus), clipping. are critiqued with an unmerited handicap.

It’s a phenomena that says more about the critic than it does about the group. Take Miles Raymer’s assessment of the Sub Pop debut, CLPPNG, in his Pitchfork review: “The tracks go just a little too far in their eagerness to challenge their audience and the raps they’re sharing space with are too banal to make the challenge worth it.” Or No Ripcord’s Stephen Wragg, who determined the “polarisation of their reference points indicates the bigger problem of their music, its inability to properly find common ground between the avant-garde and hip-hop.” Consistently, the critics are construing the intent based on sensitivity to a subgenre they conceived, yet never bothered to incubate or abort. The challenge of clipping. isn’t about determining whether noise has a place in hip hop, but whether you have the capacity to ignore the impulse to label it “experimental” or dwell on their progressive enzymes despite this strictly being a crisis concocted by critics. In short, we’re fucking this up.

In several reviews, despite the group’s insistence in interviews, clipping. are accused of inviting King T and Gangsta Boo into their experimentalist lab as a means of legitimizing their work. And yet, these collaborations happened like LeBron James linked up with Dwayne Wade: via Twitter. In producing “Tonight” and “Summertime”, the two tracks featuring the guest appearances in question, producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson gave T and Boo the tracks as they sound on CLPPNG. Hutson and Snipes admitted to creating back-up versions (see also: traditional rap beat versions) of the track, prepped with kicks and snares, but neither artist requested added percussion nor hesitated to contribute.

“Despite how people write about us and what people who hear us say about us, none of the more traditional rappers we presented our beats to even commented on the beats we presented or suggested that they were anything but what exactly they were used to working on,” Hutson said. “They said, ‘Hey, this sounds cool, right on, let’s get to work.’ We didn’t present ourselves as an experimental group and they didn’t ever even mention it if they thought that.”

It’s been a hard pill for doubters to swallow, but clipping. at its core, is three rap fans who cumulatively hold a historian’s database of rap appreciation and catalog. Many times in my interview with the trio, they traced the impetus of a song to admiration for a past trend, like kids chorus on “Dominoes” or the whispered raps on “Dream”, or to a rapper’s body of work. “Summertime” was curated for King T after the LA legend agreed to collaborate with them via Twitter. The group listened to his albums on a drive back to LA from a visit to the desert. The group’s vocalist Daveed Diggs wrote the song in the car and the beat was laid out in a late night session, everyone feeling inspired by the opportunity.

For “Dominoes”, a track that features a chorus sung by children, it was an admiration of Trick Daddy’s “I’m A Thug” that led to one of the group’s more commercially ambitious offerings. Well, Trick Daddy and a realization that being signed to Sub Pop meant a budget that could support the hiring of professional child singers arranged by a vocal contractor that previously orchestrated a choir for P.O.D.’s “Youth Of A Nation”—provided they fill out a stack of paperwork.

“[The moms] were like ‘Oh, this is a rap record? Cool, we did a potato chip commercial last weekend’,” Hutson said. “It’s just what these kids do.”

After feeling dissatisfied with his delivery of the chorus, Diggs said he just started hearing kids on it, adding,”that’s another rap trope—having the kids choir on a hook—which we had not yet referenced and that hook, for some reason the way it was written, seemed particularly good to me.”

“It felt like an odd thing for kids to be saying and it reminded me a lot of that Trick Daddy song,” he continued. “There were a lot of things that I was referencing anyways that led me to thinking of kids on the hook. And we were like, ‘we can’t possibly do this!’ Then we sat down and thought about it and we were like, ‘why can’t we do this’?”

Hutson noted many of their ideas are built from this head space. They get the impulse to reference a past trope or a joke is started—like the alarm clock beat on “Get Up”—which evolves into a challenge to make it work. Connections to large studios obtained from scoring film and budgets from Sub Pop are integral, but the group maintains a DIY spirit, since the execution is still on their shoulders to produce. The support system is in tow, but clipping. push the form like most visionaries: it begins with respect for the originators and endures from a desire to take it further.

“I think, being people that have worked in experimental music for as long as we have, I am very familiar with the breadth of what experimental music does,” Hutson said. “I think for this record we were less interested in the “noise” genre of experimental music and we expanded out and used more techniques from maybe “musique concrète” and other things like that.”

Citing musique concrète, and pronouncing it correctly, in interviews is not considered keeping it real. Sneaking in dedications to Steve Reich and John Cage isn’t what “real hip hop” is about, right? If anything clipping. are guilty of awareness or being too scholarly in their craft, but the techniques they bring to their music are not foreign implants in rap. All Music’s review of CLPPNG claims the Huston and Snipes’ production is “mismatched or disconnected” from Diggs’ menacing content. Looking back, rap production has been built from shotgun pumps and blasts courtesy of U-Neek’s work on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Thug Luv”, the tick-tock of clocks on Juelz Santana’s “Clockwork”, lowrider hydraulics on Xzibit’s “Front 2 Back”, and squeaky bed springs on Trillville’s “Some Cut” courtesy of Lil Jon. So if Juelz can compare his game to a clock over a tick-tock production, why can’t Diggs mimic “intimate club” (aka “The Whisper Song” by Ying Yang Twins) by whispering the lyrics to “Dream”, creating a vaporous presence in a song that references Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “Juicy” lyrics?

And of course there’s “Get Up” with its aggravating and Pavlovian conditioning turned production conceit in the form of an unhindered alarm clock sample—recorded from Snipes’ girlfriend’s bedside clock. Snipes is aware of the reviews that consider it a sore spot on the record, but he saw it coming after his girlfriend, growing tired of him attempting to perfect the production for weeks, began referring to it as “the worst song in the world.” Now when the two wake in the morning to its sound, they find themselves quoting Diggs, “Game don’t wait…”

Snipes said, “There have actually been a couple of reviews that call that out and say like, ‘Uhh why aren’t there drums on that because it’s just rapping over an alarm clock. How lazy’.”

Hutson sarcastically added “Because those harmonies are real lazy,” which triggered Snipes into an in depth explanation of just how difficult it is to synchronize a six minute, un-looped recording of an alarm clock, eventually shrugging it off with a confident “I know what I did.”

“There’s no loops in it; one recording of an alarm that is perfectly at 120 beats per minute. I did no time shifting to it,” Snipes said. “The central pitch of the alarm clock is pretty close to a concert A, like a 440, but it was a little bit flat or sharp, I don’t really remember. It’s seventeen cents in one direction and I re-tuned it so that we could tune to it. Something about the tuning process, like I could really hear it, it had a lot of artifacts in the alarm clock sound so I just re-tuned everything to the original alarm clock and all the harmonies that come in aren’t it’s shifted versions of the alarm clock because those didn’t sound right either. There was something distorted in the upper harmonics of it so I actually re-synthesized the alarm clock on the modular synthesizer. I did some spectral analysis of it to make sure that I was getting all the peaks right and I made a sound that was virtually identical, on the modular synth, to it and modeled the room reverb to mix it in and then did the harmonies on that.”

Still think it’s lazy?

Leaving the criticism to the critics, clipping. insist their music is not a statement on the genre and their jokes are not satire directed at its creators. In their minds, building songs from found sounds is aligned to the original aesthetic of hip hop, dig up sounds, be it from your dad’s record bin or inspired by your surroundings. Diggs notes they received a lot of flack over “Tonight” with its auto-tuned chorus about tipping drink service and locking down a hook-up at last call. He envisioned it having the same functionality as T-Pain’s “Bartender” or a Future song, while Hutson noted the “who’s fuckin’ tonight” refrain is a reference to ghetto-house and DJ Assault. He said the group was pushing Sub Pop to make it a single.

“Everyone calls that a ‘parody’,” Snipes said. “We just thought we were contributing to the idea of songs with practical uses in the club.”

Diggs added, “So you know, this is the way songs get made and even though they may sometimes spring out of jokes we have about ‘Oh this is a funny idea.’ The process of making a song is really about throwing in a whole bunch of references to shit that we genuinely love and then trying to contribute to that world. So yeah we don’t ‘satire’ things.”

Authenticity by nature is subjective and elusive. No matter how many interviews the group utilize to defend their contributions to the experimental spirit of hip hop, viewing their craft as no less inventive than early Dr. Dre or Bomb Squad, clipping. remain in the crosshairs of critics. Maybe it’s their own doing in being open enough to lift the veil on their techniques?

“I think we’re just talking about it more or for some reason the context just makes it more apparent that that’s what going on,” Hutson said.

“Maybe just the timing of it,” Diggs said. “But, if the three of us are making rap music, this is the rap music we can make.”

Snipes put a button on their stance: “And it’s great to be part of a project where we didn’t say ‘Oh we want to make rap music. Here are the rules of rap music that we have to follow when making rap beats.’ We know what those rules are but we also know what kinds of sounds that we can make and how we can make sounds. Let’s not ever be lazy and let’s not ever dial up a preset. We’re going to make all of these sounds from scratch and so the techniques we know of how to make those sounds, I think, lead to sounds you don’t always necessarily hear in rap music.”

clipping.’s CLPPNG is out now on Sub Pop.

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