E-40 and Keak Da Sneakbrought an underexposedurban culture to the masses, yes, but it's hard to really respect their scene when its hallmarks are grimy, sped-up beats and ghostriding the whip. But Subtle, a multi-instrumental sextet from Oakland, continues to reinvent and remap hip-hop—if you want to call it that.
Tied to the notoriously experimental Anticon collective, Subtle is part of a self-contained genre. Trying to describe the band's sound outside of the occasional bass thump, keyboard swell or guitar jangle is useless—almost every reference just ends up namedropping other Anticon acts. As such, Subtle has been tagged over and over as one of the quintessential anti-hip-hop hip-hop bands. True, to some extent, sure.
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But For Hero: For Fool, the band's latest full-length, recalls all sorts of sounds. The faint autoharp running through "The Ends" sounds like it could've been swiped from Grizzly Bear or Xiu Xiu. Opener "A Tale of Apes I" could almost pass as an up-tempo TV on the Radio b-side. The threads of hip-hop are all there—they're just punctuated with bars of battered electronica and muted indie-rock.
In a lot of ways, Subtle's sound is a well-crafted mess, held together loosely by vocalist Adam "Doseone" Drucker. Drucker's lyrics follow the story of "Our Hero Yes," the album's imagined protagonist and stripe-faced cover boy. Over the course of For Hero: For Fool, Drucker crafts a prog-rock story of tattooed apes, detached, flowering limbs and postmodern cooking shows. Somehow, though, Drucker's message and style give a coherence and a uniqueness to the band that, if you're to believe all the write-ups and reviews, is just another one of those "experimental" hip-hop bands.
But it seems that Subtle and a handful of others have pushed the boundaries of hip-hop far enough that in an interview with DJ Shadow in last November's issue of The Believer, Jeff Changaddressed the issue: "I think that the wall people kept hitting was understanding the thing in reverse. Yes, anything can be hip-hop," he remarked, "But can hip-hop be anything?" It's a question that at first seems perfect for Subtle—and also one that their lofty hip-hop ultimately seems so far above. Ever hear those clean-cut punk kids discussing what punk really isonly to later discover, say, Talking Heads? Yeah, it's kind of like that.
Subtle performs with Pigeon John and more at The Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Tues., 7 p.m. $12. All ages.