Beats For Animals
No Beat Goes Unrhymed in The Food For Animals' Jungle
There aren't a lot of PA systems around that can take breakcore. Or at least accurately translate it, feed it into the air without the overwhelmed speakers' surprised tremble coating everything like jagged sonic rubble. Cluttered, aggressive, and touching on inscrutable, it's an electronic subgenre that can make the most expensive club system sound like the cigarette-pack set of computer speakers sitting on the average office desk. A loose descendent of jungle and the addict cousin breakbeat/club doesn't talk about, breakcore is the beat-driven equivalent of noise.
Next to genre forebears Knifehandchop, DJ/Rupture, and Jason Forrest (and his DJ Donna Summer alias), Food for Animals producer Nick Rivetti (aka Ricky Rabbit) brings an avalanche: distorted breakbeat rumbles, frantic polyrhythms, twitching 8-bit synths, in-between-stations radio static, overdriven, fractured samples-all packed into a disturbingly tight space.
Crammed into an overheated, smoked-out Brooklyn, N.Y., basement earlier this fall with a small crowd of CMJ Festival refugees-fixie-riding white kids somewhere between crust and American Apparel-you could almost see it happen, almost see the rumbles racing from Rivetti's laptop, chase along an impossibly thin cord, and grab hold of a pair of speakers ready to crumble off their stands into copper and black-plastic dust. It didn't seem particularly suited to the room-a heatstroke incubator already collecting puddles of sweat on the floor-and wouldn't particularly suit anywhere. You can't dance to it, at least without some kind of speed cocktail. So we sat back-to-the-wall and tried to collect ourselves in the rush. The thought was something like, Good Christ, how are there two dudes rhyming to this?
Breakcore's about the longest way around when it comes to hip-hop. Keeping a flow amid production built of hard breaks and noise-dipped/buried beats is kind of like hanging onto the side of a whipping roller coaster while tying to keep a glass of water from spilling. Or talking backward . . . on a speed cocktail. For the recent Washington/Silver Spring expats, this is the appeal of Food for Animals. It's why "we treat it as a band" rather than "rappers with a producer," explains a bearded, bespectacled-decidedly un-hip-hop looking-Andrew Field-Pickering (aka Vulture Voltaire) from behind a laptop.
Food for Animal's rhyming is admittedly basic, even "mainstream," Field admits. There's nothing terribly avant-garde about what the group's MCs-Field and later addition Sterling Warren-are doing. It's the sort of safe, accessible flow you're more likely to hear on the radio with a standard hip-hop beat, some soul samples, and a star cameo. Doseone they're not. You're probably not going to pick them out of a lineup or find them guesting on, well, anything. Field's delivery recalls the evenly paced, gruff style of EL-P, while Warren-who, apparently, has yet to earn an alias-could be most anyone you've heard rhyme over the past five years, albeit overcaffeinated into impressive tongue calisthenics. Both come through clear as day-save for a few distorted cuts where they get a full-on effects treatment or the amphetamine-soaked go-go/club send-up "Virgogo"-with lyrics that veer between politics ("no knife and no gun/ just a Nike shoe"), pot ("forget the 'j'/ yeah, right/ you need to pass it this way"), and free-associative strings.
Rivetti's released a small amount of material by his lonesome (as Ricky Rabbit), most notably an arrhythmic skull-fuck of a 12-inch, split with Jason Forrest, that inaugurated the noise-bent Washington label Hoss Records (Wzt Hearts, Lichens). The Ricky Rabbit moniker wasn't much of an outlet, though. "I was making a lot of music and didn't really have anything to do with it," he explains. In 2003, Rivetti got together with Field in Silver Spring. Field was rapping in "joke groups" and generally not doing much with his rhyming skills. "[Rivetti]'s like, 'You can rap, but don't do any of that other dumb shit you do on that other rapping stuff,'" Field recalls. "And I was, like, 'I can live with that.'" It wasn't exactly a natural pairing, but it gives a clue to the sure, what the hell? vibe of the group. (As does a half-dazed Rivetti lounging on his bed with a bottle of wine throughout a recent interview.)
Both Field and Sterling were lured by the challenge of rhyming to beats that aren't really there. It's not something Field sought out or an aesthetic that has much deeper appeal-"I'd be fine with normal hip-hop beats"-but a challenge for the sake of a challenge. "He makes fucked-up shit," Field muses. "It's this big blob of sound, but we know where the beat is"-often buried beneath, well, "whoooossshh," as Field puts it, gesturing to something in the air in front of him. Indeed, this is music you're more apt to sit cross-legged, back-to-the-wall to than pop off the floor to.
Warren adds, "It just seemed like fun when I first heard it. It was like, Could I even rap over this? I had rhymes-I just had to sit down and figure out a way to make them flow through one of those beats. Because they didn't seem like rap songs." They weren't in any conventional sense, and that hasn't changed since the band started five years ago with just Vulture Voltaire and Ricky Rabbit. "Maybe more bass drum" says Rivetti, but he adds that many of the beats on FFA's tremendous new record, Belly, were made before the group was even together. "There was stuff I made before that Sterling heard later on and was like, 'I can rap over that,'" Rabbit recalls. "I was like, 'You can't rap to this? It's too fast, too crazy.' He's like, 'Naw, you don't even need to change it at all, I can go with it.' I guess it hasn't really changed."
In 2006, a Pitchfork writer caught a "put-upon" soundperson remarking at FFA's Cock Rock Discos (the group's European label) CMJ showcase, "Is it supposed to sound like that?" No shit. Breakcore-concentrated, if anywhere, in a small scattering of cities, ranging wildly from Berlin to Milwaukee-is as foreign as anything in Baltimore. And, grounded by two MCs, breakcore's all the more shattering, if only because it's managed to make sense of a sound that just doesn't. ★
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