By Clayton Purdom | 14 July 2005
While Edan Portnoy certainly turned heads with his debut Primitive Plus in 2002 , it’s his sophomore release, this year’s Beauty and the Beat, that’s getting him hailed as a visionary on both sides of the Atlantic. Befuddling and occasionally divisive (Pitchfork infamously gave lead single “Fumbling Over Words that Rhyme” a half star), the album is a swirling, hyperdelic mish-mash of ‘60s psych rock and early ‘90s boom-bap hip hop slickness. Beauty and the Beat is barely thirty minutes of music, but it’s already shaping up as one of the most enigmatic, accomplished and infectious albums of the year.
Edan sat down with Cokemachineglow’s Clayton Purdom and, when not fielding incoming calls and eating some sort of delicious sandwich, Edan talked for a real long time about surrealism, the state of hip hop, and, uh, Jethro Tull. Then he made Purdom give an on-the-spot definition of grime, a task at which Purdom failed miserably. (Purdom apologizes to fans of the genre.) Then Edan gave the single most elaborate answer to the question “What’s your favorite color?” ever, an answer which involves both the word “lexicon” and Enter the Dragon. Read on for details.
CMG’s Clayton Purdom (CMG): What are you up to these days?
Edan: Kicking it. I did one solid stint of shows in England. I did a thing a festival with Insight in Spain, this shit called Sonar. De La Soul was there; Cut Chemist was there. Kanye West popped up in the middle of De La’s shit for no reason and did a fucking couple rhymes in like a $3,000 suit or some shit. I was supposed to go on the road with Z-Trip but that shit didn’t really materialize. So I would’ve had all this time on the road, which would’ve been ideal in terms of promoting shit. But if I’m not out on the road I can always be making more music, or just reaching higher levels of spirituality, son.
CMG: Do you have any plans for a tour?
Edan: I’m working on getting something together for the fall. Until it looks more solid I’m not gonna name names.
CMG: You’ve said that Beauty and the Beat is a concept album. Where did this “concept” come from?
Edan: Coming from the DJ perspective, I’m just listening to all this different shit, looking around my room, record covers staring out at me and shit. After awhile I got tired of filing shit separately, keeping the hip hop mentality in one side of my mind and keeping the rock stuff in a different corner of my brain. I wanted to try to get Ray Davies and Kool G Rap to hold hands, you know? I’m not the first person to have that revelation, but it’s a good revelation to experience. I just wanna unify people and things and sounds. I just love that ‘50s shit, and I felt like if I try to play some early Floyd stuff for some cats that I know, they would tell me to turn that shit off. If you want things to sound jaggy, uneven, swirling, chaotic, but at the same time pleasurable to the ear, I think it’s possible. A lot of hip hop comes off like it’s motherfucking mathematically sequenced with rubber gloves on. Spiritually, I can’t make music that way. I have to just let out emotion and splash the paint around. And I know that sounds pretentious, as soon as you mention art and hip hop in the same breath, you on some bullshit, getting ahead of yourself, but that’s really what it’s about. Why not, you know?
CMG: In your interviews, you talk about the influence of The 39 Steps, an early Hitchcock movie.
Edan: Yeah, 39 steps, Dali, surrealist art.
CMG: I can see some surrealist influence on it, but not really The 39 Steps.
Edan: (Gets another call) Hold on, I’m anxious to explain this shit. Lemme check this other line.
[Three minutes pass]
Edan: I’m so sorry man, people get going and you can’t really find that pause to cut’em off and tell’em you got some shit going on.
Basically, the song that really reflects that shit is “Beauty.” The first verse I’m just kicking some beautiful imagery, what I think evokes beauty, talking about stuff like the sun reflecting off the waterfront causing prisms to appear, butterflies, the reproductive systems, all sorts of life-affirming, pretty shit. That was the focus on the first verse.
The second verse was a little more abstract. And I was trying to hint at sort of the idea that human beings are arrogant, and we think we know everything about this and this and that, and we behave like that anyways, as if we know how to treat the world, as if we know what we’re doing when it comes to respecting the environment, when obviously we ain’t got the right idea. The truth in this universe is something that is very overwhelming to us if taken in a full dose, and basically I wanted to paint images of all these impossible physical phenomena that would pretty much make a motherfucker feel like he didn’t know shit about the universe. That there’s beauty out there that could dwarf our notion of what is fact and what is fiction.
It starts off with stuff like the numbers falling off of clocks, which is Dali-esque. Someone reaching into a still life, grabbing an apple out of that shit, which is on some Brunwell shit, and then there’s stuff like faces disappearing from statues, planets trading places, a dog growing wings, just shit that would bother your fucking mind or whatever. Then shit got…it started getting weird during that verse, because I started feeling like I wanted there to be some sort of vague plot within that, about a person stealing beautiful items, disappearing with them.
Once I make shit, sometimes I get different ideas on the symbolism about what it could mean. Maybe somebody’s stealing these items from the world because they’re beautiful, and people desire beautiful things, or maybe because we don’t appreciate them enough. Either way the verse progresses into a thing where “the man with the mustache reveals the three aces / briefcases open to expose sheet music / the thief hears the piece performed and weeps to it / the master violinist plays the solo one-handed / the notes on the page become frantic.” So now it’s this symposium vibe, like you catching the symphony and like “the notes become ants and run off the page,” which is another thing taken directly from a Dali painting, and then the orchestra’s trying to perform the piece while the ants are running around the page and it just gets noisier and noisier, and then its like, “the baron with the glass eye sweats and loses poise,” so like some dude of high esteem is up in the crowd getting nervous because the music’s sounding fucked up and no one knows what’s going on, “a scene is made / the chief’s brigade is summoned / the man in the mask walks fast and starts running / an officer fires a pistol in black apparel / but instead of lead a rose grows from out the barrel / the criminal escapes into a disappearing door marked Beauty / exiting the world for evermore.”
And it just has that 39 Steps vibe, even The Third Man vibe, when you hear that police scuffle shit when I’m talking about that scene at the end. It just reminds me of a ‘30s cat, like a cop with a trenchcoat and a bullshit pistol. It was watching The 39 Steps and stuff like that that influenced that verse. There’s some science behind the shit.
CMG: Is the album narrative? Is there a beginning a middle and end to it?
Edan: There’s a loose narrative. There are certain instances where two songs go together. There’s a song called “Murder Mystery.” That song evolves into a thing where somebody gets killed, and you’re not really sure what happened. “Shot him with a rifle / a product of the cycle.” And I wanted it to be presented in this weird puzzle piece fashion, where you’re a detective and you’re discovering all these things, kind of on some Dragnet shit, and then right after that it leads to a sample where the dude gets killed, and you hear a sample from a flick of some dude getting tortured, and then the next song is “Torture Chamber,” so in that sense, there’s some weird narrative. In the end, there’s a narrative, like the last two songs. There’s a song called “Smile” about an artist who’s at the height of his fame, and is super-talented, but isn’t really impassioned and is depressed and is going through internal turmoil, and then out of that comes a really triumphant joint called “Promised Land,” which represents the triumph of your will and imagination to be positive. So after the low comes the high, to close out the record.
CMG: How did you construct the timeline for the artists on “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme?”
Edan: Um, hold on. I’m eating a sandwich.
Edan: That song ain’t no end-all-be-all authoritarian shit, it’s just my opinion on the MCs that I like. I wasn’t focusing necessarily on the Ice Cubes and the Biggies, not necessarily the people that had the most impact. I was just focusing from an instrumental or musical point of view, like who I thought contributed the most on a jazz level, rhythmically, technique-wise, who was ill and who had flavor. It’s just one person’s list. Anyone can make their own top ten, you know?
CMG: Was the same criteria used for the artists on “Rock & Roll?”
Edan: No. Not at all. There’s records I mention on that “Rock & Roll” song that I don’t even fucking like.
CMG: For example?
Edan: Like fucking Blue Oyster Cult. Fucking Aqualung; I don’t like Jethro Tull. King Crimson’s cool, but I don’t rock it that much. Like: “My aqualung cultivates the blue oyster shellfish,” and while I’m on the topic of oysters, I say, “I design my pearls before swine.” In front of swine, a lesser entity, I design these jewels, you know? That shit was just whatever I know of that had an album or name that lent itself to some vivid imagery.
CMG: How is your approach to combining rap and rock different than all the other attempts at it over the past 20 years?
Edan: Rick Rubin was onto something by taking the most loud, abrasive shit possible and putting it in your face. In general terms, that’s what people have been trying to do since then. It’s gotta be super hype, super adrenaline, super loud riffs, MCs yelling and shit. But there’s a lot of subtlety to these genres. I think I touched on a weirder side of it. Like instead of Ray Davies and G Rap holding hands, they’d probably rather have Kiss and 2pac or some shit. They took the brashest elements of both. The reason mine doesn’t sound like that is because I wasn’t like, “Oh, I gotta combine rock and rap.” This is just how I make a rap record.
CMG: What’s your take on grime, in light of what you’re doing? Both are branches of some greater hip hop tree, but they seem kind of opposite.
Edan: Like, what, Dizzee Rascal?
E: London and the UK always had a reggae influence that I thought was dope. I’m not sure if that plays into grime. I’m sort of sleeping on the whole grime thing. I dunno. Break it down for me.
CMG: Uh. It’s got the ragga thing going into it a little, but it’s more hardcore in the old school sense, like “The Message.” A lot of documentary-style raps. Musically, it attempts to be as dirty and, you know, grimy as possible-it kind of sounds in the gutter.
Edan: But that’s the thing about Beauty and the Beat. That grimy shit is on there, too. There are songs that just fucking melt into distortion and chaos. To appreciate beauty you gotta see the grimy shit, too. All that stuff touches me. Stuff like the Velvet Underground: it’s sad music, but there’s some beauty there. It’s sorta tragic. Beauty and sadness, the combination of those two elements is pretty profound. You get tired of the “boom-bap” element of hip hop, where every drumbeat is so fucking pronounced and the pocket is so tight and robotic. I wanted some of the grooves on that shit to sound like the drummer was drunk and about to fall off the set. A little bit of that floppiness that I guess you could attribute to white drummers when they just sort of bash away. I like that vibe. And I like trying to imagine a James Brown-like pocket within that sloppy shit, you know? It’s just fun.
CMG: You’re from Baltimore, right?
Edan: Nah, I’m from Rockville. Just small kinda shitty noncultural place in Maryland. Not exactly a suburb in the “white picket fence” sorta sense. Lots of parking garages.
CMG: So why did you sign to Lewis, a UK label?
Edan: I had made some copies of Primitive Plus. I sent that to Mike Lewis, because Mr. Complex, the dude who’s down with Organized Konfusion-you know Complex, right?
Edan: I was talking to him on the phone, and I asked him about some overseas action. “I have a sense that my shit isn’t really gonna be that appreciated over here, and I know that England is usually thirsty for something a little different.” So he told me to send the CD to Mike Lewis in England, who is pretty much a press guy, who would help promote certain New York artists in England. So I sent him that bullshit CD-R of Primitive Plus and he liked it so much he wanted to put it out, and start a whole label just to put that shit out. So from then on, the attention he gave me, because there wasn’t anyone else on the label, and because he genuinely liked it and was genuinely a fan of good music, and not really one of those soulless business motherfuckers, I was down. And it turned out pretty good. The exposure was decent, better than anything I had ever seen at that point. Decent press, decent sales, for what it was. And I got some change. I was able to live off this shit for like two years or whatever. Live humbly, but live. Then the second record came around. I wasn’t finished with it yet, there was another label or two trying to scoop me up. There was some shit I had to think long and hard about before I decided to do another record with Mike. I kinda just cherish my own space in this shit. Being associated with the right people certainly helps, as far as people’s perceptions go, and if you’re on “this label” it’s gonna do so much better. But I just really wanted my own umbrella, my own spot. I didn’t wanna be compared to other artists on a roster. It’s probably an only-child complex
CMG: On “Rock & Roll,” you say “every cracker that rap ain’t the Elvis.” As a white dude in what is widely perceived as a “black” genre, have you faced much aversion?
Edan: It’s been cool. The only people that complain about shit like that are people that don’t really have a stake in anything, and they just want to bring you down with words. It’s never been a problem. If you sit there saying, “I’m white, I have it so bad,” first of all, you look like an idiot saying that shit. I mean, sometimes there’s frustration, you know that cats like won’t give it to you because you don’t have credibility on such and such street. And you didn’t grow up with a hard life so your record can’t be good. That shit is real petty and it don’t really bother me.
CMG: I was wondering a little bit about your musical education. What was your favorite stuff growing up?
Edan: The Beatles, doo-wop, the Flamingos: very warm-sounding shit. The Platters. Then I got into Hendrix, Zeppelin. I ain’t that different from the average motherfucker. Then in ’88 I bought Straight Outta Compton and that pretty much fucked with me.
CMG: Was that the first hip hop album that really did it for you?
Edan: It was the first time I heard that much profanity. Ice Cube is crazy as fuck. I didn’t even know fuck could be an adverb until then. Then time went on and I started checking for other types of MCs, but (N.W.A.) sort of got me going. I knew about hip hop when Raising Hell came out. I was eight years old and that shit was everywhere. Same with the Beastie Boys’ first album. Those two records invaded white America.
CMG: What are you listening to these days?
Edan: A lot of reggae lately. All that Jamaican stuff was pretty much hip hop before hip hop came about in the US. They went through all the same competitive shit, sound system battles with DJs, people toasting on records, rapping over other people’s records, beefing, making dis records. There was just an amazing little thing that went on in Jamaica. It’s very enchanting, and captivating, and the music is so rewarding on a spiritual level. Plus, a lot of it’s real dusted, which I can definitely get into.
CMG: Have you heard the new Quasimoto?
Edan: Yeah. I thought it was good. I don’t think it captures his ultimate potential, but Madlib is so creative and so prolific that by the time you even sit down to say jack shit about any of his records, he’s already put out three more. So you can’t say shit, his heart and head is in the right place, and he’s just disciplined. Anybody who constantly makes music is a smart man. I’m trying to get my lazy ass in gear to do that as well but it’s hard because there are other aspects of life that call you and take up your time. A lot of Beauty and the Beat for me was about feeling guilty for not being creative enough. And then I wouldn’t really do anything for like a week and I would get so down on myself that I was driven to this absolutely necessary point of creating, or else I would just fucking jump into the Charles River or some shit. That’s why I think the record is good, because I was creating from that “back against the wall” place. I’d like to go the other route, and just make a lot of music. I need to get that dialogue with myself and my inner mind cracking as much as possible. So I give Madlib respect on that level. I think I might’ve even liked the first Quasimoto record better, but it’s cool. His shit’s always gonna have glimpses of brilliance.
CMG: What’s next? Have you thought at all about Beauty’s follow up?
Edan: It’s a little too soon. I do things slowly. I might do some stuff with Lif on the beat tip. I might be on the Cut Chemist album, kicking a rhyme. I’m trying to get into some instruments. I write songs on like a singer-songwriter level as well, where I got a guitar in my hand, and I’m just kind of singing. So that’s something to explore. There’s a whole lotta stuff, man. I’m not a good chess player, I could probably improve that, you know?
CMG: On Beauty, you talk a lot about colors. For the record, what is your favorite color?
E: I say that on the album, man! “My favorite color is math.” I know that sounds like a bullshit answer. People ask me what’s my favorite word, and I’m like, “Fuck that, the whole lexicon is what I’m interested in. Every word at once.” Every color that is possible just stems from intervals and physics and mathematics, varying degrees of sunlight. I’m into the mathematics that allows for all these different shades as opposed to the one shade. That’s a microcosm of how I view everything. There’s a Bruce Lee flick where he points to the moon or some shit?
CMG: Enter the Dragon.
Edan: Yeah! And then he slaps the fucking kid for lookin at his finger. Don’t look at the finger, look at the fucking moon.
CMG: That’s a much better answer to “What’s your favorite color?” than I expected.