The Biopunk Reader

24Oct/110

Rap for the Biopunk Era: B. Dolan Drops a Few Thoughts on the SF/Hip Hop Ultimate Alliance

by Wyatt Matthews

When we look into Hip Hop's roots, twisted among the cables and mic chords, there has always been a mass of arteries shoved up in there that link to science fiction. It's a contorted kinship that is often overlooked.

In the '80s in particular, the cross-fertilization of shared themes and modes between the two cultures was probably more obvious than it is now. The very seeds of Hip Hop had a cosmic lacquer, from the out-of-this-world stylings of George Clinton to b-boys doing the non-ironic robot. In the '80s, we heard William Gibson noting that DJing was a form of hacking, and that urban music was sharing frequencies with the cyberpunk movement.

But, what about now, in the post-cyberpunk era? Who's dropping the biotech beats? I asked B. Dolan, Providence-based rapper and spoken word artist whose art marches through both domains, to shed some light on the crossroads of Hip Hop and SF.

TBR: In general, what kind of media did you digest while you were growing up and developing as an artist that gave you an affinity for/tolerance for science fiction topics? Where do biopunk themes come in, if at all?

BD: I insatiably digested all kinds of media from a really young age, like it was the only thing that mattered in life. In retrospect it was a really strange way for a kid to be. I was obsessed with the escapism that books, music and movies offered. Not just from my home situation, but from the way everyone around me thought about the world and life. Ultimately too, I think I was obsessed with escaping death.

I read lots of religious texts. The Tao te ching, Gnostic scriptures, Thomas Aquinas, whatever the hell I could find. I had a copy of the I Ching I would treat like a magic 8 ball. I also found out about Nietzsche and he fucked up a good part of my childhood.

At the same time, I was staying current with any comic book series I could get my hands on. The Mighty Thor, Batman, and X-Men were my shit.

I never cared about science fiction until I discovered Philip K. Dick, and he instantly became one of my favorite writers. The first book I read was VALIS, which basically combined elements of everything I’ve listed above. The combination and balance of storytelling and ideas were absolutely perfect, and the unhinged kind of mania he wrote with appealed to my own obsessive brain.

So, the long way around that question is that comic books probably paved the way. After that PKD made me understand what the genre of science fiction was really about and capable of, and why that mattered.

TBR: Why do you think Hip Hop so frequently interfaces with science fiction?

BD: I think there’s a very direct link between hip hop and comic books/dime store fiction of all kinds, including Sci-fi. They were the two things I bought with my own money from a young age, and usually in the same store. In a lot of cases I can remember the book I read in combination with the tape I was wearing out while reading it.

There’s a deeper link also in that both sci-fi and rap were discounted artforms. Rap wasn’t “serious” music, and science fiction wasn’t “serious” literature. They were both outsider cultures, seen as ‘low brow’ by established industries, and they were both about escapism to an extent. I think for that reason they wound up in the same kids hands for years. Maybe they still do.

TBR: In your opinion, if there were a master list--like the Western Cannon for SF Hip Hop--what would be on it? (…and what might get left out–either deservedly or undeservedly?)

BD: Kool Keith would probably be one of the first names in a lot of people’s mind there. He sort of did with sci-fi what the Wu-Tang did with kung-fu. Between the use of certain samples, sounds and slang he was able to extend the metaphor and make himself into a character telling a familiar story in a unique way.

El-P would be an important emcee to mention, because he took it farther than just adopting some space rap imagery like a lot of rappers did. With El-P you can hear a whole dystopian sci-fi aesthetic embedded in the construction of lines, beats, and the lens he views current events through. So he’d be an important part of the Cannon for sure.

Rammellzee is the next name that comes immediately to mind. Sadly he might be “undeservedly left out” because he’s not on as many people’s radar. Still, he was as important as he was incredible. His ideas and output are both really brilliant and really futurist. You can’t study hip hop and sci-fi without Rammellzee. He also connects futurism in rap to people like Sun-Ra who came before it.

DJ Q-Bert’s “Wave Twisters” album is great futurist hip hop, and highlights the turntable as a sci-fi instrument maybe better than any other.

I’m sure that’s another reason rap is related to sci-fi; that our instruments all felt so futuristic at the time. I do remember a sense of playing with big banks of glowing buttons and making music that sounded like something out of a Sci-Fi movie… Feeling like a spaceman. Granted it wasn’t the beginning of electronic music, but it was the first time those electronics were within the price range of working class people.

Christ these questions are making me think. Haha. Well done. There’s a lot of names to add to this list. It probably begins with songs like Afrika Bambatta’s “Planet Rock” and MC Shan’s “MC Space”, continues through songs like “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” by Organized Konfusion, groups like The Infesticons and even albums like Sole’s last record, which had great dystopian, progressive material on it.

Things like Wayne and Kanye’s use of Autotune are probably also related, which goes back to Roger Troutman and his talkbox, and the way that became part of the West Coast sound at a certain point…

Now I know I’ve forgotten something massive. I’m sure of it. Anxiety sets in.

TBR: SF can be a lot of things: modern myth, an avenue for escapism, a tool for social criticism…. What’s your take on SF? In what ways has it become an element in your own work?

BD: I think the surrealism of sci-fi is very present in a lot of my stuff. Songs like “Joan of Arcadia” and “Earthmovers” certainly have an other-worldly, dark future feel to them that comes from that place. In terms of modern myths, “The Reptilian Agenda” would certainly be classified as that or as Sci-Fi by some.

All of those examples involve social criticism as well, and sci-fi is a great tool for that. I like the slippery dream logic that happens in sci-fi stories, and that’s something I’ve made good use of in both my writing and performance.

“The Failure” is also a dark future story about the last man on earth in a fallout shelter, and the things he’d record before he died. I don’t have much use for escapism, oddly enough, but everything else from the genre tends to inform the way I write. I guess that original spark of escapism is what keeps me making music in the first place though.

TBR: Some critics claim that SF is a “super genre” in that it cross-breads and codeshares with other genres more easily. Is there something similarly super about Hip Hop?

BD: I think so. But that’s also any genre, isn’t it? That process seems to be going on everywhere all the time. It’s obvious in hip hop because of sampling, but good artists are always being influenced and inspired and pushing the boundaries of their genre. My guess would be that the internet and the ease with which information is shared will send that process into hyperdrive in the next generation, as all genres meld into one universal mega-music, which will sound like Balinese Gamelan being played on a galaxaphone.

*Many, many thanks to B. Dolan for his insights. He comes to us courtesy of Strange Famous Records.

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