Music

Rapping In Space: How Clipping Broke The Fourth Wall And Entered The Fourth Dimension

It’s Clipping, bitch.

Even the most diehard fans have trouble following whatever comes next. Daveed Diggs raps with a typewriter-off-the-edge cha-ching fury, firing phrases like bullets, weaponry designed to speed through the silvery screen of unrelenting noise that William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes summon. An early rule in the trio’s evolution was that the production must be subservient to the vocal, and though they’ve bent most of the other initial parameters, this one reigns supreme.

Diggs’ voice is always there, thrusting forward, high-stepping like a football player into a wide open end zone; there’s a victory in his cadence even when he’s rapping about utter desolation, which is often. His blistering delivery circles back on itself, doubling down like a lawyer interrogating a witness about to break. You can’t keep up with him even if you’ve memorized the words; he’ll tweak phrasing last minute like late era Dylan, warping it until it fits his own newly-realized purpose.

For their part, Hutson and Snipes similarly molt, working within a shifting framework that only people who’ve known each other this long can intuit. When performing live, the trio maneuver with the kind of unspoken musical calibrations that border on telepathy, an internal communication and flexibility that powers any successful creative act. You could say that ability itself is the creative act.

Watching Clipping in real time leads to the realization that noise is like jazz, it requires the same intuition, respect and fundamental understanding of forms. Once mastered, of course, it also requires that these forms be smashed to pieces. The three members move at a breakneck pace, but remain a unit even when they’re destroying shit. No matter the speed, they’re discrete, separate, utterly unconcerned with whatever unfolds around them. If you lose the thread, there’s always one phrase everyone can unite on.

It’s those three words, spit with an insolence that borders on a sneer but that never bleeds into malice. It’d be a snarl if it wasn’t over so quickly. But everything Daveed Diggs says is over quickly. Of all the phrases in Clipping’s intergalactic lexicon, it’s the one that has become their calling card. Succinct. Descriptive. Aggressive.

It’s the one that lets you understand why, in mid-July, right after winning a Tony award, Diggs left his role in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning, internet-breaking, culture-jamming phenomenon Hamilton to complete the noise rap trio’s third album. The record, called Splendor & Misery, is a fifteen-track Afrofuturist dystopian concept album with no real singles that came out at the beginning of September. It’s the opposite of a safe bet, it’s one of the longest shots the three of them have ever taken.

Then again, that’s what most people thought about Hamilton right around this time two years ago. And maybe they aren’t so different after all. Both projects use hip-hop to decenter the traditionally white narrative; where Miranda’s musical looked backward, reimagining the past in playful bars, Splendor & Misery looks forward, interrogating the present and yearning toward a better future. But if you’re a Hamilton fan and came here looking for a Lin-Manuel Miranda rhyme, this is not that.

It’s Clipping, bitch.

This Must Be The Place

Daveed Diggs keeps closing his eyes. Behind him, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes are manning a free standing modular synth wall and tubular bells, flanked on all sides by the marching ant neon lights of a late night set. It seems unlikely that any other musical guests on The Late Late Show with James Corden have brought either of these contraptions onstage before. An earlier blown fuse confirms that theory.

It’s the Wednesday of album release week and this is the group’s first television appearance, a milestone that’s still immensely important in the career arc of a relatively unknown independent rap group who regularly play DIY spaces. Friends, girlfriends, and even some family have been gathered backstage in the show’s green room for hours prior to the show. There’s an air of anticipation and a hint of disbelief; this performance feels auspicious. Corden himself has been flitting around the set all day, speed-rapping along to Clipping songs in his British accent and raving about the group to his crew.

While we wait, Hutson, who recently earned a Ph.D in Performance Studies at UCLA, receives a copy of The New Yorker from Snipes’ mother, who wants to discuss the philosophers touted in the new issue. It’s a moment of normalcy in an otherwise surreal day — moms are good for that.

Diana Miller, a Talent Executive for The Late Late Show explained that a tweet from the show’s host, James Corden, drew her to Clipping.

“James tweeted about Clipping and that is how I found out about them, as funny as that sounds it’s true!” Miller said. “When booking music for The Late Late Show, a visual component is key. Great music is important, but a great performance is essential. At the end of the day, we are a television show. People aren’t listening to the music alone in the car, they are watching it, so it has to be visually compelling. Especially when it’s topical, celebrity based, musical and funny. The Late Late Show hits all of those notes. The internet feeds on original content…It’s the bloodline. There are big broadcast shows and big internet shows, we get to be a bit of both.”

She’s right — the group’s performance has racked up almost 100,000 views in the last few weeks, which is pretty on par with the group’s music videos.

The group selected “A Better Place,” the last track on Splendor & Misery as the song to perform on the show, and maybe, after a day of short-circuits, green room ennui, an hour-long lunch interview, a fan ambush, and a live televised interview, the only way for Diggs to get back into the music itself is to take a moment for himself onstage.

The jittery, blinking lights against that black backdrop make the stage look like the claustrophobic spaceship where Splendor & Misery takes place. Many of the tracks on the album are full of longing, including this one. There must be a better place to be somebody. Be somebody else.

In a couple weeks, Diggs’ appearance as a guest star on black-ish will air, he’s already been on Netflix’s The Get Down, and though Hamilton has never been televised, those performances were broadcast to larger audiences than this one. But being on TV is still being on TV — especially when it’s for Clipping instead of anything else — and there’s something about it that feels weighty, important, and official.

For the last twenty seconds or so, Diggs turns his back to the audience and the cameras, soaking in the feedback Hutson and Snipes unleash at the end of the song. He seems just as happy listening to the noise his friends make as he is standing in the spotlight in front of them, a role he’s had to assume more than ever lately.

So even if Hamilton got them there, Clipping is what Corden loves: a bait and switch that, against all odds, seems to be working in a lot of cases. In fact, Corden is so taken with “A Better Place,” that he requests the group stay to record another track, which will air on a show at a later date.

That’s when they let their guard down and do the raunchy, strip-club groove “Wriggle” off this summer’s EP of the same name. The song is built around a sample from a pioneering ‘80s power-electronics group called Whitehouse. It’s explicit, sardonic and the slightest bit goofy — it’s very Clipping.

Later, Hutson jokes that noise is “over” now that they’ve played Whitehouse on mainstream television and there’s a kernel of truth to that: It is bizarre to hear a sexually explicit song powered by industrial noise samples on a late night show. It’s the kind of choice that might make the uninitiated question Clipping’s origin and wonder about their compulsion to smash these two halves together.

Is This Still A Rap Song?

Clipping runs on the hum of the unspoken, the marginalia jammed between static in the noise’s text. Inside the lush, cut-up crackle, and underneath the speed of the vocals, there is room for hidden things. To get down into the roots of Clipping, you’d have to go behind the beats and the rapping, beyond genre fiction or hip-hop deconstructivist theories, way beyond Diggs’ stint on Broadway — the newest and occasionally unwelcome elephant in the room — all the way back to the early nineties when Hutson and Diggs met during grade school in Oakland.

They’ve been friends since third grade and cite weekly trips to the record store as part of their initial bond. Diggs’ mother was a DJ in the ‘70s who later earned a Ph.D in Social Welfare, and took what he vaguely dubs “a more free view of parenting.” The fact that his father would take the boys to see P-Funk All Stars every year gives a better sense of their priorities as role models, and this ritual, among others, helped establish music as an early central force in their decade-spanning friendship.

Snipes and Hutson would meet in college and live together for several years, eventually collaborating in 2009 on a remix project that later became Clipping. Hutson, who is a prolific noise artist in his own right, and has been for many years, previously worked in a duo called Beach Balls (with Kyle Mabson) that yielded the germ for their current technique.

One of their tracks, “Case Sensitivity” (released by Brian Kinsman’s experimental bedroom label Deathbomb Arc in 2007 on a boxset compilation) became the impetus for the group when Snipes heard it and insisted there was something there. Over eight-minutes, the song crackles through uneasy static before flipping, halfway through, into an isolated vocal of the Ying Yang Twins’ “(Wait) Whisper Song.” Sans beat or bassline, the vocal expands and reverberates like a tuning fork. In the vacuum, it begins to assume its own rhythm.

“We started doing remixes that took an existing acapella and treated it like a metronome,” Snipes explained. “Then, we’d make noise around that. The rules were that the noise had to feel like it was always subservient to the vocal, and the initial parameter was no drum sounds and no pitched material in a key. So it was noise, but with a sense of order and some rhythmic propulsion to it. I realized that rhythm and beat are separate ideas, you can make a loop out of something that’s rhythmic that’s not percussive. We liked those remixes and eventually it seemed natural for Daveed to come into the project.”

Clipping emerged fully in 2010 when Diggs joined and began providing original vocal tracks, replacing the (illegally) sampled ones Hutson and Snipes had used before. His interest lay in the paring back of elements, a drilling toward the core of what “makes” a rap song.

“The project was very interesting to me because there’s a whole bunch of things that we assume make up a rap song,” Diggs said. “So a lot of those early Clipping songs were about like ‘Well, if we don’t do this is it still a rap song?’ or ‘If we do this is it still a rap song?’ It turns out yeah, actually it is. And usually, it sounds totally within line.”

From ‘Midcity’ To Infinity

Some of the very first songs Clipping put online during this initial formation period were also released via Kinsman’s Deathbomb Arc label prior to the the first official full-length Midcity, which hit Bandcamp in 2013. Many of the songs were created around the same time, but these earlier recordings reveal a group still figuring out what exactly they’re trying to capture.

At the release show for Splendor & Misery they finish their set with a version of “Face,” one of the earliest tracks here. While it’s morphed slightly from this form, the track is recognizably the same at its core elements.

“The first record specifically, Midcity, was definitely us learning how to make music like this and defining what the language even was,” Snipes said. “And then CLPPNG was us having figured out a formula, but trying new techniques. It was still a little bit more exploratory.”

While Midcity was just a small independent release, Kinsman began doing PR for the band for free, trying to get the record in the hands of people who would understand the project. As a long-time noise musician and fan, he immediately picked up on the way Clipping bisected noise and hip-hop without diminishing or compromising either.

“Even with Clipping clearing the room at early shows, I knew they were absolutely the most true reflection of everything both they and Deathbomb have stood for,” Kinsman said. “It’s never been a question to me to support these guys 100%, no matter who gives a shit or not.”

Within three months of Midcity’s release, Sub Pop had signed the group. CLPPNG would come out almost exactly a year after that. Splendor & Misery, however, would take another two years.

Sub Pop’s primary A&R Tony Kiewel said he was certain about signing Clipping to the label from the first time he saw them perform live.

“It’s hard to know where to start with Clipping, there are so many things about them that are inspiring to me, Kiewel said. “The visceral intensity. The utterly unique beats. Daveed’s incredible flow. That’s what got me out to my first show. Once I saw them perform, it was a done deal. I took an elbow to the chest as the kids started moshing — much to my surprise — and I knew for sure I had to work with them.”

At lunch, before filming their late night performance, the trio spends an hour discussing the above history of their band. Clipping is not the sole creative outlet for any of the group’s members, and even if the overwhelming spotlight on Hamilton and his role as MC has made Daveed the group’s de facto star, that’s certainly not the dynamic between the three of them.

Snipes, who previously worked on his own solo musical project, Captain Ahab, earns a living off scoring films, most recently Excess Flesh, Starry Eyes, Contracted: Phase II, and The Nightmare. The last of which had some overlap and interplay with the soundscape of Splendor & Misery’s sci-fi. Hutson balances his extensive work in academia with a prolific career as a noise artist, another unlikely combination that dovetails in fascinating ways upon closer examination.

For them, continuing work as Clipping has been a waiting game, one that’s honestly been impacted more by song tinkering and budget minutia than by the busy schedule of their friend Daveed.

Things Are Remembered Generationally In The Body

While timelines for album drops play out how they must, constrained by packaging and press, rollouts and release schedules, the two-year gap between the material on CLPPNG, the Wriggle EP, and Splendor & Misery exists only logistically. This material was recorded — and mostly finished — back when a rapping Thomas Jefferson was just a gleam in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s eye.

“We had started Splendor & Misery and had a lot of it done even before CLPPNG came out actually,” Snipes explained. “In the interim between us finishing that album and it coming out, we made a ton of other music, including the Wriggle EP.”

For the band themselves, Splendor & Misery represents the fullest iteration of their full vision as performers obsessed with hip-hop, noise music, and science fiction. If Midcity was them getting their bearings, and CLPPNG was a distillation of hip-hop theory analysis across single tracks, Splendor & Misery attempts to deconstruct both hip-hop and science fiction within the larger Afrofuturist tradition.

“There’s other art that we all consume that’s part of this category of Afrofuturism and we’re very obviously making an addition to that,” Diggs said. ” P-Funk [All Stars], right? We listened to a lot of Janelle Monáe while we were doing this, read a lot of Samuel Delany and N. K. Jemisin — all that stuff. So we were just trying to be really clear about our intentions. But we also got better at doing the thing. We recorded almost all of it pre-Hamilton, right before I left for New York. I really was not expecting to go to Broadway. I was like ‘I’ll be gone for three months and then we can finish this.’”

Initially, Splendor & Misery was the weird and insular deep-dive the trio thought no one would be interested in aside from them. They continued working on it for themselves, planning to release it through Deathbomb Arc as a gift to Brian for his continued support of their work from the beginning.

They had zero budget and were caught up on things like finding a male quartet to sing the haunting, gorgeous work songs that nod to African-American spirituals and connect the history of gospel and abolitionism to the album’s dystopian future. Eventually, they got a connection through a friend to several of the founding members of Take 6, who lend their formidable harmonies to the album.

“We all kind of figured that Clipping would do the bangers for Sub Pop, and Deathbomb would get the weird conceptual shit,” Kinsman said. “It was really surprising that upon hearing a rough mix Sub Pop loved it. We always knew this album would be an evolution for Clipping, but now it’s a whole other species. It’s crazy to think that Clipping’s weirdo ‘side album’ designed for a weirdo label is now being performed on network television. It might take a few years for my mind to process what the fuck is actually going on here! The album is so daring and without compromise.”

Having Sub Pop onboard for the release meant a joint release with Kinsman through Deathbomb Arc. The sci-fi angle, which is a turn off for some, was one of the main things that kept Kiewel interested in the group.

“I’m all for it, I love science fiction and other often derided literary genres,” he said. “They’re incredibly knowledgeable about and reverent to what’s come before and what’s happening now, but they’re also dedicated to pushing the limits of hip-hop as well. At the end of the day, I think they stand out because they’re just really fucking great at what they do.”

The album is named for an unfinished, unpublished manuscript by Samuel Delany (unfortunately, Delany did not respond to requests for comment about the allusion), and is heavily inspired by his work along with other science fiction writers like N.K. Jemisin. It loosely follows the journey of “the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him.”

When faced with the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe, our hero feels elation instead of horror and decides to barrel into the unknown oblivion of an uncaring galaxy instead of back to a world full of oppressive systems. The protagonist’s reaction is an inversion of the trope established by science fiction writers like H.P. Lovecraft, whose characters go mad when they realize the triviality of human existence.

“Part of our point is that if you’re not so fond of your position in the world, maybe finding out that the universe doesn’t give a shit about your world is a relief not a source of horror,” Hutson said. “The record smashes that together with the hopefulness of Afrofuturism, which is about imagining another world outside the oppression people are experiencing on earth.”

Considering the recent glaring spotlight on America’s ongoing struggle with racism through the exposure of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, these themes couldn’t be more resonant. Though it was written two years ago, the messages of Splendor & Misery hit hard in 2016 — that they’re hitting those notes on late night television feels equally important. It’s also an indication of how surface level the recent news spotlight on racism in America is.

These issues feel particularly relevant to mainstream, white audiences now, because of the current media focus, but Clipping’s work grapples with the generational trauma of racism that has been going on for centuries — how it has and does lives on in black bodies — and embraces the ideas of Afrofuturism for offering an alternative to that. Incorporating the long-sought quartet on those intermittent story songs is a huge part of remembering and acknowledging that history.

“So much about coded slave spirituals were about leaving behind where they’re at,” Diggs said. “They’re actually coded messages about how to get north, but the philosophy behind them was about transcending place. They were about home actually being in the unknown. A lot of this stuff for me is tied to the idea that things are remembered generationally in the body. So we have these spirituals and work and story songs appear as interludes to indicate that.”

Noise And Rap In Splendid Collision

Album release day is a packed one — the guys have two shows to do, first an in-store at Amoeba Records, then the official release show at Highways, a queer performance space and gallery on the outskirts of Santa Monica. The performance at Amoeba takes place on a tiny stage jammed in front of rows and rows of vinyl.

Acoustics and atmosphere necessitate a toned down version of the group’s live show for the in-store, but that doesn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the seventy-five to one hundred people gathered on an early Friday evening to support their local heroes. The crowd is strikingly diverse, with people of literally all ages and ethnicities attempting to ape Diggs’ breakneck flow. (It’s Clipping, bitch.)

As the three sit and sign records afterward, Diggs is tapped again and again to take photos with preening teenagers, awestruck kids, and gushing moms — but they’re all buying Clipping merch too. They’re getting all three signatures on Splendor & Misery vinyl.

Fan freakouts are just a fact of life these days, as indicated by the girl who burst in on our lunch earlier in the week because she saw Daveed was snapchatting from a restaurant down the street.

“She’s very sweet,” Diggs said after hugging her and quickly taking a photo. “That game is always about how do we get out of this situation as quickly as possible.”

I ask if it happens a lot, and the answer is yes, it does.

“It happened the last time we were eating here a couple days ago,” Hutson said. “Pictures are a good tactic. They seem final. You did the thing, and then you get to go.”

While Clipping may present one of the few overlaps between Hamilton and the noise community, to really get a sense of the group’s intention, it’s essential to understand their loyalty to mainstream hip-hop. As much as Clipping introduces their fans to what may be new frontiers — industrial noise, Afrofuturism, power electronics — all three are adamant that their deconstructivist work not be viewed as a critique of major label rap.

“There’s a sense that if you make an experimental version of an established genre, that just in so doing you’re criticizing that established genre,” Hutson said. “That you’re there to fix it, or that you’re making the kind of music you’re making because you hate those other folks. It’s happened less and less, but at the very beginning people would come up to us at shows and talk about how much they hate Nicki Minaj. We’d have to be like… ‘No, we really love Nicki Minaj, she is why we do this!’”

Amid all the experimental noise and dystopian sci-fi, it’s crucial to remember that Diggs is one of the most talented rappers of our current era — on both technical and lyrical levels — and that every single one of the beats Hutson and Snipes make is original. If you check out his solo work prior to Clipping, it’s a reminder that the right beats, production, and aesthetic can quite literally unlock new levels in a rapper.

“Every song we do is about referencing distinct things within the canon of rap music,” Diggs said. “We use Gucci a lot and he’s definitely a reference, we just don’t use any samples, they make everything from scratch. To us, it’s like homage and trying to contribute, it’s not about tearing it down. We actually don’t exist without mainstream rap.”

This comes through the clearest at the Highways release show, the first time they’ve been able to perform in a full-fledged venue in a couple of days. After a late night set, and a record store, the trio seem to find utter relief at the chance to let loose in a real performance space. After coaxing them for an encore, this is the moment the crowd begins to approach the turn up levels associated with a rap show.

Diggs does a call and response so everyone can keep up, the fourth wall finally down for good, the fourth dimension looming in the distance. Grinning as he scans the audience, he looks the happiest he’s been all week when the crowd begins to mosh. Then he begins to out-rap them, going faster and beyond what anyone else can keep up with. Well anyone, that is, except Hutson and Snipes, who are right there with him, turning white noise into a black hole he can loop rhymes through.

Whenever they get to that space, when they’re communicating beyond the song’s structure and moving toward something still unknown, that’s when you see them for who they really are: three lifelong friends who are equal partners, devoting themselves to this weird, tiny glitch in the universe where rap and noise meet in a splendid collision that crashes through barriers and assumptions. It’s not Daveed Diggs of Hamilton and co. It’s not a one-man show, nor is it a flash in the pan, a collection of sound effects, or anything that should be asked to live inside any other universe than the one these three have created together.

It’s Clipping, bitch.

Splendor & Misery is out now via Sub Pop/Deathbomb Arc.

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