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The Little Drummer Boy Revisited: Ed DMX relies on technology for his beats.

Street Boy

Ed DMX's tunes define post-'80s fresh

By Ed Crouse

'Jesus, you made the DMX."

Frankenstein is facing his maker. Ed DMX conjures up a phone call from a few years ago. "I forgot what I rang him about--some technical question. And he answers, 'This is Tom Oberheim,' and I was like ..." His eyes widen, his wan face loses even more blood. Oberheim is, after all, the inventor of the synth-drum DMX. "I don't know what it really stands for. Drum Machine X? That's probably right. In the '80s, there was Davey DMX and the Human DMX, a human beat box. I'm sure there were others, too. I know I named myself before him, though."

The "him" is Ed DMX's doppelganger, multi-platinum rapper DMX. Sharing the name with "him" means being mistaken for the emblem of mall-rap gumball gumbo. "All of the wack hip-hop kills me, man."

Since the early '90s, Ed DMX has crossed the techno line for four dead-on pop albums, each a watershed of break beats and raucous hand-clap-driven sifts through 1979-1987-era detritus. His current album, We Are DMX, displays an idiosyncratic, shaky pact with the beats, squawks, samples and proto-rhythms of house-techno-trance-electronica and effectively reverses the devolution into shopworn club crud. Each song is a pop monster that shames and regresses the listener into an electronic cafe like the one in Back to the Future 2, leaving one's senses floundering in a slough of Grandmaster Flash, World Class Wrecking Crew, Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa.

Ed DMX--the sole member of DMX Krew--is elegantly incensed at the Soma Caffé as he defends We Are DMX. "Techno magazines give it a shit review. They'll say, 'The vocals aren't very good, it sounds like '80s music and it's shit.' Well, the vocals aren't very good, and it does sound like the '80s and ...," the thin, white DJ pauses. "Isn't it really funny?"

He's quick to note that, technically, his favorite '80s cuts can, for all their deftness, blare shoddily, lost in troubled treble that mixes the high-hat or the snare at a wickedly piercing level. Before the interview tape starts rolling, he plays a few choice cuts, grist from the days of linoleum, Adidas wristbands coupled with the Japanese rising sun doo-rag, Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" and tape cut-ups of Chep Nunez, a.k.a. "The Baddest Latin in Manhattan."

"The production [on We Are DMX] is a lot better than a lot of 1980s records, and it was done in my bedroom." The album downplays idea-driven lyrics in favor of an overall mood-alternating vapid anger with comic insolence even as it provokes a headspin. He hinges his sonic strut on helium-heavy lyrics:

    Don't you give me your telephone number, girl
    Just because you smell success
    I never really needed you
    And now I want you even less

On "Good Time Girl," the singer is an insufferable DJ, sneering at club culture even as he immortalizes it. "The second verse is about girls who want to fuck you because you're a DJ. I was really surprised that there were people who were that pathetic." He still manages to forge, in both senses, a spinner's anthem, smuggling in this tidbit: "Late night/I'm spinning in the DJ box/Deep House/Electronic music shocks."

Implicit in DMX Krew's non-experiments with the 1980s is the question of whether electronic music can ever shock again. The shocks on We Are DMX come not from the new, but from the familiar re-scored, the excesses of the synth itself.

I once asked a chum if he thought the most important new musical innovation of the 20th century was: a) the scratch, b) the sample, c) the synthesizer; and chum, who is fairly serious when he gets down to me, said "probably 'c.'"

DMX Krew, in the spirit of "looking both ways," cores any innovative potential it may have manifested in the last few years. He runs Breakin' Records, a subdivision of the Rephlex label, whose emblem is a giant, graphically stretched bikinied booty, a la Bootsy Collins. The label is a mostly instrumental beat factory which does a lot of "a." With a limited amount of "b" and ungodly, sinuously deployed emissions of "c," DMX Krew is a stranger animal. Most times he's a self-sampling hydra, with strap-on keyboards, vocoders and a trebly Miami bass sound. It's the last thing that galls and grills a lot of techno listeners. The thin, snappy "dew-dew-dew" key-bound bass earns both DMX and the Rephlex label flak from deep-booty bass purists. Not that it means much, but chat-room fires have been started over "ungh ungh ungh" vs. "du-du-du."

"With 'Good Time Girl,' I wanted to do a real pop song. That synth-y harmonica bit is really Stevie Wonder or Steve Winwood or ..."--Ed unsheathes something really scary--"Mike and the Mechanics." He claps his hand over his mouth, assuming Cleavon Little's self-abduction posture.

When he un-gags himself, he explains, "Yeah, the Yamaha DX-7 keyboard sound, that really nasty DX7 harmonica sound--really '80s. They didn't use analog synth then 'cuz they had to put on their brand-new digital keyboard that they thought was really good and use some nasty-ass sound. So I did, too."

If DMX Krew has any ethos, it's about being nasty-ass and insidiously knowing it. We Are DMX wields not only a transparently nostalgic sound, but polished cheapness and seductive memory. It's enough to gall the wicked warden of the French right wing, Jean Baudrillard. DMX Krew's voice is buried among the catastrophes that he describes in The Transparency of Evil: "They hew to the same agenda of virulence and radiation, an agenda whose very power over the imagination is of a viral character."

The electro-synth cult of the 1980s and its resurrectors thrive because the synthesizer itself is the monster that can't get out of the cultural mind. The new Old Navy store downtown couldn't resist strapping its shitty jeans to a live simulation of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video. E! Entertainment television's Halloween coverage included some schmuck breakdancing (live!) in a Las Vegas resort. The Beatles song "Free as a Bird" synths up a 1980 John Lennon demo as a death mask and instant E-L-oldie-dom. On certain nights, 1015 cordons off a floor where breakers and body-rockers can bust out. Mea culpa becomes "my bad." It's the price one pays for recorded music systems. The song "We are DMX," Ed DMX says, uses an awful "wack Gary Glitter drumbeat" quite rightly. Regardless of what it lacks or stymies, wack is back.

Part of it has to do with half-recalled attempts at simulation. The Zombies, after all, wrote some of the creamiest tubercular masochistic pop tunes of the '60s while deconstructing Burt Bacharach. DMX sees no need to front.

"A lot of times I copy things, or remember things. ... 'We Are Dmx' [the title song] has that shuffling beat because nobody uses that beat except glam-rock bands ... because it's wack! I love Prince because he's responsible for making drum machines acceptable in pop music. If I had put that song first, no one would have gotten past the first track."

Big Wack Attack: DMX Krew leads a one-man crusade against 'formulaic hippie shit' posing as house music.

DMX Krew is the vanguard sifter (and snifter) of electronic music whose electric ire isn't kind to local clubs. "The terrible things that get done in the name of house music these days, especially in San Francisco. I'll go to these clubs that say they play techno and it'll be psychedelic trance, the most formulaic shit hippie music. The ones that are marked 'house' play jazzy stuff. [I prefer] real house music from Chicago in 1986, then acid came after. The 'house' word has been co-opted."

He never really liked rock music, and when he disses an anonymous Bottom of the Hill band as playing a "guitar show," he kvetches that they "sound like Neil Young." "I used to like Neil Young too, but there really is no need for another band that sounds like him."

A list of DMX Krew's templates would include Sparks, Human League, Kraftwerk, New Order, Soft Cell, Devo, early Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis productions, ambient Eno, Depeche Mode, fellow Rephlex-ers Aphex Twin, Arthur Baker and other old-schoolers whose music is gospel to him. And while some argue that there's no need for a one-man Human League or Depeche Mode, there's something absolutely noble about these tweaky bedroom productions, staving off modern banality with old vapidity.

DMX Krew detests, for instance, the new vocoder vogue. When the roboticized Cher, the Kraftwerked Kid Rock or transmogrified Jennifer Lopez songs come up, his high-horse contempt is naked. "'The Glass Room uses a vocoder I borrowed from Aphex Twin. It's this big brown metal thing--a man still makes them by hand. I don't know those songs. Kid Rock had one. I hate that. I was going to buy a vocoder in a shop and the guy claimed that it was the same one they used on Cher, and I just said, 'OK, bye, I don't want it.' That's a terrible record. It's shit."

The new vocoderers may be shit to him, but DMX Krew's shit is terribly sexy. Each voice on the album--the speeded-out woman on "Hard Times," the dangerous, vengeful chronicler on "Street Boys," the Japanese girl on "Konichi-Wa!," and the three partitioned personas of rapper, testifier and singer in "20-minute Affair"--belongs to Ed. The vocoder firmly mints electronic music as an androgynous expression, though Ed can use it as the ultimate hook. In fact, Ed's alliance with hooks gets him into the same breath as Nick Lowe, who throughout his lengthy career has half-skewered, half-homaged everyone from Bowie to Johnny Cash to David Cassidy to CSNY. Politically, the clever (or meta-dumb) approach to pop has zero value. Its strength as critique is palpable, but only as long as it eludes the Top 40.

Pound for pound, the wickedest song on We Are DMX is "Street Boys." It's very hard to believe that he didn't detect the foggy homo-phone pronunciation on this track, when his "street boys" become "straight boys." This is DMX at his most sinuous, hearing his music and mocking himself in the third person, and flipping back again.

"I listened to it the other day on a Walkman and it made me laugh out loud, thinking all the time that it was 'Straight Boys.' Somebody only recently told me about the confusion. It sounds like Nick Kershaw." To correct my ignorance, he demonstrates Kershaw's style, smearing a feeble yet persistent twang over his own absurd, reductive words:

    Street Boys
    Got to struggle so hard
    Street Boys
    oh-whoa, yeah

"Street Boys" embodies high-energy, attitudinized disco. "Most songs these days seem to have one idea in them; there are about six in 'Street Boys.' There's the verse, chorus, two different breaks, the vocoder bit ..."

And therein lies the line between other folks' chaff and DMX Krew's wheat. The word is "hooks," and few people can pull off a song that is all hooks. When the Human League converted to a more song-oriented band on Fascination! (along with the addition of Rezillos' craftsman Jo Callis--a move that DMX thought made them uninteresting, but he sounds more like them than the Phil Oakey-only version), they realigned with fellow all-hooksters Prince and Sly and the Family Stone and created fatally catchy stuff. But DMX is skeptical.

"Sometimes you need them, sometimes not. For instance, 'The Glass Room' hasn't got [hooks] at all."

DMX Krew's songs are so aggressively barbed they make evolved forms of electronic music (techno, house) seem arcane, even lethargic. His beautiful vulgarity on "Konichi-Wa!" climbs up to a high, tasteless altitude. "I made it all up by looking in a Japanese dictionary. My Japanese girlfriend at the time was, 'I like the song, but why did you use the Chinese music?' " Though the music is that yellow-faced "Da-da-da-da, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun," he pleads humor. "It's just a joke. It's the same thing that my gay friends said about 'Street Boys.' I can imagine ultra-liberal straight people getting riled about it."

The Mark of the Beast: With his trusty vocoder and aggressive attitude, Ed DMX takes on as many voices as he does personas.

Though the Krew's unironic rapture and keen wrapping of both legs around futuristic sounds could sustain it for an entire album, Ed DMX opts out by the 10th track, the plaintive and rippling "Get Wit' You," ironically by siccing his mind on Franco-American analog-oids Stereolab.

"I never listened to them, but it's what I imagined Stereolab would sound like, what with the analog keyboard sound. I wanted to have a song, like the Blondie song I can't remember ['Call Me?'], where the keyboard cuts into the melody. On this song, the snare drum's got no treble in it at all. The other drums are really quiet, really dulled. It's an 808--a drum machine that you hear on all the electro records--that give it a sort of Kraftwerk sound. 'Get Wit' You' is me imagining French pop music."

Didn't he think it was even slightly odd that his album's most emotional song was sung entirely in vocodered robot voice, in effect, a machine?

"It's not a machine, it's me singing! You don't program it, you sing it!"

Not only does DMX Krew sing it, he scats it, something I assume is a first. He protests and offers songs I've never heard of--"I Was a Male Stripper in a Go-Go Bar," "Hip Hop Be-Bop" and "Boogie Down Bronx" ("boogie-down-Bronx, boogie-down-Bronx, boogie-boogie-boogie")--as evidence of a fully humanized (or at least, Bing Crosby-fied) robotic attack. Within the rolling effect of the song bobs a love song that has really no counterweight save for a mild disappointment of actually getting what you want. A love betrayed by time flies by, what was ethereal becomes sadly incarnate flesh. The androgynous voice croons to a sonically gauzy effect, the sentiments smearing together into a sweet, exhilarating stream:

    I've been waiting so long to get with you,
    I've forgotten why I wanted to.
    I've been looking so long for happiness,
    I'm a victim of my own success

We Are DMX ends with a gaudy title manifesto set to a wack beat. "We are DMX/ We are hyperefficient/ We are so futuristic/ We are monotheistic." Ask him to discuss the philosophy, or lack thereof, behind his lyrics and he'll just as soon deliquesce into the story of the iridescent Fila track suit and "Street Boys."

"'Street Boys' was a men's clothing store in England, like those stores on Market Street. They have the kind of shitty styles that have sat there for 15 years moldering and still they're charging $200 for a track suit. On Market, I talked him down to $40. Anyhow, 'Street Boys' was written in Pink and Black, in this sort of zig-zag pattern that was very '80s. D'you know there's a store in Chinatown called 'Wang Chung?' "

How '80s!

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From the February 7, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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