#453: EPMD, "Strictly Business" (1988)

  1. October, 2004 / Annandale, VA

There is much more preparing to be done than you once would have expected. You’ve rewired a half-busted mid-size Marshall so you can play a mini practice amp straight through it. This is to say, when you modulate the smaller unit’s treble knob, the sound emanating from the Marshall is a dying ghost horse, a 5-0 cruiser with a shattered siren, an infant from the seventh circled recesses of Hell. Amp-fed feedback driven in a loop through a series of cords you have to diagram to be able to have any chance of replicating. It’s Metal Machine Music with some semblance of slight direction: you tie a rope onto the practice amp so you can sling it around your neck and play it like a bona-fide instrument. Like a real musician. You try it out, twist the knobs, revel in the squealing, invent your own kind of rock star, be him for a minute.

The show’s outside on a cold Friday night in November. Some senior with a back deck and parents in absentia. Like usual, there’s no game plan. You’ll go, improvise noise, get the crowd writhing, shout non-sequiturs through a microphone. Your crew’s got certain prereqs that have led to certain notorieties: always play first, never play for longer than fifteen minutes, let join anyone who wants to, make a lot of fucking noise. The other bands on the bill are both local and visiting, a mix of the familiar and unknown, which means half the kids here have experienced your shows before, and half have no clue what they’re in for.

For what it’s worth: Ol’ Dirty Bastard has just died of an overdose of cocaine and tramadol. You are sixteen years old and spend most of your time either working at a record store, buying CDs, or poring over liner notes. Sometimes, you make lists of your favorite albums or manipulate walls of feedback in your room until your stepmom pounds on your door. You’ve discovered Merzbow and Captain Beefheart, Ayler and Fahey and Kool Keith. And 36 Chambers. You debate the verses every chance you get, pick apart ODB’s the most. His death is unsurprising but enormous. It leaves a hole that you know can probably never be filled; such is the way with iconoclasts.

Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

You’re new to hip hop, but gobbling it quickly, finding the pockets that stick with you the most. Post-Rakim crews and duos, mostly, EPMD to Tribe to the Pharcyde. Very soon, your band will largely forsake the trappings of noise for turntables and samplers and a used 808, sometimes writing rhymes, sometimes improvising for the hell of it. You will never excel at thisat any of it. You’ll think back fondly to the anarchy of this show, of tonight.

There is no beginning, in any logical sense of the word, to tonight’s performance. A guitar is strummed to make sure the amp’s on. You push a button on the toy casio you’ve been assigned for the night to get a generic pre-programmed drumbeat going. It might sound something like a samba in any other context. Someone’s on the amp-to-amp feedback machine you helped craft just nights beforeit starts up, and the volume is enormous, almost hair-raising, undeniably electrifying. You’ve taken over the high back deck while the crowd mingles on the lawn below, some laughing, some strained, some slamming together in some semblance of a mosh pit. For the next ten minutes, you will change the drumbeat with no discernible pattern and play notes when or if ever you feel like it. What you do, mostly, is irrelevant, though necessary, the structure of the band such that the only implied rule is to do before thinking, to follow the stream in any direction. For a sixteen-year-old, it’s nothing less than magic. And somewhere around the midpoint of the show, the rabbit’s pulled straight from the hat.

It begins benignly enough. A new beat has settled in behind glistening guitar feedback and a running tape of animal sounds, a slower beat, if not danceable then definitely, maybe, grooveable. Your best friend and frontman gets on the microphone. All right, so you know that this is all about ODB, he intones, pausing only long enough for you to catch the invisible cue to start playing a worthless two-note keyboard riff. So we’re gonna rip up one of his joints right now.

He gives it another beat, leaves the crowd waiting—most trying to decipher what he was saying through the cacophonous mash, perhapsthen starts in viciously on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” From any other angle, it must make no sense: a band of unshowered high school no-ones either utterly without talent or the desire to use the talent they do possess toward anything resembling artistic linearity somehow drawing cheers from a crowd by covering a forgotten semi-hit from an early nineties hip hop collective spinoff who had all but become a depressing clip-show joke before dying far too young only days earlier. And it works somehow. And it makes no sense.

The show itselffour or five bands on the bill, at the start of the eveningis over after all of ten minutes. The cops have circled the neighborhood a couple times and are now at the front door. On the tape, afterward, you will listen again and again to the chaotic winding-down of this moment. Two squad cars just drove by, someone says, the sound of his voice mostly masked by a gauze of noise. Turn it off. Then suddenly frantic: Turn it off! You try, but hit the wrong button on your Casio, accidentally initiate a telephone-ringing sound effect. The other instruments are quickly shut down, but the telephone keeps ringing; you can’t figure out how to silence it. A bandmate, mic in hand, latches on, hollers, Hello? Hello?! Is this the five-oh?!

The absurdity of it hangs in the air. Kids laugh: the ones on deck and those bound to the lawn below. The party’s host is now inside conversing with uniformed officers, and it feels good to let the squealing after-effects of the last ten minutes nestle into your ears and just laugh. Later, years later, you will flex DJ leg-work on a level beyond improvisation, scratching and sampling and listening again and again to all the old albums that continue to shake your brain, never quite succeeding, having the time of your life despite it all, but tonight will always be a monolith. The night you brought back ODB, brought tumult to the suburbs, blue fuzz and all.

—Brad Efford