Themselves: “You Ain’t It” (Crownsdown, Anticon, 11/3/2009)
Meet Adam “Doseone” Drucker and Jeff “Jel” Logan. Raised in completely different fashions — Drucker in hippie idealism in Idaho, and Logan in the city of Chicago — the two simultaneously developed a love of hip hop. When they met through a tape trade in 1998, and joined forces as hip-hop duo Themselves, it was the beginning of journey filled with triumphs, tragedy, experimentation, and perseverance. After a six-year hiatus, Themselves came back in 2009 with its most impressive album to date, Crownsdown.
In 1997, the members of Themselves helped to co-found Anticon Records, an artist-run hip-hop collective that early on was based out of Drucker’s adopted homes of Cincinnati, Ohio and Portland, Maine. Themselves released its debut album Them in 1999, which featured Drucker’s machine-gun-paced introspective rhymes (which had landed him victories in countless underground freestyle battles) and Logan’s fresh-beat machine and unique, ear-catching production.
Themselves and the Anticon cooperative stood with the elite of the late-’90s underground: artists like Atmosphere, J Rawls, and Aesop Rock. “Back then we considered ourselves the next Guru and Premier,” Drucker comments. That same year, Themselves and the Anticon collective uprooted themselves from the Midwest and relocated to Northern California. As Drucker and Logan moved into a house with nine people and got jobs at the Bay Area’s iconic Amoeba Records, everything about how they saw life and hip hop changed.
“Prior to moving west, I considered myself a rap elitist, meaning I only listened to rap,” Drucker explains. “When I lived in Cincinnati, I only knew rappers, not musicians. When Jel and I moved to Oakland in 1999, we started meeting a ton of musicians. Right away our perspective started to change. Then we hooked up with Dax, a keyboardist and coworker at Amoeba. He opened the door to a whole new world for Jel and I.”
The addition of keyboardist Dax Pierson signaled big changes for Themselves. “Things were shifting,” Drucker says. “Before Subtle, Dax was in [Themselves] playing our music. After a while, it was apparent that Dax was experiencing angst about playing music he didn’t help create. Also, the exposure to new genres and sounds made us want to journey deeper into music, but Jeff and I were fairly limited in what we could do. Jeff was just starting to do live beat-machine playing, and I had never really picked up an instrument, much less a keyboard. We formed Subtle to go back to the basics [with instruments].”
Subtle, a six-member indie-electro ensemble, proved to be about far more than just going back to the basics. Driven by innovative, instrumental electronic music, a massive infusion of Jack Kerouac / Bob Kaufman-inspired poetic prose, and telekinetic improvisation, Subtle became a phenomenon that crossed into indie-rock audiences as well.
After releasing several well-received singles, “Long Vein of the Law,” “F.K.O.,” and “The Mercury Craze,” the group attained street credibility, which gave it the opportunity to travel the world several times over. “Things that seemed unattainable in Themselves suddenly became within sight in Subtle,” Drucker notes.
Though Subtle was praised for being creative and original, it also was on the receiving end of criticism. “There was all this back talk,” Drucker says. “People and rappers alike were like, ‘What are these guys doing?’ and ‘Where’s Dose’s rhymes?’ But I was making what I had to make. There is no oath I took that binds me to a sequence of doing certain things, or paying a definite amount of dues. The more that people expressed their issues about what they felt were my issues, the more their angst became apparent to me.”
A tragic tour-van accident in 2005 left Dax Pierson paralyzed from the neck down. “Dax’s tragedy was a nightmare that none of us wanted to live,” Drucker says. “But luckily, with technology today, he’s able to live a meaningful life, and he continues to contribute to what we do musically.”
Armed with lessons learned from artistic growth, human tragedy, and everyday life, Drucker and Logan decided to pick up where they left off with Themselves. “We’ve always been a rap group,” Druker says. “And although some people out there forgot that, we never did.”
To signify the return, Themselves produced two releases. The first was the FreeHoudini mixtape, an album disguised as a mixtape available for free download and made “to be more boundless and to get the stupid shit out of our system — like playing the refrigerator.” The second album, Crownsdown, is “the record that we wanted to make when we made the Them record,” Drucker says.
“Crownsdown is our interpretation of a classic rap record, meaning that it has certain types of songs on it that all of the records we consider classic contain,” he continues. “There are ‘don’t fuck with my crew’ songs, ‘don’t fuck with me’ songs, ‘don’t fuck with what I’ve worked so hard on’ songs, love songs. We tried to build this record from an architect’s perspective.”
From the first moment of the first track to the end of the last, Themselves fans and newcomers alike will be knocked back by the intensity, clarity, and catchiness of Crownsdown. It is a record full of thick, gritty beats, 100-MPH rhymes, and — perhaps most importantly — focus. “In Subtle and before, I was rhyming about death and really [a] broad scope [of] stuff that were more of inner monologues. In Crownsdown, I’ve really zoomed in on specific topics, which allowed the rhymes to come together and sound cleaner instead of forced or even contrived.”
With one listen to Crownsdown, released in late 2009, it seems that the six-year hiatus paid off. Logan and Drucker now have skills in hand to both reinvent the genre they helped define and to make an impression on the music world as a whole. “We’d like to think that this record will change things, make a statement,” Drucker says. “But who knows? All I know is that we play a style of live, improvised hip hop that doesn’t seem to exist yet.”