Why?: Hip Hop’s Lyrical Transient

Why?: “Against Me” (Eskimo Snow, Anticon, 9/22/09)
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Why?: Eskimo Snow
Why?: Eskimo Snow

Even in his downtime, Yoni Wolf is never content to sit still. One of the founding members of the Anticon label, a collective of like-minded hip-hop and art rockers with a yen towards experimentation and pushing the boundaries of genre, Wolf released the fourth album, Eskimo Snow, with his band Why? in late 2009.

Wolf’s discography of artistic collaborations is as long as a gangster’s rap sheet, but at age 30, he has found himself back with his folks, uncertain about the future. The longtime Bay Area resident doesn’t really know why he moved back in with his parents. He’s not in a relationship and doesn’t like the cold.

The son of a Messianiac Jewish rabbi, Wolf is like an underground hip-hop version of Larry David; his stream-of-consciousness lyrics are full of self-doubt and neuroses. Why?’s previous release, Alopecia, relates to Wolf’s obsession with his contracted alopecia infection, a condition that causes temporary hair loss on the body. It is also a metaphor for Wolf stripping himself bare on the album.

“You work on something for so long and you’ve heard it a million times, and sometimes it takes six months or a year to even know how to listen to it. So I often take other people’s word if it’s good or not.”

Eskimo Snow digs even deeper as a subtle, introspective record that ditches Wolf’s hip hop love for string arrangements and indie pop.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve abandoned hip hop,” Wolf says with a slight street inflection, sounding like a less bombastic Eminem. “I would say that the last record, Alopecia, has the most rap on it, in terms of rhyme schemes and stuff like that, probably more than anything I’ve ever done. Eskimo Snow definitely does not have a rap feeling about it at all. But I wouldn’t say that Why? is moving away or towards anything. But, all in all, things change, and it’s organic how things develop and change. It’s not like I have this preset progression from one thing to another.”

Wolf’s music is a constant contradiction. Nothing sounds like the last, and though recorded simultaneously with Alopecia, Eskimo Snow is an entirely different beast.

“I think that the songs weren’t separate until we separated them into two different albums,” Wolf says.  “It was more like they separated themselves, not like we set out with two different intentions for each one. We didn’t even know which songs were going to be on which album until halfway through the recording process, at which point all the songs had been written, arranged, and thought out, and the feelings were already there.

“But until we started hearing them on tape, we didn’t know which ones we wanted where, or that we even wanted to do two different records, so the songs dictated their own fate as to where they belonged.”

In addition to acting as primary songwriter and composer, Wolf creates all the album artwork for Why? projects. For Eskimo Snow, the cover art features what appears to be a mummy with a bouquet of flowers covering a face.

“I tend to listen to the album over and over and think about what the visual ideas are that are going on in the music,” Wolf says. “I’ll write down a huge list of images that I feel would be nice to have on the cover or the booklet, and I’ll go to the library and look up a bunch of those subjects that I wrote down and make photo copies of the pictures.”

Eskimo Snow combines tortured lyrical poetry with intricate instrumental arrangements. Wolf’s lyrical flow is speak-sing, as if he’s reading aloud from a poetry book, while piano lines twinkle and cymbals crash around him.

All told, Wolf spent three years conceiving Eskimo Snow, from the initial writing phase to the finished product. “Honestly, I don’t know how to listen to it yet,” he says. “You work on something for so long and you’ve heard it a million times, and sometimes it takes six months or a year to even know how to listen to it. So I often take other people’s word if it’s good or not.”

Eskimo Snow is a brave album, filled with images of rusting paint, aging, emotional distance, and disconnections; and for the unabashed hip-hop lover, it is a step into a new phase of songwriting and craft for Wolf.

“When I found rap music in high school, I definitely started appreciating music in a different way,” Wolf says. “I grew up in Cleveland, and before rap, I had been listening to classic rock — The Beatles and stuff — but rap was a new way of listening to music. It was sort of a revelation for me, without a doubt.

“I’m 30, so around the age of 16 and 17, I liked East Coast, positive rap. It was kind of like that movie The Wackness. I hated that movie and it made me cringe. I didn’t grow up in New York or anything, but that was my set. I thought that stuff like Pharcyde, De La Soul, and [A] Tribe [Called Quest] was underground, because everybody in my high school was listening to [Dr.] Dre and Tupac. But I had my little set of friends, and that’s what we listened to.”

Eager to escape the confines of the Midwest, Wolf traveled to the Bay Area and soon found a clutch of new friends who shared his love for hip hop and his sense of musical adventure.

“When I first got out to the West Coast, I met some people that later became Anticon, which was like this little community of folks that were all outsiders in a way, in our own respective communities of music,” he says.  “None of us felt like we had any like-minded people around us, so we all kind of gravitated towards each other. It was basically a bunch of dudes who had all moved out to the Bay Area and decided to start a label because, initially, nobody was going to put out our records, because a lot of it was weird and challenging to the ear. So we started the label Anticon.”

With the release of Elephant Eyelash in 2005, Why? became a full-fledged band, complete with Wolf’s brother Josiah in tow. I wondered if Wolf was seen as the prodigal son, fleeing to the West Coast and leading his brother into the music world.

“My parents didn’t really get what I did or like it for a long time,” he says.  “I get that, because what I did was wack for a long time. When I started to get my bearings and figure out what I was actually doing, then they started to like what I was doing, and my brother got involved in my music, so that was kind of the mark as to when my parents started appreciating what I was doing.”

With Wolf about to embark on a massive US tour starting in Cincinnati in support of Eskimo Snow, it seems that for the first time in his life, he is taking some time out for much-needed relaxation and introspection. Like so many late-twenty- and thirty-somethings, Wolf is having to find himself all over again.

“What brought me back to Ohio?” Wolf asks. “Interesting question. I don’t know. I decided at some point that it was time to leave [the Bay Area]. My brother had left and so had some of my friends, so I didn’t have a band there to feel like I had to stay.”

I ask if maybe his relocation is a reflection of the themes of Eskimo Snow, that the feelings of dislocation and alienation finally manifested.

“I’m not planning on staying here,” he replies.  “I don’t even have a place of my own. I’m just staying at my parents’ house. I don’t know where I’m going to move after this. I’ve got a long tour coming up, so after that I’ll figure out where I might want to be. Maybe I’ll meet a lady and settle down or get a job somewhere. I guess I just don’t have a plan for anything at the moment. For now, I just take a lot of long walks, listening to music on my headphones, kind of getting lost. Maybe that’s the answer.”

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