A man flees his home on a ship, hoping to escape the turbulent life of his youth. All around him, a culture of slavery stains the past and future. The man sets out for a barely charted new land, one with the promise of redemption but also the fear of the unknown.
That's the plot behind two of Daveed Diggs' recent music projects. One, of course, is "Hamilton," the blockbuster hip-hop musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda that became a pop-cultural touchstone. In it, Diggs played both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, lending a Prince-worthy flourish to his roles.
The other is "Splendor & Misery," Diggs' new album with his rap trio Clipping. The veteran L.A. group has long hovered in spaces between the Smell's avant-garde noise and outsider rap scenes. For those expecting a more pop turn after "Hamilton," "Splendor" is instead an uncompromising sci-fi-rap concept album, enlivened by Jonathan Snipes' and William Hutson's mechanical pings and grinding gears.
It's an especially harsh record, especially following a mainstream accolade such as a Tony for Diggs, but Clipping. wouldn't settle for anything easier.
"Yeah, it's been cool to have some new eyes on this thing," Diggs said.
But in the wake of his "Hamilton" breakout, he's applying a similar lesson from that show: "You should never underestimate your audience."
On Friday, the trio met up in Snipes' Mid-City studio, on a rare day when all three had their schedules aligned. The room was wall-to-wall synthesizers, with a human-high modular unit attesting to Snipes' and Hutson's noise-making aptitude. They were prepping for two release shows, one Sept. 8 at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and a benefit for their longtime home base, the Smell, on Sept. 30.
When Clipping. left off in 2014, the act had released an acclaimed but decidedly underground album for Sub Pop, "CLPPNG." Back then, hip-hop was flirting with experimental music but the group still planted its flag among fellow underground antagonists such as Death Grips. Its members played hundreds of shows and figured they'd found their niche.
But then Diggs read for an odd little hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers, and their creative lives got more complicated.
Hutson and Snipes had the concept for the record mapped out and worked to develop it while Diggs was performing in New York. Though the band was obviously thrilled for Diggs' turn in the pop-culture spotlight, it did make completing the Clipping. record problematic.
Add to that Diggs' high-profile spots in Netflix's own hip-hop revisionist history series "The Get Down" and a forthcoming role on "black-ish," and it got even more daunting.
"[Finishing the record] didn't seem like it was necessarily the most important priority for us for a little while," Snipes said.
But Diggs' new mainstream stardom makes the weird and imaginative "Splendor" all the wilder.
The album's plot follows a slave who survives a rebellion on board a deep-space vessel. Now alone in the universe, he falls in love with the ship's computer system and decides, instead of finding his way home, to set off into the abyss.
The record flips some classic hip-hop tropes. Diggs inverts Jay Z's "all black everything" fashion boast into a description of space's vast nothingness. In the video for "Air 'Em Out," Diggs sits still and raps with a machine-gun intensity as objects around him start floating in zero gravity.
"The thing we do in this band is to push genres as far as we can," Diggs said.
Snipes agreed: "We make the most accessible music possible using the harshest possible sounds."
There's shared DNA among "Splendor" and the Afro-futurism of P-Funk and Sun Ra, coupled with the socially volatile sci-fi of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. If Diggs' turn in "Hamilton" helped uncover a hip-hop come-up story in America's founding myths, "Splendor" uses rap's natural theatricality as a way to describe a black man's mind cracking up at the edge of existence.
It's not a topical record per se, but given the current conversations about policing and racism, and "Hamilton's" radical revision of how race is seen in American history, its horror-flecked science fiction concept lands with rap's political urgency.
"The thing about [sci-fi and horror writer H.P.] Lovecraft's racism is that, if you were a white guy in 20th century, change really was terrifying," Hutson said. "But Afro-futurism was always full of hope that aliens would come upset the status quo."
But the question now is what this difficult, imaginative band should do with its unanticipated spotlight.
It's hard to imagine "Splendor" competing with hits from Mike Will Made It or DJ Mustard on rap radio. Its knotty static, hard knocks of industrial noise and challenging technical fireworks (like Diggs' astounding, near minute-long verbal barrage on "The Breach") are middle fingers to the idea of a crossover.
But then, Kanye West has made some pretty harsh tunes himself, and Diggs' stardom could mean Clipping. can reach a whole new crowd that's clearly open about hip-hop's role in American culture.
"It's really wild to see how many ways people are finding out about this band," said Brian Kinsman, the founder of the L.A. experimental label Deathbomb Arc, the band's longtime home (and which is co-releasing "Splendor" with Sub Pop). "You see all the 'Hamilton' teens in line for their shows now, but they also get academic musicians sending in notation for their songs and coverage on mainstream rap sites."
True to their Smell-scene roots and academic pedigree (Hutson just finished a doctorate in experimental music; Snipes was in the rave-noise project Captain Ahab), they're not interested in trying too hard to capitalize on the new attention.
"We'll never say, 'OK, now let's try and be on "SNL,"'" Hutson said.
But they are excited to see what kind of doors that "Hamilton" can open. For rap-scene credentials, there's perhaps no bigger vouch than Nas recording voice-over work for you, as he did for Diggs on "The Get Down" (a sensation that will "never not be weird," Diggs said, though, his own virtuoso mike work might be having the bigger moment right now)
Diggs eventually pulled out a copy of a Clipping. cassette tape he'd been passing around backstage at "Hamilton" shows (he left the production in July). He laughed at how close Clipping.'s brutal, perplexing music has gotten to the global elite.
"I kind of figured people would be appalled. But everyone's really liked it," Diggs said. "It's like with 'Hamilton,' the only difference between the popular and the fringe is access to it."
"And hey," Hutson said. "One of us here got to meet President Obama."
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