Recently, in an act of great kindness, a friend of mine gave me a copy of the Judgment Night soundtrack on cassette. The tape was part gag gift, part sincere gesture, since I'm not ashamed to admit that I've always held a soft spot for this mix of bad rock and rap, awkwardly pushed together to help promote a long-forgotten Cuba Gooding Jr flick. Long after the movie had been sentenced to an eternity collecting dust on Blockbuster shelves, the soundtrack's love affair between rap and rock (in addition to earlier collaborations between Run DMC and Aerosmith and Anthrax and Public Enemy) helped birth the evil spawn that is Korn, Limp Bizkit, etc. Suddenly it was perfectly acceptable for even the worst metal band to incorporate a DJ and some awkward rapping into their already forgettable sound.
During that time, my dream of a rock band with an MC frontman was dashed. Sure, I (still) love Nice & Smooth's "Sometimes I Rhyme Slow," with its well-used Tracy Chapman sample, but for the most part, when rap and rock come together, the result is over-the-top Ross Robinson (the mega producer who pretty much invented the nü-metal sound. What a jerk.) production, macho guitar work, and a frat-boy with dreads trying to establish some flow. My dream of rock and rap co-existing together was dead—that is until I discovered Astronautalis.
The little indierock kid who could, Florida-via-
Texas artist Astronautalis is a former member of the freestyle/battle circuit who hung up the bravado of emceeing to create music that blurs the line between the rhythm of hiphop and the sincerity of a singer-songwrier. At times sounding like he's rapping over lost Modest Mouse b-sides, Astronautalis has the dorky charm of an indie record collector, but with mic skills to hold his own in the less-forgiving hiphop world. His jittery hiphop beats trickle through the steady flow of an emcee whose sandpapered voice resembles spoken-word broadcaster Joe Frank and the old-time rural raps of Canadian Buck 65.
Sliding away from the white rapper albatross, Astronautalis doesn't deal in irony. Instead his feet are rooted firmly in punk DIY. He spends his summers touring on the Warped Tour, traveling from show to show in an old Honda, and performing at the tragically small (and never advertised) hiphop tent. Astronautalis' new album, Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters, is his most confident release to date, focusing less on canned beats and more on live instrumentation and a newfound sense of patience behind the mic. The songs are dark in lyrical content, and dance about at a ghostly pace, haunting in delivery.
The last time he rolled through Portland, playing to a nearly non-existent crowd, he could barely stay on the stage, hyperactively skipping through the venue with a wireless mic, serenading the few that were there to see him, and tormenting those in the back who were talking through his set and playing a game of pool. When he managed to pin himself within the confines of the stage, Astronautalis delivered a blistering set of personable rhymes, and even added some loose-knit freestyling as well. Come Wednesday, I'm sure he'll do the same, but hopefully this time around people will be there to witness it.
Astronautalis performs at Berbati's Pan on Wed July 12.