Freaks and Geeks
DJ Kid Koala and MC Paul Barman
By Alex Pappademas
APRIL 3, 2000: I'm pretty sure DJ Kid Koala and MC Paul Barman have never met. But when you listen to their boisterously original debut discs -- Koala's long-awaited LP Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tune) and Barman's first EP, It's Very Stimulating (Wordsound) -- it's not hard to imagine them bonding in the back of the same stultifying junior-high-school study hall, Koala telling dumb jokes with his turntable, trying to make milk come out of Barman's nose. Freaks and geeks, after all, tend to flock together.
Koala -- born Eric San -- is a Montreal-based Chinese-Canadian DJ with a safety-scissors haircut and a Saturday-morning sense of humor who seems to scavenge the raw materials of his music from Dr. Demento's sell-back pile. He catalogues the dopest sounds in meticulously organized notebooks, then repurposes them as turntable-stab riffs, goofy self-shout-outs, painful-beyond-belief puns. He segues between the first and second songs on his CD with a stuttered sample from Revenge of the Nerds -- some Poindexter type confessing, "We're nothing but the nerds they say we are." Even the name of the album hints at nerd compulsion -- and note the parallel between the Tunnel in the title and the tunnel vision of the truly fanatical. In other words, San's geeky, and people probably tell him he needs to get out more.
Barman's more of a spaz, with hints of dork. He traffics in realness the only way a Jersey-born, Brown University-educated Jewish guy with a job as art-museum security guard on his résumé (like Steve Malkmus!) can -- alluding to Wallace Shawn, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Susan Faludi (because her name rhymes with "Backlashed my booty") and boasting that he's "hung like a birthmark," all in lyrics that make an abstract art of pure corn.
These guys are nerds in the way that Ol' Dirty Bastard is a crazy wino -- their nerdiness is their art, just as ODB's wilding-out is inseparable from his base genius. Nerdiness is the monkey wrench with which Barman and Koala dismantle genre pretexts that would otherwise have hemmed them in. Koala breaks out the hokiest records in the bins as a way of easing scratch DJing out of its chilling-in-James-Brown's-poolhouse pose; Barman, realizing that most white rappers come off as pure sideshow anyway, decides to run with it, and he sidesteps the identity-politics beartraps that have snapped on every white MC since Robbie Van Winkle. Their ostensible uncoolness lets this pair interrogate, goof on, and otherwise screw with traditional and outmoded notions of what coolness is. As in tech culture, it's always the nerds who (re)write the code.
Koala's turntable papier-mâché builds on the aesthetic of Don Pardo-sampling old-school producers Double Dee and Steinski, particularly their commercial-snippets-as-Max-Headroom-blipvert opus "We'll Be Right Back." His love of found narrative goes back to Grandmaster Flash's use of the Hellers' Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers and Doers album on the "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." And one of Koala's old routines taught us how to say "scratch" in Mandarin Chinese, updating Prince Paul's now-seminal sampling of teach-yourself-français records on De La Soul's "Transmitting Live from Mars."
The guys from Coldcut -- who crystalized the hip-hop-remix-as-postmodern-knock-knock-joke aesthetic with their "Seven Minutes of Madness" extrapolation of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full" -- saw enough of themselves in young San to sign him to their Ninja Tune label, then wait four years for him to turn in an album. But Koala's music picks up where his forefathers faltered. It's as if he'd stayed up late absorbing all of the above, all their funky appropriations of unorthodox audio, then dozed off to dream about playing Cameo songs on the banjo and making Harpo Marx do the Biz Markie dance. In a rowboat. Going down the final straightaway of the log-flume ride at Six Flags.
Versed in DJ fundamentals but never fundamentalist, Koala deploys his skills mostly to screw with structure. His drum parts have an appealing first-take slapdashness (notwithstanding "Roboshuffle," which builds its head of steam to Burundi Black/Bohannon/drunk-football-fan-stomping-to-Gary-Glitter levels). There is funk -- "Strut Hear" sounds like John Shaft scuba-diving, and "Music for Morning People" bops to some guy playing DJ Shadow breaks on air guitar. And though this may be like noting that a Jet Li movie features "some kicking," there is scratching. Sometimes the scratches turn into beats, and they're almost always catchy, splitting the difference between rhythm guitar and percussion and the sound of a Cash Money 'copter trying to take off in a strong cross-breeze. But Koala's crabs, fades, and rewinds shape the scenery instead of chewing it up -- think of the way Tom Waits's blood-alcohol level made the furniture dance on "The Piano Has Been Drinking."
In the end, though, there are words. Carpal is one of the most verbal instrumental records of the late hip-hop era. The voices -- from 'luded-up radio jocks talking about their stacks o' wax to a caveman discussing his career as a sound-effects designer -- act as Greek chorus snappily edited to heckle every groove. It's like Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the movie clips heckling the robots. Near the end of the pastoral Hawaiian-guitar-led "Naptime" -- which is way more fun than most of Luke Vibert & BJ Cole's recent wheels-of-steel-guitar CD -- a Muppet opines, "This . . . is . . . stoo-pid," and the track ends, nipped in the bud by San's self-critique and his on-to-the-next-shit restlessness. The two "Barhopper" tracks arrange dating-instruction records and hapless pick-up artists over slinky, Money Mark-ish backing from Koala's jazz band, Bullfrog, and the music's deadpan pokes holes in everybody's attempts at suavity. ("Barhopper 2," by the way, features the best ummms since that Ally Sheedy "Would you go to bed with me?" song -- Touch & Go's novelty hit "Would You . . . ?")
Koala's demo tape got over on selection and surprises, blurring Genesis and Charlie Brown and making tribal thunder from Björk's best beats -- all basically unclearable samples. Carpal has to stand on composition, and it only kinda does; a better ratio of fully developed songs to one-joke tracks might have been nice. But I can't complain, since the pauses between the squawks on "Like Irregular Chickens" leave me incapacitated with laughter. Ladies and germs, the Jack Benny of the 1's and 2's.
The craziest racial mindblower on radio this season is Dr. Dre & Eminem's "Forgot About Dre" -- a laconic black guy tries to rhyme like his hyper white sidekick over a beat that struggles to divide Cali lowriding by Dirty South creep. But MC Paul Barman's EP is a close second. Armed with Alfred E. Neuman's voice and the background of J.D. Salinger's Seymour Glass (from Seymour: An Introduction), he's the first truly post-minstrel rapper, too self-aware to don any kind of lyrical blackface without laughing himself out of the room. (But on Stimulating, somebody -- I think it's producer Prince Paul -- keeps dropping the needle on a record by some Al Jolson impersonator. Maybe it's the producerial equivalent of noogies. Make of it what you will.)
Barman's sense of humor sets him apart from white-but-I'm-down dissemblers like Company Flow's self-serving El-P and the legions of Caucasian rap-rock mooks currently using rap as a combination therapist's couch and punching bag (check Fred Durst's "Dude, I used to get beat up in gym class for liking rap . . . now show me your tits!" routine). And though there are precedents for his proper-noun-heavy flow -- Beasties '89 (circa "Droppin' Names"), future frathouse icon Tom Green back when he fronted the Canadian novelty-rap trio Organized Rhymes -- his real peers are storytellers like Ice Cube and Slick Rick. Just as Rick turned the British accent he couldn't hide into a bottomless fount of flavor, Barman is writer enough to spin gold from his Metrocardin'-it-to-the-Met milieu. He makes you groan, but he never postures, and (like Kid Koala, who indexes decades of hip-hop style cues without sampling any actual hip-hop records) he soft-sells his knowledge of the form, which is considerable. "School Anthem" gooses both Ivan Illich's manifesto "Deschooling Society" and the acrostic rhyme schemes in "I Got Your Back" by the Wu-Tang Clan's Genius.
But be prepared, as Barman puts it, "for bad sex and slapstick" -- Stimulating plays like a Tropic of Cancer for the backpack-rap set. "Joy of Your World" cops to premature ejaculation (the inspiration for Barman's breathless, spritzing cadence?) and mangles "To Zion" in the shower before Barman (almost) scores with a girl from west of Philadelphia who likes her "undergrads underfed." Maybe she's the same girl who shows up in "Salvation Barmy," her twin lip rings looking like fangs, or Autumn from "I'm Frickin Awesome," who complains that all the boys she meets at the art museum look "straight outta Eightball." Or maybe she's Sassy founder Jane Pratt -- Barman, "a lonely male who'll settle for any phony in a ponytail" and a guy who's definitely got an "88 Lines About 44 Women" in him somewhere, raps debonairly about jerking off on her head.
You could argue that if such ignoble behavior is all Barman gleaned from hip-hop, he's just Durst with a bigger vocabulary and a degree from the "hipster Ivy," and thus equally guilty of doing the form a disservice to get the nookie. But no matter how much Barman lets his gonads write his rhymes for him, you can't buy him for a second as any kind of predator. Maybe it's the childishness of his CD-sleeve doodles, even the dirty ones. Prince Paul's production, ambling kick-snare basics playing double-dutch with nursery-rhyme chimes and George Carlin samples, run a laugh track under the whole project; their sweetness lets us in on the gag. Still, my favorite track is "MTV Get Off the Air," the loopiest he-said-she-said rap song since MC Lyte's "F.ck That M.....F......King Bulls..it." Paul invites all-pro scenester and part-time rapper Princess Superstar over so he can "smooch on [her] foofer-hole, all through the Super Bowl." He disses her (self-reflexively: "Your talents are bite size, it's no surprise you rhyme with white guys"); she disses back but uses him for sex anyway. And in what amounts to a chivalrous ending, he's the anti-Slim Shady who post-coitally volunteers to "sleep in the wet spot."
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