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Dead Dogs & Beauty: cLOUDDEAD's Ten At 20
Lior Phillips , March 8th, 2024 11:11

Twenty years ago – the smart money was on Kanye West, Madvillain and cLOUDDEAD when it came to groundbreaking hip hop, says Lior Phillips, so what happened to the Ohioan three-piece?

“Like in a dream, everything seemed to be on the point of vanishing but at the same time ablaze with persistent reality."
Cesar Aira – Dinner translated by Katherine Silver

Too many scenes and genres have been dutifully and drolly memorialised by the 'I Was There When' hoard. You know the kind: 'Oh yeah, no one had heard anyone do what Jimi was doing. The Who, now that was life-changing. And Zep?' Each of these moments may feel monumental, but more pop up with each passing year – and documentarians, authors, and fanatics will argue the case that their particular favourite was the year that changed everything.

Jump back to 2004 and hip hop was experiencing one of those moments – but it was one of the first where “there” was accessible everywhere at a Web level. Rather than being able to be at some small club in San Francisco or London, any gatekeeping had to come in the form of interest and some nebulous sense of taste. In the span of less than 50 days, the internet hailed the release of three classics: Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Madvillainy from the duo of Madlib and MF Doom, and cLOUDDEAD’s Ten, a surrealist swath of heady hip hop from a triad of rap experimentalists.

While Kanye had quickly leapt from the Chicago underground and into the credits for Jay-Z's The Blueprint, the other two acts represent a nexus of power in indie rap at the turn of the century – and two factors driving a large portion of the indie rap world today as well. Madvillain showed off all the technical skill that Madlib (aka Quasimoto, the Stones Throw mainstay bringing Blue Note jazz) and Doom (Mr. Metal Fingers, capable of effortlessly flipping off-kilter non-sequiturs and comics grade world-building through unexpected samples) were capable of. cLOUDDEAD, meanwhile, bubbled up out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and developed a style of hip hop decidedly left of centre, unconcerned with where it fit into the rap universe – a sound that would be a touchstone for decades of emo rap, cloud rap, and other hazy variations on a theme.

The story starts in elementary school, when Dave Madson met Josiah Wolf, and eventually connected with Adam Drucker in high school, as well as looping in Josiah’s younger brother Yoni. Each would carve out their own artistic niche – Drucker as Doseone, Madson as Odd Nosdam, and Yoni Wolf as Why? – their concentric musical circles overlapping in the discovery. One project Drucker launched was Deep Puddle Dynamics, which also featured Sole, Alias, and Slug of the Minneapolis hip hop duo Atmosphere. Despite what in hindsight looks like an impressive pedigree, it didn’t gain the traction they’d hoped. “Nobody liked it, so we figured we’d release it ourselves with our own label,” Dose told self-titled magazine. Thus was the birth of Anticon, a bastion of freethinkers who didn’t fit into the expected hip hop mould in the late 90s.

Much like their high school days, the independent label/collective featured a variety of overlapping experiments, collaborations, and side projects with a varying degree of success and an unflinching eagerness to try things. Amongst that at times overwhelming wave of releases, Dose, Odd Nosdam, and Why?’s cLOUDDEAD remains the backbone of Anticon’s influence on multiple hip hop movements today – whether the younger generation know it or not.

After all, 2004’s Ten (the trio’s second and sadly final album), has perhaps more in common with Unicorns-y indie rock and post rock sound collage – led by those nasal vocals – than it does with anything Madvillain were tapping into. Heck, there might be more shared DNA with two of 2004’s other best indie releases, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes and Sung Tongs. But then again, cLOUDDEAD had their rap credentials: footage of Doseone battling none other than Eminem back in 97 should prove that on its own. And though its smoky, backwards-pitched samples might not have reached the top of Billboard's Hot Rap Songs chart no matter who was rapping over it, the sublime 'Rifle Eyes' proves its case as well. “The x-ray of someone’s tumored skull/ Left to scream doom from the gutter, with all the other/ Preventative waste, no name no face,” Why? stutter-steps in what is somehow one of the lower-syllables-per-minute stretches.

To be clear, though, Ten wasn’t released as “the new RAP project from three RAPPERS doing their best RAPPING!” Anticon was always far too interested in doing their own thing to invest in that kind of proclamation. But that didn’t stop large purist sectors of the rap world from decrying the critical response that lauded the album as an indie rap magnum opus. It’s hard to blame the response, to a degree. The first two tracks feature Why? falsetto singing “Elvis, what happened?” and an extended sample of a young British boy reciting lyrics about gentlemen and lasses (on 'Pop Song' and 'The Keen Teen Skip', respectively). There are long, droning tones throughout, stretches like the instrumental '3 Twenty' akin to The Books or a beat-addled Godspeed.

And while a lot of Ten may have been pushing boundaries and experimenting, distorting the world with poetic imagism, all that conversation surrounding the record’s release ignored the messages. There was no shortage of anti-war campaigning in the music world as the US waged war in Iraq, Ten highlight 'Son Of A Gun' succinctly sends up the military-industrial complex against a backing of twinkling synths, shuffling percussion, beats formed from gunshots and bomb blasts. After an intro spoken from the perspective of a new recruit, cLOUDDEAD cut to the chase: “The makers of guns will never go hungry/ The makers of guns will never fill up/ May their children always play murder weapon since stick.” And as Nosdam’s production twitches and skitters, Dose adds a repeated verse about atrocities performed under the guise of patriotism: “Someone’s splitting atoms under flag barbed wire”.

While Snoop and Pharrell hit number 1 with 'Drop It Like It's Hot', the cLOUDDEAD dudes had been listening to the Kool Keith alias Dr. Octagon. They were sharing their tapes on the internet, gaining a following around the world – other niche oddballs finding their brethren. These were not the first or only nerdy dudes to have pushed the boundaries of rap, but they were some of the most innovative, and doing so as the worldwide web exploded into a semblance of familiarity made for a particularly passionate cult following.

cLOUDDEAD shared Ohio roots, but one of their most beloved songs gives hints to what came next – both in terms of their relocation and their eventual split. The organ-driven 'Dead Dogs Two' finds the trio eulogising a pair of dead pets on the side of the highway, gory details delivered in near angelic falsetto. And they’re getting this particular view from a speeding car: “And us undeceased, and with our new CDs/ Zipping on dead east, Oakland”. Dose, Nosdam, and Why? all left their midwestern home for sunny California, not to mention the entirety of the Anticon operations. But more than that Oakland shoutout, the track works as a strange analogy for the group’s finality. (Though we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Lil B and his endless catalogue of cloud rap emanated from the Bay Area as well.)

The overlap of these three idiosyncratic polymaths, it seemed, was too much to handle. There were reports of fighting and contention even in the wake of their self-titled debut, and the group have gone on record that Ten wouldn't have happened if it weren’t a contractual obligation. The result is an album much like those dead dogs, somehow beautiful despite the tragedy, a mysticism and totemic strength borne out of exposed nerves. Despite all this, interviews in the two decades since suggest that there’s still plenty of love between the members, but any last sliver of hope for a third cLOUDDEAD record dwindles with each passing year regardless.

In the end, perhaps it was destined that there be no “I Was There When” crew for cLOUDDEAD’s moment in the sun – because there was no "there", all along. As a transplant into the American midwest, I get some sense of the regional roots of Ten, the combination of low-slung self-effacement and steely determination. But this was the big bang of the internet, a time when everything started happening together, when you could find a playlist that bounced Kanye, Madvillain, and cLOUDDEAD off of each other and then burn it onto a CD-R. cLOUDDEAD was the product of this age and of three artists disinterested in fitting in, in determining where they were supposed to be based on their background. “White rap, or whatever you want to call it, is not going to fit in anywhere. Experimental rap, weird rap, whatever you call it – it still doesn’t have a place,” Drucker told self-titled in 2008. This was a record localised in a highly combustible nexus, the intersection of three iconoclastic minds – a place where rap was beloved, sure, but coexisted with so many other interests. Each member has continued to evolve, just as all of them already had a long trail of experiments that came beforehand, making it clear this was a moment that could only have existed once.