Who: It’s Clipping, bitch. And the Los Angeles trio of William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and Daveed Diggs aren’t about to let you forget it — in fact, those are the first words you hear on Midcity, their debut mixtape, as Diggs spits disdainfully over coruscating digital feedback. The three go way back: Diggs and Hutson attended grade school together, and Hutson and Snipes were college roommates. “As a group, the three of us have known each other for 13 years, but we didn’t start working on this project until two or three years ago,” says Hutson, who makes noise music on his own and has collaborated elsewhere with Snipes, a producer of music for film and television. Clipping began by “just screwing around, as a side project,” says Hutson, when he and Snipes tried their hand at fusing commercial rap a cappellas with their own sandblasted beats. “We had a show coming up, and Daveed came down to visit.” An actor, rapper, and writer, Diggs has worked with San Francisco’s Campo Santo theater company and Oakland hip-hop collective the Getback. “We had made a few [tracks] without an a cappella, and we just said, ‘Hey man, you’re a rapper, you want to do a song with us?'” The poisoned fruit of that first collaboration turned into “Loud,” a collision of ear-bleeding noise and pitch-shifted rapping that ended up on Midcity, released as a pay-what-you-wish download in early 2013. “The instant we started working on that, we knew this was no longer a remix project,” says Snipes.
The Science of Screech: Clipping say they make “party music for the club you wish you hadn’t gone to, the car you don’t remember getting in, and the streets you don’t feel safe on.” Maybe even the space walk you won’t survive: Remember Gravity‘s ultra-violent portrayal of the Kessler Syndrome, all that space debris colliding and smashing into fragments, and those fragments smashing and colliding into tinier fragments, ad infinitum? If you could hear anything in space, that cascading destruction might sound a lot like Clipping’s shredded polycarbon crunch. (Diggs’ menacing, rapid-fire raps, meanwhile, are pretty much the polar opposite of George Clooney in avuncular pep-talk mode.) And making noise as brutally precise as Clipping’s does turn out to be kind of like rocket science. “Neither of us went to music school,” says Snipes, “but we are pretty adept in the technical specifics of how sound works inside a computer and how sound works inside an analogue system, and I think we are pretty good at talking and making a sound at this point.” Hutson adds, “We don’t noodle around and find what we are looking for. We describe it to each other: ‘Oh, I’m hearing a sound like this,’ and then we figure it out.” Those exacting, laboratory-like processes extend even to the vocals, says Diggs, who marvels, “This is the most intentional project I’ve been a part of. As someone who has been in a lot of rooms and worked on a lot of sessions with rap music, it’s a different way of approaching rap songs. Bill and Jonathan are in the room the whole time and constantly nitpicking over the delivery of very small pieces of text, which is great.”
Acting Out: Diggs’ lyrics largely avoid first-person perspectives, offering instead a kind of bird’s-eye view of the evil that men (and money) do; they bring to mind Weegee photographs in their unflinching depiction of malice and ruin. “I think rappers spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is new,” Diggs says. “‘How can I say this in a way that no one has ever said it before?’ But this is the newest feeling project I’ve ever been a part of, and it is all about what has been done before. It is entirely about referencing existing songs, or tropes in the hip-hop canon. It’s an interesting experiment for me: The way most rap is done, even when it’s not autobiographical, it feels that way.” In his own life, he says that Clipping has served as a bridge between theater and rap. “The physical work of doing a show, working on music that is so vocally aggressive, over and over again, really relates to acting. Recording vocals has the same kind of physical demands as you experience a lot in theater work. Writing is writing. It is all about telling stories, and I’ve been doing that for so long, in all realms, that it all feels like the same thing to me anyway. Working on Clipping has been a way to make my life feel less compartmentalized than it has in recent years, and that probably has to do with the fact that I’m working with two really good friends of mine. Often, the people I’m working with on music are separate from the rest of my life.”
Face the Music: If Clipping are brutal on record, they’re even heavier on stage. Hunched over their machines, Hutson and Snipes unleash volley after volley of white noise while Diggs paces the stage like a man on fire and leads the crowd in call-and-response chants (“Dick in your face! Clit in your face! Gun in your face!”) likely to leave you feeling complicit in some vaguely evil project. Their performances have evolved rapidly from the anti-theater of early gigs. “When we started out,” says Diggs, “I was trying to not be an MC, not be an interactive element at all, just standing by the electronics table and rapping the words, wearing dark glasses and looking down. But as time went on, that seems like not the way to go. Rap shows are still supposed to be fun, even if they are mean.” Hutson laughs when he recalls the severity of Clipping’s first shows. “The original idea was, we’re going to have this blinding light in the audience’s face,” he says, “and we’re going to make this horrible sound, and Daveed, you’re not even going to talk to anyone, and you’re not going to look or move. And then somehow we played a couple of shows that were really intimate, and we didn’t have the video and people were really hyped that we had started performing like a rapper would, and we were like, ‘Oh, they like that way better.'”
Later, Hater: Despite the ugliness of the beats and the ambiguous POV of the lyrics, Clipping are quick to point out that their music isn’t meant as a critique of hip-hop. “We are not trying to fix anything,” says Snipes. “People always accuse us, as if we think we are somehow making music that is better than mainstream hip-hop, which we don’t. We’re just trying to participate in mainstream rap music.” Hutson chimes in, “Any time you do anything slightly different, everyone assumes that because our beats sound kinda noisy that we must fucking hate rap music, that this must be some attack. We sound like this because this is what we are good at and this is what we can make, but we really like rap music. We are not putting ourselves above it. We are not criticizing it. This is not our attack on rap music — this is us trying to do it.”
Who You Callin’ A Bitch?: About that “bitch,” a word that peppers Clipping’s music: The trio insists that it’s meant to imply a wide-ranging misanthropy (even though, Diggs admits, “it is sort of inherently gendered”). Hutson asks, rhetorically, “How do we keep our politics somewhat intact where we are not absolutely horrified by how monstrous we are being? How do we not criticize misogyny, homophobia, and violence in gangsta rap — how do we participate in that in a way that allows us to sleep at night? Saying ‘clit’ is apparently one of the ways that we justify the monstrosity that Daveed says.” Diggs puts it more succinctly: “We’re trying hard to make sure that this music is mean to everybody.”