Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Importance of Embracing the Underground

The underground:
We hear that term used in so many different ways, and in equally various contexts. For the purpose of my argument, which is on in strong support of embracing all that is the glory of the proverbial underground, I will define the underground from a musical perspective; music that is too hip to gain 'above-ground' notoriety without what is essentially a grassroots movement behind it. Let's just be blunt and say that unless your band has a singer, catchy guitar riffs, and very closely resembles music that is already above ground and/or popular, it is going to be a long, hard slog on your way to recognition at the level necessary to actually see more than the usual 10-20 people who come to your shows, dig?

Even if you look at immensely talented folks who lived for a while on the underground and then hit really big - artists like Elliot Smith, Beck, Digable Planets, NAS, and many alternative hip-hop artists from the Twin Cities - they all had some kind of hook to their music; something that the fickle general American public could very easily latch onto. In the case of Smith and Beck, they had guitars, catchy melodies, etc., nothing too difficult to dig into for the average listener of good music. For the previously underground hip-hop artists are genuinely great at what they do and bring something other than knuckle-dragging chouvonistic bullshit to the scene, they also had a kind of hook in that they are not bands per se, but self-made individualistic icons in their own right; just them, a DJ, and a massive built-up hype. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they are at all lacking because of that. It is DEFINITELY possible for a rapper and a DJ to really put on a hell of show, even without any kind of band backing them up. I just saw Immortal Technique two weeks ago, and he absolutely tore up the stage at First Avenue. His rhetoric, his poetry, and his bad-ass beats were more than enough to keep the audience high as a kite with their fists in the air. His opening acts on the other hand were an absolute waste of space! Anyway, let me get back to the point. That is, unless you have some kind of hook, something that mainstream America is in need of or desires, the chance of "getting discovered" is slim at best, no matter how damn good you are.

So, in light of that rather disturbing image, here is my theory. If you embrace any one thing for what it really is, rather than for what you wish it was, and you do it all the way - the height of your abilities - it is just a matter of time before the world at large realizes just how much you have to offer. In fact, if you are that damn good, you may not ever really have to come out from the underground. More on that after we discuss what is actually so cool about the underground.

The underground is everything that the overground, if you will, wishes it was. I mean, think about it: Rage Against the Machine can't even play a small venue anymore, not unless they charge a ton of money for the ticket, right? And that excludes all those folks who can't afford to go to an expensive show. Obviously this goes for all famous bands or individual artists. Of course, when they get that big fat paycheck, I don't think they individually wish they were back on the underground - which is exactly where every great artists was at one point, don't forget.

Another thing the underground has that the overground only wishes they had, is that always present feeling of "man, these guys are amazing, why haven't they been discovered yet?" That is, in my opinion, the best part of the underground. I was checking out a really great musical project that our drummer Graham O'Brien often performs with, Keston and Westal, at the Kitty Kat Club last night. I, of course, am already too jaded to say to myself, "wow, why haven't these guys been discovered yet?", but I was indeed thinking how absolutely cool it was to be sitting there in that David Lynch-like designed club listening to this bad-ass Herbie Hancock/MMW/awesome 70s vibe jazzy stuff, with only about 20 people in the crowd. I mean, think about it, here is this unbelievably cool club, with this world class quality live funky jazz electronica happening, and I am one of only a dozen or so people seeing it happen! Who knows what the future holds for Keston and Westal, but if their album ever gets a ton of airplay or what have you, I will get to say "I saw them at the Kitty Kat Club in Minneapolis for free, and there was just myself and a dozen or so others in the crowd."

We all know that I could take a completely different approach; a much more negative half-empty approach, which is something I have done many times before. It would go something like this:

There was nobody there because American culture has suffered so much from the instant gratification of television and corporately controlled radio, that nobody gives a shit about seeing great music anymore. It's more about going out to get laid, drink beer, and be a part of "scene" than it is to actually go out on a hunt for bad-ass up-and-coming live music. I remember when that was what young, avant-garde people did every weekend. It was just assumed that you would go out and find some killer live music. This has changed dramatically in this country and the new young generation has become much less attuned to the joy of finding undiscovered talent.

Sure, there is definitely some truth to that. However, I am what I like to think of as a Practical Optimist. That is, I believe it is more useful both for the artist and for the culture that the artist is a part of, to approach things from the perspective that says good music will always prevail, even if it takes a lot longer for the mainstream to find out about it. It's those who dwell in the underground; those who embrace the inherent hipness of the underground, who will be the fulcrum by which bands that are "too hip for the room" will gain the attention and support they deserve.

So I propose that not only the band I play with - which I would say is often too hip for the room too - but every band that is on the underground - either by choice or by the inevitability therein because of the greatness of the music - take a moment to look around. Recognize, while you are here on the underground, how beautiful it is. If and when your band finally earns the respect, support and attention you have long deserved, you just might miss those days when you were playing for 5-10 truly attentive and undeniably hip people at some really cool club in Minneapolis, or New York City for that matter.

I say, in earnest, to the four or five people who might actually read this post: The next time we are playing in a club for less people than are in the band, I promise to look around and take a strong mental picture of what it looks like and feels like to be an amazing band, playing totally hip and creative music that if rocked on the big stage would definitely blow minds. In the end, it's the music that matters. I don't think I could live with myself if my band sucked but we were famous. Hmm, famous last words?

- Christopher Robin Cox

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