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Beans Evolves

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be Paul Stanley," says New York City beatmaker/rapper/poet Beans, casting his mind back to his musical childhood. "I have pictures of me as a kid with tennis racquets and makeup, wearing my mother's rain shoes for high-heeled boots. Kiss and Rick James I used to imitate a lot, plus I grew up listening to Two Doors Down, by Dolly Parton, and the 'Grease' soundtrack. The first record I bought with my own money was 'Planet Rock' [by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force], so that gives you an indicator of what that can lead to. I think you can derive, from the music that I make now, how much of an impact that had on me."

The 33-year-old Robert Stewart grew up in suburban White Plains, New York. Whilst hip-hop was a continuous influence through his adolescence, Stewart himself felt no connection to any greater culture. He only started rhyming when he was 17, just before he went to art school in New York to study graphic and visual design. Whilst he had thought that such visual artistry would be his calling, pretty soon Stewart — now trading under the name Beans — found himself cutting class to go into the studio with his friend Priest. Whilst the tracks they were working on were, ostensibly, "hip-hop," the duo's performances were inspired by the jazz records they listened to, and the downtown poetry scene they were involved in.

"I met a girl." This is Beans' answer as to how he was first involved in the Nuyorican Theatre's Rap meets Poetry evenings. "It was definitely an extension of hip-hop," he recalls, "but at that time it allowed you to say things, in that medium, that you couldn't say in hip-hop, and it allowed for a stronger emphasis in what you said. Because, in those performances, there were no beats. That was the rule, you couldn't perform to a beat at all. So it put more emphasis on what you were writing, and it made me a better writer, I believe. I think that that was the fertile ground that allowed me to become who I am. So, I'm highly appreciative of that time."

That time, he furthers, was one where he had stopped listening to hip-hop, and through his indoctrination into other sounds, he feels like he found his own voice. When he and Priest got serious, in 1994, about making their own music, they had to "rediscover" the genre they'd ignored in its ignoble "gangsta" years. And they were inspired to do this by Common Sense's Resurrection, whose release that year reignited their love. Yet, the two didn't just want to make hip-hop, they wanted to reinvent rap's wheel, having grand ideas for the music they wanted to make. "We wanted to be the reaction [to hip-hop] how punk was to disco; how punk was this new infesting movement that was in total contrast to disco. When we started, we wanted to be the antithesis of what was happening in hip-hop at that time."

In 1997, Priest founded his own label, Anti-Pop records, as an independent means for releasing their material. Issuing cassettes featuring tracks by the three artists at the core of Anti-Pop — Priest, Beans, and Sayyid — they called these five volumes "Consortiums"; and, thus, the trio became known as the Anti-Pop Consortium. Working with producer Earl Blaize, as well as with beats made by Beans and Priest, the outfit took their vision for rebellious hip-hop to extremes, their music like free-jazz riffs on the rhymes-over-beats tenets of the genre.

They gathered together the best tracks of these early years, in 2000, for the debut APC album, The Tragic Epilogue, a culmination of their "slow growth" that helped the crew cross over to an experimental audience well outside hip-hop's figurative and literal ghettoes. The crew themselves had had this idea in mind at the time, sending a demo of Tragic Epilogue to English electro icons Warp Records (because they were fans of Autechre, no less). The label didn't get on board until after that album, releasing APC's follow-up stopgap EP, The Ends Against the Middle, in 2001, and a fully-fledged album, Arrhythmia, in 2002. On that album, their concept of "futurist hip-hop" was brought to bear with all sorts of wild electro-zap production and manic-mouthed syllable-spitting.

Yet, throughout all this time, the members of Anti-Pop had all been working on their own solo material. Anti-Pop were, at essence, a collective of solo artists, and not long after Arrhythmia came out, the crew split. The turnaround to Beans' solo debut, Tomorrow Right Now, issued early in 2003, seemed swift. But Beans had sown the seeds of this as soon as the group inked their deal. "Warp had first refusals on all our individual releases, and a week after we had signed to Warp, as Anti-Pop, I had already presented them with a demo for Tomorrow Right Now."

A collection of tracks he'd been working on over the years, the release found Beans forging further into his own artistic deep-space, yet it seemed strangely like a regular hip-hop record in the way it punctuated an occasionally patchy set with a couple killer singles, "Phreek the Beat" and "Mutescreamer." After issuing a remix/odds/sods set, Now Soon Someday, early in 2004, Beans has returned with Shock City Maverick, which, without losing any of the lurid hooks of the best Beans/APC moments from past discs, sounds much more the cohesive artistic work.

"I wanted to make an album that was a lot more immediate, in terms of people's responses to it," Beans offers, of his goals for the disc. "I wanted the music to match the flow of the words, so that it was altogether a more cohesive thing, but still uptempo and groovy, without making concessions with the things that I wanted to do, in terms of experimenting and things like that."

The culmination of the album's intent — and Beans' own aesthetic — comes on a cut called "I'll Melt You," where he boasts of being "the Ornette Coleman of this rap shit/ the link between Suicide, Sun Ra and Bambaataa," and crows of making an album with "no sample clearances and no guest appearances." True to his word, there's not a single sample on Shock City Maverick, nor a single guest. "I make albums, not compilations," Beans says, when speaking of such a stated approach. "I was in a group for eight years, so I don't necessarily feel that I have to have a whole album of guest appearances in order to supplement making a record. And, in terms of samples, I do want to speak within my own voice, so I don't rely on other people's music to do so." — Anthony Carew [Friday, December 17, 2004]

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