Know your dose
Oakland duo Themselves prescribes beats, rhymes
Sacramento, CA 95816
To hear from Doseone is like greeting an old friend. The emcee, poet and iconoclast has spent over a decade on the fringes of underground hip-hop. He doesn’t try to contain his intellectual restlessness, instead spreading himself across projects with enigmatic names like 13 & God, Subtle, Clouddead and Presage. He frequently speed-raps on his songs, builds layers of words and adds whimsical vocalizations that sound impenetrable to the untrained ear.
With such a deluge, Oakland’s Doseone has become a somewhat familiar name for those who follow experimental music. Last year, he revived one of his better-known incarnations, Themselves. A straight-up beats-and-rhymes combo with producer Jel, Themselves emerged during a maddeningly brief period when rappers were pushing the boundaries of introspective, yearning lyricism. The group and its record label/collective, Anticon, were at the forefront, issuing cryptic titles like 2000’s Them and its quirky (and, yes, slightly geeky) manifesto, “It’s Them.”
Last year, Themselves returned with a new album, CrownsDown, to a markedly different scene. The aesthetics have changed: Instead of weird psychedelic-rock samples and free-floating rhyme schemes based on rap-battle competitions, there is “emo rap,” drippy love songs and “alternative”/Warped Tour branding. It’s reassuring and frustrating that Themselves still sound strangely intoxicating, if only because few have advanced the form since their early millennium heyday.
“I wouldn’t say that we fit any better in rap’s version of itself, or how people perceive rap, than we did when we started. But we’re so much more comfortable with ourselves, our talents and the art that we make,” Doseone says of himself and Jel during a phone call from his Oakland home.
“We were playing for the people we met 10 years ago as well as new people,” he continues, adding that he managed to draw out “male fans that don’t get out of the house much.”
“[At one show] there was a pretty girl against the wall who looked like she was lost all night. And then we played ‘Poison Pit,’ and she jumps off the wall. ‘I love this song!’” he remembers.
As Themselves wraps up its touring commitments this spring, Doseone is embarking on new adventures. There is the Nevermen with Tunde Adebimpe, from TV on the Radio, and Mike Patton. “It’s going to be fucking done one of these days,” he says. “The Nevermen is all over the place. I won’t spoil it. It started out as mouth noises and beatboxing.”
More importantly, there’s the July 6 release of Unearthing, a two-hour disc of poetry from legendary author and avowed mystic Alan Moore, who is known for comics classics like V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. Using the name Crook & Flail, Doseone and Andrew Broder from the band Fog provided the soundtrack and instrumentation to Moore’s words while coordinating guest appearances from Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, Hella drummer Zach Hill, Jesu’s Justin Broadrick and Mike Patton. The box set includes the disc and a book with photography by Mitch Jenkins.
Doseone, who made beats for the album but didn’t rap, describes Moore’s Unearthing as “awesomely dense.” “[Alan] reads pretty astounding. I couldn’t read a two-hour-long poem,” says Doseone, adding, “He’s one of the only heroes I have that my dad has.”
There are myriad other projects, too. Doseone rattles off a list that includes a collection of CrownsDown remixes (called CrownsDown and Company), among many other projects. It’s slightly overwhelming.
“One of the things that’s kept us a step ahead of our contemporaries as far as our music still being fresh and full of cool stuff is that when we start making our soup from scratch, we never add that ingredient that is expecting or pursuing sales,” Doseone says. It’s fairly difficult to imagine him on the cover of Rolling Stone, but stranger things have happened.