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Destined: Food for Animals

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Dusted's Ben Yaster kicks off our 2008 Destined series with Baltimore hip hop trio Food For Animals.

Destined: Food for Animals

  • Download "Swampy (Summer Jam)" by Food for Animals.

    “Oh-mar! Omar, all the way.”

    So Andrew “Vulture Voltaire” Field-Pickering, a rapper for the Baltimore-based Food for Animals, exclaims in response to a question about which every young Marylander has an opinion: Omar Little or Stringer Bell? In fairness, Field-Pickering’s choice between the two feuding characters from The Wire, HBO’s tour de force about urban life in Baltimore, was a quick reply to a cute query by this interviewer. Nonetheless, Field-Pickering’s vote for Omar – a gay stickup artist whose sexual identity would exclude him from Baltimore’s underworld if not for his ruthless use of a shotgun – suggests a parallel with the music Food for Animals makes. Like the television character, Food for Animals fluidly moves as both an outsider and insider group.

    Food for Animals has been tagged a “breakcore” outfit for its glitch-heavy beats. The group’s sound, a menagerie of industrial buzz and squeal coupled with emphatic if elliptical rapping, is abrasive, befitting membership in a niche more than in a larger genre. But notwithstanding its more challenging aspects, Food for Animals is about setting beats to the rhyme. It is, at bottom, a hip hop act.

    For all of its outsider tendencies, Food for Animals is a most accessible band of experimentalists. “We have shows with random rock bands where audiences won’t know what to expect – like we’re some wild electronic Public Enemy meets Autechre shit, but audiences tend to be pretty cool,” Field-Pickering explains in describing the reactions his group received during its recent jaunt across Europe, which included a set at the State-X festival in The Hague. “The crowds were receptive. They realized that we’re weird – but not crazy weird.”

    That description – odd without being oddball – fittingly summarizes Food for Animal’s first LP, Belly, to be released at the beginning of 2008. The record showcases a sound novel in its synthesis of disparate genres, including the popular, like hip hop, as well as those more parochial, like DC go-go and Baltimore club. Across this dance-inspired base, however, Food for Animals has sandpapered what would otherwise be pristine production with a gloss of noise.

    “Our early stuff was more aggressive. We oftentimes play with noise and punk bands,” Field-Pickering says. “But Sterling (Warren, Food for Animals’ second MC) and my influences are more normal hip hop, like Outkast and Wu-Tang.” Field-Pickering’s analogy to those groups is an accurate one. Both Warren and Field-Pickering employ the charisma and wordplay of Outkast, as well as Wu-Tang Clan’s penchant for lyrics that eschew linear narrative for strings of impressionistic phrases. The group’s rapping is exemplified best on a song like “Swampy (Summer Jam),” in which Field-Pickering narrates the events and thoughts of a humid, mid-Atlantic day. “Summer Jam” is a feat, and harkens to a style of hip hop more classic than contemporary. Field-Pickering might be influenced directly by Big Boi and Ghostface Killah, but “Summer Jam” is most indebted to the minimalism of Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full: The joy of a beat, a rapper, and three minutes of vamp.

    Responsible for the gap between Warren and Field-Pickering’s hip hop sangfroid and the group’s aggressiveness is Nick “Ricky Rabbit” Rivetti, Food for Animals’ producer and laptop steward. Rivetti, unlike other hip hop beatsmiths, forsakes clarity of tone for a sound that is often bleached beyond recognition. It’s not the stuff of subwoofer vibrato. Instead, he works with a desiccated palette; a clattering treble substitutes for hip hop’s bottomless bass. The effect is one of emaciation – hip hop starved of its full-bodied curves. Listeners with a prized stereo system beware: Belly’s distorted offerings are not the fault of your speakers, but are the intentional design of their makers.

    Food for Animals breaks from hip hop orthodoxy not only in its rough, noisy aesthetic, but also in its production method. As opposed to using hip hop’s strategy of establishing one beat and replaying it from a song’s beginning to end, Rivetti relies on several loops. “Nick’s got his little bag of tricks,” Field-Pickering says. “When we’re playing live, he’ll manipulate all the samples; he’ll throw in new loops to surprise us.” The result is a style that allows for more play than the standard hip hop routine. Whereas a DJ might normally remix a song by substituting a new beat entirely, Rivetti can change each loop individually, holding constant the song’s other elements. This method is captured most clearly in a song like “Belly Kids,” a track with four movements that jaggedly shifts in time and intensity, speeding, decelerating, and building again to crescendo as Rivetti adds and removes loops at the touch of his keyboard.

    Though maintaining that Food for Animals’ music is structurally hip hop, Field-Pickering admits that his group has adopted an approach quite different from what one is likely to find on the radio or in clubs. “We’re doing beats the way no one else does them,” Field-Pickering states. “Our weirdness is kind of an awesome take on hip hop now.” In spite of the wedges distinguishing the group’s sound, Food for Animals seem unworried about playing hip hop bills. “The beats haven’t really turned anyone off,” Field-Pickering says. “We just opened for Little Brother in Baltimore. I expected it to be harder to win the audience over, but it was a pretty packed room and we had people coming up afterwards, telling us we were alright and that they would hit us up on Myspace.” The warm response may be attributable to Field-Pickering and Warren’s compact and forceful rhyming, which anchor the songs from drifting afar. Together, Food for Animals’ trio strikes a fine balance between comfort and cramp, for a result that is both a curiosity and a wonder.

    Field-Pickering acknowledges, however, that at least in Baltimore, the group has yet to establish itself as a member of the city’s homegrown and insular hip hop scene. “In Baltimore, we wouldn’t be able to be a part of it – we’re not from the hood, and we’d really only be on the very fringe of the city’s hip hop scene,” Field-Pickering explains. Instead, he identifies the group as part of Baltimore’s burgeoning and much-publicized “experimental scene,” including Dan Deacon and Wzt Hearts, among others.

    When asked whether race is also a barrier to the group’s acceptance as a bona fide hip hop act – Field-Pickering and Rivetti are white – he downplays its significance. “I’ve never had an issue about race – no one’s ever been like, ‘hey white dude get off the stage.’ Most of the time, people think that I’m not a rapper when they see me standing around at shows, and then they’re surprised how I rap. It’s an element of surprise now, only. At the Little Brother show, people came up to me and said I was nice – and not even for a white guy.”

    If Field-Pickering is right, and hip hop audiences are responsive to Food for Animals regardless of the group’s skin color or location outside of Baltimore’s narrow hip hop scene, the coming year should be a promising one for the group. “Belly is coming out officially (on Hoss Records), and we have new songs that we’re trying to get recorded,” Field-Pickering says, adding that the group will tour the east coast in February in support of the record. Of course, hip hop audiences will still have to reconcile Food for Animals discordant sound with the genre’s fuller, more palatable leanings. But the group doesn’t seem worried. As Omar Little might say, Food for Animals is all in the game.

    By Ben Yaster

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