Why? is not necessarily the band you’d assume would be headlining the Music Hall of Williamsburg to a sold-out crowd. They’re an indie rock band, a rap act, a prog outfit, and yet none of these things, defying genre in the sort of good-natured way where they don’t actually offend anybody for doing so. Last night, they played to an audience that could be conservatively described as “ratchet,” despite the fact that most of the audience would probably be unfamiliar with the term (read: mostly hilariously white white people there).
The question of how to age gracefully is one many bands have to face. Why? emerged essentially sui generis, their principal Yoni Wolf helping co-found the Anticon label, a hip-hop label that became renowned for putting out King Crimson-level proggy hip-hop. But as the years wore on and Anticon became more and more fractured stylistically, Why? didn’t zig, instead becoming more and more of a conventional indie rock outfit, Wolf drifting from rapping to singing to somewhere in between with ease. In a way, it’s the most revolutionary thing they could have done: much as 50 Cent (who has definitely never heard of Why?) said, they went ahead and switched the style up. But the thing is, nobody really hated. Why? just watched the money pile up.
Time has not been so kind to Doseone, another founder of Anticon. His insanely fast rapping, mumbled-yet-enunciated flow and quick mind once made him an underground hero, but as his opening set proved last night, age might provide us with wisdom, but dear Jesus does it rob us of taste. He took the stage, creating loops and beats in real time, showcasing his newfound Muppetesque singing voice, which under the rules of conventional logic should not work but does anyway. I am not contesting Doseone’s talent, as that’s something that’s pretty set in stone—I mean, dude beat Eminem in a freestyle battle one time, and you can spend hours on YouTube watching him wyle out on fools at Scribble Jam. Instead, I’m here to ask, “What the goddamn fuck happened to that guy?”
Doseone began his set by announcing, “These are new songs I made in a mental facility. Called Cleveland!” It was a Gallagher-level joke that portended a Gallagher-level avant-hop set that could best be described as, “Skrillex meets Justin Timberlake meets agitprop meets Ace Ventura.” In other words, he had a soul patch. If I ever get old, do me a favor and just kill me already.
Thankfully, Why? is much, much better than Doseone. Hip-hop is an art that’s inherently driven by force of personality—rappers essentially just talk to the listener, after all—and if you have the skill to convey the post-millennial anxiety that’s unique to a generation as Wolf does, you bet your ass you’re gonna develop a nice cult. They opened with “Good Friday,” the second song from Alopecia, perhaps the most quintessential Why? song. It’s got all the elements that make Why? what it is—folky, plucked guitar lines, self-conscious rapping that purposefully trips over its own feet before rolling into a chorus, Arcade Fire-worthy in its anthemicism. It is this song that Kitty Pryde, URL to IRL teengirl rap wonder, covered earlier this year, which speaks to Wolf’s weird ability to connect with those just slightly younger than he. It’s a power he’s clearly aware of, rapping, “I’m colder than most/Older than the youth/Always under oath/And sober in the booth” on “Waterlines,” a highlight from their upcoming Mumps, Etc., due out October 9th on Anticon.
Live, Wolf moves something like a discursive Eminem, off-kilter to the point of practice. He wore a cut-off t-shirt and jorts, and it seemed like everyone except me knew every single word to every single song. He crowd-surfed during “The Vowels, Part 2,” the audience clearly adoring him. After the set, the audience literally would not let them leave—an encore was demanded, and then another. The band closed their set with “A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under,” a cut from Alopecia that in its shimmering beat and ennui-obsessed lyrics seems like an elliptical response to Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime.” Indeed, there are parallels between Wolf and David Byrne, guys who led cult bands whose popularity transcended the term “cult band,” singers who don’t really sing except for when they do, whose music sounds like nothing else but somehow fits snugly into the zeitgeist. Perhaps the most telling moment of the evening occurred when I was speaking with someone halfway through Why?’s set and she shushed me. People literally want to watch Yoni Wolf sing words they already know. That, my friends, is power.
Photos by Will Warasila