In an industrial building on a derelict stretch of South Main Street in Downtown LA, up a steep staircase, past a landing manned by two makeshift bouncers, and within a haze of balloons, smoke machines, and laser lights, the dystopian noise-rap of Clipping tests the floorboards.
"Where the ladies at?" MC Daveed Diggs shouts to the packed main room crowd of party people dressed like extras from the set from the 1995 techno-thriller Hackers—think wraparound sunglasses, Teutonic leather vests, and tiny rave backpacks. The rickety DIY art space feels just as vintage: The hardwood buckles and sags precariously in time to the beats as Clipping producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes conjure an ear-splitting mix of Gabber kick drums, frantic footwork rhythms, Drum n Bass breakbeats, and industrial samples of clanking metal and mechanical drills.
In a sweat-soaked tank top, Diggs tears through a mix spanning the trio's catalog, plowing forward even as the sound system blows out. "This is not the first time this has happened," Diggs announces in the dark, before wading into the audience to follow up on his shout-out with an a cappella version of the LA trio's 2014 single "Body and Blood." "Kill somethin' girl, kill somethin' girl, kill somethin' girl!" the room chants along with him, just as the PA powers back to life.
Diggs knows a thing or two about galvanizing a crowd. For more than a year now, the Oakland native has captured the big-ticket world of Broadway as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical underdog-turned-sensation Hamilton.
The critically-acclaimed show, which has earned Diggs a Tony Award and a Grammy, tells the story of its eponymous Founding Father, reframed through a cast and script reflective of the role immigrants and people of color play in the United States today.
Since debuting Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in February 2015, the show has grossed tens of millions of dollars, with its original Broadway cast recording landing No. 3 on the US Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Billboard Top Rap Albums list.
Diggs joined Hamilton as part of the original cast around 2013, working with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail during its development into a full musical production, and staying on through the ascent that would eventually make him a Broadway star. In June, Diggs left the production to focus on other projects, and now he's back with Clipping's latest record, Splendor & Misery, shattering the hegemony in a much more unapologetically avant-garde way.
"Doing rap shows is way harder than doing Hamilton," Diggs admits while driving through LA on a recent Thursday. "Right before we started Hamilton, [Clipping] had just done two months straight of no-days-off touring. Doing a rap show on the road is just, like, screaming into a microphone that's barely picking you up for an hour, and then drinking a lot, and then going and doing it again the next day in a different city. You're set up to succeed way better when you're working on Broadway. Vocally, in terms of show stamina, it was actually a lot easier than doing a Clipping tour."
If Hamilton was Broadway proper, Splendor & Misery, which was largely completed before Diggs joined the show, is Off-Off-Broadway, a hip-hop space opera about a love affair between the survivor of a slave spaceship uprising and the ship's sentient onboard computer. The album eschews radio-friendly trap beats and other du jour production conventions in favor of beats inspired by European musique concrète, industrial textures, and dense rhymes packed with references to contemporary rap, Antebellum slave songs, and sci-fi literature by black authors like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany.
The album's title is itself a reference to Delany's 1985 book Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a layered portrayal of intergalactic slavery, cultural destruction, and inter-species sex, though Splendor's layered mythology at times also invokes other high-concept music projects, like the aquatic slave narratives of 90s Detroit techno outfit Drexciya. Drawing from a long Afrofuturist tradition, Splendor & Misery captures in equal measure the solitude, terror, and hope offered by the void of outer space.
"There's something particular to the narratives of oppressed peoples about the unknown being positive," Diggs explains. "Fear of the unknown is only really a thing if everything's really dope for you in the known, which is basically [the experience of] straight white men. For everybody else, the abyss—there's probably something optimistic about that. It's scary, but it's not necessarily horrifying. It's scary in the way that stepping off of a bridge is scary. But it actually holds a lot of promise."
Clipping, who also stylize their name as "clipping." to emphasize a sense of visual directness and finality, emerged in 2009 as a remix project between Hutson and Snipes. Both are veterans of theater production and experimental music—Snipes also does sound design and music for film, while Hutson recently earned his PhD in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA—drawing on their respective backgrounds to cut rap vocal stems with harsh electronics and noise soundscapes. But the project didn't really find its momentum until the pair brought in Diggs, a childhood friend of Hutson's, who joined up with the duo in 2010 and helped hone the brutalist, collage-based sound that has wooed and annoyed critics in equal measure.
Their 2014 debut full-length CLPPNG sees Diggs delivering verses as a third-person narrator without using the letter "I," a structural device that Diggs says allowed him to step outside himself and play with rap's charm and backstory-based tropes. Hutson and Snipes, meanwhile, crafted beats from unconventional field recordings like a blaring alarm clock and cinder blocks and ball bearings. The group takes inspiration from composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari, who in the 1940s and 1950s pioneered the musique concrète genre by composing music from found sounds and tape loops rather than traditional instruments.
"It just felt like if we wanted to make rap music, the most authentic thing we could do is not ignore our pasts and interests and the way that we make music, but rather just embrace it and be really, really honest about it," Snipes says. "This is how we know how to make music, and these are the references that are really dear to us in the same way that other producers might be cutting up jazz records."
Splendor & Misery sees Clipping crystalize their unorthodox musical inclinations and sci-fi obsessions into an unapologetically bizarre, 38-minute project. The record's beats, for example, include sample sources like a pneumatic espresso maker and the clanking of an oven door, amplified and doctored to industrial-grade effect, evoking a mysterious, rickety ship with air-lock doors and metal enclosures.
"Every time Bill and I would sit down and make a beat, we'd start with, like, 'OK, so this is set in a room where the gravity has gotten turned off and a thousand tiny screws are bouncing around the room, pinging off of surfaces, seemingly randomly but it develops a rhythm,'" Snipes says. "That would be our concept for the beat we'd make that day."
Diggs, for his part, spends much of the album rapping from the perspective of the onboard computer. He spits his verses with the breathless velocity of an algorithm spitting code. Initially somber in mood as the freed slave realizes the loneliness of space, the album's tone shifts on "All Black Everything," as the computer offers a cybernetic caress: "If only he realized this ship is more than metal / There's friendship in the wiring."
"There's a cool thing about a computer falling in love with a human and trying to figure out what that means," Diggs says. "It's kind of the way that we work anyway… We're always referencing other shit. We're always scouring our knowledge of other rap songs in order to figure out how we're gonna make this rap song. It's kind of a literal and literary translation of the way that we work on music anyway— a computer with way too much information, trying to figure out what it is to be in love."
The record concludes on a hopeful note. On closing track "A Better Place," kick drums and synths punch out a code-like rhythm as Diggs describes the freed slave entering random coordinates for the great beyond. "It's a bet upon an endless," he raps, noting that wherever he goes next, it's bound to give him a better chance than the subjugation he'd experienced back home.
It feels like a classic sci-fi climax: The jaded human ditching his home planet in order to evolve into something new. "Species with memories longer / Don't bother with sweating the old shit," Diggs raps. "Maybe it's this time-bound conscience / That keeps him out pushing through nothing."
Though Splendor & Misery was wrapped pre-Hamilton, Diggs says it's no coincidence that the two projects share an avant-garde political vision.
"It's part of a discussion that's happening all over the place with art right now," he says, pointing to examples like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and the ABC sitcom black-ish (in the upcoming season of which Diggs plays a spoken word poet).
"There's a conversation happening in the world of art right now that is about shifting the focus of what popular culture is recognizing," he says. "It's not an accident that all this stuff is coming out at the same time. We're in this political climate where it's pretty hard to not take a side."
Peter Holslin has never been to space, but he is on Twitter.