Since the release of their debut full-length As The World Burns in the late summer of 1999, Brooklyn-bred hip-hop collective Arsonists have scored quite a bit of press, in both the glossy rap mags and edgier journals aimed squarely at the college-music listener. Most of the coverage has ranged from complimentary to fawning, lauding the group's utterly individual style, which deftly balances talent and credibility with an unabashed desire to entertain. And deservedly so: The Arsonists' schizoid palette of clowning, street reality, science fiction and freestyling is as fresh a sound as can currently be found in rap.
Strange, then, that terms like "old-school," "retro," and "nostalgic" turn up more often in the group's press kit than on Antiques Roadshow. It seems that, in an effort to categorize the Arsonists' all-inclusive vibe, some music scribes have eschewed much of their actual aural output to seize upon the more peripheral aspects of their overall aesthetic. And, understandably, the men themselves are a bit tired of it.
"People might look at what we do as an old-school art," allows firestarter Q-Unique, "but that's ridiculous. You're old-school because you're rockin' the crowd? Gimme a break."
Q-Unique and his fellow core Arsonists (Jise, Swel-79, Lt. Worf and DJ Jurassic) aren't re-working some Grandmaster Flash-era kitsch. They've simply reclaimed some of the hip-hop accoutrements that have fallen away from the culture over the last 15 years, and re-integrated them into a contemporary context. For them, hip-hop isn't just rapping, or thugging, or flossing. It's a state of being, a heritage, a nation built on the blocks of what they call the "four elements:" rhyming, graffiti tagging, DJ'ing, and breaking. Every Arsonist claims proficiency in all four arts — in their mythos, anything less wouldn't really be hip-hop. This reverence for the culture's traditions have prompted critics to date the outfit.
But, really, is being the first rap act signed to überhip indie-rock imprint Matador Records "old-school"? Is being compared to freaked-out visionaries like Kool Keith and Hieroglyphics Crew "retro"? Is bringing breakdancing back to live performances "nostalgic"?
OK, that last one is, though not to a kid whose only live rap experiences consist of two guys pacing back and forth, spewing mush-mouthed rhymes from the speakers. The Arsonists' show is perhaps the most heavily buzzed of their considerable attributes, chiefly because it is just that — a show. After years of "hard" antiheroes sullenly stalking the stage and occasionally waving their hands in the air like they just don't care, anything beyond jumping jacks could be considered a spectacle. The Arsonists never had any tough-guy personae to protect; their gigs are celebrations of the four elements, orgies of crowd exhortation, dancing and impromptu riffing.
"MCs, rappers, however you want to label 'em, these cats limit themselves. One person started it, and now 90 percent of them believe that they have to portray a certain attitude and image onstage. And some of 'em believe that if they get on stage and just spit lyrics, people will lose their minds, fuckin' faint in the crowd," Q-Unique muses with a derisive laugh. "And we just don't see it that way, you know what I'm sayin'?
"You're paying $20 or $30, we're gonna get onstage and give you something extra besides just listening to our music. Whatever we gotta do to move that crowd. We've been to millions of hip-hop shows, and people either look like caged animals, or I'm lookin' at a statue with a mic in its hand, just standing dead center. It's a shame."
Without benefit of a major-label budget for radio saturation or a video, the collective's inflammable live set and the word-of-mouth and rave reviews it has generated remain their best bet for attracting new fans. According to Q-Unique, tours supporting bigger acts, like their current jaunt with the similarly iconoclastic Beatnuts, have been extremely successful.
"Now that we're performing for bigger and broader audiences, we're having people that didn't necessarily come to our quote-unquote deep underground shows giving us love," he says. "People that have never even heard of us, that get the name wrong even after I said it 50 times onstage, you know? "Are you the Aristocrats?' "Are you the Assassinators?'" he mimics with a chuckle. "But they're feeling it."
The Arsonists' approach to performing may be comparatively unconventional, but it works for the group. Unconventional is pretty much their standard operating procedure. (Remember, they're signed to Matador.) As The World Burns is engaging and catchy, but its outlandish style kept it from sliding into heavy national rotation with the latest crop of vapid bouncers. The Arsonists came to be associated with the underground hip-hop scene more often than not, a development that caught them by surprise, fostering a little frustration and a lot of self-awareness.
"That was like a reality-slap," Q-Unique says. "We never considered ourselves underground. We're not heavy backpack-type music, like some of these kids are. That's not us. We feel like we have our own little path. We didn't take all of that to heart, because obviously we are saying things that a certain amount of people do want to hear, so that never really bothered us. But when somebody says that we'll never be able to go past the underground's limits and boundaries, that woke us up, made us decide that we needed to pay attention."
Advance mixes from their forthcoming sophomore effort Date of Birth find the Arsonists refining their approach, aiming for a more cohesive, accessible take on their own identity without sacrificing too much of it, or jettisoning it altogether in a dash for the next "Big Pimpin."
"It sounds a little more mature, but it's not like we're goin' from "Rhyme Time Travel' to "I gotta platinum chain and I'm drivin' a BMW,' you know?" agrees Q-Unique. "It's not that big a stretch."
He does admit, though, that the opportunity to swap integrity for a shot at some of the bling-bling did rear its ugly head, if only briefly:
"There was moments when people approached us with those beats that did sound like perfect radio tracks. Straight up, it sounded perfect. And you could imagine, you'd be, "this is definitely a radio thing.' But you gotta be realistic you gotta be smart. Cypress Hill and Redman, they never changed their formulas. They stayed with their fanbase, and they're comfortable, but they still grew up."
Thankfully, Date of Birth sports nothing remotely resembling a Timbaland rhythm track and instead offers more of the Arsonists' innovative, culture-spanning style. Like anybody else in the industry, they'd like to move up the ladder of success. But unlike most, they seem to realize that what makes them so different may very well pay off bigger in the long run than what makes all the other guys so similar.
"Sometimes you find it to be a challenge. You listen to what's on the radio and you're like, "Wow, we're not even anywhere close to saying that or sounding like that.' So I don't know how all of these people are gonna pick up our transmission," Q-Unique concedes. "That's where faith comes in. Because we're so different. Because we don't sound backpack or radio, there's a twist to what we're bringing.
"We're gonna cover all bases, that's the thing. We covered it in the production, we covered it with the rhymes, and we covered it visually. We covered it, so now we're tryin' to corner it. With our vibe, our sound."