(Appeared in The Rocket #303, 6/9/99)
Sir Mix-A-Lot's and the Presidents of the U.S.A.'s Shocking Creation
By Kevan Roberts
Everyone is doing it, it seems. Barely a month passes without details of a new
collaboration between a monster of rock and a demon of rap surfacing. Since the earliest
meshing of the styles--courtesy of Run DMC and Aerosmith, Anthrax and Public Enemy, the
Beastie Boys' entire License to Ill LP--there's been countless attempts to mix rock and
rap together. The past year alone has wrought high profile partnerships between Korn and
Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit and Method Man, and the ubiquitous and opportunistic Puff Daddy with
both System of a Down and Jimmy Page. Heck, the cross-pollination of the genres was
sufficiently common enough for MTV--hardly renowned for its speed out of the blocks--to
declare 1999 the year rock and rap would finally come together.
The hipsters will tell you that once the mainstream media has discovered any
"scene" or "movement," it's already over. Boisterous Black Diamond
rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot would agree. He's already been there, done that and bought the
T-shirt, courtesy of his late-'80s collaboration with local crunchers Metal Church on
Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and a 1993 pairing with Mudhoney for the soundtrack
to Judgement Night.
Yet for his first release since 1996's Return of the Bumpasaurus, Mix has joined forces
with the artists formerly known as the Presidents of the United States of America in a new
band, Subset. It's a move which could, perhaps, be interpreted as an attempt by two
past-their-prime (and currently label-less) acts to clamber aboard a bandwagon that is
already trundling out of town. Except there's one notable and significant difference that
sets Subset apart: Where others merely rock, they groove. More Muscle Shoals than
Metallica--and magnificently so--Subset's funky, frugging formula has re-awakened all four
members' interest in the music business and brought the Presidents back to life less than
a year-and-a-half after their heady farewell show at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. Gathered
together at drummer Jason Finn's Capitol Hill home, messrs. Chris Ballew (bass), Dave
Dederer (guitar) and Sir Mix-A-Lot ("Call me Anthony," vocals) can hardly
contain their excitement as they listen to playbacks of four tracks from their
still-in-progress debut LP and chat enthusiastically about the future. The groovers are
back on maneuvers.
The Rocket: So tell us how Subset came together.
Sir Mix-A-Lot: It was first talked about a couple of years ago but
neither of us had the time back then. Then last year, somebody suggested we do a Hendrix
song together but I wanted to do something original.
Dave Dederer: So we recorded a couple of "grooves" that we just
had lying around.
Jason Finn: And then Mix had a gig at the Showbox and we thought it would
be fun to go and play the two songs, "Addicted to the Fame" and "Beach
Chris Ballew: And playing those songs live was really exciting. The whole place just went
up so we thought, "There must be something in this!"
Rocket: How did you collaborate on those first songs?
Ballew: We'd been making instrumental versions of lots of little ideas
that we'd had for a long time. We arranged them so they were exciting as instrumentals,
then gave them to Mix and he put lyrics on.
Finn: With "Beach Rats," Mix took the instrumental track, cut
it up on his computer, rearranged it, then rapped over it. We then took that version back
with us and re-recorded it.
Rocket: How many songs have you completed and recorded at present?
Dederer: There's six songs that we've got finished and five more which
will be done by the time we play live again.
Rocket: What satisfaction are you each getting out of the project?
Mix: It doesn't have that corporate feel about it. There's no one saying,
"Hurry up and get it done. Joe Schmo wants it done this way and by this time."
We're doing it because we want to and that's what music should be about. There's no
pressure. Like after I'd done "Baby Got Back" I was pressured to try and
re-create it. You know "Baby Got Tits," "Baby Got Face"
Ballew: "Baby Got Lips," "Baby Got Baby, Whoops!"
"Baby Don't Got Contraception...." Seriously though, it's been very cool for us
because Dave and I have had groovy riffs lying around for years and no outlet for them.
"Addicted to the Fame" is from a riff I've had for 10 years.
Rocket: Who is writing the lyrics? And what are you using as inspiration?
Mix: Me, pretty much. I got the idea for "Addicted to the Fame"
when we were just talking about how much we all hated "the business." And I went
straight home and started scribbling. That's how it's been with the whole album, nothing
has been forced. I haven't sat down and said, "I'm going to have to write a song
Rocket: Can you give us a rundown on the other songs you've completed so
Mix: There's "Addicted to the Fame," "Something
Wicked," "Beach Rats," "What the Hell," "Skinning and
Grinning" and "What She Gave," which will be the epic we perform at the
Grammys with a full choir.
Ballew: And Snoop Dogg flying around on a wire in the background.
Mix: None of the songs sound alike, yet we're definitely starting to
develop a distinctive "sound."
Rocket: So will this be a one-off or an ongoing collaboration?
Ballew: We'll take it as it comes. After the Showbox all I knew was that
I really wanted to do this.
Finn: And of course, he doesn't have to sing now. Me and Chris were
already the tightest rhythm section in rock and since he's been playing a four-string
bass, we've got even better!
Rocket: So you and Dave have finally retired the guitbass and bassitar?
Ballew: Yup, we snapped out of it. We're back to normal. I have four
strings and [Dave] has six. At least we won't have to talk about playing "wacky"
instruments ever again.
Rocket: How would you describe Subset's sound? Does it sound like Sir
Mix-A-Lot accompanied by the Presidents?
Mix: People ask me, "Is it alternative? Is it rap?" It's not
bullshit, that's all I know. It's just great shit.
Ballew: It's nothing like the Presidents. I'd describe it as the Meters
playing car-chase music, like New Orleans soul or something.
Dederer: My fantasy is Booker T. and the MGs
Ballew: Riding around in the General Lee.
Rocket: And this is the year of rock and rap after all, according to MTV.
Ballew: But this isn't rock and rap. It's Subset. It's not rock.
Mix: If it had ended up being like Aerosmith and Run DMC with a rapper
singing over a crunchy guitar, I wouldn't have done it. The closest thing I could compare
it to would be L.L. Cool J when he did "Unplugged." It was a group, it wasn't
just L.L. and some guys in the background. It has that feel. It has personality.
Rocket: What has been the response so far from people who have heard
Mix: When I take it to the "hood," they ask, "Are you sure
it's white boys playing that shit?"
Dederer: Really white.
Mix: And when I've played it I haven't said it was me, I've just asked,
"What do you think of these guys?" And they'll all say, "That's the
Ballew: A good friend of mine who I've been playing music with for 22
years said it's the best thing I've ever done or been involved with. Not to build it up or
anything! DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!
Rocket: Mix, were you ever a fan of the Presidents?
Mix: Yeah, I was. When "Baby Got Back" was peaking, these guys
were hot and I was just always bragging up Seattle. These guys, Alice In Chains,
Soundgarden--I was giving shouts out to everybody. I was like (stands up with arms in
air): "Seattle, motherfuckers! Come fuck with us!"
Rocket: Have you ever worked with or had a live backing band before?
What's it been like working in such a different way?
Mix: It's certainly not a back-up group. I don't like the idea of it
being like Mix-A-Lot and the Fuck-Ups or whatever.
Ballew: We're a band.
Mix: We are an incredible fucking group.
Rocket [to the ex-Presidents]: How have you enjoyed your
"retirement," your time away from the limelight so far? Bring us up to date on
what you've been up to since your "farewell" show at the Paramount last year?
Ballew: I've been too busy to retire. First, I put out the Giraffes
record and then I had the Tycoons, then a band with Tad Hutchison [of the Young Fresh
Fellows]. I also did a little producing for Bicycle and I've been working with another
couple of friends of mine of no notable name. As well as raising a child, of course. The
days are full. Definitely.
Finn: I just joined the Nevada Bachelors and I've also been playing in a
band called the Congratulators with the Sangster brothers--Jim and Johnny--which is really
Dederer: And my band the Uptights is playing on June 16 at the Crocodile
Cafe for our second gig ever.
Rocket: Do any of you feel any pressure to re-create former glories?
After all, you've each experienced prior success, and on a pretty big scale: sell-out
tours, platinum records, Grammys.
Ballew: There's a distinct lack of pressure. We're not thinking too hard
Dederer: Like when we were in the Presidents we would just make up these
really dumb songs.
Ballew: We forged a career from not thinking too hard. "Don't look
before you leap," that was our motto. Still is.
Rocket: Did the commercial pressures and expectations of the music
business ruin the experience of being in a band for you?
Dederer: Sure. We pretended that it didn't, but, of course, it did.
Ballew: The truth is, when you sign a contract you grow a new part on
your brain that adds a step to the creative process. It's this little voice that
continually says, "What's the demographic? Who's going to buy that?" And I've
spent the past two years trying to get rid of it.
Mix: The truth is, hits aren't made that way. Think about it. "Baby
Got Back" was considered racist, sexist, everything and it fucking hit. Do you think
I was thinking about demographics when I did that song? Fuck no.
Ballew: (singing) "She's lump, she's lump." I don't know what I
was doing. I just found that one day on a little micro-cassette player and couldn't
remember ever having made it up.
Rocket: Do you get nervous showing each other ideas you've come up with?
Are you worried the others will just turn around and say, "This is rubbish, get it
out of here?"
Mix: I know I can't bring any weak-ass shit to these guys.
Ballew: We've been on a bus with this guy after eating ribs all night so
we no longer worry about getting nervous showing him anything.
Dederer: He intimidated us with some of his most pungent ideas.
Rocket: What are your immediate plans after these first couple shows?
Ballew: Just to finish the album and then find a record company.
Subset perform at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle 6/26 and at Pain in the Grass in Seattle