Published in Tasmania’s Warp Magazine in two parts, this piece examines two aspects of the use of Alter Egos in Music.
PART I: The Power and the Fun
I hate myself and I want to die. I wish I was someone else and never woke up to the memory of this failure, to this too-slowly dying sack of over-aware privilege. Don’t fret child, you’re not alone. Oh, that hurts even more? To be insignificant and unspecial? Right, because of the whole, “you’re an artist and you’re special, and you can’t deal with your issues, because no one understands you” thing. So you’re just going to stay safe while everyone ogles you behind this fourth wall? Well yeah, I guess you should pull the trigger Kurt Cobain. Or you could just be someone else?
Alter Egos are the suicide prevention of all serious artists. They’re a tool to both protect and to extend the creative reach of the artist. While the regular person is laid bare on stage and in recordings, having to be wholly accountable for any flaws, a fictional character has no accountability to laws of morality, society, or even a defined past. By the simple virtue of reality, an artist has a three dimensional depth and a humble history of some kind, where they existed in a vulnerable, innocent state. However, an alter-ego is a character that is tied to no such reality.
Keith Thornton has spent close to 30 years playing with no less than 16 different alter egos. Not all are given equal say of course; the most notable are Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon, Ultra, Dr. Dooom, and Black Elvis. All that time and all that recording can’t be summarised fairly in a couple of sentences, but what’s remarkable about Thornton is how he engages the abstract and the explicit with varied motivation, seeming at once childish yet soberly manipulative at the same time.
In a 2011 interview with the AV Club, Thornton elaborated on his decisions to resurrect a murdered alter ego only to destroy him again,
“I was pissed off about it – Dr. Octagon 2 and the way it was handled. They (DreamWorks Records) took advantage of the project by not putting it out for five years, and doing remixes the way they wanted to.”
He went further to confirm that he knows full well what he is doing, and is amazed that people cannot keep up,
“Dr. Octagon wasn’t my life. I’ve done tons of projects. I had groups. I worked with different groups and myself. I rapped on Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ ya know. I’ve done a lot of things that were totally around different things. People tend to confuse my music with my mind. I write, and do, weird things sometimes as though I’m on drugs, or just crazy. I mean, you got rock stars out there that gotta get high just to make the records I make sober.”
The majority of people out there, wavering between crying, cumming and cooing over their consciousness, have contrasting interests and personality traits; it’s not unique. Most do not need to define themselves with a new name and persona whenever they feel one aspect dominate more than the rest. However, the nature of art, in especial, music, is tied to the beautiful creation of a defined and tiny world. Thornton may not be stable, he may not be self aware, or particularly intellectual, but he successfully uses a progression of personas to layer the music with a mythology that is a true escape for both himself and the audience.
His long time collaborator, KutMasta Kurt explained in the same 2011 interview, “When you do these things, it’s as if you’re making yourself a superhero. A majority of these hip-hop guys have been, and still are, into comic books. With Keith, one guy is a serial killer; another guy is the porno guy… then there are others. Basically his solo career was his hidden self – he just amplifies his different personality facets.”
Another Hip-Hop artist with comic book ties is Watkin Tudor Jones. He disbanded his successful Hip Hop group Max Normal in 2002 to work on a multi-media concept involving a graphic novel with soundtrack and live show. That project became The Constructus Corporation and they lasted roughly a year and produced an 88 page graphic novel which pegged two kids on a giant futuristic floating world/shopping mall called The Ziggurat. It did come with a soundtrack CD on which Jones plays several different characters, as well as a blank CD and instructions on where and how to download a second part of the album.
Five years later he re-emerged with Die Antwoord, a band that perfectly exemplifies the use of Alter Egos to manipulate reality and expectation. They mask their intentions as well as their true identities not just with stage names, but by living these personas as though the stage names really are them, and critics are split as to how much is intentional and how much is just simple minded South African gibberish. By looking at their past and the overall effect it is clear that they create music and imagery specifically designed to feel hyper-real.
Jones uses the stage name Ninja for this effort, which includes himself and the mother of his child (and former PA) Anri Du Toitis under her stage name of Yo-Landi Vi$$er. Jones has recorded under several names since 1995, such as Max Normal and MC Totally Rad, while Vi$$er is more of an exaggerated version of her assumed name Yolandi Visser. They have recently grown in notoriety for their 2nd album TEN$ION’s merits as a questionably ironic rap-rave album, while their debut in 2009 along with the viral video for the single “Enter the Ninja’, was mocked for being ridiculously pompous and absurd, as well as just being South African it seemed.
Songs like ‘I Fink U Freeky’ left everyone torn as to how good they actually are and how much they believe what they’re doing, aside from the generic conversations about musical composition. Not nearly prominent enough is how a mature group with as much experience as they have, would not be creating explicitly cheesy 90’s rave music if they believed it was high art. They are at peace with the drug high of it all and know that it’s just a ride, but a fun one, a really fun one. However, since these personas are not tied to the harsh reality where these debates take place, they do not have to waste time apologising or explaining. Instead, Ninja and Yo-Landi can laugh in your face with Zef slang and float off into space at will.
In a 2010 VICE interview they elaborated quite in character on what they do and what their music is about,
“Ninja: We’re from the hip-hop family, but we do rap-rave next level shit.”
VICE: Umm, rave’s been a bit quiet lately.
“Yo-Landi: It’s never been quiet in our homes.”
“N: Here in South Africa the taxis play rave music fokken loud my bru. You can hear it from the next city when the taxi comes through, you hear DOOM DOOM DOOM—they got the rap-rave megamixes pumping like a nightclub. “
“Y: Our whole philosophy basically is, like, drive fast and play kak music loud. It’s a zef rap-rave jol, with lasers, smoke machines, 3D graphics, rappers… and everyone’s gonna be there.”
“N: Zef is our flavour, our style. It means fucking cool. But even more cool than fucking cool. No one can fuck with your shit. Zef’s the ultimate style, basically. To sum it all up, in this place, South Africa, you get a lot of different things: whites, coloureds, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, watookal—I’m like all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person. I am Ninja. I am Zef!”
And in a Vine.com.au interview from March 20TH 2012 they peeked out from behind the characters with much less bravado and showed the conniving behind their success, while still playing it off as accidental,
“N: We don’t listen to anyone. The new album is first on Zef Records – our label. We don’t really speak to anyone; anyone who doesn’t listen to us is irrelevant.”
“Y: It’s nice to travel around the whole world and do your shows, but that was just from putting our videos on the interweb. We just feel that’s the new medium; you don’t need to go through any major thing anymore.”
“N: You see, we were messing around with form and one of the things was like, “Fuck!” I didn’t pay attention to the internet much but when someone said, “You can make all this shit straight away,” that as fast as I could make my shit I could put it out. I was like, “Jesus! That’s the fucking answer.” The name Die Antwoord means The Answer, so it came from that.”
Referencing their anti-establishment antics at Occupy Wall Street last year, they again played coy,
“N: We just strolled by there and were like, “What the fuck are all these people doing here?” Then people told us about the 99 per cent thing and we were like, “That’s pretty cool.” Then I made a 99 gang sign and I threw it up next to a cop. If you’re going to take a photo of me, take it next to a cop. I made the sign, got the photo, and we then got about 50,000 more fans on our Facebook all of a sudden.”
Part of any intrigue with their career will definitely be how they play with the truth, and what they are willing to admit to. As alter egos, they do not need to own anything they say or do, because they can sacrifice or abandon those shells at any point. And they’ll probably have nice comfy houses to hide in too if their mythology turns sour and they can no longer take their masks off.
Next time, I’ll talk with musicians who’ve lost control of their Alter Egos and if there is any coming back from the underside of hyper-reality.