by Jeff Milo
If you go see a Waffles set, he certainly keeps it interesting: “Man, it’s more than just real rap, I try to get involved and dance around on some Jackie Wilson shit, incorporate performance art, too. That’s why right now is a good time to be into Detroit hip/hop, because it’s finally getting into a place where it’s
It’s getting weirder?
"It’s getting weirder! More personalized.”
--Listen: Doc Waffles - "Bearskin Toga"
--Doc Waffles (a.k.a. Ben Ness), antiquarian, dedicated Dadaist and wicked wordsmith; he day-jobs as a rare/old book dealer and winds up incorporating various vintage/Victorian elements into his hyper-evocative and hyper-imaginative raps, flooring you with his disarming diction. His raps’ spill imagery with the controlled chaos of a Jackson Pollock, from dinosaurs and Bob Segers’ golf cleats, to full body bunny suits and drug-laced breakfast pastries.
“I hope (my raps) sound at once deeply personal but also obfuscated and rendered to point where they’re almost indecipherable for other people to imagine.” A “playful, absurdist style, but with some dark, impulsive shit mixed in
” His cadences get cut up by cartoonish sing-speak exclamations, zigzagging around the beat.
He’s rapping Jurassic Park to Tell Tale Heart, but you’ll be able to find his heart’s usually always on his sleeve if you sift through his “linguistically provocative” word collages; he’s getting through his problems with drinking, his divorce, and he’s ardently pushing things forward.
His proper debut, Golf View Drive, a surrealistic and barbed satire of Oakland County suburban decadence, came out in 06, but Ness has been known in the underground rap scene for almost a decade – even introduced at a recent Shelter function as a “legend killer” for the victories he scored as an up-and-comer against already-established rappers through battles back in 2003.
With last summer’s Seizure Suit Farms, he pushed the surrealist/literary slant, one jam has quiet, space-funk verses with our rapper/raconteur reading a colorfully rendered novelistic screed before cymbals slam in for the rambling choruses (“They should bring back dirigible ships, fuck-a-people-mover
” after he name drops Verne’s Philleas Fog and, earlier, Melville’s Ishmael).
And why not?
“Hip-hop, more than any other genre has been held back by genre-limitations, people concerned over: ‘Is it hip-hop enough? Are we keeping it hip hop?’ To go too far outside the box meant defying a sort of spirit, but the role of the avant-gardist is to attack, to upturn and strike against modalities of whatever the popular form is of the time.”
And yes, this is how he talks in passing conversation.
He tags MCs SelfSays and Doc Illingsworth as contemporaries in progressive quirkdom. Back through the mid 00’s, whether he was in Detroit(or during his time in Chicago’s scene through 07), Waffles saw the Underground as too preoccupied with an us-vs.-them mentality against the upper echelon/mainstream rappers. But, now, “people are finding that the most subversive form of that is a rigorous devotion to personalized expression.”
The shaggy, sweater-wrapped orator sustains himself with his rare book dealing (he’s been collecting for years, having worked at John K. King and even managing the Ferndale spot for a spell). We met on the day of his 31st birthday, a grin of relief (from having just sealed an overseas Ebay deal on a Ugandan Folk Tales anthology) as he revs up outside the makeshift vocal-booth in Throwback Media’s studio in the Russell Industrial Center. He’s readying a rap called “Dead Fish Eyes,” a forthcoming 7” single featuring MC duo Passalacua.
“Rappers slay me
” Waffles says when I tell him that Mister (one half of Passalacqua, a.k.a. Bryan Lackner) admits it took him a bit of time to get into a Waffles-esque mindset before writing his verse for “Dead Fish Eyes.” He’d heard it from SelfSays and some others, before other collaborations. “
trying to emulate the way that I write; I think people should do that all the time (because) my tendencies in writing are my weaknesses, too. I have a very idiosyncratic approach, the way I write. I’m uncompromising, it has to be a certain way. Because of that, I think I wind up shutting the door to a lot of listeners who don’t want to spend an extra 15 minutes figuring out that what I just said is actually a reference to a Kurt Schwitter’s painting from 1926.”
“That’s why I get these deep-ass devoted fans, because they’re able to pick up on certain pieces of it. I deliberately write my songs so there are trains of imagery and narrative-trends spread out throughout songs and things that I return to
All good art does that. Artists, if you’re really out here, doing it, then you should try to, I think, take your own eccentricities and really blow them up.”
Celebrated hip-hop/electronica producer Eddie Logix was “floored” by Waffles Golf View debut, finally meeting up with him, later in 09 after the MC came back from his Chicago stint; collaborations were loose, at first, but Logix would soon be prepping tracks for 2010’s the Bon Vivant album.
“He actually tells his stories, he puts very personal parts of his interesting life into his songs, but in a way that’s not so-straight-forward,” said Logix, whose currently working on an EP’s worth of remixes on Swedish indie-songstress Lykke Li’s songs, including a track with Waffle-raps on it.
Golf View is Waffles embracing, rather than disavowing his suburban upbringing, mining it for artistic expression, to “make it hyperbolic and take all the traditional rap clichés or satires and apply them to white upper class suburbia. We all have these narratives and living in Oakland County
it’s a bizarre place. Better to make those experiences into rap records than to pretend to be something you’re not, because you’re trying to be accepted within a certain culture.”
Much of Golf Views raps are “poignant and incisive; because of 8 Mile and the characterization of Detroit and what Eminem means to Detroit as a white rapper and what cultural and identity-politics mean in a Detroit rap
for a Detroit rapper to make a definitive Oakland County rap CD is important.”
Logix said that Waffles can be quite meticulous when it comes to choosing the right beat. Once he feels it, once he finds the right vibe though, he’s energized and ready to record it then and there in one take. “He has an idea, but I don’t think he follows a formula,” Logix said. “There’s times I think he could rap over almost anything,”
Working with Waffles is “not your traditional recording process.”
“He’s a guy that’s insanely talented,” said Charles Vann (a.k.a. Self Says), “just needs a few more eyes on him. We’re both kind of out of the box, so we get each other. We draw from similar influences, Wu-Tang, Ghostface; he has this very interesting perspective, to say the least, in his raps. But, we don’t sit down and say: ok, we’re gonna be these types of rappers. It’s just our take on this rap stuff.”
Vann admitted that there’s a song (on his own forthcoming EP) that was totally inspired by Waffles’ songwriting approach.
Similarly, Vann was also checking out numerous hip-hop shows as far as 10 years earlier, recalling seeing the young Waffles at a few battles back in 03. “I dabbled at it, I did alright, but Waffles was far better at battling.” (You can view a handful of videos online)
“His live show,” said Vann, “is very versatile, it’s like controlled chaos—and that ain’t a dis
“You call Doc whack?” the MC raps in 06’s “Bear Skin Toga,” “
That’s a terminological inexactitude
His fourth album, How to Shoot Quail comes out later this month.
See him at the Magic Stick, Feb 3rd -