Yoni Wolf, aka WHY?, had been using the moniker long before it became a name under which his ﬁve-piece band released three albums to critical acclaim. His previous collaborations - including in leftﬁeld hip hop group cLOUDDEAD - have all centred around the west-coast anticon record label, a collective who made their mark at the turn of 2000 with a few critically acclaimed sampler CDs featuring rappers and producers from the Bay Area in California. But since recruiting other musicians to form a band - including Yoni’s elder brother Josiah on drums - WHY? has gone on to depart from drum machines completely and is now a full-blown touring band, whose latest release Eskimo Snow has been lauded by critics and fans alike. By Marcus Siddall WHY?’s ascendancy into the pages of indie rock magazines has been a triumph of aesthetic, a progression which has outstripped the sound of clumsy beats and furious leftﬁeld rap battles which made the early compilation from 1999, ‘Music for the advancement of hip hop’ sound so original and new. Yoni, one of the founding members of the Oaklandbased collective, still contributes to the label’s running by ways of A&R and the group’s democratic voting system in which the 8 members - now scattered around the world - vote on new releases. But as WHY?, Yoni has demonstrated that outlandish and bizarre expression can be directed into an indie-rock that appeals to the masses – as tonight’s sold-out show at the Thekla in Bristol demonstrates. Whilst Yoni is well known for his place alongside Odd Nosdam and Doseone in cLOUDDEAD, the latter two artists - and particularly Doseone, with his crazed expressions and outlandish tones - have, to some extent, retained an askew vibe - the label having, soon after ’99, released some of the ﬁrst music from Sage Francis, Buck 65, and Sixtoo names recognizable to anyone with as much as a passing interest in experimental hip hop. Yoni is eager to disassociate the thought of a common sound amongst the Anticon stable, and he’s simultaneously at pains to exceed it with his music. “What is the anticon style?” he asks me when I mention the uniqueness of those early recordings. The label has gone on to feature music from far beyond its Bay Area origins, with Bristol’s own SJ Esau having added his own folk-pop LP ‘Small Vessel’ to the discography in 2008. But amongst the label’s roster, and the countless collaborations, there are still consistencies from those early days - the Themselves releases from Doseone and Jel sound undeniably closer to the early
label compilations than any of Yoni’s output since. “They’re pretty unique.” he oﬀers. Scour youtube and you’ll ﬁnd evidence that Doseone is still happy to battle on street corners surrounded by small crowds, decades after performing in competitions such as the Scribble Jam, where he once emceed opposite a young Eminem. Jel’s contribution to the group’s sound is sometimes no more than a hand-made MPC beat, all kicks and snares, whilst Doseone will happily rhyme on top with a slur and style that’s completely his own. Yoni, in contrast, is more at home in the environment of a band rather than the one-man set ups that have seen peers such as Jel or Odd Nosdam go onto release several solo records. “I never got into the groove with that, where I learned how to do it for real. I only really learned how to perform when I was working with other musicians in a band format. I feel comfortable with it, it’s easy for me.” Perhaps this desire to work with others instesad of on his own is a leftover trait from his art school days, where students are encouraged to network. Yoni would eventually drop out to follow through his interest in music. “I started to get really serious with music and felt like going to school for 8 hours a day was wasting my time, I wasn’t getting too much out of it.” Like many of the original anticon members, Yoni started making music on his own with the help of a 4 track and sampler, and the label’s inner core of touring artists have retained an independent ethic that perhaps wouldn’t sit well in the atmosphere of an art school, where students are encouraged to join committees, attend private views, and mull over each other’s work obsessively in ‘crits.’ “I think that the greatest values for going to school for any of the arts is to learn craft or a practice. You can learn theory, but no-one can teach you ideas. You can teach someone craft - you can teach them what to do and what not to do with a chunk of clay,
“I think that the greatest values for going to school for any of the arts is to learn craft or a practice. You can learn theory, but no-one can teach you ideas.” you know, if you’re trying to make a pot so it won’t explode in the oven… it’s a place where that can happen. It’s ﬁne for that, but it didn’t really appeal to me much and my network was beginning to build within my community of music friends and that’s where I felt I was going” No more than a year after the birth of anticon, the ﬁrst cLOUDDEAD album was released - but it was the group’s second (and last) full length that really caught people’s ears. Ten still sounds home-spun in a way that’s unlike anything of its time, whilst also feeling reﬁned. Much of the imagery is stark and personal, and there are momentous breaks in between Doseone’s tales of dead dogs and wastelands during which Odd Nosdam and WHY’s productions take on epic, widescreen proportions of ambience. cLOUDDEAD caught everyone’s ears, the group even featuring on a John Peel session, but they never enjoyed a success which carried on past the smaller circles, of, say, the UK’s Big Dada record label whose biggest artist arguably remains to be Roots Manuva. Yet cLOUDDEAD shares with WHY?, albeit in diﬀerent musical ranges, an ethereal presence which draws similarities with Boards of Canada - WHY? being one of the few bands that the illusive Scottish duo have remixed. “It sounds so organic, that’s what I like about it, even though it’s not, I guess” he says of the scottish duo. Unbelievably Yoni simply emailed the Warp Records pair and asked if they would remix Dead Dogs Two, perhaps oﬀ the back of the remix they had already done for cLOUDDEAD back in 2004. Though again somewhat pedantic at the thought of narrowing down ‘electronic music’ per se (drum machines and synths, we settle), Yoni says “electronic music’s not my bag,” and so it’s easy to see how his output has gone one way whilst the sound of his peers has gone another. Whilst Doseone seemed upbeat at the prospect of another cLOUDDEAD release sometime soon when pressed last year, Yoni remains apprehensive. “I don’t foresee that happening any time in the near future, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the long term perhaps.”
The truth is, Yoni has achieved with his new album Eskimo Snow what only a very few of the original anticon artists have – both worldwide critical acclaim and success measured in the hard currency of records sales and tour dates. Whether as a result of purposeful artistic direction, or of a creative forumula of little more sense than the bizarre imagery which litters his lyrics, WHY? have become one of the leading lights of artistic expression for the small west coast indie record label.