I first saw Pete Miser rock the mic live in 1996. He was the lead mouth in a Portland, Oregon, outfit called the Five Fingers of Funk, and they were opening for De La Soul at Seattle’s Fenix Underground. I was intrigued because I had previously only heard Pete do the spoken word thing on a compilation of Pacific Northwestern poets and personalities, Talking Rain (Tim Kerr Records, 1993). His flow that night in Seattle rode atop the live, organic grooves of the Five Fingers like a true veteran lyrical navigator. I made a note in my mental.
Fast forward to 2003: My man Billy Wimsatt and I are working on a project together, and who has Billy lined up to help us but his friend and now New York resident Pete Miser.
“I’m trying to change the world before I change my mind.”
— Pete Miser, “Bring it to the Masses”
While it maintains a positive drive in the daily existence of many, on the surface, hip-hop is full of façades. It’s a hall of funhouse mirrors, stretching big personalities off into the periphery. Past all of that is where it starts to get good. And when hip-hop is good, it’s the most beautifullest thing in this world.
That said, Pete Miser is the real thing. His lyrics, beats, and whole steez are straight out the truest school of hip-hop.
Roy Christopher: First of all, tell us about your new record. Did you try to do anything differently on Camouflage is Relative (Coup de Grace, 2004) that you didn’t on Radio Free Brooklyn (Ho Made Media, 2002)?
Pete Miser: Camouflage Is Relative is different from Radio Free Brooklyn in a number of ways. First of all, it’s the first record I’ve made where I had a deadline to meet. I wrote and recorded the whole record in about two months. Radio Free Brooklyn had songs that were years old by the time it came out. Camouflage Is Relative is all new stuff.
A lot of people have commented on the fact that Camouflage Is Relative is funnier than Radio Free Brooklyn. My sense of humor doesn’t normally show up that much in my music, but I guess it did in this record. The first single, “Scent Of A Robot,” is about a dude who works his day job in his cubicle at a company that makes robots. One day he realizes that he’s one of the robots that the company makes! It’s a pretty weird song, especially for a single, but it’s in line with my sense of humor. I guess I was feeling kinda loose over the two months in which I made the record.
RC: How’s New York treating you compared to Portland?
PM: New York treats me real nice! I mean, New York generally doesn’t have time for anyone, so you can’t take it personally when the city doesn’t bend over backwards for you. No matter who you are, this city has seen bigger so the train doors are still gonna close just as you try to get on the subway sometimes. On the other hand, New York speaks my language. I love Portland, Oregon, for many reasons, but hip-hop culture isn’t one of them. I mean, it’s there, and it’s dope, but it has such a marginalized status that you have to fight just to be respected, let alone embraced. New York respects hip-hop as a legitimate cultural force. It’s a nice change!
RC: Who are you feelin’ on the mic these days?
PM: In a conversation with a musician friend of mine the other day I went off on an Andre 3000 tangent. That cat is just too ill! I mean, not only is he bananas technically, but he says so much with such simple rich imagery. On top of all that, he has the guts to abandon his rhymes for something he’s really not that great at (singing.) I can’t help but have tons of respect for an artist like that.
Other than A3000, these guys might be five of my top ten:
The Real Live Show (New York underground cats)
RC: When talking about our perceptions of an environment in which we are completely immersed, Marshall McLuhan compared it to fish knowing nothing of water. You’ve said similar things about hip-hop in the past — that people who live hip-hop don’t even think about it because they’re living it. With that in mind, how can we create a discourse about the culture without getting so academic and theory-oriented that we alienate ourselves from it?
PM: What’s the purpose of said discourse? What are we trying to find out? Can we find it out without participating in the culture? It seems to me that one can never fully understand a culture without participating in it. Pure study is basically tourism. Unfortunately, outside participation always taints the purity of a culture as well. But cultures are always evolving aren’t they? So, what’s the difference? It’s like the physics principle that the act of observation changes that which is being observed.
RC: The Heisenberg Principle . . .
PM: Damn, talk about academic! I think it’s better to go back to the Brand Nubian album title Everything Is Everything. If that doesn’t answer your question then I give up!
RC: Well, you and I have talked about how lame so much so-called “hip-hop journalism” is and because I get so fucking sick of old, crusty social theorists trying to talk about some shit that they know nothing about. And me, being a hip-hop fan, participant, and a theorist, I want to talk about hip-hop, I want to talk about it seriously, I want to teach from its perspective, and I want to continue to learn from it. All of this being said, academic theory about hip-hop is going to happen — there’s no stopping it — so why not do the shit right?
PM: So, the purpose of the discourse is to talk about hip-hop in a meaningful, respectful manner, and to squash all of the misconceptions, misinformation, and misguided theory/theorists.
When I say I’m sick of wack hip-hop journalism, I guess I mean two things:
First, I’m sick of subpar writers representing hip-hop in periodicals. For the most part, if you are a hip-hop expert, it’s somehow okay to sacrifice clarity, insight, and effective writing for some neato street slang style. Even worse, it’s okay to be a bad writer period, style or no style. I mean, doesn’t Murder Dog magazine understand the function of an editor? What the fuck? I’m not saying that I’m a good writer. In fact, I’m admitting that I’m not and trying not to contribute to the big ol’ pile of wackness!
Secondly, I’m annoyed by journalism that covers hip-hop and, in the process, exposes its own ethnocentricity and ignorance of the culture. I guess this is mainly what you’re trying to dead with your efforts.
In a discussion about this phenomenon (in this case, regarding jazz) with a musician friend of mine, he mused that it’s a particularly Western tradition to pick apart a culture until it doesn’t mean a goddamned thing anymore!
When I was in a science class in eighth grade our teacher told us we were going to make a snake one day. We spent the next hour putting all the ingredients of a snake into a beaker: some carbon, some water, etc. Well, at the end of the experiment, it didn’t look or act like a snake. It looked like a beaker full of mud. Strange, right? You can have all the ingredients of something but still don’t have a living thing? My experience leads me to believe that one can never truly know (much less explain or teach) hip-hop culture. The reason hip-hop is of any value is because it’s a living, breathing culture. That means I can be the “real thing,” as you say, and still have a completely different experience from DJ Kay Slay who is obviously the real thing too. Now which “real” experience do we present to the writer from the Washington Post? And why does he want to know? And who is he talking to? And what cultural biases are they bringing to the discussion to keep them from getting it anyway?
Hip-hoppers often complain about how they are represented in the media. They end up sounding like it’s the media that validates what they do and how they live. I don’t care if the media gets it because I know the media can never get it. You can’t fit it into a one-page article, or even a set of encyclopedias. You can’t nail it down because it’s always evolving. Why bother? By trying to describe cultures, we only succeed in highlighting how limited our own experience is. To quote Nas, “Why shoot the breeze about it, when you can be about it?”
RC: Word. Anything else coming up that you want to mention here?
PM: Yeah, vote! Get it? V-O-T-E! And vote for John Kerry while you’re at it! If for no other reason, vote for John Kerry so a freak like George Bush isn’t in the position to choose the next three or four Supreme Court justices. If he does that, then his irresponsible agenda will have a legacy that will far outlast his presidency. This election matters more than any of our generation. Vote!
Here’s Pete’s video for “Scent of a Robot” (runtime: 3:48) from Camouflage is Relative: