DoNormaal & Raven Matthews

Photo by Kelly O

Expanding the bounds of hip-hop

Hip-hop thrives on reconstruction, adapting existing sounds and technologies to the needs of the moment. DoNormaal—aka California-born Christy Karefa-Johnson and Seattle native Raven Matthews create hip-hop for the Tumblr generation, spacious, hypnotic and deeply personal, collaged from a slew of postmodern influences. After meeting while studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the pair arrived in Seattle a couple years ago intent on building a multimedia collective. Playing countless house parties and running various monthly gigs, their 69/50 crew blends music and performance art into an all-inclusive form of celebration. I spoke with them in their Ballard apartment, which doubles as their recording studio, on a recent rainy afternoon.

What were you listening to when you made the transition from poetry to hip-hop?
A lot of the first wave of New Age-y rappers. We were both into Kid Cudi and Travis Porter and Lil B. People who were innovating and forming this whole new approach to rap. Up until then people were still focused on the golden age of rap, and then this new wave of rappers came in and all the things that were once important weren’t as important. People weren’t as concerned with having this intense lexicon. It was simpler and more emotional and more about the feel and the groove and the bounce. The flows were spacier. And that’s what I was attracted to.

That’s the latest generation of hip-hop. Less about form and formality.
It’s like when you hear a three-minute punk song. It expands music to performance art. Every genre has its own rules, but if you bring a certain confidence and knowingness to your work, you can break any rule.

As the record industry collapses, now it’s all in our hands. The Internet is instant and we can record in our room and we can post it. There’s an acceptance of a lo-fi aesthetic. You’re putting out a constant stream, inspired by electronic musicians, because they’re almost anonymous in that they just put out music and contribute to this culture of music that’s not so much about specific authorship. It’s just throwing your ideas into this living mechanism.

Unlike punk, that world of cloud rap hasn’t been coopted by commercialism. It’s maybe too decentralized to commercialize.
There’s a lot of new rappers right now whose whole career, their whole interaction with their fans is on the Internet. They don’t even do many shows. It’s hard for labels or companies to grab onto that because there’s so many people making the music. Part of it is going online and finding that rapper that nobody’s ever heard of. That’s what kids get excited about—this Internet world that’s just for them and by them.

Matthews That’s the golden moment of youth culture, when it’s untouched. Older people aren’t interested so kids are creating community for themselves. That punk comparison, it’s the same thing that hip-hop was when it first started. Punk is an elitist culture nowadays, but when it first started it wasn’t one specific sound, it was a movement of experimentation. That’s what we’re trying to push for—a movement of experimentation in all genres. A lot of intersection. To create growth, the next sound, which won’t even be named for awhile. The goal is to not be limited by who you are or the expectations of what you’ve done in the past.

That’s what I saw happening at your show at the Central Saloon. The performance was very much in the moment, with the people. The show happened on the floor among the people.
That’s totally where our interest is. That’s our energy and our wave that we’re trying to make into a collective that has shows and workshops and dance parties. It’s about vulnerability with art and music, getting on stage and being human to a point where people might be uncomfortable. Some people might have an idea of you as an artist and have it shattered when they see you onstage. Sometimes I cry onstage. Or sometimes I talk to people, I look them directly in the eye and try to get that connection so that people understand that this art we’re making is just a human thing. As an artist I want to show people how much like them I am, how I can sometimes be weak or uncool or shy and sometimes not totally on rhythm, all the things you’re not supposed to be as a performer. Show them something that’s not a part of this perfect package. It’s important to us that people realize they can be everything at the same time.

DoNormaal plays Kremwerk on April 7