Future Rapper's "Queen of Soft in the Den of Whispers, volume 4 of Land of a Thousand Rappers
For the last seven years, Michael Kaufman has lived a double life as Future Rapper, a time-traveling MC who cuts up, repurposes, and layers words and music. Working with Wayne Feldman and Ero Gray, Kaufman recently concluded the project with Land of a Thousand Rappers, a five-album final testament, released in conjunction with Zero Seed, a novella that further explains Future Rapper's dizzying fictional world.
Over a recent telephone conversation, Kaufman decoded that world for me. At the time, he'd just released the album on Asthmatic Kitty, and was preparing the music video above, a track from "Queen of Soft in the Den of Whispers, volume 4 of the new album set, which Motherboard has the pleasure of premiering today.
“For the last seven years I've served as the temporal vessel for this time-traveling, parallel-history-jumping character, Future Rapper,” says Kaufman after we exchange pleasantries. “He has moved on and the project is over.”
Though there is a finality to these words, Kaufman fully intends for Land of a Thousand Rappers and Zero Seed to live on as a collective beacon of light in a world full of information overload and noise.
Rather fittingly, the project had its origins in Kaufman and Feldman's previous incarnation as a noise band. "I'd been in a noise band with Feldman for 12 years called therefore," says Kaufman. "There was a lot of experimentation around the economy of music rather than the sound of music."
After therefore concluded, Kaufman and Feldman felt there wasn't really anything left to experiment with where sound was concerned, since they had explored the depths of silence and the extremes of harsh noise. Instead, the pair felt that there was room in music to experiment with form and context, rather than pure content. This revelation inspired the Future Rapper project, and the Land of a Thousand Rappers in particular.
“There is an aspect to the project that can come off as very tongue-in-cheek,” says Kaufman. “Humor is important to me and the project, but the reality is that sometimes when people see the humor, they don't realize there is a much deeper and richer narrative beneath it.” And so Zero Seed became the project's key to decryption.
Surprisingly, Kaufman likens the Future Rapper project to J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional mythology, which grew out of volumes upon volumes of invented languages, geographies, maps, and other material. The humor of the Future Rapper project is, Kaufman explains, the tip of the iceberg—a much larger and more complex mythology and cosmology.
Kaufman likens the Future Rapper project to J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional mythology, which grew out of volumes upon volumes of invented languages, geographies, maps, and other material.
There is also something of a Discordian vibe to the whole project—the veneer of kaleidoscopic pranksterism disguising a greater, deeper meaning, meant to fracture everyday consciousness. Or, like the Nova Trilogy, a sort of coded anti-philosophy meant to break the humanity's collective hallucination. Even the number of albums in Land of a Thousand Rappers—five—has a Discordian ring to it, though Kaufman resists the idea.
“The primary and crucial number in all of this is seven,” says Kaufman. “Seven has this idea of a complete number, and Zero Seed explains this. There are some really interesting instances of seven in Aztec cosmology, and the story of the seven ancient tribes of Mexico, which came from seven caves.”
In the Future Rapper mythology and cosmology, seven is the number of demigods in the story, and each of the characters are incarnations of these demigods. The number five, however, is crucial because two of the project's demigods get sent into this timeline to keep humanity from slipping from the bounds of finite existence.
“The five album count is not nearly as intentional as the other numbers within it,” say Kaufman. “Like the fifth and final album, which has seven tracks and an eighth track of silence. That's really important because you can only fold a piece of paper seven times. If you try to fold it eight times it won't work.”
In the Future Rapper mythos, the villain is trying to add an eighth fold to time. If successful, time will collapse. The goal is to keep the seven folds of time intact within the overall story.
One of Kaufman's zaniest but also most thought-provoking ideas is seeing hip-hop as a form of time travel. As Kaufman sees it, the musical form completely redefined communication and served as a new vernacular.
He credits graffiti and hip-hop artist Rammellzee, who advocated an unbinding of the alphabet from what he saw as post-Roman imperialism, as a point of departure for the project. Rammellzee's “gothic futurism” inspired Kaufman and his cohorts to “unleash the full potential of the alphabet in its multi-dimensionality." Hip-hop's hypertextual, referential language played an important key in fulfilling this role.
“Every word means something more than what it means,” says Kaufman. “Great poetry does that, too, but hip-hop crams as much information as possible into a limited amount of space. Maybe not in the Top 40, although even there you can find the early influence of experimental, underground hip-hop, where there is this idea that the more information I hold and can deliver in a given time, the more power I can have.”
In other words, the whole “information is power” paradigm channeled through hip-hop can empower anyone, whatever their class.
Kaufman believes that the time travel aspect of hip-hop is found in the MC's ability to move through a spectrum of references allowing the artist to be simultaneously present (in the moment) and timeless. Kaufman says you can think of it like Wikipedia, where you get a massive entry on Miley Cyrus and a half a paragraph of the signing of the U.S. Constitution—a “complete mangling” of information on a timeline.
“Hip-hop speaks to that, where there is a timelessness to the oration, versus folk music and indie rock, which is very nostalgic and speaks to the past,” he says. He sees hip-hop as speaking to past, present, and future in the space of a single song.
The group also made use of spam vernacular and techniques on Land of a Thousand Rappers and Zero Seed. The idea was to use the “raw, abstracted language of spam” to break through media bombardment and oversaturation. There is an echo here, again, of William S. Burrough's Nova Trilogy, where lists of words, ideas, and stories are reorganized with the cut-up technique to destroy the word virus that Burroughs believed infects all of humanity, constructing its collective hallucination. In its own way, Land of a Thousand Rappers is the Future Rapper project's final storming of the reality studio.
“As we grow as a society, we have even greater fragmentation of understanding of language, meaning, and words.”
“It comes back to noise music,” muses Kaufman, who describes noise as a full-on sensory assault that desensitizes other forms of audio assault. The Future Rapper project had a similar approach: use the information—language and words—you're being attacked with. By analogy, Kaufman says it would be like setting up surveillance of the government.
Kaufman also sees hip-hop music production as a form of time travel—the appropriation of older music through sampling, assemblage, collage, and creating something new out of old. Information-heavy hip-hop (from lyrics to production) becomes the noisiest noise music that anyone could possibly make.
“We live in a new Babel,” says Kaufman. “We talk over each other to break through our message. As we grow as a society, we have even greater fragmentation of understanding of language, meaning, and words.” Kaufman sees this happening on the internet as niche cultures are emerging and languages are emerging with them. He points to his son's love of Minecraft and its original language system, which he doesn't understand, as an example. In Kaufman's eyes, a system like hip-hop, which can be used as a tool, weapon, and liberator, becomes a way to break through all of the noise.
Image credit: Kristen Hess
There is more than a faint trace of Aldous Huxley's thoughts in Future Rapper's swan song. The idea that totalitarianism wouldn't arise in an overtly fascist way, but by using mass media to create noisy information overload that would drown voices and confound the masses, making it virtually impossible to tell truth from fiction.
And Kaufman sees a parallel to modern information overload in the biblical Tower of Babel story. “The Babel connection is fascinating to me,” says Kaufman. “This human-constructed attempt for this deified version of control, and the way in which that sort of works but then also completely backfires. I'm a big Marshall McLuhan fan, but I think what's interesting is the full circle of his thought: where in the past it was 'the medium is the message,' it's now 'the message is the medium.'
“You begin to see these narrative patterns embedded in this flood of information,” he continues. Kaufman considers these realizations to be the most rewarding aspects of the project. He wants people to find these beautiful poetic moments of “strange, anachronistic connections.”
For Kaufman, the greatest payoff of the Future Rapper project would be for people to see a greater picture form in their mind—one that cuts across history, politics, culture, mythology, and the various other aspects of human existence. For that to happen, people will have to be open to the realm of epiphany, and let Land of a Thousand Rappers and Zero Seed wash over their consciousness.
And what of Future Rapper himself? Well, as Kaufman says, the time-traveling rapper will go on existing in some alternate reality.