Yoni Wolf and the art of experimental hip-hop

Yoni Wolf and the art of experimental hip-hop
Yoni Wolf. Photo: Ryan Back.

Meet the offbeat bard of life’s strange complexities.

“I always wanted to be the voice of the streets,” rapped Yoni Wolf on his 2003 solo album “Oaklandazulasylum.” “But my father was a rabbi, and my mother made beats…I mean, books.” The lyrics are quintessential Wolf: self-effacing and unabashedly nerdy, somewhere between the boastful egotism of hip-hop and the angst of a kid raised religious in the Ohio suburbs. Fast-forward 16 years and the musician, now 40, might still not be the voice of the streets — but he’s certainly the voice of a certain brainy subculture, obsessed with wordplay and sonic restlessness.

His band, Why?, is touring North America on the heels of the release of its new album, “AOKOHIO.” Last month they passed through New York, performing as a five-piece (not counting an occasional saxophone cameo). At the Brooklyn club Elsewhere, Wolf — clad in a cardigan and a baseball cap advertising Joyful Noise, his Indianapolis-based record label — looked less like a rap star and more like an unassuming Warby Parker model. Nonetheless, he commanded the crowd with swagger, moving smoothly between earnest, nasal warble and rapid-fire word-spitting.

Visual from Why?'s new album, "AOKOHIO." Courtesy: Big Hassle Media.
Visual from Why?’s new album, “AOKOHIO.” Courtesy: Big Hassle Media.

Off-stage, Wolf comes across as disarmingly sincere, gracious and humble. “We’re still getting better and better,” he assured me, when I reached him on the phone before a late-August tour date in Houston, “before we get worse and worse toward the end.” “AOKOHIO” is a strange beast, idiosyncratic in its structure. Like everything Wolf touches, the latest Why? is willfully difficult to nail down, even with the wildest flurry of adjectives or genre labels. (My favorite attempt comes courtesy of the Jerusalem Post, which once described the band as “pop-inflected psychedelic folk-hop.”) If there’s one constant, it’s the well-aimed turn of phrase — “fat but happy at the apogee of life” — and the occasional detour into erudite perversion (“The man’s manners, mild, like winters in the South/ Rather odd he might inquire if he can finish in your mouth.”)

“I think of it as art music,” Wolf says, when I ask him how he bothers to categorize the band. “I make music that isn’t meant to be listened to once; it’s meant to be listened to a ton of times, hearing the different layers and following the different threads.” The album was imagined as a series of six distinct song-cycles, each released as its own EP in the lead-up to the full release. Some tracks clock in at under 45 seconds, making them less songs than snippets that dissolve just as they’re getting warmed up.

And yet Wolf also envisioned the album as a complete conceptual package, one that is accompanied by a stirring, nearly 32-minute video. The latter combines slickly produced set pieces with contemporary iPhone footage of Wolf hanging out with his girlfriend, and a wealth of old home videos that show the singer (and his brother Josiah, a drummer in the band) as a kid. Wolf compares the writing and recording of “AOKOHIO” to the layered structure of a Russian nesting doll. “It’s a different process, more related to stuff that I used to do with older bands that I had back in the day,” he says, noting Clouddead, a trio he co-founded in 1999.

When he was a kid, Wolf didn’t dream of being the sort of guy who could inspire countless strangers to shout along to lyrics like “faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls.” He certainly didn’t feel born to be the center of attention. “I was extremely, painfully shy,” he tells me, “painfully self-conscious and full of shame. I definitely would never have seen myself as being a performer, and I still don’t really see myself that way. I see myself as a songwriter, and still feel…shy, I guess.”

Wolf’s early influences were hip-hop acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, among many others. It took him a while to find his personal stride, a style and delivery that felt authentic rather than borrowed. “When I was 15 or 16, and I was rapping [in my bedroom], I did sound like I was from f****** Queensbridge or something,” he says, referring to the New York housing project that birthed Mobb Deep and Nas. “Because that’s what you do: You emulate who you’re listening to. I didn’t feel like I had the right to earnestly make music in public until I developed my own voice — which didn’t feel like a cultural appropriation, but a foray into the influence that rap music had over me.”

Later, contemporary poetry also worked its way into his psyche. Wolf, who refers to himself as an “auditory type of learner,” immersed himself in recordings of famous poets that he would borrow from the library. “Dylan Thomas had such a dramatic voice,” he says.“I’d just sit there and listen to his stuff over and over, as if they were songs.” Also on the young musician’s self-created syllabus: Marilyn Hacker, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine and David Ignatow. “Not all poetry has a lyrical quality, but a lot of it does, and it’s meant to be heard,” Wolf says. “They’re incantations.”

Visual from Why?'s new album, "AOKOHIO." Courtesy: Big Hassle Media.
Visual from Why?’s new album, “AOKOHIO.” Courtesy: Big Hassle Media.

His own incantations have always been mighty: intense, weird, prone to oversharing. Yet Wolf is quick to distance himself, a bit, from the “I” that appears on the albums. “We shouldn’t conflate real life with my life in song,” he says. “It’s fiction. There are correlations to my real life, but I’m definitely not writing diary entries.” In many ways, that’s how he sees most hip-hop. “99% of the rappers you listen to have dick to do with anything they’re talking about,” he avers. “They’re just projecting an image…. It’s someone writing a fiction about a character they wish they were. Mine aren’t characters that I wish I was, necessarily — but maybe projections of parts of myself, in extended and exaggerated form.”

Diaristic or not, Wolf’s lyrics mingle humor and heartbreak in a way that at least feels deeply personal. It’s one reason that he’s not so fond of revisiting every moment of Why?’s back catalog. Last year, the band toured to promote the 10-year anniversary of perhaps their most popular album, “Alopecia.” “It wasn’t my favorite experience,” he admits. “It was taxing, psychologically and emotionally, for sure. But we did well on the tour, made good money, and it allows me to finish the next record and continue on. It is what it is. I could be driving a dump truck, and instead of that I’m out here on another truck, playing shows.”

Why?’s current set mixes new and old material in a way that feels right to him. “We’ve pretty intentionally curated the show to not be songs that are going to make me suicidal or something,” he says, bluntly. “I’m not really a nostalgic person; I don’t get that much of a kick out of going back. Once I finish something — writing it and recording it and making it and putting it in the world — I feel like I’m done with it and want to move on to the next thing.”

Right now, that next thing is undefined. Wolf and the band have relocated back to Cincinnati. He’s looking forward to voting in 2020. He’s keen to put out a second chapbook (the first, “Dream Poems,” was sold during the band’s 2018 tour.) He wants to quit feeling like he’s working all the time. “I just want to discover myself in the moment, and my loved ones, and live within that, and not feel stretched out,” he tells me. It’s a refreshingly honest goal for a musician who has made a career out of honesty, however awkward or uncomfortable.