“You gotta commit. You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You’re goin’ out there with just a whisper of an idea. The fear will make you clench up. That’s the fear of dying.”
— Bill Murray, Esquire, May 2012
I cram into a car of suddenly short ensued silences with The Palmer Squares. I inquire: “Do you think our generation gets off on self deprecation? Can we possibly be the generation of both entitlement and self-loathing?” Acumental (24) answers with a few thoughts on insecurity: Everyone is, and yet all we do is rest fettered in our belief of being alone down there, limiting our potential, even staving away the possibility of a meaningful conversation, lest you believe you are not good at conversation. I’m currently fearful of this, of coming up with another good thing to say. Something poignant to ask. I go for it:
“Did Woody Allen pave the way for us to courageously admit our insecurities and self-doubts and neuroses or is mentioning them actually kind of worse?”
The silence continues. They may or may not have heard me. Either way, I feel a little unsettled, situated within my observational outsider identity I have currently taken on. We make our way to The Underground Wonderbar as the lights continue to flash green. I sense a tough crowd as my inadvertent conversational air ball bounces away into the night, past emerging energy and an already myriad of drunken shouting on the streets.
The Palmer Squares, like me, understand a tough crowd. Their show the night previous apparently didn’t go over so well, as faces rested without inspiration and the vibe faltered. The boys, however, brush it off with an assuring laugh and a hope for tonight’s show, exhibiting a wave of confidence and a skill to keep pushing forward. Still, a silence in any form assuredly presumes a second guessing. Tonight presents a hope for nothing of the sort.
Acumental, and Terminal Knowledge (22), are two young guys from Chicago, IL who, at first glance, may not seem like talented lyricists who “spit mad game.” They come from seemingly solid backgrounds on the outskirts of the city. They wear simplistic (yet, I would argue, kind of unique) clothing. They have families and siblings, Christmas trees and past lives as skateboarders, WWE lovers, and also as kids who thought that “rap was lame.” Both had upbringings centered around music (Acumental played drums, Term K heavily influenced by his punk rock Dad) and, from their goofy ways and high-pitched giggles, provoke me to believe they were the kids who went out of their way to tidal wave splash the lifeguard while the other boys (who lacked certain guts) clapped and laughed. This, of course, could just be awful presumptuous of me.
These guys have charisma is essentially what I mean. They got moxy. They command a stage and an attention. With over 100,000+ views on a handful of their personally crafted Youtube videos, their popularity has markedly soared within the past few years as the new act to watch. Not only in Chicago are they relevant, but across the country. Their most recent important venture was this summer in Los Angeles. A high number of fans flocked to their show and Wax, a fellow hip hop confidant and youtube sensation (of whom they possess great admiration), served as their personal tour guide, closing the adventure with the collaborative track “Hollyweird,” the LA sun beaming almost blindingly bright, their eyes glossy red.
“It’s very sporadic, I think,” states Term K, concerning his bouts of lyrical inspiration. “I can just be on the train and something will just spark some word play. Eventually it gets written down and then eventually, smashed into some verse.”
Concerning the creative process, both describe sudden bursts of thought as poetic, maybe even highly conceptual. In other cases, they say, you just like to play with words (“sometimes you just like hearing how ‘Mr. Clean’ rhymes with ‘Listerine” Term states).Kind of refreshing, since many artists often agonize for importance or, in the worst of cases, attempt to turn fluff into meaningful and overblown message (e.g. Nicki Minaj’s 2012 grammy performance, many-a-student film, and maybe Lana Del Rey’s lips? (although there could be something inherently ironic and genius beneath the collagen we’re all missing)).
“Sometimes I’ll go for something that has a real in-depth meaning,” explains Acumental, “and other times I’ll just go for the dopeness of the rhyme versus the meaning and sometimes those worlds just blend nicely. Those are the gems.”
These guys are legitimate in their passion and creativity in the genre, yet don’t see what they’re doing as monumental. Like any great artist, they must at least be aware they are talented. But also, they possess a warm humility which makes their music that much more appealing.
Although the start of their affair with hip hop was quite the kitschy one (a cover of Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s on that Bitch” with “Throw Some Cheese on That Bitch,” advising how to properly dress a hamburger), they quickly learned their intrigue actually ran pretty deep. They continue to dip into joke-hop, yet maintain a flirtation with intellect through highlighting their excessive use of marijuana and its interesting correlation with their incessant lazy days of masturbation on the track “Everyday” to commenting on the possible cultural and industrial limitations set upon them for being white rappers in “Hollyweird.” Term K rhymes: “They say he can’t spit cause he ain’t got any melanin/Call me Donny cause I’m outta my element.”
Terminal Knowledge’s statement cleverly references the movie The Big Lebowski (“You’re out of your element, Donny”) while making a cunning wink concerning the “aloof stoner’s” hyper-referential observations. The clever irony here of course is that Term is in fact deeply in his element, not having to make any kind of outright commentary (i.e. the typical modern-day rap song of excessive gloating) about how great he really is. The lines, like all great lyricists before him have shown, speak for themselves.
The pioneers of the golden age, the great lyricists indeed, and even their fellow Youtube start-ups are who The Palmer Squares greatly admire, often times citing them in their own music. ’90s hip hop giants such as Wu-Tang Clan and MF Doom are noted inspirations, and can most definitely be heard within the witty rawness they continue to project: “Shit, I can listen to Term’s verse over and over again I swear,” states a Youtube commentator. “Reminds me of some old school hip hop flow can’t explain it.”
In the “golden age” of hip hop – the late ’80s and early ’90s- everything was new, fresh, bubbling with innovation from the underground, unlike anything before it. More political and hardcore rap groups such as Public Enemy and NWA formed with an ardent following while “edutainment” groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and De la Soul penetrated the college-aged white kid market, in addition to their typical demographic, expanding hip hop as a respected art form with new possibility.
The Palmer Squares have an intelligence and throw-back style reminiscent of golden age groups like Tribe as well as the more recent revolutionaries Das Racist or Lil’ B, serving subtle yet profound commentary while never underestimating the power of the self-conscious joke (see: Das Racist’s track “hahahaha jk”); quick, if you can catch it (“Half this shit is meaningless/The other half is accurately devious).
But also, well, they’re white. It’s not to be denied that hip hop is generally a black male-dominated genre, marking its beginnings in black culture and courting those with similar “street” origins. As akin with Tribe as they are, as lyrically fresh as some of their greatest inspirations, how deeply can The Palmer Squares, a couple of fresh-faced college guys, understand the loud proclamations of the “Zulu Nation?” No matter how talented you may be, will an inevitable identity of insecurity reside? Even with a generous amount of critical and commercial successes, white rapper Eminem confessed to Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview that there remains one thing he continues to fight for: Respect.
Even though underground acts like The Palmer Squares draw great inspiration from their ’90s predecessors, many modern-day commercial acts fail to see value beyond dumbed-down verses and big bucks, placing particular attention on a limited demographic of audiences and rappers alike. Writes Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club: “[When] hip-hop became big business it lost much of its soul and eclecticism. Labels began chasing the next 2Pac or the next Biggie or the next Eminem or the next Neptunes instead of embracing the variety and inclusiveness that characterized hip-hop during its golden age. What’s more, hip-hop itself started acting as if its glory days were behind it.”
But as The Palmer Squares, plus a plethora of young white, black, asian, etc. artists exploding across the youtube universe and beyond show, who is to say that hip hop should be a limited art form? The genre itself is relatively young, consistently inspired by its heralded kings and queens of funk, soul, and jazz, always undergoing innovation and, in its best light, open and accepting applications for new creativity, wit, and originality. “The genre’s been around for almost 30 years you know,” states Term. “It doesn’t belong to any one group of people.”
“At a glance,” says Acumental, “nobody would expect us to be rappers, and then when we tell them that we are, nobody would be expect us to be good rappers. It’s fun to watch a crowd turn. We played a slum village show which was predominantly middle age black people with their arms crossed, like ‘What are these white kids about to do?’ But then we got a great response.”
Who wants to be already-[fill-in-the-blank] person, I would argue, when you can be perceived with certain reservations, and then provoke splendid surprise? How much more exciting to prove people wrong. How much more thrilling, to uncross the arms of skeptical spectators by erasing expectations simply based on how you are received at face value.
Perhaps this is the beauty of our age, ready to break through and rise above whatever identity we’ve so fervently coveted. Although the Gagaian idea of being yourself! and celebrating yourself! may be an inflated one, it cannot be denied that it is a bell that rings true with our generation. We’re not as inclined to see the boundaries typically drawn around whatever field we are attracted to, rather follow what provokes us internally or draws us to that particular field. Maybe not really caring anymore if we “fit the mold” of who should do what. Trusting our impulses. Then spitting it out.
“Bring the Bacon” was directed by filmmaker Remsy Atassi, previously seen on RASCAL
Going along with my own personal Dudian inspirations, I order a White Russian at The Underground Wonderbar as the guys converse with friends, girlfriends, and fellow Wonderbar music enthusiasts who are nodding–and leaning into more aggressive neck bobbling–to the current Dj’s beats. I shudder at the drink’s $10 price tag, and continue to grow a little more insecure, considering my whole “girl with a notebook” identity, standing next to the Squares’ good friends with whom they are enthusiastically engaged. I’m pretending to be truly involved with the the current act on stage even though I was struggling to stay awake due to my 5am start time for work that morning. My minimum wage paycheck could barely support my lifestyle. I could barely escape the stranger I was. It could have devolved into pathetic.
But then they hit the stage and re-awaken my attention, my belief in confidence. Showing some guts as they recover from a weak Thursday performance and possible delicate suspicions from the crowd, they command the stage anyway with serious backbone. Two white boys. Two squares. Will this be any good? What should we expect?
Then they attack.
After an impressive warm-up, which undoubtedly heated the crowd, they began with “Bring the Bacon,” the catchy and arguably tightest track from their 2012 EP Spooky Language. Both Ac and Term swerve in and out of verse with serious precision while never failing to compensate for some entertaining showmanship. Term K seems to have an intricate knack for musicality, properly complimenting his lyrics with physical movements and gestures which beautifully coincide. This all seemingly comes to him as second nature and delights and surprises my brain of 15+ years of dancer’s training.
Acumental shows some word play and quickness of great prowess, which is something I either failed to fully witness while watching their Youtube videos or an exciting element of his performance that becomes markedly heightened from the heat of a crowd. Either way, his talents are impressive as he provokes some automatic hands in the air. Onlookers sink deeper into the tattered leather couches, vibing off the distinctly raw hip hop sound elicited from Just Two Squares, the rhythm ready to rise from the Underground.
And although the place was booming with a vibrant, punkish splendor, there was a certain quietness. A [dare I say] wonder to the Wonderbar. Where did this talent come from? How did it command such attention? And man it really hits you in the face.
Maybe the silences and the pauses and the tough crowds and the crossed arms are the most exhilarating places to reside. That’s where we get to surprise. Inspire something. That’s where we can claim opportunity, which is arguably infinitely greater than becoming easily established.
At the end of their “Bring the Bacon” video, We hear the Big Question: “Do you think The Palmer Squares have a chance at making it big, or what?”
With a knowing mocking and maybe a little bit of underestimation, they edit in a radio show caller’s response, which, as Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen states of the similarly smart-but-joking-but-smart group Das Racist, serves as “[an] entertaining result of extreme reverence toward rap and irreverence toward everything else, themselves included”:
“No, I don’t even know who the hell The Palmer Squares are.”
The Palmer Squares apparently did not coin the term “DGAF,” which, if you weren’t aware, means “Don’t Give A Fuck.” But they say it because they really Don’t Give A Fuck. They will also regularly use “YOLO,” just in case you get confused. Or bored.
They will be opening for Qwel from Typical Cats on November 30th at The Abbey Pub in Chicago. You should go. Also, their new track “Homegrown” can be heard here from their upcoming EP Square Tactics. Don’t be a stranger.