Imagine a world where genres didn't exist. It would be pretty cool, right? Radio stations would play anything and everything, record stores would file their stock alphabetically, writers would be forced to describe what stuff actually sounds like (yikes!). Sure, the chances of that fantasy one day coming true are about as good as the chances of racism (which thrives on genre boundaries) disappearing into thin air, but the idea floats on, with supporters both mainstream (how, exactly, would you categorize Outkast's "Hey Ya"?) and underground.
One of the latter's most exciting proponents of the death of genre is Los Angeles-based Mush Records and the galaxy of musicians associated with it. Since 1997, the label has specialized in records that flirt with rap, dance music, goth and indie without ever making a commitment to any one genre. Mush is also strongly connected to Anticon, a collective of hip-hop-inspired artists both as fiercely hated and fiercely loved as George W. Bush. These passionate feelings are motivated as much by the fact that Anticon's members are primarily white guys from the Midwest and New England as by their untraditional music. Or maybe nobody can get over the feather-ruffling title of their inaugural compilation, Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop.
Featuring artists from both of these labels, the Mush Tour lineup that rolls into Bossanova on Saturday is representatively diverse. Octavius mastermind William Marshall started out as a battle-rhyming MC in Atlanta, opening for people like Foxy Brown and the Lost Boyz. Now he makes music that sounds like long-lost collaborations between Tricky and Ministry. Producer and visual artist Neotropic first performed as a singer in a punk band. She currently runs a folk label and creates ghostly soundscapes that might be classified as "chill out" if they weren't so unsettling. Knob-twiddler Daedelus has dabbled in just about every beat-based sub-genre known to man, with his latest triumph being collaborations with MCs Busdriver and Radioinactive in the freewheeling group the Weather. Her Space Holiday's off-kilter synth-pop fits in just as cozily on the indie rock imprint Tiger Style as it does on Mush.
The evening's headliner, Buck 65, isn't officially a part of the Mush Tour, nor does he record for Mush. But if the war against genre is ever declared, 32-year-old Richard Terfry will be on the front lines. He fell in love with hip-hop as a kid in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and quickly became a prominent figure in the local scene. In the late '90s, he hooked up with like-minded Portland, Maine lyricist Sole; along with several other co-conspirators from across the country, the pair would go on to form Anticon.
With a gravelly voice and a fondness for backwater sonics, Buck is Tom Waits raised on De La Soul and Public Enemy. He raps like a grandfather on the front porch spinning yarns about the good old days. "I'm just a music fan," Buck says, on the phone from New York City. "There's a hip-hop element to my music, there's just as strong an element of American folk music. I'm inspired by everything from classical to Bob Dylan to King Tubby. I certainly don't know what to call it, although when push comes to shove I call it folk music." He's quick to point out that, at its very core, hip-hop is folk music. "It's just poor people making do, telling their stories about themselves and their heartbreaks and problems and little victories. Over time, people have forgotten about that connection. I do covers of Woody Guthrie songs in my live show and people look at me like I've got three heads or something. I'm just paying tribute to historical lineage, musical evolution."
Buck is committed to the importance of that history. "If you look at absolutely every art or cultural movement or idea, traditions are really important. That's why we have museums, why we still care about Chopin or Robert Johnson or Beethoven. I think it's valuable to know where things come from. Just to have a basic understanding of it, to have some sort of foundation."
Maybe that idea also holds the key to the end of genre. Take the time to study the historical connections between styles, and their shared qualities become obvious. Hip-hop is folk, hip-hop is the blues, hip-hop is electronic dance music, hip-hop is rock and roll. Everything is rhythm and melody. And when it comes right down to it, isn't that all that matters?
Buck 65, Her Space Holiday, Daedelus, Neotropic, Octavius, Jim Bianco play Saturday, Oct. 9, at Bossanova, 722 E Burnside St., 233-7855. 7 pm. $12 advance. All ages.