Signs of Life
The Human Cropcircles‘ very existence might offer one of the strongest testimonies to the vitality of Kansas City’s current hip-hop renaissance. Every movement must have its avant-garde, punching holes in the boundaries to let new ideas into the mix. And the Cropcircles’ music is all about fresh concepts, even if the group is sometimes as puzzling as the wheat-field phenomena from which it takes its name.
In fact, obscurity inspired the moniker. “My brother has some abstract views,” Rich Lester says of his sibling, Fred. “One day, he was explaining something to me, and I was frustrated trying to understand what he was saying, and I said, ‘Man, you’re like a human crop circle!'”
Rich, too, can be obtuse, like when he explains the band’s mission. “The Human Cropcircles are, for the most part, trying to talk to people on a level that makes them think about the fact that we’re all the human race, we’re all human beings,” he explains. “We all need air, food, sex. If you understand, you’re a human crop circle. The word human stands for the traits that make us what we are. A crop is something that’s bought and sold. And a circle is a circle of friends. It’s just that simple.”
In a tradition that extends back to the first found-sound artists of the early twentieth century, producers Joker 70 (Rich) and Hexagram 23 (Fred) as well as DJ Sike (otherwise known as Phil) make music out of everything in their environment. Snippets of every imaginable form of movie and television show are intercut with samples of widely divergent musical forms, then merged with hip-hop rhythms. These often stunningly provocative mixes provide the backdrop for dramatic readings, poems and raps. The diversity of voices on the Cropcircles’ most recent disc, The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, suggests music made in search of rational thought in a universe gone mad.
But Rich doesn’t hear Future as having such bold ambitions. The album was largely his vision, and it sprang from a series of personal crises in his life, including a traumatic breakup. “Everything on that album means something very specific to me, in a story line, dealing with all of what I was going through,” he says.
That might be the key to what makes the Cropcircles work so well. This music comes from someplace close to the heart, starting with the hip-hop that brought the group’s members together.
Explaining why a white-boy musical omnivore like himself has gravitated toward hip-hop, Rich says he grew up with it. “My brother and I both grew up at 29th and Campbell, then 29th and Cherry and then 37th and Warwick,” he recalls. “We were just influenced by what we heard every day. I went through the hair-band thing, the grunge thing, and now I love all of it.”
He also has his share of classic-rock influences, which accounts for Future‘s scarcely recognizable elements of Janis Joplin, Kansas and Steve Miller tunes.
“When I was a kid, I’d hear the stuff my dad was playing, and I liked it so much,” Rich says, his voice suddenly animated. “Now I force people to listen to it accidentally. Next thing you know, they might go out and buy Steve Miller. I’d love that.”
Phil, a classmate of Fred’s at Paseo High School, met the brothers more than three years ago. A graphic (and graf) artist, Phil had been a longtime supporter of the local hip-hop scene when the Cropcircles started to come together, and he helped the fledgling group in various ways, just as he did for other crews on the local scene. But one night, that all changed.
We were playing the Hurricane, and Phil just came on stage and started scratching and announcing,” Rich says. “He liked it and asked if he could do it again sometime. I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you’re our DJ.'”
At first, the Cropcircles worked more as a production team than anything else, doing audio and video for local outfits such as the Guild and the Ces Cru, a role its members still emphasize is their primary identity. But in 2000, the crew released its first CD, Human Pride and the Lack Thereof, which led to a number of gigs and enough positive feedback to lead to the release of a six-track EP and 2001’s Future. The group recently released another EP, titled Constant Movement, and plans to issue a full-length album next spring.
Sitting at his computer, where he spends each evening until about 11:30 after getting off work at his transporter job at KU Med, Rich calls up one track after another. One particularly striking track comes from a solo effort by his brother, to be called Maniac Cuddle Music. Impossibly textured beats thunder upward in the mix.
“He’s doing this all instrumental,” Rich says with mild frustration. “I wish he would let me lay in some vocal samples.”
As if on cue, Phil gets up and begins to scratch at the turntables along one wall He dices the voice of a female Japanese pop singer and adds it to the mix’s dark rhythm. The effect is like bold strokes of colors splashed on navy blue and black.
Rich then punches up some of the new tracks, featuring Vertigon of the Guild and an Australian female rapper named Romey.
Perhaps because of the unusual beat structures, each rapper’s voice has a unique edge, and the lyrics are tight and concrete.
“We’re all about content,” Rich says. “This new album is called Emotional Compensation System, and that’s what it’s about. We give some direction. I tell how I feel I want it to go, and Phil gives his feelings, and then they give us the best stuff anyone’s doing anywhere.”
Listening to this powerful music, it’s apparent that the future is not what it used to be; it might be something better.