No Surrender

A tragic accident can't subvert Subtle's vision.

Subtle The Grog Shop. 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Tuesday, October 3, $8. 216-321-5588
The wheelchair-bound Dax Pierson remains Subtle's spiritual heart.
The wheelchair-bound Dax Pierson remains Subtle's spiritual heart.
It's before noon on Friday in Portland, Oregon, the morning after the first stop on Subtle's 37-date international tour. Before November ends, the Oakland sextet will have traveled from Montreal to Austin and from Leeds to Antwerp, supporting its second full-length album, For Hero: For Fool, which comes out the day of the group's Cleveland show. Adam "Doseone" Drucker -- the group's verbose mastermind and a co-founder of the Anticon collective -- couldn't sound happier.

"I am counting money," he says by way of introduction, just before imitating the maniacal laugh of a robber baron.

On record, Drucker moves between hypertextual verses with a needle-nosed precision, his voice most often a front-of-the-throat barrage of surreal images above his band's kaleidoscopic mix of samples, drums, guitars, bass, and keyboards. But offstage, he's affable and articulate, an everyday guy who personifies swagger. "It's not a lot, but I wish it was. It's chump change, really."

Drucker's not complaining: He's never rapped to get rich. In fact, he built his polysyllabic delivery and challenging approach while battling MCs like Eminem. Most often, the two ended in a draw, and Drucker even considered inviting the then-unknown talent into Anticon just before he broke nationally. Drucker soon realized, though, that their career paths would be wildly divergent, with Eminem trading his gift for progressively more mediocre and commercial albums, while Drucker's quest for originality became his albatross.

But Drucker is fine with the money. In fact, he's just glad to be on tour with this band again. Really, it's a small miracle.

Last February, Subtle was rolling down the blacktop of a Des Moines, Iowa, highway late at night, making the 13-hour drive between Denver and Minneapolis, when the van hit a patch of black ice and flipped. Everyone in the band -- Drucker, Marty Dowers, Jeff "Jel" Logan, Jordan Dalrymple, and Alexander Kort -- walked away safely. Everyone, that is, except the man who named and founded Subtle: keyboardist, sampling wizard, and vocalist Dax Pierson. Pierson was airlifted to a hospital in Omaha, where it was determined that his fifth vertebra had been shattered in the crash.

Suddenly, Dax was a quadriplegic, and Subtle, one of the most progressive and artistically valiant groups in music, seemed at the point of collapse before it had finished its first tour for its first album. What's more, that album was the starting point of a trilogy written by Drucker years before, the story of a young artist trying to transcend his limitations.

"My mother showed me there'd be days like this," sings Drucker on "Silence . . .," a track from the band's first full-length, A New White. That line has become one of the common threads in Drucker's poems; it's one of the more pronounced lines on 13 & God, a record he collaborated on with German group the Notwist, and it serves as a cryptic refrain on For Hero.

"The first few months after the accident were kind of like what purgatory is going to be. I hate to be cliché, but our dream became a nightmare," says Drucker. "We sat there, everybody wanting to quit, but since Dax could not quit in his recovery and was tackling odds we only dream or fear about, we knew we couldn't stop what got us to this place."

The planned Subtle trilogy had been sketched and distributed to the band members years before. It was to tell the story of Hour Hero Yes, a young, middle-class writer and rapper, who has lived in the same dilapidated apartment building all his life, only to realize that he has to hit the streets to find his ultimate demise or success.

Drucker -- an accomplished visual artist given to minimalist pen sketches and highly colored illustrations -- painted Hour Hero with a referee's face to suggest fairness, all vertical white and black stripes. But when Pierson wound up in a Texas rehabilitation center, it seemed as though the next Subtle record wouldn't happen -- or would be a plot diversion marked by personal tragedy.

In Vancouver, however, Drucker picked up one of Pierson's favorite pastimes -- reading comic books -- and rediscovered Subtle's purpose. The Abomunist Manifesto and other works of black Jewish beat poet Bob Kaufman had been heavy influences on Drucker's surreal lyrical style from the beginning, but he had left comic books alone since childhood. Before the accident, though, he borrowed some Pierson favorites, and they reenergized his vision.

"I had to not listen to music or think about it, because I was breaking down all the time, so I started reading again. When I was a kid, that's what it was all about, rap and comics," says Drucker, who started freestyling when he spent a year of high school in Shaker Heights. "I got into Watchmen and Creature and Transmit and all this shit in Canada, and then I realized, 'Oh my god, this is what I'm doing. I'm writing graphic novels.' They may be more Bob Kaufman than Warren Ellis, but that's me."

So the march to For Hero: For Fool began. Jel and Drucker passed one another demos -- "everything we had, both negative and positive: angst and hope" -- and started arranging sessions back in Pierson's studio in Oakland. They mailed demos to Pierson, who tackled rehabilitation like a full-time job and even sampled recordings of his voice for texture and harmony.

The band -- five strong in California, six strong in spirit -- attacked the album with immediacy and a commitment to perfection. For once, Drucker -- who alternates between a handful of voices and rhythms on For Hero, and even jokes that his vocal portion of a song sometimes involves 20 different layered tracks -- didn't rush himself. The band knew this had to be right.

"Something about the crash and however many records I've made in the past eight years just clicked in this process. I was like, 'I'm me,' and something clicked. I had a lot of clarity. If it wasn't here, I waited," says Drucker, who spent five months fretting over how to sing the chorus for one song. He perfected every nuance of the lyrics -- some 4,000 words sprayed across 11 tracks -- in the process. "And without being literal or corny, we tried to be poetic with our song structures this time, in a way that really brings out what's going on, without sounding like Ween."

In January, they were again a six-piece: Dax was back, in a wheelchair, taken care of at home by morning and night attendants. Before the accident, he had recorded a beatbox-and-piano freestyle. The band waited until he returned to use that tape as the basis for the last track, "The End."

Over an Abbey Road melody that morphs into ambient whirs and then into Dax's freestyle, Drucker attacks like a fiend, delivering some of his most savage verse and sweetest singing head-to-head in a nine-minute span. Stepping perfectly with the piano, he drops the panacea: "Hour Hero Yes had known there'd be days like this." The final three minutes skate off into ethereal peace, a respite from so much work, a break before so much more.

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