His two mix CDs, Gold Teeth Thief and Minesweeper Suite, pump up his many tastes -- a blend of current hip-hop and R&B, dancehall, reggae, Middle Eastern and South Asian folk, and noisy electronica -- with the fast, bombastic rhythms of hard-core ragga jungle and its more extreme cousin, breakcore. The result is a rough-riding, megamulticultural sonic attack on cherished musical borders that manages to be incredibly funky.
Still, whether you're a drum 'n' bass zealot who doesn't think twice about bhangra, an R&B fan who can't understand jungle, or a bohemian art-noisenik who couldn't care less about reggae, Clayton's style will probably find you plugging your ears and shaking your head at first. But if you can manage to pull yourself onto the dance floor, the next thing shaking will be your ass. And while your brain may not catch all the references in Clayton's hyperintelligent mix, your body's gonna love his revolutionary style.
Clayton is the product of what he calls an "unintentionally nomadic" and not especially musical upbringing in suburban Boston, New Jersey and Connecticut. "Most of the time," he says, speaking from his home in Barcelona, "I was doing my own thing, and never really connected with mainstream youth culture in white suburbia. I had to find out all the things that excite me on my own."
After he had a couple of alt-rock revelations in the form of postpunk icons Mission of Burma and Japanese prog-noise duo Ruins, Clayton encountered his main musical flash point in 1995, when he heard a Boston DJ play ragga jungle, black Britain's hybrid of sped-up funk breakbeats, loping reggae and techno accents. "It blew me away," he excitedly recalls. "I knew reggae, but this was incredibly polyrhythmic, really fast and complicated, and irrepressibly funky. It was just a mind-blowing mess of electronic dynamics and these crazy builds. And it referenced reggae and hip-hop culture with no nostalgia at all. It knew where it came from, but didn't care where it was going, and it was going there really fast."
While pursuing a literature degree at Harvard, Clayton spun and expanded on jungle under the name DJ /rupture as part of Boston's Toneburst DJ collective. In 1999, he graduated and moved to Brooklyn, where he founded his Soot label. Named to represent his idea of "black, particulate music that permeates a place after something like predominate culture is burned out," Soot released 12-inch singles of Clayton's own material and that of fellow culture-jammers, like Brooklyn-based, Egypt-born breakbeat producer Mutamassik. The label's site notes its founding as "a strike against geography," an idea that reflects Clayton's cultural, as well as physical, roaming. "Besides deejaying," he says, "I produced music" -- as DJ /rupture and Nettle -- "that included lots of Jamaican influences and dub techniques, and lots of small melodic fragments from Arabic music. I was making music that didn't have any particular place in terms of genre or scene, yet at the same time it was really rooted."
Clayton garnered global attention when Oakland-based experimental electronica label Tigerbeat6 released a limited edition of his 2000 mix CD, Gold Teeth Thief. The album collided the sounds of big-money hip-hoppers like Missy Elliott, star reggae MCs like Spragga Benz, and German experimentalists like Oval; and Clayton peppered the mess with his own fractured beats. The electronic music press and Vibe magazine hailed it as a blueprint for the future of both black pop and electronica.
Although mixed live on three turntables like Gold Teeth Thief, 2002's Minesweeper Suite offers even more culturally deep references and physical space in its production. Opening the album with Nubian drummer Mahmoud Fadi, Clayton then distorts and incorporates an a cappella version of a well-known tune by dancehall MC Cutty Ranks before sneaking it onto his own track, "Rumbo Babylon." Later, he lets Nina Simone and Roberta Flack croon quietly in patches before a barrage of funky digital beats crashes in. Clayton's splintering of African diasporic sounds -- a methodology he refers to as "roughneck syncretism" (which means a rowdy fusion, for those of you without your dictionaries handy) -- offers an alternative to vague conventions like "world music."
"World music fulfills a market role more than anything else. It's for aging hipsters and yuppies who want an idea of indigenous music, but really smoothed over and rubbed soft. I want to gel musical identities together, but in a noisy way that reflects conflict. When you blend Aaliyah and Pakistani folk music with breakcore, you hear not only how well they go together but also the distance between them, the new spaces they form, and what that mix might culturally signify."
Along with Kid606, a.k.a. Miguel Depedro, founder of Tigerbeat6 (who hit many critics' radars last year with his own noisy drum 'n' bass version of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On"), Clayton has become a medium for a sort of ESP between global experimental electronica and Top 40 urban music. Though the genres have seen little if any collaboration, artists in the latter realm like Timbaland and Sean Paul have exposed mainstream audiences to electronica fundamentals, which include cut-up samples of minimalist funk, tempo variety, and Middle East and South Asian accents. And Clayton joyfully reintegrates their product into his mix continuum.
"When I hear songs like [Sean Paul's Bollywood-tinged] 'Get Busy,' or any number of Timbaland tracks, or Jamaican rhythms, I just feel like these guys are making music for me. Thanks, Timbaland!" exclaims Clayton. "You took the time to get all funky and futurist and Orientalist with it! I really appreciate that!"
But a question remains: Is it even possible to locate Clayton's music on a genre map? Many have aligned him with other African-American left-field electronica artists like DJ Spooky and I-Sound in a vague "Afro-futurist" camp, a place Clayton regards apathetically. "That's fine, whatever," he says about the occasional pigeonholing he encounters. "People like cultural objects to come to them with strings attached. It's easier for people to wrap their heads around it."
But San Francisco dancehall rhymer DJ Collage, a featured vocalist on DJ /rupture's upcoming debut full-length, Special Gunpowder (Tigerbeat6), believes that if Clayton lives anywhere, it's in the proverbial tomorrow. "He's definitely coming from a black-futuristic point of view," notes the MC. "He knows a lot of different kinds of music, and he respects those forms. The detail in his mixes and productions shows that he's really studying the different kinds of music that he's fusing to make sure that it all works."
Given its complexity, perhaps no one will ever pin down Clayton's sound. But Depedro maintains that the crucial place for his music is on the dance floor. "What appealed to me is that it was tweaked out and deep, but also amazing to dance to," says Depedro about his first encounter with Gold Teeth Thief. "The depth is an afterthought."
Clayton couldn't be happier about the global conversation that all of his genre cross-pollination is now a part of. "It's a pop music dream to switch on mainstream radio in the States and hear tablas and sitars and fragments of Arabic vocals and pentatonic tuning," he says. "American R&B guys are listening to Jamaica, and vice versa, and then they're all listening to Arabic and Indian sounds. It's a great time for black pop music."