PlanetPhoebe Goes On The Prowl With Yoni Wolf

By: Phoebe A. Xavier

© Ellis Christopher

I was recently lucky enough to get to interview WHY? frontman and Anticon co-founder Yoni Wolf on the occasion of his visit to Portland Oregon to play Revolution Hall. It was a treat on so many levels for me: first time seeing WHY? live, first time seeing supporting act Open Mike Eagle, and also first time at a super zany, apropos-to-Portland venue.

Revolution Hall is on the second floor of what used to be a high school. It has been renovated to accommodate a 850 seat auditorium, a café downstairs, a series of offices and a rooftop deck for special events. Roaming around the building with the lockers all still in place and the deco ambiance still wholly that of a high school, it was a cool nostalgic gimmick that I could jive with. The place had mostly been shut down since the early 1980s, but was re-purposed as a concert and events center in 2013.

I arrived late afternoon to meet my photographer, Chris Ellis, a friend I have known about seven years from earlier visits to Rose City. Brilliant rare portraits of celebrities are a hobby of his so I was happy to reconnect on such a fun project as interviewing Yoni. We did coffee as we caught up on each other’s more recent artistic forays.

We finished the revelry just in time to get called up stairs to talk to Yoni about his new album “Moh Lhean”. Since it was my first time speaking with him at all I also put together some questions about his older works and public statements. In conference room 216A we sat down for twenty minutes with Yoni and his dog Marty. After brief introductions I turned the recorder on and hopped into the interview.

Phoebe A. Xavier: As a performer myself I like to do covers of artists and songs that I think will be obscure, or – new to some of my audience at least. Amongst songs by Aesop Rock & Soul Coughing I also cover “The Vowels Part II” & “Strawberries”. I have read articles in which you talk about how weird it can be to hear your songs about personal experiences come through other people, and I think that’s probably a thing a lot of lyricists deal with.

Is there anything in your catalog that you’d identify as more of an “everyman” narrative, instead of the very close to your own heart stuff that populates so much of your lyrical grimoire?

Yoni Wolf: Grimoire… I’ve never read that word in my life.

PAX: Really? It’s like a tome of mystical spells.

Yoni Wolf: (Chuckling) OK OK, got you…. Like an occult type whatever. Right. Magic. That’s a good question. What songs have I written that are more universal.. I think some of the newer songs, some of the songs on the new album could sit in that camp. Like even, “This Ole King” There aren’t details of my life in there really so much. Some of the new ones like “One Mississippi”.. Like “George Washington” or “Fairly Blurred” have that feeling. I think this album particularly.

Like older songs… like for someone to cover “Good Friday”, I mean I have heard covers, it’s just funny cause it’s so personal.

PAX: In your humble, or highly esteemed, opinion –

Yoni Wolf: (interrupting) I don’t have – there’s no humility here. No just kidding.

PAX: (cackles in bemusement) OK. In your humble, or highly esteemed, opinion – what WHY? song should I add to my repertoire?

Yoni Wolf: Well first of all, I haven’t seen your renditions, so I can’t say for sure. But I’d say try one of the new ones. You said you do “The Vowels” and what was it?

PAX: “Strawberries”

Yoni Wolf: Those tunes are a little, maybe more up or exciting. Yeah I’d say try one of the new songs maybe. It’d have be something you like.

PAX: I’ve been thinking of adding “Jimmy Breeze [2]” for a while, but haven’t worked out a beat for it yet.

Yoni Wolf: Another weird interesting one to do , but go for it, I say why not?

PAX: “Moh Lhean” to me plays as the first WHY? album with zero% rap songs on it. It feels and sounds to me that these are all sung pieces, nowhere close to drab, monotone & distinctly rap cadences. I love it. I think it’s a great album. It grows on me slowly and warmly like moss. But I’d no longer qualify it as alt hip hop, as I did with many of your older works. “George Washington” for example, on this record plays much more as pop rock than alt rock to me, even.

And, I don’t see that rap label as something you feel compelled to stay confined to, but I am curious about your relationship with that old genre. The one that got you your first job as a fry cook if you will, twenty years later on?

So, strictly as a fan, what hip hop, if any, do you listen to in 2017?

Yoni Wolf: Well first of all I would say to me, “Moh Lhean”, sort of is, for me as the maker is what “Eskimo Snow”, if you know that album, was trying to be. I feel like this is a better executed version of that. Like that one doesn’t have any rap songs on it at all. If you go back and thing about those songs. The closest thing on “Moh Lhean” might be the verses of “Proactive Evolution” or something.

PAX: Close a little bit, but you’re still singing, just at a fast pace.

Yoni Wolf: Yeah, sure I hear what you’re saying. As far as rap stuff I like? I think there’s a lot of cool stuff coming out these days, you know even in the more pop world. Like you know you have the Kendrick Lamar type people. He’s huge but sort of sounds like an underground rapper in my ear. As someone who grew up with rap he sounds to me like some from the L.A. underground.

PAX: I think when he first came out he was on an indie label too.

Yoni Wolf: Yeah I think you’re right. I mean even like Drake, these are like the biggest main stream artist and their stuff sounds creative.

PAX: You really put that stuff on? You’ll listen to that?

Yoni Wolf: I mean yeah if a new Drake album comes out I’ll listen to it at least once, to see what it is. Some of his stuff I listen to a lot of times. So yeah, I mean it’s hard to get behind him lyrically or thematically maybe, you know what I’m saying?

PAX: Oh yes.

Yoni Wolf: Yeah, but it sounds cool. Hip hop has opened up to be not as dogmatic about sound. I feel like when I was growing up there was this dogmatic kind of “this is what hip hop sounds like, that’s not hip hop!” almost like it was a fundamental religion. But now it’s a huge part of the larger culture. Integrated in every aspect of culture at this point.

PAX: OK next question. My top ten favorite cities list has a number of spots that I’d like to think of as rare on it. The groove you find in certain places, through sheer serendipity, or on the path of synchronicity – it’s a dragon I chase for creative inspiration.

I can spoiler alert Missoula, Montana or Monterey, California off my own list, for example. But what I am getting at are the small markets with huge heart, places overlooked by most. I like to find these kinds of places, fall in love with them and then build great art in and from them. Are there any cities, like this, that you unexpectedly fell in love with via touring?

Yoni Wolf: Another good question. (Marty interrupts) What do you want? You can come up. (Marty demands some attention then wanders to the other side of the room..) I feel like I wish I had more of those. I feel like I go from town to town too much without really exploring. You know but, anytime I have been to small California towns, like I love small California towns.. I like Monterey, I like Carmel, I like San Luis Obispo, cool town. If I had shit ton of money I’d love to live in a small town in California, I think.

Other than that, I don’t know, I’ve been to some small North eastern towns that are cool, like Portland, Maine is kind of a cool town. (Marty clamors for my attention) He’s just, oh don’t worry about him. (Marty barks) Come here Marty.

Yoni gets up to get the dog to hold him in his lap.

PAX: I’ve never been to Portland, Maine but I have heard good things about it.

Yoni Wolf: Yeah it’s a cute little town. It’s not the end-all-be-all but it’s cool, yeah. Yellow Springs, Ohio that’s a cool town. That’s where Dave Chappelle lives. I stayed there for like a month once working on a record. It’s kind of near Dayton Ohio. I live in Cincinnati so it’s like an hour north of me.

It’s like a super liberal enclave in very conservative surroundings. It’s a cute little town. I have a thing for a cute small town that are artsy and have a vibe.

PAX: Absolutely. Oh my god I just tweeted last night- I watched the new Chappelle stuff last night and he said some really transphobic shit, and I just tweeted in anger at him

Yoni Wolf: Was it funny?
PAX: Some of it, a little, but mostly it was just offensive. He gets to do that I guess.

Yoni Wolf: I guess.
PAX: Well I got to angry tweet at him.
Yoni Wolf: Good. Did you get him to respond?
PAX: I don’t know I had to come meet you, didn’t have time to check.

Yoni Wolf: OK, OK.

PAX: OK next question. I read an article about cLOUDEAD in which you and Doseone both mention prior lives as graff writers. I actually found a picture on some graff site of an old Buck65 tag next to a Doseone tag. I don’t wanna ask you something as narc’d out as ‘do you still try to get ups?’

However, as it pertains to your music: Are there any particular graf writers that you are inspired by? Either then or now?

Yoni Wolf: Um well, I don’t write graffiti any more. I can tell you that. But I definitely did for quite some time from maybe the ages of 14 or 15 until maybe 21 or something. And yeah there was this crew in Cincinnati called TSC and that was like the main good crew from Cincinnati at the time. I think that my favorite writer was this guy FIVE. Who I really liked his stuff, his style was very adventurous and his stuff would be in the weirdest places. You’d be walking along and look down you’d see under this gas gauge there’d be this weird elaborate FIVE tag. And you’re thinking ‘who the fuck puts their tag there? Who’d ever see that?’

PAX: But it never gets buffed then! It’s gonna stay there for 20 years.
Yoni Wolf: Yeah exactly, so he was just different and his styles were super weird. I always liked that.

PAX: Awesome. Next question. On “Yoni & Geti” you did most of the production, yes?
Yoni Wolf: Yeah.

PAX: OK well I also read that on “Moh Lhean” you would compose the backbone of the song in melody on piano then turn it over to Josiah to build a more complete composition out of that. And from there he’d write parts for more instruments and insert evolving dynamics for each piece to muster the symphonic half of the definitive WHY? sound. Is that sorta the process?

Yoni Wolf: We did it together. Like arranging and stuff we did together. I think one of the songs he did take it and do some things, without me. But yeah it’s mostly back and forth with him. And we’d also sit together and do stuff. But yeah I wrote most of the parts on piano. All the parts on piano yeah.

PAX: Well on parts of Yoni & Geti, specifically on “Madeline”, I feel the arrangements are as complexly composed as what Josiah is usually bringing to the table on WHY? songs. Can you please tell us briefly what the process was like on the Y&G production and how that differs from what happened on “Moh Lhean”?

Yoni Wolf: Yeah I mean, they fed into each other a little bit, cause I was working on them at the same time. Part of it is that Josiah is a big force on the WHY? stuff in terms of production and arrangements. As well the other musicians develop their parts a great deal and make their parts sound like what they’ll sound like. Whereas with the Yoni & Geti it was me sitting there on my own working on it, playing all the instruments and doing all the sequencing. More by myself I guess on the Yoni & Geti. And yeah maybe Dave, Geti might be in the other room working on his verse or whatever, but I was more by myself on that.

PAX: Word. I really like a lot of Serengeti’s stuff, “Kenny Dennis” is one of the smartest things ever, “Don’t Blame Steve” about the Chicago Cubs game I love that as a concept song. Some of that shit is the most intelligent funny rap stuff I’ve ever heard. Hell yeah. Keep working with that guy.

Yoni Wolf: Oh yeah I love that guy. I mean he’s a fucking weirdo, but I love him I do. 

PAX: Does he really drink O’Douls?
Yoni Wolf: No. He drinks real alcohol. Maybe too much.

PAX: (Giggling) Well me too. OK now next question. Now admittedly I don’t know a lot about the language so I may mispronounce part of this, but: I’m given to understand that the modern Hebrew word for homeland is מו ו ֶדל ֶדדֶת (moh-LEH-det) and that the word’s root means birth. Is there any chance the origin of your studio’s name and hence the new album’s name comes from this?

Yoni Wolf: I’m gonna have to say yeah. I mean I never thought of it that way before, but you basically have recreated what I have wanted to say. I like it, I don’t know.

PAX: Perhaps mashed up with the slang word for that sizzurp, ‘lean’?
Yoni Wolf: Right it has a little lean, a little laid back. I’m just gonna say yes. That’s my answer.

PAX: Thank you. Thank you Mr. Wolf. OK. In “The Hollows” you weave a beautiful lyric about witnessing two men fucking in public in Berlin. On “Waterlines” you reference the need to ‘blend in with the men’, as if questioning your own masculinity. There are other tender moments in your music that are really filled with emotion that is usually off limits in even the most alternate, obscure hip hop.

With that as the context of the question, in an age of radical expression where gender and orientation are commonly understood as spectrums – quite flatly, how do you identify?

Yoni Wolf: How do I identify? I mean you know – I am sexually attracted to women. I consider myself to be a man. Am I a real man? I don’t know people have this idea of what that means…

PAX: (cutting in) Yeah I don’t think that’s a thing that should be allowed limiting people to “Only this is the real, authentic form.” So you identify as a dude that likes chicks?

Yoni Wolf: Yeah.

PAX: Cool. Next and final question, going in the total opposite direction for a minute. The word ‘yoni’ in Sanskrit is the word for vagina. I know it is also a Hebrew version of, or knick name for Jonathon. So sometimes when I think of Yoni Wolf as a stage name I wonder if it’s a cleverly subtle euphemism for “Pussy Hound”. How off am I on that one?

Yoni Wolf: (Chuckling) I’ve thought about that too. I think that probably rang true at some point in my twenties. Not any longer, but I find it interesting.

PAX: Yeah, when you wanna feel like a bad emcee you gotta have a cool name.
Yoni Wolf: Yeah. I definitely don’t think it was intentional by my parents. But I like it.
PAX: I’m gonna turn this recorder off, thanks so much that was awesome you were awesome.

Yoni Wolf: Thank you, you had alotta good questions in there.
PAX: Thanks (I get the sound recorder shut off)

Following the interview Chris and I wandered up to Hawthorne Boulevard in the rain and hung out at the comic book store for few hours. After that we stopped in a café for dinner before dipping back up to Revolution Hall. We schmoozed with the other group that had been there early to interview Yoni as we waited for the opening act to go on.

And that’s when I got blown away by Open Mike Eagle. I had known of a few tracks that he guest featured on, but had never felt so compelled to go listen to his solo albums. Until I saw his set. Similar to Busdriver, (who is also part of L.A. based crew Helfyre Club with Mike,) the whole set was played on a sample machine at the same time that he rapped. Just one guy, one mic and a few samplers. Amazing show. He was as singsong as most WHY? songs are and his pop cultural irreverence was golden. I made sure to give him a hug and tell him how awesome his set was at the merch table before I left.

The WHY? Set was pretty amazeballs too. They played every track off “Moh Lhean” and several of my favorite older songs including “The Vowels” & “Waterlines” & “The Hollows”. My friend Booms and I spent the last half of the show in the mezzanine looking down at the jams. I didn’t get a version of “Song of the Sad Assassin” which I had hoped for, but they did do a four song acoustic encore which was very unique for what started as an underground hip hop group so long ago.

I’m glad I got to see such a stellar show at such weird venue. Meeting Mike & Yoni was a treat and I hope everyone at home enjoys this write up half as much I enjoyed going to the show then writing this up.

See you next time on PlanetPhoebe!

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