There's a brothel in an undisclosed location in Orange County, New York that hides a recording studio in its basement. Down inside that decrepit vault, towards the back of the building, two guys don full-length, hooded black cloaks and take on the monikers of EP and Matter ov Fact. The basement, which is affectionately dubbed as Parts Unknown, has been sound-proofed against the churn of top 40 radio and Carly Rae Jepson Pandora stations that sometimes seep in from the dedicated ladies grinding away above them. Against this backdrop, the two men busy themselves mastering their subterranean art of forging endearingly stark and brilliantly grubby hip-hop music; they write songs that rattle off bizarre medical ailments and sexual peccadilloes as if they were once interns during Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon-era but were let go when the gyno-doc discovered they were a little too peculiar for even his taste. They call themselves the Doppelgangaz. Back in March they released HARK, one of the most magnificent rap albums birthed this year. Consider this an introduction to their black cloak lifestyle.
Childhood friends since what EP pinpoints as a third grade meeting hooked around a shared fondness for the X-Men, the Doppelgangaz made music in some capacity since 1998. Then they were part a five-man ensemble known as Fab Nickel. (Scouring YouTube throws up a song, “Genius,” pertaining to feature Lupe Fiasco, while a still-existing SoundClick page pitches them as “five guys with the hunger to be heard and bring to the table something else besides the force-fed music of today.”) Speaking from his home base upstate, and recovering from a bout of the common cold while on tour in Europe, Matter ov Fact recalls their first songs being constructed from classically raw rap elements: “We were scrambling for instrumentals and recording from tape-decks. We used to buy a lot of singles like the Beatnuts' “Watch Out Now,” “Money, Power, Respect” by the Lox, and “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” [by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz] so we could rap over the instrumentals. I remember using two tape-decks to record and doing everything live. It was mad people rapping but if somebody messed up, we'd keep it.”
As Fab Nickel disbanded, EP and Matter ov Fact officially took up the mantle of a duo in 2008, anointed themselves the Doppelgangaz, and jacked themselves into a Yamaha keyboard that EP had since picked up to produce songs on. “Those beats were good, definitely impressive for the tools we had,” recalls Matter ov Fact. “It wasn't the most refined, 'cause it was playing a loop for three of four minutes straight, but I think it was something ahead of its time.”
Something in the no-budget, DIY ethos of those early days resonated with the Doppelgangaz. Since then they've amassed a relatively small (in modern social media numbers) but committed throng of followers, sometimes called the Shark Nation, mostly comprised of Europeans. (Aside: To call their fans an army seems an inappropriate choice, not least as the Dopp Gang's music suggests they'd be happier amusing themselves in the infirmary than hollering battle cries on the front lines.)
Despite limited fanfare, The Doppelgangaz's discography is impressive. It was sparked by 2008's The Ghastly Duo project (which EP cites as the first official Doppelgangaz release), and until HARK's recent release was best defined by 2011's Lone Sharks album. Points of interest in Lone Sharks include; a tribute to the dumpster diving lifestyle, a video for the song “At Night” in which they slurped bottles of rubbing alcohol and descended on Times Square in black cloaks to hand out red apples with razor blades hidden inside them, and “N.Y. Bushmen,” wherein they rhymed the immortal sentiment, “Party? Please/ I'd rather eat Havarti cheese (with dill accents).” This is fortified with a commitment to fan service. The Doppelgangaz Tumblr is not, as you might suspect, a graphic Web-MD gross-out spanning jpegs of disease-ridden patients, but an earnest appreciation of their fans: They post up fan artwork, embed YouTube videos of fans reviewing their music, and announce new releases in an almost old-fashioned manner: The Doppelgangaz post limited editions streams of their catalogue and special white vinyl releases of HARK in their online store .=
Both EP and Matter ov Fact say they've found the response to HARK to be a favorable one. It's certainly the widest marketed of their releases, partly, as EP says, with the intent to secure a bigger following the States. Although when asked if the positive critical response to HARK has seen other artists and richer-funded labels contacting them to offer up opportunities, EP laughs and says, “Nah, nobody really gives a shit about us. Nobody's hit us up.”
They should. HARK is an exceptional record. Its slender duration totals 12 songs, three of which are one-minute-long instrumental interludes. The album begins with “Skin Yarmulke,” which is coated with a near-as-tangible crackle of static, and ends with “Sunshine,” which parades home with a vicious flute sample bedded by a well-wrought take on Melvin Bliss's “Synthetic Substitution” break-beat. In between, they present their most concise summation of the black cloak lifestyle yet. Scenic highlights: Matter ov Fact informing the world that he prefers a smaller size of condom due to it being a “snugger fit” (down-sizing, of course, being a rarity in rap), EP musing on a labia pump, a song (“Us 2 Da Man”) that imbues a character with irritable bowel syndrome, folliculitis, cirrhosis of the liver and dental problems before going on to claim that “ladies loving him like Warren Beatty in his youth.” Then there's a verse from Matter ov Fact on “Smang Life” that he penned while power-less during Hurricane Sandy and forced to drain his car battery for cellphone power, the brutal futuristic bleakness of the “Hark Back” beat, and a nod to a crazy cat lady who lives with 45 kittens on the closing cut.
Despite what might sometimes seem like a deliberate attempt to shock or prompt an ill-feeling in the listener, the modern Doppelgang experience never descends into the pits of hammy horrorcore. Instead, the music is undercut with an everyday normality. Asked about a line on the eerie “Suppository” (which appears on Lone Sharks) that alludes to something that took place in “the factory in Peekskill,” Matter ov Fact says it was inspired after simply watching the movie Limitless and figuring that it would be a good location to have a factory selling the mythical NZT pills he earlier references. (He also says he has family in Peekskill, which might have put the town in his mind when writing the song.) Similarly, when questioned about the origin of the black cloaks they wear at shows and in videos, Matter ov Fact says, “That's a good question,” ponders for a moment, and then confesses he can't really remember when they came up with the idea. He's then soon talking about the perils of attempting to maintain them. It transpires that the biggest issue is performing in European venues where smoking indoors is allowed. “We had to keep those cloaks in separate bags in our luggage,” he says. “You can't do anything to get rid of that smell.” You half expect him to start talking about the trials of re-grouting his bathroom at this point.
This endearingly humble quality resonates most strongly with “Barbiturates,” a song which both of the Doppelgangaz say has become the fans' favorite on HARK. It's hooked around a reflective dreamscape of a beat, over which EP sets the tone with what might be the most underrated piece of braggadocio this year: “Fuck you know about sipping Becks, cloaked out?/ Genuflect with your gold mouth/ Dismount up off the god's phallus.” The first line casts him as some sort of nomadic b-boy nestled in the upstate wilderness with a bindle slung over his shoulder; the latter should make a G.O.O.D. Music ghost-writer go and top themselves for not coining it first. To this, Matter ov Fact sups from a “carafe of E&J,” dabbles with guarded introspection (“keep the windows to your soul with the blinds down half-the-way”), and then ends with a vignette about a (presumably) former friend who visits a palatial brothel in Germany called Pascha. It's a beautifully queazy marriage of rhyme and music, fantasy and reality, and it cuts “Barbiturates” as the most tender-sounding song to ever climax in a parlor that some would say houses acts of ill-repute.
The video to “Barbiturates” pushes this feeling home. Like most Doppelgangaz flicks, it's shot in an often bokeh-heavy style. But while the production to “Barbiturates” might bring to mind dreamy and heavenly visions, the video shoots not to the stars but to the world around them: It's largely set on a lake, with the footage undulating. It's hypnotic but relatable. It's intriguing but thoroughly everyday. At one point, Matter ov Fact motions back and forth in a rocking chair then receives a haircut while rapping. It's homely, warm even. As “Barbiturates” closes out, you catch the sun rippling against the water. The Doppelgangaz myth may have started in a dank brothel basement, but from out of that has come a rare ray of warm rap beauty.