Basehead tends to be classified as a rap or hip-hop act, but its mixture of rock, rap, and soul is too eclectic to pin down definitively. The group is the brainchild of singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Ivey, whose wide-ranging musical influences seem as noteworthy as his trademark low-energy delivery and low-tech recording principles. Labeled a “pop visionary” by USA Today, Ivey has defied popular trends by celebrating inebriation and offering no easy answers to the political and emotional conundrums he explores. “His songs express a stoned, alienated, horny cynicism,” observed Dimitri Ehrlich in Pulsel, “a viewpoint that is as unconventional as it is unerringly confident.”
Ivey came of age in relatively comfortable surroundings; the son of medical professionals, he was raised in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. He spent his teenage years listening to records by rockers like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, smoking pot, and playing guitar; an avid comic book fan, he dreamed for a time of being an illustrator and did not, in general, impress those around him as one destined for greatness. He formed a band with drummer Brian Hendrix (no relation to Jimi) while the two were in high school in Pittsburgh in 1984. They played cover versions of songs by R & B/rock maverick Prince, never really finding a solid band identity.
Ivey graduated from high school—to the surprise of some who knew him—and headed off for the challenge of Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the most respected of the nation’s traditionally black institutions. “I just wanted to start getting some shit from a black perspective,” Ivey told Request. “It was cool to be around a lot of different types of people, from burnouts to Young Republicans who were just interested in a nice cushy job, kind of like every other school around.”
At Howard, Ivey majored in film production. When he didn’t have to catch a film class, however, he made his way to a 16-track recording studio in Maryland. There, with the assistance of Brian Hendrix and assorted others, he began recording the songs that would make up Basehead’s debut album, Play With Toys. Still, Ivey did not have an overall vision of the music he wanted to record. “When I made it, I didn’t say, ‘I want to mix this with that,’” he claimed in an interview with Spin. “I just wanted to come up with something I liked.” Toys mixed funky grooves with spare, psychedelic guitar, some turntable scratching and, of course, Ivey’s sleepy, nearly affectless vocalizing. “It’s kinda weird the way the record was made,” he noted. “I didn’t want it to be that
For the Record…
Group features Michael Ivey (born c. 1968 in East Liberty, PA; son of medical professionals; attended Howard University), vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum programs; various touring and recording members include Bill Conway, bass; Marco Delmar, guitar; Bob DeWald, bass, engineering; Bruce “Cool Aid” Gardner, drums; Clarence “Citizen Cope” Greenwood, turntables (joined group, 1992); Brian Hendrix, drums; Paul “DJ Unique” Howard, turntables (left group, 1992); and Keith Lofton, guitar.
Ivey formed band with Hendrix, Pittsburgh, PA, 1984; formed Basehead; released debut album, Play With Toys, Emigre Records, 1991; signed with Imago Records, 1992, and released Not in Kansas Anymore, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Imago Recording Company, 152 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
laid-back. I did the whole thing myself, and it’s still in the formative thing, and it was my first time in the studio, and stuff.”
Basehead shopped its tape to a number of labels—including the well-known rap/hip-hop purveyor Tommy Boy—but found that most record companies considered the group’s eclecticism commercially risky. Ivey settled at last on the small independent label Emigre; the label’s founder-president, Rudy Vanderlans, told Pulse! that he was drawn to the “incredibly honest and revealing sound” of the singing on Basehead’s recordings. He was also stunned by the business acumen displayed during contract negotiations by the normally reserved Ivey, who minored in business at Howard. Play With Toys cost about $4,000 to record—less than the amount spent by most bands on a single song—and was mastered by Ivey, who again defied conventional wisdom by insisting that as the maker of the music, he knew best how it should be mixed.
Play With Toys appeared with little promotional hype in 1991. The album dismantled stereotypes and skewered holy cows from beginning to end: “Intro” commenced with Ivey and company masquerading as a country-western group called Jethro and the Graham Crackers performing a lazy rendition of James Brown’s funk classic “Sex Machine.” The album also featured “Not Over You,” in which Ivey laments a doomed relationship and his friend attempts to console him by finding something upbeat on the radio—only to come across one heartbreak hit after another. “Ode to My Favorite Beer” is perhaps the direst drinking song of all time, and the album’s title track contemplated the fate of kids with access to hard drugs and guns. But Ivey leavened his languor and moodiness with considerable humor, much of it at his own expense.
Almost immediately, critics and a circle of fans created a buzz about Play With Toys. “Every once in a great while, a recording comes out of thin air, without the fanfare of hype, and simply blows our socks off,” raved New Music Report of the album, which it deemed “the find of the year.” Ted Friedman of Details noted, “Ivey’s fragile melodies and quavering vocals create a quiet sadness that’s never been heard in rap before; the result is one of the bleakest expressions of African-American angst since Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. Esteemed rock scribe Greil Marcus, writing for the Village Voice, detected something historic in Basehead’s experimentalism: “This is hip-hop wiping the rules of identity off the chalkboard and loading up a new program. For me, that’s the best that pop music can offer.”
In 1992 Basehead was signed by the more-major label Imago, which re-released Play With Toys that year. Ivey went on the road with Hendrix, guitarist Keith Lofton, bassist Bill Conway, and DJ Clarence “Citizen Cop” Greenwood, who replaced Paul “DJ Unique” Howard and quipped that he was the group’s token white. Basehead toured with rap pranksters the Beastie Boys and appeared on the second stage of the traveling Lollapalooza festival. Late in 1992 they played a series of European dates with alternative rappers the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Meanwhile, Ivey had returned to the studio, shouldering most of the work on the sophomore Basehead album himself; Hendrix played drums and the rest of the touring group made sporadic appearances.
The second record, Not in Kansas Anymore, featured a slightly more robust sound, an angrier and more politicized—if still stoned—singer-narrator, and tighter instrumentation. Overall, it appeared a more finished version of the approach taken on Play With Toys. Ivey noted in an interview with Request that he could’ve done a high-tech, ultra-produced recording but didn’t “because, one, everyone would expect me to do it, and two, I did it the way I did it the first time because I wanted to. Even though I did use a small studio, I could’ve made it slicker-sounding and used more effects. You try not to pay attention, but of course, you’re conscious that it can never be like the first album again. When that was done, nobody was watchin’, and nobody thought—or at least I didn’t think—it would get released the way it was. It was basically, like, ‘Well, you ain’t in Kansas anymore, Mike.’”
Kansas addressed racism bluntly in songs like “Brown Kisses Pt. One,” “Greener Pastures,” and “Brown Kisses Pt. Two,” collegiate pressures and relief from them on “I Need a Joint,” and the vicissitudes of romance in the quaintly titled “Do You Wanna F—(or What?).” As Eric Weisbard of Spin noted, “Ivey’s lyrics aren’t subtle at all,” but the subtlety lay elsewhere. “It’s his identity that’s complicated.” The song “Split Personality” seemed to validate this interpretation.
Dimitri Ehrlich of Pulse!, reviewing Not in Kansas Anymore, ventured, “This isn’t the kind of record that will greatly expand [Ivey’s] audience—there’s no catchy hooks or courtesy nods to commercialism—but the record proves that the low-key charm of his debut was no quirk. He can do it again, and he has.” Spin’s Weisbard lavished greater praise on the album: “Basehead never stops unfurling in its complexity and ability to hold your undivided attention for an album at a time. It has precious few peers.” Rolling Stone, for its part, found the record a true alternative to ubiquitous industry-approved alternative pop and, joining other astute music publications, hazarded, “Not in Kansas Anymore taps you, sometimes pinches you hard, asking you to question the fundamentals of musical genre, of where black people fit in besides on the R & B and rap charts.”
Of his band’s elusive sound, Ivey told Pulse! that his record confounds the trend in pop music toward “instant gratification,” adding, “I like things that are a little more subtle and complex. As a listener, I like records where you have to work a little harder to get it, because it’s more gratifying when you’ve put some effort into it.” Though “effort” usually occupies a fairly low place on the list of things record companies ask of consumers, Ivey has thus far remained content to follow his idiosyncratic muse. “If I tried to find a niche I might have more commercial success,” he admitted in an Imago press release. “But I’d prefer to be true to myself and have self-respect.”
Play With Toys (includes “Intro,” “Not Over You,” and “Ode to My Favorite Beer”), Emigre, 1991, Imago, 1992.
Not in Kansas Anymore (includes “Brown Kisses Pt. One,” “Greener Pastures,” “Brown Kisses Pt. Two,” “Do You Wanna F—[or What?],” and “Split Personality”), Imago, 1993.
Details, April 1992.
Interview, July 1992.
Musician, July 1992; May 1993.
New Music Report, June 28, 1991.
Option, September 1991.
Pulse!, July 1991; October 1991; April 1993; May 1993.
Request, April 1993.
Rolling Stone, May 13, 1993.
Seconds, November 1992.
Spin, April 1992; April 1993.
USA Today, July 8, 1992.
Village Voice, January 21, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Imago Recording Company press release, 1993.
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