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December 12, 2003

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Trend-surfing art punks looking for the newest in punky dance music (The Rapture, !!!, Radio 4, Watchers, Erase Errata) may be surprised at Jade Tree Records’ latest offering, Cex. The artist could be the great White hope, the hip-hop scene’s offering to counter the tri-coastal agit-prop dance music axis (New York, Chicago, Bay Area), but he does little to entice the hordes. A little mystique goes a long way in this business, but Cex disagrees.

“A lot of artists pretend they don’t want to be noticed but really want to feed illusion and mystery to your imagination until it shits out a version of themselves that is worlds better than what they really are,” Cex said, on his Web site. This young man prefers to let his laptop do the talking. And the scratching. And the slurping.

On his new EP, Maryland Mansions, his first release on Jade Tree, Cex attempts to combine intelligent dance music (IDM) with his own brand of hip-hop sturm und drang, and comes off, thankfully, more like hip-hop that digs indie rock, than wanna-beat hipster posturing.

Some call Cex, nee Rjyan Kidwell, IDM but Cex’s pastiche interludes resemble recent Fugazi instrumentals or Eno’s mid-70s smoothscapes more than Aphex Twin. As his Web site says, he is “Cex, #1 Entertainer”; the concept is key – Cex is no Marshall Mathers, but he communicates the vast scope of his catalog and his offhand rhyme patter by fleshing out his beats with skronky synths and arch laptop collage to prove that he’s no Caucasian dilettante. Talk about street cred: how many other hip-hop artists are (1) signed to the record label that gave the world Lifetime and the Eggs and (2) have parodied Bowie’s “Low” for an LP cover? None, but who owns both The Sugarhill Records Story and the Jade Tree 5 collection anyway?

On “Kill Me” and “The Strong Suit,” Cex emerges from the shadow of the techno doppelganger that clouds most of the EP to step out front and drop rhymes. The problem is, many hip-hop listeners trying to push their tastes past El P and MC Paul Barman will lack the patience to take Ryan’s experimentalist chutzpah at face value, even though he’s just as confrontational as the arrhythmic slice-and-dice beats of his more “hip-hop” contemporaries. It’s hard to resist the charm or psychoanalytic value of a guy who raps about dreaming he went to work in his father’s clothes, but DJs might need to sneak Maryland Mansions on the decks to get anyone other than indie stalwarts to bring the love. Darkwave-influenced tracks like “Stop Eating,” although catchy, may cause trainwrecks of Amtrak proportions among uninformed audiences. That’s the other problem with Cex: nobody likes to shake their ass on the floor if they don’t get the joke.

Cex’s website boasts Ryan’s mediocre developmental progress record from the Weems Creek Nursery School, a possible testament to his mercurial artistic growth since spring ’86. Yes, Cex attended pre-school in the same year that the Beastie Boys toured Europe with Madonna. Ryan, a prolific blogger, established the site to have a direct link with fans. He even offers to help devotees locate hard-to-find releases, as he’s worked with six indie labels.

Although fan-friendly and accessible, Cex makes no bones about the fact that he’s ready to represent like the strident hardcore punks he currently shares a label with. True artists are at home in any demographic, but in Cex’s game, isn’t it all about the street cred? Let this one play out on the dance floor.

Rocket Fuel

Adam Metz