The Rig 1 recording just seemed to come out of nowhere about a week ago, as did the Rig 1 CD release show slated for this Friday night (Halloween) at Slowdown. Ian McElroy is living in New York these days, specifically Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he says he’s making a living as a prop assistant for fashion shoots. It’s a hustle, but he says it pays the bills. As mentioned below, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Mars Black, another Team Love MC, who went on the road opening for a Conor Oberst project. Will that valuable opening slot translate to new fans and CD sales? Time will tell. But one thing’s for certain, McElroy has his work cut out for him. I’m assuming Conor will be playing on stages as big or bigger than the one he performed on at The Anchor Inn last month. That’s a lot of space to fill for one guy with a microphone (backed by two musicians). The only way Rig 1 is going to work on such a large stage is if McElroy can get the crowd “into” his set and his music — a challenge for even the most seasoned MCs.
Column 196: Rig 1 Rising
The return of Team Rigge.
These days, Ian McElroy’s hip-hop crew goes by the name Rig 1. It used to be called Team Rigge, the secret endeavor of Omaha’s indie rock elite, a project that remained secret to everyone but the few in on the joke.
It all began almost 10 years ago with McElroy and a handful of Creighton Prep juniors that included his cousin Conor Oberst. “We used to clean the Rigge Science Center,” McElroy told me from somewhere in Brooklyn. “We were really bad workers. Our first raps were about cleaning the halls.”
Rigge became a sort of side project, whose first recording was heard as a pretrack on Criteria’s 2003 debut. The only way to find it was by dropping the CD in the player and hitting the “rewind” button to discover — voila! — something preceded the first track. At the time, Oberst lived next door to Criteria’s Stephen Pedersen in a small house just north of Dundee. The two shared recording equipment along with a copy of Pro Tools. “That (recording) was me and Conor, and the girl was Jenny Lewis,” McElroy said. “Conor was the last verse; the first two are me.”
Oberst and McElroy had already emerged in an above-ground rock project called Desaparecidos. But quietly and in spare time, Rigge lived on with a crew that included everyone from fellow Desa member Denver Dalley, Little Brazil’s Dan Maxwell, Son Ambulance’s Joe Knapp and The Faint’s Clark Baechle.
It was with Baechle that Team Rigge appeared on stage for a one-off gig opening for Broken Spindles Oct. 24, 2003, at Sokol Underground. The two-man crew’s rapping over prerecorded tracks was stiff, suburban and downright goofy, with McElroy telling the crowd, “You can bob your heads to the beat if you want to.” A few did.
McElroy and Baechle ended up doing some recording, which showed up as mp3 files on the just-launched Team Love website in 2004. And then Rigge disappeared. Baechle became too busy with The Faint, and the duo parted ways.
McElroy said his life also got too crowded for Team Rigge. “I would still mess around with songs and stuff on my own in the basement,” he said. “And then I just kind of started realizing, ‘If you’re going to do this, do it now.'”
So a couple years ago, McElroy found new collaborators including Mike Bloom, a.k.a. Caveman, who played in The Elected and Rilo Kiley; a guy called Nez Beat, and finally, Andy Lemaster, the Athens, Georgia, wunderkind whose projects include Now It’s Overhead.
“I’ve known Andy for over 10 years,” McElroy said. “He would be in town and I got to hang out with him. I trusted his ear and he told me he wanted to do a hip-hop project.”
Though A.J. and Mike Mogis worked on the recording, it was Lemaster who put his signature production on Tree Line West of the Periodic, the 10-track debut released Oct. 7 on Team Love Records — credited not to Team Rigge, but to Rig 1.
With its dense production, the CD sounds atmospheric, layered in cinematic drama. McElroy’s flow is urgent and nearly rhythmless, like someone being chased by the cops trying to leave a desperate message on an answering machine before the noose drops over his head. There is rhyme, there is alliteration, there is emphasis on certain words that hit atop the beat. But unlike, say, Beastie Boys or Eminem, McElroy’s style doesn’t swing as much as spit. Birmingham MC The Streets comes to mind in comparison, a guy known for his stilted, sometimes-funny rhymes laced in British brogue. But while The Streets’ lyrics deal with everyday class struggles in bonny ol’ England, McElroy’s messages are more cryptic, even quasi-spiritual.
Take “Dirty Little Sica” with its free-verse opening lines, “The filthy glittering doubling of helixes / The crossbred orbits marriage among flesh fluids,” and then add the chorus, “You slimy, grimy, dirty little sica / You scum-ridden, soiled, no-good piece-a / Should have had a shower seven times over / Unzip the epidermis, I’m out of my body…” The last line floats away in a ghostly echo.
Sica? I hit Wikipedia first. Maybe it was Latin for “whore” or “thief;” maybe it was a street term. The answer was not so sinister. “I had this car, this Corsica, it became the ‘sica,” McElroy said. “It was a totally terrible car.” The “out of my body” line has to do with getting into a zone. “It can be like writing or partying or hitting on a girl or having a really intense conversation with one of your bro’s.”
As for the rest of the translation, you’re on your own. America will get a chance to decipher Rig 1 when it opens a 17-date tour for Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band starting Nov. 5 in Boston. The locals point enviously to McElroy’s Oberst connection as the reason behind any success. McElroy responds this way: “That kid has been my best friend forever. He’s a huge influence, regardless of the music thing. He didn’t financially help me with the record at all. I asked him to put it out on his label, but it’s been my thing. He didn’t write my rhymes for me. It stands alone.”
The bottom line: Oberst won’t be on stage with him when he performs on tour or this Friday at The Slowdown. But McElroy won’t be by himself. He’ll be joined by Dustin Bushon a.k.a. Trust (and locally a.k.a. Fathr^) on guitar and backing vocals, and Retisonic’s Jimmy Kimball a.k.a. Jimmy Utah on bass. Unlike that ancient Sokol gig, McElroy knows just standing there and rapping won’t cut it.
“I’m not nervous about it,” he said. “I just want the crowd to get into it and have a good vibe on stage. That’s the goal.”
Tonight at The Slowdown Jr. it’s Canadian indie folk combo The Acorn. The band just returned from a UK tour with Akron/Family and are on the first leg of a cross-country US jaunt before they join up with Calexico (who are coming to Slowdown Nov. 23. No idea if The Acorn will still be with them). With Ohbijou & Shaky Hands. $8, 9 p.m.
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