Beans strolls into his café of choice in his Brooklyn neighborhood, iPod earpiece dangling from his ears. He absentmindedly fingers a necklace bearing his name as graffiti script glints through the window's morning sunlight. Easing into a corner seat, the producer, MC and poet reaches across the table after spying his fundamental piece of gear: the Sony M-560V Microcassette Recorder set to tape the interview session.
“This is what I use to write my songs on,” Beans says. Holding the recorder close to his mouth, he explains how he uses the device to flesh out his creative inklings — first, he hums a melody that he will later play by ear. “I don't have formal training,” Beans says. “I write keyboard lines on this thing.” He sets down the recorder, taking off his dark glasses, and tugs on his full, bushy beard, looking the part of the abstract experimental lyricist.
Beans' second solo album, Shock City Maverick (Warp, 2004), is a creative hip-hop collection infused with electronic effects and clever wordplay. “I know some tracks are meant to be heard out at the club, and some are more introspective,” he says. Regardless of the setting, Beans conquers genres with the ease of a triathlete switching from the pool to the cycle. Initially a DJ coming out of suburban White Plains, N.Y., he stumbled upon the poetry scene, landing a spot in the Brooklyn Boom Poet collective. And with hip-hop a foothold, he found his voice as an MC with the Anti-Pop Consortium, a trio that dropped a handful of releases — on labels including Warp and 75 Ark — during five years dating back to 1997.
Inspired by the likes of his favorite jazzman, Sun Ra, Beans veered off into free jazz and a collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp. On the paradoxical album Tomorrow Right Now (Warp, 2003), he came into his own as a solo artist, extracting Anti-Pop — style experimental elements with an approach that was easier on the ears. The follow-up EP, Now, Soon, Someday (Warp, 2003), brought more of the same theme — lyrics broadcast over minimal beats and Beans acting interchangeably as wordsmith and beatsmith, with El-P and Prefuse 73 getting in the mix.
Beans prides himself on a style that skates across the board of hip-hop and electronic. “I've always found that electronic sounds are a part of hip-hop,” he says. “I would like to say if [my style] was consistent, I would be more stagnant. If you're making good music, nothing is formatted.” To Beans, good music requires movement, songs that go somewhere rather than sticking with monotony.
Helping his music make that journey is his staple studio piece, the Casio RZ-1 drum machine, which has been with him through thick and thin. “I like the sound of it; it's old-school,” he says. “It's easy to use.” He bangs out beats based on feelings and his taped audio notes. After programming the meat of the drums, he brings Propellerhead Reason 1.0 software into the equation, adding effects with his Roland SH-101 synth.
The finished songs are rooted in simplicity, with creative meanderings. In addition to abstract backdrops, Beans' tracks are full of astute lyrical references. “I have four notebooks,” he says. “I do a rough draft and write revisions. I write until I get it to the point that I am satisfied.”
The album's first single, “Down by Law,” is an all-out party track composed partially on his Fostex 4-track recorder (in addition to Digidesign Pro Tools). Following are “Paper Cut,” which Beans calls a “hip-house homage,” and “Your Dead, Let's Disco,” which he created with a Korg Electribe EA-1 and Kaoss Pad. “It's a song with no choruses and straight rhythms,” he says.
Given his genre-skipping approach, Beans has long been a popular guest on tours with everyone from Radiohead to Tortoise to Missy Elliott. This fall, he's taking his music from behind the board to the mic in classic Beans style, touring with a New York — based rock outfit, Kudu. “As long as it's heard, that's the most important thing,” he says.