It is tempting to review Tim Fite's 2006 release, "Over the Counter Culture," without providing any background information about the album or artist. In some sense, the album spawned from nothing; providing context risks jeopardizing its bizarre mystique. Fite independently released "Counter Culture" on his personal website. It emerged from relative obscurity, is packed to the brim with unrecognizable samples, and is a strange concoction of experimental spoken word and off-kilter political polemics. OTCC does not seem to pay tribute to any hip-hop era, region, genre or tradition. It is rather a product of Fite's atypical mind. Perhaps one should simply appreciate the LP as a spewing of strange, albeit somewhat self-indulgent, brilliance that need not be further explained, instead of rooting "Counter Culture" in some specific moment or inspiration.
The album's opening track, "Place Your Bets," supports this sentiment. This delightfully morose free verse over an eerie xylophone riff and quiet drum roll immediately sets "Counter Culture" on an odd course. "Tell me true," Tim asks "can you ever win back the limb you lose, or do you just lose your limbs? Again and again until your life lies limbless?" He then concludes: "There's limits to how much independence you can give an appendage/before the end of the hand is definitive/That's why this tale is regenerative." This dark creativity almost seems best left unexplained.
Still, the release can neither be entirely appreciated nor understood in a vacuum. "Over the Counter Culture" is TF's third solo release, following his 2004 debut, "Two Minute Blues," and 2005's "Gone ain't Gone." He has since put out 2008's critically acclaimed "Fair ain't Fair," as well as two Holloween rap albums, "It's Only Ketchup" and "Ding Dong DITCH," each available on his website for one day only. This year's sentimental Valentine's Day EP, "Change of Heart," can also be downloaded for free on timfite.com. Needless to say, this guy has an unpredictable musical temperament. Only intermittently a rapper, he has dabbled in country, indie, and folk.
"Counter Culture" is his only major solo hip-hop album, although he recorded the successful rap album. "Blues," "Gone," and "Fair" can best be described as experimental folk LPs, not comparable to anything even the most genre-bending rappers have released. Still, there is continuity in this freak-folk-b-boy's works. Indeed, the instrumentation on each album remains relatively consistent – comprised of unknown samples which our rapper-producer excavated from the bottom of the dollar-bin. Thus, Fite did not create something from nothing with "Over the Counter Culture" but, rather, reincarnated dead music into something completely new.
It is, moreover, relevant that Tim made "Over the Counter Culture" available on the internet for free, before Radiohead did the same with "In Rainbows," helping to pioneer this recent trend in music distribution. When asked on National Public Radio about his motivations for doing so, this crate digger stated that it would have been hypocritical to use traditional markets to distribute an album so critical of capitalism and corporate greed. Indeed, the record constantly critiques what Fite considers to be our perverse commercial culture. The strength of his approach is that, instead of merely engaging in Dead Prez-ish indignations, he tends to approach the subject matter through satire and subtle irony. On the title track, our genre-bender rails against the pharmaceutical industry by complaining, from the perspective of an illegal drug user, that he has more fun taking recreational drugs than prescription drugs. On "It's All Right Here," Fite, over appropriately hokey chamber-fuzz, sarcastically celebrates his ability to hang out all day in Walmart's parking lot because everything he needs is "right inside."
"I've Been Shot," a disturbingly on-point critique of commercial rap, is TF at his ironic best. Over a dissonantly cheery and childish guitar riff, he advises up-and-coming rappers that the key to success in the rap game is being shot over and over again. He brags that "my exit wounds make record exec goons swoon/shit, I've been shot so many times the bullets had to make room." The free release of the album thus serves as an active critique of the market-focused world he dismays throughout "Counter Culture." Otherwise stated, the man is putting his money where his mouth is.
To discuss the record in the proper historical context, it is worth noting that it was released during the George W. presidency. OTCC is packed with bone-dry, highly-critical political humor. The most specifically targeted masked polemic, "Camouflage," protesting Americans' almost trendy initial pro-war stance, features Fite playing an advertiser of military garb. Speaking as a patron of camouflage, the role-playing rapper asks, "Can I get bag for this?" He answers himself: "Body bag! Body, body, body bag!" He then advertises that camouflage "looks good with everything, even capitalist, colonial commemorative pinky rings." This understated, dark humor serves as a more poignant critique of Operation Iraqi Freedom than the rants and raves of the war's most vocal celebrity critics.
Still, sometimes Fite's heady conceptual dedication to corporate protest gets in the way. Of the fifteen tracks, only nine can be truly described as "songs." The other six are bizarre interludes which seek to mock consumerism and demonstrate the absurdity of commercialized music. In the first and funniest of these inserts, "Bacon," Fite complains that "the package says this is made with real bacon. This doesn't taste like real bacon," followed by a post-punchline electric guitar outro. The bit is fifteen seconds, short and sweet. The additional interludes, which tend to go on too long, involve: our host using broken-record effects to introduce the album as a vaudeville act ("Good Evening"), an aimless two minute lecture by an anonymous female MC ("Oh Well"), and Tim repetitively questioning a group of children about their favorite rapper ("Favorite Rapper").
"Take us Out Mase," the most disruptive non-song, jeers commercial rap DJs by sampling a slowed down caricature of a radio station promo over bleepy static. His placing this track near the LP's close seems to demonstrate that, by the end of the record, TF had forgotten he was making an album for people to listen to and entirely succumbed to self-indulgence. The track is so profoundly unpleasant that I cannot listen to it long enough to pick up its apparent message.
The impact of these distractions, however, should not be overstated. The actual music on "Over the Counter Culture" is so fascinating that these breaks do not too strongly detract from its overall intrigue. Tim has accomplished a genuine feat: he has made a truly bizarre, intellectual record, which is still catchy enough to enjoy as background music. It is impossible to predict what his next project will be, but if Fite unexpectedly returns to hip-hop, we will likely be in for a strange treat.
Music Vibes: 6.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: August 25, 2009