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Newcleus, performing inside HAL's eyeball with an armless drummer


Monday, April 14, 2008

By Dave Tompkins

To view a slideshow of images that accompany this piece, click here

Jermaine Dupri stands on stage inside a dunce cap of smoking green lasers. White batting gloves, Thriller jacket, kind of midge fly.

His prompt will be "Sprach Zarathustra,” that sun-up rumble of impossible expectations forced upon early man, only to skip 4 million years into 2001: A Space Odyssey. (We’re an impatient species — RUN-DMC is headlining.) The pressure is deafening. Strauss’ man-up to Nietzsche has inflated pro wrestlers, hyped lawn mowers and led Chance the Gardener on his first stroll through the outside world — in morning traffic, even — an act no less remarkable than a flight to Jupiter that ended up in a purple state of consciousness where aliens got inside our heads and recorded themselves laughing at high speeds.

Dupri shrugs it all off. I’m just here to do the Michael Jackson.

He is but 12, trying to wiggle out of an invisible shirt.

We’re all of 1984 at the New York City Fresh Festival, sponsored by Swatch.

The horns strike their double bicep pose. Look at me! I’m a monolith! Dupri suddenly recalls seeing this piece of music on Electric Company. A crumbling mountain of a letter, maybe a word: A big fat "Huh?" This is neither the epoch nor the place, not with the timpani being pounded with an antelope shank. Dupri is too young for his memory. He nearly pops out of his gloves, dancing in the shadow of a flying Pleistocene femur that winked into a spaceship hijacked by an IBM who was “overprogrammed for mission enthusiasm," a sensitive lip-reader who said I can feel it three times before losing its mind, for good. For you. From dawn to doom, apesuit to apeshit. The crowd screams for the child.

Must…fight…urge…to do the Pee Wee Herman. Jermaine dislocates into a dry ice fog.

Zarathustra couldn’t have imagined that this little kid from Atlanta would one day convince other little kids in Atlanta to put their overalls on backwards. Then again, Dupri couldn’t have imagined he would one day be a millionaire starring in donut commercials and dating Janet Jackson when she was 42. At the Fresh Fest, his future is immediate, backstage and goofing off. He marvels at the RUNness of RUN. He bounces off the Fat Boys. He can’t wait to see Whodini do “Freaks Come Out At Night.”

Back onstage, more green lasers. A guy in a grandpa mask and sequins, spinning on his baldspot. I’m afraid, Dave. Then Newcleus. My mind is going. Nine people in silver and black. I can feel it. Half Tut, half robo-strut. There is no question about it. They break into a three bear formation. I can feel it. The dancers, the chorus, the three guys in charge of the porridge. I can feel it.

So long, roof.

Newcleus begins with “Computer Age,” a song concerned less with IBM than it was with being too lazy to do anything about it — the threat of being eaten alive by one’s EZ chair. (Now that's futuristic!) A man in a bowler thumbs his bass. He sings in a bear profundo, nearly humming, so low he changed his name from Bob Crafton to Chili B. To his left, Cozmo D (Maurice Cenak) plays keyboards, some glazed twilight, his voice refrigerated by Vocoder. “Are they under our control or what?” Sounds like rocket trolls are nuts, at least from where I’m freaking out at age 15. Yeah, yeah, we know, we know. The throttle detaches and the voice spirals out of control: “Now computing” or “Not computing” — hard to say. Might not matter.

Newcleus is best known for “Jam On Revenge” (the first rap song to say “dingbat”) and “Jam On It” (the first rap song to say “bozack”). Most assumed they were an Ewok front, not a crew of disco heads from Brooklyn. “Wikki, wikki” was their pitch-freak currency. Thus sprach the munchkins.

More hairy than furry, “Computer Age” felt deeper in register, standing out in an Electro genre that seemed to be cloning itself silly. In 1984, when the single appeared in record stores for $3.99, the US Census Bureau decided to include robots in its annual domestic headcount. In schools, teachers denounced popping and locking as a behavioral disorder — some unknown species of psychomotor agitation, the stuff of Ritalin and vibrating lunch trays. On the job, Video Terminal Displays (VDTs) were believed to cause birth defects. Though the bit-rate’s changed since then and the concerns of “Computer Age” may seem quaint, pushing buttons and emailing missiles to satellites will never run out of fear.

Cozmo got over it. Now he performs with a laptop and sends me YouTube clips of Devo. Every last bit of the Newcleus catalog is available online, including a drunk driving song credited to "Tuga." Since the release of "Computer Age," Cozmo has been stashing expired technology in his South Brooklyn apartment, salvaging clunkers from the sidewalks and rebuilding them.

I visited him July of 2001, on one of those days flattened by the sun, when birds flew crooked and it was too hot to act right. Cozmo answered the door in his underwear. “I hope you don’t mind I’m in my drawers — it’s hot as shit down here.” (Less crazy than practical, and too busy to worry about either.) We ducked into a basement full of junked monitors and keyboards, dead memory floor to ceiling.

"Computer Age — that turned me into a hypocrite. Now I build computers." He laughed, referring to his song as “some good ole watch-the-fuck-out futuristic shit.” We talked about the art of borrowing basslines from Yaz and making records for a racketeer who may or may not be dead.

And that “wikki,” his crew of imaginary balloon-tokers.

A rival DJ once taunted them: “Can you wikki-wikki?” (Cozmo makes scratching motion with hands.) “Do you have the wikki-wikki?” Cozmo said no, they did not have any wikki-wikki. Then Newcleus sped up their voices (slowed the tape), became Wikki Men and “Jam On Revenge” went gold.

When performing the song at the Fresh Fest, Cozmo assigned the squeak chorus to their dancers, then yet to crack puberty. When I asked about how they took the stage, everything went Devo. "Oh, we came out there and did the Devo shit. We'd do the Devo dance, step out of the fog and make our way to our stations."

To be sure, Cozmo did the Devo dance, in his basement. No lasers, no Thriller jacket, no shirt. Just a guy in his drawers, trying to build a Superbrain on a summer day. Are we not men without air conditioners? Behind him, a small electric fan shook its head slowly, blue petals humming, not really believing any of it.


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