Earlier this week, Splendor & Misery—the sophomore album by experimental L.A. rap group clipping.—was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. The Hugo is the highest prize in science fiction/fantasy, granted annually to the genres’ best literature, cinema, television, comics, and visual art. But the awards have never been particularly receptive to music. The last time a musical album was recognized by the Hugos was 1971, when Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire was nominated. The Jefferson Airplane guitarist’s solo debut grandly envisioned a countercultural exodus to outer space, helping set the stage for many more sci-fi concept albums to come, starting with prog-rock’s explosion.
The storyline that winds through Splendor & Misery is just as political as Kantner’s. Set in a dystopian future, the LP revolves around a mutineer among a starship’s slave population, who falls in love with the ship’s computer. This Afrofuturist narrative, as rapped by Daveed Diggs, is matched by a dissonant yet sympathetic soundscape from producers William Huston and Jonathan Snipes—one that evokes the isolation and complicated passion of the premise. Visually, this arc is represented in Huston’s cover art: a spaceman with his pressure suit in tatters, revealing bare feet. “It’s a reference to how runaway slaves have been depicted in the U.S. in newspaper announcements and paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” Hutson says.
Diggs is no stranger to awards, having snagged both a Grammy and a Tony for his role in Hamilton, but clipping.’s Hugo nomination is just as profound. It’s the crossing of a barrier that’s been in place for 46 years, one that’s kept countless speculative songwriters—from George Clinton to Janelle Monaé—from being recognized as legitimate creators within the genre alongside authors and filmmakers. “I’ve followed the Hugos pretty carefully my whole life,” Hutson says. “I just never thought my own work would cross over there.”
Pitchfork: What’s your background in science fiction and fantasy?
William Hutson: All three of us have consumed science fiction for our whole lives. When I was a child, reading Tolkien and things like that were always important. My mom read a lot of science fiction, and she would just pile stuff up for me. Even when I was in fourth grade, she was like, “Oh, this is pretty good, you should read [Larry Niven’s] Ringworld. You should read [William Gibson’s] Neuromancer.” Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was huge for me. I became really obsessed around college with all that late-’60s, early-’70s New Wave of science fiction stuff. So I started to connect my own personal politics to the types of fantasy I was reading, the sort of left politics made into science fiction.
I was also a huge “Star Trek” fan. What I loved about “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was that it’s the only mainstream piece of science fiction that imagines, in the future, not only technology getting better, but humans getting better. I was like, “This is exactly what my politics are.”
How did science fiction start to shape clipping.’s music, particularly Splendor & Misery?
With the success of the band, it became our jobs, so we wanted more of ourselves in the project. Back when clipping. was just this weird side project that the three of us did, it was this very limited experiment. We needed to expand things. We needed to start talking about what actually mattered to us.
Our studio is in Jonathan’s basement, and Jonathan has this massive modular synthesizer that he’s been putting together for the past ten years. Modular synthesizers have this association with prog, which was always kind of science-fiction-y. They even look like a spaceship, and the sounds they make have been so association with goofy, retro visions of the future. In clipping., we’d always avoided the types of sounds that are traditionally associated with modular synthesizers, all those sweeping laser sounds. But Jonathan said, “I actually want to use this thing for what it’s for, just once.” But we need to frame it in a way that’s not cheesy somehow.
We’d made a song on our first album [2014’s CLPPNG] called “Taking Off” that lyrically had something to do with science fiction metaphors. We started to imagine that we could frame our next album as a more science-fiction-themed project. We started making beats. Jonathan and I would patch up the synthesizer and record 15 minutes of us turning knobs, then we’d edit it into something more structured.
Before Daveed started writing the lyrics, we decided we wanted a through-narrative to the songs. I got really into this idea of, “What if the Civil War had gone a different way? What if these struggles were projected onto a sci-fi universe? What if the history of slave songs and folk ballads had continued on into the future?” I wrote basically a short story that I gave to Daveed, then Daveed wrote the lyrics. His words changed everything—he added the love story between the computer AI and the mutinous survivor.
There’s been no shortage of great sci-fi albums since Paul Kantner’s 1971 Hugo nomination. Why do you think it’s taken so long for music to be recognized as a valid medium for science fiction and fantasy?
I have absolutely no idea what the science-fiction literary community’s relationship, as a whole, to music might be. But I think it has more to do with the indifference of the music industry to the sci-fi community. I made it very clear on social media that this is a world I want to be a part of, that the Hugos were important to me. I reached out to Hugo voters. I think Afrika Bambaataa, who totally deserved a Hugo, could easily have been nominated for one, if there’d been Twitter back then, and if people had really pushed for it.
We haven’t invented anything. Since the late ’60s, there have been many science fiction albums that have been narratively driven. Why the hell wasn’t Kilroy Was Here by Styx nominated for a Hugo? But the Hugos have said for a very long time that science fiction doesn’t belong to just one type of media. They are allowing for all this other stuff.
You’re up against “Doctor Who” and “Game of Thrones.” Would you want to see a separate Hugo category for music, so that musicians aren’t competing with these huge TV shows?
I don’t know if this is a selfish way to answer this, but not really. There are tons of science fiction albums being released, but I don’t think there are enough great ones to justify nominating five per year. Once every handful of years, a special award could go to a really outstanding science-fiction album. I’m not saying we are that, at all. But maybe sort of an honorary thing would be good—the science fiction community’s gesture toward a work in a medium they don’t necessarily cover very well.
I’m going to sound like an ******* now, but this is what happens if there’s a Hugo category just for music: every year the nominees are just five power-metal albums set in Tolkien-esque, high-fantasy worlds, with greased-up barbarians on the cover riding dragons? [laughs] I would love for there to be more science fiction music that attempts to be literary on a different scale.
The Hugo Awards ceremony, in Helsinki this August, is basically the sci-fi equivalent of the Oscars. Are you guys planning on attending?
Um, definitely two of us will be there. The other one, it depends on his schedule now that he’s a big star and all that ****. [laughs] The goal is to do a couple shows in Finland and Norway this summer, just to get us there. That’s looking less and less likely, but still, at least two of us will be there. Because **** all that, I’m not missing this. We’re never going to get nominated for this again. Our next album will not be science fiction—actually, I shouldn’t say that, because it’s not done—but there’s no way it’ll happen again. Even though there’s no way we’re going to win against “Game of Thrones” or “Doctor Who,” I want to be there. If for no other reason, I would happily, awkwardly, sheepishly approach my favorite authors and tell them what their books mean to me.
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