Gold Chains' bid for the title of world's hottest MC might seem a little ambitious for a guy who just put out his first release, a mere five-song EP, on the small Orthlorng Musork label. The San Francisco artist hasn't played out much either, often preferring the confines of his Mission District studio to a live setting. But then again, few artists can say they've been written up in Spin (in an article on the local laptop techno scene) before their first release is out, and fewer still can cop to having such a wide range of fans as Gold Chains. Everyone from hip hop lovers to techno heads to indie rockers seems to dig his peculiar hybrid of sounds -- technoholic hip hop fueled by the highly combustible energy of punk rock.
"[Gold Chains'] music is pretty bizarre, but at the same time it's familiar and unpretentious," explains avant-electronica artist Joshua "Kit" Clayton, head of Orthlorng Musork. "It's got this punk vibe, and that energy catches on."
Clayton knows how addictive Chains' energy can be: He spent the duration of the pre-Halloween house party dancing nude atop the PA, a victim of the music's visceral appeal. When Gold Chains crosses the charged wires of punk and hip hop, even the most jaded listener becomes transformed into a punk mosh-piteer.
Meet Topher LaFata, a mild-mannered San Francisco computer programmer. He spends his days carefully tweaking inventory programs for his corporate employer, taking occasional smoke breaks and reading programming journals. With his soft-spoken demeanor and penchant for computer-speak, LaFata is an unlikely source for crazed sound and filthy lyrics.
But his Gold Chains persona is less an alter ego than a product of LaFata's early childhood. As a kid, LaFata was first drawn to music through the energy and volume of punk. "When I heard [New Jersey hardcore band] the Misfits and the way they screamed and swore, it really spoke to me," LaFata says during an interview in his apartment studio. "Once I heard that, I knew I had to learn to play guitar."
At age 12, LaFata began banging out bar chords on a birthday axe, imitating the chugging sounds emanating from his boombox. Within a few months, LaFata was singing and playing for the Establishment, a pre-adolescent Joy Division cover band for which his little brother drummed. A few years later, when he reached high school, LaFata took to experimenting with a four-track in his parents' Pennsylvania basement, looping drumbeats underneath his flailing guitar riffs and rap-style vocals.
Later, as a neuroscience major at Connecticut's Trinity College, LaFata tried his hand at more elaborate electronica pieces, while continuing to play guitar on the side. In 1997, after graduation and a job at an East Coast genetics lab, LaFata moved to San Francisco to be closer to his music-obsessed friends, many of whom had become fixtures on the local scene. Before long, he was playing guitar with longtime buddy Chris Dixon in Hot Fucking Jets, an experimental noise-rock outfit on Dial Records. (LaFata describes the band as "kind of a punk rock version of Tindersticks.")
Upon witnessing the community of parties and raves within the Bay Area electronica scene, LaFata decided to resurrect his old raplike style. "I just loved the big sound systems and the people dancing, so I took the attitude and energy of punk rock and filtered it into beats to play at these parties," he says.
But unlike the halfhearted spoofiness that laces the work of other rockers-cum-hip-hoppers, LaFata crafts songs that are decidedly unironic. "There's a thin line between playful and Weird Al Yankovic. I think of [the new Gold Chains EP] as punk -- just punk with that "whatever' attitude," he says. To LaFata, music is about sound and energy, not faddish scenesterism. "I'm all about the community vibe, partying, and the appreciation of pretty girls," says LaFata. "I have a great community of friends and I'm celebrating that with Gold Chains' music."
For his Orthlorng Musork debut, LaFata enlisted the production help of his pal Kit Clayton. "We spent a lot of time listening to all the songs and making sure that at any given moment the listener never gets bored," LaFata explains. "There's a lot going on in the background because we had to listen to it so many times."
Throughout the record, on numbers like "The Wonderful Girls of Hypno" and "No. 1 Face in Hip Hop," LaFata layered Farfisa organ, live drums, and guitar parts over his programmed beats. He also invited his friends to contribute: Abigail Martin added soulful background vocals to two tunes, DJ Bre-ad scratched on the funky "Back in the Day," and Chris Dixon played guitar and bass on "Rock the Parti," an organ-driven number built around a Stereolab sample. The final result is a seductive confluence of genres -- a rocked-up version of hip hop that doesn't scream crossover -- held together by LaFata's brambly vocals and cheeky, globe-trotting lyrics.
LaFata's wordplay deals almost entirely with having fun, which he feels is the foolproof antidote to the world's ills. "I read the news a lot," he says when asked about the global focus of his lyrics. "This sounds really cheesy, but I'm really sensitive to where humanity is going. I have visions of clean [political] lines and happy people and dance parties."
On "Rock the Parti," LaFata offers to bring his brand of frivolity to those in need: "Next stop/ We move right down to Chechnya/ Trade drum machines for guns/ So the kids can have more fun." While LaFata may not have the tightest grip on international peace-keeping policies, his husky delivery and addictive beats may hold the cure to some of life's anxieties.
Back home in his bedroom studio, LaFata tries to explain what drives a former punk rocker to make righteous rap music. "It's all I think about: the beats, the dancing, the sound-system psychedelia. It's just the world I live in," says LaFata, punctuating his response with a few thundering riffs from his guitar.