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Cex Education 

Rjyan Kidwell enters the school of hard rocks, leaving his electronica stardom behind

Wednesday, Apr 9 2003
Rjyan Kidwell knew about Cex way before any of his friends did. While still in high school, he took on the moniker and self-released his first album, Cells. (Cex Cells, get it? Ha ha.) The CD reached the ears of Oakland's Miguel Depedro, better known as experimental-electronica Wunderkind Kid606, and the two artists became fast friends. With some moral and logistical support from Kidwell, Depedro founded the Tigerbeat6 label, and soon, although neither of them was old enough to vote, they were touring the world, appearing in magazines like The Wire and Spin, and being called the poster children for the "intelligent dance music" (IDM) genre.

Characterized by its tendencies to take conventional forms of dance music -- house, drum 'n' bass, techno -- and eviscerate them with noisy glitches, damaged beats, and a caustic sense of humor, IDM was to popular electronic-music what punk was to rock 'n' roll. Kidwell -- along with other artists like Lesser, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher -- rode this wave of revolt against predictable rhythms and prepackaged arpeggios. Because he was a mere 18 years old in 2000, he was considered something of a prodigy, expected to do great things in the world of thinking fellers' electronica.

But not long after the release of his 2000 LP Role Model, Kidwell grew dissatisfied with IDM's static mannerisms. With increasing frequency during live shows, he'd come out from behind his laptop and write on his body, strip down to his underwear, and jump into the audience. Soon he was rapping over simpler beats and adding long, confessional monologues in between songs, putting more distance between himself and his anonymous-nerd persona.

When Kidwell's Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed came out in September of last year, it was the final nail in the coffin. Gone were the melodic, introverted glitches of Role Model, replaced by full-fledged hip hop tracks in which Kidwell rapped about bike riding and "Molotov dodge balls."

His brand-new CD -- Being Ridden, which he finished after he moved to Oakland from Baltimore three months ago -- is even more of a departure. Easily his most complex work to date, the album is comprised of 40 minutes of personal lyrics, indie rock guitars, industrial-strength breaks, and electronic beeps that buzz around the songs like mosquitoes. As hip hop, the record is a letdown; as IDM, it's unrecognizable. So why then do kids continue to turn out in droves to Cex's shows? What exactly do they see in a 21-year-old kid who can't rap, can't sing, and can't even decide who the hell he is?

Kidwell's new place of residence is a turquoise, '50s-style home built on a hill looking down on West Oakland. When he answers the door, he is wearing wire-framed glasses and a tight blue T-shirt that reads "Real Men Watch Dynasty." Standing over 6 feet tall, he is rail thin and his bleached-blond hair is perfectly messed up. There is no doubt about it: Kidwell is a nerd, albeit a sexy nerd.

Born in Annapolis, Md., and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, Kidwell enjoyed an upbringing filled with all the comforts afforded the upper middle class. He got decent grades, experimented with drugs every now and then, and rarely wanted for anything. In other words, he couldn't have been more of a typical suburban white boy if he tried. This struggle -- or lack thereof -- is at the center of his music.

"It's funny because even a dude that's kind of complicated like Eminem, he's still got tangible problems," says Kidwell. "His mom was fucked up, he was poor as shit when he grew up, and he was the only white guy rapping. Those were actual conflicts. And I don't have actual conflicts. But neither does the majority of the people walking around, so what the fuck are we gonna do?"

At first, Kidwell did what every other antsy adolescent does when searching for an outlet: He taught himself to play guitar and started a few bands he describes as "screamo metal." But as each group crumbled for the various reasons that groups crumble -- personality conflicts, creative differences, etc. -- he got sick of the wasted effort and decided to go it alone.

As a freshman in high school, he holed up in his parents' basement and experimented with an old computer, with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Vol. 2 as a blueprint. Founding his own Underscore label, he released the aforementioned Cells LP in 1998 and was sucked into America's underground IDM scene. Before long he was toting his laptop across the country with Kid606 and Lexaunculpt on the Soundboy Yakuza Tour.

But Kidwell seemed disenchanted by the IDM crowd from the beginning. In an article he wrote describing his experience on the Yakuza tour for Grooves Magazine (Kidwell had a brief stint as a journalism major at Johns Hopkins University), he proclaimed, "I can't think of another arena where being purposefully vague, mysterious, and inaccessible to your fans reaps as much adoration as in this scene."

In rebellion against all things vague, mysterious, and inaccessible, Kidwell began a diary on his Web site,, which contained his every thought and experience, his most embarrassing moments as well as his greatest triumphs -- an idea that was anathema to an IDM star like Aphex Twin, who's so reclusive he occasionally sends other people to play shows for him.

To Kidwell, it's absolutely essential that he share everything with as many people who will listen. At the core of his music, live show, Web site, and virtually everything he puts his hands to is an adolescent need to indulge his every whim and self-expression, no matter how misguided it might seem. So, in Kidwell's eyes, if he makes a hip hop record one day and an indie rock record the next, there shouldn't be anything wrong with that.

"I don't think there's a person alive who, if you made them into a record, it would be a great hip hop record or a great indie record," says Kidwell. "Because that's not the world we live in anymore. Everyone is mixed up and everyone is the product of 10,000 different influences that come from every angle, every direction. I can't be the only person in the world who realizes that."

Apparently, he's not, if praise from international tours, appearances in Rolling Stone, and phone calls from major-label A&R reps are any indication. But even Kidwell recognizes that his genre blending presents a significant marketing problem.

"When I talk to A&R dudes, I just laugh at them. It's like, 'It's awesome that you're talking to me, but the reason you're not ... asking to sign a contract with me is because you know how unmarketable I am.'"

Is Cex unmarketable? Maybe. Unlistenable? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

"I think Cex is a great rapper, which goes to show how much I know about hip hop," wrote Amy Phillips for a recent Village Voice concert review.

If you do approach the new Being Ridden (out on the experimental rock-focused Temporary Residence label) from a hip hop angle, you're likely to be disappointed. No doubt the result of his background in IDM, Kidwell's beats have an overtly mechanical quality to them. Also, the synths on tracks like "The Wayback Machine" and "The Marriage" are overdramatic, and the beeps and glitches that pepper the record sound like early '80s video game music.

Kidwell's agility as a rapper leaves something to be desired as well. A good MC matches the quality of his voice with things like cadence and phrasing; hence the reason why someone like Eminem, who has an annoying, adenoidal voice, can still sell millions of records. Kidwell has yet to discover this formula, so his rhymes have somewhat of an amateur karaoke feel to them.

But for the same reasons that hip hop's intelligentsia may turn up their noses at Being Ridden, indie rockers are likely to love it.

Anna Klafter, who DJs for MC Paul Barman -- another white, awkward rapper whom Cex is often lumped with -- offers an explanation: "Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of these fringe hip hop/electronic artists do find their audience in the indie rock scene, because those people don't really understand hip hop entirely."

But as the crowds of hipsters that pack his shows can attest, Kidwell shouldn't be dismissed on account of his less-than-perfect flow or his unoriginal beats -- in fact, that would miss the point entirely. Ever since his first records, there's been a kind of confessional honesty to his work that transcends the genres he's worked in.

"Role Model is one of the worst-mixed albums," Kidwell says. "But it sold really well for an instrumental shitty IDM record. And I think it's because, through all this primitive technology and limited ability that I have [on the record] you can hear an 18-year-old kid struggling to say something."

What you're really buying when you pick up a Cex album is Rjyan Kidwell, and not necessarily his music. When you appreciate the song "Not Working" (from Being Ridden), it's not because of Kidwell's verbal style, but because he's rapping about his lack of style: "My voice won't do what I want," he whines.

"I couldn't figure out any other way to say it so I just come out and said it," Kidwell says of the track. "My voice sucks, I don't like it, it doesn't do what I want it to do, it doesn't sound like the voices on all these records I have by people that are good."

In other words, Rjyan Kidwell is quite possibly just like you. He's white, educated, marginally talented, has relatively few problems beyond things like girlfriends and flat tires. He's a painfully average dude with no gimmicks and no strings attached. But does that mean Kidwell should stop rockin' the mike? He doesn't think so.

While his music may not be all that polished or groundbreaking -- similar to Oakland's Gravy Train, which makes sexed-up electro-hop with a $60 drum machine, or Minnesota's Har Mar Superstar, a balding, chubby dude who pens songs about chasing booty -- Kidwell's success is based on the fact that he shouldn't be doing what he's doing. Nevertheless, there he is onstage, performing music for an audience that he refers to as "the blank people."

"We don't have the voice of rap music, we don't have the look of rap music, we don't have the genius of some of the indie rock music, yet here we are," says Kidwell. "We're everybody else. If I can get away with it, the result will be proof that you're not over, you're not done. You don't have to accept the idea that your participation [in the music business] ends at the [cash] register."

What exactly do people see in this 21-year-old kid who can't rap, can't sing, and can't even decide who the hell he is? Well, it's simple. They see themselves.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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