Last Sunday night, the stage at The Independent in San Francisco resembled a supermarket breakfast aisle. The back wall bore a collage of colorful cereal boxes, each brandishing their flashy logos and nutritional slogans that belied their actual ingredients. But in this case, the brand names were all perversions of their real-life counterparts: "Chiddios" for "Cheerios"; "Mini Beats" for "Mini-Wheats"; "Chiddies" for "Wheaties." Beneath the stacks hung a banner bearing another catchphrase: "Chiddy Bang Breakfast."
A rather ostentatious bit of self-promotion — Breakfast is the name of the 2012 LP released by Chiddy Bang, the alt hip-hop group headlining that night — it was also an unwitting illustration of the headliner's conflicting impulses. Like a sugary cereal, Chiddy Bang is saccharine almost to the point of artifice, buoyed by the kind of addictive hooks that encourage mass consumption. But it also strives to be winking and clever, even in ways as piddling as a pun on a cereal box. It's infatuated with the idea of personal branding, but just self-aware enough to acknowledge the tawdriness of the brand.
That seemed apparent from the moment Chidera "Chiddy" Anamege took the stage in a pair of chunky glasses and a San Franpsycho jersey. "It's time to have breakfast!" he and a hype man shouted, as a catchy horn sample blared in the background. Anamege's producer Noah Beresin sat playing a drum set at stage right, flogging the snare and high hat in time with the group's canned beats. Evidently, the idea was to create the illusion of a live band while hewing to hip-hop's dominant paradigm of clean, programmed drum samples and machine-made tracks. Opening act Skins & Needles had also combined a pre-packaged set with live percussion, performed by DJ Zeph — whose main instrument is the cross-fader on his mixing board — and drummer Ron E. Beck, filling in for Max McVeety. One could glean that live rhythm sections have become ascendant in contemporary hip-hop — a rather improbable development for the genre.
That said, Chiddy Bang's sound definitely errs on the ultra-produced side of the hip-hop spectrum. Beresin filches many of the group's beats from electro pop bands like Passion Pit and MGMT, and he tends to favor warm, cloying sounds that lodge in your brain and stick there. "Baby Roulette," for instance, is a safe-sex ballad that borrows its hook from the Nineties rock group Train, and adds a layer of video game sounds. When Anamege performed it on Sunday, a broad swath of the audience joined in for the song's giddy chorus: I hope you know that I'm for real/My love is so precise, ain't no Happy Meal.
Since Chiddy Bang is so beholden to the clean sounds of digital instruments, it seemed like an odd choice to add live drums onstage. In this case, though, the drums seemed ancillary to the artistic vision — more a way to get Beresin onstage than an aesthetic mandate. The group's real talent is for synthesizing and packaging. Beresin has an ear for pop music, and a keen ability to isolate its most pleasurable parts. Anamege is a snappy freestyler with a cache of punch lines at his disposal. Midway through the group's set on Sunday, they tried the old hip-hop trick of doing a freestyle rap based on word suggestions from the audience ("Michael Jackson," "Dwight Howard," "Honey Badger," and the UrbanDictionary.com neologism "vajazzle" — i.e., "to bling up your rather down at heel Vespa motorscooter"). A Guinness World Record holder for the world's longest freestyle — a title he claimed last year with a rap that lasted nine hours and sixteen minutes — Anamege ploughed through the words easily.
Indeed, intellect and artistry lies at the heart of Chiddy Bang, despite its emphasis on surface pleasures. The Philadelphia duo is one in a spate of contemporary hip-hop groups whose members met in college — Drexel University, in this case — and rapidly gained exposure in the blogosphere. In 2009, blogger Luis Tovar hailed Beresin and Anamege as "the coolest thing since The Cool Kids" — another rap group with an enviable talent of repurposing the old tropes of hip-hop in a way that seemed palatable to younger audiences. Whereas The Cool Kids' main specialties were sneaker rhymes and 808 beats, which didn't translate into a long shelf life, Chiddy Bang chose a wiser path by emphasizing lyricism and infectious production.
So far, it's worked: The group licensed two of its tracks to video games, and inked a deal with Virgin Records, which released Breakfast. Sunday's show at The Independent was packed with mostly white fashionistas in their twenties and thirties — the kind of disposable-income crowd a hip-hop group might want to keep, if it intends to sell albums. And the group's most commercial song, a youth anthem called "Opposite of Adults," based on a MGMT sample, was also its biggest crowd pleaser. Chiddy Bang saved that one for the encore.
Whether such gimmicks translate into real longevity is up for debate, though. Hip-hop may have informed the bulk of current pop music, but it's nearly moribund as a genre, and even the most talented rapper-producer duos tend to fizzle out, unless they have a strong personality to anchor them. Anamege and Beresin still have to work on that part: At Sunday's show, the breakfast cereal motif stood out far more than they did.
Granted, as symbols go, it's not a bad one. Sugar cereals last a long time.