"Yes," Beans replies, before we can even finish our first question.
Are you sure?
"Positive," confirms the bald, bespectacled MC-producer (real name: Robert Stewart), who last year departed from the underground maverick hip-hop collective Antipop Consortium. "It's a matter of freedom. I'd seen [former bandmates Priest and M. Sayyid] do a performance with Aceyalone ... and it made me realize we're all in different head spaces. It reaffirmed that I'd made the right decision. I'm not saying anything against what they were doing. It's just not where I want to go."
To recap: White Plains, New York's Antipop Consortium radically altered the hip-hop landscape during its five-year lifespan, through five albums (including collaborative efforts as the Isolationist with DJ Vadim and renowned jazz pianist Matthew Shipp) and several EPs. The missing link between Mantronix and Autechre, Antipop Consortium fused brainy electro-funk with inventive, intelligent dance-music textures, lacing it all with unconventional flows and poetry that college-radio nerds will be studying for decades.
With his singularly bold Tomorrow Right Now, Beans became the first ex-Antipop Consortium member to release solo material. Recorded over several years (the oldest track dates back to 1993), the album reveals Beans' multifaceted production skills and his multiplicity of vocal deliveries, none of which sound like the inarticulate chumps you see on MTV or hear on radio. Housed in a deep-pink Digipak ("So it can stand out on the record stands") and featuring his heroic visage peering meaningfully stage left, Tomorrow proves that Beans truly was the "weird one" in the seriously strange Antipop Consortium camp.
The group was improving as it went along, so its breakup in 2002 shocked fans and industry observers alike. "The thing was, everyone was doing individual things in the first place," Beans says. "So it didn't get in the way of what I was doing, because I was always doing it."
But Beans thought Antipop Consortium's split was premature; he believed the trio had one more record in it. So why the breakup?
"We didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things -- at least between Sayyid and me," he says, explaining that his partners wanted to move in a more mainstream direction. "Priest played the middleman. He tried to be the politician and keep the peace. But ... they made their decision, and that was it. I didn't think we had to change what we were doing, because what we were doing is why people gravitated toward us in the first place."
Growing up in suburban White Plains, Beans got hooked on hip-hop through New York radio jocks Red Alert and Chuck Chillout, after an early infatuation with Kiss. ("I had Kiss dolls, the whole nine," Beans told Index magazine.) Suburbia "allowed for a chance for solitude," he recalls. "I could get more into my head." At age sixteen, Beans began rapping, and by the mid-'90s he was making the fertile New York spoken-word scene as part of the Brooklyn Boom Poetic collective. While involved with that crew, he forged his distinctive deliveries, ranging from alien oracle to Ivy League professor to an avant-jazz version of Public Enemy's Chuck D. Occasionally stilted, Beans' parabolic flow kept listeners off balance while forcing them to focus on his compelling rhymes.
"Poetry opened me up to experimenting with words in different ways," he says. "You couldn't be so dependent on the crutches of music. The emphasis of the words has to be a lot stronger. So coming through that and being influenced by jazz and coming from an art-school background, that's where the lyrical content comes from.
"The main thing I discuss in the work is my introspective relationship to hip-hop," Beans continues. "I comment more than attack. My stuff is more commentary than confrontational."
Inspired by writers such as Ted Joans, Ishmael Reed, William S. Burroughs, E.E. Cummings and Octavia Butler, Beans flaunts a formidable knowledge of symbolism and structure. His spoken-word prowess culminates in the harrowing autobiographical track "Booga Sugar," an a cappella cautionary tale about the degradation of drug addiction.
At a gig earlier this year in Seattle, Beans opened with "Booga Sugar," a bold strategy that caught much of the audience off guard. Because the venue had no stage, Beans stood at crowd level, moving his mic in circles as he spat lyrics with cadences as asymmetrically jazzy as a Roland Kirk sax solo while his manager fiddled with an iPod and a laptop computer behind him. Working an audience more interested in hooking up than in his nuanced word paintings, Beans radiated an authority and charisma that could make him a star among Mensa members.
"It's just me and the mic -- no hype, man," Beans says of his live setup. "So I try to get to the point. I see my show as being more in the tradition of spoken word. I'm more comfortable being by myself, but I do miss the spontaneity of creating things on the spot. I don't bring a lot of equipment onstage, but I'll probably get a band before I get a DJ."
Asked about his former group's place in hip-hop history, Beans laments, "People were just starting to know about APC when we broke up. It took APC three records for people to accept us on our own terms. Now it's like being demoted. I have to start over again, so people have to become familiar with the stuff I did. I don't know how long it's going to take for people to acknowledge me solo."
How about tomorrow right now?