Breaking: Clipping

Normal is never normal for the LA experimental hip-hop trio.
Breaking: Clipping

Normal is never normal for the LA experimental hip-hop trio.

Words: Eric Stolze

photo by Brian Tamborello

September 20, 2016


MEMBERS: Jonathan Snipes, William Hutson, and Daveed Diggs
FROM: Diggs and Hutson are from the Bay Area, while Snipes is from Riverside, California; now the trio is based in Los Angeles
YOU MAY KNOW THEM FROM: Their first two releases, Midcity and CLPPNG, and their 2016 EP Wriggle; Diggs’s star turn in Hamilton
NOW: Launching a labor of interstellar love, the sci-fi concept album Splendor & Misery

The trio of Jonathan Snipes, William Hutson, and Daveed Diggs first crossed paths in 2001. Diggs and Hutson had already become friends in third grade, where their first collaborations were games of tag. When Hutson and Snipes met while studying theater at UCLA, bringing Diggs into the mix was inevitable: all three were big-thinking, deep-digging creative scholars saddled by overlapping obsessions with early hip-hop, thought-disrupting noise music, and experimental sound design.

They created Clipping to fuse those sounds together with the aggressive affection of mad scientists. “We had never really heard music like this before we started making it,” says Hutson. “We point to things we thought preceded us, like The Bomb Squad or early, collage-heavy Dre productions. But we really didn’t have a sense of what this was going to sound like until we tried stuff out.”

The trial-and-error approach is what makes Clipping experimental in the truest sense, and every experiment needs controlled variables. That’s why they agreed on a number of rules to guide their creations, including the prohibition of presets (every sound is built from scratch) and first-person storytelling perspectives. Burdened with self-awareness, they’re quick to point out exceptions to those rules—“but the rules helped us figure out what we set out to make in the first place,” Hutson says. “Once we started to know what we sounded like, we could shed some stricter rules here or there because we had our own catalog to reference.”

“We didn’t have a sense of what this was going to sound like until we tried stuff out.” — William Hutson

And oh, how they reference; a conversation with the trio feels like an exhilarating zipline through a Wikipedia wormhole. Talk of vintage Casio equipment and drum machines quickly sidebars to sci-fi authors like Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. Their extensive knowledge pairs with their enthusiasm for discovery, and that infectious “What if?” playfulness fuels their albums and draws their growing audience.

What if the trope of sexually explicit hip-hop gets pushed into gender fluidity (Wriggle’s “Hot Fuck No Love”)? What if Diggs raps over an alarm clock, daily life’s most resented rhythm (CLPPNG’s “Get Up”)? Though there’s good-humored wit in these subversions, “the trick is to do it as seriously as possible,” Hutson says. “We really do wear our influences and love of music on our sleeves.”

“Love of the music” has always driven Clipping. “At no point have we ever needed to compromise something we wanted to do creatively,” Snipes says. “Even when it’s a ton of work, it was because it was our idea.”

Their newest what if idea is their most ambitious yet: Splendor & Misery is both rich with rapid rhymes and dense with challenging mythology. Diggs’s verses about the last surviving human on a deep-space voyage deliver poignant parallels to the black experience in America. But while Snipes and Hutson will gladly discuss Afrofuturist influences from George Clinton to Octavia Butler, they refuse to decode complexities and assign a single meaning to their album. “We can’t control what you get out of it,” Hutson plainly states.

Appropriately, Snipes has another treasured reference ready, quoting experimental composer Alvin Lucier: “‘Don’t ask me what I mean. Ask me what I’ve made.’”

Better yet, listen to it yourself. FL

This article appears in FLOOD 5. You can download or purchase the magazine here.