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From The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Featuring a scratching DJ and spoken-sung vocals by group leader Michael Ivey, Basehead defied simple categorization. Ivey mumbled or sleepily crooned his wryly ironic lyrics over quirky, quietly rockish arrangements in a hip-hop/college rock hybrid critics termed "slacker rap," while comparing Ivey to Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Sly Stone.

A middle-class black kid who grew up learning guitar, Ivey formed high school bands with fellow Pittsburgh native Brian Hendrix, then complained about the lack of guitar parts in their keyboard-dominated R&B covers. While studying film at Howard University, Ivey (who made his directing debut with the video “Do You Wanna Fuck [or What]?” from Not in Kansas Anymore) recorded Play With Toys almost exclusively himself. The album signaled its offbeat genre crossing by opening with Ivey, as “Jethro and the Graham Crackers,” performing a hillbilly version of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” to the sound of audience catcalls.

The tiny West Coast label Emigre released 3,000 copies of Play With Toys to considerable college-radio play and rave reviews. Ivey recruited friends from Howard for a 1991 tour with “alternative rap” acts Me Phi Me, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Divine Styler. The Basehead band also played on three tracks of the Kansas album, which backed Ivey’s deadpan takes on racial and sexual politics with a somewhat harder sound. In 1996 Basehead released Faith. Guitarist Keith Lofton, working as Lazy K, released a solo effort, Life in One Day (Mutant Sound System), the next year.

Play With Toys

This world is full of strife and misunderstanding/But try to understand why I do just what I do," pleads raspy-voiced Basehead main man Michael Ivey on "2000 BC" (short for "2000 brain cells ago"), the lead single from Play With Toys, the group's major-label debut. The scratchy, bass-driven groove is a rejoinder to all those hip-hoppers who claim to have a handle on postintegration America. Not necessarily, say Ivey and company. Basehead's mission is to rid itself of angst and create an identity in an overly complex world.

To label Play With Toys only a rap album would be myopic; using live drums, acoustic guitar, bass and DJ (the group samples sparingly), Play With Toys is a concept album that ties rock, funk, blues and honky-tonk to rap, presenting a cut-and-paste style that should make many citizens of the now formula-oriented hip-hop nation blush. Drawing on contemporary experiences, Ivey's fluid rap-sing lyrics – at once despairing and deadly funny – brood over everything from soured relationships and political frustrations to the meaning of life. "Brand New Day" and "Not Over You" are not-so-typical love songs. "Brand New Day" recounts a breakup conversation and samples the girlfriend's blowoff ("I hope we can still be friends"). Unabashedly honest, Ivey laments that he's been "thrown back into the game/Of buying drinks getting names/Silly dates and silly dames." On "Not Over You," a low-key DJ scratch punctuates a stark piano, as Ivey grieves over his new-found loneliness; a friend tries to console him before a trip down the radio dial – with stops at tracks like Bill Withers's heartbreak classic "Ain't No Sunshine" – further inflames the situation. Songs like the jazzy, sensual "Hair" tackle fidelity, while "Evening News" acknowledges life's numerous atrocities by way of the TV tube.

With its homemade feel (the album was recorded in a low-budget studio), Play With Toys ups the hip-hop/pop ante a notch. Like Public Enemy, Basehead recognizes its blackness but wonders if that's enough; and while De la Soul presents a pseudo-intellectual approach to hip-hop, Basehead begs that we don't slip into solipsism. Without being preachy, Basehead's unconventional style challenges listeners to get beyond their basic instincts and open their minds, search their souls. (RS 634/635)
Posted: Jul 9, 1992

Not in Kansas Anymore

It's got a good beat, but you can't dance to it. Like Play With Toys, Basehead's first album, Not in Kansas Anymore is an unlikely sonic mishmash, a melting pot of musical styles under which no flame burns. The ingredients – broken rhythm & blues, stinky rock, big pieces of fat funk, borderline "rap," "Am I singing yet?" vocals – they all just sit there as a gritty meal for hungry eardrums.

It looks nasty. But it plays like the dreams you wake up from, startled. Dreary, seductive songs like "The Popeye Philosophy" and "Brown Kisses Pt. Too" beckon like books you haven't read, songs you haven't heard, lands you've yet to visit. On some songs main man Michael Ivey's voice is practically indiscernible, but then the snare snaps or the bass drops low on a funky beat, the reverberation engulfs you, and it just doesn't matter. The DJ's scratching is like a beacon in a warm storm. The guitar is spirited and engrossing.

Not in Kansas Anymore taps you, sometimes pinches you hard, asking you to question the fundamentals of musical genre, of where black people fit in besides on the R&B and rap charts. Ivey and his crew put forth the endangered notion that the parameters of the contemporary black male experience are not Keith Sweat, Dr. Dre, Chuck D and BeBe Winans. Even at its less listenable moments, and there are some, Not in Kansas Anymore breathes with the freedom that comes when narrow interpretations of blackness and black music are shed. Some songs, like "I Need a Joint," cross a Stray Cats-like strut with achy soul, and others move along almost as infectiously as an L.A. and Babyface production. There is an underlying bounce to this album that belies its moodiness.

Basehead is not falling down under the weight of the label – alternative – that has been foisted upon it. The band asks instead, with its close-your-eyes-and-listen attitude and sometimes morose, sometimes funny stance, alternative to what? Not the fierceness of good hip-hop nor the best of what's left of rock and funk and R&B. Not in Kansas Anymore is an alternative to the benign bullshit music that floods the chain stores and commercial radio waves. Alternative to that, indeed. (RS 656)
Posted: May 13, 1993

All Music Guide
Basehead is the creation of Michael Ivey, a middle-class suburban kid from Maryland. Ivey recorded the bulk of Basehead's 1992 debut, Plays With Toys, on a four-track at home with various friends. Combining laid-back, stoned hip-hop rhythm tracks, pop hooks, drawled raps, and pseudo-folky guitar, the record received glowing reviews in alternative publications and was played frequently on college radio. Ivey assembled a touring band and used them on parts of Basehead's 1993 follow-up, Not in Kansas Anymore. The critical reception was mixed and the record didn't receive much airplay or sales. The following year Ivey assembled the alternative hip-hop collection B.Y.O.B., which featured several of his own contributions; Basehead's Faith followed in 1996.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide

Review for Play With Toys:
The freaky brainchild of Michael Ivey, Basehead's music is deep semiotics disguised as slacker hip-hop. On his debut album, Ivey mumbles through songs about heartbreak, the meaning of life, and beer (several years before Beck, mind you) over a foundation of funky backbeats, one-note guitar grooves and scratchy lo-fi samples. Cleverly constructed skits woven throughout the songs add musical texture and layers of meaning: a changing radio dial mood-swings "Not Over You" from pretty and melancholic to comical, while the conversation that bookENDs "Ode to My Favorite Beer" turns it into a simultaneous examination of love, alcoholism and the creative process. Being African-American in Washington, D.C. has apparently given Ivey much to think about, as this album illustrates.
-Suzanne McElfresh

Excerpts from
Messages in a bottle, of malt liquor.

THE SCENE: Ever have one of those perpetually tipsy college friends who’s deepest, most fully formed relationship is with beer? In 1991 Washington D.C.’s Michael Ivey, inspired by failed romances and the beers that accompany them, cranked out the album that would eventually make several “best album of year” lists and help solidify two different record labels: Play with Toys.

Ivey cut his intimate slacker hip-hop songs nearly alone on his bedrooms’ four-track recorder, mostly sparse guitar vamps over head-nodding drum breaks, and this low-fidelity touch makes his songs very endearing. He also is quite funny, in a Cheech and Chong sort of way, and his slurry low-volume singing voice draws you into his beer-goggle universe of loss, confusion and apologies.

In the droning funk of “2000 BC” he pines for the missing brain cells he’s lost through drinking, yet he sings a love song to his brew in “Ode to My Favorite Beer”, complete with old-school needle drops from Eazy-E’s “8-Ball”.

His friends show up in many of the songs, acting as a Greek chorus by commenting on the tunes during their performance, sometimes interrupting the song to the point of stoppage. “Brand New Day” follows his post-breakup emotional state, as he pauses the song several times to change his view on how sad or relieved he is to not be with his girlfriend. Then it stops again to listen to some nice breakbeats.

He gets even more emotional in “Not Over You”, getting drunker and more hostile as the song progresses:

So judge me true
by what I say, not what I do.
Why do folks continue to say
that I'm not over you?

The song eventually comes to a halt so his friend can find another song on the radio to calm him down. You can click on the track below to see how well that worked out.

As if the fourth-wall shattering meta-commentary isn’t surreal enough, the entire album is presented as a band performance in a country and western bar. Yes.

THE FALLOUT: Released by the fledging indie label Émigré and re-released the following year by the fledging mini-major label Imago, Play With Toys was critically acclaimed for its focused eccentricity and twisted humor.
Mark French
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Excerpts from :Review/Pop; Basement Verite and One-Worldism
Published: June 20, 1992
Wednesday night's show at the Marquis Theater, part of the New Music Seminar was featuring Basehead.
Michael Ivey, the Basehead of Basehead, released "Play With Toys" (Imago) last year, one of the most distinctive albums of 1991. Low tech, it sounds as if it was recorded in a basement. Mr. Ivey has elevated the vernacular to an art form, replacing the language of song, always highly stylized, with the language of everyday use. Part of Mr. Ivey's routine is that he draws heavily from rap, but more important, since rap has its own formalities, Mr. Ivey isn't interested in either tricky rhymes or velocity of delivery.....