The Church of Random Rab
Photo by Mario Covic (mariocovic.com)
It’s one night after the Winter Solstice in the self-evidently progressive Northern California town of Sebastopol. The air is crisp and cold and not at all diluted by moonlight. It’s nearing midnight at The Abbey on Juke Joint Thursdays, and the place is packed with the usual NorCal hoi polloi: hippie trim kids on their annual migration south after the season, costumed Burners from the city, and assorted North Bay locals who sport a suspiciously high number of fedoras. They’re all here, waiting patiently to “see Rab.”
Standing alone in a corner of the outdoor courtyard, discreetly chomping on an American Spirit, head tucked warmly inside a hoodie, Robert “Random Rab” Clinton stares off into the starry night through his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, his mind turning over a series of interior monologues as he mentally prepares himself for his set, and the relentless onslaught of well-wishers.
“I hear December’s a terrible time to release an album,” he mumbles, kicking at pebbles on the ground. “You think I’d know these things after four albums, but...” He trails off, shrugs, and then laughs, innocently, as if it’s not at all quaint or surprising, in an age of focus-grouped music and saturation marketing, that this revelation would occur to an artist only in hindsight. That’s the kind of innate humility you simply can’t fake.
Rab is passing through this bucolic hamlet on the final leg of his epic 2011 tour, a massive peregrination that began in the spring with 40 cities opening for Simon “Sphongle” Posford, and closed out with a series of solo dates down the West Coast to promote Visurreal, his fourth studio effort in ten years.
After three years in production, Visurreal was one of the most eagerly anticipated electronic albums of the last decade, as evidenced by its Top 10 debut on iTunes and the CMJ “RPM” charts. This may come as a surprise to the masses outside of the West Coast festival circuit who may be scratching their heads asking themselves, “Random Who?” But for those in the know, those who have attended but one service in “The Church of Rab,” they understand that there is never again the question of who? There is only the question of when and where?
Every great movement has its sound, and every great epoch has its backing tracks, since it's a kind of maxim that periods of revolutionary change always spur the creation of equally revolutionary art. However, only a select few end up becoming avatars of a movement, properly capturing or articulating the zeitgeist of the times, as if they somehow managed to channel the very spirits of change that their art would eventually portend.
“Avatar” comes from the Sanskrit word, avatāra, meaning “an incarnate divine teacher,” the root of which, tāra, means, “to cross over into the spirit realm.” The Bhagavad Gita explains that the role of the avatar is to bring dharma, or righteousness, back to the social and cosmic order, but it’s also used to identify someone or something who is the embodiment or manifestation of an idea, like Martin Luther King is to civil rights, George Bush is to idiocy, or Sgt. Pepper's is to Sixties psychedelia.
Dylan’s Freewheelin’ period echoed the collective voice of the Civil Rights era, dispensing classic after classic soaked in the hopes and dreams of a society torn by racial strife but struggling to adhere to that guiding principle, All Men Are Created Equal. The collapse of the Iron Curtain was captured in the frenetic eclecticism of U2’s Achtung Baby, recorded in Berlin during those hopeful early days just after the Wall had fallen, before the so-called Free Market Revolution robbed us of the peace dividend. Moby’s Play emerged from obscurity as a prescient expression of the dominant musical motifs and genre blending of the newly globalized Millennium years.
All grandiloquent movements, and international platinum-selling hits, indeed, but sadly, products of a bygone era, both in music distribution and in mass-movements. This new era of narrowcasting into like-minded largely internet-based communities has changed how we see, hear and experience culture. Likewise, the purpose of movements seems to be evolving too (Occupy notwithstanding) as evidenced in part by Neotribalism, a second-generation Hippie offshoot movement, born out of Northern California and the West Coast festival culture. Neotribalism combines the self-sufficient tribal ethic of the traditional communal hippie set with the urban techno-savvy of the Bay Area cyber-rave culture, and the spiritual and visual aesthetics of various indigenous cultures from around the world, most notably Balinese and Indian.
Neotribalism espouses the “archaic revival” Terrance McKenna had popularized, at once rekindling our relationship with our tribal past while at the same time picking up the mantle of the previous generation’s counterculture and pushing humanity forward into its next evolutionary step. It began in the late 1990s as little more than a fashion statement that emerged from the Burning Man Festival, yet has evolved into something that today is so much more, but still can't really be quantified. In the simplest terms, it is a spiritual movement, and despite the aesthetic pretentions, a serious one at that.
Neotribalism has grown to the point where it has become a central theme in the larger 2012 meme, a time of unprescedented revolutionary change, which we can call the "shift" or "transformation" movement. It has spawned scores of rising underground artists, dancers, designers, DJs, writers, and filmmakers, many of whom grace the pages of this publication. And although it is not entirely fair to single out one artist, particularly one who hasn't achieved "commercial fame or success" as we traditionally define it, there is really only one sound that has been there throughout, evolved as part of it, and now epitomizes the philosophy, maturity and spirituality, of the Neotribal movement, and that sound is Random Rab. Like Dylan in his folk era, Rab has become--unwittingly, perhaps, but not by chance--a vessel for the archetypal message of the day, that of transformation and divine integration, not because he sought to become a vessel, but because he sought out his own healing and found this gift waiting for him on the other side.
Dylan, the avatar, has claimed in the past that he doesn’t remember writing those history-shaping anthems like "The Times They Are a Changin’" and "Blowin’ in the Wind," hinting instead that they emerged from the collective unconscious of his generation and merely found form in his voice. This would become painfully obvious when he stopped writing acoustic folk and switched to electric rock, a shift that became symbolic of Dylan’s regressive transformation from sage vessel of social change to egomaniacal tool of pop banality. And as went Dylan, so went the movement, from early Sixties collective radicalism to late Sixties self-centered drop out-ism.
Reflecting the mirror side of that journey, a generation later (and wiser), the story of Random Rab is one of the voyage out of ego into substance and meaning, from existential hopelessness to spiritual truth and musical liberation. His music would evolve from a style that was insular to a unique sound that transcends genre and would become spiritual medicine for a movement of pleasure seekers who, in spite of themselves, were waking up and feeling the birth pangs of their expanding consciousness.
Robert Clinton grew up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, the son of “conservative yet open-minded” college professors. Beginning in early childhood Clinton learned about music in the church choir, and the uplifting power of devotional singing stuck with him. To this day he recognizes many of the Episcopal hymns he loved dearly in the melodies that he crafts. Although he studied classical music and learned a number of instruments, it wasn't until he he got his first 4 track recorder as a teenager that he saw the possibilities in layering sounds. This became the driving principle, and style, in his music from this point forward.
He studied anthropology in college, and upon graduation, landed in Ashland, Oregon in the nascent days of the Neotribal movement, circa 1999. He would almost immediately fall into a scene that would eventually come to be known as “El Circo.”
El Circo was a pioneering and influential art collective built around music and dance and distinctive fashion. They would become central to how the Burning Man community would evolve in the last decade, as every year they would produce more and more elaborate camps and stage shows, and incubated talent like Bassnectar, Ooah, Freq Nasty, and slew of others who got their break in the West Coast scene. Much of the "look" that is attributed to Burning Man is also credited to El Circo, the Neotribal template of feather and leather, piercings and ink.
It was Clinton’s early years in this vanguard community that shaped the consciousness that would eventually emerge in his music. Out of this Ashland era came the moniker “Random Rab” as well as his first trip to Burning Man, a pilgrimage that was already fast becoming the key rite of passage for the Neotribal generation, but for EL Circo, had became their raison d’etre.
Burning Man led to Rab’s 2001 debut double-album, Epicycle. Inspired by a science-fiction novel entitled Second Earth, Epicycle tells the story of the human species in the future, journeying from Earth to save themselves as they contemplate their inevitable path of destruction. The album ends with the final human, the last of the species, floating through space after everything else has been lost, sending out the final transmission. It is an esoteric and haunting collection of long driving dance anthems that vacillate from cosmic bleakness and technological sterility to the eerie minor chord longing of a distant hope dashed against the enormity of infinite space, as in "Luscious" or the closing track, "The Final Transmission."
Photo by Mario Covic (mariocovic.com)
It was also during this early Burning Man period that Rab discovered what would eventually become his trademark, the “sunrise set.”
“Ten years ago no one wanted to play sunrise. It was considered the ‘end of the party.’ At the time, I was playing all this stuff with heavy breaks trying to prove I had testosterone and could go out there and ‘kill it’ every night. But I had all this other music I had been working on, this lighter more ambient downtempo music, which I wanted to share, but didn’t have an outlet. They couldn’t give away sunrise sets in those days, so I decided to take a leap of faith, since I figured no one would be there to judge me anyway. I was totally wrong, and totally unprepared for the response. People did show up, and the show was a deeply emotional journey. People were actually crying, and I felt for the first time a genuine appreciation for what I was doing. That was when I realized I had to play every sunrise possible.”
Rab’s second album, The Elucidation of Sorrow (2005), was forged during a period he describes as “full steam ahead” with El Circo. The collective was producing ever-more elaborate performances at Burning Man, and as their popularity began to skyrocket, they received more outside bookings, which kept them all very busy. By all accounts, it was halcyon days. But then something strange happened.
“All of a sudden, the most important thing for everyone became the scene,” he recounts with a clear residual of bewilderment. "On one level it all seemed like this really powerful, potent period of birth. But I was so thoroughly depressed at the time. I didn’t know how to find joy. I was concerned about everything for some reason, and although I felt like I had ‘happiness’, I didn’t feel like I had joy. What I had was sorrow. No matter how ‘happy’ I got, I always had this sorrow underneath me.” He offers this humbly, with the unspoken acknowledgement that some may find it hard to have sympathy for a successful artist's late 20's existential crisis. But it was what it was.
That’s when he had a life-altering epiphany. Sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by all the cool kids, Random Rab, the hot rising DJ in the Bay, realized he was terribly lonely, and in a world that was struggling to find meaning. He found himself slapped upside the head by a Sartre-like maxim he could no longer deny: Hell is loneliness. Hell is being stuck in the Void.
In response, The Elucidation of Sorrow became his exploration of that isolation and the chaos and degradation of his inner life. Although still a dance album, and with aspects of the usual sophmore effort immaturity, Elucidation was huge step ahead of Epicycle. It produced Rab's best-known song, “The Riddle,”and also yielded “HymnalAYA” and “You’re Not a God,” early prototyopes of the kind of spiritual sound that people now seek in his sunrise sets. He received resounding praise.
But still he was lost.
At some point in the middle of the last decade, the emerging Neotribal movement—which had found itself struggling with the standard-issue growing pains—began to shift. The reasons that are proposed for this shift are as varied as the colors of headdress feathers, but what was clear was that at some point the people in the movement stopped escaping, and began journeying to find something more than just a party.
There is, however, one other factor to consider. It was right around that time that the Great Medicine appeared on the scene. Ayahuasca had just been cleared for religious use by the US Supreme Court and was making the rounds of Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the legal challenge had been fought and won.
And so it came to pass that through the articulation of his crisis and a few well-placed inquiries that Robert Clinton of Ft Wayne, Indiana, currently mired in an existential crisis as DJ Random Rab, would find himself face to face with an ancient sentient plant consciousness that would forever change him, and as a result, alter the course of his music, and the Neotribal community as a whole.
Rab is extremely reluctant to discuss the details of his introduction to Ayahuasca. As the father of a toddler, and with his ever-increasing levels of visibility, he’s understandably concerned that a younger or more impressionable fan might want to experiment after reading about what he has done. He doesn’t want to seem like he’s cavalier on “drug use,” or not respectful of the platform he’s been given.
But given that this author relentlessly pressured him to talk about his experiences, and given that this author was present at Rab’s first ayahuasca ceremony, and given that, upon investigation, unfamiliar readers will find that ayahuasca is not a “drug” and has hardly any recreational appeal, when pressed he agrees that the contribution the medicine made to his life and music can neither be denied, nor ignored, in this story.
“It definitely shook me up, pulled me out of years of sorrow and gave me the joy I had sought for so so long. It completely changed my life in a good way. It gave me a strength and power I never had before to love myself, and the clear understanding that until you learn how to love yourself, you can’t really love anyone else. It gave me the ability to appreciate every single person on this planet. It made me realize that this experience of being human is so goddamn hard, and no one has got it figured out, so we gotta give ourselves credit for even being here in the first place.”
He came back with an extraordinary gift, a new kind of music predicated on a new sense of understanding about everything in his life. Instead of the Void, what he saw and felt was the incredible sense of love that surrounds everything, and the power of love in everything. Not the type of love that exists between two people, but the type of love that exists like an element, between the wind and the water. It became so clear to him that there is more. He was now not only able to appreciate the sound in the music, he could also appreciate the silence in the music as well.
The medicine also prepared him emotionally, and spiritually, for the unexpected tragedy that would unfold the following year. In early 2008, at what appeared to be the height of their success, the El Circo community was shattered by the accidental overdose death in Bali of founder and titular matriarch Tiffa Novoa, their leading light who, by all accounts, was on her way to great success. She and Rab were very close, and he was devastated. To honor her passing, Rab was asked to serve as the Master of Ceremonies at her memorial.
After Tiffa’s death the community became somewhat rudderless, and would slowly dissapate. Though a remnant of the troupe still continue to produce their trademark elaborate stage shows at select festivals, the last El Circo camp at Burning Man was in 2009, and the core group has since decamped from Ashland and moved on to other things.
The fruits of Rab’s new awakening became his third, and to date, most popular album, 2009’s aRose. In his work with the medicine he learned what he feels is the true power of music, that it's a tool we can use to heal. Aside from being a radical departure from his earlier work, aRose presented a new kind of spiritual music and devotional singing that was evocative of the community from whence it sprang. It has, unlike his previous work, the feeling of many voices struggling to be heard, as if the songs themselves were created by other beings. By way of example, Rab describes the track "K’Khana" as “the voice of the medicine.”
Random Rab playing sunrise at Fractal Nation Village - Burning Man 2011. Photo: Mario Covic (mariocovic.com)
Both he and his music underwent an extraordinary transformation, coming from isolation and hellish loneliness to what he calls “the indescribable oneness of all things.” The public response was immediate, and dramatic. Random Rab sunrise sets exploded, becoming manifestations of the ecstatic joy and release of religious rituals, taking on reverential and exultant tones, like a blending of Kirtan and Evangelical folk and Baptist gospel, mixed with the mystical healing curandero brought back from the other side. Rab’s music became synesthesic, spiritual transmutations of emotion into sound, Divine Downtempo, music that lifted and healed.
The Church of Rab was born.
Which brings us to Visurreal, an album I call, with little reservation, a masterpiece. This polished and mature fourth offering comes four years after his spiritual conversion, in which time he met his partner and collaborator, Alina Van Beek, and they had their son, Dune.
Visurreal is the work of a seasoned artist, yes, and a master of his craft, of course. But more than that, it’s a pure reflection of the zeitgeist. Although Rab claims that thematically, the album revolves around the celebration of life and death, and the struggle to accept the beauty of both, Visurreal transcends such attempts to define it.
Because this music strikes at an archetypal level. It’s an expression of the spiritual path we walk, as members of this movement or community, a fearlessly honest dredging of the soul. In this regard, Visurreal is Rab’s most profound personal statement. But its power and uniqueness lay in its representation of our collective transformation.
Album artwork by Android Jones (androidjones.com)
This zeitgeist comes via the cavalcade of West Coast all-stars who make up the list of guest musicians who contributed to Visurreal. This crew, in their entirety, reflect the full breadth of the Neotribal community, its sights and sounds, and how much it has evolved in the decade since its inception. Guest artists include “Sidecar Tommy” Cappel of the explosively popular steampunk trio, Beats Antique, violinist Ilya Goldberg of Emancipator, and David Block of The Human Experience, along with Sasha Rose, Katie Gray, Rigzin Tromge, Cedar Miller on percussion and Rodleen Getsic on vocals. The album's original cover art is by Andrew “Android” Jones, the world-renown digital artist, who also designed the cover to aRose.
Visurreal is multifarious and perplexing, an album that takes a number of listens before you begin to see its’ genius, and a couple months of listening before you can begin to articulate it’s uniqueness (which is why it's a good thing that December was a terrible month to release an album and he didn’t need this review then). Utilizing a global musical palette that dabbles in virtually every musical sound and style, and some that defy description, the moody, textured album consciously fails to provide us with poppy hooks or stand out singles. Each song is unique and unlike the others; together they form a string of pure innovation. Oh and it's sexy too, bebbeh-making music par excellance.
Rab is proud to have been witness to the “massive shift of consciousness” that came over the Neotribal community in the last decade, evolving from a young party scene into what he describes as an “ambiguously spiritual movement without any real dogma or path or goal, that we’re all trying to encapsulate or capture with our art." What was at one time a bunch of friends getting together to party has now evolved into an extended family where people are closer to each other than they are to their birth families. This is the essense of Neo (new) Tribalism, or the New Family. To him, success lay not in album sales, but in these “communities of the heart,” which he has helped to create and shape, and where he also has found everything he was ever looking for.
As he sings in Visurreal’s, “Sunwater”:
I woke up from a dream.
What did you see?
10 years after his auspicious debut, Random Rab is just hitting his prime. 35 might be old in DJ chronology, but not in the lifespan or creative arc of a true artist. These days are the prologue to Eldership in his community, a role he’s growing into nicely as he becomes more comfortable in his role as musical avatar. All the roads in his life have lead him to this place, to let the music do the teaching, and speaking, for him.
As I contemplate a graceful way to wrap up this encomium, I ask my partner to tell me the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks about Rab’s music.
She pauses, then flashes me that smile that kills me every time.
“It makes me wanna climb mountains."
* * * * * *
Charles Shaw is a regular contributor to Reality Sandwich, the author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality (2012 Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), and the Director of The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs where you can hear Rab’s music featured prominently.