Stefen Robinson is in the middle of a pitched battle on the dance floor at Open End Gallery, doing his part to help raise money for the local Raizel Performances troupe. A remix of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" pumps out of the sound system, and he and his rival--both wearing workout clothes that'd make Richard Simmons proud--shuffle, grind, lunge, and flail. Robinson busts out one of his big moves: he leaps into the air and crosses his legs Indian style, then lands hard and starts bouncing on his ass across the floor. He's too hopped up on adrenaline to feel any pain now, but he'll be sore in a couple days. He'll also end up losing the competition.
Outlandish antics like this notwithstanding, the 23-year-old Robinson is also a serious musician, if not exactly a straight-faced one. He's earned a bit of local notoriety for his sacrifice-your-body dance-off style and for his street performances, usually downtown or on the lakefront, where he improvises on a drop-tuned mandolin run through a battery-powered practice amp with a percussionist called Foul Mouth Tommy. But he's better known as the man behind Yea Big, an experimental hip-hop project whose debut album, The Wind That Blows the Robot's Arms, comes out Tuesday on Jib Door, the new dance and hip-hop imprint of local label Locust Music. (Locust proper specializes in avant-folk and sound art, with a catalog that includes releases by Josephine Foster, Matmos, Henry Flynt, and Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls.) Robinson isn't an MC, and nobody raps on the Yea Big album--instead its old-school hip-hop beats and atomized drum samples give heft and momentum to a skittering, glitchy, lovingly crafted collage that combines cinematic digital soundscapes, field recordings, processed snippets of dialogue, and even chopped-up, barely recognizable mandolin patterns. One track is pieced together mainly from manipulated clips of his friends' laughter.
Robinson's work has attracted comparisons to laptronica artists like Prefuse 73 and Four Tet, but he says he's equally influenced by the hectic momentum and percussive rhythms of bluegrass. "I really want my stuff to be accepted as pop music," he says. "The whole thing is to make a pop record based out of experimental ideals."
Born and raised in Kankakee, Robinson started on the cello in the fourth grade and later picked up clarinet and saxophone. At first he stuck to school ensembles, but in high school he played guitar and bass in a series of alt-rock bands. He also began experimenting with home taping. "I started making these four-track recordings on cassette in junior high and passing them to people at school and my band directors," he says. "It was all weird noise stuff on keys and sax--it made no sense whatsoever." As a senior he became obsessed with mandolinist David Grisman, and during his freshman year at Kankakee Community College his mother bought him a mandolin for Christmas. He started learning the instrument even as he was developing a passion for hip-hop--particularly Aesop Rock and the rest of the Def Jux roster.
At around the same time he first heard Jim O'Rourke--specifically the ambient acoustic album Bad Timing. "It totally changed the way I thought about making recordings. It reminded me of really shitty stuff I was making on tape in high school," he says, laughing. "I'm not trying to say I was making stuff that was like Jim O'Rourke when I was 14, but it just reminded me of what I was trying to do. And I thought to myself, 'People make records like this? You can do this and make a living?'"
Soon Robinson discovered O'Rourke's live laptop recording I'm Happy and I'm Singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4. "That was the first computer music I ever really listened to, and that blew my mind again," he says. When Robinson transferred to Illinois State University in Normal, he chose the school's arts technology program, which focused on digital media. "Since I didn't really play a classical instrument that I could go take lessons for, I learned tech stuff," he says. He also began playing mandolin in a progressive bluegrass ensemble called Freespacemusic and in the free-improv group Yea Big by Yadda Thick, where he used a bass amp and the same nonstandard tuning he'd later carry over into his street performances.
By his senior year, Robinson had started an independent study program. "I told the director of the program that I wanted my study to focus on the recording medium--making tracks and culminating in a finished record," he says. "So my professor gave me this piece of cellophane from a CD wrapper and told me to make a three-movement track using just that. I made this thing and brought it back. Then he said, 'Make a hip-hop track out of this.' And that's actually how I started making beats. The first few tracks for Robot's really came out of that."
Robinson's first opportunity to appear on disc arose in 2004, when IDM artist Jane Dowe--who he'd met while interning for the Illegal Art label in nearby Bloomington--asked him to contribute to her Oh Astro project. He was eventually credited with "beats and clicks" on three tracks of Dowe's Hello World, released in February 2005. That work helped earn him an invitation from the 12 Apostles label, based in London and Brooklyn, to remix "Lord Lucan Is Still Missing"--originally recorded in 1978 by the Brighton pop-punk band the Dodgems--for a compilation of reimagined versions of the song.
A few months after graduating in December '04, Robinson moved to Chicago with his girlfriend and got a job at Call of the Wild School for Dogs in Avondale, where he manages the doggie day care. ("I just break up dog fights and pick up shit all day.") He spent much of last year fleshing out The Wind That Blows the Robot's Arms, which Locust Music head Dawson Prater agreed to release after hearing a shorter early version. Prater had launched Jib Door in April 2005 with a disc from minimalist Minneapolis rappers Kill the Vultures and liked the idea of putting out a radically different album on the same imprint. "Kill the Vultures are sort of extreme reductionists. Stefen is the exact opposite--he's like musical ADD, he compounds so much information into his work," Prater says.
Robinson is already involved in several other recording projects--he's playing mandolin and laptop in a long-distance duo called Geographer with drummer Brad Breeck of LA noise rockers the Mae Shi and collaborating with Chicago MC Kid Static, who's also a keyboardist in the Cankles. He's remixed the Kill the Vultures track "Moonshine" for a Jib Door 12-inch due this summer, and he's working on an electric-mandolin arrangement of the Drifters' 1960 hit "I Count the Tears," which he'll perform at Open End in March to accompany a piece by Raizel Performances choreographer Meghann Wilkinson.
He's also at work on a full-length mandolin record that will fuse old-time music with modern electronics. "When it comes down to it, I'm just obsessed with music," he says. "Eventually I want to get to the point where I can put out a rap record and then four months later put out a mandolin record, all under the Yea Big name, and people are OK with it because they don't look at me like I'm a hip-hop DJ or I'm an experimental composer. I want to be a guy that just makes music."
Yea Big, Spunky Toofers, Hard Altar, Hank Hofler
When: Sat 3/4, 8 PM
Where: Francisco House, 1951 N. Francisco
Price: $5 requested donation ($12 includes copy of Yea Big CD)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.