When I first profiled the Cool Kids almost exactly four years ago, they were a couple of ferociously gifted young hip-hop artists on the leading edge of the style, poised to make a big splash with their first album. Today Mikey Rocks (Antoine Reed, 23) and Chuck Inglish (Evan Ingersoll, 26) are still extremely talented, still pretty young, still innovative, and, improbably, still waiting for their first official full-length to drop. The interminably delayed When Fish Ride Bicycles finally comes out July 12 on Green Label Sound, a digital label run by Mountain Dew.
Those four years have been full of ups and downs for the duo. In late 2007 the Cool Kids parlayed their local popularity into a deal with Chicago label Chocolate Industries. With a sound and image indebted to the hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s and an audience that included plenty of white kids who didn't identify primarily as rap fans, the group helped inspire a rash of trend stories on "hipster rap" (including mine). Many of these stories made breathless claims about the rejection of gangsta rap by the Kids and their peers, insisting that it portended the genre's imminent demise, while sensible commentators simply understood the duo to be returning to some of hip-hop's more laudable classical values.
The Cool Kids made fans of everyone from Lil Wayne to New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and the hype building around them—which they backed up in summer 2008 with the solid EP The Bake Sale—brought them plenty of opportunities. In late 2007 they played some opening slots on an M.I.A. tour; their songs appeared on soundtracks to video games like NBA Live 08 and Major League Baseball 2K8; they landed music placements in TV commercials for the likes of Rhapsody and Nike. It looked like their forthcoming first album, already titled When Fish Ride Bicycles, would throw the switch on the music-business machine and rocket them into some crazy, rarefied stratum of popularity.
As of yet that hasn't happened. In late 2008, not long after Bake Sale's release and right in the middle of putting together Bicycles, the Kids fell out with Chocolate Industries. They wanted out of their contract—in an August 2010 Reader interview they both said they'd been "duped"—but Seven Bedard, who runs the label, naturally didn't want to let them go for free. The two parties took their conflict to court, and nearly three years later, according to Cool Kids manager Chris Watkins, the litigation is still ongoing.
For much of that time the Cool Kids considered themselves stuck in "record label jail," as Ingersoll put it in an October 2010 Twitter post—that is, they were unwilling to release anything on Chocolate Industries and unable to sign with anyone else. Neither Watkins nor the Cool Kids will comment on the details, but given the imminent Green Label Sound release of Bicycles, that's obviously changed: according to Watkins, they consider the fact that they've already been able to release music without the court intervening to be proof that they're no longer beholden to Chocolate Industries. Bedard, reached by phone this week, likewise declined to go into detail, but when I asked if the Cool Kids were under contract to his label, he replied, "That's still the case."
"We were stuck in a deal that was no good and we had to sue our way out," says Ingersoll. "There's never been a band—classical, legends—that amicably parted ways with their label. There's no band that got to a certain point and hasn't said fuck their label. Prince said fuck his label so bad that he changed his name and put the shit on the side of his face. This shit is no different." He says the experience has only strengthened his bond with Reed. "We been paid. We been broke. We been pissed off. But it's always together."
Reed credits the group's tribulations with helping him improve as an artist. "It actually made me get better faster," he says. "Now I'm like, all right, to make any noise I gotta go above and beyond, because I can't just do the regular record-label push. I was like, OK, I'll have to get way better than anybody else and make that what stands out about me."
Since their legal fight with Chocolate Industries began, the Cool Kids have done almost everything a rap group can do, except actually put out an album. They released two mix tapes together—Gone Fishing in May 2009 and Tacklebox in June 2010—as well as a single, "Delivery Man," which came out in August 2008 on Green Label Sound. And they've both pursued solo ventures: Ingersoll has made beats for everybody from obscure local acts to marquee names like Kid Cudi, and Reed has released a pair of solo mix tapes and become a regular featured rapper on other artists' tracks.
The long-awaited release of When Fish Ride Bicycles will answer a number of questions that have been hanging over the Cool Kids' heads for years. Chief among them: Have the Cool Kids blown their chance to blow up? In 2008 they were generating so much hype that releasing an official full-length album seemed almost like a formality, but since then it's started to look they can't propel themselves past the crucial tipping point without one. Though mix tapes aren't just for hardcore hip-hop heads anymore, the mainstream audience still likes albums.
The good news for the Cool Kids is that "hipster rap" has turned out to be less of a fad than some of its critics took it to be. Artists like Cudi, Drake, and Kanye West have succeeded without leaning on gangsta tropes, and a lot of the hallmarks of hipster rap have become normalized in hip-hop. Rick Ross has turned up on a track with Bon Iver. Even Jay-Z wears horn-rimmed glasses.
"The difference between when you interviewed us last time and now is, like, you were talking to some kids in college; now you're talking to two dudes who started some shit," says Ingersoll. "You see kids walking around with snapbacks," he adds, referring to a retro style of baseball cap. "Every single kid you see. When you did our interview, we were the only ones who did that shit. It's weird. I'm just a weirdo and I don't like seeing people doing everything that I do. But it's also a blessing because it shows you that our plan worked."
Watching the trend's evolution has been interesting for Ingersoll. "It's just funny how everybody has to rush to box everything now," he says. "We're so hype-driven, like 'Is this the next this?' or 'Is this the next that?' I think we came out at a time when that was at a fever pitch. 'What do you mean they're not gangsta rapping, they're not talking about drugs, and they're not talking about conscious shit. So what the fuck is that? We haven't seen that yet.' Like, 'hipster rap'—when did I ever say I was a hipster? Never. I thought that was the wackest shit I ever heard in my life."
But now the Cool Kids are reaping the benefits of sticking to their guns through the hype and the inevitable backlash. "Everyone knows that we started that shit so now it looks even cooler, like, 'Look what you did while we were hating on you, and now everyone's doing it,'" Ingersoll says. That "everyone" includes Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, currently the most talked-about hip-hop group on earth. "I just talked to [Odd Future MC] Hodgy [Beats]. He came to our party that I was DJing and he pretty much admitted to me, 'Yo, you all are the champions of this shit.' All of them say it. They're not afraid to say it."
Another big question the Cool Kids are about to answer is whether When Fish Ride Bicycles will satisfy the fans who are expecting the duo's first proper full-length to make good on all the potential they've displayed over the past three years. Hip-hop and pop trends have come and gone since The Bake Sale, but Ingersoll and Reed's approach to music doesn't seem to have been much affected. In fact the new album could work as a proof of the idea that the best way for an artist to master a form is to find one specific, focused thing to do over and over, ignoring pretty much everything else that flies past.
Reviews of the Cool Kids from '06 and '07 made a lot out of their similarities to golden-age acts like Run-DMC, EPMD, and Eric B. & Rakim, especially Ingersoll's booming, minimalist production style and the duo's boxy vocal flow. On Bicycles they stick mostly to the same unfrilly sounds: they continue to lean on clever writing more than complicated rhyme schemes, and Ingersoll has yet to sample, say, Animal Collective. That's not to say they haven't grown, though. "Sour Apples," which features Blink-182's Travis Barker beefing up the drum part, fills out the Cool Kids' usual chilly, deadpan vocals with shout-along backups that succeed both as an aural counterpoint and as an inspiration to break out some nasty dance moves in the club. "Swimsuits," an ode to tropical vacations and babes in bikinis, benefits from an unexpected injection of warm blood by soul revivalist Mayer Hawthorne, who provides its satiny falsetto hook.
The album may or may not prove to be the Cool Kids' golden ticket, but no matter what it seems likely to keep the group going. Because Green Label Sound is funded by Mountain Dew's marketing budget, not by record sales, the group isn't under the same kind of financial pressure that comes with a traditional label deal. Even though GLS is selling Bicycles, not giving it away like its earlier releases, it's not much interested in turning music into a source of revenue in and of itself: as Billboard reported in February, "Mountain Dew is waiving the usual label share of the revenue, leaving all income, minus iTunes processing fees, to the artists." Ingersoll and Reed say they own their masters and aren't on the hook for recoupable expenses. "We don't make them any money," Ingersoll says. "We're just like a good representation of their brand."
Ingersoll seems to want the album to succeed to vindicate Green Label Sound's business model almost as much as he wants it to succeed for the Cool Kids' sake. "I can't help but think they don't want to compete with labels too," he says. "Like, 'Fuck y'all. We're a soda company and we're about to shit on you.' I'd rather be on the 'about to shit on them' train. I'd want to be over here while they're sinking. That's pretty much the basis of the deal. It's a chance. We don't know what's going to happen."
He'd like to see other acts take as much inspiration from the structure of the Cool Kids' label deal as they do from the duo's beats and rhymes. "If there's another Cool Kids and they want to dress like us," he says, "I hope they try to get a deal like us, instead of just trying to dress like us. Then we can just fuck the whole world up."