By Joan Anderman, .Globe Staff | February 16, 2007
It's tempting to describe Tim Fite as the sort of hard-core activist who puts his money where his mouth is, except no money will be changing hands when Fite puts out his new album on Tuesday , and that's exactly the point. "Over the Counter Culture" is a collection of scathing, acerbic observations about modern consumerism -- in particular its effect on rap culture. Fite, who is signed to Epitaph Records' enterprising Anti- imprint, will release the album for free -- as a download on his website (timfite.com) and on eTunes, and as an iTunes podcast. Article Tools
"Where's my ill-begotten riches/ where's my women who want to be called [expletive]/ where's my Gucci and my gabardine/ where's my groupies in they Prada jeans/ where's my lotion and Vaseline/ where's the picture of me in the magazine," raps Fite in "It's All Right Here," a strings-drenched, beat-heavy travelogue of the modern soul set in a Wal-Mart. Fite used to work at America's mega-retailer, rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot and helping shoppers load purchases into their cars.
"If ever there was an image of how we overdo it," he says, "it's trying to put the biggest TV in the world , on which we'll watch commercials for big things we don't need , into the biggest SUV on the market and it doesn't fit."
Despite his well-articulated rage, Fite doesn't exclude himself, or try to excuse himself, from the consumer culture. The artist's struggle to practice what he preaches -- couched in scavenged beats and homespun hip-hop that will remind some listeners of Beck's early records -- gives "Over the Counter Culture" edge and depth.
"At this point we're all complicit," Fite says on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. "We don't have a choice. It's not 'Do I want to be affected by these ads?' but 'How am I affected by these ads?' I don't think it's possible to be a member of society and not at some point or another turn around and do the things you can't stand. I had to be crystal clear about how I feel, and I can't sell these ideas. That would be wrong."
Andy Kaulkin, the president of Epitaph Records, signed Fite to Anti- early in 2005 and released "Gone Ain't Gone," his fabulously quirky slacker-rock debut, later that year. Anti-'s slogan is "real artists creating great recordings on their own terms." Fite's labelmates include Tom Waits, Blackalicious, the Coup, and Neko Case. Yet even for a label that so clearly values integrity, the notion of giving away music -- especially in a time of dramatically declining fortunes for the recording industry -- is counterintuitive.
"The album is so good," says Kaulkin. "In some ways it's more accessible than 'Gone Ain't Gone,' and yes, at some point the conversation did come up. I wondered if we should sell it. But we decided it would be in poor taste considering the subject matter, and I'm comfortable with that. I think Fite is a career artist and this is good artist development. It creates more of a bond between the artist and the fans."
Fite grew up in the woods on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey with artist parents who valued good light over material possessions. It was, he says, an extremely alternative existence.
"Part of my not feeling comfortable in a go-go-go-get-it world is growing up in the midst of that," says Fite, who teaches at New York's Center for Book Arts, a not-for-profit organization that offers classes in book binding and letterpress printing. Those traditional crafts are making a big comeback, he says, noting that his class is filled with brides aiming to make their own wedding invitations. Fite tries to live a simple life, creating music in the bedroom of his fourth-floor walk - up and rejecting, as best he can, materialistic urges.
"The only time I find myself being truly materialistic is when I'm trying to get things to make things. If I need a new keyboard to make a song better I'll try to figure out a way to get it, and I don't think that's really bad," says Fite. "It's different from 'I need this thing because that guy has it.' That's filtering money into a system that doesn't give anything back to you. That feeds into real problems of polarization of power, and since it doesn't look like we'll destroy that system, you have to figure out ways of reconciling and still subverting. One of the best ways to subvert is to contribute creatively. You've got to produce, not just accumulate."
Fite has produced the kind of brazen, self-aware political critique that h arkens back to early Public Enemy and has become a rarity in contemporary hip-hop. He likens the current state of rap to Che Guevara's image on a million T-shirts: a revolution that's been co - opted by the man for material gain. With lines like "my exit wounds make record exec goons swoon," from "I've Been Shot," Fite mocks the marketing machinery that's reduced, in his eyes, a movement to a cliche.
"The businessmen behind hip-hop are corrupting perfectly talented MCs and turning them into stereotypes," says Fite. "Bad music has always been around. I don't have a problem with that. But to take away someone's voice and power for your own personal gain is sick."
Fite doesn't imagine the targets of his vitriol will take notice. "Their penthouses are too far up in the sky to see a speck like me on the sidewalk." But Fite concedes he made "Over the Counter Culture" for one reason: He just had to.
"I was born angry," Fite says. "Before I was even aware there was a world I was angry, and as consciousness seeped in I realized I didn't have to be angry for no reason. But there's only so much anger you can put out into the world, and now that I've got it out I can dive into writing other songs that touch on other things."
Anti- will release Fite's next album in the fall. It will be a subtler effort, more singer-songwriter and less hip-hop, in the mold of "Gone Ain't Gone," Fite says, sounding less like a fiery rebel and more like an aspiring recording artist.
"I have a contract," he points out. "I volunteered to be a part of that system."