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The artist as his own collage

Carl Hancock Rux is a singer, songwriter, poet, novelist and more, all of which informs his new CD, 'Apothecary: Rx.'

August 11, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Carl Hancock Rux is caught between destinations. A sudden late-summer downpour has stranded him -- without an umbrella, between engagements.

But in his typically fluid way he makes the best of it. Pulling up a stool at a Brooklyn bar, he settles in for this pre-appointed chat on his cellphone. "I was almost home. And then it just started pouring." Rux speaks over shouted political opinions and happy hour flirtations, in his big, lush basso. "This will work. Just fine."

The effect is somewhat like house party, or club, with Rux the host, or better, MC.

Much like his own layered music, the ambience adds here-and-now texture to his thoughts and words. It's clear Rux learned long ago to more than make do -- to spin an awkward situation into introspection, then into art.

Rux is one of those freestyling creative spirits -- a singer-songwriter-poet-novelist and then some. However, the old standby "Renaissance man" tag seems too cliched for an artist who has tried mightily to wriggle out of so many of them. Rux is all about unusual hybrids and open borders.

His latest album, "Apothecary: Rx" on Giant Step Records, is a vivid collage of found sound, grooves and modes -- talking drums and New Orleans second line beats, gospel and art rock -- an armful of souvenirs from a cacophonous world.

In a culture that adores the cut-to-the-chase, condensed version, one can't sum Rux up in a sentence or two. And that makes him happy. He doesn't want you to know what to expect.

His first CD, 1999's "Rux Revue," was a panoply of flirtations -- not quite hip-hop, not quite soul, not quite jazz, not quite spoken word, but filling a space somewhere between.

He knows that he is a round peg for a square hole, in an industry that doesn't always make room for artists who choose to draw outside the lines.

His new sophomore album arrived on the heels of a first novel, "Asphalt," a hallucinatory journey of a displaced DJ, set in a sooty, just-a-day-after-tomorrow future. The book blends speculative fiction and myth with real-life post-9/11 unease embroidered throughout. "I wanted to write a book that honored hip-hop the way [Ralph] Ellison honored jazz. But it's not all about hip-hop and it's not an African American book: It's about people and souls and existence."

That's only what he's been up to in the last few months. Rux, at 36, has a whole store more rattling around in his creative basement. There've been collaborations with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Urban Bush Women, an Obie Award-winning play "Talk" (produced in 2002, arriving in book form later this year) and a collection of poems, "Pagan Operetta" (1999). He spent the middle part of last year in Europe playing the lead in the opera "The Temptation of St. Anthony," adapted by Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice Johnson Reagon and directed by Robert Wilson.

"Apothecary: Rx" pushes even further, with Rux's speech/song -- something he calls "hip-bop" -- hovering over a musical melange. "It's about music that didn't try to be anything self-conscious. It was a collage. Sitars and other Asian instruments. Strings ... African drummers. I was thinking [Qawwali singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but I was also thinking about old underground soul records you can only find in the U.K. They are just as straight out of the church as gospel." It is no coincidence that something as ephemeral as a song's bridge or break-beat would be connected to spirituality in Rux's head and heart.

It was his way, he understands now, of dealing with displacement and loneliness. "Art served my social and emotional needs as I was growing up. It was my survival instinct," says Rux. It came first with drawing. "I would start on one side of the paper. It would look like a collage. I wouldn't turn the paper over. I didn't get a new piece of paper. All I cared about was keeping the story going. Keeping the pictures coming. Some kind of narrative was always important to me."

Coming to Rux's work either on page or on disc, that passion is clear. He is enamored with densely arranged assemblages -- quirky juxtapositions, blurry borders -- in prose and in song.

Spinning dross into gold, at the very least creative fodder, began early: Rux never knew his father. His mother suffered from mental illness. So much of that and more is stitched through Rux's works -- a brother's death of AIDS, the cycle of foster care. He was born in Harlem and grew up around its history, dreams and frustrations. At 15 he was adopted by grandparents, and his arts education began in their living room. Books by Jean Genet and James Baldwin were stacked on shelves. "There was something about the danger and the beauty and the loveliness," he recalls. "I began to understand that my thing, my life, was not so beautiful. But it wasn't so ugly."

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