Subset Mixes It Up


Sir Mix-a-Lot and the reunited Presidents mix rap and quirky rock surprisingly well

Tuesday, March 14, 2000


Dressed in black denim trousers and a bright-yellow T-shirt that reads "Mr. Skull Cracker," Sir Mix-a-Lot is rapping about the traps and trappings of stardom to a packed nightclub.

"Livin' life without a boss, never thought of the cost!" he growls in "Addicted to the Fame."

It's an infectious song by Seattle rap-rock group Subset about the pitfalls of a high-profile music career.

Heads bobbing, Sir Mix-a-Lot's fellow band members -- ex-Presidents of the United States of America Chris Ballew, Dave Dederer and Jason Finn -- join in on the song's comical lyrics:

"I got used to lobster, but I still want grits!"

  Sir Mix-a-Lot (real name Anthony Ray), foreground, reached a milestone with his 1992 rap hit "Baby Got Back." At left is fellow local rapper Outta-Site (Mike Singleton).
Sir Mix-a-Lot and guest rapper Mike Singleton whip back and forth across the tiny stage at West Seattle's Rocksport. As the chorus kicks in, a young crowd in tight jeans and T-shirts sings along, pumping its arms to the chunky rhythms:

"I'm addicted to the FAY-eee-YAY-eee-YAY-eee-YAME!"

Ballew, who shares songwriting responsibilities with Sir Mix-a-Lot, describes the song as Subset's "memo to the world."

"It's our flagship song," he says.

"It's about that ego-building sensation of being famous and finding out that you're not in control of yourself and your music. You realize it's better to go back to doing it for the right reasons."

Everyone in Subset, one of Seattle's more unusual musical collaborations, has played the fame game.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, the most recognizable member of the group, reached his commercial peak with the 1992 rap hit "Baby Got Back," a boisterous defense of big butts. The song won him a Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Ballew, Dederer and Finn somersaulted to national fame in the mid-'90s with the infectiously comical "Lump," "Kitty" and "Peaches." The Grammy-nominated group offered an antidote to the gloom-and-doom of Seattle grunge.

But success had its drawbacks.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, whose real name is Anthony Ray, got caught up in a star trip. Living large in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, he drove exotic cars and spent lavishly on clothes and jewelry.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, left, and fellow Subsetter Dave Dederer perform at West Seattle's Rocksport recently. Wanda J. Benvenutti/P-I  
"I was forgettin' to call mom for months at a time," he said, "and buying five and six cars for over $100,000 a piece.

"I think a lot of artists go that route, especially in hip-hop. Because you have this false sense of what's right and wrong. If you sold a million records, you don't want your fans to think you're broke, so you go out and buy an expensive car."

His lifestyle eventually led to a run-in with the IRS, but he still owns the large Auburn home he bought years ago. And his lavish collection of vehicles has shrunk to two or three.

"I never went broke, but all the fast living caught up with me at once," he said.

Tired of working with a major record label that only seemed interested in sequels to "Baby Got Back," Sir Mix-a-Lot walked away from a recording contract.

"After 'Baby Got Back,' I was kind of typecast, like Sylvester Stallone's forever-macho guy. It kind of bothered me," he said. "That song was never a gimmick for me."

  Subset, from left, Chris Ballew, Dave Dederer, Sir Mix-a-Lot and Jason Finn, has an interesting blend of rap, rock and humor.
The Presidents also struggled with creative stagnation. After two successful albums and a string of tours, chief songwriter Ballew decided to leave the group in 1997 to pursue other musical projects.

"A huge reason I quit was because I felt connected to a body of work I'd outgrown," he said.

In 1998, Sir Mix-a-Lot's manager, looking to revive the rapper's career, suggested he team up with a rock band to record a Jimi Hendrix song for a movie soundtrack.

"I hate covering anything, honestly," he said. "But we were talking about different groups we were going to try to use and the Presidents came up. And I said, 'Didn't those guys retire?' I always thought the coolest groups in the world were the ones that could just walk away."

A meeting was arranged, but when the four musicians got together, the conversation quickly turned to the music business.

"We started talking about the business and what we didn't like about it," Sir Mix-a-Lot said. "And how the game pressures you and gets you away from being creative. It's basically about satisfying the fans you had on your last record."

Abandoning the idea of doing a Hendrix song, the four musicians created their own music. Ballew, Dederer and Finn came up with instrumental tracks and Sir Mix-a-Lot (his nickname is "Mix") wrote lyrics. They completed two songs, "Addicted to the Fame" and "Beach Rats."

A month later, in December 1998, the ex-Presidents joined Sir Mix-a-Lot onstage at The Showbox. The Presidents, who hadn't played together in more than a year, were surprised at the crowd's enthusiasm.

"We'd forgotten what it was like to feel a wave of energy from a crowd," Ballew said.

"I expected more of a cynical, raised-brow, we'll-see kind of reaction," Sir Mix-a-Lot said. "But, man, the crowd went nuts. We thought, 'Whoa, this could catch on.'"

The new band settled on a name. In the world of rap, the group you hang out with is your "posse" or "set."

"So we're a Subset," Ballew said.

Band members now have enough songs for a show and eventually an album. Their songs -- "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Farmer John," "Skinnin' and Grinnin'" and Sir Mix-a-Lot's ode to the IRS, "Blood From a Stone" -- reflect the stylistic idiosyncracies of the group's two halves, with strong hooks, clever rhymes and heavy guitars.

One of the group's catchiest songs, "Ribby Rib," is a humorous ditty about the mysteries of human evolution vs. divine creation:

"Long ago in a lava soup/ Two little worms came together/ And they kissed real hard and divided into four."

Though Sir Mix-a-Lot's raps blend surprisingly well with the Presidents' trademark quirkiness, there are kinks to be worked out before the band completes an album.

"There are production things, like how the kick drum is supposed to sound," Dederer said. "If you come from a band that plays a lot of fast rock 'n' roll, the kick drum is supposed to be tight and well-defined and punchy.

"If you come from a hip-hop background, the kick drum is supposed to sound huge, so it shakes windows out of people's cars."

As a producer for his own label, Rhyme Cartel Records, Sir Mix-a-Lot has had years of studio experience.

"Mix is really good at what he does, so to hear his perspective on how a song should sound or be arranged is refreshing and exciting to us," Dederer said.

In a city where rock rules and rap is from outer space, Sir Mix-a-Lot has often found himself surrounded by rock musicians.

In the late '80s, after Run-DMC recorded a hot-selling rap version of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," uniting the rap and rock camps, Sir Mix-a-Lot teamed up with guitarist Craig Wells of Metal Church for a remake of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."

"It was horrible," he said. "I can't believe I did that. I was thinking more about a paycheck than a great record."

Run-DMC's version of "Walk This Way" proved highly influential. A decade later, in the late '90s, bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock changed the sound of mainstream rock by fusing it with rap and funk.

Subset now reluctantly finds itself part of a trend.

"I think that's unfortunate," Dederer said. "Because we're not consciously trying to tap into that. I think it hurts us because the expectation is that we're going to sound like Limp Bizkit and we don't."

The group's first tour opens with a show tomorrow night at 9 at The Fenix. Tickets, $12, are available at Ticketmaster and the Fenix Pool Hall and Cigar Bar, or online through

The tour of Oregon, California and Arizona includes a high-profile show March 20 at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.

In Seattle, Subset has taken its lumps from downtown hipsters suspicious of the band's motives and disdainful of its comical fusion of rap, rock, funk and novelty.

This is one of the reasons the group elected to play at Rocksport, a sports bar and rock club, and at The Fenix, a destination for Pioneer Square's weekend revelers.

"I don't think the hipster elite was ever our audience or ever will be," Ballew said.

"So I think that playing at Rocksport or The Fenix is great for us. I think those are the kinds of people who want to come and see us. We want to play for people who like to go out and have a good time."

By summer, Subset hopes to finish its album. The band will then have to decide how to market it -- through a label or on the Internet.

Getting radio airplay could be tougher.

"It's going to be interesting because urban radio doesn't play anything with guitars. And alternative radio generally doesn't have African Americans rapping," Ballew said.

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