Hidden Gems: TV On The Radio’s “OK Calculator”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Louis C.K. is the funniest man alive, though if you’re even a casual fan of comedy, this won’t be news to you. Not even taking into account his other work (including his increasingly brilliant TV series), in terms of pure stand-up comedy, there’s really no one else who’s work continually rises to his levels of resonating genius. This is especially exciting for my generation. As a 23-year-old, all the “great ones” were either before my time (Pryor, Carlin, Bruce, etc.), or whose heyday I just missed (Rock, Hedberg, Hicks). These are the guys who have been immortalized, the ones that my generation grew up hearing about in reverent tones, until we eventually experience their work and see why. I believe Louis C.K. will go down as one of the “great ones,” and it’s happening before our eyes. To be fair, we are not contemporaries (he’s 44), and I’m not suggesting he is the only truly great comedian of the past 10 years—but like any time period, there aren’t many future legends to go around. And although it’s an unorthodox comparison, in the world of music, the same can be said for TV On The Radio.

There are many elements that separate good artists from the great, but the evolution of their work is perhaps the most important. It’s one thing to create art that reverberates with an audience, and though not many can repeat this success, even less can do it while continuing to grow and innovate. In an interview with AV Club, C.K. used this principle to explain why he writes and performs a completely new hour of comedy each year, something almost unheard of in the world of stand-up: “If people pay to see you because they like your special, and they pay money to see the exact same show, they’ll actually be very happy. They won’t complain. They’ll go, ‘Ah, that was exactly as great as I thought it would be, because I’ve seen it.’ But they won’t see you again. If you come through town, they’ll go, ‘I know what he does. I don’t need to see that three times.'” That quote has always stuck with me, particularly because I’ve witnessed it in action. I have had the pleasure of seeing TV On The Radio in concert five times, and like its albums, each was completely different from the last. This wasn’t purely based on song choice or jam-y improvisation—the entire tone of each performance had changed. These ranged from a sweaty, punk gig in a shitty club, to an outdoor dance party with a full horn section, to putting on a crowd-pleasing rock show that could give any band a run for their money. I’ve never seen any group as many times, because, to paraphrase Louis, I never needed to. Like C.K., they always bring something new to their work, no matter how risky, and they’ve more or less always pulled it off.

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Of course, the keywords are “more or less.” Like most, if not all artists, there’s usually a period early on where they are still trying to find out who they are or what they’re about—comedians and musicians alike. It’s interesting to look back at the early work of great artists, since it’s often very different from their later accomplishments; sometimes, very different. Watching C.K.’s late-’80s stand-up performances, it’s jarring how different it is from his modern sets, but it’s fascinating since you know what’s in store for him. And for fans of TV On The Radio, its first album, OK Calculator, might seem almost unrecognizable, but it does flash some of the moments of extreme glory that would soon become a common occurrence in the band’s music.

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Tunde Adebimpe spent his childhood between Nigeria, where his parents were born, and the U.S., first in St. Louis, then the suburbs of Pittsburgh. He became fascinated with art at an early age, especially music and comic books. After high school, he left to go to New York, attending film school at NYU. There, he starred in Jorge, a short film directed by classmate Joel Hopkins. The film attracted some attention and was later fleshed out as a full-length called Jump Tomorrow, where Adebimpe reprised his role. He also animated a short film of his own in his senior year, which got him a job as animator on MTV’s claymation wrestling comedy Celebrity Death Match.

Also moving to New York around this time was Dave Sitek, a musician from Baltimore. Like Adebimpe, he also became obsessed with art as a kid, spending his teen years attempting to learn about music production by calling studios and asking various technical questions. Sitek met with Adebimpe in 2000, after moving into the same Brooklyn apartment building. Adebimpe explained in an interview with The Scotsman, “It just became apparent very quickly that we were going to be friends. His room was full of all this musical equipment with nothing but a mattress, and my room was full of paints and video equipment and nothing but a mattress.”

With the help of Sitek’s brother, Jason, they started creating lo-fi recordings on a four-track recorder for their own enjoyment. Most of the recordings were done separately, and then the best parts were blended together. As broke starving artists, the group had to make do with what it had, so most of the songs are nothing but Adebimpe’s beatboxing and a cappella harmonies. Taking the suggestion from a friend, the fellas named themselves TV On The Radio, and titled the album OK Calculator, a play on Radiohead’s OK Computer. CD-R copies were printed up in 2001, and instead of trying to sell them to record stores, the band hid them under couch cushions of local restaurants and cafés.

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Adebimpe’s voice alone makes up most of the tracks, and though the album’s rough sound takes some getting used to, this arrangement is surprisingly effective. Songs like “Yr God” and “Aim To Please” show off his soulful vocals, and you can hear some early signs of the later songwriting style the group would adapt. Sitek’s recordings are a little more polished, using the atmospheric electronics that would later envelope a lot of TVOTR’s music, like the slow ambience of “On A Train,” or the Kraftwerk fever dream “Pulse Of Pete.”

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In an interview with Spin, Adebimpe was asked if Radiohead ever sent a cease and desist letter in response to the album’s title: “Not at all. Probably because it’s not very good. Probably because they’re like, ‘This is obviously a joke on so many levels—musically, primarily.’” He’s not just being self-deprecating; there really is a lot of humor on OK Calculator, whether it’s the computer-voiced culture critique of “Robots” or the goofy rap of “Buffalo Girls.” The latter featuring hilarious lines such like, “Once I said I wouldn’t touch your shit with Hitler’s dick, but now your body’s changed my mind because those thighs is thick/Girl, you packed in the back like you was hiding twin midgets.” Although it’s clearly a joke, Adebimpe’s rapping skills are actually not bad.

Unexpectedly, “Me-I” is even one of TVOTR’s greatest songs. Featuring a beatboxing rhythm, bouncy piano loop and some primitive harmonica, Adebimpe takes the view of a child who’s proudly announces to his mom that he “made [his] bed for the very first time today.” Adopting the whiny kid-like vocals, Adebimpe sings like it’s the happiest day of his, so far, short life, but there’s an air of melancholy too deep to ignore. Reminiscent of the childlike wonder of another lo-fi genius, Daniel Johnston, it’s clearly an adult singing, bound with all the problems that we all have to face as we get older. When you’re a kid, something as simple as learning to make your bed could be the best day of your life; “Me-I” is an attempt to get back to that point of view—though, heartbreakingly, a futile one. Adebimpe, now in his deeper adult voice, explains to his mother, “I’m trying to make a place for myself, where I can dream … and never, ever have to wake up.”

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OK Calculator became a minor cult hit, but copies of the album ceased when the band’s CD burner broke. Soon after, TV On The Radio self-released the Young Liars EP, which caught the attention of Touch And Go Records and began the band’s rise to greatness. ITs hit-or-mess debut has yet to be formally reissued, instead becoming widely bootlegged. As the Adebimpe itself explained in a 2004 interview, “Someone wrote about it as ‘the extremely rare but superb OK Calculator,’ and I’m sitting there going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Rare, yeah, rare because we’re making them ourselves, and superb, that’s not up to us, but it’s not superb. [Laughs] I’d be the first person to tell you. There’s more hiss on some of those songs than there are songs. And it’s fun, and I love it, but I wouldn’t call it superb.” You have to give the band credit for taking such huge chances, even in its early days, and no matter your opinion of the album, it’s an important era in the evolution of one of the “great ones.”

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