Take a shot of Katharine Hepburn, add a dash of Christopher Walken, shake it with a splash of smirking social commentary and serve in a glass of old school Casio hip hop beats and you've got a Curtis Plum cocktail. A fixture on the Boise skateboarding scene for years, Plum recently released his first album Call My Cellphone on Strange Famous Records, the label owned by indie rap pioneer Sage Francis. For an unemployed vagabond/prankster without a car, that's a crazy-big break.
Ask anyone who's hung around Neurolux or Rhodes Skate Park to describe Plum, and you'll hear the same off-beat tales. There's the time he pretended to have the same last name as pro-skater Chad Muska and wound up with a six-page spread in Big Brother, a Larry Flynt skate rag (true). Or the time he threw a party with a keg of O'Doul's and didn't tell his guests, just to gauge their reactions (false). Both Plum and his tongue-in-cheek hip hop are shrouded in a winking mischievousness.
On a recent overcast afternoon, Plum--a sturdy dude in his late 20s with a groomed, red beard--nursed a black coffee and fidgeted with a library copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Earnest, in a matter-of-fact way, he explained how he got into making music.
"I started listening to Wu-Tang a lot and Ol' Dirty Bastard was the guy that really inspired me to want to record some rap stuff. He just had a really distinctive voice," said Plum. "All the music I've liked, whether it's rock 'n' roll or anything, vocals are really important."
So in the early 2000s, Plum began rapping aloud on his daily walks down Chinden Boulevard, experimenting with various voices.
"I didn't really want to just rap in my regular voice," said Plum. "So, I just started experimenting with weird things. I started with cartoon voices and imitating Ol' Dirty Bastard ... then I started with a little bit of Christopher Walken and a little bit of Katharine Hepburn."
Something about the Hepburn/Walken combo stuck. Plum recorded an entire album in one month, including the original version of the track "Vin Diesel." Over a simple, almost childish, Casio piano melody and some basic loops, Plum raps absurd lyrics like, "He's got a real nice pad where we both roll back / and all I ever do is rub Turtle Wax / on Vin's bald head."
Though he had finally found his sound, it wasn't long before Plum pushed the project aside and moved onto other things.
"A lot of weird things in life happened. I wound up out in Middleton. I'm bipolar, and I had a pretty bad manic episode--an up episode--and after that happens you get medicated ... which turns you into a zombie for a while," said Plum. "That was pretty rough because I was still into making music, and I was like, 'What happened to my imagination?'"
Right when Plum thought he'd reached the end of his musical path, he won over an unexpected new fan--Sage Francis. Revered as the father of socially conscious indie rap, Francis runs the label Strange Famous and has recently collaborated with a number of indie greats--Will Oldham, Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla and Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous. Basically, Francis was way out of Plum's league.
"I just randomly sent Sage a message on Myspace ... and I was like, 'I used to rap and I was wondering if you have any beats you could sell me?' ... He heard these two tracks that just happened to be on my Myspace, and right off the bat he was like, 'Did you do those? Are those actually your songs? Would you be interested in putting them out professionally on my label?'"
Over the next couple years, as Plum's creativity waxed and waned with his bipolar meds, he e-mailed new tracks to Francis.
"It was a total pet project of mine where I took it on and worked with him for over a matter of two years," said Francis. "When he got around to making some more songs, he would send them in. I'd mix them; I mastered the album. I still think there's people around me who were really wondering if I was truly going to put out a record by Curtis Plum. And I was like 'Hell, yeah. This shit is keeping me sane right now.'"
While a number of songs like "Bike Cop" on Call My Cellphone toy with familiar hip hop themes (fuck the po-lice), they all take a comically lighthearted approach: "I'm a bike cop / poppin' wheelies of justice / you hear the sound of my bike tires bustin' / my mountain bike has a special name / it's called you're going to jail / what a shame." Though Plum's subject matter is totally over the top--see: "Lil Wayne Tried to Rape Me"--he adroitly navigates the bad taste balance beam without falling into Weird Al territory.
"The style of hip hop he makes isn't really what anyone would think I would listen to, but it had a great old school sensibility to it. It's the simplicity that makes it work so well," said Francis. "All of these elements that I look for in hip hop were prevalent in his music. It was a very natural thing. It didn't sound contrived, it didn't sound like he was making fun of rap. It sounded like it was a very genuine thing that he was doing for the fun of it."
While Call My Cellphone has done fairly well since its February 2010 release--"we're out of the red right now," Francis noted--it's unlikely that Plum will ever be a Strange Famous cash cow. Not only does he not like to tour--the lifeblood of the current music industry--but in all likelihood, Call My Cellphone will be Plum's first and final release.
"If I had to predict it, I would say he's going to totally flip the script and do something maybe not even music related," said Francis. "I don't think he's married to the Curtis Plum sound or character. I think that he's an artist by nature and he's going to vent whatever thoughts or ideas or creative impulses that he has in other ways."
To purchase a copy of Curtis Plum's album Call My Cellphone, visit strangefamousrecords.com.