WHY? - Biography

Why? or as they’re more emphatically known, WHY? is an esoteric American hip-hop-cum-indie rock band that began as Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf’s solo project in Berkeley, California. After releasing a single album as a one-person entity, WHY? became a full band in 2005 with the additions of Wolf’s elder brother Josiah (drums), along with Matt Meldon (guitar) and Doug McDiarmid (miscellany) focusing as much on imagery and free association as on the music itself. Through various line-ups, the band has released four full-length albums, four EPs and a couple of CD-Rs. Wolf has also contributed to other projects, such as Hymie’s Basement and Object Beings.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio to Messianic Jewish parents, the teenage Wolf used an old 4-track that he found in his father’s synagogue and began musical experimentation combining rap, drumbeats and poetry. By the time he was in college, he was collaborating with Doseone (real name Adam Drucker) in various guises, including hard-to-pinpoint avanthop act, cLOUDDEAD.

In 1997, Wolf—along with Drucker, Tim Holland, Jeff Logan and others—founded San Francisco-based Anticon Records, and began assembling a roster that they called the Anticon Collective. Many members in the collective collaborated with each other in varying, boundless degrees of hip-hop, and recorded as solo artists, and, in 2002, Wolf put out the compelling Split with cLOUDDEAD member Odd Nosdam under the WHY? moniker. He followed that with his first long player on the label, Oaklandazulasylum (2003)—an identity-split album that was equal parts oddball hip-hop and underground folk, with introspective spoken word interludes strewn in. Wolf’s quirky, nasally delivery reclined over samples and beats and often felt as unnerving as it did charming, as intimate as it did detached. 

When WHY? returned with a follow-up in 2005, it was with a full band for Elephant Eyelash (Anticon), which strayed whole-force into lyrical whimsy—at times utterly sincere and other times free-form stream-of-consciousness. Now as an indie rock foray, the digressive, perhaps personal album was a sharp left turn from his earlier hip-hop leanings into more of a plotless-yet-imagery-filled style. Much of the lyrical wordplay—particularly on songs like the heartfelt “Gemini (Birthday Song)” and the austere think piece “Act Five”—had confessional or diary-reading vibe that either endeared itself to listeners or put them off.

After touring in support of Elephant Eyelash for the bulk of 2005, Meldon quit the band and left WHY? as a trio, and the members collaborated on other projects. The three-piece returned in 2008 with Alopecia (Anticon) and the post-rock meanderings again fell somewhere between the vaguest parts of hip-hop, folk extremes and an indie rock surface. The album was the first of WHY?’s to enter the Billboard Heatseeker’s charts (climbing to #28), and on the strength of tracks like “Fatalist Palmistry” and “The Hollows” received critical accolades.

Eskimo Snow (2009 Anticon)—which Wolf called the “winter” side of Elephant Eyelash and “the least hip-hop out of anything I’ve ever been involved with”—was recorded during the same sessions as that album. Enlisting Fog’s Andrew Broder and other cameos, the fourth LP by WHY? again shifted gears in becoming a little more pop-oriented and a lot more organic. The signature abstractedness and left-field lyricism that Wolf showcased on previous albums is in full-bloom on Eskimo Snow.

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