Clipping (often styled as clipping.) are Daveed Diggs, William Huston, and Jonathan Snipes. After starting out as a remix project, they’ve evolved into an experimental, industrial rap act that combines a vast enthusiasm for their field and what happens at its edges with Diggs’ fiercely literate, playful lyrics. If you like and are familiar with rap, picture the centre of a Venn diagram where the overlapping circles are labelled “De La Soul,” “Michael Franti,” “A Tribe Called Quest,” “Dr. Dre’s production style,” and “The Bomb Squad.” If you don’t like or aren’t particularly familiar with rap, then the Venn diagram reads something like “Nine Inch Nails,” “Stockhausen,” “Gil Scott-Heron,” and “early Leftfield.” Their work is massive and precise, compassionate and architectural—at times intensely funny, and at others deeply horrific. They are, by far, one of the best things happening not just in rap but in music at the moment.
The fact that Clipping been nominated for a Hugo for two years running speaks to that. Last year’s science fiction concept album, Splendor & Misery was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form. This year, their song, “The Deep,” has followed it.
This is fantastic news, not just for the group, but for the Hugos.
Best Dramatic Presentation-Short Form has often, rightly, been criticised for being the “Best Episode of Game Of Thrones With A Battle In It” or the “Best Doctor Who Episode Broadcast That Year” award. Since 2015, however, it’s not gone to either of those shows. Jessica Jones, Orphan Black, and The Expanse have taken the top spot. That speaks to a welcome, and years overdue, expansion and diversification of both viewing habits and awareness. It also speaks to the possibility that the award is slowly transitioning to something infinitely more interesting and varied than it’s ever been before.
Enter Clipping, stage left, merrily skipping across formats, genres, and expectations.
This year’s finalist, “The Deep,” is immediately impressive, even on a first listen. I’ve noticed that several bloggers have written favourably about it as a contender, but noted that the song doesn’t possess quite the same substance and depth there as the other finalists in the category, which are all full episodes of television representing various excellent series (Doctor Who, The Expanse, Black Mirror, and The Good Place—which actually has two episodes on this year’s slate.)
I respectfully disagree on this point.
“The Deep,” structurally, is a short story. Beginning at the bottom of the ocean, with the children of pregnant slaves thrown overboard who learned to adapt and survive, it’s ponderous and measured. The weight of the water and the history these people operate under is carried in every syllable. As the narrative continues, their underwater civilization is interrupted by drilling, and the song begins rising to the surface along with the citizens. Each verse is a little faster, while Diggs’ raps a little closer to the top of the mix until the final verse sees them rise up, in every sense, to the surface. It’s a narrative journey mapped through tempo. A story told through beats per minute. On a technical level, it’s probably the best thing Clipping have done so far.
And this exact type of precise, short-form wit also marks out the best short stories: The willingness to play with format and tempo situates great short fiction and great music in the same place, halfway between poetry and composition. Not so much “medium as message” as it is “structure as story.”
Looked at purely from that perspective, “The Deep” is exactly as much of a contender for the award as current favourite The Good Place. Looked at from a different point of view, however, you realize there’s a lot more to “The Deep” than the basic song analysis above might indicate…
The central idea that drives “The Deep” was first expressed by legendary Detroit-based electronic music act Drexciya. James Stinson and Gerald Donald’s work was defined by constant exploration of this concept of an underwater country (“Drexciya” itself), through their music, liner notes, and song titles. The fascinating mythos surrounding this civilization born out of the violence of slavery is intensely powerful, and one that Drexciya’s work orbited throughout their existence. Stinson passed away in 2002, but the duo’s influence in the field continues to be felt. And, through Clipping, it has evolved. “The Deep” becomes even more powerful when you realize what Diggs and company have added to the original idea: the concept of this civilization being invaded, and pushing back. This culminates in a final verse that’s somehow manages to mingle Shakespeare’s “The quality of mercy is not strained…” with the apocalyptic dread of Deep Impact. The Drexciyans are given a chance to wipe their opponents off the planet. They don’t.
Not because they aren’t able to, but because they have the compassion, awareness, and empathy that the men who enslaved and murdered their parents lacked.
It’s vastly powerful storytelling that only becomes more powerful the more you listen, the more you think about it. And that quality, just like the short story structure of the song, marks this out as work that’s not just extraordinary but arrives at a familiar place in a truly revelatory way. “The Deep” develops and explores an extant mythos by an earlier author, mixing it with a new perspective and presenting it to modern audiences at a time when its themes are particularly resonant and meaningful.
That’s a technique that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Wild Cards anthology, for example, or enjoyed any version or subversion of the Cthulhu mythos, or watched, played, or read any offshoot or incarnation of Star Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who.
“The Deep” isn’t just a remarkable piece of music—it’s one that embodies some of the central narrative strategies of genre fiction, and Clipping manages to create something you’d never see coming as a result. Fascinating, literate, and thematically complex, it absolutely deserves its spot in this year’s excellent set of finalists. I can’t say if it will win or not. I suspect this may be The Good Place’s year. But I do know that it’s presence on the ballot, and the likely presence of Janelle Monae’s superb Dirty Computer among next year’s Hugo finalists, means that this award category is most definitely heading in the right direction.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.