LOS ANGELES — On a sunny October afternoon, the producer Jonathan Snipes heard the distant bloop of a postal scanner and bounded to grab the day’s mail: a box of eight blank cassettes for his Tascam Portastudio along with the comically complicated score to “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” from the American composer Frederic Rzewski. The adventurous contemporary-classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound had asked his noise-flecked rap group, Clipping, to submit an interpretation of the politically charged 1975 piano piece.
“If you really know a lot about, like, 20th-century piano technique, this is apparently just, like, nonstop inside jokes about Schoenberg,” Snipes said, barefoot in a shady pocket outside his apartment’s shared patio space.
“Oh really?” said the producer and Clipping member William Hutson from about 12 feet away, his neck draped in a paisley bandanna.
“It’s a gorgeous score, too, man,” Snipes added. “I can read some of it. I can’t play any of it.” They both laughed.
A challenging, political assignment should be no match for Clipping. The group’s sui generis art-rap weaves themes of racial injustice through its members’ obsessions: contemporary-classical music, harsh-noise cassettes, horror movies, musique concrète, sci-fi novels, field recordings and the regional 1990s hip-hop scenes that thrived outside of New York and Los Angeles. Its lineup is rounded out by a Tony- and Grammy-award winning heartthrob, Daveed Diggs, famous for originating the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway run of “Hamilton” and for co-writing “Blindspotting,” the acclaimed 2018 film about gentrification.
While the group has released three albums on the storied rock label Sub Pop since 2014, its music has become strikingly timely. If Run the Jewels are the polemicist poets facing America’s racial reckoning with six-foot-high spray-painted lettering, Clipping’s members are the academics connecting the horrors of the country’s past with thumbtacks and string.
Its new album, “Visions of Bodies Being Burned,” due Friday, tells stories of lynching victims returning as vengeful ghosts and describes the bloody tableaus after three police officers meet their demise. Like the films of Jordan Peele or Bong Joon Ho, Clipping uses speculative fiction to reflect the cruelty of contemporary reality. Hutson even taught a class at the University of California, Los Angeles, called Monsters and the Uncanny in American Popular Culture.
And in June, this unlikely hip-hop trio stumbled into its most unlikely moment to date: a social media moment. Two plain-spoken lines by Diggs in “Chapter 319,” the group’s fiery response to the killing of George Floyd, released on Juneteenth, have become a sensation on TikTok, serving as the soundtrack for more than 75,000 videos: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist — full stop/If you vote for him again, you’re a white supremacist — full stop.”
At first, Diggs was hesitant to record a track reacting to the spate of police killings of Black Americans this year. “My DMs were sort of full of people asking me to say something, and I was deeply frustrated with that, because everything I could have said, I already made a movie about, I’ve been saying very openly for the last 10 to 15 years,” Diggs said, video chatting from a nondescript rental in Vancouver, where he is filming the second season of the TV series “Snowpiercer.”
Hutson was struck by hearing pointed, political songs by the rapper YG at protests in Los Angeles, and suggested a track that felt “like marching orders for like a march across a freeway.” Recorded separately in quarantine, “Chapter 319” poignantly samples Floyd himself, who made a few appearances in mid-90s Houston as Big Floyd, a rapper in the orbit of the mixtape pioneer DJ Screw. It’s one of the rare songs in the Clipping catalog where Diggs uses the first person.
“I felt much lighter after we put that out,” Diggs said. “And then the fact that it proved to be useful for people was really also very heartening.”
Clipping released its first mixtape eight years ago, but Diggs and Hutson go back much further than that. The two have been close since their days at Marin Elementary School in the Bay Area, bonding over Parliament-Funkadelic. Hutson had the most permissive parents in their friend group and held weekend-long hangouts where the young friends listened to abstract rap groups like Souls of Mischief and Freestyle Fellowship, and watched R-rated horror movies and John Waters films.
Diggs went to Brown University on a track scholarship, and Hutson and Snipes met during their freshman year at U.C.L.A. — all three would graduate with various theater degrees, foreshadowing Clipping’s distinct sound design and deep plotlines. After graduation, Diggs returned to the Bay Area, where he released motor-mouthed rap mixtapes with his creative partner Rafael Casal and began writing the screenplay for “Blindspotting.” He would visit Snipes and Hutson in Los Angeles, where they were remixing songs by Ludacris and Drake with the sounds of “power electronics,” a genre born in the early ’80s in Britain in which a performer culls formless sheets of feedback. Intrigued, Diggs agreed to provide vocals.
After releasing its debut, the group toured relentlessly, but Diggs was also taking frequent trips to New York to workshop the project that would become “Hamilton.”
Diggs’s work outside Clipping has made him a master of multitasking, but it’s also pushed him to his limits. While starring in Suzan-Lori Parks’s play “White Noise” during its 2019 run at the Public Theater, he recorded Clipping music at a nearby studio until call time and then performed in the physically taxing play. At one point, he fainted rehearsing a scene in which he attempted to bowl a perfect game. (“I’d never fainted before,” Diggs said, “and it freaked me out.”)
The two Clipping albums those sessions yielded — “There Existed an Addiction to Blood” from 2019 and “Visions of Bodies Being Burned” — sew the group’s socially conscious threads through the gory narratives of ’90s “horrorcore” rap artists like Brotha Lynch Hung and Ganksta N-I-P.
Horrorcore is already somewhat political — a genre that uses exaggeration to confront grim inner-city realities and spit blood in the face of white American morality. Clipping combines this classic formula with a love of industrial noise and its natural affinity toward sociopolitical commentary. Inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s 2005 novel “Fledgling,” the 1973 art-horror film “Ganja & Hess” and the “Blade” comic books, “Blood on the Fang” is a vampire tale where Black revolutionaries like Bobby Hutton and George Jackson return as day-walkers fighting the police. “Everybody wanna kill a movement ’fore the moment,” Diggs raps, “but they cannot kill what cannot die.”
In true Clipping fashion, its horrorcore albums feature no shortage of adventurous recording experiments. The track “Run for Your Life” is made of multiple beats recorded from a moving van — Diggs’s raps change tempo to account for the Doppler effect. Snipes spent a week getting up before dawn and capturing field recordings from the site of the grisly Black Dahlia murder — they ended up in a cover of Yoko Ono’s 1953 composition “Secret Piece.”
“They make it seem so easy, like 7/8 hip-hop,” Michael Clayville, the trombonist and director of marketing for Alarm Will Sound, said about the odd meter that Clipping has used. “Not an intuitive thing, and it just comes across as being natural.”
“There Existed an Addiction to Blood” closes with a cover of the composer Annea Lockwood’s “Piano Burning,” for which the group set a piano on fire in the desert, recording the crackles and pops on 17 microphones. Eight mics did not survive the session, including an Audio-Technica 825 that Snipes had since college.
“We were listening to that channel, and it was just crackling,” Hutson said. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, look at it, it’s on fire.’”
As it turns out, America is ablaze, too. And Clipping’s music is helping young people find a voice for their dissent. “A rap song hits when there’s a part of it that you want to say,” Diggs said of the success of “Chapter 319,” adding, “It should make you feel good to repeat it. And that made me feel good.”