Jonathan is, in his own words, “a Christian Scientist in progress” who was kicked out of Principia College, a Christian Science school in Elsah, Illinois, four weeks before graduation for smoking weed (they let him come back and graduate after six months of sobriety).
Sometimes the best way to deal with madness is to confront it headon. So when I sat down with Jonathan Getzschman, a.k.a. Jonathan Toth From Hoth, I took the direct route and asked, frankly, whether or not he considered himself insane. There was much laughter, cackling even, before he answered. “Insanity’s a funny thing,” he said. “There have been many times in my life when I’ve thought, you know, it’d be a lot easier to be insane. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve probably been close to breakdown a couple times.”
It’s Jonathan’s debut album, Brainwashing: The Art of HipHopera (F5 Records and The Frozen Food Section, 2002), that’s got people questioning his mental stability. For an example, take this nugget from “Cannibalism Will Not Be Tolerated”: “At my school we run screaming through the halls stealing mattresses/Security sniffs around for Puff the Magic Dragonses/Panty-raids were way risqué and seldom seen or practiced in this atmosphere/But we don’t eat people!” And that’s one of the disc’s more lucid tracks.
Maybe some background data will clarify. Jonathan is, in his own words, “a Christian Scientist in progress” who was kicked out of Principia College, a Christian Science school in Elsah, Illinois, four weeks before graduation for smoking weed (they let him come back and graduate after six months of sobriety). He broke his collarbone while snowboarding, didn’t take so much as a Tylenol, and healed himself in three days. He stumbled into hip-hop in 1994, when he went on a blunted journey that culminated in his having no option but to participate in a freestyle cipher. Now he lives in the Loop, where he splits his time between promoting his album, booking shows, roofing houses, and throwing himself off of stairs and picnic tables, all in the name of skateboarding. And for anyone interested, there is video footage available of him doing a standing backflip off of a house’s roof onto the yard below. Seriously.
Consider The Frozen Food Section, Jonathan’s record label, which he describes as “a conglomerate of avant-garde emcees who refuse to bow down to the rules of rap.” By “conglomerate,” he of course means himself and two personas he invented, Boris and Irish. Ask, and he’ll insist that he didn’t invent them. Rather, he “met” them one night during a weekly hip-hop spin at Shoot-A-Rack on Big Bend. Boris is a 48-year-old ex-KGB agent, and Irish is 28, from the island of Scoal, which was located off of the Scottish coast before it sank. “His mom died in childbirth, and then the island sunk underneath him, which is kind of a double insult, and probably the beginning of his issues,” Jonathan says. Keep in mind that neither of these characters actually exists.
Inviting Jonathan to talk about Brainwashing is like asking Jerry Berger to talk St. Louis scandal; one should be prepared before releasing these hounds. Granted, there is much to discuss. There’s not a word in English that even comes close to conveying the artistic eccentricity of Jonathan’s science-fiction-hip-hop hybrid album, with its molting drum beats and off-kilter rhymes layered over samples ripped from sources as varied as Once Upon a Time in the West and Bach’s “Cello Solo in D-Minor.” “Bizarre” doesn’t begin.
During a protracted discourse regarding the production on the album, Jonathan explained, “Track 5 is ‘Monster Within,’ and the hi-hat percussion and the voices are from David Lynch, Wild at Heart. The bass beats and the monster noise is from Time Bandits, and the bassline is from The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman, 1958.” He then continued, at length, to identify every sample that went into each song. “I’m of the philosophy that in order to find new material, you have to go to different locations for researching and digging. No one really digs in movies.”
So while preparing Brainwashing, Jonathan spent many an afternoon at home on the couch with an RCA cord running from his VCR to his MPC-2000, scrounging for moments—sometimes just a single note—to sample. “It was a great excuse to just be lazy, and watch two, four, six movies a day for research.”
With his oversized elfin face and long blonde locks, it’s hard at first to grant any hip-hop legitimacy to the white-skinned, blue-eyed skateboarder/snowboarder/part-time roofer who began his musical career in an opera in Omaha in the fifth grade. But talking to him, you soon realize that not only does Jonathan know more about hip-hop than you, but also that he has more passion for hip-hop crammed inside his tight running pants and raggedy old rugby shirt than most hardcore heads can fit in their entire Phat Farm and Rocca Wear wardrobes.
“When I was younger, it was all about, what is rap? And it was all about what was happening right then. In 1995, Run DMC was, but they’re not really rap now—now it’s Nas or Biggie. I can see why 99 percent of people out there rap like people they’ve heard before, because they think that’s what rap is—it’s this. I sounded like Biggie for a while when I first started rhyming, because that’s what I thought rap was. Until finally I got slapped across the face by my own individuality saying, ‘What are you doing? That’s not you!’”
What eventually pushed Jonathan headfirst into the rap game was groups who managed to shift the paradigm, people like Dr. Octagon who defied the precedent and made him realize, “Yeah! That’s what rap can be! It doesn’t have to be NWA or Jay-Z or Nas or Biggie! It can be about what you are. And then when groups like Company Flow came out? Whoooaaa…that furthered my philosophy that rap is no longer about who sounds like rap, and then you do what they do. It’s now, you do your own rap, and that makes people say, ‘Wow! Look at this guy now!’”
But for every person who likes Brianwashing, there’s at least one who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t appreciate experimental hip-hop, who prefers his beats looped and his rhymes cadenced. Jonathan understands this. “For anything to be considered great, there are people that will love it and people that will hate it. That’s just the way it goes. The coolest thing about being way out there and different is that, yes, you’ll have the people that will ultimately hate you because the stuff is too weird and it messes with their eardrums, but likewise, you’ll have the people that get fanatical about it and are so excited that you brought something new to the scene.
“As far as being insane,” he says, with not an ounce of defensiveness in his voice, “I think insanity stems from not doing what you want to be doing. For a long time I had a paranoia about failing. Then my dad said to me: you can’t fail. It’s impossible. As long as you’re doing something, anything, you’ll inevitably find what you’re looking for because even if you’re doing something that’s not right for you, it will direct you in the direction where you’re supposed to be.”
And that, despite the source, might be the most level-headed, thoroughly sane advice this reporter has ever heard in his life.
When I left his apartment that afternoon, Jonathan was on his way out to find a gurney to push around the streets of Aspen, where he was driving the next afternoon to peddle his brand of music during the X-Games. Yeah—a gurney. And maybe we should just leave it at that.