I've never been an expert on hip-hop, having been sheltered from it through the majority of my formative years. What I knew was relegated to what flew by me on the radio, and the years when that exposure would have happened were a particularly fallow period for the genre, coming off of an explosion in the late ‘80s to mid-'90s. Mainstream hip-hop was rediscovering what it could be, resulting in a bit of a teething period, during which the music had a lot of surface appeal, but nothing that compelled me to dig further.
It took years for me to understand that hip-hop was the great equalizer of music; much like coffee shops enabled singer-songwriters with access to an acoustic guitar to bear their souls with minimal investment, hip-hop has long stood as one of the most direct modes of personal expression, with the quality of your lyrics and flow standing front and center. Rather than my perception of a rapper's persona being limited to the baller image, this was a genre that had long allowed all different types of personalities to shine through. Of course, this is a silly realization to have, and I admit to being embarrassingly late to the party, but I suspect this blind spot still exists for some people.
One listen to the delightfully idiosyncratic Wheelchair Sports Camp should relieve anyone of their notions of hip-hop's uniformity. This is joyous, utterly weird music that deftly balances personally revelatory lyrics with oddball flights of fancy. At the center of the band is MC Kalyn Heffernan, and the name Wheelchair Sports Camp isn't some ironic stab at a touchy moniker: Heffernan is wheelchair-bound, and really did attend a Wheelchair Sports Camp in 1997, which she proudly says she corrupted. She's joined by Gregg Ziemba on drums and Joshua Trinidad on trumpet.
That aside about her corrupting what one would expect to be a very earnest camp is indicative of her style, in general. She doesn't shy away from talking about her disability, nor does she exploit it. Every article about Wheelchair Sports Camp is bound to mention physical status, but her lyrics only explore the topic just as much as anyone would talk about what makes them unique. Tracks like "Take Stairs in Case of Fire" and "Hard Out Here for a Gimp" casually examine the cosmic joke of disability with a fascinating mixture of vulnerability and humor, the latter song opening with the hilariously tossed-off line, "Getting pretty good at this rappin' and sittin' down thing."
What defines Wheelchair Sports Camp, beyond the attention-grabbing headline of a disabled MC being so charismatic and compelling - which shouldn't have any bearing on criticism - is the band's penchant for jazz and experimental flights of fancy. MC Kalyn's voice is light, dancing atop beats and skronking horns that lend everything an off-kilter feel, so that the listener is kept on their toes. Following what MC Kalyn is saying requires a commitment to strangeness, leading you through an album that splits the difference between classic beats and absurdity. What more could you want than to be challenged by music and drawn in by words?
While my hip-hop blind spot may remain as prodigious as it is ignominious, I can still tell that Wheelchair Sports Camp, and MC Kalyn, in particular, are something special. After years of EPs, No Big Deal is their debut full-length. The album is a monument of self-confidence, of self-effacement, of otherworldly scope and vision. Melding a uniquely singular point of view with instrumentation that stretches the borders of hip-hop, Wheelchair Sports Camp is a band that has no need for limitations.
Wheelchair Sports Camp, w/ more TBA, 7 p.m., Monday, March 20, all ages, $7, Obsidian, 414 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.890.4425, obsidianolympia.com