Formed in: 1997, Cincinnati, Ohio
Key Albums: Elephant Eyelash (2005), Alopecia (2008), Eskimo Snow (2009)
Why? is the project of Cincinnati-born, Berkeley-based wordsmith Jonathan 'Yoni' Wolf. Originally minted as Wolf's rap handle, Why? has since grown into a three-piece band in which our protagonist is flanked by his brother, Josiah, and Doug McDiarmid. Though Why? has essentially shifted from backpacker rap to indie-pop, Wolf's neurotic, comic, and intensely confessional lyricism —which has been compared to Woody Allen and Larry David(!)— has remained its constant.
"I feel that the more straight-up you are about the way you live and the secrets you have," Wolf told The Guardian in 2005, "the more you realize that everyone's the same, and has the same hang-ups, and the less likely you're going to go to war with people. It's political to me that I'm being so honest."
Born into Messianic Jewish family with a rabbi father, Wolf began experimenting with rudimentary hip-hop after discovering a four-track recorder in his local synagogue. When in his freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, Wolf met Adam 'Doseone' Drucker, with whom he'd begin collaborating as Greenthink.
"When I met [Drucker]," Wolf told me in a 2008 interview, "I felt like what he was doing was so different than anything I had heard within hip-hop, that it gave me license to do that as well, or to try and take it even farther."
Growing tired of their hometown (Wolf would later sing “Cincinnati sucks in the winter/you know that!”), Wolf, Drucker, and beatmaker Dave 'Odd Nosdam' Madson relocated to San Francisco in 2000, inviting along other underground rap recalcitrants to the Bay Area. Armed with a "grandiose, idealistic idea" of establishing a "community of people doing similar music," they founded the Anticon collective.
"There was this infinite possibility that it felt like music could be; this idealistic sense that we could do anything, we didn’t have to follow in anybody’s footsteps," Wolf would recount.
Wolf, Drucker, and Madson would put the Anticon collective on the map with their trio Clouddead. Taking a musical influence from space-rock acts like Flying Saucer Attack and Stars of the Lid, Clouddead radically redefined what 'hip hop' could constitute. Their 2001 self-titled LP became a critical rallying point in the UK, and Anticon was well and truly on the pop-cultural map.
At the time, Wolf's solo records —early home-recorded, totally obscure outings like 1999's Part Time People Cage... or Part Time Key? and 2001's Miss Ohio's Nameless— dwelled very much in the shadows of Clouddead. Because of this, Wolf started feeling isolation from the community he'd created. "I felt like an outsider," he'd later confess, "like the stuff I was making, or was interested in making, was much less hip-hop than anybody else’s."
Wolf's sense of isolation was heightened when he and Madson —who had also made an LP together as Reaching Quiet, 2003's In the Shadow of the Living Room— had a falling out. "I had some personal problems with Dave Madson, and I just felt not so at home within that group at that time," Wolf said.
After suffering through Clouddead's second album, 2004's Ten, only as a contractual obligation, Wolf left Clouddead with goals on turning Why? into a full-time band.
2005's Elephant Eyelash debuted Why? as a 'band' project, with Wolf's brother, Josiah, adding countless layers of instrumentation; Wolf describing the results as a "psychedelic pop record." Despite the more collaborative nature of the record, it stands out as its lyricist's most personal work; its center-piece being the six-minute confessional "Gemini (Birthday Song)."
"That song, specifically, has a lot of really straight-up details about my personal life, pretty much straight from my personal life,” explains Wolf. "That song’s really like two letters to someone; and that record is a pretty personal record, in general."
Wolf cemented his reputation as fascinating lyricist with his magnum opus, Alopecia. One of 2008's best albums, it was a dynamic, charismatic pop record that pushed Why? into a far greater audience.
In 2009, Why? followed up Alopecia with its 'sister' record, Eskimo Snow, a set of more introspective, piano-based songs initially recorded at the same time as Alopecia. "This record is really the least hip-hop out of anything I've ever been involved with," Wolf said, to Pitchfork, as almost a warning, in advance of the record's release.