Ethereal: Traffic jams

Laid-back producer ghost-rides the whip with ‘Car Therapy’

Spend enough of your waking life in Atlanta traffic and it will find its way into your dreams. Nobody knows this better than 23-year-old rapper and producer Obie Rudolph, who claims to have remembered only five dreams in his life, all of which took place in cars. In one of them, his family was backed up on the highway while directly overhead a group of UFOs conducted what he calls an “alien Macy’s Day Parade.” In another, his mother was towing a tractor-trailer filled entirely with apples.

Under the moniker Ethereal, Rudolph has spent the last several years quietly stoking a reputation as one of Atlanta hip-hop’s most forward-thinking young talents. With his mixtapes Abstractica, released last year via Yelawolf’s Slumerican imprint, and Da Etherbeets EB, a collaboration with Supreme INK’s Kosherbeets, he’s carved out a mellow niche in the art-rap sphere. Dense collages of unstable rhythms and new age synth textures interlaced with off-kilter R&B interludes and bits of movie dialogue have become his MO. His latest, Car Therapy (self-released December 12), emerges as the soundtrack to the ultimate rush-hour daydream, a fluid song cycle engineered to be hot-boxed through after-market subwoofers on a Georgia afternoon. Car Therapy features collaborations with REKchampa, Nicole Alexandria, and more, and it’s the mostly instrumental moments via such songs as “Creep,” “Pearl Blue Soul,” and “Ghetto Bird (the Chase)” where he truly expands upon the style he established in the past.

In person, Rudolph is as relaxed and engaging as his music would suggest. He wears short dreads tipped by bent beer bottle caps and laughs with his entire upper body. Having only recently relocated to Edgewood, his place is mostly barren, with a living room that consists of a couch, Monopoly, and, on the countertops, empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Aunt Jemima syrup.

He is talking about astrology and second-hand Nirvana cassettes while his dog, Brick, frantically circles the room with a neurotic enthusiasm most pets reserve for thunderstorms or late-night intruders. As the conversation shifts toward the personal, Brick is respectfully let out into the yard, though he continues to make his presence heard.

“I almost lost it,” Rudolph says, discussing the murky couple of years following his decision to drop out of high school at 17. “I was kind of a wreck.”

His parents had separated years before, and his father, who worked as a truck driver and mechanic before losing his eyesight, had moved away with a new family. Just as Rudolph was beginning to take music making seriously, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before she passed away, he made her a beat. Titled “Glenda” in her honor, the song flips the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time is Here,” channeling the classic of seasonal affective disorder, into a moving, boom-bap discourse on private devastation.

“Music is what kept me sane — or my definition of sane,” he says. Though he’d played saxophone and drums in high school, he had been seriously considering a wheelchair basketball scholarship to the University of Arizona. Rudolph was born with a condition called sacral agenesis, better known as spina bifida. “It’s a more mild case so things weren’t as hard as they could be growing up,” he says. “I feel like having a disability made me grow up to be a better person in a lot of ways. I really feel like it centered and focused a certain energy in me, a gift/curse-type deal.”

After opting out of school, music became his primary focus. Even as he grew increasingly withdrawn, he kept in touch with a small group of high school friends who encouraged his efforts. He credits Micah Freeman, a longtime collaborator who first got him into rap by way of MF Doom and Big L, with forcing him to occasionally go outside. Meanwhile, his friend Darius Brandenburg, the son of Hans-Jörn Brandenburg (the German composer best known for working with Robert Wilson and Tom Waits on The Black Rider), gave him a place to stay and a master class in beat making on the software Reason.

Though he’s hardly a recluse today, he still prefers to keep his circle small, and would rather record in his bedroom than go to a studio. “I’m a Cancer, and we keep to ourselves,” he says. “With less people around I can focus.”

Not that solitude necessarily implies self-absorption. Car Therapy, after all, is a travel album, an argument for looking outward. “That time period I went through, that was more than enough for me,” he says of his lost years. “It’s time to move forward.”