21stC

Sarathy Korwar "More Arriving" (The Leaf Label) interview, published at DownBeat

A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.

“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”

The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about the impetus for bringing together poets, Indian classical musicians and rappers, and London jazz players for your new album.

The album started with MCs in India and a general fascination with the growing hip-hop scene there. What engaged me was that it was starting in working-class neighborhoods. This is interesting, because the independent music scene in India has always been largely driven by upper-class forces; if you can afford a drum-kit, if you can afford rehearsal space ... .

Here, you have a bunch of kids working on beaten-up laptops, making their own sounds, rapping in their own languages, learning production and how to spit bars. The internet has completely revolutionized how much access everyone has to music. My idea was to go meet a few MCs and see if there was a possibility to collaborate with them.

The More Arriving album cover references late-’70s/early-’80s British South Asian activism. How do you locate yourself within that history and the music inspired by it?

The album is as much about being British Asian, as an Indian living in the UK, as being an Indian from India. Going back to that Asian Underground movement in the ’90s and 2000s, Asian Dub Foundation were like the brown Rage Against The Machine. Their music had a political message, tablas and Punjabi influences. The point of the album’s artwork is a message of resistance. Although it was a really bad time for South Asians in the UK then—and things are better now—there is a kind of resurgence of the far right happening. We feel like we’re in danger of going back to those times, with all the Islamophobic comments you hear in the media.

But what did exist then was this collective strength and solidarity among the South Asian community, which I don’t think exists in the UK now. Collective identity mattered. It’s recognizing that even if we all have a different identity as South Asians, as diasporic South Asians, there is strength in numbers and collective action is important, whether it’s in music or politics, for any kind of social change.

Shabaka Hutchings appeared on Day To Day, and you’ve recorded with him since. Danalogue, his bandmate in The Comet is Coming, is on More Arriving. So, can you describe your connection to London’s contemporary jazz scene?

What’s happening in London is a lot of young musicians not feeling shackled by the idea of what jazz is—or what jazz should sound like. Getting all these influences from grime, London breakbeat, jungle, drum-and-bass, Afrobeat, all these various influences that London has because of its diverse and multicultural nature. Making music that’s club friendly with a young audience base.

It’s become cool again; everyone is talking about it. People go to clubs; they go listen to jazz bands. But it’s jazz that makes you move. It’s no longer this idea of cocktail jazz, late-night quiet listening—which is great, ’cause this is the way I always understood jazz growing up, listening to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. It was never about relaxing music. It was always about music that questioned things, music that was exciting.

In the past, you’ve mentioned Charles Lloyd as an inspiration, but in what way?

When you talk about problems in representing other cultures, one should look at Charles Lloyd as a good example of someone who’s done it right. The way he involves musicians from other traditions in his ensembles, he’s very egalitarian and respectful, and the resulting music is so unique. Another thing I really admire about him is that at this stage of his career, he’s still making amazing music, like Wayne Shorter. He’s constantly pushing his own boundaries and reinventing himself. His 2015 album, Wild Man Dance, is one of my favorite [contemporary] jazz albums.

He’s appeared with all the greats, but remains curious about music. I also love his playing; he can go from a straightahead jazz player to being so free with his playing and techniques as a multi-instrumentalist. But I think I admire him most as a music director, his collaborations and his way of putting bands together. It’s his vision that speaks to me.

How do you transfer this to work with your group, UPAJ Collective?

For me, it’s about collaborating with people and making sure that everyone is invested, everyone is being creatively inspired. I remember this quote [saying,] that musicians seek to create utopias or worlds they’d like to see within their own band. I’m trying to build this idea that human beings can interact on a very equal level within a band. It’s almost an anarchic sensibility of no pre-existing power structures; questioning all the power structures, like lead soloist/accompanist.

This is why I love playing in circles. Not a lot has been written about how you play on stage, the power dynamics, but it’s so important, the way we are positioned. Playing in a circle brings you back to the idea of communal music making, collaborative music making, facing other musicians while you are playing.

These are the things I value in music. DB

To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.

"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

    

Madeleine Byrne: The promo material says John Yancey is all about Los Angeles, whereas Home was about Detroit. For me when listening to the record what came through were ideas about relationships, love and lust in songs like “Tokyo” and “Rose Gold.” What do you think about that comment?

Illa J: Well, I mean it wasn’t specifically about Los Angeles, but the vibe was, musically it was more Californian but as far as the subject matter the album is more personal relationships over the past ten years, not a specific time; all the experiences I’ve been through. I’m talking about a little bit of everything.

MB: You’ve got a real talent for evoking matters of the human heart, those songs I mentioned before stood out for me (“Rose Gold” and “Tokyo”). Could you choose one and explain what you were aiming for?    

Illa J: “Tokyo,” for example, is a straight-forward R&B song. The music comes first, it’s whatever the vibe is (I write to that), so for “Tokyo” as soon as I heard the beat it was R&B for me; the melody comes first, then I bring the words in, even when I’m rapping, you know rhythmically. I’m a singer, so melody comes first, but in terms of the subject matter, the music tells you. But we set ourselves up for those situations, ‘cause I pick beats that sound (a certain way). The subject matter just comes, the music brings it out.

MB: Let’s talk about “12 AM”  because the song has got a really different mood.

Illa J: Technically that song started the album, it was the first track we did. The one difference is that was the only song that was recorded in Detroit. Every other song was recorded in LA. That was the only one I recorded over the beat somewhere else, not in the studio – every other song was recorded in the studio. You definitely hear a different vibe on it because I was in Detroit the time I recorded that song.

MB: How is that vibe in Detroit different?

Illa J: A range of music inspires you differently … It’s hard to explain, but I write different things when I’m in Detroit versus when I’m in LA. It’s a different feeling I have, more “real life style”, it’s almost like trying to get out if I’m in Detroit, even if I’m good there’s a certain kind of energy that it brings out in me.

MB: What is it about that sound in Detroit, though, obviously your brother (J Dilla) is an important part of it, but how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know much about Detroit’s music scene?

Illa J: Honestly, if you go back and study Motown, you’ll understand it all. The drums are heavier in the Motown stuff, they have like two drummers drumming at the same time. Don’t get it twisted it’s pop/Soul, pop melodies but if you listen to the full sound of it, it’s pop but still soulful, it has a certain feeling, you know what I mean? It’s nothing technical musically, you could have an electronic beat if you do the right thing to it and it could feel soulful, it’s all about your individuality and what you put into the music.

It’s just that Motown musical feeling, and definitely that 9-5 grind that we grew up around is ingrained in us as well, but I think it’s one of those things you absorb the kind of environment that’s around you. If you listen to Snoop and all of them, one thing I find in Cali – not all of them – but a lot of Cali artists have got a laid-back kind of vibe in their songs. It makes sense. They got palm trees to look at every day, the sound might be similar to Detroit the funk of it, but it sounds more laid-back; ours is more gritty, that’s what it is. We got snow and all that stuff. A lot of these beats are made in winter ‘cause you don’t want to be outside (laughs).

MB: I understand that the production is sample-based, did you use any live instrumentation on any of the tracks?

Illa J: All the production is done by Calvin Valentine, though on the next album I’m going to do the production; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was younger, but you know my brother had just passed when I started, and it was so much of a comparison thing. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t produced my albums, but at the same time I like working with other producers ‘cause on my solo albums I can then focus on my song-writing and my vocals. Calvin Valentine did all the music; he’s a talented producer and solo artist as well. It’s all sample-based, even though some tracks don’t sound like it. Calvin plays around with it, he plays on top of it and builds on it.

MB: Thanks for mentioning Motown before because you can see it’s a big influence. One of your tracks (“Rose Gold”) includes a reference to Smokey Robinson, you had a song called “Sam Cook” – no e at the end -  on your last record, Home. Your dad is extremely important too in terms of this. As far as I understand it, he wrote The Spinners’ song “It’s a Shame” is that correct?

Illa J: Yeah, yeah, he ghost-wrote that song. I mean it’ s the same thing today, you have songwriters who write songs, but they pay them to not give them the credit, they pay them upfront because they don’t want to give them the royalties from it, or whatever. My dad sold that song to The Spinners.

MB: I saw in an interview that you’d sing with him when you were growing up and here’s a quote: “My dad would wake us up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder.” Could you talk some more about your dad and how he has inspired you in terms of your music?

Illa J: He’s the musical foundations. Don’t get me wrong both my mom and dad are musical, my mom sings too, but my dad is the one; there wouldn’t be a J Dilla if it wasn’t for my dad. He was a songwriter, he played piano – both his parents played piano. His group went on the road with The Harlem Globetrotters way, way back in the day. He was making moves back then. I don’t know how to put it but basically everything me and my brother have done is inspired by my dad, because he never had a chance to have solo success. Motown wanted to sign my dad but he didn’t want to take the deal from Motown. He knew all the people there. They wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to sign with them for whatever reason.

MB: Can you recall any conversations with your dad when you’d talk about music, something you might remember to today?

Illa J: I mean, we talked about music a lot of times, it’d be hard to break it down to one conversation, but it was just one of those things; my dad had it, James had it, not so much conversations but schooling us to jazz. I started off with jazz because of my dad, I listened to a lot of vocalists growing up, the obvious ones – Stevie Wonder all of that stuff, cause if you’re growing up in Detroit you’re going to hear all of that – as far as our household I heard a lot of a cappella jazz, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six of Paris. They were back in the day, even before Manhattan Transfer before anyone even knew who Manhattan Transfer was, they did a whole album with Quincy Jones (Les Double Six – Rencontrent Quincy Jones, Columbia, 1960)

putting words to it in French. One of the dopest a cappella jazz groups ever. My dad put me up on them, you should check them out. I grew up with a lot of a cappella jazz – just jazz period, more than any other music I learnt jazz first.

(Here’s an announcement from the Stones Throw website marking the event of Beverly Dewitt Yancey’s death in 2012. In a later email Illa J passed on this information about his father: “Beverly Dewitt Yancey. Born West Virginia, October 8th, 1932, played music all his life, both his parents played piano for silent movies. He had a band called "The Ivies." They put a record with an A and B side, “C’mon" & "Sunshine." Motown wanted to sign his group the Ivies.”) 

MB: I saw that you had experience singing in church, but it sounds like you had more of a jazz education than church/gospel ….

Illa J: No, no, no all of it at the same time; all of it at the same time, that was the household, we went to church on Sunday, I was in the church choir. It was a full musical background. Jazz was the household, I was in choir as well, I got a lot of training from that. I didn’t realise till later that was a lot of good training: rehearsals, I’d go to my mom and dad’s rehearsals and Sunday choir. Not judging but it wasn’t like Catholic church where it’s just (breaks into falsetto trilling singing) it was the real thing, it was soul like real music. That was good training everything I would end up doing later, not until five or six years ago I really started to master my voice, working with my vocal coach.

I was always a singer first, I feel like people are like oh so you’re a singer now, no I’ve always been a singer. I just could rap, rapping was always something I could do I’m musical, I grew up writing poetry, so writing was never anything, but it was always singing for me.

MB: I don’t want to avoid speaking about your mom, how would you describe her influence on your music?                      

Illa J: Musically my mom was a singer, so she’d tell me different singers to listen to, to practice, but like as I say my dad was the musical foundations. I understand they both did music, again my mom sings too, but my dad was the musical inspiration for everybody. He was the musical master. He even got her more into jazz, ‘cause he was helping her as a singer. He heard her voice and wanted to work with her. My dad was the man, musically; on the music thing, he was the one.

Obviously, they made us, but it is what it is, my dad is the man. People don’t know that, they never mention my dad like that, like you can’t talk about J Dilla without my dad. No, he’s the one (laughs). Of course, I say this to mom, show love to my mom, but really my dad is the one, I’m a spitting image of him. I would not be able to do anything musically without him. I’m most conscious of him because he is more of a song-writer, you know melody side, music period – the jazz chords, the rhythms, I took all of that and the singing stuff ‘cause I was a singer like when my dad was in a group.

They had an a cappella jazz group that’d record at our house. This happened even before I was born, so my brother would play drums for them when they were singing, but I was singing, learning my notes, taking the harmonies.

MB: What ages are you talking about here?

Illa J: All my life, as far as I can remember, before I could talk (laughs) music was around. It was the main driver: it was like brush my teeth, watch TV, music. It was always a big part of our lives.

MB: One of the songs “Sunday” on the new album, the harmonies in that song are fantastic. It’s quite different to the other songs, what’s the story behind it?

Illa J: Well, it’s technically an interlude, but we didn’t want to call it an interlude, no it’s just a shorter track. Each track touches on personal stuff and stuff with my brother, a lot of it is relationships based but also how your life affects your relationships. “Sunday” is everything coming together near the end, I went through all these things, but I’m still here. All those things weren’t in vain, I learned from it, how to get myself back up and keep going. Literally “Sunday” is like church, it ends almost like a gospel song, that song was like all the stuff I’ve been through the album and you get to that song and it’s like Sunday, literally (laughs).

MB: On Twitter you call yourself: “Singer, rapper, songwriter, alien” Frank Nitt, of course had a song on the first Yancey Boys album called “Alien Family” where he’s talking about how Jay Dee really loved aliens and how “the Jackson Five from Mars” could be a description of your family, what is it with these alien references?

Illa J: To me, it makes sense, Frank used to call my brother alien, honestly for me it has nothing to do with that, my dad’s favourite channel with the Sci-Fi channel so we grew up with that, Science fiction movies, scary movies and all that stuff. I’ve always been into extra-terrestrial (stuff) … space, aliens all that type of stuff. In a personal way, I always felt, ah different (laughs) I’ve never fitted in, even around my people, I still have my weirdness, I always felt like I never fitted in fully. I feel like an alien in that way, I actually have a tattoo too on my left arm, it’s an alien (laughs). I just got it this year.

MB: And you also got a tattoo of 1932, the year your dad was born, right?

Illa J: Yeah, but it’s tied to both themes: it’s the year my dad was born and the age my brother died. I was 19, he was 32.

 

MB: The new record is quite international – you’ve got references to Ukraine, Japan, Paris, London and other places – Home your previous album was apparently about finding your own voice, about going home, “a spiritual reference about the journey of finding my own voice” is the way you put it. Now Detroit is still important to you, I’d expect, even though you’re based in LA. Do you go back there often?

Illa J: No (laughs), but it’s still important. I love it, it’s my home. I know that’s where I became who I am today, it started there. It will always be home base no matter what, I just don’t see myself living there at least not right now.

MB: The video for “Home” was filmed I think at your actual childhood home, is that right?

Illa J: Yeah, it’s the very first home, it’s the house I literally grew up in, and the house I’m singing in front of was when I was a baby, I was only a baby there. The first house in the video, the very first house they show I lived there a lot of years, a lot of my growing up – my teenage years – were there.

MB: There’s another song I’d like to speak about from that record, “Seven Mile,” it’s an interesting contrast; “Home” is like a rousing, stirring song, “Seven Mile” is completely different, much harder but funkier too in a way. Could you talk about how the songs work together?

Illa J: For me that album has got a dirty soul type of vibe to it, Home wasn’t just the title it was more of a vibe, by the end of the recording it came through as a common theme, so it didn’t make sense to call it “7 Mile.”

One of my favourite things is titling songs with a word that’s not used in the song. Sometimes a title just describes the vibe of the song. “7 Mile” – the street Seven Mile in Detroit is one of the crazy streets to drive on, the street is really messed up, really bumpy; that was the purpose of the video driving down, it’s more about the vibe and the feeling.

It’s almost like they’re taking the drive, it’s a tough road and they’re going get through. “Home” is more a spiritual realisation, like I went through all that stuff and I’m finally home, it’s about making it home. I made it, back home, it was kind of real, cause even though I was then technically still living in Montreal, I had to come out here, I had some shows in California, so that’s how I was able to record it.

By the time the album came out, I was moving back home, so it was really spiritual; it was for real, home. Now it’s full circle with John Yancey because it’s the first album in a while that has my last name in it, Yancey in the title, since Yancey Boys and it’s ten years later I put out this album, John Yancey.

It’s full circle, it’s almost where I wanted it to go originally, there’s more singing on this album, I’m still rapping, but there’s more singing. The singing is very present. That’s what I want people to see, oh yeah, he’s a singer, for the longest time people were looking at me like a rapper, and I’m like no I’m not a rapper.

MB: You’ve always been a singer, where does this feeling come from of thinking that people see you as a rapper first?

Illa J: With The Yancey Boys album … people still don’t get it, it’s like once you rap, automatically you’re a rapper. The only way to get around that is to not rap, that’s what worked on Home. I rap less, then they have to pay attention to my singing, I don’t know what it is. I listen to music a lot and I’ve been doing it for years, the average listener they’re not listening like that, you have to do so much more for them to get an understanding of it.

Even with this album, it’s like (people still call it) a hip-hop album, but it’s not. It’s a weird type of vibe, it’s a total hip-hop vibe, but if you really listen to it it’s not an underground hip-hop album at all (laughs), but I will still be put in that category. They’ll call it an underground rap album, and I’m like, no it’s not, go back and listen to it. It’s damn near a soul/R&B album with rapping on it, if you really listen to it, it’s not an underground rap album. I want to get out of that category, what is underground rap? What is conscious rap?

I make music, that’s it. I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, R&B, ‘cause there’s good music everywhere. There’s wack music everywhere, there’s wack music in underground rap, people are like I’m from the underground, so they feel like they’re better. No, there is great pop music, people get it twisted like oh he’s making pop music, he’s selling out, it’s like no, I’m making music for everybody. You’re actually limiting yourself if you go in a specific genre. It’s not like yeah, I’m hip-hop, I make music.

MB: One thing that’s interesting about this is that everybody goes on about how the rap in Detroit is hard, with the techno-influence etc but Slum Village which you were a part of, touring and recording with in 2012-2013, was all about melody and changing the lyrical content, your brother J Dilla had heaps of tracks about relationships, about lusting after women, you know …

Illa J: Exactly.

MB: So, what you’re describing is kind of surprising as in Detroit there’s a long tradition of singers teaming up with rappers.

Illa J: Thank you, yes. If anything, that is our history: Detroit musical history is pop music, pop Soul music is what it is, it’s weird it’s got to the point where it’s only this underground rap thing, ‘cause it was different late 90s/early 2000s. Even some mainstream artists wanted to be called underground cause it was a different thing then, now it’s just like a turn-off when it’s underground cause it’s going to be overly conscious.

When there’s a song with rapping it’s like they just wanted to hear themselves rap and I’m like where’s the song? I can’t see it. Every song on my album has a specific topic. Every single song is very specific, “BTW” is about me travelling and doing music and trying to have a relationship, “Enjoy the Ride” is about someone going through some shit but still enjoying the ride, “Tokyo” is what it is … Everything has a specific topic. You won’t be confused, I guarantee it, you won’t be like what’s this song about. I worked very hard on my writing to get away from that, in the rap world it’s easy to stray away from the topic and you end up rapping for two minutes about … what? (laughs)

MB: Bringing it back to Slum Village, there’s a connection with what you’re doing now I think in terms of their music, the focus on melody, talking about relationships. What do you think about that idea?

Illa J: I definitely represent their vibe, it is what it is, T3 is my brother and Young RJ is my brother. I was very influenced by them ‘cause that was my introduction to a lot of that type of music ‘cause you know I was telling you about my dad, I was listening to whatever music my dad was. When we were younger we didn’t have access to explicit content (laughs) you had to get some permission, or sneak out and buy a CD to get some explicit content, I had no idea what else was out there outside what my parents were playing on the radio, so all I heard was Stevie Wonder and all that stuff and jazz and things like that until I was seven, or eight or nine and could sneak out and grab my brother’s cassettes and all of his quote, unquote explicit music, all that rap stuff that was out at that time.

Slum was my introduction to that type of music, they have influenced me their whole style, if you listen to my records you definitely are going to hear the influence of Slum Village – it is what it is, no Slum Village no me (laughs). It’s all the same story, I can’t tell my story without saying something about Slum, even in my career, they play a big part.

I was working with them for three years, I was only on that album in 2013, but I was actually technically working with them for longer. We did two straight mixtapes, Dirty Songs 1 & 2, two full complete projects but they were released as mixtapes and was touring with them the same time. Evolution in 2013 was the only album, even though I was working with them the two previous years. A lot of things I learnt from them was in the studio, that’s where I learnt a lot of things from Slum. I really got way better as a recording artist.

MB: To close let’s bring it back to your album, John Yancey, there are two strong references to your brother on it: the songs “James Said” and “32”.

Illa J: “James Said” basically, cause on the hook I sing, “like one won’t do” ‘cause he had a song, “Won’t do” on The Shining album. It was me writing my verse, building on that – again it represents how it was when I was younger and I was trying to be my bro in a way, you know what I mean? It’s almost me trying to take him on but at the same time I’m talking about me and what I went through, on the hook you can see it’s like the younger me, learning, going through stuff.

“32” is the most direct, in that song I’m actually talking to James, literally talking to James. “James said” is more a reference to my brother, “32” is me talking straight to my brother and when it comes on you can hear his voice, that’s his voicemail. (You can hear it at the end of track, Sunday) That’s his actual outgoing message, then you hear him talking under my singing when the song starts, you hear me singing, “The things we go through are …” (sings) The voice under that talking is him, that’s James talking.

MB: It’s very powerful, I thought it was his voice.  

Illa J: The point of that song is that I’m 32 years-old and he died when he was 32 years-old and that’s trippy as hell, I’m 32 now, that’s crazy and talk about the whole 1932 thing as well in the verse. The point of that song is that I’ve never had a conversation with my brother as a grown man …

(and with that the line cuts).      

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006 & 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)



“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972

Originally arranged by Melba Liston, officially re-arranged by Don Sebesky. Trumpet – Freddie Hubbard Flugelhorn – Alan Rubin, John Frosk, Marvin Stamm Trombone – Garnett Brown, Warren Covington, Wayne Andre Bass Trombone – Paul Faulise French Horn – Brooks Tillotson, James Buffington Tenor Saxophone – Grover Washington, Jr. Oboe, Clarinet, Flute – Romeo Penque English Horn, Clarinet, Flute – George Marge Flute – Hubert Laws Piano, Liner Notes – Randy Weston Synthesizer [Moog] – David Horowitz Bass – Ron Carter, Vishnu Wood (track 2) Drums – Bill Cobham Vocals – Madame Meddah

(The above are the album credits)

Randy Weston, according to online sources, didn’t like this record. Thought it was too clean, over-produced, yet four decades-plus on it retains its interest - largely because of the line-up of musicians - and impact, to a degree. (The same original power that made it a “hit” for CTI within jazz circles at the time of release). The Rateyourmusic description spells out how/why Weston rejected the finished product, first calling it: “Progressive Big Band, Afro-Jazz” in bold, then with “Berber Music, Gnawa” hiding in tiny font below. (Discogs has it as: “Big Band, Fusion, Modal.”)

Weston had returned from five years living in Morocco (after a visit to Nigeria in 1961 with Nina Simone and other Black American musicians) and assembled a group of other jazz greats to join him on what is his best-known album.

Listening to it you can hear how the piece’s brassy, big band display is an uneasy fit for the musical influences you imagine Weston wanted to pay homage to in this work; even his earlier recordings were more interior, more deconstructed, less showy and bombastic. Thom Jurek’s AllMusic review takes a more positive view, noting that the flashy horns “frenetic, minor-key piano lines, knotty, Middle Eastern Eastern-sounding charts, and skittering North African rhythms push the listener into a new space, one that stands outside of CTI's usual frame in, and into, the exotic.”

Yet this notion of the music being “exotic” (and emphasis on how the “listener” might hear it) backs up Weston’s complaint about it not being true to his vision, as does the sleeve image, according to a review in LondonJazz the Pete Turner cover photo features “the stare of a mystic, focused on infinity — a psychedelic, solarised image drawn from Turner’s visit to the Far East.” The review quotes the photographer: “This is a holy man, in Benares, India, near the Ganges,” taken while he was “on assignment covering Allen Ginsberg.”

There is little to suggest that Randy Weston had any interest in India - at that point - or any affinity with a beatnik like Ginsberg. His attention was solely focussed on his own “ancestral” roots in Africa. In interviews included here - from Montreux 2016 and Open Democracy 2012 - Weston makes it clear that the “African” influence was there in his work and self from the beginning, instilled in him by his Panama-born father who repeated that he was an “African born in America” alongside the perspective of his mother’s Virginia family. This was then mirrored by the world he saw all around him of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn New York in the 1930S-1940s of his youth. It could be seen in the way he played piano, he tells us; he like all other Black American jazz musicians played the piano as if he were playing the drums. The (memory of the ) drums never left us, he explains.



AMY GOODMAN: Langston Hughes dies in May (1967).

RANDY WESTON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And before the end of the year, you’ve moved to Africa.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision and where you went.

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’m sure it’s because of Marshall Stearns. He was on the State Department board. That’s for sure. Unfortunately, Marshall died before I had a chance to thank him. But I was chosen to do a State Department tour of 14 countries in 1967 of North Africa and West Africa and Beirut and Lebanon. And I put together a great band: Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Bill Wood on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, and Chief Bey on African drum. And I took my son with me, as a teen—he was 15, Niles, at that particular time. And we had a wonderful, wonderful tour. And I requested, whatever country we went to, I would like to be in touch with the traditional music of that country.

And so, we spent three months in Africa. And it was a good test for me, because, you know, you can write music about Africa in New York, but the test is when you play that music on the continent itself.

When I play music in Africa, I tell the people, “This is your music. You may not recognize it, because it came in contact with European languages, it came in contact with European instruments, you see. But it’s your music, you know.” And I always had Chief Bey, because Chief Bey always had the African traditional drum. So we had a big success in Africa, because it was not only a concert, but having the people understand the impact of African rhythms in world music, whether it’s Brazil or Cuba or Mississippi or Brooklyn, whatever. If you don’t have that African pulse, nothing is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So you move, Randy Weston, to Morocco. Why Morocco?

RANDY WESTON: Morocco was the very last country, and that’s when I wanted to live in Africa, because I wanted to be closer to the traditional people. And when you do a State Department tour, you have to make a report: what you like, what you didn’t like, etc., etc., etc. So I stayed in Rabat for one week working on this report. And so, I went back to New York. About one month later, I got these letters from Morocco saying the Moroccan people are crazy about your music, and they want you to come back. So I had no idea I was going to be in Morocco, because, number one, the languages spoken are Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish—very little English, you see. But the power of music is the original language, is music, right? So I went back and ended up staying seven years. And that’s when I discovered the Africans who were taken in slavery who had to cross the Sahara Desert. I discovered these [inaudible]. I discovered their music, the Gnawa people in particular in Morocco. So that really enriched my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Gnawa people.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, the Gnawa people, they’re originally from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana, Mali, you know. And during the invasion from the north, they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to the north. But they created a very powerful spiritual music. And so, I first met them in 1967, and we’ve been together up until this day, because when you hear this music, you hear the origin of blues, of jazz, of black church, all at the same time. You realize that. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to America? What has African people brought with them? Because when they were taken away, they had no instruments, no language, no nothing. How did they take these European instruments and create music? But when you hear the traditional people, you realize, music began in Africa in the first place. And the music is so diverse, because the continent itself is so diverse. So if you go to the Sahara, you’re going to have music of the Sahara. You go to the mountains, you’re going to have the music, because African people create music based upon where they live, their environment. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I was influenced by the Palladium, by the black church, by the blues, Mississippi. So where you—you know, it is the foundation of what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play “Blue Moses” a little bit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course. [playing “Blue Moses”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, you often quote the Somali poet Moussa.

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he said—Moussa, I met him in Nigeria in 1977. He said, “Randy,” he said, “I’m going to tell you one thing.” He said, “The first thing that changes is the music, because music is the voice of God, is music.” He said, “Music is our first language.” We think French or English or Arabic or Spanish is our language. There was a time we didn’t have those languages. The language was music, because we listened to the music of the birds. We listened to the music of Mother Nature. We listened to the wind, the sound of thunder. So, he says, “When you have ordinary music, you’re going to have ordinary times.” Yeah, and I’ll never forget that, yeah. And when you have creative music, you have creative times, because music—you can’t see music. You can’t touch music. Music is the king of the arts, you see. And so, music is everywhere. But we tend to take music for granted. But imagine our planet without music. It would be dead, because all people have their music, you see.

Black History Special: Jazz Legend Randy Weston on His Life and Celebration of “African Rhythms” Open Democracy, 2012. Watch the video interview here.



“Blue Moses,” feat. Pharaoh Sanders, The Spirits of Our Ancestors, Verve, 1991

To understand how Randy Weston might have liked the original 1972 to sound like (and be, in essence), listen to these recordings from 1991 and 2006. I won’t describe them. The music is far more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be.

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Pharaoh Sanders - tenor saxophone, Alex Blake - bass, Jamil Nasser - bass, Idris Muhammad - drums, Big Black - percussion, Yassir Chadly - percussion, karkuba, vocal. Arr: Melba Liston, prod. Jean-Philippe Allard/Brian Bacchus

“Blue Moses,” Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio, Zep Tepi, Random Choice, 2006

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Alex Blake - double bass, Neil Clarke - percussion, prod. Paul West.

“Blue Moses” Randy Weston and Dar Gnawa of Tanger, New School, New York 2013

“The Gnawa in Morocco, like African-Americans in the United States, were taken as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and developed a unique and very spiritual music and culture. Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas 'Maalems' are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom. On October 13, 2015, Abdellah El Gourd and Dar Gnawa of Tanger joined New School Jazz Artist-In-Residence, pianist and composer Randy Weston for a discussion and demonstration of various aspects of traditional Gnawan music, and how this African musical tradition has influenced Weston's own compositions. The two first met in 1968 after Weston moved to Morocco and continue to perform together around the world, nearly fifty years later. It was El Gourd who initiated the pianist into the riches of Gnawa music. Weston explains, "The Gnawa people and their music represent one of the strongest spiritual connections I've ever experienced." Dar Gnawa of Tanger, a group of traditional Moroccan musicians led by El Gourd, performed and were joined by Randy Weston on piano. This program is part of the Randy Weston Artist-In-Residency series at The New School for Jazz, produced by Phil Ballman.”

Information from below the YouTube video

To close, a touching performance by Randy Weston and Alex Blake at the memorial service for Freddie Hubbard, recorded December 2008 at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Randy Weston (April 6, 1926-September 1, 2018)

"I'm my own competition," an interview with Black Milk, following the release of FEVER

First published at Passion of the Weiss, April 5 2018

Rather than stay wedded to the early-career production style that made his name furnishing beats for Slum Village and other Detroit artists (Royce da 5’9, Danny Brown, Elzhi) and provided the soundtracks for his solo albums from the mid-2000s on, Black Milk has always preferred the more adventurous route.

His 2014 EP, Glitches in the Break, for instance, sounded like little else he’d done to up until that point: deconstructed, driven by bass-lines and disembodied vocal samples, with each track offering sharp contrast to the next. Accordingly, the impressionistic portrait of hometown Detroit, that same year’s If There’s a Hell Below…, similarly marked a new direction.

In the four years since, Black Milk has been pretty quiet, aside from his near-constant touring with his live band, Nat Turner and the group’s 2015 release, The Rebellion Sessions. After an extended period living in Texas, Black Milk is now based in Los Angeles, where he recorded his most recent LP, FEVER, along with additional sessions featuring local musicians back in Detroit.

Many of Black Milk’s core lyrical interests return on FEVER, with the MC expressing concern about the way social media dehumanizes and distorts relationships (“Laugh Now, Cry Later”), schools churning out ill-educated fools (“True Lies”), racism and police violence (“Drown”); but FEVER never dips into the raw, more experimental style of past releases, preferring instead to play with a late ’70s jazz-funk sound, which imbues the album with an air of chic refinement and definite cool.

MB: I remember the last time we spoke, you said that you were interested in developing engineering skills. How do you assess your development here, not just as a producer, but as an engineer?

Black Milk: I feel I’ve grown as both a producer and an engineer. I’m always in search of new things, different things, that I can add to what I do to make it sound better. As a producer, that’s pretty much my day to day, trying to figure out things, or working out ways to create an even better sound to what I’ve done in the past. Not necessarily better, but to expand it, you know, and see if I can push it to its limits even more; that’s the way it is.

MB: You’ve mixed your previous recordings, right?

Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve mixed all my albums. I’ve always mixed my music, produced my music, and created it. This is not a new task that I’ve taken on. I think with the last two or three projects the difference is I’ve become more focused on engineering, more than anything. Of course, I’ve always mixed my stuff, but I wasn’t as focused on the engineering side as trying to produce a great track or produce a great beat. Producing is second nature to me at this point, but I feel like I need to have more strength in mixing as an engineer.

MB: Now, the title FEVER. I’ve read that you chose the title because of the current climate in the US, but it’s also the name of one of the most famous songs from the twentieth century, written by Little Willie John in 1956 and covered by so many artists, from Peggy Lee to The Cramps. You haven’t mentioned this, I’m wondering why.

Black Milk: [Sings] “You give me fever…,” that song?

MB: Yeah, surely making a link here is intentional?

Black Milk: No, that wasn’t intentional, I didn’t even have that song in mind when I chose the title. The way I come up with any of my album titles is I try to find a lot of different phrases that sound good to me that also look good on paper, “fever” was one of words out of a long list that I had. I like the way the word looks; I like the way the letters are, and I wanted to do a one-word title, I didn’t want to do a long album title. Of course, I knew about the song “Fever” and an earlier album with the same name, but it had nothing to do with why I titled my album FEVER.

MB: FEVER isn’t a standard hip-hop album. When creating the music, were you thinking about how it fits in a genre? To me it sounds a lot like late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz-funk, Quincy Jones, The Blackbyrds, etc.

Black Milk: Well, I look at myself as an artist that is seen as someone who is original, you know, making music and art from the heart and from a real place, a true place. That comes with rewards and sometimes, consequences, I don’t know if “consequences” is the right word, but it’s like you’re going to find yourself in situations that lead to certain kinds of struggles or hurdles in terms of pushing through and getting exposed to a more mainstream audience.The flipside of this is that when you create something that’s unique, different, and in a lane of its own, it gets respect, not only from your fellow musicians, but from a certain kind of fan who appreciates individuality. That’s more important to me when it’s all said and done. When I look back at my legacy I want to feel like I stayed true to what I wanted to do and was able to still make a career and a living off the work and it coming from a real place. A lot of artists you’ve just mentioned I think that’s what they were doing, so I’m in good company.

MB: I hear what you’re saying, in some ways it’s true, but in other ways it’s not because there seems to be a real resurgence in this sound, say the various recent Robert Glasper projects. Do you think that there is a kind of revival of this sound happening now?

Black Milk: Yeah, there’s definitely a revival of not only the sound but it’s a revival of artists doing what they want to do and challenging their audience, challenging their fans. I think this is because we live in the Internet age. Now more so than ever you can be an individual because if you’re good at what you do and know how to market and promote yourself online you can create an audience in a bubble, in a world that has nothing to do with anything else outside of that bubble and people will find you. They will come inside that bubble, that world and support that. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.We live in a time now when everyone can be who they want to be and if they do it well they can create a world for themselves and people who enjoy what they do. That’s where I am now, I’m more focused on creating my own world and whoever enjoys what I do in my world, they can be a part of it. I don’t ever have to worry about competing against anyone else: I’m my own competition.

MB: Something interesting about your career is that you have a very strong international presence, and this might bring a different audience. A recent show you did in Paris was at a jazz venue, this is also why I asked about jazz-funk because it seems there’s a space for people who are not only ‘real hip-hop heads’ to connect with your work because it’s different. Is this something you’re thinking about as well?

Black Milk: Yeah, that’s something I’ve observed with this new album. I feel like I’ve seen more musicians follow me and comment on what I’m doing. I’ve seen more people in general who are not necessarily in the hip-hop space support the music and follow me on social media and comment on the music. That’s where I want to be.I want my music and myself as an artist to cross over into that world of live music and musicians. The hip-hop world is cool and it’s great, I’ve developed a good reputation in the hip-hop space, but I feel like my music—especially at this point—there are more layers to it than a hip-hop beat and some hip-hop verses. I’m trying to up the musicality on what I do. That shows with my new album as different kinds of people, different kinds of audiences gravitate towards it. Hopefully when I do the tour for this album I’ll see an even more diverse audience in front of me when I’m up on stage.

MB: Another link with that era is the sample on “Will Remain” from Rare Silk, their song “Storm” from 1985. This seems to be the only obvious sample on the record, is that correct?

Black Milk: That was just one of those records. I’m still looking for samples, that’s still part of the process, I still love chopping up samples so sometimes when I come across a record to sample, I feel like it’s just so good that I would be do a disservice to the track if I tried to chop it up, or disguise it or do too much to it, I prefer to just leave it alone. That was one of those tracks where I loved the vocal sample so much I didn’t want to do anything but add drums, and a little bit of music around it. I didn’t want to manipulate it that much to lose the feeling that made me gravitate towards it. That’s why I left it kind of obvious.

MB: That’s one of the outstanding tracks on the record for me, I like the way you make things out of sync, or a bit off-kilter and there’s a very interesting drum/bass interaction going on as well.

Black Milk: I found Rare Silk’s “Storm” on YouTube. I’d never heard of it and I was like, I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard it ‘cause as a producer I’ve heard of most things, so when I found it I put it to the side ’cause I knew that I was going to use it eventually for the album. I went to Detroit and had the musicians put the guitar part down, the keys on top of it and felt like I needed to make a record that would represent the feel of the beat and the feel of the track. I tried to write a hook, but felt that the vocal sample was so good, I just left it alone, just let the sample breathe by itself.


MB: The classic hip-hop elements on the record are subtle, which is refreshing, even on the single “True Lies.” The hook is kind of different. Is this something you’re trying to do as well, to write songs that are different from the classic hip-hop formula?

Black Milk: Yeah, it’s conscious as I try to create some flows and cadences and structures that aren’t the norm, so with “True Lies”—that’s my personal favorite on the album—that’s one of the reasons why because the hook is broken up. I leave space between the track and my verse, just to let the track breathe. I think I’m going to do more of that in the future with songs I create where I use my voice like another instrument on the album. I know people often say this, but I didn’t want to over rap, or do too much vocally where it took away from the track. I just wanted to my voice to weave in and out of the beat.

MB: That comes through when you hear “True Lies.” It’s a change in delivery, especially the pausing, it seems like it comes from live performance where you’re keeping some space for the audience response. You’re performing with a live band all the time. Is this something you now factor in when writing songs?

Black Milk: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that is something to keep in mind. I’ve done so many shows over the years and now have a good idea of what moves people, what rhythms and vibes move a room. I definitely keep that in mind. When I’m on stage I do songs that are a little bit more laidback, not overly hyped. I think that’s when I captivate the room the most. That was one reason why I made some of the new music a bit more spaced out and smooth, relaxed, not overly aggressive and in your face ’cause I knew for the most part that’s what works well live.

MB: There are other great musicians as well, but let’s start with the drummers [Chris Dave and Daru Jones] and bass [Malik Hunter] as they are the key parts on the songs.

Black Milk: In terms of working with Malik, I’ve been working with him a long time, he’s part of Nat Turner, my live show. On this album he played bass and my guitarist also played bass on certain tracks, Sasha Kashperko, he’s my guitarist and played some bass on some songs.Daru Jones played on about four tracks, including the song with Dwele, “2 Would Try.” The beat was pretty much already made but I got Daru to play on top of the drums I put down. On the song you can hear the muting in and out of his drums and my drums, my drums are regularly programmed MPC drums. I also had Chris Dave, another well-known, iconic drummer play percussion on “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and “Drown.”

MB: The instrumental “DiVE” is an extraordinary piece of music. When I was listening to it I felt like the drums had a West African percussion feel to it, the drums are just great.

Black Milk: Thank you. I think that was the last track I put on the album. I already had the beat. I don’t know, the samples led me to make that kind of drum beat when I put it together and got my guitarist Sasha Kashperko played the guitar part over it.
MB: How do you make the decision as to whether a track is going to be sample-based or live?

Black Milk: I don’t know, almost every track has a live element. I just always feel that way. The live texture of a horn, or drum or bass, you can’t really duplicate the feel in software, just as a drum machine can’t duplicate the feel of someone playing, you get close but it’s never exact. I always love the energy of someone playing live on a track because most of the music I love from back in the day is live, so I like to try and incorporate that in some way into almost every track I do if I can.Even a track like “But I Can Be” is a track that started off as a melody from a Parliament/Funkadelic record that I had everyone playing on. I then took what they played and I used it like I would use a sample from a record, chopped it up, reprogrammed it, turned it into a different key, and turned it into something totally different from what they played. That happens a lot too where musicians might play something; I don’t use what they play in that moment but take it and manipulate it, turn it into something totally different. It just depends on the track, it depends on the mood of the song.

MB: Earlier, you mentioned the song “Drown.” I think it’s an interesting song because it’s impressive musically, but it has a political dimension as well; you’re talking about police violence and racism. Can talk about this track because I don’t think it’s gotten much attention?

Black Milk: I feel the same way. It’s probably another one of my favorites. I felt like I needed to address what is still going on with police and the black community, the relationship between the two and other things that have happened over the last couple of years.I felt like I needed to do it from a perspective that hasn’t really been spoken about, to talk about the idea that anyone who is part of a police force and sees the injustice that is happening and they’re not doing anything to make it better, or getting people who shouldn’t be in a police problem out of there, I feel like they are part of the problem as well. If they see something and don’t do anything about it. I felt like this was something I wanted to mention. In terms of production I had a track that I’d sampled and beat that I felt was perfect backdrop for that song.

MB: It’s not didactic, you’ve kept it subtle. In interviews, you’ve talked about your need to be “simple” and “bold” on FEVER, but the stronger songs are the ones where the message is more nuanced. “Drown” is a good example of that.

Black Milk: Yeah, I definitely didn’t want the album to come off preachy. I wanted to speak about a number of topics, but consciously wanted to do them in a way where I didn’t come off holier than thou or up on my high horse, pretentious or coming off like I’m better than everyone or judgmental.I think judgmental is the perfect word because a lot of times you have rappers who talk online all day giving their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong and it comes off annoying. It gets to a point where you just want to say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and then you listen to the music and you feel they’re trying to tell you what to do, you know? Everyone has a certain way that they live and a certain way they look at life, so I just wanted to say it in a way that feels like I’m not attacking anyone.

MB: The final words of the album are powerful: “Everyone is a potential victim.” One thing I noticed about the record is that the songs finish quite abruptly, and then this also has a very abrupt feeling; it leaves you feeling a bit destabilized. What’s going on there?

Black Milk: With that phrase, “Everyone is a potential victim,” it’s basically just saying that after everything I’ve said on the album, all the things I’ve talked about, I kind of felt like no matter who you are, what level in life you have, if you’re not part of the powers that be that control the world or the situation we live in, everyone is a potential victim. That’s what that little phrase meant at the end: No one is better than anyone at the end of the day, we’re all human, everyone is a potential victim to the powers that be.

MB: That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?

Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah and that was the last, literally the last piece that I put on the album. I found that little piece of dialogue the night before I turned in the album. I just felt that would be a pretty perfect way to end the album.

Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)


When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.



In 2010, Madlib set himself a challenge that ended up becoming the Medicine Show series. Thirteen albums, originally planned to come out each month via his archetypal reggae moniker Madlib Invazion over a period of just over a year. Odd months were to showcase original production, the evens mixes of other artists.

Chalice All-Stars (AKA Son of Super Ape) came out in April. Its promo material had a dope-smoking theme, while the title references Lee “Scratch” Perry. The tracklist didn’t name artists, but had names like “What Are The Medical Benefits of Smoking Marijuana?” Some were more loopy, for example: “Are a Lot of Pesticides on Pot?” The accompanying text read: “All Jamaican sounds. You’re tuning to your boss D.J. Madlib. Musical disc from the flick of his wrist to make you jump and twist. Madlib control the fullest. Roots. Rock. Reggae. Good stuff, as I would say.”

This reference to Madlib as DJ is key, not only because the first few seconds of Chalice All-Stars includes the word “DJ” as part of the intro, but also because of the way it encourages us to look again at the work’s conception and form.

Before listening to Chalice All-Stars, I had been spending a lot of time with Madlib’s stranger stuff, the hard to categorize projects like The Brain Wreck Show, Rock Konducta, and the adventurous—if more conventionally melodic—Black Soul mixtape and Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. Something about this “undefined” music clicked with me, especially since it upended any notion of Madlib’s production as straight-edge hip-hop style. I felt energized by the wild freedom the music contained.

My first take on the Chalice All-Stars mix was that it seemed a bit bland in comparison. There is not much variety in the mix. Songs come in, with the vocals providing the unifying element. Many of the singers (to my ears) sounded alike: lively in the style of Dillinger. Most, if not all of the artists were less known, with some exceptions: the aforementioned Dillinger, Jah Lion, Ranking Dread, and U-Roy. This was not a mix for a Saturday night to keep the crowd dancing, or a greatest hits. In fact, it was not very danceable at all (the songs changed too quickly). Not much was added in terms of effects, the mood was unchanging. Then I realized something…What Madlib was doing on the Chalice All-Stars mix was being a DJ, in a very pure sense; not a producer. The two roles are crucially different. Whereas a hip-hop producer’s talent can be gauged via their creation of music from divergent musical sources and making it appear seamless, a DJ’s role is to locate pieces of music that resemble each other in their original form, then place them side by side with the minimum of distraction, ergo Chalice All-Stars.

Rather than being a weakness, this now impressed me as a strength; imagine listening to music and hearing points of connection and commonality, despite their more obvious differences. Later, returning to some of Madlib’s other projects, particularly The Brain Wreck Show, I noticed the same thing. Disparate sounds and samples resembled each other in their original form.

The 2002 Blunted in Bomb Shelter release followed Trojan Records, giving Madlib the opportunity to delve into its artist roster then create a mix from its contents. According to the blurb from Rappcats:

“In 2002 some good folks who have the Trojan & Greensleeves catalog asked Madlib to make a mixtape of these classic reggae records. They sent him a huge box with every record they had. For about two months Madlib played these records, smoked trees, made hip-hop beats, and recorded with YNQ in his studio The Bomb Shelter. One night they called and said hey where’s the music, it’s overdue. Next morning this mixtape emerged from the cave.”

This mix was what I had expected Chalice All-Stars to sound like. (Here’s an artists’ tracklist). It’s radically shape-shifting and colored by the core dub aesthetic of stripping everything back to the essential elements of drum, bass, and effects. Drawing repeatedly on King Tubby, it included many of dub’s greatest artists and sounded like a classic recording from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Edges were kept messy. There was no through-line, the hand of the producer could be felt in the use of effects and external vocal samples. It was the very definition of flux and experimentation. It maintained the transcendental aspect of the dub version, while allowing for the human element to come through.

All this made it much easier for me to like it, as it corresponded with my preferences, but at the same time it bugged me a little. Until hearing it, I was so sure of my theory about Madlib as DJ and what this meant in terms of his work, and now that argument was in pieces. No complaint, as this refusal to be contained is, in the end, the only thing you can rely on when it comes to Madlib’s music. It is the only constant, his work’s core truth.

II.

(Version)

Dub traces can be heard in hip-hop, in the use of sound effects and elemental emphasis on the drums and bass. The exposure of sonic elements—the way drums are often heard in isolation or stop completely—similarly has a dub feel, but this might also reflect a debt to other black musical traditions, such as jazz or even disco.

The strongest connection between the genres are hip-hop instrumentals and the role of producers. Commonly-held perceptions of reggae, possibly shaped by the mass popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ non-political songs, rely on an image of the music as cheerful and bouncy, driven by a skanking rhythm: reggae as happy, feel-good party music. Some of it is, but of equal importance (and for me, greater importance) is the abstract side of dub found in the “versions.” Dub versions are the B-sides of a single where producers offer a pared-back take on the track with vocals. These tracks were often used as a surface for the DJ/MC to “toast,” or rap over. Such music is defined by the producer’s manipulation and placement of sounds, especially the way they position the vocals, treating them with effects such as reverb and delay to create an echo.

Here, the true art lies in the way the clinical production contrasts with other elements, say vocals that express warmth and vulnerability (or instruments, such as the melodica, an instrument that adds a difficult describe emotional charge: part longing, whimsy, and desire). Silence, too, is central as the elements appear and disappear. Hip-hop instrumentals frequently operate in a similar space, balancing hot and cold; the heat of a sentimental soul sample against the chill of programmed drums.

Yet despite these similarities, the influence of dub/reggae on hip-hop has never equalled that of funk, soul, or jazz. Throughout the 1990s/2000s, hip-hop artists referred to Rastafari in their lyrics, but deep engagement with dub/reggae in a profound musical sense is next to non-existent. (Of course, there are some famous nods to reggae to counter this: see Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” from 1995, the Ras Michael image borrowed by InI for their Center of Attention album sleeve).


Madlib’s “Return of the Loop Digga” from the 2000 album, The Unseen includes a skit with the producer checking out the stock of a record store. Opening it up, Madlib asks,“Would you happen to have any uhhh … Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff?”

“Never heard of him.” the record store guy replies..“Has he made any hits?”

“He ain’t got none of that.”

It’s yes to Grant Green, 1958 Blue Note Records, but no to Chick Corea Atlantic 1968.

Madlib asks,“Y’all got any reggae up in this piece or something?” The manager replies, “We have no reggae in here.”

Madlib asks, “Nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“Shit, I’m out.”

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

Interview (part 1) with Out Da Box TV, 2012

You often don't have drums or have minimal drums in your tracks. Why is this? 

Roc Marciano: For me as an MC I enjoy the space. Sometimes the drums, you know, the program I feel like it takes over the groove and doesn’t allow me the same space. A track with no drums gives me the space to do more.

I want to talk to you about "Tent City," could you talk about it in more detail? It's an extremely intense track. 

Roc Marciano: “Tent City” yeah, I just knew when I found it, immediately I knew I wanted to do something with it, I thought the sample was real ill with the horn in the background, and I was reading Miles Davis when I was making the album so a lot of the horns are sticking out, they’re like the most important sounds. It’s like a mixture of soul and jazz, I really enjoyed making that track.

It’s a totally different sound for a hip-hop song, were you conscious of the fact you were doing something so new?

Roc Marciano: Nah, not really, I mean usually I’m just doing what I want to do I don’t really care if it’s new or not, I’m always trying to keep pushing myself and trying to find more inspiration, doing the same thing is boring, so it’s interesting to find stuff like that.

You seem to be quite intuitive the way you work, you often use the word “organic” when describing your work process and said once you “don’t like to force music.” What did you mean by that?

Roc Marciano: I don’t like to make music “just because,” you know, ‘cause I get bored. I have to feel it, I’m always looking for stuff, you know, that makes me want to be creative, it’s not just me it’s also the music, we’re doing it together, so that when I get music that touches me it makes the process a lot smoother.

It’s still primarily sample-based, isn’t it, you’re not using live instrumentation?

Roc Marciano: No, I’m not but I’d like to start. I’m going to use live instrumentation in the future.

I saw in an interview that you said you’d love to work with musicians. You mentioned Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes as inspirations. All these great artists from the '70s. Talk to me a little bit more about that. 

Roc Marciano: Well, you know, I really admire those musicians, those artists made some music that’ve done a lot to inspire me, so I feel like to pick it up where they left off that’d be a great thing. That’s some of the greatest music ever made in my opinion, I would love to be able to follow in their foot-steps.

Something else I really like about your work is that you place the samples in a really creative way, the vocals are really low in the mix a lot of the time and there’s a very, very strong contrast between the vocals and the music. You’re also often leaving the samples quite raw, they’re not mixed to merge with each other. How conscious is all of this when you’re making your music?

Roc Marciano: I’m conscious … I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, when you hear it that way it’s mainly me creating music, you know and still having fun, I try to make sure that I’m still having fun. Me doing it the way I want to do it allows me to keep having fun.

When you’re listening to Funkadelic, and artists like this, are you thinking about how they positioned the sounds in their music?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much what I am doing. I don’t want to mess up anything, my goal is to work with the sounds from the samples. I feel that what they were doing was already live and dangerous enough, all I’ve got to do is get in the middle.

Can you speak to me about the song “C.V.S” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: My guy Don Cee made that beat, I feel like that’s a continuation of what I was already doing, it’s a progression, when I heard it I was like that’s definitely going to fit in with what I’m doing. I think that track is real ill.

Let’s talk about the producers who have worked on the album with you. The guys from Arch Druids have come back to work on this. You’re quite a loyal collaborator, you have guys you work with repeatedly, they have been working with you a long, long time. What is it about those producers that you admire so much?

Roc Marciano; I mean we all see eye to eye with what we’re trying to do musically and we’ve been working together for so long, over the years, they’re like brothers you know, it’s like you continue to make music with your family, you know, you’re in your comfort zone you get better results that way.

You’ve also got Action Bronson, Knowledge the Pirate on the album. Do they feel close to you like family as well?

Roc Marciano; Yeah, definitely but not only that it’s cause it’s fun, everyone is where they’re at because that’s where they belong, like I was saying earlier it’s organic.

Your music often has dramatic shifts in your music, often about half way through a track it completely changes direction. What are you aiming for here?

Roc Marciano: To keep it fun, I don’t want to bore the listener, it’s already hard to keep it entertaining when it’s just one man and one voice, so to keep it entertaining you have to have all those elements in it to surprise you, so it’s not just my voice over and over and I’m not just rapping and rapping through the whole project.

Could you speak about Alchemist? You’ve done lots of work together and I read how he’s been important as a supporter keeping you going when you at one point were thinking about stopping music. How has he influenced you and your work?

Roc Marciano: I always just thought that Al was dope, you know what I’m saying. He’s a good friend, not to mention, but you know he’s just super ill. I knew of him before we started working on Reloaded, I was always just a fan, you know, I admire his work ethic, he’s a beast.

Some time back you chose five beats/hip-hop tracks that were your favorites, all were from the late 80s/early 90s (Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’”, EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out”, Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You T.R.O.Y” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”). How would you compare your style with that of the Golden Era MCs from New York?

Roc Marciano: Probably in terms of the lyricism, you know the way I focus on the lyricism, with my lyrics I’m pushing the culture forward lyrically you know on from what the guys in the ‘90s were doing, in the Golden Era that was considered to be a big part of making music.

You’ve said that you think it’s important to update your style from what the MCs were doing back then, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Pushing it forward, making it better and better and to improve, so that’s pretty much what I mean by updating it, by updating it you are constantly improving it. It’s like an operating system on a computer, even though you buy a new computer it’s constantly updating the operating system so the computer runs better. I feel like that’s what I do with the music myself, you know, the style and production and choice of samples, just keep improving.

What’s interesting about your lyricism is that you have lots of images, you layer them and focus on setting the scene, not really story-telling so much. You’ve talked about how you’d love to work with DOOM and mentioned Kool Keith as an influence. Have those two MCs inspired your lyricism?

Roc Marciano: I would definitely say Kool Keith, I’m a fan of DOOM, I caught on to DOOM late, I was already doing what I was doing. As far as Kool Keith, he’s definitely somebody who inspired my style. DOOM I was like as soon as I heard his music, yeah, this dude is ill.

Kool Keith has a similar style to you in some ways, in terms of layering lots of words that rhyme together that are kind of absurd or surreal. What do you think?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah, I always thought that Kool Keith was pushing the feeling of being in an uncomfortable state and I liked that.

What do you mean by an “uncomfortable state”?

Roc Marciano: Not doing the same thing over and over, if you keep doing the same thing, if you keep picking the same beat over and over that dates, a lot of people are like that beat’s hard - that’s hard, that’s hard, well that (attitude) dates. I would like people to hear songs and be like that’s kind of strange, what’s that? That’s what I mean by being uncomfortable.

Which song from Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 would you say conveys that feeling?

Roc Marciano: Most of the album from “Tent City” to “Kill You” to “C.V.S” so many, it’s not like every day hip-hop you know what I’m saying? A lot of it is strange, risky, edgy.

Thinking about New York now, the city is extremely important for you in terms of your work and what you do, you grew up in Hempstead, Long Island you have said you can hear it in my music, it’s in my blood, growing up there it was a place with a lot struggle and a lot of love. Can you talk about where you grew up and how it connects with your work?

Roc Marciano: Well, I grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. It’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I feel like wherever you come from it’s going to be a huge influence, it’s like your culture. It’s pretty much all I know so that’s why it feeds into my music. It’s like anybody else’s hometown would influence their art.

You’ve said that this place had a rich culture, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Everything, from the people from Long Island hip-hop culture, from Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, you know what I’m saying, and just the people it was like a melting-pot of people from all these different places, especially in my area, it was definitely interesting, very rich.

You’ve said that you’d love to work with Ghostface Killah. What is it about his work that impresses you so much?

Roc Marciano: It’s super ill, man, you know, super ill – from the stories, some of my favorite bodies of work come from that brother, Supreme Clientele, Iron Man, you know, he’s a monster of an artist.

When you were asked who you would like to do a full album with, you said Cormega …

Roc Marciano: Yeah, definitely I’ve always been a big fan, we have worked together, and we’ve got more work that’s yet to come out, definitely somebody I’ve always admired as a lyricist, it seems pretty natural to me.

One thing that’s really great on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge is the way the songs are placed side by side, how they work together. When you are creating a record what’s running through your mind in terms of what you want to achieve?

Roc Marciano: Just to make a great body of music that’s always the plan, it never changes, no theme or concept would ever change the aim to make an album that sounds good from beginning to the end.

You often say how important it is for you to develop as an artist and to progress, how do you think that this record is a development in terms of the first Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: As I say I think everything’s improved from the beats to the rhymes, everything is improving.

I-Control (Audio Collage): an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2 

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2017)

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Such blurring of apparent contradictions flows into other spheres as well; it is hard to imagine another country where a a revered President (François Mitterrand) who was seen as a great intellect and built imposing monuments to his greatness and the greatness of French culture might also regularly consult with a psychic who gave him advice on the timing of international meetings. 

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

(Time spent trying to work out the significance of Sylvester, the character best-known for his lisp and chasing Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales, hasn’t led to any real insight on my part. And then after publishing this essay, I rewatched La Haine. In the film the three main characters debate which of the three cartoon characters are the toughest to decide on Sylvester because he's a 'black brother').   

Alchemist’s two-decade-plus career similarly contains such sharp tonal shifts, moving from the classicism of his early production with Prodigy on H.N.I.C, part 2 from 2008 to the recent Gangrene partnership with Oh No that is built on the innovative use of foreign samples.

In 2017, Alchemist put out seven releases; the Fantasy Island EP with Jay Worthy; The Good Book, Volume 2 (2017) (with Budgie) and an EP with Canadian producer, Lunice called Moving Parts as well as a number of limited edition vinyl “45s under the Craft Singles rubric.  Of interest here are the four instrumental albums: Rapper's Best Friend 4 and three projects with a Francophone focus: the French Blend records and Paris x LA x Bruxelles in September.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, Paris x LA x Bruxelles saw Alchemist team up with a crew of 12 French-language rappers and was subtitled “one producer, three cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert.” On its release I wrote the following comment in an article for Ambrosia For Heads: “For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix” while noting its ludic spirit of experimentation.

When asked what he thought about crowds in Paris in a 2015 interview the day after a show at La Bellevilloise with Brand New Hip Hop, Alchemist replied this way: 

“Amazing, I miss DJ-ing, best crowd, man, the rowdiest liveliest crowd, they call that sh*t ‘turning up, right?’ Paris invented that sh*t man, France invented getting ‘lit’ or ‘turning up’ that would be coined in France because they are the rowdiest, liveliest crowd on the f*cking face of the earth at least for me and the music I make. Every time I come around it’s like ‘Woah! Man, you did the right thing!’ Maybe other people feel that way across the world, but they don’t show it (the same way). I don’t know if it’s the drinks here, or the smoke, but they show me extreme love, man and that’s a good feeling.” 

He also commented on French hip-hop scene saying he was aware of it “vaguely (through his travels)” and respected it for its autonomous, underground spirit. Some time back he had produced a song with Mobb Deep/113 'L’école du crime that came out on an earlier Franco-American collaboration album in 2005, The Basement and featured US MCs such as Cappadonna, Royce da 5’9” alongside Pete Rock, The Beatnuts and Slum Village.  

II.

“Well, people who know me, the ones who come around, they know I do collages. I cut sh*t up out of magazines and just do weird sh*t in the off hours when people are writing rhymes. It’s like I have Tourette’s syndrome – you know where you don’t sit still? I think I have that. I do a lot of collages and I approached this album like that, it’s art, it’s music whatever, it’s all the same.

Over time, it was more of an instrumental project I was doing. I was just piecing sh*t together and then it just kept morphing and taking a shape of its own. I was spending late nights just piecing more little bits on top, the same way you do with a collage and then it just felt like it was worthy. There were certain parts where I felt people could rap and it really was a puzzle over time. I had no idea where it was going to take me.”

Alchemist

“Alchemist talks “Russian Roulette” experimentation, says beats aren’t good enough for featured emcees” Hip Hop DX, July 9, 2012, interview by MelanieC 

One site referred to the French Blend projects as sampling ‘Francophone funk.’ This seems off-mark to me, as the groove is deconstructed and subtle on French Blend when there. Besides, France is not known for its funk music (or any longstanding Black musical tradition, even jazz while it has an almost spiritual connection in France took its power from the appreciative audiences, rather than the local musicians; noting of course the few exceptions).    

Rather than dipping into a kind of French funk imaginary, what motivates Alchemist most is playing around with language and ideas. This work is more of a punk sonic mash-up along the lines of Crass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Consolidated or Mark Stewart and The Maffia albeit without the (often revolutionary) Leftist politics.

Those musicians from the ‘70s-‘80s were continuing a radical tradition dating back to Russian collages at the turn of the 20th Century and saw their collages as a radical, oppositional act. In contrast, the dominant mood of Alchemist’s French Blend series is absurdist and theatrical, more like a radio play than music in the conventional sense. Another point of reference might be the kind of impressionistic radio plays broadcast on public radio (in Australia, for example, the now-shelved Night Air program that ran on Radio National there). His interest is not so much to disrupt and disturb, but rather transport you to a different cultural space, which might also reflect something personal of the artist as well.    

Added to this, it is apt that Alchemist uses the collage effect because there is a long history linking the practice with France. See, musique concrète and this informative article from FACT magazine on Pierre Schaeffer, dubbed “the godfather of sampling,” who created challenging work he characterised as “research into noises” throughout the 30s and 40s while working for the French public broadcaster, RDF. 

Something of real interest here in the hip-hop context is the placement of the vocal samples. Unlike the standard formula of opening or ending with a vocal sample, Alchemist on occasion repeats them, or echoes them via light-hearted connections between the tracks and languages. For example, on the first French Blend the track, “Cotelettes d’agneau” starts with a sample of an American voice - is it Action Bronson from his TV letter of love to French food and wine (that has in other incarnations also featured Alchemist), From Paris with Love ? - saying, “We’re chillin’ in Paris, I got lamb chops …” (this song title means ‘lamb chops’ in French). At one point a woman says, in French, she’s “crazy about this music.” The music itself is repetitive, swooning; the kind of sleek music you could imagine being played in a TV movie to indicate suspense or discovery.   

One of my favorites, also from the first “French Blend is La Selection Outro du Disc Jockey” with its extravagant layering of voices. First, the sexy-woman DJ saying the song title and the male voices singing the same words in a jolly descending scale, set against a swirly synth effect transplanted from ‘60s pop. This makes me laugh each time I hear it as there are two radio stations here in Paris, FIP and Nova, that are famous not only for their eclectic playlists, covering all genres, but also their female presenters who with their sultry, theatrical voices over-state, over-enunciate just for effect as they do the back announcements.   

Sometimes the point of the various collage elements remains elusive. “Etoile” (Star) might be referring to the métro station near the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées, however. the connection with an English-accented woman reading part of a weather report (in English) suggests that this might be an imagined location, rather than a real place. On the second album there is a track called “Clignancourt Metro,” which suggests another Paris link, but no such station exists. (There is a Porte de Clignancourt métro station is the far north of the city. This is a surprising place for the LA producer to mention as this area is a kind of transit location, known for its vast flea market, but also large numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets. It’s a pretty seedy neighborhood).

One highlight is “Tintement Bébé” – the song’s title is difficult to translate, but likely refers to the mobiles put on prams to keep babies entertained, though tintement alludes to a high-pitched sound, a tinkling or jingle. This track combines a man intoning lyrics that make little sense, stagey disco elements, an echo effect and one of the key refrains, found all over hip-hop, as a direct borrow from soul about loving “music forever and ever.”

Barrière d’enfer” (Gate to/of, hell) also from the first album is impressive the way it combines an ethereal effect, drums borrowed from ‘70s musical arrangements (see: Michel Berger’s Message personnel” as sung by Françoise Hardy) and high-pitched sounds straight out of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Such a description might sound messy, but it works basically because it sounds like the Alchemist, the only difference is that is has been transposed to a different linguistic and cultural context.

French Blend, part 2 is much more American in feel and content, with repeated U.S. samples instead of the French and a harder edge. The French connection is primarily maintained via the track titles, see: “Le Mécanicien” and “Vivre Et Mourir.” The second title means “To live and to die” though as with the others this feels a bit Google-translated, maybe it was meant to be “Live and Let Die” in a homage to the Paul McCartney/ Wings anthem: this would be appropriate considering the epic nature of both. 

Not so long ago, Alchemist put up a short documentary on his work with Dutch MC Kempi on his Twitter feed linked to the Rap N Glorie EP that came out on vinyl in April 2017. In an interview, he explained how it feels to be working in a language that is not his own.

“I don’t know what the lyrics are, or nothing,” he said. “That’s probably good to get that perspective cause probably a lot of the world is that, you know what I mean? Just pffft, you know, so I’m sitting back and I’m hearing melodies, or rhythms that are dope to me. That’s universal.”

There’s something extremely interesting about this, in the way that sounds that only exist as far as they have potential to be transformed. Common associations with language, with feeling and meaning as cultural markers become secondary to the process of creation/reinvention. Whether it’s his reworking/re-imagining of French sources, or his earlier international sorties (Russia, Israel) alluded to via his album titles, there is something invigorating about all of this, pushing hip-hop in a direction that has rarely been seen, if ever, before. 

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.” Then referring to his “Ain’t it funny” beat from Brown’s 2016 Atrocity Exhibition (Warp), he added: “It was just wild, so free and expressive. That was one of my most favourite beats. I was so chuffed that Danny picked it.”

For many, Paul White’s work is inextricably linked with “Danny” (Brown). Especially since White’s often startling production work on Atrocity Exhibition where he produced 10 of the 15 tracks radically re-imagined what a Hip-Hop record might sound like.

Throughout our conversations I sensed that White was keen to draw my attention to the vast eclecticism of his music, spanning as it does the high-energy machinations with Brown, but also the super-smooth soul of Golden Rules, the 80s pop inflection of his collaboration with Open Mike Eagle - Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group, 2014) and his current live-performance based solo works.

Being free to take risks is central to not only White’s practice, but also self-image as an artist, which coincides with a dislike of rigid categories. “I hate labels,” White told me. “Life can’t be explained in words, I know we have to use words to describe things, but I think this is why I talked about energy in the past.” He continued: “I like to live my life according to that idea, rather than thinking that everything is split into genres or putting things in boxes, as otherwise this inhibits you, stops you from going to other places.”

What follows is an analysis of White’s musical aesthetic (layering, a love for untamed, natural sound and interest in musical tension) and also a lesson Madlib "taught" him. 

White shares his recollections of working with Yasiin Bey, Freddie Gibbs, Golden Rules partner, Eric Biddines and Danny Brown. (Open Mike Eagle and Guilty Simpson are also important, but escape inclusion because of limited space). When speaking with me, White was particularly enthusiastic about the project he was then in the final stages of mixing, although he was unable to share any of the tracks. Expected to come out early next year, he says that it is his most personal release yet.

Earlier, I suggested a link with Blake. With Paul White being from my point of view an extremely English artist; but this “Englishness” must be one that allows for the High Romantic/psychedelic swoon of getting lost in the moment, see his love of Ambient music, alongside the deep influence of African artists, from the east, west and south.

 

I.

“My first exploration of electronic music on my own was totally Ambient. I’m a mood-based person and fascinated by people, why we feel the way we feel. Music stirs such deep feelings in us, so this is my place: feelings, emotions, psychology and deep atmospheres and worlds you can create that can totally change your mind-space.”

— Paul White, interview with the author

In February this year, on the 25th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92  an article published in FACT asked White to describe the importance of the album on his development as an artist. White explained how as a 16/17 year-old into Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang, his first reaction was, “Wow, what is this?!”

“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.”
Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was Ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing Hip-Hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there were also breakbeats, which I understood from Hip-Hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.

Listening to Paul White’s work, I noticed how he often used “layering” in his music, across different genres. How a single note would appear at a certain point and just rest there, to create depth and intensify the mood. Within Hip-Hop production – and Soul and Jazz … - individual sounds have an essentially dynamic quality: repeating, interacting, changing form.

In White’s music you find a single note – or series of sounds that have a unified effect - just resting there. This seemed to go against expectations, this stillness in the music separate from everything else and intrigued me.

In the interview with FACT White explained how Aphex Twin introduced him to the importance of atmosphere, of creating “worlds for people to go into.” Not only that there was something about the music that sounded “British in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home … It felt like home, really warm.”  

 

MB: “Thinking about this idea of layering in music then, where a sound is brought in and kept there for an extended period. I see it visually, almost as if the sound were like a stream of light. If you think of the song “Get your head around this” (feat. Trim, Watch the Ants EP, One-Handed Music, 2013)

the song construction is quite formal, conventional and then on the hook you have a sound, or to be more accurate a layer of sound/s that adds enormous depth.

Paul White: In terms of layering, I love harmonies; I love atmospheres.  I think you’re right it comes from Ambient music where you can develop different themes. Layering can intensify emotions and feelings and make things richer; then you can add themes and subtract themes. You can add more atmosphere, subtract atmosphere. A lot of things work on a subconscious level when you are creating music, I think. You go into this weird zone you’re not even quite conscious of, then suddenly you come back and think, Wow, where did I just go? Maybe layering is part of that journey.

I’m fascinated by sound. The layering part of it just comes from that, the different feelings and textures you can create from that. In my studio, I’ve got quite a few different toys that can produce different sounds and that’s important to me, to have different colours, different palettes.

MB: When looking closely at song construction, I often notice that at say 30 second or one-minute intervals a Hip-Hop producer brings in a new sound, or sample, it’s similar to a classic Jazz composition or a Pop song. I was thinking the layering effect may have a similar significance for you, it adds intensity, but also is part of how you build your songs.  

Paul White: Sure, sure, yeah. I like song-based music, even though I’ve written beats over the years, the layering thing reflects where I come from which is writing songs with a guitar. I love song structures, and this is one thing I’ve been getting into more recently, trying to write songs again. It’s all about taking yourself on a journey and hopefully taking listeners on a journey. Some of my favourite music is Prog-Rock and Jazz and Jazz-Fusion, long pieces running anything from three minutes to 20 minutes. What I like about Prog is that you get all these different aspects of music in one song.

This is what has drawn me to sampling and this comes from Krautrock as well, all the different sections you get in a song. Probably my favourite band ever is Weather Report, again they go everywhere they take you in so many different directions, largely because you’ve got all these different instrumentalists - a whole band. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to be as many different people as I can even though it’s just me. I can be the drummer, play the guitar and match the feeling, even though I don’t have a band.

MB: It’s interesting this focus on different elements, when you have one instrument, or element that’s exposed. Sampling or sample-based music is all about this, isn’t it?

Paul White: It’s funny you say that, I’m just mixing my album, my solo album. A lot of problems I’ve had in the past is mixing engineers wanting everything to sound quite smooth, but I love sound jumping out and leaping out. It’s taken a couple of weeks working with this mixing engineer for him to really get that that’s what works best for my music. I love things poking out, I love something kind of odd to just jump out at you and grab your attention. It all probably relates to life, without sounding too corny, some things jolt you, life is never just smooth.

Hopefully my music can then reflect a more genuine experience. The music I love reflects genuine life experience, you can hear something of the musicians’ life and their journey and their souls in the tracks. I’m a big fan of things jumping out, I don’t like things to be too smooth. That’s where you find the excitement.

I’m quite an extreme person. I did quite a lot of extreme sports as a kid. Even though I’m quite calm on the surface, I’m quite a high-energy person; so, I think comes from deep down, this aspect of my personality probably.

MB: I’d like to focus in on some things you’ve said there, as much of it really connects with me. For example, I really love the materiality of Hip-Hop. The producers I respect understand that sound doesn’t have to be made even. There’s something political, I think and interesting about this as well. Let’s focus in on this idea that you mentioned of sound jumping out at you, can you think of one of your Hip-Hop tracks that reflects this? This idea of not taming the sound.

Paul White: I mean, I just got to shout out Madlib for that. Madlib is a massive influence on my beats and his music to me was never smooth; things would jump out, there’d be this angular style. Nothing was smooth, he’d have these wild sounds that would leap out, so his music would sound totally alive. He didn’t try to do smooth mixes either. He showed a lot of producers that you didn’t have to have a glossy, shiny studio like Dr Dre. You can write these really raw, gritty songs that you not spend too much time on it.

It’s creativity first, that’s what I love about someone like Madlib. You can just throw ideas down. It’s not about making it sound smooth, or perfect – and my music sounded better for it, sounded better off raw. Madlib made me feel okay about doing that. I think he has influenced a lot of people in this regard, letting people feel that it’s okay to go wild. He taught me that for sure.”

 

To understand White’s capacity for reinvention, listen to this original and remix of the Golden Rules’ tune “Never Die” – the first version of the track appeared on their debut release Golden Ticket (Lex Records, 2015)

And then the remix, which features Freddie Gibbs, alongside Eric Biddines and Yasiin Bey (this remix is off-the-wall monstrous-sublime).

MB: “The original and remix of “Never Die,” I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them and thinking about how different they are to each other, can you speak on this?  

Paul White: (pauses) The initial one was quite quick there is no real meaningful story behind that … It’s got this great guy on it Jamie Woon – an amazing British composer and singer, we got him to sing the chorus on that. I felt to me a straight-up, smooth old school Hip-Hop beat.

At that time, I was trying to experiment with live performance and experimentation, so the remix was a challenge for me. I took the sample and played around with the vocal. Music is often about challenges for me. I said to myself to play the music around the vocal so took a lot of instruments and played some keys over the top and remember feeling quite pleased, thinking this is going to work, this experimenting with something that’s half Hip-Hop, half live. “Never die” is quite rare, as it’s in-between: the old me and the new me. It reflects a certain time.

I remember trying to make sure I got it right. Once you’ve got the basic groove and the harmonies right, I just experiment with it. There’s never any end goal ever (laughs). Music is a sacred place where I don’t feel pressures, I can be totally in the moment.

MB: The first one as you say is a kind of classic Soul-based Hip-Hop track and the remix is this epic piece of music. I haven’t heard many Hip-Hop tracks like this, with the orchestration and all the elements, it’s amazingly different.

Paul White: I need to listen to it again, I’ll get it on Soundcloud, I haven’t listened to it for a while. It’s all about being epic, the original one was never one of my favourites as it’s a bit too straight-forward, I never really like things that are too straightforward; I’m glad I did it, but preferred the remix. Just found it now … (he starts to play the song).

I’m going to listen to it, oh yeah, the crazy drums – the Djembe.

MB: Towards the end, it becomes quite strange.

Paul White: Oh yeah, and I sang on it as well. I forgot about that.

MB: It’s really got that layering of sound thing happening. I don’t think it’s ironic, but it’s really over the top.

Paul White: Yeah, it’s true it’s out there. Yeah, the Djembe was a big part of it that’s the Djembe I got in Gambia. That’s an important part of it and the slightly jazzy piano. It’s a mix of everything; my love of Jazz, my love of Hip-Hop rhythm, my love of African rhythm and then at the end. It’s insane, which I quite like.

MB: It’s appealing because you’ve got these huge stars on it and the music is just going nuts.

Paul White: Sure.

MB: You talk about the playful aspect, but it’s kind of funny in a way. It has a quality of freedom about it. In the original it’s very respectful of the MCs, they’re very central and then the remix it’s something else.

Paul White: Listening to it now, I see what you mean. Music must be free, that’s probably the most important word. Music needs to be free, untamed. I find it very hard to stick to briefs, if I must do something, it won’t work (laughs).

MB: Thinking about the MCs now, Eric (Biddines from Golden Rules) is interesting. I like the sound of his voice. He’s got a very different sound.

Paul White: Yeah, yeah.

MB: Could you just talk about your experience working with him and then Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs, who was added to the remix?

Paul White: Eric is half of Golden Rules, obviously. He’s one of the best guys ever, I really like him, just as a person. He’s like me, I think. He’s playful, he ticks all the boxes for me. He’s an amazing lyricist, his lyric-writing is just great. His delivery is fun and free. He can rap, he can sing. We’re like kindred spirits, I think. He’s one of the guys I’ve met over the years that it feels incredible natural working with.

Yasiin Bey, we recorded him in a studio in London. He was great, he was really professional, just got in the booth, I think we did about three takes. He did a great job, came in and he left.

We sent over the song to see if he liked it and he did. It was one of those landmark experiences to see him nodding his head and loving the beat. What was really nice was his question, who is the other guy rapping? This was really big of him, as I could tell Eric you know Mos Def was asking who you were. That contact with Yasiin came through management, as did Freddie Gibbs.

(Freddie Gibbs) was supposed to be on the album, but he delivered the verse a bit late. We decided it’d be better on a remix anyway because the rest of the album isn’t like him, so thought it’d be perfect to have his verse on the remix. It’s the only song I’ve done with three MCs on it, it was nice to have the three different sections to play with, musically. It’s probably why the song is a bit manic, a bit crazy as it’s three different people, with three different backdrops and then you squeeze me in in the chorus and then at the end. So, it’s like you’ve got four personalities in that one song (laughs).”

 

III.

MB: Can you talk about the tech you use to create these distinctive atmospheres you’re speaking about?

Paul White: It can be anything, you can use anything. You can use what you’ve got in a free, open, crazy way. I’ve got enough things to make it playful. I’ve got enough tools to enable me to try anything I want, effects or plug-ins on Pro Tools. It’s about not being tame with it, about really pushing things in unconventional ways. There’s a good and a bad side to the way I write. It’s so spontaneous. I don’t learn things, maybe I do subconsciously, but I don’t deliberately learn things at work to then repeat them ever. I never, ever have.

Every time you start you’re coming from a start of play.  As long as you approach it in that fun, experimental way, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

MB: Do you use a lot of compression?

Paul White: I used to a lot. I think a lot of people do. If you compress things a lot it makes it sound better and crushes all the sounds together, so you don’t have to spend so much time mixing and balancing the sounds, cause when you compress everything really hard it balances everything by itself. It can be really creative, but I’m trying to use it less and less and less now.

Bruce Swedien who mixed all the biggest Michael Jackson records (to read more on his career, working with Quincy Jones and mixing Jackson’s Thriller have a look at this article). He mixed everybody. He always talks about how he hates compression. The person who made arguably the best-sounding record of all time says he hates compression because it levels everything out. There is a real danger of losing natural life. My goal is to never, ever use compression – that is my goal, but as long as it’s used in a creative way, you can create sonic textures from compression …

MB: Does it dull the quality of the sounds?

Paul White: For instance, if you’ve got a whole drum-kit what sounds great about it is the life and the loud peak of the kick-drum, but a lot of the effect might be really subtle, because the drum sounds are so short. Often people would be surprised by how many records you listen to and the kick-drum is so loud that they’re not noticing, but it creates a hell of a lot of energy because the sounds are so short. If you compress that you’re going to kill that attack and energy, you’re going to make it quieter.

You’ve got to be really careful about getting rid of signs of life in your music by using compression. But again, I’m a massive fan of no rules, you can do anything with anything.

MB: How about quantizing?

Paul White: No, I never quantize, never. I hate quantizing. In all of my beats, I don’t use metronomes. I don’t use grids. I don’t use quantizers: nothing. I hate grids, I hate any kind of time reference telling me to keep to a time, I don’t do that. I’ve only started doing this a tiny, tiny bit recently when recording live drums, simply because it can be convenient when recording into a computer, but no for the beats and everything else, no.

I usually go through extremely long processes because I never use a metronome. You’ve got a button you can tap, depending on how fast you’re doing it that will say roughly the BPM and then you’ve got a four-bar loop, most people set up a metronome (he sings the rhythm) to know where the one is every time, I never know that, so I’d hit record and play the live drums and pray that when it looped back round it’d stay in time perfectly. I must admit it often takes me loads of goes to get that initial groove right, but I always found it so much funkier and life-like this way.

Music has to be a total representation of life, otherwise I don’t see the point, so using grids and metronomes, I don’t believe in any of that.

MB: I remember that some people judged RZA for not quantizing his beats, I’m not sure if that was something distinctive about him back in the ‘90s. Is this considered to be a maverick thing to do these days?

Paul White: I think the beat thing got really funny for a while. Again, I don’t want to come across like a dickhead, because I could offend people with what I’m going to say but it became so cool to have these loose beats, to have these unquantized beats so what people would do, and again there’s nothing wrong with it, but they would record a beat and quantize it and then they’d manually on the screen shift things in and out to make it sound out of time. It’s kind of cool, but I never understood why you’d spend all that time shifting things about, but that’s just me. Each to their own.

Some people produced great results like that, I know Dilla did that. It can be amazing. For me, I want to get a creative idea out and then move on very, very quickly. It’s a funny one when people spend a lot of time trying to make it sound out of time, what’s the point? Just play it out of time.

MB: I remember seeing a comment below your video about the quality of the post-production. It’s interesting because you constantly refer to your preference for performance, for live music – being spontaneous – but at the same time there is this great care when it comes to the final stages. Have you anything to share in terms of your approach to the post-production process?

Paul White: (pauses) It has to be the right journey. I like to keep it interesting. The journey has to be right. A lot of the post-production is making sure that every sound that pops out has meaning and is there for the right reasons. This new album, I’m really trying to make sure that the mix is right in that regard. I write the initial idea quite quickly and then spend time making sure that every sound represents a feeling and journey perfectly.”   

 

*** 

MB: "What about the tension in all this, though? There are all these moods and atmosphere in your work and then you’ve got the drum sound often hidden away almost. In Hip-Hop, traditionally it’s been all about the drum sounds; the drums are so central. What do you think about this bringing a kind of tension to your work?

Paul White: I think tension in music is a really important part of it. Music theory talks about this a lot, tension and release. Different intervals in music, say if you’re playing the piano – moving from C to E, you’re moving up a third, and different intervals between notes create a certain tension. Music is all about reflecting human emotion, tension is an important part of this, just like the release is as well. I think I’ve often focussed more on the tension than the release (laughs).

That’s probably why me and Danny Brown get on so well. We don’t resolve. Like a lot of Classical Music, there’ll be a journey you start somewhere and come back. I don’t think you can always come back, so I just go off. It’s all about excitement and stimulation.

Everybody wants to be non-offensive, that’s one of my most hated terms for music, “non-offensive.” I can’t stand that.

MB: It’s something I’ve noticed across your different records and projects, this interesting placement of the different sounds, say for the drum sound it’s never or rarely a dominant boom bap sound ever, maybe I’m wrong here.

Paul White: No, you’re right.

MB: Often the high treble sounds are privileged. This creates a strange psychological space, it’s very interesting to me.

Paul White: It’s really something I don’t think about; it’s a very natural thing. Often when I listen to my mixes, yeah, I will have things balanced in maybe different ways that’s not the conventional mix of sound. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way my ears work. Maybe I’ve got really strange ears (laughs) the way I hear sound.

Part of the magic is recording sound, the song-writing process, playing instruments, exploring melody and different sonic effects and then you’ve got the beautiful world of arranging it all, that’s one of my favourite parts if not my favourite. I think this way of listening definitely comes from my Ambient days, listening to Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.

Atmosphere is the most important thing, I mean I love beats and I love drums, but I want to take you on a dream journey more than you grit your face up and go, Ah this is a tough beat. It’s much more important for me to take people on a journey. It’s lovely constructing worlds inside a computer and as I say, it’s all very natural. I’ll just zone out into another world, put things together and not think about it too much.

 

MB: You know I was reading the fan comments below the video for ‘When it rain’ by Danny Brown and the listeners were picking up the link with Ambient music, they were talking about him signing to Warp and these sorts of things. Can you make that link between the two now with the track, it has some interesting samples in it too.

Paul White: I think that’s the biggest connection. The sample I used was from a woman called Delia Derbyshire, who was a really incredible, incredible electronic experimentalist, music pioneer who worked at the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I can guarantee that Aphex Twin would have been interested in those guys.

I see these artists as having the same lineage, in that they are all really, really interested in experimenting with, pushing electronic sound. Delia Derbyshire was manipulating reel-to-reel tape, slowing things down, doing every kind of sound manipulation you can imagine and that was exactly what Aphex Twin was doing, doing all this incredible sound manipulation. I’m nowhere near as in-depth, they are on a genius level of sound manipulation. I wouldn’t have the patience, but I definitely see the lineage between those two.

There’s also a raw energy about it and that’s where I fit in. I mean, I love that raw energy as well, I get attracted to that sonic atmosphere and landscape, but that was probably a beat I wrote in about fifteen minutes, I immediately got attracted to it, whacked it into a drum machine. I wrote it very, very quickly, about four years ago and then Danny picked it. I’ve sent Danny hundreds and hundreds of beats, now it might run into the thousands, some of those beats I might have given him years ago and then during the album process he’ll go back and start listening to them. That was one of my favourites, I was really pleased that he picked that one.

MB: It’s a stunning song. One of the fans referred to it as ‘aggressive belly-dancing music’ I thought that was cute.

Paul White: (laughs) It’s always fascinating to see how people take to your work. I think that is one of the most beautiful things. I’d never want to say to anybody: no, no, the music was about this and this was the background and it’s about this thing, as if putting it into a box. I think that is what is so beautiful about music and art, people interpret it how they want and take it into their lives. I think that is almost the most magic part about music. I don’t think anybody is ever wrong, I’d never argue with an interpretation.

MB: Madlib used the same sample on "Real" from Piñata (Madlib Invazion, 2014) did you know about this, did it have any impact on your work?

Paul White: No, as I said I made that beat years before the Madlib record even came out, maybe he made it on the same day (adds emphasis) and I never even knew (laughs). I made that beat maybe five or six years ago, probably around 2003. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised when I heard Freddie Gibbs doing it with Madlib, because it’s an amazing sample. If anyone is going to muck around with it, it would be Madlib (laughs). It’s cool we’re on the same path. We like the same stuff.”

 

IV.

African New Wave

In 2014, Paul White released Shaker Notes an idiosyncratic album infused with musical influences from the African continent, but making it all seem natural within the electro context. To read more about this, check out White’s selection of five African albums that influenced this project, published in Stamp the Wax

MB: How does your unusual placement of drums connect with your interest in the music of different African artists, is there any link there?

Paul White: My dad has always played a lot of African music, we played it a lot around the house. And one of the first festivals I went to as a kid was WOMAD. One of my fondest memories as a kid was going to this festival with him and seeing all of these incredible musicians from all over the world, but the music that struck me the most were these master African drummers that would come over. There’d be a stage of about 20 of these artists and it’d just blow my mind - the energy of it all.

I used to love Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré … I’ve actually got African heritage as well, my great-grandad was from Sierra Leone, so my granddad was Black, his family came from Sierra Leone. I don’t know if that’s part of it, somehow to be drawn to this music.

MB: In some ways, I’d say this is a key element in terms of your work, across the records – this influence. I feel a bit uncomfortable saying ‘African’ - is it primarily West African, say Malian or music from elsewhere, from Nigeria? Is there a particular kind of African music that you’re drawn to?

Paul White: Well, I love Malian music, but no I just connect with music I like, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.  But I’ve still got loads of family from Sierra Leone, so I guess most of the music I’ve listened to is from West Africa.

I actually got lucky and went to Gambia a couple of years ago, my ex-girlfriend was there for a little while and I had a really magic opportunity of studying for a week with a master Djembe player who made his own drums. I had an amazing time with him. I’ve always loved rhythm, my Dad is a drummer – not professionally, but as a hobby, he used to play in a couple of bands when I was a kid. There was always rhythm being tapped around the house. I find rhythm very natural, when I get on a drum-kit, I find it the most natural thing.

Maybe it is for all of us, I mean as children everybody taps and hits things; there’s rhythm everywhere, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to it. A lot of African music is about dance, this is something I really noticed in Gambia as well. It was all and one the same thing. In every drum group there is a dance group. One of the first things this guy taught me was the signal of how to start and to stop, to indicate to the dancers what was going to happen.

It’s not coming from any kind of ‘making money’ place it’s coming from a beautiful spiritual place.

MB: Talk to me a bit more about this experience in Gambia, is there any concrete connection you can make with the music you made after this visit?

Paul White: Well, I brought back a big Djembe (laughs), number one. The guy made me my own massive, amazing Djembe, so that’s in my studio and have been used on many recordings since. It was the experience and the spirit that I brought back mainly. It’s this pure, joyous spiritual connection with music and the Earth and the spirit, really; it was a good reminder to get out of this Western world that is just so money-driven.

It just felt magic for me personally to be in Africa, I’ve been to Morocco previously, but this is a very different Africa. It was very special for me to be so close to Sierra Leone, I really wanted to go. It felt quite natural for me being there, the spirit and the energy of the people felt so lovely. Just playing with that guy was pretty special because he immediately saw my passion for music pretty quickly and we went through most of the stuff he wanted to teach me very, very fast and he actually started to teach me some of the local music from the tribe where he came from, his individual tribal rhythm he played that was personal to them. And that just felt incredibly special. The whole trip was incredibly, incredibly inspiring. We drummed until the sun went down and there’d be nine, or ten children dancing around.

All these kids playing around and jumping around, it was a magic experience. I’ll never forget it. It reminds you of what music is about. I’ll always think back to that time I had there."

 

(Coda:

Paul White: “It was when I was about 19 or 20 when I started to really buy records that was when I moved on from my song-writing-Ambient-Trance phase, doing things all at the same time and started to really dedicate myself to making beats and sampling. I sold all my synths and bought an MPC and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on records and really, really started digging which I think is an amazing musical education.

That’s the great thing about Hip-Hop, people can get critical about sampling but if you’re going out digging for records, I can’t think of a better musical education cause you’re buying every kind of genre. As soon as you start digging you get inspired by music from all over the world.

I was just looking for samples, I wasn’t even looking for great songs. Most of the music was rubbish, but there often was a great sample, or a great sound. I really value that education, which is buying every genre and just feeling it. I’d mix a Turkish sample with a Bollywood sample with a funk sample with a Prog-Rock sample, all in one song. 

You’ll hear that a lot in my album, The Strange Dreams of Paul White from 2009, I used to delight in chopping up music from all over the world and putting it together so there were all these currents and emotions across all these different genres and you can feel it. This is something that Hip-Hop taught me, that is what Hip-Hop is for me; it’s all genres, it’s Country music and Folk music, it’s Jazz and Funk and Rock music, Latin music – everything.

MB: When you’re listening to these records are you listening for specific sounds, or are you listening for qualities, what is the process like when choosing which element to sample?

Paul White: It’s probably about the emotion in the playing. It’ll either be the emotion in the playing, or something about the sonic quality itself, it could be anything from sampling a kick-drum to the whole guitar part. You're listening to an old 70s record with all these effects you just don’t hear nowadays from an analogue mixing desk, for example. It’s often a mix of the two.

I try not to look for loops, often what I do is write the drums first, I’d never just sit down from scratch and just listen to a record and try and find the best part, even though I have done this. I usually sit down first and pull the record out and chop up different drum hits and make a drum pattern first and then listen to records with my drums playing in the background. I’d never ever listen to a record and go, oh I’m going to take this and then build on that. I like to have an element of me first and then start building on top of it.

Music is magical in that sense, you can hear it when someone plays a guitar part with so much passion, or listening to a synth part it makes me think what was that person going through that day, did they just get married, did they just get a divorce? Was their child born the night before? You can feel that in the music, that’s what attracts me, I think.

MB: I liked it when you said that ‘it’s the emotion in the playing’ that brings us back to your passion for live performance, doesn’t it?

Paul White: Yeah, sure.

MB: It’s something very personal.

Paul White: Yeah, totally, yeah).   

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

***

To talk about the song’s mood; sometimes hip-hop artists and producers refer to their work as cinematic. Usually this means that they think that the lyrics resemble a film narrative, with a plot and characters, or that the music contains moments that could be likened to scenes in a film. Frequently this impression is enhanced by interludes, performed by actors or directed lifted from films.  

Listening to ‘Fall through’ I saw scenes – like a movie - in my imagination that were not directly linked to the lyrics (the film in my head was medieval and masculine - made up of the bodies of men - maybe based on Herzog, or the photographer Salgado), but with a different colour scheme, shades of dark blue (the children/men indigo). Perhaps I was making a connection with a half-remembered evocative soundtrack

Such images in my mind are completely absent now when listening to ‘Fall through’ – I have listened to this music so many times since then and done some reading, so there’s some distance - but I can understand how when listening to this music I could imagine this idea of a mass of people (of men) rising up, in movement, as an indistinguishable mass of bodies.

This is body music: pure and visceral, speaking to the heart, while expressing an essential truth that is carried by, expressed in, blood.

 

'I’m just tired of this shit,' Jenkins says. 'Tired of the fact that it’s happening, and tired of the fact that I have to sing about it.'

— Mick Jenkins in an interview with Complex, speaking about his song '11' (that referred to the number of times Eric Garner said, 'I can't breathe' before he died).

Okayplayer noted that this song, ‘Falling through’ was ‘a rumbling rebuke of race relations from one of the nation’s many hotbeds of police brutality and harassment.’ A perceptive comment, even if the term ‘hotbeds’ bothers me, as I'd always thought it was used with something positive (a hotbed of activity etc, though I saw the definition used it with treason so I might be wrong here). 

From a conversation with Jenkins in Interview:   

RACIAL TENSION AND POLICE BRUTALITY: 'I started to notice it when I got to Chicago, really. When I was around 11 or 12, that's when I was able to see it. In high school, there was a big let out—all the students would walk in the street, the police would try to keep students out of the street, [so] they would hit them upside the head with billy clubs trying to keep them in line. We weren't being rowdy or anything; we just weren't moving fast enough. It had been affecting me my whole life, I just never realized it. I do rap because black lives matter, but it is not the only reason.'

Quoted in Drew Millard's interview for Noisey (2014)

'Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago.'

And The Fader from last year:  

'With everything going on, it’s very easy to cling to all of the negativity. I was feeling like What can I do? How do we solve these problems? I was looking at the perceived solutions like protesting and going through the government. It's also not just about racial injustices. There’s all types of injustices going on and there’s a system in place that continues to push them and we feel like we can’t really fight them on any front. I wanted bring it down to a personal level, when I say “spread love." It mirrors the message that I think Jesus had when he was on the earth. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, understanding the story of him as someone who was really meek mannered and selfless even in the face of some of the most hateful things, all the way down to being killed on the cross.'

***

Over the past day or so I’ve been seeking out articles about, interviews with Mick Jenkins and while of course there is plenty of interest, I’ve also noticed how so many writers go off on tangents, perhaps reflecting a confusion about how best to relate to him and his work (one article opens with a reference to Jenkins’ brief stint in jail; another seems more interested in writing about Jenkins at a fashion show, or something.  Most, if not all, refer to his height).

My inclusion of the above is not to disrespect my colleagues, or even imply that I may be different, but I wanted to mention this as it says something about Jenkins’ apparently ambiguous, hard to locate persona as an artist (though, I don’t think it’s that contradictory, there have always been mystics/seers in hip-hop, alongside intellectuals and Black radicals calling out to people to wake up – to ‘drink more water’ - and see the truth).   

Here is a statement of the obvious: Jenkins is a deeply thoughtful person/presence in contemporary hip-hop, who is almost painfully, aware of the significance of his role as someone with a voice. In interviews, Jenkins repeats often the instance during a murder trial when the accused quoted a rapper’s lyrics as if justifying his crime. Jenkins says it so often, he seems haunted by it. 

Comfortable operating within the realm of abstractions – water is truth; love stems from knowledge; redemption might come after the oppressor and the oppressed submerge themselves in the same waters – Jenkins has said that his primary objective is to open up the conversation about love; to speak about the healing power of love. But this love, he insists is not some kind of Hallmark variety, but one that asks people to look within first and to accept and know themselves. I was particularly struck by Jenkins' point that for many people it was difficult for them to say what they wanted, or needed and thereby made it difficult for them to love and be loved.  

As Jenkins said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes:

'When people talk about love, you really only think about the pretty parts, the romantic parts of love (...) People don’t think about things like loving themselves, and what that takes. And that you have to know yourself to love yourself, and how difficult of a battle that might be.'

The interludes on Jenkins' The Healing Component - conversations with his sister that create a bridge with the work of Lauryn Hill - were meant to show that he, Jenkins, was no expert and was just another human being, trying to make his way. His view on the significance of love was just one of many. As Jenkins explained in an interview with Billboard: 'Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.' 

Jenkins has expressed his ambivalence about performing in front of largely white audiences, in that his primary feeling of responsibility is to speak of and to the Black American experience; that is, to speak to his own.

My first draft of this piece was an extended riff on ‘Fall through’ within a broader discussion the importance of mood in hip-hop and Black American Gothic: it was all very interesting with its reference to DMX and a book written by an academic, and is something I’ll return to I’m sure, at some point, but after writing it I wondered if I were doing the same as so many of the other journalists: not really listening. As Jenkins’ raps in ‘Fall through’: 'I been all around the globe, different languages they feel me they don't hear me though.' 

Note then that I’m offering this appreciation up of ‘Fall through’ – a song that I think is truly beautiful – with a degree of humility; get in contact with me with your own take on its significance, especially if you think I’ve missed it; I’d be more than happy to include your voices in the mix. This is not the final word on the song, by any stretch.

***

Hip-hop has always been concerned with the marking out of territory, status and position; the easiest reading of ‘Fall through’ includes this frame-work …

“So sticks and stones I rub them off
At this hater conjunction I’m an apostrophe, above them all
That’s why I keep my circle small
Seen so many rush as Limbaugh
Niggas talking shit that I just cannot trust at all
But trust I fall, you can trust I’ll tell you just how I trip
Before I ever power trip, brought the light like a power strip
Fuck a Powerade, we bringing water”

especially in the way Jenkins acklowledges the Chicago-based movement of hip-hop artists (Chance the Rapper, Sensei Blue …) But this is not all there is going on here. My interest in the mood of the song reflected the fact that, for me, it's the most striking element and is certainly unique, but what immediately struck me – and it did, with real force – was the extraordinary contrast between the quiet moments in the music, evoking Nature and the urgency of Mick Jenkins’ delivery. Jenkins is presenting us here with a new kind of hip-hop that is at once suggestive and intense; poetic and personal, while maintaining some mystery.  

Reading the lyrics, you can’t really see a ‘coherent’ – for want of a better word – through-line, as there is so much movement (this, I think is a positive thing, adding a kind of intensity to the music because it denies us easy scripting) though by the end of the song there is, I'd suggest, a clear message.

“[Verse 1]
Nigga had to fall on his knees for a second
Stop, dropped and rolled in the middle of this fire
And the smoke, nigga had to go and breathe for a second
Plus I needed direction, a fork in every road at like three intersections
Pray for discernment, I’m seeking his blessing
This ain’t no sermon but vermin ain’t never want to see they reflection
Come and see his reflection
Like...mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the most hated of them all?
Most creative of them all
Who’s post-racial, who’s the most basic?
Who despite that loved them all?”

Who is speaking here (and about whom)?

Jenkins uses the first person, so it seems to be something about his life experience, reflecting Jenkins’ uncertainty as one man among many -using the narrative trope of a choice, the fork in the road which isn’t singular, but multiple; but this certainty about perspective becomes unclear by the end of the verse. Who is he speaking of, when he says the ‘most hated' - the 'vermin' - or the man falling to his knees? 

Is he speaking of Black Americans more broadly, reproducing commonly used stereotypes that appear to be benign, but are in fact offering just another cage: ‘Who's the most hated of them all?/Most creative of them all/Who's post-racial, who's the most basic?/Who despite that loved them all?’ 

It's possible that there might be a kind of humour here, playing on the view that Black Americans may be oppressed, but still create great art (you know the athlete/artist escape route) as if that somehow evens it all out. Though I’m not sure if this is right. All of this demonstrates the intelligence of Jenkins' lyricism. On one level, it seems almost sarcastic (with this talk of the US being ‘post-racial’ ...) but then ends on the unexpected and touching line about these unknown subjects being loved.

My interest here is not to try and pin down a unitary interpretation; I like the fact that I'm not sure about what it means, or even that there are multiple meanings. I especially find his repeated use of ‘Who’ interesting, moving from who is being talked about – ‘the most hated – to the unknown one who loves them; are they not the same? This is far, far from basic.

Earlier, Jenkins speaks of ‘vermin’ not wanting to see their reflection, a strong word to use that again does little to clarify who again is the subject here. It is possible he is speaking of himself - or could it be the police forcing a man to kneel before he dies - we, or I, don't know for sure. 

“[Pre-Hook]
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (light, light)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze (I see the light)
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (hesistate)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze
Descendants of the realest souls
Children of the Indigo
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (When autumn falls, you see the leaves)
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze)


[Hook]
Don’t you feel the soul?
That’s the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don’t, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate”

‘Children of the Indigo’ ...

“[Outro]
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo”

The intensity and passion brimming inside this song makes it clear, it seems to me, that the sentimental heart of this music is much more than a condemnation of police violence, or a celebration of the Chicago hip-hop scene. It is something much more profound. I can't help when listening to it, especially the question - 'Don't you feel the soul?' - to think that this music is a kind of call for people to recognise the past within the present. It is an act of remembrance. 

(Listen to Curtis Mayfield’s lines in the live version of 'We the people who are darker than blue' to see how similar they are to the Mick Jenkins worldview: ‘Get yourself together, learn to know your side/Shall we commit our own genocide/Before you check out your mind?' And then ... 'I know we've all got problems/That's why I'm here to say/Keep peace with me and I with you/Let me love in my own way.'

There's a lot more that could be written here, deciphering the spiderweb nature of Jenkins' lyrics and how it connects with the past. You could link his repeated reference to water to Nina Simone who was also drawing on a much older musical tradition. I also have a half-memory the late, great poet of the NYC hip-hop underground Capital STEEZ calling himself one of the Children of the Indigo, which is some kind of New Age notion relating to those who are apart from the crowd because of their talent or insight, but I haven't checked this).    

To fall through might then be a call to reconnect with a community and its past: in this sense the evocation of Nature, the breeze, but also the leaves of the trees has a real power to it, suggesting how Nature might offer a kind of succour, while also referring to those who have come before and are still present, waiting to be acknowledged (if those alive are willing to fall through).   

Musically Mick Jenkins’ ‘Fall through’ exists within a deep space atmosphere, the sound effects creating a silvery effect, with the vocals so, so quiet. I first connected with the music as it has such a distinctive sound – such a rare and precious sound; occasionally opening up, the bass-line meandering and never really developing in any sense, whirling around in itself and the beat seemingly always just a little bit behind the vocal-line.   

In an interview on the release of ‘Fall through’ Jenkins emphasised how this music reflected an interest in playing around with tempo and ‘melodic aspects of songs’ - or to use his words, the ‘endearing parts of songs’ that his listeners liked (singing along with it, even if they didn’t understand it). ‘It’s about not being locked into the structure, or time signature’ and ‘creating something new,’ he said. ‘Fall through’ is arguably a supremely artful take on protest music, but it is also intensely private, while reaching out.  

To conclude, I liked this description from a FACT interview that captures something of Mick Jenkins' character and temperament: 

‘Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.

'I don’t purposely project it,' he says. 'I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.' 

Ambrosia for Heads interview: BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk, Rodrigo Brandão)

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, NYC “old school” - defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was ‘about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be.

Stream Throwback To The Future by BROOKZILL!.

Ambrosia For Heads: Paul, you’ve said that this project is all about capturing “the essence” of the two musical genres – Hip-Hop and different forms of Brazilian music – can you develop this more?

Prince Paul: You know, a lot of times, especially nowadays people focus more on what a musician looks like, they go, “Yeah, I got this fabulous record out – with a video!” Everything is visual, everything is marketing and promotion. What we’re doing more or less is stripping this record back to the essence: the drum and the beat, which is both in Brazilian music and in Hip-Hop music and back to melodies and vibes and feelings.

The music is definitely the driving force: the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the drums … It’s soulful, catchy, the music captures your spirit and soul in the moment and that’s where we have taken this.

All the tracks (on Throwback To The Future) have a melody, a vibe and a feel to them. I tried to make one of those records where you can close your eyes and go on a journey and see where it takes you, as opposed to: “Oh man, I’m gonna skip that track, oh man, this one’s horrible.” [Laughs] I tried to make everything feel and vibe a certain way and that to me the essence of both genres.

Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare the Hip-Hop beat and the beat in different forms of Brazilian music?

Prince Paul: Rodrigo?

Rodrigo Brandão : Okay, I would say the 4/4 rhythm of Hip-Hop is like the bread of a sandwich. You can put anything inside that beat and it’ll fit, you know. If you do it the right way, it’ll fit. It’s the same with Brazilian music because if you do it properly you’ll see the African heritage, so the poly-rhythms of African music then translated to the Brazilian continent, which is a country but the size of a continent … The Hip-Hop beat is universal and I see that as the bread of a sandwich, and what we’re putting into the sandwich is what’s making it unique and very different.

Ambrosia For Heads: P-Funk is a key influence for BROOKZILL!, Newkirk, could you talk about this more?  

Don Newkirk: I think that music from that era set the tone for hip-hop in general – that was the soundtrack, you could say, that the early Hip-Hop artists pulled from when they, or when we, started making Hip-Hop: it was that music from the ’70s; the Funk scene, James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic.

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you break it down more, with reference to “Mad Dog in Yoruba” as there seems to be a strong connection there.

Don Newkirk: Definitely, especially with “Mad Dog [In Yoruba]” – the song is a great example of that influence: the horn arrangements, the groove itself, the drums. It all connects. The break element, that song is like a musical break, you know a B-Boy break almost.

When we started doing the horns, Paul was like, “Yeah that’s the vibe right there.” I think that certain things are ingrained so much in your subconscious it just comes out of you. “Mad Dog” is a good example of the B-Boy element, the Funk element from the ’70s. We didn’t set out to do it like that, it wasn’t like: “Let’s make this.’ After we made it we realized how much it borrowed from that vibration of the ’70s.

Ambrosia For Heads: It also has an Afro-beat vibe, linking with what Rodrigo was saying before.

Don Newkirk: Yeah, definitely. One thing I learned after Paul and I had the opportunity of working with the great Bernie Worrell – R.I.P. Bernie –  music in general is relative. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or funk. There’s always a relation in there, what you’re seeing in the Afrobeat and the Brazilian vibration, the Afro-Cuban beat like Rodrigo says everything starts with the drums, starts with the rhythm: it all goes back to African rhythms basically.

Prince Paul Drops a Mixtape Highlighting Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: The interplay between the MCs on this track is striking, can you talk more about this, Rodrigo, Mecca.

Rodrigo Brandão: Ladies first.

Ladybug Mecca: My verse is more rooted in the Hip-Hop genre, there’s not one particular subject matter, it’s touching on anything that came to mind. Rodrigo and I vibed so well, we were like brother and sister from the moment we met. It was just easy for us to conceptualize records and to throw it back and forth in the true Hip-Hop form. It just came very naturally for us.

Ambrosia For Heads: For those who might not know the language, what are you rhyming about?

Rodrigo Brandão: What I can say, basically, what I can say about this whole project is – we didn’t look to achieve a certain sound, or certain style, we just let it flow. After we looked at the baby to put on a name on it. Have you heard of Eshu?

Ambrosia For Heads: [Pauses] No, I don’t think so.

Rodrigo Brandão: He is probably the most powerful of all gods (in Yoruba culture), he has the power to do whatever he wants and change whatever he wants real quick, so this song in a very abstract and non-intentional way describes the power and the size of actions of Eshu. The track is about him and his power.

Ambrosia For Heads: Gil Scott-Heron’s main collaborator through the 70s, Brian Jackson features on “Nascido No Ceu” how did he get involved?

Rodrigo Brandão : Brian Jackson is one of those icons, you listen to your whole life. When you actually have a chance to interact with him, he’s just a dude, he’s your brother, like the coolest man ever. People like him should be the power in the world. If you have the chance to kick with them, to vibe with them, you just take it. Brian Jackson is one of those unsung heroes. His music with Gil Scott-Heron is so timeless.

He’s pretty much the fifth member of the group, the first show that we did at SOBs in New York, it was just the four of us, and Brian Jackson on stage.

Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any conscious design behind the way the musical elements were used in that song?  

Prince Paul: Rodrigo touched on it and Newkirk, not just this track but the overall feeling of the album, we just played music for the sake of making it, which is pretty foreign nowadays. People go into the studio with a goal in mind, we were like let’s just make music so we gave Brian Jackson no direction. It was, take the music, whatever you feel is right.

A lot of the elements and the music is what the musician feels, just about the only direction I would give anyone is,”That! Repeat that verse! Do that stab over in this area.” [Most of the time] it was whatever they felt that was how we went with it. That translates to the whole album, it’s your soul speaking to the instrument. And that’s what I really think is the beauty of it. It’s like when we do interviews, people ask us to describe whatever, it’s really hard, because it just is. [Laughs]

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Ambrosia For Heads: Can you talk about the recording process now, as the project took 10 years. And can you provide an overview of the record, do all the tracks use live performance, are some sample-based only, or a mix of both?

Prince Paul: I would say it's inspired by being sample-based. The melodies you hear, me and Rodrigo would sit down and go, “We like that. That’s the kind of vibe we want for this song. Let’s move it into that mode.”

Going back to the title, Throwback To The Future I have to reference doing things now and the way things used to be done. The easiest way to [complete the album] would have been like “I’m going to send you some beats and we can swap back and forth over the Internet, whatever.”

But we made a conscious decision to be in the same place at the same time so the distance is what made the process so long. Rodrigo comes to New York to my studio, we get the skeleton of it together, man, we go to Brazil with Newkirk to get the musicians, we go back to Atlanta. We go to Brooklyn to mix it, you know. [Laughs] Wanting to keep the tradition of us being together, it took a minute; when you’ve got families and life kicks in, you look up and it’s 10 years later.

Ambrosia For Heads: Newkirk has said it was very “old school” in that 95 % of the recording sessions had all four members in the same room, why is this important for a record like this?

Don Newkirk: I think it’s important for all records. The nature of music is communal; people are meant to be in the same room together. People used to hang out around a camp fire, or smoke a peace-pipe or sit on the plains of Africa with some drums and just go at it, have fun. Music is a communal effort, man.

As time went on [musicians] got more and more segregated, not just vibrational but that too. The creation of music became segregated and it’s an oxymoron when you think about it, because music is supposed to be something that brings people together. People come together and feel good, or feel whatever it makes you feel, it takes you on a journey …

That’s how we used to do it when we were younger. That’s why the further back you go in music the more feeling you start to pick up, it doesn’t even matter the genre. I don’t care if it’s Hip-Hop or R&B, there was more feeling because there was people in the room sitting there vibing and then there is an almost an angelic force when people are in unison, in a vibration it’s like a lot of angels and ancestors come in and inspire you.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re by yourself. It’s hard for me to work like that. I can’t just send people tracks, or people send me tracks and then write a song, you miss the full intention of it. You miss the complement of someone else’s words, or notes, or melodies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mecca, could you describe the role Brazilian music played in shaping your delivery –  remembering that you were raised by two Brazilian musician parents?

Ladybug Mecca: Portuguese was my first language and when I entered an American school, I started to learn English, but it’s interesting that I would still speak a combination of English and Portuguese as a young person and even in my teenage years. I think the use of both those languages naturally would affect my art and the way my thought process works, how to express an observation or feeling.

I don’t know how to put it into words … my use of space and pauses in my delivery is one way of saying how [this background] affects me.

Ambrosia For Heads: There’s a kind of private quality, a holding back and control in your work that reminds me of Brazilian singers.

Ladybug Mecca: [Pauses] That’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of comment. It’s very possible as for most of my life, the first music I ever heard was traditional old school Brazilian music, my father had a radio that was tuned in to Brazilian music. It was a constant for us. There definitely has to be a direct relationship.

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Ambrosia For Heads: Could you choose a Brazilian singer who has a strong connection with what you do?

Ladybug Mecca: I would say Clara Nunes. I vibe with her a lot, everything about her story resonates with me.

Prince Paul On Which Grammy Album He Got No Credit For, Magic Of Gravediggaz (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: To close, “Todos os Terreiros” is surely the key track in terms of the record’s Hip-Hop/Brazilian hybrid sound…

Prince Paul: If anything shows the way Rodrigo and I worked it’d be that song. He’d come in and say, “This is what I’m thinking, these are the sounds I want to use.” I’d sit there and think, “Mmm, how am I going to work this in with head-nodding?”

One good thing about Hip-Hop and you can see this historically, you can put any genre in that 4/4 beat and it bangs, but this one I was actually scratching my head going, “Let’s see if this will work.” [Laughs] I said, “Yo, I’m going to do the opposite of what this rhythm calls for, because it’s melodic and soft which is nice, so let’s throw in some boom bap in there.” That’s the result of the two worlds coming together.

That track is all over the place, meshing spacey synth sounds and traditional Brazilian sounds and throwing in some occasional boom bap drums – with which, for me, you can never lose. It could be a wedding march and if you throw in some boom bap on it, it works.

Ambrosia For Heads: What are your future plans, I see you’re planning some tours.

Prince Paul: Our plan is to travel the world. And if we were able to travel outside the atmosphere and into the universe [laughing] we’d go there too.

Paris-based Australian journalist, Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics. To read more of her work, included extended interviews/essays, and other Hip-Hop related writing, visit her website

Detroit Project

Not so long ago the UK newspaper, The Guardian published a story about an American artist ‘bringing a Detroit family home’ (to the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the sarcastic Brits commenting BTL enjoyed the ambiguous headline. What, they asked, the artist had adopted an entire Detroit family and took them home, as if they were pets for Christmas? 

No, the artist and newspaper subs were forced to reply (and later change the headline): the artist had moved a ‘family home’ from Detroit which was then rebuilt in Rotterdam. 

When thinking about this so-called ‘Detroit project’ I thought about this artwork and how deep the association between Detroit, decay, dispossession (what some call 'ruin porn') is now among outsiders and how all other aspects of the living city - and the people who live there - are overlooked in the process. 

If I'm honest, when I think of Detroit I have zero visions in my mind. And yet the city intrigues me, mainly because such intractable (musical) genius has emerged there, despite or maybe because of what one of the interviewees here described as ‘the struggle’. This idea sustains me.  

If I think about the music that matters to me personally - Alice ColtraneStevie Wonder (circa 1972-1980) ...

and when I was younger, Patti Smith, The Stooges - everything of real importance musically from the US somehow seems to come from Detroit. Interestingly, this then continued with hip-hop, in that the track that brought me back to the genre was Black Milk's 'Everyday Was' from his landmark 2014 record If there's a hell below ...

When I first heard that piece of music, it was as if air divided in my chest.  

First up/featured is the gifted MC Nametag Alexander who burst into my consciousness with one of my preferred hip-hop tracks of the past few years, 'Hookless' (feat Mahd, prod. by Nameless).

Then there's an interview with Detroit record label boss, Jay 'Pauly' Lovejoy from BenOfficial Music; a composite interview - a Detroit mix - between Nappz Julian, Maj James and NateOGDetroit and to finish a very cool conversation with Loe Louis from Detroit's Laswunzout - one of the seminal, pioneering hip-hop acts from the city that soldered the so-called Detroit sound.* 

Hope you like it. 

*Been around enough hip-hop journalism/culture to note the competitive edge - it should be noted that none of this is a 'hot picks'/a top-5 (flashing lights, flashing lights) or anything else: my mind doesn't work that way, some of this is friend-related, some of it is related to chance. 

Marco Polo Interview

When asked to identify the key element of his aesthetic, Toronto-born New York-based hip-hop producer Marco Polo answered simply: ‘the drums.

Drums are always the centre of my beats; they’re always hard-hitting, aggressive: you feel them, cause that’s how I was brought up as a fan of producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor. It’s all about the kicks and the snares, you know. And then of course the musical elements too: it’s a vibe. To answer your question, I think what defines my beats, what people probably know, it’s my drums.’

Having worked with many of the greats since coming to New York in 2003 (Pharoahe Monch, Rakim, Masta Ace, Large Professor, Torae among others) and also new generation voices, Marco Polo has marked out a defined niche within the hip-hop genre; that builds on the past, while creating a sound that is distinctively his own.

What immediately strikes you about Marco Polo’s music is its impact; there is something complete - or totalising - about it. Whereas many hip-hop producers allow space between the elements, letting in an airiness or lightness of tone (or irony) Marco Polo’s music is about how the elements come together in a united front. There is an intensity to this music that rarely lets up.

***

In a 2015 article a Guardian journalist made the rather outlandish claim that Marco Polo was keeping the New York hip-hop sound alive - or to be more accurate, he claimed that Marco Polo 'defined' the sound of New York hip-hop. While this journalist's statement is something I'm sure Marco Polo would never agree with, it's interesting to compare his production with one of his key influences, DJ Premier (who many believe is the sound of New York hip-hop). 

For Marco Polo, DJ Premier is a key influence and inspiration: 'the king of drums ... (who) set the bar for drum programming’. But there are definite differences between the two producers. Most of the time, DJ Premier’s music is driven by a hard beat, but his arrangements appear to be sparse (appear to be are the key words here). The music is so pure so that the elements can be heard in isolation and the structure is exposed via a highlighting of each part: the drums/the MC/samples/the DJ scratching over it. When listening to this music you can recognise and appreciate the work’s inherent logic: its elegant classicism.

In contrast, Marco Polo’s production style often feels like a ‘wall of sound’ with elements working together, moving in different patterns and directions, backed up by the emphatic beat. This approach reminds me of a 70s rock aesthetic (though Marco Polo stressed that ‘at the end of the day I’ve got to bring it back to hip-hop, it can’t be too rock n’ roll’) or perhaps some of the wilder funk exponents from that era.

Marco Polo is best known perhaps for an early track featuring Masta Ace, 'Nostalgia' released on his first Port Authority record in 2007 (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records) -

a gentle paean to greats from the past, with a soft pitter-patter of a beat that stops and starts up again, following the rhyme of the MC. The fact that Marco Polo is forever associated with this track is a little surprising as since then he has marked out much darker territory, not only in his two producer-led efforts but also his work for MCs. Indeed, his oft-repeated statements regarding his ambitions, or what the sound of true hip-hop is for him, usually include the words dark, soulful and grimy.

In 2007, Marco Polo's Port Authority album offered an exhaustive roll-call of well-known names (the aforementioned Masta Ace; O.C.; Large Professor; Oddisee; Kool G Rap; Supastition; Sadat X ...) 

The overall impression gleaned from the record was its statement of supreme confidence from the then 28 year-old (Marco Polo was born in Canada in 1979) who had only turned up in the City a few years previous and a showing of his virtuosic skill. Six years later, in 2013 Marco Polo returned to this terrain with a follow-up record called Port Authority 2that included a similarly daunting number of MCs - 40 from across the United States. An obvious question to ask was why he kept returning to this imagined location, Port Authority, what kept bringing him back there.

Marco Polo: The Port Authority bus terminal is a hub in New York City, pretty much in Times Square if you were to take a Greyhound bus anywhere from Canada or outside New York it’d end up at the Port Authority. And when I first moved to New York I took the bus from Toronto and that’s where I ended up so that was my first impression of the city when I walked out onto the bus station. Now it’s much better, but before it used to be super grimy around there, with a lot of homeless people and hustlers; it was a pretty ‘lively’ couple of blocks surrounding that station, so it was a fitting introduction to New York.

It’s cleaned up around it (now), but any place where you have tourists and foreigners showing up, you’re going to have the scum of the earth waiting for you to do bad things, like hustle you for a couple of bucks, or sell you weed. I’m sure it’s the same in any city, when you go to the bus terminal you got to keep an eye out for shady characters, you know (laughs).

Port Authority 2 similarly featured an impressive group of MCs - Talib Kweli; Masta Ace; Rah Digga among many others and included a reunion of Pharaohe Monch's earlier group, Organized Konfusion and a track dedicated to a late member of Gang Starr, 'G.U.R.U' that featured Kweli and Dj Premier, while featuring a raft of DJs scratching over the beats (DJ Revolution, Shylow, DJ Linx, DJ Romes and DJ Premier himself). 

I asked him about 'mood' when putting these two albums together and how important it was to think about the records in their entirety.

Marco Polo: Very important, I grew up with albums that had a theme to them, with leads and segues. You want to make something that flows. The great albums of my time all had that, like De La Soul and Prince Paul. Prince Paul is credited as the one who invented the interlude. It was cool, something different it’s not just music with spaces between, it puts you in a zone. It’s like listening to a story. Even Pete Rock on his Soul Survivor record he had all these amazing beats that would fade in, like ten seconds and fade out between songs. They were like crazy beats and you’d be like, ‘Man I want to hear someone rapping on that, I want to hear it longer.’ And it’d be gone.

It’s really important. Listen to Doctor Dre, his work literally sounds like movies; he’s got the intros and voice-overs. I was really lucky to have Michael Rapaport who is a great actor and a huge hip-hop fan to narrate them. It was amazing, it makes it cool, when you listen to something top to bottom, it puts you in the zone.

MB: Listening to that record I noticed there was a lot of scratching on it, it was a really important element of that record. Would you say it was a key, unifying driver in Port Authority 2?

Marco Polo: Absolutely, it’s part of hip-hop; one of the key elements of hip-hop. I’m a fan of scratching, or scratch hooks on songs. I’m a big fan and I’m blessed because I’ve got some of the world’s best DJs at my disposal: Revolution and Shylow. Shylow does pretty much 90 per cent of my cut hooks and he’s a master of it. It’s really important to incorporate this in the music. Sometimes you get the rapper to come up with a vocal hook and sometimes you get the DJ to do scratches; let’s do cuts. The song’s called this, okay find rappers who say that. It’s a whole mission to dig for acappellas. Yeah, you got to show love to the DJ.

Once again, DJ Premier and Marley Marl cause they were cats cutting up lines and stuff on records back in the day. Something about that that I’m just drawn to.

MB: I think it adds a real beautiful texture to the record because of the way it adds to the track construction; I mean the scratching comes in at different moments for emphasis. When do you use scratching in a song?

Marco Polo: (pauses)

MB: Is it like a sample that you place in a song to provide emphasis, or drama?

Marco Polo: Yeah, you can use it however you want to use it. Most of the time, we’re using scratches to make the chorus of a song, the hook. But sometimes, there are really no rules: it could be a bridge, or part of a verse when the rapper wants you to scratch to connect to a line he’s saying. We just try to be creative with it, cause literally at this point everybody has done everything.

You record it over the beat just like a sample, that’s essentially what it is – a sample of a rapper’s voice or something whatever he decides to scratch.  

Since then Marco Polo has produced for a number of important acts - including Pharaohe Monch, providing the music for three of his tracks on the 2014 release PTSD. What follows is a record of our phone discussion that covers Marco Polo's ongoing respect for Masta Ace; his collaboration with A-F-R-O (his next release) a focus on how he makes his beats; his current love for 70s prog-rock and how proud he is of his production work on Monch's classic album, PTSD.  

 

This week Marco Polo is leaving for a six-country European tour with his long-standing friend and collaborator Masta Ace who is promoting his sixth solo album The Falling Season, supported by MC Stricklin (one of the members of the group, eMC with Masta Ace himself).

Back in 2003 when Marco Polo was working as an engineering intern at The Cutting Room recording studio in Manhattan – doing what he has described as ‘grunt work-fetching coffee, cleaning up, answering phones- (before landing) a gig as an Assistant Engineer/Manager’ - a chance meeting with Masta Ace jumpstarted Marco Polo’s career as a producer.

Marco Polo: He came through for a session with The Beatnuts and I gave him a beats CD and he picked two beats, one that became a song called ‘Do it Man’ - a song on his album called A Long Hot Summer (2004). At the time he wasn’t able to compensate me so what we worked out was that we would do a trade, in trade he recorded the song for me that people know as ‘Nostalgia’ - which 100% the song people know me for in the underground, close to five million views and on my first producer album Port Authority (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records).

Since then we’ve definitely worked on some stuff, a few songs here and there he was on my Port Authority 2 – I worked on the eMC album, but more importantly he asked me to come on the road with him when he travelled and DJ for him. And after this tour we’re going to work on an album together – a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, which I’m very excited about.

MB: My friends who are into hip-hop have a huge amount of affection and respect for Masta Ace’s work over the years, how would you describe the value and importance of what he does?

Marco Polo: With Masta Ace, one of the things that make people all over the world – not just the US market – gravitate towards him is his ability to lay down a lot of emotion and amazing story telling in a simple way when he rhymes. He’s not beating you in the head with complex rhyme patterns, you know like in an Eminem style, but at the same time he’s Eminem’s biggest influence. Masta Ace has this way of talking to you in a personal way that is very simple, so people are able to feel it, you know.

And also in terms of his beats selection: Masta Ace has got a very good, picky ear when it comes to beats. He’s just amazing at making albums and connecting it all. This is what has kept him relevant after all these years, as opposed to a lot of guys from his era who have disappeared or not been able to be that consistent: Masta Ace is that dude. Twenty years – thirty years – and he’s still making music that people want to listen to and that’s very difficult to achieve.

KIC Beats was unable to do the tour; it is to promote Masta Ace’s album, The Falling Season (and will also feature) Stricklin, another dope MC. We’ve done this show many times all over the world, so it’s going to be like a reunion for us, rocking together again.

Following the European tour, Marco Polo will release an album he produced for the teen wonder A-F-R-O …. ‘Yeah, me and A-F-R-O have an ep, it’s about seven songs, maybe eight songs, it’s called A-F-R-O Polo - it’s done, we’re just mixing and mastering it now. I hope in the next few months it would be put out for people to hear.’

 

MB: Can you talk a little about the project; what was it that interested you in working with A-F-R-O?

Marco Polo: I didn’t even know that A-F-R-O existed, the only reason I knew of him was RA the Rugged Man, I work with him and he brought A-F-R-O to my studio and told me about him and said, ‘Yo he’s dope. You’ve got to check him out.’ RA the Rugged Man discovered A-F-R-O through a contest he had for MCs and A-F-R-O won, RA the Rugged Man flew A-F-R-O to New York and basically brought him round to a bunch of producers that he wanted A-F-R-O to work with and I was one of them.

Luckily he ended up in my studio and we just had good chemistry and we recorded more than just a couple of songs. We had a great time. I love his energy. He’s an incredible rapper. But what I love about him is he’s so young and he’s so culturally respectful to the roots of hip-hop. It’s different for a kid at 19 to be on that vibe these days because things evolve. He speaks to a lot of people who remember the golden era. We had a great time and yeah, the ep came out really nice. I’m excited for people to hear it.

MB: Is there anything particularly different in terms of what you’ve done with this ep?

Marco Polo : Production-wise I don’t think it’s anything super different; it’s definitely a little bit more raw. You know there’s a lot of break-beats, a couple of songs we made in the studio, I made the beat and he’d just rhyme. I would pick drums that he liked and then I’d make a beat. There were some beats I had already made; it was just kind of like having fun until it all made sense. It’s not like I’m experimenting, you can still expect the typical hard-hitting Marco Polo production, with A-F-R-O on it.

 

Let’s focus now on what Marco Polo is talking about when he speaks of his ‘hard-hitting'production style. On YouTube there are a number of videos where Marco Polo talks through his production techniques. In one he breaks down his work on Pharoahe Monch’s track. ‘The Jungle’ from the 2014 album, PTSD.

Starting with a ‘bunch of sounds’ (acoustic guitar, choir, clavinet and bass …) Marco Polo says how each - when played in isolation - is ‘so cheesy’ (perhaps the worst of them sounding as if it came from a pretty awful guitar-solo, he likens it to ‘some Bon Jovi-ass sounding guitar’) but when layered ends up creating a very distinctive mood: simple and threatening. Marco Polo adds how quantising the beat can be ‘your enemy’ in that it can make the music sound ‘stiff’ and that he always tries to make the bass notes come in late to provide a funky, natural feel. Then he refers to what he calls ‘the stabs’ - the repetition of certain notes in a track, which are, in fact, the defining element of his aesthetic.

In the video, he also adds how he loves the ‘movement of breaks’ - I found this comment interesting, so I asked him to explain this more.

Marco Polo: Basically, you know (pauses) one of the biggest challenges … Okay so let’s simplify this for readers who aren’t producers. A break-beat is essentially a part of a song a drummer played, a human being playing an instrument, so it’s going to have human elements to it in the timing so it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like a computer with a metronome, it’s going to have a feel to it because it’s a human playing it, so it’s going to be a bit more funky, it’s going to be late, or early or off. All of this things essentially give it a natural, human groove because it’s a human playing it.

So when producers think about break beats you’re essentially breaking up a human made rhythm for two or four bars so it gives you a really natural feel, as opposed to when you chop up sounds and program them on a computer because then you’re in the hands of a piece of machine to make your rhythm and depending on how good you are as a programmer it can be really stiff and not sound natural. What separates the good producers from the great is the ability to take these machines and computers and make these beats that feel human, right.

That’s the challenge, so if you eliminate the part when you program the drums yourself and you just loop the break-beat, you’re ahead the game rhythm wise by having something that just feels more natural. 

In the end, it’s important to use breaks because it makes my beats, or anyone’s beats sound more natural and less stiff and robotic. But when you use them you’re repeating a human rhythm in one, two, three, four bar loops you know capturing the human inconsistency of a human playing drums, as opposed to chopping up individual kicks and snares and relying on technology to make it sound natural. There’s lots of producers who can take individually edited kicks and snares and make it sound natural when they’re using MPCs or machines and some are not so good, so the way around it is looping a breakbeat that is part of a record where it’s just the drums playing.

MB: This idea of the movement is it to make it sound more fluid?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s basically to make it sound more funky, more natural.

MB: I think you’ve talked about the importance of creating a live band sound, now this is something I’ve come across repeatedly where producers talk about this being one of their key goals – almost to reproduce how it sounds to, you know, hear a jazz band or a funk group from the 70s, say – why is that so important? It seems a bit contradictory. 

Marco Polo: For me, it’s not really about trying to create the sound of a band, it’s to put a bunch of sounds together that make sense, you know; that feels natural, that feels like it was meant to be. It’s like adding different moods and textures. It’s challenging cause if you’re a sample-based producer like me where you’re taking all these different sources from vinyl, or it could be MP3s, or whatever. You’re taking parts of music that were recorded in different studios, different time eras, with different equipment, so how do you make all this make sense so it doesn’t sound like a fucking mess. That’s the art of sample-based production it’s finding a way to take all these different textures and sounds to make them gel together, to make a new composition and a new idea. For me that’s one of the most challenging and yet rewarding and fun things about making beats. I think a lot of people like that about me they see me taking so many different sources from songs in different keys, different tunings and you have to make it all work. I love it, that’s like my favourite part.

MB: I noticed that in one of your videos, from ‘Making the Beat’ video series (on his production work for Torae’s ‘Double Barrel’ in 2009) you said choosing six samples from six completely different records is the challenge, the essence of what you do, is that right, is that what you’re saying now?

Marco Polo: Yeah, something like that. I don’t always do that. Sometimes if I’m making a beat and I’m like it would be cool to have a horn sound, I’ll go through my jazz records and find something and see if it will work. It’s tricky, cause you’re finding songs that are completely not the same tempo, or different keys, so yeah essentially putting in that extra work to find those types of sounds it’s like the icing on the cake for a beat to be complete for me, the little details.

MB: Your talking about these sounds, there’s obviously differences in sound quality in terms of the recordings as well, are you using lots of technology to try and equalise them. What kinds of post-production work do you do to make them at the same level?

Marco Polo: You know I have a couple of programs that I use on my laptop where I will do some processing, whether it’s making them louder, or eq-ing them or adding some reverb, so I will do some of that. I’m a big fan of delays and time stretching specifically is probably the most important one cause if you’ve got a horn sample that’s a 120 BPM and my beat is 90 then you know I have programs or I use the MPC to time stretch the horn to match the tempos. There’s definitely a lot of things I do to make things work; just I don’t think about things, it’s first nature to do it. Absolutely, when you’re working with different sources I have to put in work to make it make sense.

MB: It’s this constant challenge and balance, isn’t it, between using technology and using material that’s already been ‘found’ then trying to make it sound natural, it’s interesting.

Marco Polo: Yeah, talking like that it sounds like a lot of work, I guess it is. For me it’s just like what I do. It’s first nature, you know.

MB: Returning to your beats now, I think you were saying how you like to layer a beat, so you’ve got the kick and the snare, and then you’ve got a hi-hat from another record, a splash of percussion from another record, is that a fair representation of how you construct a beat, layering it from different sources?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s always going to be like that. I mean there’s no set way I have to make a beat. I usually start with drum sounds, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to start with the sample first just cause I like to throw curve-balls into my routine so I’m not always doing the same thing. Yeah, essentially it’s very rare to get the drum sample and the musical sample from the same record, it’s definitely possible if you have a sample with parts that will open up, but it’s rare.

So for the most part I’m taking kicks and snares and all these pieces are coming from different records, so that’s essentially what’s happening.

MB Is that something a bit distinctive in terms of what you’re doing?

Marco Polo: No, everybody does that. I might do a little bit more, or be drawn to certain sounds a bit more. You know all producers, what they do over a certain time is that they start accumulating a library of sounds they like to use again and again in their beats you know. Certain producers will have drums that they’ll use a lot so that when you hear a beat, you’ll go, that’s a 9th Wonder beat, that’s a DJ Premier beat. You’ll kind of know, it’s similar, you know cause you’ve heard it before that’s you essentially making your own signature sound. Over the years I definitely have signature drums and other sounds that I use. I try not to use them all the time, but I go to them because a) I know they work and it’s part of who I am as a sound.

MB: One thing you’ve been talking about recently is creating your own samples - using live musicians, recording them and sampling them – is this something you’re going to be doing more and more of, can you talk more about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, sure. I have somebody I’m working with, a musician who is amazing. He plays guitar and all types of stuff and once in a while we’ll get together and we’ll just compose music – not beats, music, essentially things I would sample. It’s a real learning process. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him. I have music that we’ve made. I’ve recorded some guitarists from Italy, guys who play jazz guitar and they’ll come to the studio and play tons of guitar – at no tempo - and I’ll record it and I’ll stash all these sounds. If I have a day where I have to make a beat where I can’t be using any copyrighted materials, it has to be original then I have all these sources to use that won’t be a problem, so I’m definitely doing that.

But it’s not my main focus. At the end of the day I’m not stressed about samples, I just try to make something that I love and worry about everything else later. But I am incorporating live musicianship and making more beats myself where I’m composing everything myself using programs and playing chords, trying to make stuff sound like samples. It changes. One day I’ll be in that mood, the next I’ll be like I want to hear something off vinyl. It all depends on how I feel when I wake up.

MB: Is all this also being motivated by sound quality, are you able to control the sound quality better if you record it yourself?

Marco Polo: I can definitely control it, but the thing is … The problem with technology is as much as they try to make things sound vintage, it’s never really going to be perfect. The reason why things sound so good on vinyl from the 60s and 70s is cause they’re using classic recording studios, with old gear that just had a warm vibe to it. It’s almost impossible to duplicate it. They’re trying to make stuff to emulate these old consoles, plug-ins and compressors. They come close, but it’s really difficult to make stuff that sounds like from that era. People can do it very well, but the average person cannot. So for me I definitely do my research to work out what people do to make instruments sound dirty, vintage and warm and have all those things you’d get off a record. I’m getting pretty good it at but it’s definitely every day I’m learning new tricks.

 

Many, if not most of the most important hip-hop producers have a certain thing for music from the 70s. One critic has claimed that it could be that many of those producing music in the 90s and since, for example, were young children growing up listening to their parents playing music from that era, so such music has a sentimental alongside musical import for them. While producers themselves often cite the sound quality from 70s era recordings as a reason for the fascination; noting how the recordings have a warmth lacking in more recent releases. 

During the interview there was a funny moment where I confidently asked Marco Polo about the link between his instrumental version of 'Astonishing' (here's the record version) released on his Port Authority 2 in 2013 and featured Large Professor, Inspectah Dec, OC and Tragedy Khadafi - and Ghostface Killah's 'Nutmeg' (relased on his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele) following a fan comment, linking the two. It turned out there was no, zero, conscious connection, even though Marco Polo kindly said that perhaps it sounds like the kind of beat Ghostface might have graced, might have favoured if it had been at his disposal, or offered to him. 

Apart from the linked high-pitched 'pow' sound on both, there is a connection and this is to a 70s cinematic/Blaxploitation soundtrack feel found on both records; often I think that Marco Polo's beats could have been on some kind of histrionic Italian horror flick from the 1970s, where the lead actors freeze in horror, repeatedly (or walk around sets in long flowing white dresses, not saying very much). It's a mood thing, a taste preference that distinguishes his work. Other than that there are certain techniques that link his production ethos with the era and this includes what he refers to as 'the stabs'. 

MB: From first listen, and especially when listening to the instrumental versions, take for example ‘Astonishing’ - what really struck was what I felt to be an influence of 1970s rock and electronic music from that era. While when you were talking about ‘The Jungle’ you talked about the importance of ‘stabs’ - repeated notes – and for me this connects your music with 70s rock, The Who (for example the track ‘Who are you’) …

Marco Polo: Yeah, definitely.

MB: If I were to say what makes your work distinctive, I’d say it’s this influence. What do you think about that comment?

Marco Polo: (pauses) It’s 100 per cent right. I have so many beats (laughs) I tell my boy Shylow, I need to retire the stabs. I’m just drawn to it, the repetitive notes, the same note over and over. It just has this vibe to it, I’m just drawn to it. I love it. It’s aggressive; it’s grimy. It’s hip-hop, you know.

One of the biggest, most commercial successes for hip-hop is something like Dr Dre's ‘Still Dre’ that incorporates the piano stabs. It’s like a rhythm – a hard, simple rhythm. It’s very easy for me to make beats like this and when I hear the samples, I’m very drawn to them. It’s a very accurate statement. I’m actually making efforts to move away from that because I’ve done it so much, yeah. But in a heartbeat I can go back and make a beat with stab sounds, I love it (laughs).

I mean ‘the stab’ - I don’t even know if it’s a real term; I just call it the stab cause that is what it means to me – but you can find it in all genres. You can find it in RnB music, in rock, in soul. But I am influenced by early music, I grew up in a household where my dad was playing 70s rock all the time. I’m influenced by everything really. I just love music, so.

MB: You’ve talked about Cream being played in your house when you were growing up …

Marco Polo: Absolutely - Disraeli Gears

MB: Cream and Miles Davis; it’s a funny combination …

Marco Polo: That’s my Dad, and it’s a blessing he was so open-minded. Even him playing those different things when I was growing up, I didn’t understand it then but it was so cool. (His Dad is also credited with introducing him to the first hip-hop record that really clicked with him: A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum').

The moment you say you just listen to one thing, you losing out; especially as producers, you’re playing yourself. If you just listen to soul, you’re playing yourself. The other genres of music will open you up to new sounds and it will make your production way more versatile, different and you can go to different zones and feelings.

Lately I’ve been going through a progressive rock phase where I’m finding progressive rock records. This shit is crazy, I love it and it’s also going to change your sound by going in different genres.

Some people like to stay in their zone, but for me I like to change it up. I don’t want people to get bored of my beats and go, oh it’s another Marco Polo beat. I want it to be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Cause that’s how it used to be with cats like DJ Premier, he’d use all kinds of different samples, but the way he chopped them was unique and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’d make you scratch your head, ‘Where did he find that? What is that?’ I want people to do the same with my beats, I want them to have no idea what’s happening, or where I got them.

MB: Are you talking about English prog rock, or?

Marco Polo: It’s not specific to a country, I’ll look up that genre and do research. It could be bands from the UK, it could be bands from Italy, from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from the United States. Whatever falls in that genre, and if I’m uneducated or unaware, I’ll educate myself.

God bless the Internet, cause it’s really helpful these days cause you can just go and learn. You can find a kid in Spain who loves prog rock and will list all these albums he loves. It’s like going to the library. I look these groups up, I find the music and I learn about it. And man, a lot of it’s bad. But once in a while you’ll find that gem and it’s worth it.

MB: What interests you about the music though?

Marco Polo: The weird chord progressions; the sounds, the recording, the drums the vocals. The thing about progressive rock or that symphonic stuff is it could be so many things, it could be synthesisers from the 70s to a crazy flute player on acid, just going crazy over drums and a bass-line. And it’s still got a bit of funk to it, you know. I don’t like things that sound too rock n roll for hip-hop. I’m never going to be down with that. It’s still got to have a funk and soul and interesting musicality to it. 

Widely acclaimed by the music media and fans alike, Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD is a genre-defining release, while so distinctive it could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist. Marco Polo produced three tracks on the album: ‘The Jungle’; Rapid Eye Movement’; and ‘Time2’. I asked Marco Polo to talk about these tracks and also explain how it was working with Pharaohe Monch.

Marco Polo: First of all I’m glad you brought it up because I love all three of those songs I did on that album. I’m proud of all three. Having a song that has Pharaohe and Black Thought over my beat, that was a dream come true. Two of the best emcees in the history of hip-hop trading verses, I’m just so proud of those three songs. All three of them.

Pharoahe is not what you’d call ‘a normal (guy)’ - he’s not average. He’s above average; I always joke he’s like an alien, he’s not from this planet that is how good he is at MC-ing and his thought process is not from this universe, it’s on another level and I’ve been blessed to experience it in the studio, seeing him rhyme, the stuff he writes and how he puts it together. You know it’s just a saying, he’s not from this planet, he’s that far advanced and amazing and skilled as an MC.

He is different. Like I remember when I was recording the verses to Time2 and he was doing this stuttery thing and I stopped him, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s too weird.’ I almost tried to get in the way of his genius. It was such a learning lesson cause he was like, ‘Nah, let it be what it is.’ I didn’t understand it. It was like my brain wasn’t ready for what he was doing. Now when I listen back to it, I’m like Oh my God, I tried to stop this incredible verse where he’s basically rapping like someone is having a hard time talking, or stuttering. It’s the second part of the verse on Time2. It’s crazy. He’s incredible (laughs).

And I love all three of those beats they’re so different from each other.

MB: ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is so beautiful, it’s a phenomenal track. It does sound like a band to me, the way you’ve got this rolling drum, I think it is, which has this really 70s feel. The actual beat itself is really complex.

Marco Polo: Once again, it’s kind of like the stabs: the real repetitive sound (sings it). I’m a big fan of repetition like a lot of the best hip-hop production is something repeating over and over again. I don’t think hip-hop beats should have too much going on in them for the most part. It gets distracting. You want to create something that hypnotises you and you get in the zone and once you’ve hit that you add the finishing element.

Most of that beat is repetitive piano stabs and the drums and there’s a change that repeats and then goes back to the part with the repetitive piano. That whole record sounds dusty, it’s an interesting beat for me because there is no real melody; it’s a bunch of cool sounds and really hard drums. 

Supastition Interview

In this interview Supastition talks about racial politics in the US ('Black Bodies'); childhood memories of the Ku Klux Klan marching through his North Carolina home-town; Nina Simone, the role of interludes and why hip-hop is more than just a game.    

***

Behind the rap-stereotypes of shining cars and female body-parts (the subaltern's distorted Capitalist dreaming), there is another world of emcees/producers who understand what they are doing as part of a continuum and expression of culture.

And it's here that you find a kind of yearning. Artists wanting to be heard, alongside a complaint that they have been forgotten, or overlooked. This defines hip-hop as a genre, perhaps you could even say this is its sentimental core. Whereas many, if not most rock stars express desire, turning it outwards towards another girl, another planet; in hip-hop, the archetypal MC is seeking respect, asking to be recognised. How explicit the need is. 

One of the best examples of this cultural interplay is North Carolina-born, but now Atlanta-based MC Supastition. Honesty and sincerity is something essential to his art. It shines through. 

What follows is a record of our almost hour-long conversation, where Supastition described how his most recent record Gold Standard (Reform School Music/World Expo Records, 2015) is a new start of sorts, but also other subjects too; such as the importance of interludes in his music and his take on how it feels to be an established artist in a music genre that has an unquenchable thirst for the new.

MB: With Gold Standard, it's got various producers on it, but what really struck me was that it had a very confident sound; a very distinctive record compared maybe to some of your earlier releases; were you aiming to get a particular sound with that release?

S: I've done a lot of releases and I really feel that with Gold Standard, well, it's the one I can kind of boast and be proud of - for a lot of years, a lot of things weren't working out the way I wanted them to, but with Gold Standard it is one of those records where everything came together. I had a plan to do a tour, of 70 plus shows and I started working with a producer by the name of Praise, so I had the fire under me. So with that record it sounded a lot more confident and it's not as pessimistic as a lot of my other releases.

MB: It's really interesting you used the word confident, because the words I wrote down (when listening to it) were 'straight, confident, consistent (and) unified' - maybe compared to some of your other records. From the first track to the final track (you get a sense) it's the same artist, the same sound, even if you're working with different producers. I mean, were you inspired by any other particular hip-hop album when you were putting it together?

S: When I was putting it together, I was listening to a lot of albums that really strike me as inspirational like Little Brother's The Listening; Blu and Exile's Below the Heavens and the Brother Ali/Jake One record Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color. One thing I like about them is that they all have a consistent vibe from beginning to end. I think out of my albums that fans like, like The Deadline it has a similar vibe, even though I'm working with different producers, I want a cohesive sound. I learned that you can't just choose a lot of hot beats and make a lot of dope songs with them, that don't make a great album, that just makes great songs, I wanted to put together an album and have everything laid out. I had all the production set aside before I even got started writing the songs and I think that helps a lot too.

MB: I think it's interesting you referred to The Deadline because that's probably the other record that I'd compare Gold Standard to, where, you know the first track is completely, you know 'I'm here; I'm ready to be heard' that kind of thing, and I felt like Gold Standard had the same feeling, you know it had no doubts, or uncertainty, it's pushing that sound of – as you say maybe – like a new beginning, but it's also very political as a record. You've talked about your interest in 'concept albums' before, would you say this is a concept album and if it is, in what way?

S: Yes, it's a loose concept album, I wouldn't say it's a concept album in the sense in all songs pertaining to one particular subject, but for this record it is – Gold Standard just the title is saying that there are a lot of people in the music industry that basically brag and boast about a lot of things, but they have nothing to back it. With this record, I'm saying I've been here professionally since 2002 and after ten plus years in the industry I feel confident that speak about what I see. That's why you have songs like 'Gold Standard' and 'Know my Worth'. The concept behind it is, just be confident and proud of who you are. I'm not a twenty year old rapper any more, I'm confident and cool being a married man, a great father, a great friend and a dope rapper.

MB: (laughs) ok, and I think the track 'Unorthodox' wouldn't you say it's playing into this theme of providing a statement of who you are and what your history is, would you say that's the key track for that?

S: Exactly, I definitely think 'Unorthodox' is a great example of that. 'Unorthodox' is one of those records where I say, critically I didn't always the acclaim, you know when I release an album I already know they're going to give this album a 3.5, because I really don't have the name to get classic album rating, I don't have promo behind me, but on that track I'm saying I don't care if the critics understand me or not. I'm making records for the fans, you know.

MB: I understand that, but it does seem that things are shifting – Dr Dre has included in his radio show, is that right?

S: Yes, he has a radio show that he does online where he plays different music and some people from Aftermath pick out the sound and the songs they play, so having Dr Dre include it and hearing that some of the people at Aftermath are big fans of the Gold Standard record, having people like Dr Dre and DJ Premier and Da Beatminerz supporting the record, it just makes you feel really, really confident and appreciated, you know. A lot of times when I lived in North Carolina and you'll hear a lot of other North Carolina artists say the same thing, we didn't really get support from radio as a whole, a few people supported us, but basically we had to go to other places abroad, outside the US or other states to feel genuinely appreciated.

MB: The track that they played was 'Know my Worth' right …

S: Right, 'Know my Worth'

MB: This is a gorgeous track, isn't it? You're working with a female emcee, Boog Brown ..

S: Yes, that's my home-girl, Boog Brown ..

MB: She's fantastic, I thought what she added to that track was not so much the lyrics, but the way she raps, is just phenomenal, isn't it? Can you talk a little bit about her?

S: Boog Brown is a very, very dope emcee. She's originally from Detroit, but she lives in Atlanta now. We've known each other for a while, I was a big supporter of her, early in her career, I just thought she was an incredible emcee – not just a female emcee, but an incredible emcee and I always tried to put people onto her music. A few years back she did an album with Apollo Brown, called Brown Study and I was featured on a track called 'Friends like these' and we've always stayed in contact and been supportive of each other, so when I was doing this record I realised I'd never had a female emcee on any of my albums and I was like, why not get Boog Brown on to speak about what it's like to be in this industry as a female where people don't know your worth, or under-value you, so I wanted a female perspective on this as well.

MB: I think it works on a gut-level too, it's not just what she's saying, it's how she's saying it too. She's really fantastic, I mean, if we keep referring to this idea of being confident, she shares that quality, you know. She's really present, I guess is the word I'd use to explain it.

 

The first track I heard from Supastition's album was 'Black Bodies' ...

With its distinctive repetitive-swirl sample - that manic Soul-based loop that has come to define a lot of contemporary hip-hop production, this time provided by Supastition's long-time collaborator, Praise* - 'Black Bodies' represents a new form of protest music.

*check out this great video interview with Praise.

When I first heard the name of the movement 'Black Lives Matter' I thought it was a bit weak, avoiding as it does any direct mention of those killing scores of unarmed African-American people, mostly young men and teenagers (the police), but now I can understand the logic behind it.

Rather than focussing on those perpetrating the violence, the aim is to state the apparent obvious and by doing this force non-Black people to recognise a basic truth: that African-American people in the USA share the same essential humanity as non-Black people. In the interview, Supastition stressed that his objective with 'Black Bodies'  was not to write a 'Fuck the police' song, but to try and put the current police violence in a broader context.    

MB: Okay, let's go to the first track from the record that I heard, 'Black Bodies' and obviously I was interested in it for the theme as well as the music. I mean you are originally from North Carolina, Greenville, is that correct?

S: Yes

MB: So as you know, there has been some horrific race-based violence both the police and a white supremacist in North and South Carolina recently, I mean, how do you feel when you see this on the news. You've produced this very powerful track about black bodies, obviously you produced it before the violence, but how do you personally feel when you see these kinds of things happening so close to where you come from?

S: The thing with me is it's not anything new, cause growing up in the South, growing up in North Carolina, I remember in Greenville, North Carolina you used to see the Ku Klux Klan march through town, you know things like that. I was in school and white people would call me nigger, you know different things like that, it's just what you would see growing up, you'd go to a store in a small town and people wouldn't want to serve us, or want us in the store; or we'd walk into a restaurant and everybody would look at us like we were crazy. It's something people don't speak about, I'm not from a major city in North Carolina. Greenville, North Carolina is kind of like a college town, a small town, so I'm used to a small town mentality and how people look at you, so when I see stuff like that (the violence) in North and South Carolina, well there's always been a lot of things happening like that. It's one of reasons why – I mean I love that place – but it is one of the reasons why I'd never want to live there, because there are so many things behind the scenes.

So when I created 'Black Bodies' you know, I didn't want to create a song because everybody else was doing a song, particularly I held my back and waited because I wanted things to die down and as we decided to release the song I realised it was always going to be relevant because these situations keep happening. There's always an unarmed black person getting killed somewhere around the world. I had read an article talking about when the US because a moral authority, a lot of the situations in the US where they basically bully people with the acts of genocide and different acts of that nature and I just wanted to dig a bit deeper in 'Black Bodies'. I didn't want to do a 'Fuck the Police' song, you know because when it comes to me if something happens to me or my family, first thing I'm going to do is call the police. You can go a lot deeper – look at the history of America, the judicial system, systematic oppression, it goes through a lot of different things.

MB: I definitely agree. But let's slow it down a bit here, because what you said was really quite shocking before, you're not so old, so when you're talking about the Ku Klux Klan and the racism you experienced growing up, are we talking the 70s or the 80s, or?

S: This is the 80s – the mid to late 80s.

MB: Oh God.

S: I remember being at school and getting suspended because a white guy called me nigger and we ended up fighting. This was like junior high school for me. A lot of people from small towns it's their mentality and a lot of times, these cities and towns are so segregated; a lot of people in my town had never seen (people different to themselves); they only knew blacks, whites and Hispanics. The first time I brought my wife to my home town and my wife is Asian, she is from Laos and I remember the first time bringing her and people were referring to her as being Chinese and I remember thinking these people hadn't had much exposure to different cultures. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to move away from small towns like that.

MB: Obviously this is very striking and shocking for me, I mean I come from Australia so I'm not so naive, I've grown up with a huge amount of awareness of race-based violence in my own country, but the idea of the Ku Klux Klan marching through the town in the 1980s is mind-blowing, I mean they had absolutely no shame, even at this time in the 80s, I'm amazed.

S: Yeah, there were a lot of things going on. We are technically still in the South – as a child I didn't really understand it. They had the white hoods on and the robes, but it would be in the newspapers – you know, announced, the Ku Klux Klan will march through Greenville on this date and different things like that.

MB: It's insane.

S: Once you look back, when you're older and understand it, it amazes you. I can't believe I witnessed and lived through all this stuff was still going on at that time. A lot of people think it ended in the 60s and the 70s, but all this goes a lot deeper than that.

“MB: The thing that is very interesting for me is your choice of the title ‘Black Bodies’ because it’s maybe the media, certainly the police and people in authority often see people of colour as just being bodies, rather than being human. When you were thinking about that title, what ideas did you have when you chose that title for the track?

S: The inspiration is just like you said it’s the way people don’t see African-Americans as being people, a lot of times (white) Americans treat dogs and animals better than they treat African-Americans, they have more compassion for animals than us. And it’s something that I’ve noticed when you look the news and you see people dying in America they don’t show dead bodies laying on the ground, when they show countries in Europe and places like that they don’t show bodies on the ground, but when they show African nations and people dying and starving they show actual dead bodies, the people, it’s almost as if they are de-sensitised. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to call that track ‘Black Bodies’ because when you notice this, if you look at it a lot of times they have massacres in Africa, you’ll see it on the news, the bodies laying there. It’s like they’re being treated as if they’re less than human sometimes. They would never show – any massacre that happens in America, they never show dead bodies laying on the ground.”

MB: You're absolutely right. I know this from having worked in newsroom, they just wouldn't receive the same 'feeds' of the dead bodies, in Paris, or wherever it may be. Are there any particular books, or writers you've read that have offered some interest or inspiration in terms of this thinking of yours?

S: A lot of different books;  I mean there are so many different books. I read books from all over and absorb knowledge, you know, sometimes you've just got to sit down, turn off the internet and pick up a big book. A lot of friends recommend books for me that I should check out, when we were on tour, Blueprint gave me a big list of books he likes to read …

MB: Just coming back to the location of it, the North/South Carolina connection are there any other things you'd like to add, I mean one of the reasons why I was interested in speaking with you was the fact that you're from the place where so much of this violence has gone on recently; I mean, Walter Scott being shot by a police officer in the back, when he was running away, is there anything else you'd like to add to this?

S: There's not very much more to add, I mean I just wish people would have more compassion and like I said in the song, 'Black Bodies' these police officers, they not held to the same standard as the average guy, I mean people talk about black on black crime, when someone gets killed in the neighbourhood, but these guys (the police) are not held to the same standard – they hold a position of service and so when we see this happen, it's a big disappointment, I mean we think you're supposed to be there to protect us, if we can't trust you, who can we trust?

...

Sometimes you hear a track and it draws you in; something about it connects with you in a way that is difficult to express. Supastition's 'Best Worst Day' from 2013's The Blackboard record is like that for me. (For days after listening to it on repeat, it remained with me; it was as if I could still hear it playing out in the recesses of my memory as I went about my everyday life).

“When I woke up today I felt incredibly refreshed feeling more blessed than ever with no head full of stress I was comfortable but calm in my warm spot didn’t even abuse the snooze button on my alarm clock sun’s shining through the burgundy drapes my lady wasn’t next to me, I guess she’s working today I’m accustomed to looking her in the face at 7 AM one particular person you see day out and day in anyway ..”

'Best Worst Day’ was an idea that had been floating around in my head for years. I could never find the perfect beat  that matched the idea that I had. I wanted something heavenly and atmospheric to deliver the story. This is a hip  hop version of the movie ‘Sixth Sense’ where I spend a day not knowing that I had already passed away. Originally,  the song was going to be similar to Ice Cube’s today was a good day but I decided to add a few twists to make it more  interesting. I love the art of storytelling and this came out the way that I envisioned it. I first heard the beat on the  Dirty Art Club instrumental album and asked them if it was cool for me to record a song to it. Madwreck (who has  mixed or produced on every album of mine) gave it the thumbs up along with his partner, Matt Cagle.' 

Supastition, writer's note for 'Best Worst Day'

That 'perfect beat' Supastition is referring to is glorious, sublime. But more than this what works so well in this track is the way the producers (Dirty Art Club) sensitively echo the movement of the song; so that at the start, around 33 seconds when he refers to the sunlight and then to his wife (a person who has a very important presence in his art, as a recurring point of tender reference) the music opens up, expands somehow, with great delicacy. It's very beautiful. 

And then again later almost exactly two minutes later, when he refers to hearing his music on the radio ... 

“I stepped outside wondering how could this day have gone
wrong
but then a Chevy passed by with my song on
the local radio station they had my song on
that’s when I knew something was horribly wrong, homes
‘cause they don’t play no local music if it’s homegrown
a motherfucker gotta be dead or long gone,
shot up or murdered? wait… what!
I jetted back in the store, I’m searching for the Charlotte
Observer
feeling faint, nauseous, and nervous
no wonder why nobody even noticed me, paid attention, or
turn heads
I started panicking as I was thinking back again
stiff as a mannequin like “yo, this can’t be happening”
picked up the paper and the caption read after my name
in bold black lettering… local rapper slain. damn”

... a similar feeling happens again. (You can sense the happiness of that moment in the music).  Such production where the music both reinforces and comments on the music is a wonderful thing.

At the end there is this very other-worldly interlude where Nina Simone, referring to herself as 'one' in a very regal (and slightly strange) manner, with her plummy vowels, speaks about how she wants to be recognised in her own country.

In an interview with his late friend Praverb, Supastition said: 'I’m all about lyrics and wordplay, man. I listen to cats like Royce, Elzhi, Phonte, Brother Ali, Shad, and brothers like that. If you’re still rhyming ‘hat’ with ‘scat’ and simple shit like that then I just can’t get inspired by that. That’s music for the lyrically challenged!' Before adding: 'At the same time, you gotta be able to make a decent song too.'

Here in this track we can see the skill of Supastition's wordplay, via the half-rhymes and repetition of consonants, or repetition of words with the same number of syllables; in the movement backwards and forwards, the clever use of tempo to provide contrast. Here, too, with the Nina Simone interlude at the end we can see something else that I believe is a defining element of his art: that is the use of interludes in a highly literary, rather than purely musical, manner. 

MB: Can you talk to me about the producers who worked on Gold Standard?

S: The main producer on Gold Standard is Praise he's from the DMV area (DC/Maryland/Virginia area), he had worked with Pharoahe Monch and Torae, Skyzoo and people like that. A good friend of mine before he passed away, Praverb said that there is this producer you've got to work with, check him out, he's amazing. He sent me a link to his music and I thought this guy is incredible, before we could actually set up songs, Praverb passed away so Gold Standard is dedicated to him. Praise is the main producer and probably going to be the main producer for a lot of my upcoming projects too. Rik Marvel who is from Germany, originally from North Carolina, but he lives in Germany now. He's real dope. Veterano - he's from Cali. Jonny Cuba, Ollie Teeba from the UK as well. My man Croup from Germany as well. I try to stick with my usual suspects, keep it in-house. Also MoSS, he's an incredible, incredible producer he's worked with lots of different artists – DJ Premier, Elzhi, Joe Budden, lots of people like that. One of the main things I like to do is with with new talent that a lot of people aren't chasing yet. People I think are dope.

MB: Tell me how you work, for example, with Praise when you're putting together a track …

S: With Praise, usually he'll make a bunch of different tracks and send them to me and then I'll go through them one by one. In previous years, there'd be producers who'd put out 20 or 30 beats and they'd send them out to all their rapper friends, or artists they're trying to sell beats to, basically like a buffet and everybody is trying to get to it before the stuff is gone, so by the time I'd get to it I'd get the left-overs and I'd feel like I'm making a record from the left-overs, but with Praise or Croup, they specifically make beats tailor-made for me and then together we'd work it out. I like working like that. I mean, would you rather have a short-order cook, or would you rather have a chef that prepares meal for you?

MB: Croup, I mean he goes quite a way back with you, doesn't he? I remember he did an amazing interlude, if I remember right, 'Crazy' ...

S: Yeah, Croup did the entire Honest Living ep he produced every track on that, he also produced 'Adrenalin' on The Deadline so we've been working together since 2003/2004 – he's been really active, he paved the way in that personal approach in the industry.

MB: One thing that really strikes me in your music, across your records, is that you're really quite thoughtful in the way you use samples, in terms of spoken-word samples. I mean, say for instance in the middle and at the end of 'Black Bodies' … Can you talk to me about this, is it something you come up with, or the producer comes up with, who is behind these spoken-word samples?

S: Usually I go through them, I listen to different audio and interviews and different records and go through them and I piece them together the same way my favourite records from the 80s and 90s piece them together. I used to love the way Pete Rock records, Pete Rock/CL Smooth records, would bring in random samples. A lot of times I go through and find something related to the topic that the song is on, find a beat that will match up with it. I think it just provides better transitions when you're going through; rather than the song fades out and the next song starts … I just think that gets old after a while. You just add to it, by finding different things to complement it. I take the time. I'm glad you noticed that, because I'm not sure a lot of people did; I always try to add some random samples …

MB: I think it is probably – I mean you've obviously got great wordplay etc – but I think it is most distinctive aspect of your work. It's something that is quite striking and I think, well, you've referred to Pete Rock here, but what I would say is the difference is that Pete Rock's sample/interludes are driven by the music, while I think what really comes through in your work is that you're driven by the idea, or the words (in the sample). It's quite lyrical. Do you think that that's a fair comparison; you use the word random, but it doesn't sound random, it sounds well thought out.

S: Yeah, it's definitely thought out, when I say random I mean I go through random records – interviews and try to find something that fits …

MB: It seems to me that they're used more for commentary, rather than for their musical content. Do you think that's a fair point?

S: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It's to fill in the gaps and make the transitions between the songs better. It's almost like I do a song like 'Black Bodies' and the next song is dedicated to my wife, like I can't just go from one to the other. A lot of the times, sonically the tracks don't go together, so it's like a dj doing shows or mix-tapes, they always try and choose songs that go well together, with albums it's difficult to do that, so you need an interlude or vocals to make the transition go better.

MB: I know you've said in interviews that you're inspired by hip-hop artists who, I mean in one interview you said; 'I'm all about lyrics and word-play …' and you mention a series of emcees, when you're using these samples it strikes me you're working in the same way, it's quite literary and word-driven. When you're thinking about your art, do you still think that the words are everything, or the most important part?

S: Yeah, definitely, it always going to be the lyrics first. For me it's about the words first and foremost, because I'm a writer. It's always about that – lyrics, word-play, story-telling, concepts; it's everything to me. I want when people pick up a Supastition record for that to be the first thing that they want to hear, what am I going to say next, or what am I going to say that's thought-provoking. If I'm telling the story about my life, I like to deliver it in a way that no-one else can.

MB: Well, this brings me to the track that really impressed me, 'The Best Worst Day' – I think the reason why I loved it so much is that it's so clever the way it's put together lyrically, but the producer as well, he's using music to offer support to what you're saying. I mean it's quite exciting, really the way the two elements work together. 

S: The Best Worst Day was actually, if you've heard the instrumental it's from the Dirty Art Club – two producers out of Charlotte, North Carolina. They put out an instrumental album, I heard the instrumental and I thought, look that's a dope song, a dope concept I want to use and this is the perfect beat for it. They were like, cool and they sent me the instrumental for it. I was sitting there and I wanted to do something like the hip-hop version of 'The Sixth Sense' – I wanted to think what it'd be like if I was walking around and people couldn't see me. In my mind, I'm in a store and thinking somebody is racist because they're not giving me service (laughs) or I'm with my girl and thinking she's got attitude, you know what I mean (laughs) in reality. I'm not there; I've passed away. And then when I realise, it's the shock that I feel, like I go through all these events and I don't realise I've passed away until I heard the local radio station playing my song because at that time when I was living in Charlotte the local radio didn't play anybody from the city until you passed away. It's a kind of bitter-sweet thing, it's like hey man, I'm finally on the radio, but hey wait, I had to die to be appreciated (laughs), you know. The follow-up to that is 'The Day After' on the Gold Standard record; 'The Day After' is what happens after I passed away and everybody loves me now. Basically it's the sequel – I think those tracks should be listened to back and back.

MB: It's light-hearted in a way, but it's also got a real punch to it in the lyrics but it's got that feeling of not being recognised and if you listen to a lot of your tracks it's about that isn't it, not being recognised. It's got a real emotional aspect to it as well, I'd say.

S: Yes, it's definitely got that too (…)

MB: Thinking more generally about hip-hop, do you think this is a kind of pressure people on the industry put on themselves, when they refer to hip-hop as being a young man's game, or when they focus on these amazing prodigies like Big L or Nas in the history of hip-hop who were so young when they started. Do you think that there is something in the culture of hip-hop that makes people feel a bit pressured?

S: Definitely it's considered a young man's sport, if you're 28, you're considered old. It's almost like it's treated like a sport, when you hit 30, it's like you're over the hill in hip-hop, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that there is no contemporary category. The demographic is mostly for young minds. I think it goes down to urban culture in general, where everything is trendy and it's much the same for hip-hop. People are into certain things for a certain while. If you look at hip-hop and dj-ing people love it for a particular time and then overall it became a thing of the past (b-boying and things like that). I think the music from myself or people influenced by the boom-bap/jazz hip-hop we feel like our time is limited, so we have to do as much as we do.

And in urban culture too there is no appreciation for history if you look at the African-American culture a lot of people don't appreciate the people who came before them, they'll disrespect their elders. It's like, cool you've paved the way, but we'll take it from here. A lot of times in hip-hop that's how we feel, we've reached a certain age or a certain point and they're telling us we're too old, but I think hip-hop isn't a sport, it's a thinking game. I mean you can't be the President of the United States at 25. You've got to have your thoughts and life experience together and I think with hip-hop as you get older you should get better, you should be more appreciated because you're a better thinker and you've lived a lot more.

MB: It's strange though as one thing that really strikes me is the nostalgia for the past in hip-hop, you have these 18 and 20 year-old kids saying, 'Oh the 90s, the 90s, it's the golden age/the golden era etc etc' – so there's this nostalgia for the music but maybe a disrespect for the artists, would you say? It's kind of bizarre.

S: It's disrespectful … I think a lot of people don't want to admit that they weren't around for some of the best times in life, you know; it's like I was really too young to appreciate Muhammad Ali as people from that time, but there is no way I'd say he wasn't a great boxer (laughs). There's no way I can say he wasn't one of the greatest. I think a lot of time for this generation if they haven't seen it, or experienced it, it's like it doesn't exist. To be honest when I started to listen to hip-hop, the first time I heard Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and Treacherous 3 and stuff like that, I wasn't into it, because at that time my mom, my aunts and uncles were into disco and it sounded so much like disco and dance music and it was years later that I started to Run DMC and Slick Rick, Jazzy Jeff and I started to hear it. But I would never say that all that stuff was corny because without all that it would be impossible for me to do what I'm doing now, you know what I'm saying. I think it's real disrespectful a lot of times. But if people don't have a respect for their history or their culture, you really can't expect too much out of them, you know.

MB: At the end of 'Best Worst Day' who was speaking, I've got a feeling it is Nina Simone but I'm not sure.

S: I think it is Nina Simone actually, yeah, when she's talking about how she had to go overseas to be appreciated – yeah, that's Nina Simone. I was listening to a Nina Simone interview and this really touched me because she was originally from North Carolina as well. She was just so inspiring and I could understand that. I just wanted to be appreciated by those around me, the people I'm doing this for.

MB: Just to finish could you talk to me about Nina Simone as I saw what struck me as a funny comment that you made in an interview, someone asked who of the greats would you have liked to have worked with and Nina Simone but then added, I'm not sure if she was into hip-hop.

S: (laughs)

MB: I mean, what are you're feelings about Nina Simone is she an inspiration for you?

S: She's definitely an inspiration, I caught on to her later in life and became so engulfed in her music. When I listen to her music I can tell the transition she went through, you can hear one song and she's doing all kinds of music – not only jazz, but she's classically trained; she'll give you love and heartbreak songs, but she'll also give you positive, and conscious songs – uplifting songs, songs where she lets her hair down and talk shit and do what she has to do. Just the dynamic of Nina Simone is just so impressive, like I said her being from North Carolina as well along with people like George Clinton and John Coltrane is just so inspiring.

MB: Where was she from in North Carolina?

S: I think she was from Tryon, North Carolina – another small town.

MB: Which Nina Simone track would you choose if you had to choose one?

S: (pauses) Wow, it's actually 'Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter'-

 

talking about a partner and saying you're always rapping about the same old things (laughs). If you listen to that track, I don't know why nobody's ever sampled it and put it into a song, maybe I should sample it and put it into a song, that and of course 'Don't let me be misunderstood' which is one of her most popular songs.  

Black Milk Interview

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, first published 1952)

 

Nothing is predictable about Black Milk’s music or modus operandi – and this includes his rationale for choosing ‘If there’s a hell below…’ as the album title for his most recent record. ‘When I was going through a lot of names that title just popped into my mind,’ Black Milk tells me over the phone from Detroit just days before starting his US tour. He then adds: ‘I wasn’t even listening to any Curtis Mayfield records at the time.’ 

‘You know when I’m thinking of song titles, my process is writing down a lot of different words, I’m real big on how stuff looks visually, that’s almost as important as how words actually sound, when I’m writing down titles – song titles, or album titles – anything that I have to give a name to, it’s almost as important to me how it looks on a piece of paper versus what it sounds like.’ 

Despite the obvious nod to Mayfield, the music of the 70s soul legend is largely absent on Black Milk’s album: ‘I redid the interlude on the album that comes over (at the end of) ‘What it’s Worth’ where you can hear me saying, ‘Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers …’ – I put an effect on my voice and tried sound as close to the actual record, but that’s the only part of the album where I reference Curtis Mayfield; other than that there are no actual Mayfield samples on the record.’

In interviews, Black Milk seems ambivalent about people taking this reference to hell too literally, as say a direct reference to his native Detroit. ‘The album is not really about hell, or being in hell,’ he says. ‘It’s about growing up in an environment that some people might think is a living hell, but finding happiness within that hell. That is what the title represented and when you listen to the music you can hear a lot of different scenarios that paint pictures of where I’m from.’

Black Milk’s most recent record offers an elegant refusal. There is no fixed point to relate to, no straight-forward autobiography, or authentic voice. The record is quicksilver slippery while remaining intensely personal: it is distant – a highly produced and artificial object, but still has an elemental force.  What immediately strikes me in the record is the use of repetition and concurrent lack of resolution and release; the lack of foregrounding of Black Milk’s vocal-line and the desire to evoke an imagined, or perhaps felt, Detroit.

Throughout our conversation, Black Milk repeats how this record is not as bleak as his previous album, No poison, No paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly, 2013). It evokes a broken environment – where ‘grandma live longer than grandson’ - but it is also a place of tenderness and love. Black Milk explains, ‘Even though with the visual aesthetic and some of the sound aesthetic, the tone is dark, I wanted to have a certain energy in the music so that even if it had a dark overtone, it had some feel-good, or some vibrant colours in it, whether it is the music, the rap, or the actual beat.’

And yet the record’s achievement lies in its mood, the way the tracks segue together - and this mood is one of grey clouds and Detroit’s ‘beautiful ugliness’. It exists within the same universe as Massive Attack’s less radio-friendly offerings (Mezzanine) or Tricky’s more uncompromising solo albums (Pre-Millennial Tension or Nearly God) when asked about these UK artists, Black Milk mentioned that other than knowing they had a track called ‘Black Milk,’ he was ‘not too hip to their music and hadn’t had a chance to dig into their catalogue’ – but filtered through his key musical points of reference: hip-hop, techno and 70s soul music. 

There’s a moment in Kendrick Lamar's track 'i' from his record To Pimp a Butterfly and video that embodies the dystopian Black Milk mind-space/aesthetic: Lamar passes a number of different traumatic incidents – a Black man being handcuffed by the police; a man with a gun to his head, ready to commit suicide; a man yelling at his wife, while the children run away - passing them as if a wanderer in a modern-day Canterbury Tales, around three minutes in, everything shifts. Leaning out of a car window and then jumping to a shot of Lamar dancing in his fluorescent white T-shirt; it becomes disjointed and broken-up. 

Hard to follow, hard to understand – the words have become a spitfire delivery - Lamar spits, literally with a kind of desperation: 

“I went to war last night/
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic/
I’mma do it till I get it right/
I went to war last night
(Night, night, night, night)/
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

The energy is basic here, formed by Lamar’s intense delivery and music that has suddenly become jittery; scattered.

Starting out fighting with some absent opponent (or is he trying to escape someone/something in the car) rolling and writhing, reaching out of the car window, a (Black) body in pain; hysterical and (apparently) out of control as he shouts out to the night.

This is light years away from Lamar’s previous celebration of California as a paradise where men from all over come for the ‘women, weed and weather’.

Towards the end, Lamar still leaning out the moving car window, looks up into the sky; his body is almost immobile –suspended, he is still: 

“Duckin’ every other blessin, I can never see the message/
I can never take the lead, I can never bob and weave/
For my nigga that be letting ‘em annihilate me/
And the sound is moving in a meteor speed

From a 100 to a billion lay my body in the street/
Keep my money in the ceiling let my mama know I’m free … ”
 

  II.

My passion is really in production, making beats and the backdrop and the music for the album, so I spend a lot of time crafting the beat and looking for the right samples that flow together with other samples and making a cohesive project. It all starts with my going to a record shop and digging and finding vinyl, different records and trying to find different samples and themes that I can bring back to the lab and to make something out of it. Once I get the production down the lyrics follow. I kind of always let the beat guide and direct the lyrics and where I want to go with the song. It’s rare that I write a rhyme before I get the track. I let the music speak first.

Black Milk

 

Black Milk first made his name producing the seminal hip-hop group from Detroit, Slum Village after the late J Dilla left to focus on his solo work. (During the interview, he became animated recalling how Slum Village’s album, ‘Fantastic, vol.2’ from 2000 is ‘still’ his ‘favourite hip-hop record of all time’).  

“MUHAMMAD: ‘I mean, considering the position – because Dilla’s the foundation of Slum Village – so you’re coming in and taking up, filling up a void, you know, obviously. There has to be a level of musicianship that comes to match it.

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know, at the time – that was a lot of pressure for me. And because Dilla was already 10 years ahead of everybody musically, especially when it comes to beats. So it was like, ‘Alright.’ And then also I was kind of, you know, Dilla was my inspiration, so you heard a lot of his influence in my beats at the time (…) 

(J Dilla) came up to the studio a few times and I met him and we kicked it a little bit and he just basically – he heard some of my stuff and he was like, ‘Yo.’ Gave me that nod like, ‘Yeah, you on that path. You doing your thing.’ You know what I’m saying, like, ‘Keep doing your thing and you have something there.’ So after that, I heard him spit over one of my tracks. They did a song called ‘Reunion’ and that was the first time I ever heard Dilla rhyme over one of my beats. And man, that joint, that was like, you know, I was in heaven. Like, I was good after that. I didn’t have to do anything else, you know, at that time, cause Dilla was everything to me.’”

— Black Milk, interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Frannie Kelley, ‘Black Milk: ‘It’s not really a cakewalk’ ‘Microphone Check’ NPR, January 08,2015

   

‘All Mighty’

Q: ‘Do you remember the first beat you created?’

Black Milk: ‘First beat …I kinda do but I kinda don’t. Even though I’m from the late 90s, early 2000s era, I still experienced the whole pause tape thing. That’s how it started off: taking two cassette tapes and trying to start one, taking one piece of a sample from one tape and loop it onto another one. I did a little bit of that. It’s definitely dedication. That’s all for the love (laughs). It went from having that to having a little karaoke machine, fucking Casio keyboard and recording that bullshit-ass cassette tapes to buying an actual W-30 Roland sampler and going to the MPC 2000 XL.
— Black Milk, interview with Bryan Hahn ‘Black Milk talks secrets to sampling, Detroit’s legacy and working with Jack White’ January 14th, 2015, www.massappeal.com

Busting up pre-existing conventions found in any form of popular music, whether it be rock or jazz let alone hip-hop ‘All Mighty’ starts with an excessive, ridiculously excessive beat that on first impression sounds like a drum-solo – smashing and crashing and bashing (more Animal from the Muppets than Max Roach) before Black Milk comes in, as he told former A Tribe Called Quest MC, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and NPR Music Editor, Frannie Kelley in January, ‘to vent’.

No concession is made for the rap when it comes in; no lowering of the beat to make space, so that together it sounds messy, but intense, with all the elements kept at the same level.

Black Milk’s tracks often have clearly defined sections and ‘All Mighty’ is an extreme example of this; first starting with the beat-induced excess and then a sharp change at about 1’15” where the music transforms into a gentle electronic reverie, with female backing vocals.

Throughout the rap is highly mannered, stopping on key words – to provide emphasis in a strange, unnatural way, stopping either before or after the word. He even includes a kind of Steve Miller reference, with the ‘ticking, ticking, ticking’ part. And then at the end is an instrumental interlude; an elegant stylistic diversion …

‘On the last couple of albums, my production has gone to a place where I create a song that isn’t just the traditional verse hook, verse hook. I like to break the songs up, break the monotony and do something more spontaneous and throw you off a little bit when you listen to it and put stuff in that you might not expect,’ he told me.

‘Now I try to mix up the format so that it doesn’t get too boring, just to give the listener something spontaneous that jumps at them and is not what they expect and that’s what I tried to do with ‘All Mighty’.

This track describes how Black Milk felt starting out: 'Trying to capture the feeling you felt/When it was just you feeling yourself/No interviews or album reviews good or bad/Just lyrics and beat that played in the back.'

Looking back on his career seems to be on Black Milk’s mind at the moment, as he often returns to this in interviews.

As he told me: 'I’ve been producing for a little while, for over ten years so now I  know at this point what people respond to and how they respond to certain themes, certain sounds and certain frequencies and feel at this point that anything you hear from me is purposefully done.

'I’m very conscious of what is going on, how things sound and the nuances of the albums I produce versus when I first started out as a new producer, in my early years when you just do stuff and everything is really raw.’

‘At this point if you hear something that’s super distorted or super jarring or super offbeat, it’s conscious,’ he continued. ‘Whether it’s super-complicated, or it’s just a four bar loop that’s really hypnotic (in that case) you might not want to change the beat at all.’

Black Milk has recently announced that he would like to focus more on production, not that he is stopping being an MC but that he wants to deepen his knowledge as an engineer. ‘No, I’m not quitting,’ he said in the NPR interview when asked if ‘All Mighty’ was a goodbye of sorts. The venting related to those days when you feel ‘Man, cats ain’t paying attention.’ Or they don’t understand,’ he explained. 

 

'What it’s worth’ 

Q: ‘What I find particularly refreshing and really different is the way you use repetition in your tracks, so that when you’re talking about breaking it up, there’s also a feeling of things not moving, for example if you listen to ‘What it’s worth’ this creates a difficult, uncomfortable feeling; is this something you think about consciously, do you think about the impact it will have as a feeling?’

Black Milk: ‘Definitely, that’s a perfect word – a feeling. Sometimes a track doesn’t have to be super-complicated, or technical, with me when I make music it’s all about a feeling. Sometimes you create a track, it can be a four-bar loop, but that loop is magic; it feels amazing so you don’t have to go out of your way to over-produce. Sometimes it happens, it depends on the sample, it depends on the song. I call it like little pieces of magic you find on a record you chop the loop up, it depends.

A track like ‘What it’s worth’ or ‘Leave the bones behind’ where I just looped the record up (it is) because I loved the moment (…) I know how it makes me feel, but sometimes with other people whether they like it or not, it’s interesting to see how people take music in, how it makes them feel – what it does to their brain, it’s always cool.’ 

In the video for ‘What it’s worth’ you see Black Milk side-on sitting on a chair, gesticulating in time with the rap – this is a bit strange, as we are unable to clearly see his face in the half-darkness and he seems constrained by the position.

A cliché certainly found in many hip-hop videos is of the MC, surrounded by other young men, usually in gritty urban contexts, making gestures with great force in time. In these clips, there is action and movement; it’s dynamic and an expression of group identity. In Black Milk’s video, he is limited in terms of his movement - he is largely still and he is alone.

(On the YouTube comments there’s a small rebellion among fans, split between those who like the video and others thinking it looks too low-budget, done on the cheap and that Black Milk should have shot the clip outside). 

In my memory, I’d created an aesthetic link between the Black Milk video and a clip that perhaps doesn’t in fact exist from Tricky, for a track from the Nearly God album; leaving that to one side, the song links strongly with the distorted love song, ‘Tattoo’ from the UK artist, almost whispering low and guttural: ‘Colour me, colour me/When you’re sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor/There’s something uncontrollable/You sit there watching the door.’

Both songs express something deeply personal, a kind of inverted masculine energy where violence is turned inward, but the threat remains ambiguous.

It makes me think of the final moments of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator decides to lock himself up in a cellar, a place he describes as ‘the hole’ - to escape, to fully embrace his invisibility to others – but remains tormented by the chaotic, repetitive workings of his mind.

'I would stay here until I was chased out,’ the narrator decides. ‘Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.   

In the Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley NPR interview in January, Black Milk was asked about the broader socio-political context in the US and how it relates to his record..

Or to be more precise, the context that is now symbolised by the video of a (white) police officer taking aim as a middle-aged African-American man ran away in South Carolina, before shooting him in the back eight times; or the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in a city park in Cleveland, Ohio by a (white) police officer, with no warning – the context that is now commonly referred to as ‘Ferguson’.

“MUHAMMAD: ‘And in line of what’s happening in Ferguson or other parts of America and even the world, it’s a powerful record, man.

BLACK MILK: ‘And you know what? The album was done before the whole Ferguson thing happened. And when it did happen, I had a few thoughts like, ‘Man, this album is kind of representing all the craziness that’s going on right now. It’s kind of touching on that.’ But I didn’t want to use that as like a-

MUHAMMAD: ‘Platform?’

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, I don’t want to use it as a platform, but I did have those thoughts, like, man I’m kind of touching on some of those things that’s actually happening right now.”

When I mentioned to Black Milk that listening to ‘What it’s worth’ was far from easy listening, and that the repeated sample with its oppressive sibilant sound was pretty unpleasant and felt aggressive, he laughed. But this discomfort is what makes this track so effective; you feel in a musical sense, how it might feel to be trapped – finding yourself in a place, or psychological space, where you can’t escape (call it ‘hell’ if you like). 

(Here the title might have some significance too, being so similar to Buffalo Springfield’s track from 1967 entitled ‘For what it’s Worth’ – so memorably sampled by Public Enemy on ‘He Got Game’ in 1998 – that describes apparently meaningless political protests in the streets and also ‘Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line, the men come and take you away’).

Repetition is a key element of hip-hop production, if not the key element. (Indeed, there’s a whole conversation outside the scope of this article about the role of repetition in hip-hop, perhaps starting with James Snead’s influential essay, ‘Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture’ from 1981 …)

But usually the repetition is implicit, hidden almost and the producer’s skill lies in the fact that the arrangement of a looped sample appears seamless. The pleasure the listener gets from listening to a hip-hop record, built up from samples, lies in forgetting that it is a created artefact.

Here, the sibilant noise is so jarring that it becomes the dominant element – more important than the MC, more important than the intermittent melody in the background. That shrill noise, repeated endlessly, disrupts any pleasure of getting lost in the track, or even of identifying with the rap as something ‘natural’ and authentic.  

Repetition here acts as a barrier, as a distancing effect. As a listener you are reminded of the elements in isolation – to the materiality of the music and the fact that it is constructed. For me the music is the perfect example of alienation, refusing any release or resolution as it is static – going nowhere – and therefore perfectly embodies what Black Milk is trying to express. The lyrics of ‘What it’s worth’ focus on Black Milk’s feeling of obligation to others: 

“Yo, this life is bigger than me, feel weighed down by a hundred boulders/
Got family in my hands, crown on my head, city on top of my shoulders. ”

At one point the bass-line that had until that moment provided some kind of melody, or comfort disappears. And it is at this moment that Black Milk raps:

“Two shots to the head, two shots till we dead/
Just what this kind of life might bring/
That’s what this kind night might mean/
You clock or be glocked in, OGs here, no stopping
As long as breath’s in my lungs waving white flags ain’t never the option.”

Considering the context described before, the reference to his mom ‘looking at the time, hoping that her oldest son make it back inside’ is particularly affecting. 

Towards the end, Black Milk raps these lines: 

“And I did that, lived by a code, live for tomorrow/
Walk down the streets where empty hollows stray, sidewalks where broken bottles lay/
I did that, went from boom-bap in the day, go rap round the neck/
Double track and the deck, lay it back on cassette …”

I asked Black Milk to describe how his production approach differed from MCs working on similar themes in the 1990s (Mobb Deep, perhaps, or Nas); hip-hop musicians trying to use the rough material of their lives and transform it into art. 

‘It’s interesting to look back to where hip-hop production started and look at what it has evolved to now, 2015. I’ve been making beats since the late 90s, 98/99, so naturally coming up in that time my beats sounded like that time: boom-bap, drum-break and sample.

'Since then hip-hop has evolved a lot. Now you hear a lot more electronic sounds involved in production, you start hearing tempo slowdown, the 70 BPM, you start hearing more live instrumentation incorporated into the production versus the 90s, where it was just kick-snare and a sample.

‘Hip-hop production has evolved and I’ve been watching it also because my approach has evolved, my ideas have evolved and now I feel in 2015 and beyond there’s really no rules anymore, not just for hip-hop, but for music in general, especially if you’re an independent artist.

'There’s no set formula. There are still certain techniques, certain sounds and certain rhythms that affect the human body that you cannot deny, like four to the floor rhythm, or certain bass kicks. There are certain elements that still affect the human brain and when it hears it – that’s where I’m at as a producer: it’s the science of how people react to certain sounds and certain vibrations.’

Another key source for Black Milk’s experimental leanings and eclecticism as a producer is the city where he’s from; as NPR’s Frannie Kelley noticed it’s something that unites Black Milk with other hip-hop artists in the city, such as Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey – that is they’re not ‘shying away from the electronic, techno, traditional elements of Detroit.’ 

“Black Milk: ‘Yeah, you know growing up in Detroit that’s just part of what you do, cause that’s all you hear. That’s all we heard in the ‘90s, you know, what I’m saying and that’s interesting too. I’ve had a few conversations about – it was a show we had – I actually have a song on the new album called ‘Detroit’s New Dance Show’. Like looking back at it now as an adult, man, that’s kind of crazy that it was a show that had kids from the ghetto meeting up at this club, you know and dancing to all this crazy Euro electronic music, Kraftwerk, and all that stuff. At the time we didn’t know what it was, but looking back at it, man, it was kind of wild. ”
 
'Grey for Summer'

Q: ‘Could you sum up Detroit in three words …’

Black Milk: ‘Sum up the city in three words, that’s kind of crazy – let me think, ah ‘the beautiful ugly’ that’s what it is. That’s what Detroit is ‘the beautiful ugly’ it’s so much beauty within the greyness, there’s so much beauty within the dark side of Detroit, it’s so much beauty in the griminess and the grit. With all of the things that people might perceive Detroit to be quote unquote ‘a bad place’ there’s so much beauty that it made out of the struggle, it’s the landscape and the environment, the weather – all of those things play a part and make Detroit a beautiful, ugly city.

Q: ‘Grey for Summer, I’m wondering if that track sums up your feelings for Detroit …’

Black Milk: ‘It definitely does. Yeah, that song represents once again, like I said, finding the happiness, the good times, those bright moments within that quote unquote hell of an environment that’s what that song represents, not just my lyrics but also all the way to the beat, the way the beat sounds like it’s raining, the sound of the melody of the piano sounds kind of gloomy but it also sounds pretty and kind of beautiful. When I made that beat, when I heard that sample the first thing that came to mind, it sounds like Detroit … beautiful ugly, happy sad.

Q: ‘You refer to Al Green being in the background in that track, yeah?

Black Milk: Yeah, I do yeah’ (laughs)

 

By chance when first thinking about this writing about Black Milk, I came across parts of a documentary about Marvin Gaye on YouTube when he was living in a small-town in Belgium called Ostende in 1981.

In it, the supremely debonair soul singer is seen going for walks in the empty streets, boxing a punching-bag in a gym, recording an amazing version of ‘I want you’ with his band, while lounging about in a tracksuit and chatting with ruddy-faced locals drinking beer in the local bar.

One of them asks Gaye, ‘Where you from? Paraguay?’

‘I’m from America,’ Gaye replies (‘Paraguay,’ he says, shaking his head).

Earlier in the documentary, Marvin Gaye’s voice-over says, ‘I’m an orphan at the moment and Ostende is my orphanage. There are places where I’d probably rather be. But I probably need to be here.’

I went to Black Milk’s show with his group, The Nat Turner Live Band, in a satellite town outside Lyon on the 28th April; when travelling out of the city on the local bus, past villages (Town Hall, Baker, Café/Restaurant) and then housing projects, surrounded by empty fields, I have to admit I was not filled with feelings of great enthusiasm.

Unlike the super-controlled – or to use his word ‘micro-managed’ - sound on his record, Black Milk on stage with his live band is energetic, highly dynamic; encouraging the audience with calls out to get into the Detroit ‘up-tempo’ stuff and also channelling Marvin Gaye, citing a line or two from his ‘Inner City Blues (Makes me Want to Holler) from 1971.     

Q: Let’s talk about precursors, is Marvin Gaye an important artist for you in terms of your work?

Black Milk: ‘I mean, almost any soul artist from the 70s you name is probably an influence on my work. I feel like I listen to more oldies than to newer music, or current music or hip-hop even: so people from Marvin to Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and Prince later all of those guys are some of my bigger influences. I’m rooted in hip-hop, I try to be as great as I can in the style of music I do like those guys were incredible in what they did in their style of music.

Q: ‘When you think about Marvin Gaye is there any particular album you return to?

Black Milk: ‘Let me think, one of my favourite Marvin Gaye albums is not one of his albums that is really popular, it’s In our Lifetime (1981) it’s one of my favourite Marvin albums, it was one of his later albums; Marvin, for me, is the best singer of all time, hands-down. When he came along and the creativity he brought to singing and artistry and layering vocals, it makes everything expand how it’s done and still today, so Marvin is definitely one of my favourites.

‘Almost you could name any producer or band from that era, you know, most likely I’m going to be a fan of their work in some way or another – the musicians, their style of playing in the 60s and 70s influenced me not just for my studio recordings, but more for our live show, when we have a band. Me and my band, we listen to a lot of older music, we kind of learn from what those bands in the 60s and 70s did from their style of playing to their approach. We study those bands from back in the day, if a person comes out sees my live show they will notice that and experience it, it’s not just a hip-hop show. The level of musicianship is rooted to something deeper than hip-hop production scratching the surface of a band playing, it goes deeper than that.’

At the end of the interview, I pressed Black Milk to think of another hip-hop album that sounded similar to or in a like vein to ‘If there’s a hell below…’ He hesitated before suggesting Common’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ with a laugh - an album that came out in 1999 (even though the two albums sound nothing alike really). ‘That album was a real big influence on me also, other than that that’s the only album I can think of, especially in this day and age there are not too many rap artists that are making music that has a lot of different twists and turns.’ 

Black Milk: ‘When I go into these albums, I just do what I feel, it’s never really something that is super-strategic, or super-calculated, I just go  in into the album and let the music speak for itself and let the music guide me.

‘When I first started making music and producing a lot of my earlier stuff had a heavy Dilla, Slum Village influence on it but the more I grew, the older I got the more I learned I actually grew into my own sound and I feel like my last two albums really represent my own sound and what I do as an artist more than ever.

'I feel like my last two records sound like me, like I’ve finally found my voice. It feels good as an artist and a creator to have reached that moment, all that chipping away, you get to that one point in your brain, when you feel like, okay, this is what my music sounds like: this is me right here.’