Los Angeles

"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).      

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-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.