For our annual Year in Music issue, I asked local musicians, rappers, producers, and music writers to sound off on the year’s best songs, album releases, shows – pretty much anything they wanted, music-wise. For the next few days, I’ll be posting them up individually on the Noise blog. You can also check the full list here. – Ed. note.
Michael Krimper, Guardian The Endless Desire List
(in no particular order, or, out of order)
1. Les Sins/”Fetch”/12″ (Jiaolong) Run, fall, catch your desire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlkjFHk_9ms 2. The Soft Moon/”Want”/Zeros (Captured Tracks) Infinite want, can’t have it. O, ye of bad faith. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCJ_wVvo2yY 3. Frank Ocean/”Pyramids”/channel ORANGE (Def Jam) Pimping Cleopatra, whoring the pyramids. 4. Daphni aka Caribou/”Ye ye”/Jiaolong (Jiaolong) Affirmation on repeat. 5. Grimes/”Genesis”/Visions (4AD) Whatever, you know you like it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FH-q0I1fJY 6. Todd Terje/”Inspector Norse”/It’s the Arps (Olsen/Smalltown Supersound) Inspecting never felt so good. 7. Burial/”Kindred”/Kindred (Hyperdub) Kindred outcasts, jealously desiring their solitude. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJBx_sR9Arc 8.John Talabot/”Estiu”/Fin (Permanent Vacation) If a permanent vacation wasn’t hell, this might be its soundtrack. 9. Purity Ring/”Obedear”/Shrines (4AD) Nothing pure in this abject need. 10. Kendrick Lamar/”A.D.H.D.”/good kid m.A.A.d city (Interscope) Crack babies: she says, distracted, endless desire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjlFqgRbICY
Juan Atkins will perform songs from the Cybotron and Model 500 catalogues with a four-piece electronic group, including “Mad” Mike Banks of Underground Resistance, Mark Taylor, and Milton Baldwin, this Friday at No Way Back’s three-year anniversary party at Mezzanine.
When I first Googled “Model 500” the search results surprised me. I expected to find a clue as to why Juan Atkins named his mid-1980s solo music project after what sounded like a blueprint for a piece of consumer technology, like some sort of hyper-evolution of the Model T.
But the choices between a rotary telephone from the post-war period and a newly minted Smith & Wesson revolver, both model 500s in their own rights, left me wanting. When I ask Atkins whether there was any story behind the name, he suggests another way of reading it: “It was something I used to repudiate ethnic designation. It wasn’t named after any model or any particular piece of equipment.”
A more illuminating answer.
For it’s telling that one of the originators of Detroit techno — who first together with Rik Davis as Cybotron not only exploded what was expected of black American music, but also reinvented the possibilities for machine generated music — would substitute android names for human ones.
Already the word Cybotron contained the material trace of the cyborg, spun into rapid particle acceleration by the cyclotron. “Not that I was hiding my name,” Atkins clarifies. “When I first started making music in the ‘80s, the music industry was still really racially polarized. Even in America it still is that way to a certain degree. It was harder to cross over to certain genres, so I wanted to put more emphasis on the music as opposed to the person behind the music.”
Atkins put emphasis on the music in part by releasing it independently on his own imprints, Deep Space and later Metroplex, which is still operative nearly three decades later. But apart from the prejudices held by the industry, Atkins’ music reminds us that the production, distribution, and consumption of music is already caught up in an artificial network of mass production, even on independent labels.
At the very least, it’s contaminated in advance by the prosthetic apparatus that makes possible recording, listening, and performance. The name Model 500 then uncovers another achievement of techno as a genre: it refuses cheap illusions of authenticity by calling into question any pure separation between human creativity and technology, between feeling and artifice.
It’s strange that the sole contender against Cybotron’s “Alleys of the Mind” for the first techno single is A Number of Names’ “Sharevari.” Apparently they were both released only weeks apart in 1981, and no one has properly settled which came first. Once again, the human name, the proper name of the artist, is put under erasure for the benefit of the machine, this time a number: a number of names.
On the one side, we have the deep recesses of the mind mapped onto the neglected alleys of an otherwise manufactured and pre-programmed city. “Alleys” conjures images and feelings corresponding with a post-industrial wasteland, tempered in the shadow of Motown’s ghost and Detroit’s crumbling automobile industry, or as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner would come out only one year later, a devastating post-human condition in which all life is gradually but inevitably devoured. On the other side, we have charivari, a word associated with all sorts of discordant music, disarticulated syntax, and mutilated proper names.
Yet, Atkins finds a hint of autonomy in disembodied music, especially in the robotic voice, freed from the social constraints that would root the lyricist in a localized body, and thus delimit its possibilities in a determinate space and time. Working with drum machines and synth keyboards that were made newly available and affordable, Atkins freely allowed the new instruments to guide the course of his music.
“There was no real plan or formula. Even the choice of the words was predicated on how well you can work the software,” he explains. “I used some primitive software — not even a vocoder; it was electronic speech software used for the Commodore 64 computer. The actual delivery of the lyrics was limited by the software, and our vocal skills, to make it work properly; it was really more of a mistake that the lyrics sounded as robotic as they did.”
Chance encounters between human and machine produced unheard possibilities. In “Clear,” a mechanically fissured voice repeatedly calls for the destruction of old programs in order to make way for the new. But an ambivalence wavers throughout; when the electric speech “tomorrow is a brand new day” emerges over a tremendously explosive rhythm, they invoke an anxious threshold between terror and hope.
As a friend of mine, whose intimacy with “Clear” cannot be overstated, put it: I get the impression that tomorrow has gone dark. Ever hopeful, I still have the impression that this darkness bears the promise of a new dawn.
“There’s a whole ideology that goes hand in hand with techno music, or electronic music,” Atkins says. “My way of thinking is that the ideology comes out in the lyrics. They had to be just as profound as the music.” A recently recovered Cybotron song, “Dreammaker,” depicts at least one of the ideological dimensions of Atkins’ machine-generated music: a cosmic escape.
Over drum sequences snared in delay and worming synth lines, an intoxicated voice addresses the maker of dreams to let him take flight “to the stars.” His appeal repeats, whirls, intoxicates. Punctuating the narrative, sound effects of a spaceship taking liftoff to a distant star culminate the song, calling us to imagine an escape from the disappointments and frustration wrought by planet Earth. For only the workings and unworkings of the imagination are able to resist the pressures of our reality. Perhaps Atkins’ music then becomes the vehicle, an unreal piece of futuristic technology, for the flight of the imagination.
The interconnected thread of speed, flight, and escape is also weaved into the more muscular configuration of sound underwriting the signature of Model 500. In “Night Drive (thru Babylon),” the mechanized refrain of “time, space, transmat” buzzes over speeding sub-bass frequencies, as if the intensified acceleration of the song itself could dematerialize and transmutate our own bodies captured in the web of rhythm.
Kraftwerk’s mark is here unmistakable but calibrated to the propulsive swing of funk. The drums reach such overwhelming claustrophobia in “No UFOs” that it violently increases a growing desire for release. But where could we find this release? When listening, I gather the sense that these injunctions for flight don’t invite the decadent escapism that is so often associated with electronic dance music; rather, they subtly indicate the possibility of the unknown, a world foreign to our own, not yet in being.
Much of Cybotron and Model 500 fuels this desire for the unknown, nourishing a nearly forgotten hope, dim and repressed, for renewal, even for the collective transformation in which proper names would no longer evoke exclusion and carry the weight of injustice. “As long as the theme and the recurring thread is the new, or the future, then basically, the future is what you make it,” Atkins reminds us. “Synthesis means to make something from nothing—almost.” He paused, before qualifying the almost. “I would never put a formula onto what the future is.”
MUSIC Out of nowhere an isolated house groove surfaced from the ether of the Internet and touched an unexpected chord. It was called “Love Me Like This,” a throbbing re-edit of the early 1980s track of the same title from R&B group Real to Reel. Its author was an unknown British musician going by the name of Floating Points, a gerund whose aerial element reminded me at the time of another producer closer to home, Flying Lotus.
Apart from names, both applied jazz tendencies to their electronic compositions. And both were involved respectively in a loose constellation of musicians and producers, whose inspired theorizing on low end frequencies had just begun to crack apart the stale course taken by much of dance music, exploding it into countless directions.
This was the case in, at least, that nebulous sphere of grassroots creativity that many still lovingly call the underground — in which the alleged distinction between dance and head music (or, in industry parlance, between electronic dance music and intellectual dance music) just doesn’t make any sense. Is it head music dancing? Dance music getting head? How about this: dance music about dance music. That’s heady enough. And if you think I’m dancing around the issue, then I would be so lucky to have got my point across.
Putting my word games aside, Floating Points’s music hits a sweet spot. Something about “Love Me” suspends you in midair. Syncopated percussion lurches ahead, offset by a wandering snare. The song unravels joyously, arriving and departing from a series of peaks where the programmed drums and swirling vocal refrain come to be utterly overwhelmed by lush arpeggios, sweltering keys. Most of what we tend to place under the category of dance music operates precisely this formula in which claustrophobic discomfort builds and holds itself back until it’s finally spent in an expulsive release. Again and again. Floating Points, who is also called Sam Shepherd, often executes this to brilliant effect.
But something else can happen too, where the difference between claustrophobia and release is suspended. It’s as if, against all odds, you feel both restraint and letting go at the same time. And there you are, floating in the delay between them — in an extraordinarily ecstatic shuffle where the climactic drop that has become so essential to the huge financial success of EDM festival acts just doesn’t even count anymore. You’ve been taken instead somewhere else, outside of the drop’s comfort zone.
“Love Me Like This” appeared from nowhere more than three years ago, before anyone really knew the name Skrillex, before dub-step would begin to sell its signature wobble to the popular consumption of American cars and Brittney Spears’ songs. Then, Californian producers were in the midst of reinventing instrumental hip-hop, while others toyed with the boogie funk of Prince, as the sounds of UK club culture filtered into this experimental space.
I remember waiting impatiently for two specific aspects of these worlds to collide — waiting for someone to take what Dam-Funk was doing in Los Angeles with bounce driven soul and fissure it with the two-step drum patterns that made all the sub-genres splintering from and around dub-step sound so interesting. Floating Points answered my silent wish.
I exaggerate my prescience here, though, because Shepherd far exceeded whatever I could muster in anticipation. His first proper release was a seven-inch record that debuted Eglo Records, which he co-founded with Alexander Nut in London. The single’s two tracks stem from the disorienting free jazz belonging to another incessant breaker of rules, Sun Ra. “Radiality” warps Ra’s “Lanquidity” into a plosive shattering of synthetic rhythms and melodies. The way the groove lobs in time is a bit like the floating I mentioned earlier — there we are, languishing warmly in rhythm.
A couple EPs, a number of singles, remixes, and collaborations followed. On Vacuum, Shepherd shows that he can just as well make a no frills house groove. Subtle narrative arcs made up of punchy bass lines and sticky keys invite you to surrender willingly to the beat. Shadows is a bit more experimental. The extended compositions are fractured: bass lines disappear into quiet piano solos, chords dissolve into pulses spiraling in concentric circles around themselves. From these shallow swirls of sound arise huge swells of energy, only to dissipate once again.
Some of Shepherd’s most magnetic music, though, features fellow Eglo signee Fatima on vocals. She not only sings wonderfully with the Floating Points Ensemble, but has also done significant work of her own with Shepherd on production. What sticks with me most is last year’s Follow You EP, a subtle and lovely take on the intoxicating inner visions that music can conjure.
It turns out Floating Points is a classically trained musician, who only moonlights on analog drum machines and synthesizers. A great deal of his waking hours are otherwise devoted to pursuing a Ph.D in neuroscience. I assume that’s why it’s taken Shepherd this long to touch down in San Francisco for a live performance. And thanks to the curatorial teamwork between DJ Dials and Noise Pop’s Dawson Ludwig, he’ll join the eclectic bill for the upcoming Scene Unseen event.
Set among other headliners — including both the extravagant rapper, Riff Raff (who will be played by none other than James Franco in an upcoming film directed by Harmony Korine), and the showy Chicago duo, Flosstradamus — I’m not sure what to expect. Add to that set list two experimental beatsmiths from LA, Dibiase and Groundislava, as well as locals Ghost on Tape and the DJ crew KM / FM, among others, then you’ve pretty much run the risk of nullifying any categorical expectation. It’s really quite a gamble. Then again, that’s the liminal space in which Floating Points has thrived, and in which tomorrow’s music has always thrown its dice.
MUSIC Apocalypse doesn’t exactly identify what Brooklyn-born producer and rapper El-P conjures in his music. Sure, furtive sirens blare out almost immediately in his new record Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum). Synthetic melodies disfigure themselves while break beats rumble with the intensity of the Bomb Squad, all drowned out through a wash of distorted noise. The lyrics are just as unsettling too: an overpowering technological violence brought to bear on soft human bodies, whose voices are fractured, rendered nearly schizophrenic.
El-P’s satire has here become more cutting, discordant — refining the unrest signature to his former group Company Flow, a host of solo and production credits, and his recently disbanded indie label Definitive Jux. But apocalyptic? Just another blockbuster word that conceals far more than it reveals.
“I’m not writing about an insane apocalyptic world,” says El-P, whose official documents give him the name Jaime Meline. “This is reality. I’m not writing sci-fi; I’m writing about Brooklyn. Yes, there’s an obvious sense of dread in my records. There’s a part of me that is fucking terrified of the world right now, and has been for a long time, and maybe always will be.”
From this fear, even an overwhelming paranoia, El-P gathers fuel for both incendiary attacks and self-abjection. So if there’s any rubble left by an apocalyptic catastrophe in his music, its value is that in showing us our world reduced to ash, it also gives us a chance to see what it is that we’re running from.
El-P’s protest finds a kindred spirit in William S. Burroughs, who introduces “Request Denied” amidst a haze of electric signals: “Prisoners of the earth, come out — Storm the studio,” he roars. Translating this incitement as a call to arms, El-P unleashes an onslaught of modulated rhythms and rapid-fire wordplay that jars you out of your sleeping flesh. “I want these records to be a blast of truth,” he says. “When you’re dealing with music and dealing with what’s real, screaming and crying and kicking and punching has something of the truth — in its reaction.”
Another way of putting it is that El-P’s music is not a diagnosis but a symptom. Rather than devising some sort of sonic therapy that would allegedly purify us of the systematic disease, he sets out to immerse himself as fully and desperately as possible into its cancerous cells in order to explode them from within. Words themselves come to suffer in this exaggerated space.
In “Drones Over Brooklyn,” El-P growls, “I’m a holy fuck what did he just utter marksman/Orphan, a whore born war torn, life for the harvest.” And in the concluding elegy, “$4 Vic” he navigates the threshold of a language stretched to its limits: “That Paincave Kid talk, at the end of the painbow/ The permanent stain bop/Maligning my name will holy ark up your squad’s face/ Viewers of the divine rage learn to worship the hard way/You get it? I don’t fade, just float where the poem slays.”
For El-P, the poem also struggles to survive, fighting against a syntax that embodies societal pressures of normalization, and an absolute pain on the horizon that ultimately spells death. He calls this jokingly the paincave: “the most horrible psychological place that you could possibly inhabit.” The word stems from the comedic yet admittedly still horrifying experience of when smoking excessively turns on you — when getting too high brings about a fall into madness.
But it’s within this naked fall that El-P finds an unexpected promise, even a chance for renewal. “I’m operating from a point of confusion and despair, but I don’t see it as pessimism. Maybe there’s an optimism to admit it: to stop running, to work through your own fear,” he says. “I want to make music that is the signifier of fighting to live, fighting for sanity, recognizing that it ain’t what it should be. So I’m going to scream. I’m going to run into the middle of the street, and take my clothes off, and scream.”
With Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Despot
MUSIC Even the strangest sounds tend to lose their unfamiliar aura after a few listens. But no matter how many times I spin ESG’s “UFO,” I find myself utterly incapable of identifying that synthetic warbling that meanders through the minimal groove. Is it water gurgling in old gas pipes, a whirling police siren, the ferocious grumbling of a subway train? Or something more disturbing: Clanging echoes of gunfire, successive bursts of city noise filtered through apartment hallways?
It’s as if the song prompts a flux of associations that never find a place to rest. But as much as the song prompts a heavy dose of uneasiness, it works a curative spell on the body. That mysterious noise, whose relentless growth heightens the pulse of the rhythm, ultimately triggers an urge to break out in rhythm, and to put it quite simply: dance.
“Coming up in the South Bronx, in the 1970s, we watched Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” says lead vocalist and writer, Renee Scroggins, who together with her sisters — Valerie on drums, Deborah on bass guitar, and Marie on congas — originally composed ESG with a couple friends. “At the end of Close Encounters, they have that do do do do in the background when they communicate with the aliens,” she continues. “So I was sitting at home one day, and I thought: What would it be like if a UFO just landed in the middle of the projects? And that’s how I wrote the song. It begins with chaos and craziness, because I know what would happen,” she laughs.
Over 30 years have passed since ESG (Emerald, Sapphire and Gold) pressed “UFO” to wax on its debut seven-inch for Factory Records in 1981. Today, the unlikely story of the vinyl’s origins seems to be the stuff of lore. While still teenagers, the Scroggins sisters had been performing in New York’s downtown scene for a couple of years. “We were opening for A Certain Ratio at a club called Hurrah in New York when Tony Wilson [of Factory Records] heard us,” Renee recalls, “and he said, ‘how would you like to make a record?‘ I was like, yeah sure, because I didn’t think he was serious. But this was on a Wednesday night, and by Saturday, we were in the studio recording with Martin Hannett.”
Hannett, Factory’s eccentric in-house producer who is likely best known for his work on Joy Division, lent his uncanny touch to ESG’s sound. Bookmarked by the diss song “You’re No Good” and the other end of the love spectrum, “Moody,” with its emotional highs and lows, the EP consists in a stripped down polypercussive funk that would mark ESG’s style for the rest of its output: loosely structured drum patterns weave around pockets of emptiness and stark bass lines, letting Renee’s vocals flutter and hypnotize. It caught the attention of Ed Bahlman at NY’s 99 Records, who was already unofficially managing the outfit but hadn’t realized its full potential in the studio. The Scroggins followed with another EP and recorded their debut full-length for 99, Come Away with ESG, at Radio City Music Hall in ’83.
Come Away solidified its magnetic role during a fertile period of New York’s musical history, in which at least three strands of musical forms encountered each other to unexpected effect. The angular edge of post-punk deconstructed the blues guitar, no wave bands challenged rock purism by stressing the danceable groove, and block parties exploded in the South Bronx, establishing the conditions for what would eventually come to be known as hip-hop. ESG — which shared the stage with the Clash, Gang of Four, and Grandmaster Flash, and performed at Paradise Garage, Danceteria and the Mudd Club — was at the threshold of all this momentum.
What might single ESG out from its peers, though, is its rooted lineage in soul. “James Brown is definitely one of the biggest influences on my writing style,” says Renee. “He would always take it to the bridge, and cut loose, and I’d be like — ‘I didn’t want that part to ever end!’ But, I thought, if I could write a song, and just keep that bridge part going, then people could dance all night.” It’s not all that surprising that ESG’s talent for elaborating, intensifying, and prolonging the aesthetics of the bridge, in frenetic jams off its debut like “Dance,” “The Beat,” and “Christelle,” would correspond with the birth of the DJ, who would attempt a similar effect by looping breaks found in dusty bins of soul, funk, and rock. Soon enough, “UFO” became one of those sampled records.
Listening to “UFO” is all the more disorienting because of the overwhelming dispersion of offspring it calls to mind. That synthetic siren has been sped up, modulated, faded behind layers of reverb, or even spliced in its pure form onto a new backbeat. There are too many to name: Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullshit,” and countless more from J Dilla, Beastie Boys, Q-Bert, among hundreds, if not thousands of others. You’d think that such an influential legacy would neutralize “UFO,” finally render it to that sterile status of the familiar, but the effect is much the opposite, as if its staggered mutations have only increased the alien, yet maddeningly ecstatic element, within the song.
ESG returned to the recording studio in the 2000s, introducing both Renee’s daughter as well as Valerie’s to the family venture. It dropped two albums of solid new material for Soul Jazz, which also released compilations of its classic singles and rarities. But after more than 30 years of performing and making raw grooves as well as some pop oriented songs in the mix, ESG plans to self-release its final record, Closure, this month (esgclosure.com), to coincide with a farewell world tour. So this might just be the last time its unidentified funk touches down live in San Francisco.
Presented by No Way Back, With DJ sets from Solar, Conor, and Junior
NOISE POP It’s been a few months since I’ve seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, and while many have dedicated countless hours selflessly contributing to the Ryan Gosling meme, which continues to grow and mutate like an uncontained bacterial infection, I’m still utterly and helplessly seduced by the score.
Allow me to draw a rash conclusion in the limited space allotted: Few films have coalesced around a form of sound as succinctly as Drive. On the one hand, the melancholy synth-pop music magnetizes the sense of nostalgia that saturates the film in a mythically neon Los Angeles of the 1980s, or the sprawl imagined in ’50s noir. On the other hand, the score motivates the emotional awakening of a lonely Gosling stricken by an unfolding love for his neighbor of angelic innocence.
What emerges from this tension between loss and erotics parallels none other than Vangelis’ extraordinary dystopian soundtrack for Bladerunner (1982). Through some kind of alchemical dissimulation, currents of machine generated sonic particles make visceral a disturbance within the dream distributed by Hollywood — a disturbance that nevertheless satisfies waves of desire as much as it unsettles.
Although Drive‘s score owes much to Cliff Martinez’s stark drum programming and warm synthetic melodies, some of the most arresting moments are due to Desire’s “Under Your Spell” and the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock.” Both songs belong to the musical vision of Johnny Jewel, a tireless producer also behind the Portland group of night stalkers, Glass Candy, and in general, much of the output from the Euro disco revivalist imprint, Italians Do It Better.
If you’re like me, and fiended for more Jewel after stumbling out of the theater under the spell, then you might have come across a few online interviews regarding his own mysteriously scrapped soundtrack for the film, encrypted with announcements for an unspecified future release date.
Then, just at the end of last year, 37 songs comprising nearly two hours of cinematic music quietly appeared like a gift from the void, under the appropriately vague title Symmetry / Themes for an Imaginary Film. The official statement in the press blurb insists, however, that this is not the allegedly trashed Drive score. Instead, it consists of a series of abstract experiments culled over the past three years from Jewel and partner Nat Walker on tone, mood, and structure, stripped of the lyrical motifs and pop formulas that tend to mark their signature work.
I have to admit I’m not entirely convinced by this back-story, but for all listening purposes, it doesn’t much matter. Symmetry draws on the same affective narrative underpinning Drive: As soon as a sense of artificial enclosure reaches the limit of relentless claustrophobia, a rupture slowly deflates from within, without any grand arrival or explosion. And while we may feel the euphoria of its release, the anticipation of an event ever more devastating to come, still crawls wonderfully under our flesh. *
MUSIC Africa Hitech makes intoxicating music. Programmed polyrhythms snake over punchy bass lines. Synthetic chord progressions crescendo and fall, disrupted by surges of 808 kicks, constellations of snares, outbursts of electric energy.
All the while, an offbeat rhythm assaults the interweaving drum patterns, unsettling any steady flow that might have taken shape. This tension pulls the music forward, destining outwards, while the bass anchors the body, whether on the dance floor or just mesmerized inwardly, a head in the groove.
The sound builds in momentum, in suspense, but with subtle patience, producing a great gathering of intensity — which if you happen to hear on the right sound system — exceeds its limit, and disorients, overwhelms, destructs, rejuvenates. It’s the Dionysian rave rewired for our times.
“We grew up in that whole bass line culture in the UK with dub, reggae, soul, and everything that’s come about after it and around it,” says Steve Spacek, who together with Mark Pritchard makes the duo Africa Hitech. “We try to tap into that amazing feeling of the frequency in the club when everyone’s getting down together on one vibe, one of the best feelings imaginable.”
Seasoned producers-vocalists Spacek and Pritchard have pursued this utopian vision of sound in their latest project. In the past couple years, Africa Hitech has released three EPs, including this month’s Do U Really Wanna Fight on Warp, and dropped a brilliant record earlier this spring, 93 Million Miles. The songs navigate two topological poles: the cosmic and the streets. While “The Sound of Tomorrow” and “Light the Way” evoke otherworldliness, the ecstatic openness of galactic space channeled by the likes of George Clinton’s Mothership and Sun Ra’s Arkestra, “Blen” and “Gangslap” gurgle in the enclosed terrain of frenetic polypercussion and dread inducing low end. Their vocals wreak both havoc and bliss on language: soulful croons give away to disembodied vocoder chants; or, Spacek unleashes a growling patois, and sample cuts dissipate in mutilated mantras, reconfigured on a stuttering trigger pad: “Out/ Out/ Out/ Out in the streets/ Out in the streets/ They call it murrderrrrr.”
“We’re trying to preserve the Jamaican sound system in the music we make,” says Spacek. “There’s all these so-called different genres, but we just see them as all just one family. In the end they’re just different tempos and sensibilities of the same rhythm.”
That rhythm, the swing, carries traces of its past. Its body has been dispersed across the Atlantic: marked by violence, labor, hybridization, creative upheavals and reversals, restless paths of migration and commerce, moments of resistance and dreams of redemption. In these diasporic unfoldings, the swing has evolved, adapted, mutated. Those struck by the rhythm have both reinvented its prosthetic origins and conjured alternative prophecies, sometimes in folkloric traditions, sometimes in the margins, on the limits of popular music or in the neglected underbellies of familiar acoustic space. Recall the recent ancestry. Mystic purveyors of dub armed the bass line in a highly weaponized electronic form; techno rebels programmed the soul of the machine with analog drum machines, keyboards, and sequencers; hip-hop and jungle collagists digitized the beat through cut and paste sample techniques, effect, and manipulation. Today, footwork, dubstep, funky, and all their kin tap into the same alchemy, spread spontaneously through the planetary dissolution wrought by cyberspace. Africa Hitech picks up here.
For Spacek and Pritchard, sonic oscillations between the cosmic and street, inner and outer, traces of the past and hyper-tech future, collapse in the simple and pure feeling of the intoxicating bass line. “We’re not trying to make music that’s deep and meaningful. We’re trying to make music that feels good … the kind of feeling that you can’t escape, and you don’t want to, you get lost in it,” says Spacek, the words now rushing out. “The bass becomes so immense that it’s literally rattling your ribcage. Some call it spiritual. It resonates. It makes sense, intuitively. But there’s some kind of emotion in there that we don’t quite understand. To some degree, we don’t want to understand it, maybe we can’t. We just want to feel it.”
MUSIC “The reason why my rhythms are so repetitive and feel almost infinite is that, in a way, I fear closure. In the same way that I can never finish a book, I have trouble ending my songs. I have trouble ending anything. I can’t even finish a meal,” Luis Vasquez, frontrunner of the Soft Moon, tells me. (The group plays Mon/31 at the Independent.)
Thinking about beginnings is equally problematic. The Soft Moon is a music project built on unsettled grounds. It’s magnetized between the poles of late 1970s and early ’80s post-punk, the motorik beats of techno and Krautrock, and organic forms of Afro-Cuban poly-percussion, but all equally disrupted from their roots, on a search for some other destination.
The anxiety about endings is strange, on the surface at least, because Vasquez — singer, songwriter, multi instrumentalist — has accomplished more than your average procrastinator. Since last year’s self-titled debut on Captured Tracks, a desolate and rapturous composition, the Soft Moon has steadily seduced a devoted listenership. Vasquez, along with fellow Bay Area-based musicians Justin Anastasi on bass and Damon Way on drum machines and synthesizers, just performed a few shows on the East Coast after returning from tour in Europe earlier in the summer. The band is also working on material for a second full-length and preparing for the release of a new EP, Total Decay, coinciding with a launch party on Halloween in San Francisco.
Songs by the Soft Moon often begin in full throttle, as if they’ve already begun. They move forward carried by the sheer propulsive gravity of their engineered drum patterns — driving their gutted vehicles according to shapes and zigzags, towards endings that dissolve, break in static, submerge into chaos, or collapse abruptly as if the frequency on the radio has just changed or connection suddenly lost. Despite whatever glimmer of hope or flicker of light is carved out by the oscillating guitar strums and the burning synthetic melodies, the songs never find their way out of claustrophobia.
They have geometrical names: “Circles,” “Parallels,” or frightening ones: “Tiny Spiders,” “Dead Love.” They conjure moods of loss: forgotten memories, clouded nostalgia, a future that never came to pass, harrowing desire, and love. Vasquez doesn’t sing so much as chant in a corrosive whisper, “You can’t pull yourself out of the fire,” or he screams, yells, moans, gurgles from the depths — his voice degenerates into a mechanical short-circuit, primal electric emotion. “I don’t know what it is about endings,” he says. “Maybe I want to hold onto the moment. Sometimes I take a snapshot of it as if it’s still there. Maybe it’s simply my fear of death.”
The substance of the Soft Moon is raw, cutting. Yet the music feels good, even approaches heights of euphoria. Streams of pleasure charge the rawness; optimism suspends fear. It’s delivered in pop formulas, forged from hours, years of digesting Prince, Madonna, Joy Division, Kraftwerk. But the Soft Moon also turns pop upside down. Hope is never realized. Familiar intensities of pleasure and desire are disturbed. The music spurs an emotional awakening in your guts, in the ghost of the machine that beats its mechanical rhythms on and on. A haunted undercurrent of pop washes up on the shore — like all promised lands, a tragic place.
Vasquez thinks the Soft Moon evokes his childhood growing up in Victorville, a suburban desert community nestled in the heart of the Inland Empire just outside of Los Angeles. He recalls empty space, tract houses, malls, skies that went on forever, blinding flashes of sunlight, and a soft moon hanging low in the horizon. He remembers riding in the car for endless stretches, the rhythms of commuting, “isolated in music as if it was a sanctuary.”
I ask, so how do you ever finish a song, at least in the sense of putting it out there? “I just abandon them,” Vasquez says. Why bother making them? “I get attached to songs and put a lot of effort into making them. Occasionally they become revelations for me.” How do you recuperate your abandoned revelations when you perform, repeating all over again what you could never finish in the first place? “When I play live, it gets to a euphoric level, and it’s very cathartic, but I never get a sense of overcoming anything. Or the overcoming is really only my chance to express something to the crowd, to be vulnerable, finally.”
Perhaps the Soft Moon’s most revelatory song yet is “When It’s Over.” It’s something of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, anticipating the end, a bleak and empty one, and at the same time recovering the traces of a past, revealing the specters and ghosts that still inhabit the present. Recurring dreams serve as inspiration; “You know, the typical: alien invasions, planets colliding, comets, the sun exploding — very cosmic — the earth stopping, or falling,” he says. “It always has something to do with the galaxy. It’s always so devastating … I never could finish [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road either.”
The EP, Total Decay, follows these same themes of temporal and planetary displacement, or rather, diaspora. But the core engine, and enigma, of these songs is always one full of life, vital and imaginative. “I want to hold onto the organism, since technology is developing so fast that we have difficulty adapting.” Vasquez says. “Body, sensitivity, emotion, skin, flesh, blood — I think that’s why the nostalgia is so prevalent in the music.”
The Soft Moon holds on just as equally to the machine. The songs are produced organisms, synthesized from spirit and electronics; they are born, grow, mature, and wither away. In “Total Decay,” swirling alarms disperse, echo, derail into static breath. Synthetic wind gusts into the hypnotic poly-percussion of “Visions,” dancing frenetically around punctuated low end bass. Claps chatter and keys bubble up from the ether, and return to their source, without justification, just as suddenly. *
THE SOFT MOON
With Led Er Est, Chelsea Wolfe, Michael Stocke, and Josh Cheon
MUSIC I’ve never defended the idea of a “best of” record. Some anonymous curator is typically given the task of sifting out a musician’s hits from the misses, of establishing an artist’s definitive compilation once and for all. A fairly daunting project for judging something as fickle and varied as musical taste. So I have to admit I was skeptical when I picked up TheBest of Quantic album put out by the British imprint Tru Thoughts earlier this month.
Best of? Quantic, a.k.a. William Holland, is only 31-years-old. And the talented producer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist is hardly through with making music. Quantic has completed eleven records on Tru Thoughts in the span of a decade, ever since the label flipped his demo into The 5th Exotic, a fluid recording of instrumental grooves crafted from the percussive roots of hip-hop and the beat experiments of Brighton’s downtempo electronic scene. A track culled from that record, “Time is the Enemy,” launches the new retrospective into a geography of sound that Quantic has persistently navigated in unexpected ways — between the contemplative and the effusion of the dance floor.
Few musicians are as prodigious as Quantic, as methodical, as ready to throw away conventional formulas and risk leaping into the wandering spirit of rhythm. A couple years after his solid debut, Quantic abandoned strict sampling techniques in favor of forming a break driven funk group: the Quantic Soul Orchestra. Powerhouse songs like “Pushin’ On” and “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man,” respectively featuring vocalists Alice Russell and Spanky Wilson, stamps The Best Of with the frenetic pulse of deep-in-the-pocket soul.
With a crate digger’s fervor, Quantic traveled to Ethiopia and throughout the Caribbean, absorbing and researching and translating the diaspora of the polyrhthm. Four years ago, he relocated to Santiago de Cali, Colombia — a city built from second wave 1950s Art Deco and the more typical mass concrete structures of the ’60s — where the radio still broadcasts Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, and the boogaloo of 1968 saturates the air.
“I see Cali as a crossroads, almost like a test tube, or a gateway from the Pacific Coast [of Colombia] to Bogota,” Quantic tells me from his home, trucks rumbling in the background. “It’s a very creative place, although fairly unbeknown to the outside world.”
Once settled in Cali, Quantic reforged his orchestra into his Combo Bárbaro. In 2009, Quantic and his group released perhaps his most exhilarating album yet, Tradition in Transition, a testament to the vitality of percussive heritage on the fringes and yet in the subterranean core of the Americas.
“I wanted to really explore the side of music from Barranquilla and Panama City where you have bands playing soul, funk, salsa, cumbia, boogaloo … not necessarily one genre,” Quantic says. “What I appreciate in this music is that there’s tremendous diversity — culturally, ethnically, racially — and so many different rhythm experimentations.”
For his Combo Bárbaro, Quantic tried to synthesize precisely this kind of musical alchemy. He paired British drummer Malcolm Catto with frenetic Colombian percussionist Freddie Colorado; Peruvian pianist Alfredo Linares weaved the melodies, and folklore singer, Nidia Góngora, from the Afro-Colombian region of the Pacific Coast, wrote and delivered the lyrics. What comes out of these creative tensions is a brilliant and resonating song like “The Dreaming Mind,” which also features lush string arrangements from the often overlooked Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai.
After a few rotations, the best of record won me over. It’s more of a stitched together mapping of Quantic’s rhythmic wanderings — musically and physically — than a set of highlights towards a destination. “The traveling of my own life as a musician is intertwined with the music I make,” he says. “It’s like looking at the rings on the tree; there’s a pattern to it, but it just develops naturally without so much of a plan.”
Quantic hopes to redraw a bit of that map during his performance this Friday at SOM. Without his bárbaros on tour, he’ll spin some 45s to chart out influences, and then bring the studio on stage, mixing recorded sessions live while adding dubbing and keys.
MUSIC Tyler, the Creator makes schizophrenic music. At least four entangled voices riddle his latest effort on XL Recordings, Goblin, the follow-up to his self-produced, rapped, and designed debut, Bastard, which he released on Tumblr.com in late 2009. One of those voices is some sort of inner conscience or demon, a pitched down grumble of bass, that doubles as Tyler’s obsequious therapist. But it also takes on the roll of ethical advisor and spiritual consultant: Tyler, you’re right to feel that way; people do like you; you shouldn’t kill all your friends. Even Tyler’s conscience disintegrates into corroded delusions and anxiety. Meanwhile, Tyler, at 20 years old, is an uncompromising, violent, self-hating, offensive, sexually repressed, obnoxious, yet sometime charming and funny protagonist who growls and spews partially digested rhymes over off-syncopated drum programming and synthetic keyboard washes.
The therapist conscience is a foil for Tyler’s caustic self-reflection in Goblin. This dynamic allows for multiple layers of inner dialogue, which subside only when other members of Los Angeles’ Odd Future collective (short for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) give Tyler’s disturbed and heavily claustrophobic mental space some breathing room. Frank Ocean, the only member of the crew above the drinking age, waxes sincere R&B verses in “She,” bringing into contrast how Tyler’s unfulfilled desire for his lust interest degenerates into anger, voyeurism, and eventually, fantasies of possession. With Hodgy Beats, Tyler is hungriest on “Sandwitches.” Who the fuck invited ‘Mr. I Don’t Give a Fuck’/ Who cries about his daddy and a blog because his music sucks, he raps, before flipping the chorus of “Wolf Gang” into a call to arms for all who feel slighted by the establishment, any establishment.
In response to the rapid escalation of media attention circling Odd Future since last winter (which perhaps recently climaxed in a lengthy New Yorker article on the mysterious disappearance of member Earl Sweatshirt), Tyler negates excessively: the hip-hop blogs that gave him no love, kids with comfortable homes and families, music critics, moralists who accuse him of homophobia and misogyny. Tyler stands for defiance and offensiveness, rejection and swag, bastards and goblins, skateboards, skating apparel, and the simple joys of juvenile delinquency.
Another voice in Goblin is a rare appearance: some sort of helium-intoxicated creature. It slightly echoes Madlib’s incarnation of gratuitous violence in the Quasimoto character, culled straight from a Melvin Van Peebles’ film trailing a black man’s escape and redemption from the systematic violence brought to bear on his body in America’s inner city. But there’s not much of a redeeming light in Goblin. And the source of Tyler’s frustration and belligerent lashing out is all the more obscure. The record is thoroughly dystopian, despite its pretensions to comedy — a lonely soul trying to find its way in a desolate and often antagonistic world.
Tyler shares as much in spirit with the paranoid hallucinations of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” minus the lighthearted melody, as with Eminem’s confessional tirades. Moments of vulnerability seem to, if not justify the violent outrage, then at least make it bearable (and for a certain listener, endearing). The critique in Goblin, if there is any critique, might be one of taking the system more seriously than it takes itself. The record is neither ironic nor detached, but a head-on dive into the gluttony of indulgences that comprise popular culture and much of everyday life today, as well as the psychological pain and alienation that the system manufactures in its wayside.
Goblin is not much of a crossover album, either. There aren’t many hooks to hold onto since much of the schizoid discourse replaces formal pop structures. It’s a sprawling record, some songs inching toward 10 minutes. The most memorable hook is the anarchic anthem of “Radicals” in which “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” is yelled in a repetitive chant. It’s hackneyed and silly enough to make you cringe. But the chant makes more sense when Odd Future performs live (let me tell you, shit is wild), where a sea of teenagers, and those of teen spirit, tap into the sort of rebellious energy you thought had dispersed into the dust of musical archives. This seduction also comes through in the recording. The beat fumbles sickly and the distorted melodic slime falls away to empty pockets of sound where Tyler calls to the listener: “Odd future, wolf gang. We came together cause we had nobody else. Do you? You just might be one of us. Are you?”
Photographer/filmmaker Brian Cross charts a musical map of the African diaspora in the Americas — and opens new Summit Peek Gallery show tonight (6/2), “If It Fits in the Backpack: 10 Years on the Road with Mochilla”
Last year, Los Angeles-based production group Mochilla released Timeless,a trilogy film series documenting three concerts performed in L.A., early 2009. For these concerts, the photographer/filmmaker/DJ duo behind Mochilla, Brian Cross and Eric Coleman, shined light on three composers who have helped influence and shape hip-hop in different ways: the originator of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke; leftfield Brazilian arranger, Arthur Verocai; and a gutsy rendition of J Dilla’s beats crafted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson with 60-piece orchestra. The films paint intimate portraits of musical exchange and live performance while paying tribute to some of the overlooked giants of the sprawling African musical diaspora.
In many ways Timeless is a culmination of themes explored in Mochilla’s films from the past decade. Their first project, Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl (2001), and the follow-up live recording and DVD release in 2004, captured improvisational collaboration between L.A. hiphop producers and DJs, such as Madlib and J.Rocc, among others, with some of the powerhouse session drummers who inspired their sample-based work. Brasilintime: Batucada Com Discos(2007) also navigated the dynamic tension between an older generation of drummers, this time including legendary Brazilian percussionists, and the new school of analog producer/turntablists.
But not only did Mochilla depict creative partnership between these two forms of percussionists, they also translated the cut-up aesthetic of the DJ and rhythmic momentum of the drummer to the inner workings of the films themselves. A pastiche of words, music, and imagery composed of still shots and footage drive forward the fragmented stories, and striking moments of reconciliation, which unfold on screen.
More recently, Cross (known more familiarly as B+) set off to Columbia to document the Petronio Alvarez music festival as well as collaborative work between Will Holland (a.k.a. Quantic) and Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada, who could be credited with forging the rootsy, Afro-Columbian take on salsa. Mochilla also shot a good deal of the footage for Banksy’s street art disaster film from last year, Exit Through the Gift Shop, caught wayward rapper Jay Electronica at the Pyramids in Egypt and recording in South Africa, and documented Nas and Damian Marley on tour. To put it short, the dudes put in work.
“I look more for the off-handed moments that can be sustained as photos in themselves,” Cross tells me over the phone, while working in the dark room basement of his home in Los Angeles. He says that he’s excited to see how the large hand-printed photos will look in the upcoming Mochilla showcase at the new Peek Gallery in the Mission, this Thursday. “I’m trying to be iconic, but at the same time I don’t want to make publicity photos for record companies,” Cross says. “The videos, in a way, can be much more interesting because the fluidity allows for a certain kind of candidness.”
Cross, 44, has quite a history with such candidness in his work. Born in Limerick, Ireland, Cross moved to San Francisco’s Mission district in 1990 before attending CalArts in Southern California to study photography. While still completing his degree, Cross started writing what would become a landmark book on the emergence and socio-political implications of hiphop in L.A., It’s Not About a Salary: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles(Verso Books, 1993). He is responsible for a number of iconic album covers of underground hiphop acts, from Freestyle Fellowship to Ras Kass and Mos Def. And Cross also made headway with more than a few magazine photo spreads and music videos throughout the past couple decades, notably including an arresting multi-textured piece for DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World” off Entroducing….. (Mo’ Wax Records, 1996).
Looking over Cross’ ever-growing body of work, some primary themes consistently arise: Through the lens of hiphop, Cross orients a number of conversations, multi-generational interchanges, rhythmic confluences, and resistant divergences that weave through the diaspora of African musical traditions in the Americas. “There’s an anthropological side as well as an ethnomusicologist side to it—an attempt to make a map of the diaspora in terms of the music set by the present,” Cross explains. “The goal is ultimately to document in a way that is not strictly historical, but to let the past speak to now rather than the other way round.”
SFBGI find an interesting dynamic in your film work and the documented live performances. On the one hand, you’ll take hiphop producers and DJs and pair them with percussionists, so as to put the contemporary in tension with the recent past that informed those contemporaries. On the other hand, there’s another element of featuring the music of those composers themselves. In what way do you think the past speaks to the present, as you put it, in both those approaches?
Brian Cross The idea is that somehow you don’t want to frame it off. In other words, for Keepintime, we didn’t want to get Paul Humphrey or Earl Palmer involved in something and frame off the dialogue in terms of, ‘Ok Paul, we want you to play the classic break on “One Man Band (Plays all Alone),” and now we’re going to layer something on top of it and develop a routine.’ But that’s not what’s interesting about Paul Humphrey. Yeah, it’s amazing he did that, and that’s why we’re choosing to work with him. But Paul Humphrey is somebody living and breathing; he’s our past, but he’s also our present. We want to open up a space of dialogue that is open to this series of works but isn’t limited to it.
For the Brasilintime project, we could have gone to Brazil and found obscure musicians who made amazing recordings and complete the narrative in the way that normal Eurocentric or Western versions of the story go: We bring them to Carnegie Hall, we do a concert, venerate them, and show them that Carnegie Hall is in fact the best venue in the world and is the most important place to see music. Whoa whoa whoa, back it up, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to go to there and engage, and try to actually build a bridge to the music. Let’s not have this as a one-sided sentence that leads in a single direction. Generally, what we try to do is to de-center, to find ways in which we can open up, because, invariably, when you do these things, that’s when you make discoveries. Oh, Mamao and Wilson das Neves played on the Jose Mauro record, he died before the record came out, and then Dilla sampled it … that’s when you make these discoveries.
You know I don’t mind the Buena Vista Social Club  record. Ry Cooder is a great producer and a great musician, but the film is fucking awful. It’s so fucking wrongheaded. And that director, Wim Wenders, is smarter than that, man. We’re people of the left, he knows better than that. Of course, everybody got involved and was super happy that these guys were finally discovered, and we can fully appreciate how beautiful their music is and the contributions they’ve made. But then Carnegie Hall is put into the equation; we don’t need to reaffirm the same set of cultural values. We don’t need that. Maybe that’s kind of a trite example, but I’m interested in trying to forge ways to talk about music, or to explore possibilities of music, that don’t fall into the same set of traps that most writing and television and documentaries about music fall into.
SFBGYeah, there are standard methods for placing outsider music, or the marginal narratives of musical traditions and musicianship, into the mainstream narrative, one of validation internal to our own frameworks of understanding. As a photography and filmmaker, how do you approach a sense of the outsider, or the musician who is resistant, or peripheral to the grand narratives? What techniques do you take up in order to engage these musicians and traditions and make them visible for a broader audience?
BC Well, when it comes to Brazilian music, I’m pretty serious about my shit. I do my research thoroughly. I try to put my best foot into it. But other than that, it’s pure human relationships, man. For me, here’s my pet peeve: Too much of the stuff happening right now is done without real social engagement. It’s through the Internet, whether it’s digital digging, or people paying 800 dollars for an obscure record from Ethiopia or Angola, when you could buy a ticket to go there for the same amount. You should be going. That’s the responsibility. The responsibility is to go there, actually experience it, and see what works on the ground.
To go back to Ry Cooder, when he went to Cuba to make Buena Vista, that wasn’t the music people were listening to in Cuba. People were listening to Timba, and Timba is a completely different thing. I just think there’s a lot more to be gained from actually going to say, Baranquilla, and spending time there in the town—meeting people, buying records, meeting musicians—than there is from surfing the Internet and finding the latest hot cumbia re-groove from Argentina or whatever. If you’re serious about your shit you have to go there, engage on the ground, and see what makes sense. You like Wu-Tang? Go to Staten Island. Go for a walk around the projects. Go visit P.L.O. Liquors where all those songs came from. That’s the kind of compliment you need to be paying people. And there’s ways to do this that aren’t touristic. You can go and feel the vibe there. It might seem obvious, but it gets lost in these discussions.
SFBGDo you see that as your primary motivational force? That your projects are prefaced on this desire to travel, meet these musicians that inspire you where they live and make music; find out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and be a part of it?
BC Well, the two things are kind of contingent. It’s cyclical somehow. I’m there, experiencing, helping to build bridges as best as I can, and I’m also thinking about photographs because that’s what I do.
SFBG How do you think this approach fits back into your earlier photo work in Los Angeles and your book, ‘It’s Not about a Salary?’
BC It’s an extension of it, really. You know the book is a very primitive thing, if you actually sit there and read it from cover to cover, which I did for a project a couple years ago, and I was highly embarrassed (laughs). But there was no model. It’s not like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop [Picador, 2005] existed, and someone had put that work down. I was 26, I had been into hiphop since I was 17, and I gave it a stab. And, of course, I put myself into a cultural debate that I didn’t know much about, for my own peril.
Ostensibly, the work isn’t much different. In that book, yeah, it’s about hiphop in Los Angeles, but I also managed to talk to Roy Porter, The Watts Prophets, Kamau Daaoood, Horace Tapscott, and a whole slew of other people who didn’t straightforwardly have anything to do with hiphop in Los Angeles. But in another way, they had everything to do with it. What has always been interesting for me with hiphop is that it has this historical reach. That’s what I tried to bring into the book. There’s definitely things which I don’t agree with now, and suppositions that I made or thought what would happen which didn’t. But it was a critical moment, right before TheChronic [Death Row, 1992], which I think was really a world changer.
The amazing thing about the golden era of hiphop, as they call it now, that era up to ‘95 or ’96, is that it was incredibly inclusive music. There was Japanese Koto, all sorts of rhythms from the Caribbean, rock, jazz, funk, you name it. That sourced people into record stores in different ways. The categories didn’t make sense as they did previously. That’s the magnetic lure of it. Somehow, hiphop allowed this extraordinary ability to look at previously recorded things and make them work in the present. For me, that was a critical modernist moment, or as the prevailing discourse has it a post-modernist moment—the collage and montage.
SFBG That brings up another interesting point in your work in the idea that when listening to hiphop not only is the origin of the break or the sample concealed, but also the artist’s background is concealed. The identity of the artist is mystified. Would you say that your projects aim towards making visible the musician as a person rooted in an environment or social setting?
BC The two-sided sword of the invention of youth culture is that it posits a kind of energy and dynamism to what we call youth. The problem is that the way it’s commodified is made contingent on the exclusion of anything outside youthful values or youthful thinking. I don’t agree with that. And if you look at the music of the diaspora, it’s not there. These kind of generational fishers don’t exist in other traditions of music: not in Latin, not in African-oriented music, and in my understanding of European folk traditions, they’re not there either.
While I find aspects of youth admirable, it shouldn’t ever be considered an exclusive category. For instance, David Axelrod is in his late 70s, and he has as much to contribute, and as many interesting things to say now as he did when he was 30. The thing is we’ve consigned him off to a category as if he doesn’t exist. And that seems ridiculous to me. I mean James Gadson still has fire now as a drummer just as he did when he played with Bill Withers. Why would we decide that he no longer has importance? It’s not like people have stopped listening to Bill Withers. But that’s how our music culture works. We fetishize the appearance of youth, but we’re not entirely clear on the implications of that. So, I like the idea of putting the person in the room if I can. For inclusivity, it has to be that.
And we have to get past the old ways of thinking, too. When I was first doing this, it was all super secretive. No one was supposed to know what your samples were or where your drums came from, because that was your tool kit, and if everyone had the same tool kit, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore. But I don’t buy that. In the end, there’s a deluge of information out there, it’s what you do with it that’s important. Your understanding and ability to manipulate the history is what’s important.
SFBGEven when you put out ‘Keepintime,’ I imagine that people worried that you would unveil the alchemic creative process, otherwise covered up, behind a hiphop record.
BC It goes back even before that. Take the video I did for DJ Shadow’s “Midnight In A Perfect World.” It plots out a series of concerns that I’m still interested in. You know, Earl Palmer is in there, and the sample is from a David Axelrod record. And they didn’t clear the sample. Shadow was terrified that Earl was going to recognize the song. But Earl didn’t even remember David Axelrod the person, let alone the record (laughs). They weren’t hits! Earl wasn’t sitting around listening to Axelrod records. But if you’re going to be too scared to talk to him, we’ll never learn anything from the guy. And then he shows up, and we’re transported to a whole different world: New Orleans before World War II.
You could say rock n’ roll came from the soles of Earl Palmer’s shoes. He was a child vaudeville performer, a tap dancer, and he battled against Sammy Davis Junior, and a lot of cats from that era. But he was never the best dude, and he was always interested in drums, so he taught himself how to play drums. So, that shuffle beat, that swamp beat as they call it, which became the foundation of rock n’ roll drumming, came from a guy who’s a tap dancer in black vaudeville as a child, who figured out a way to transform his tap dancing onto a drum kit. Think of the multi-billion dollar industry that rock n’ roll has become, and we still don’t know these things. We have to sit down and talk to these guys to find out these stories.
If It Fits in the Backpack: 10 Years on the Road with Mochilla Opening photo exhibition w/ film screenings and Q&A With Brian Cross and Eric Coleman Thurs./02, 7p.m.-11p.m., free (thru 06/30) Peek Gallery (Summit SF) 780 Valencia Ave. @19th St., SF (415) 861-5330 www.thesummit-sf.com/peekgallery.html
Every lasting genre of music needs a mythical origin. And at the hurried pace that genres, subgenres, and microgenres now grow, evolve, dissolve, and regenerate in the flourishing system of online circulation, the myths, well, the myths have a digital life course too. There’s hardly a linear narrative to it. Threads pop up on Internet forums tracing connections, blogs distribute mixes and links and downloads, Twitter feeds relay information and disappear just as quickly; stories transpire and expire, even flesh to flesh conversation refers back to the digitized fold.
The emerging musical phenomenon of moombahton might be rooted in rumor more than myth — or maybe active myth, one still in the works, loose and unfolding. Here’s what I’ve recounted: about a year and a half ago, Washington D.C.-based DJ Dave Nada agreed to spin records at his younger cousin’s high school ditch party, midday, in some basement packed with countless speakers, somewhere near the woods.
Kids on the decks were spinning reggaeton, ready to pass the torch to Nada, who was getting nervous because he was the oldest dude in the basement and comfortable with house and techno, not Latin jams. So Nada had the idea of pitching down the grimier side of Dutch house to about 108 beats per minute, the pulsating groove of reggaeton. First a slowed-down Afrojack remix of Silvio Ecomo and Chuckie’s “Moombah,” the polypercussive patterns suspended in their ecstatic tracks. Then Sidney Samsom’s “Riverside,” the synth keys expanding into a coursing alarm, the bass opening bigger and harder. And it worked. Shit went off, the kids went crazy.
It made sense too. Reggaeton had already traveled through the musical circuits of the islands, then across the globe, informed the origins of Dutch house, and come back around to this high school party in the suburbs of D.C., adjusted to its original tropic pace. The party was broken up. Everyone dispersed into the streets, the woods, their computers. Moombahton was born.
Ever since, Moombahton has become something of a bubbling undercurrent in the dance edits scene. A torchbearer of the movement is Los Angeles-via-New York City producer DJ Sabo, who got word of the concept from local Bersa Discos founder Shawn Reynaldo. Sabo, known terrestrially as William Sabatini, found Nada’s Intro to Moombahton mix online and heard some of his cumbia edits in the cut, so he decided to connect with Nada. “He sent me all the moombahton edits he made, and I was instantly hooked,” says Sabo.
For Sabo’s first crack at moombahton, he crafted “La Gata Plastica” from Nada’s original stepper, fusing mutilated elements of Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” and Jaydee’s “Plastic Dreams.” “[Moombahton] returned me to some of my rave roots — it has a solid four-on-the-floor kick — but it also retains so much of the Latin flavor I had already been playing,” says Sabo. “The songs also had really big build-ups and breaks … but I never quite found that kind of drama in slower music.”
Music seized, arrested in rhythm. Usually the story is that a DJ increased the tempo of a track, played ESG’s hypnotic “UFO” as a 45, and discovered a new way to tune into the wavelength. Now another discovery, maybe like DJ Screw’s intoxicated realization: a somnambulant beat, the entrapped groove.
In the past few months, Sabo has worked with Nada to release three Moombahton Massive EPs for free download online off his Sol Selectas upstart. Featuring a number of global moombahton harbingers, the EPs prefer an organic percussive treatment to a frenetic rave framework. But what is striking is just how far the scope of moombahton stretches, temporally backward and forward, spatially around the far-reaching continents and points of intersection of the Black Atlantic. South African producer DJ Mujava has his viral hit “Township Funk” refixed. Benga and Coki’s dubstep classic “Night” is transfigured. Even Zapp’s “I Can Make You Dance” is flipped, layered, adulterated into polypercussive vocoder funk.
“It spread really fast on SoundCloud and inspired kids all over the world to start making their own versions,” says Sabo. “People like A-Mac in Canada, Munchi in Rotterdam, Smutlee in the U.K., Heartbreak in North Carolina, Melo in Arizona, and now more producers from Europe and Australia. These producers are taking what they know works from their regions and incorporating it into a moombahton sound.” Many, like L.A.’s Dillon Francis, are starting to supplement the edit game with originally produced tracks.
Moombahton has become a contagion. Its infection draws in disco and dancehall, hip-hop and breaks, big room house and cumbia, the internetworked rhythms of third world electronic experiments. The archive of recorded dance music is its playhouse. The global circulation of digital grooves its mode of exchange. The sonic pulse of the Afro-Latin diaspora, loosely rooted in reggaeton, its rotational axis. Moombahton thrives in border zones, between genres and locations, within regions of movement and passage.
A new Blow Your Head compilation tracing the short but sprawling history of moombahton — presented by Nada and dropping at the end of this month on Mad Decent — affirms one thing for sure: it’s spreading quickly.
Is the Bay Area’s experimental beat scene finally coming together? After a few years of lagging behind the explosion of beat conductor talent in Los Angeles, and suffering a steady exodus of potential down south, the Bay Area’s time for creating a forward leaning psychedelia — composed from the bass-infused backbone of instrumental hip-hop — might have arrived.
This week, San Francisco’s DJ veteran Mophono releases his debut full-length, Cut Form Crush, on his upstart CB Records. It’s a colossal experiment in deconstructed percussive patterns and warped synth keys, washed with distorted textures, panning effects, and field recordings. Since 2006, Mophono has hosted the weekly party Change the Beat, guided by only one principle: blow up the soundsystem with unlikely combinations of sounds.
Last week, Change the Beat resident and SF mainstay Salva also dropped his first full-length effort, Complex Housing (Friends of Friends), an excellent dance record that glides across an array of genres infatuated with the interplay of bass, groove, and melody: hip-hop, house, UK funky, Chicago juke, and ghetto-tech all get equal treatment.
Here’s the rub: Although Salva insists that the Bay is still home, especially through his SF-grounded imprint Frite Nite, which supports bubbling acts like Ana Sia and B.Bravo, he was practically unpacking boxes in his new L.A. crib when I spoke to him on the phone before writing this article. On the other hand, another L.A. force of sonic gravity, Low End Theory — Daddy Kev’s acclaimed weekly, which helped form the social fabric that pushed Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, and Daedalus, among many others, to international attention — has kicked off a monthly residence in San Francisco. Ultimately, both cities can benefit from creative exchange, so let’s just say that California’s got it going on.
Born Benji Illgen, Mophono has been rocking parties in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years as DJ Centipede. His early obsession with digging for records — one that’s amassed a vinyl vault of around 6,000 records — defied genre and era for a love of percussion in all its forms, including conspicuous absence. “I’m drawn to rhythm, both as a DJ and as this metronome-carrier-guy who maintains turntables,” Illgen tells me over the phone, as raucous noise and strange bangs reverberate in the background.
Cut Form Crush could be called a study of drums: percussive patterns unfold and disappear, giving rise to new formations set on their own uneasy path toward self-dissolution. While the drums, crunchy and multilayered, degenerate, a barrage of synth noise and warped textures dance frenetically around the pockets of space jarred open by the percussive momentum. This record alarms as much it disorients.
In many ways, Cut is the product of all the music Illgen has absorbed over the course of the past two decades. From closely following the development of hip-hop and U.K. electronic genres and digging into psychedelic rock, musique concrète, jazz-funk, Kosmische, and post-punk, Illgen became interested in the way imaginative music is made through improvisation. “Bands in the ’60s would get in these zones, really rhythmic areas, and they would tap into a minimal expression,” says Illgen. “I’m interested in those minimal, odd breakdowns, when these cats just jam out on some craziness.”
Rather than just sampling loops and bits from these sources, Illgen decided to reproduce the creative environments that shaped their genesis. “I’d get groups and musicians together in my little studio who aren’t necessarily band mates but are involved in the same sort of music community,” says Illgen. “Then we’d just vibe out. We’d create these recordings that later I’d access and reconfigure the sounds.”
One of the outcomes of this recording process is the dizzying song “Cut Form Crunch,” extracted from multiple sessions with Flying Lotus and later edited into a condensed can of musical psychosis. Thick-bodied synth keys vibrate over muddled bass thumps and compressed percussive claps as if dubstep’s basic components were thrown together into a washing machine, cycling in rotation. “Electric Kingdom” maneuvers through dubstep’s signature helicopter wobble, curdling an off-kilter rhythm with sequenced claps and blips. In “Cut Form Crush Groove,” Illgen reworks the early disco breaks that established the basic framework of hip-hop in circa-1980s South Bronx. A Vocoder-dissimulated MC channels the cosmic frequency of Afrika Bambaataa, calling us to respect the foundation. But even these more conventional drum patterns and familiar vocal refrains wisp away into static and gurgling fuzz.
What Illgen emphasizes in his recording technique is a preference for textural environment over the clarity and crispness often associated with quality. “I see experimentation as an open-minded direction to making music,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to find, but if I open my ears, I’ll find something. And I’ll let that dictate where the music goes.”
Paul Salva takes a similar improvisational approach to music production. “Without all the theory and formal training, I have to relish this time where I’m feeling out the instruments and learning what to do with them,” he says. “As amateurs, and coming from a place of ignorance, kids are doing amazing shit — by accident.”
Despite his Chicago upbringing, Salva initially gravitated to West Coast backpacker hip-hop and the East Coast stylings of the Diggin’ In The Crates (DITC) crew before taking an interest in his hometown-bred house and its ghetto-tech offspring. “Record store culture really helped solidify my eclecticism,” he says. “Through working at Gramaphone Records in Chicago and also in Miami, I got into IDM, drum ‘n’ bass, and whatever else caught my ears.” Recently, as genre allegiances have begun to dissolve among young musicians and listeners, Salva grew comfortable with the idea of consolidating his diverse tastes and producing a record on his own terms. Although Complex Housing takes influences from a flux of emerging ideas and sounds across the spectrum of today’s future bass and beat scene innovators, it finds an enduring coherence in being, very simply, a well-crafted dance record.
“Wake Ups” has Salva showing his chops on the synthesizer and the drum machine, layering lush boogie-funk chords over a skittering rhythmic grind. In “Keys Open Doors,” he anchors dirty disco arpeggios with poly-percussion pilfered from the odd-shuffle of UK funky and grime. In these songs, the gritty underside of club music — recalling its many places of origin and evolution in abandoned warehouses and neon-lit bars, juiced from electric outlets in public parks and now the outer zones of the Internet — emerges from layers of shimmering production. The record reaches toward its apex with “I’ll Be Your Friend,” a future-funk rendition of Robert Owens’ early ’90s house classic of the same title. Salva edits Owens’ longing hook into a repetitive chant, spliced around a minimal rhythmic knock and atmospheric washes of sound that delicately grow and just as softly decay.
What consistently stands out within the record is Salva’s ability for crafting effusive melodies over rolling bass lines. It’s an absolutely seductive combination that hinges on a resilient tension in the music: a mechanistic but unsteady beat underpins the expressive quality of the chord progressions. Salva owes this effect at least in part to his recording technique of combining live instrumentation on the keyboard with laptop robotics. “When I’m making music with live instruments, I have more of an open palette,” he says. “When I’m in the computer, in the sequencer — the options are nearly limitless — anything goes. And because of that, my creativity can be stifled if I don’t place restrictions on myself.”
Salva and Mophono both figure out surprising and compelling ways to tap into the elusive formula of creativity. In the end, the search for the future beat is more of a mad science than an exact one.
FIX UP PRESENTS: SALVA COMPLEX HOUSING RELEASE PARTY
A couple weeks ago I shot a long-winded email to former Bay Area DJ and producer Chief Boima. I had just finished speaking to Dun Dun of the Los Rakas crew for what eventually became this article, and he mentioned an upcoming EP with former Bay Area DJ and producer Boima. Now, if you don’t know about Boima, you need to get acquainted with the Banana Clipz digital funk on Ghetto Bassquake (for free download, too). It’s a joint instrumental album between Boima and Oro 11 of Bersa Discos that merges electronic architectonics with rhythms, melodies, and sound bits from the African diaspora. Enough of that, though — Boima withstood my long-windedness, and after a couple exchanges, he did all the explaining.
SFBGDun said that you do with instrumentals what Los Rakas does with lyrics. Do you see similarities in your respective styles? Your backgrounds and influences? Chief Boima Well, when I first came across Los Rakas I had just come back from Panama, and I was on this high from hearing all the big carnaval tunes and the mix of sounds that reflected my musical and cultural background, but in a Spanish-speaking world. I grew up on the stuff that a lot of Panamanians grew up on, zouk, dancehall, soca, etc. So I was at the SF Carnaval and I heard Panamanian reggae but with this Bay Area flavor to it. (Check my initial reaction here, and I had been posting stuff like this.) I identified with what they were doing immediately. Also, my father is from Sierra Leone, and I grew up with West African cultural influences, so I try to incorporate that musically into my electronic and hip-hop beats. I feel like Los Rakas do the same thing with Panama, and what Dun said is a great compliment.
SFBGDun also mentioned a future EP coming up. What’s your process working with Los Rakas? What are some of your thoughts on this upcoming EP? CB Well I linked up with Rico and Dun after not seeing them for maybe a year. I had given Rico some instrumentals and I never had gotten the chance to record on them. At that point I had a little studio set up in my spot in Oakland, so I invited them down to work on stuff. I think it was a real natural collaboration because we knocked out a lot of different stuff in like 6 months. They would come over and just freestyle or write. A lot of songs came out through different processes. Like one song they gave me an acapella and I constructed a beat around it. Other songs, I played them the beat and they’d just start writing to it, and we’d record. This would all happen after work and on weekends, so it was cool because the sessions were real compact but productive. I’m real excited about the EP. I think the material is strong and unique, so I can’t wait to see the reception.
SFBG“Tropical” or “tropical bass” seems to be the new term which has emerged to cover the range of new electronic music informed by both American and Afro-Latin styles of music, and their many convergences and hybrids. Do you see yourself as part of this tropical movement? Would you trace its form or define it differently? CB I get the name tropical bass, but I see it akin to a label like world music that’s just kind of vague. I think the styles that are included under the genre are diverse musically, but they share similarities in the production process that is informed by increased access to technology and information across the world. It’s also really related to urban environments, like hip-hop and house were in their beginning stages. So I see all this music as a kind of continuum of hip-hop and electronic music from Detroit and Chicago. I see myself as part of that production process, more than a musical genre. The genres I enjoy and work with are informed by their local environments and have names like hip-hop, dancehall, coupe decale, house, soca, and kuduro. They come out of specific regions, and their environments inform the music. A lot of the most popular rhythms are related to Africa and its diaspora, people who are generally scattered around the tropics. So that’s why people use tropical, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself or anyone else that way. It doesn’t really work anymore when you get [sounds like] Balani in Mali, or UK Funky, which are not tropical [in setting], but are still informed by the same aesthetics and production processes.
SFBGDo you try to digitize or transfer Afro-Latin/Caribbean folk sounds, genres, or ideas into electronic form? CB Yes, but I don’t explicitly set that as a goal. I add in all my influences, which are informed by growing up in the Midwest and spending time on the West Coast as much as “folk” music. I was into hip-hop and electronic music growing up, and my older relatives would get down to music that was recorded by live instruments. I love those older tunes, they make me nostalgic, and make me feel connected to my culture, so I wanted to bring the feelings that I have when I hear them to a contemporary club space.
SFBGOur sense of place is now more amorphous than it was maybe thirty years ago. The Internet has in many ways uprooted us, and with regards to music, given us access to all sorts of folk genres, sonic forms of indigenous culture, traditional sounds and instruments, beforehand only accessible perhaps by being there or coming into contact with someone who was indeed there. To what extent do you think the open source availability of the Internet influences the way you channel folk forms of music and older sonic traditions in your production? In what way does place or region (whether the Bay, Cuba, NY, or online places, even the temperate range of tropical) inform your music? CB I think the Internet has facilitated interactions and dialogue, but you can’t overlook things like increased immigration and traveling. A New York Times article recently said that New York is as diverse as it’s ever been. It claims that NY has more people born in other countries living there than ever before. The whole United States is changing. Europe is changing. The feedback loop to global centers of production in the “South” is super influential. International travel is becoming cheaper, so it’s easier to see the whole world. I think we’re going to reach an energy crisis in the near future where all that will be curbed a little, and the Internet will keep those interactions going, but we’re really living at the apex of an empire, just like the Romans, and the Ottomans, and the Greeks were super diverse civilizations informed by cultures from all over the world. So the Internet is just our current means of achieving those interactions. It takes the place of the role that sailors and desert caravans and conquerors had before. It’s just faster, and totalizing across the globe. I travel a lot, and I have a diverse cultural background with multiple influences. That puts me in a certain position of influence because of my experience, but someone who has never traveled can have the same influences because I post about it on the Internet. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a new thing. Cotton and sugar comes from India. Potatoes come from Peru. Coffee comes from Ethiopia. These are things that are fundamental to our cultural identity today, but we don’t necessarily think about them as coming from other places. I feel like these things seep into everyday life, and they become a part of wherever they end up whether NY, London, Rio, Kampala, etc. But when they get to those places I think they change. In other words, environment’s influence is fundamental and if you listen hard you can tell the difference.
MUSIC Last year was a big one for Los Rakas. The Oakland-by-way-of-Panama duo, Raka Rich and Raka Dun, have been hustling their frenetic Panabay stylings since they banded together as high school students in 2005. But on the cusp of their second mixtape, La Tanda Del Bus, the arresting diversity of their influences and musical ideas began to coalesce. The far reaches of the blogosphere and the streets took notice.
Los Rakas’ “Abrazame” — a song reworked from Gyptian’s crossover hit “Hold You” and remixed into sure shot form by Brooklyn producer Uproot Andy — overcrowded year-end lists as the pinnacle summer jam of 2010. In the video, parallel love stories unfold and collapse over the backdrop of San Francisco’s Carnaval Festival. Shuffling polyrhythms swarm underneath simple Casio chords as Raka Rich moves effortlessly from trading syrupy verses with guest songstress Faviola to bursts of rapid-fire lyricism.
Meanwhile, the video for Los Rakas’ “Soy Raka” — a youthful ode to turfin’ in the streets of Oakland — has surpassed 250,000 hits on YouTube. What other rap groups spit a chorus like “Tengo mi pistola y diente de oro” on the same playlist as a sweltering love ballad? The video not only helped spawn the syncopated dance movement in Panama, but also inspired kids to prefix their names with Raka — “you know, like Raka Miguel” — Dun tells me excitedly in a thick Spanish accent. “In Panama, ‘That’s raka’ or ‘We’re from raka’ means ‘that’s ghetto’ or ‘we’re from the ghetto.’ But it’s an empowering term. It means that we’re proud of who we are and where we come from.”
This sort of community-centered spirit has inspired Los Rakas since the beginning of its rhapsodic ventures. In 2006, Rich and Dun released their first Panabay Twist mixtape with the help and studio support of local outreach organizations Youth Uprising, BUMP (Bay Unity Music Project), and Youth Movement Records. Its single, “Mi Barrio,” in many ways a precursor to the anthemic “Soy Raka,” is driven by the standard hip-hop commandment to represent where you’re from. But the song also honors a more difficult and subtle hip-hop ideal: one love. Los Rakas might boast about Oakland and Panama stomping grounds, but the duo also calls out for us to be “orgulloso and put your flag in the air.” Which flag, exactly?
“Oakland influenced us,” says Dun, who moved to the Bay when he was 14. “It didn’t just shape our instrumentals and lyrical style, from Zion I to E-40—Oakland has the history of the Black Panthers and politicism, so we naturally put that content in our music too.”
Los Rakas sound a bit different from, say, any other Bay Area rapper, because Rich and Dun’s music is informed by the infectious rhythms and punctuated Spanish flows heard in Panama’s pop music of the day, plena. A sprawling folk genre that originated in the Caribbean and related regions of Central America, plena has recently been digitized for a new generation, becoming a Panamanian spin on reggaeton.
But the influences don’t stop there. “In Panama we listen to all types of music: reggae, dancehall, salsa, meringue,” says Dun. “When I met Rico, he was listening to Tupac and we traded music. Hip-hop caught my attention fast. I found out about Tribe [Called Quest], Lil Kim, Nas. I researched where it came from, and how it evolved, and just fell in love with it.” Although the connections aren’t obvious at first, hip-hop and plena have a lot in common. They’re both hybrid genres, forms of pastiche that draw from a wide range of sonic traditions and background, computerizing folk and funk for the bass-hungry children of the always-evolving soundsystem.
Unsurprisingly, Los Rakas garnered attention from an emerging scene of enthusiasts, producers, DJs, writers, and musicians concerned with the musical diaspora of the Afro-Caribbean, or more acutely, what British sociologist Paul Gilroy has called the Black Atlantic. The term denotes the webbed network of the African diaspora culture that is not so much organized by a clear conception of roots but by a rhizomatic set of exchanges and networks: migrations, ships, trade, Creole, European miscegenation, flights, origin myths, stories of repatriation, and now the most diffusive cross-cultural exchange device of them all, the Internet.
Keep in mind that 2010 was the year that Diplo and Switch’s over-the-top dancehall project, Major Lazer, took clubs by storm, and even Rihanna finally started reppin’ roots, rhythm, and wires with “Rude Boy” and multicolored neon booty shorts. Even if MIA’s third full-length was lackluster, something of her world-town swagger has penetrated our times, while her “Bird Flu” call to arms has circulated through our quickly multiplying musical economies. Check the formula: add world genre to rap and uptempo dancehall/Bmore/house/techno; reconfigure percussion patterns in a drum machine; loop melodic fragments of a regional instrument; add inner-city noise, gunshots, chants, or field recordings of aggressive animal life; manipulate with a swill of static, fuzz, and a heavy dose of low end. Bump loud. Call it third world democracy.
Los Rakas, without even asking for it, has popped up in countless mixes and blog posts loosely labeled under the category of tropical bass. Rich and Dun contributed the steady banger “Afro Latino” to the recent Banana Clipz EP, produced by tropical harbingers Chief Boima and Ora 11 of Bersa Discos, and released on their Ghetto Bassquake blog and upstart. Speaking of Bersa, it hosts the crazy monthly Tormenta Tropical, which spotlights new sounds of electro-cumbia and related frontiers arising from the Black Atlantic. “That movement, I’m not sure what to call it, embraced us,” says Dun. It only makes sense that Los Rakas — navigating Oakland and Panama, turfin’ and plena, hiphop and digital polyrhythms, the new and the old — has returned the favor.
MUSIC Andreya Triana is a singer-songwriter from Southeast London, and Tokimonsta (Jennifer Lee) is a post hip-hop producer from Los Angeles’ South Bay. Triana delivers soulful jazz vocals, forged from a personal and fragile source, and Tokimonsta crafts warm synthetic R&B beats with a driving low-end. Triana’s music is sincere and confessional, Tokimonsta’s amplified and playful. But both artists adeptly recast sensuality in today’s electronic music, which is all too often submerged in a limited emotional sphere between two hedonistic impulses: aggro and more aggro.
I first heard Triana’s voice on “Tea Leaf Dancers,” one of Flying Lotus’ most memorable forays into computer soul from the Reset EP (Warp, 2007). What is most striking is how effortlessly Triana is able to inflect her full-bodied vocals into the lustful synth and bubbling bassline, expertly intertwining the emotional resonance of her lyrical skill with the song’s fissured digital architecture. In the past few years, Triana has steadily cropped up on singles and remixes from some of the most innovative producers in the U.K., from Natural Self to Mount Kimbie. And just this last year, she teamed up with Bonobo (Simon Green), who featured her vocals and songwriting on his new record, Black Sands (Ninja Tune), and produced lush orchestration for her lovely full-length debut, Lost Where I Belong (Ninja Tune).
On Black Sands, Triana breathes life into “Eyesdown,” floating confident verses over an uneasy two-step breakbeat and dreamy ambient swirls. She gathers tremendous strength while staring into the pain of loss: “Hands up/ I got my eyes facing down/ Slowly while the tears fall down/ Slow down.”
For Lost Where I Belong, Bonobo delved into a more minimal take on production with machines and live instruments, hinging together spheres of downtempo jazz and folk in a unique body of pastoral sound. Soft chord progressions twirl among wistful guitar riffs and horn blasts of tranquil joy. On the title track Triana traces the struggle of finding home, and in “A Town Called Obsolete,” she looks inward to find comfort in face of the most demanding other: oneself. The looseness of the song structure lets Triana take control of the narrative and unfold her talent as a visceral songwriter while simultaneously exerting the full-fledged powers of her pipes.
Tokimonsta also has been making noise the last couple of years. She gained shine from Mary Anne Hobbs’ late BBC Radio 1 “Experimental” show as well as the extended family of L.A.’s now infamous Low End Theory weekly. She’s also the only female beatsmith officially on the roster of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder upstart. Tokimonsta’s style of sound can be sketched through a light study of her pseudonym: “toki” means bunny/rabbit in Korean while the “monsta” signifier has its own range of connotations on the cutesy side of evil. The name might bring to mind mutant anime toys, or for more adventurous-minded cartoon geeks, the prophetic rabbits haunting the lots of Watership Down.
You could say that Tokimonsta pulls from the psychedelic elements underpinning animation to infuse her music with a soulful, otherworldly quality. Her first EP from earlier this year, Cosmic Intoxication (Ramp), travels through the spacier realms of instrumental hip-hop. And her recent full-length, Midnight Menu (Art Union), begins where DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World” left off: in awe toward the abyss of the city’s night sky and fully enthralled with the prolonged indulgence and manipulation of emotion. Telephonic buzzes begin “Sa Mo Jung” just before a huge bassline kicks the engine toward a maximalist warp zone. The 8-bit haywire synth and rumbling sub-bass of “Chinese Smoothie” evoke the trailing luminescent tail of a dying comet. But some of the best Tokimonsta joints are remixes: an enchanting rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “If This World Were Mine” and a flip of Tweet’s “Call Me” into a glitched-out marvel of electric desire.
I first stumbled upon Onra’s music three years ago when I picked up Chinoiseries (Label Rouge), a sprawlinlg beat-tape in the line of J Dilla’s blueprint for the future of hip-hop, Donuts (Stones Throw, 2006). But unlike the late Dilla’s many lackluster imitators, Onra proves a worthy disciple.
Chinoiseries‘ crackling intro blends hip-hop quotables over boom bap percussion, closing out with Dilla’s signature rally call, “Let’s go!” But the transition into “The Anthem” is unexpected: a bass-heavy break anchors unfamiliar horn blasts and traditional Mandarin vocals, unsteady and fissured in odd rhythm. What follows are 30 head-nodding beats culled from late 1960s and early 1970s vinyl straight outta dusty Saigon crates — some Vietnamese, some Chinese in origin. The effort certainly takes cues from RZA’s eerie psychedelic architectonics for the Wu-Tang Clan, in which he transformed Staten Island street sagas into a Shaolin kung-fu epic, but Chinoiseries is more furtive and gargantuan, scattered and undigested.
Onra, or Arnaud Bernard according to his French government papers, isn’t your typical Parisian hip-hop producer (whatever that is). He was born in Germany to a Vietnamese father and French mother and moved to France at a young age. He spent summers in the Ivory Coast where his mother lived and listened to the Caribbean polyrhythms of Zouk. But what initially hooked Onra to the beat was early 1990s American hip-hop. “I never really liked music before hearing my first rap song,” Onra tells me over an extended e-mail correspondence. “I was like, ‘This is it, and anything else is garbage.’ I had this state of mind for a few years before opening to other genres.”
Travel permeated Onra’s early life, and hip-hop gave him a common language with other wayward teens searching for a sense of themselves. “Through hip-hop, it has always been easier to connect with people because we share the same passion. So we’re pretty much on the same wavelength — at least, we speak the same language,” he says.
What makes Onra stand out is a talent not only for exploring the semantics of hip-hop’s codified scriptures, but its heavily layered emotional fabric. The MPC sampler/sequencer is his weapon of choice for recontextualizing sonic histories and mythologies. I’d even go so far as to say that he usurps tools of hip-hop to ground a sense of place in today’s widespread diaspora, where traditional and modern, distant and far, the animate and artificial grind against each other in sometimes uncomfortable, and unsalvageable, ways.
Earlier this summer Onra dropped his strongest effort, Long Distance (All City), which he considers his full-length debut. The record, a thoroughly futuristic approach to early 1980s boogie funk, helped propel the wave of recent revivalism for the genre heralded by Los Angeles’ Dam-Funk. Locally, the Sweater Funk crew has steadily unearthed overlooked boogie jams, playing original vinyl of low rider grooves and synthesized soul in the basement of Chinatown’s Li-Po Lounge every Sunday night. Somehow the cheese factor of these sounds has retained its original funky odor, and even rampant irony has given way to wholehearted appreciation for lustful forays into buoyant bass and lush melodies.
But Onra’s approach to the funk gathers inspiration from Notorious B.I.G.’s Mtume-based “Juicy” and Foxy Brown’s “Gotta Get You Home” more than the analog-minded heritage channeled by Dam-Funk. “There were so many songs in the ’90s that sampled ’80s funk and modern soul,” Onra says. “That’s the feeling I wanted to have on my album. I had to find a way of recreating their feeling, but with a fresher touch.” Long Distance manages that tension well, navigating nostalgia for Roland chord progressions and vintage drum machines with a finger on the pulse for the spacey beat-futurism cultivated by the likes of Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke.
The rolling bass lines of “Comet” and “Rock On” pick up where Parliament’s mothership landed 30 years ago — but the rusty funk machine scrapped together during the days of the cold war gets a bit of a facelift on Long Distance. The swerving slap bounce is reconfigured into a fragmented narrative of sensual ideas and indulgent desire outlined in chalk. On “High Hopes” and the title track, R&B crooners Reggie B and Olivier Daysoul wax seductive over woozy beats that sound like Dilla flipped the Prelude vaults.
Voices are distorted and guzzled through technological mediation: “Oper8tor” receives the vocoder-inflected Zapp treatment and “Girl” traces a love interest’s absent-minded confession over a fuzzy telephone voice message. Onra also ventures into uncharted intergalactic territory. “Wonderland” cruises on ecstatic altitudes higher than the intoxication of house, while “WheeOut,” featuring Buddy Sativa wilding out on synth chords, discovers the sticky underbelly of electro.
A general theme of travel, and the insatiable desires that emerge from such trips through space and time, saturates the warm sonic textures of Long Distance. Onra doesn’t care to divulge too much on the topic: “I have been traveling a lot these past few years,” he says. “This album has been inspired by my own personal experiences, by a few long distance relationships I had … I think it’s a very inspiring subject.”
I would dare trace the notion of distance back even farther, to the very impulse of Onra’s stylized hip-hop production. Whether seeking out some sense of imaginative rootedness across disparate traditions and backgrounds in Chinoiseries and other beat-tapes, or the heart of expressionistic eros in Long Distance, a sense of absence drives Onra’s work. But he doesn’t get lost in mournful nostalgia for a lost past and places already visited; some sort of dreamy future — a strange horizon where the erotic and robotic merge — seems to rise from the rubble. Desire might just find what it’s been looking for.
MUSIC I’m bugging out. The evening has somehow melted into the early hours of the purple morning. Civilization II has sucked me into an imperialist warp zone on the buzzing computer screen. Pizza boxes litter the room. I’ve just started high school in Los Angeles and discovered the psychedelic powers of a magical herb that grew in Ziploc bags. My little spatio-temporal world has shifted.
On the radio, J.Rocc mixes Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic” into Quasimoto’s “Come On Feet,” an otherworldly meditation on paranoia and the endlessly running human spirit. Come on feet/Cruise for me, wheezes a disembodied voice from Planet Helium. On the screen, my Egyptian chariots slaughter the Greeks. I don’t yet know that Madlib’s hypnotic sample for the Quas cut comes from the score of René Laloux’s 1973 animated film, Le Planete Sauvage — a story about tiny, heartfelt humanoids who wage a revolution against an oppressive, hyperrational alien species. The vocals trace back to 1971, when Melvin Van Peebles shattered sterile genre lines with his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in which a charismatic black male protagonist tries to escape from the forces of parasitic white authority. History reinvents itself. I feel dizzy. One of my chariots lost in battle; I click undo. J.Rocc blurts out: The World Famous Beat Junkiiiiieeees. Was everyone some sort of addict gone ballistic?
“The radio programs Friday Night Flavas and the Wake Up Show were influenced by KDAY,” Rhettmatic — one of the original members of the Junkies — tells me 10 years later, over the phone. “They were the ancestors of KDAY.” During the mid-1980s, Los Angeles youth (perhaps adults too), across the far reaches of the monstrous city, would climb their roofs and position radio antennas to catch the fuzzy frequency of 1580AM. It was the only dial on the West Coast championing hip-hop. The KDAY mixmasters, from Dr. Dre to Joe Cooley, would get down for extended traffic jam mixes, showing off their skills by scratching and blending poly-percussive electro jams with vintage soul and new school raps. A new generation of multilayered street style and consciousness was born.
By the late ’80s AM radio gave way to the stronger frequency modulation (FM), and the MC slowly pushed the DJ into the background. KDAY disappeared and N.W.A. introduced the world to a hyperbolic Compton. “When KDAY went off the air and the mixmasters disbanded, there was no all-star DJ crew,” says Rhettmatic. “J.Rocc wanted a crew of all-star cats, and we were all already friends, so that’s how it came about.” The year was 1992, and the World Famous Beat Junkies, not so famous yet, emerged from the backwaters of Orange County, the fairy tale hotbed of conservatism, known to most for Disneyland and surfing more so than the avant-garde.
For the next decade, the Junkies combined forces with Bay Area mix wizards, giving the group more members to push the craft of DJing over and beyond. They competed on the battle circuit and helped carve out the aesthetics of turntablism, the technical art of DJ battling. “We combined styles,” Rhettmatic says. “The East Coast’s X-Ecutioners had a funky style with beat juggles and body tricks. San Francisco, with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, was doing crazy fast scratches. We took both of them and created our own hybrid style.” The Junkies also pivoted the DJ back to the center of the hip-hop group: Rhettmatic DJed and produced head-nodding beats for the Visionaries, while Babu anchored Dilated Peoples. Sales of Ziploc bags skyrocketed. And the Junkies helped shape, in turn, a unique underground style of California hip-hop, where street smarts did windmills around a surreal tableau of cosmic imagery.
Every Californian obsessed with hip-hop of the age remembers when the three volumes of Beat Junkie mixes dropped in the late ’90s. Minds were blown. Heads got knocked. Boomboxes short-circuited. And so on. Each volume mirrors a radio show, influenced by KDAY programming as much as New York Mister Magic broadcasts and Red Alert tapes. “The mixes were done on analog cassette four-tracks,” Rhettmatic says. “They have that pop and hiss feel.” The radio program format glued together the off-the-cuff style of the underground to a decidedly patchwork narrative structure. Dirty drums carried spontaneous flows while blunted bass pushed intoxicating rhyme schemes. When the lyrics faded away, the beat would kill it.
The Junkies took on the role of hosts as much as curators — placing new artists like Slum Village and Jurassic 5 within the momentum of the tradition. All the while, they stamped the mixes with individuating styles, and reconfigured the tradition through a cipher approach to blending and scratching records, samples, vocals cuts, and loops. “We come from a generation where you have to be original and stand out,” Rhettmatic says. What emerged was frenetic and unbounded, both a testament to the creativity of the collage and the groundwork for the instrumental hip-hop, and its mutated progeny, popularized today.
The Junkies have since focused on numerous individual projects — from Rhettmatic’s duo record with Michigan-based MC Buff1 to J.Rocc’s much-anticipated solo debut on Stones Throw — which make the opportunity to see them collaborate together on six turntables and four mixers this Saturday at Mighty a truly rare one. “A lot of people know us as turntablists, but we are all around DJs,” Rhemttmatic says. “For us, DJs had to do everything.” You can call DJ love a habit. But I’ll leave it to Lord Zen from the Visionaries to close with a verse from “Blessings”: You can’t get this dope without a prescription/Over-the-counter versions fell prey to addiction.
MUSIC Dom Maker and Kai Campos met a few years ago at university in South London, where they bonded over the emerging wobble of what would become the biggest underground music of the decade: dubstep. Campos introduced Maker to some tracks he was producing on his computer, and in a year’s time they both started making music together. These were the early years, before the duo became Mount Kimbie and would advance dubstep beyond its typically rigid hopscotch game between ferocious bass and synth rattle. Mount Kimbie got down on simple software, played around with some loops, sang a bit, and ventured out of their bedrooms to suck the life of countryside and alleyway sounds into hungry recording devices.
“I started using the computer because it was the only way I could record my music on my own,” Maker tells me during an e-mail correspondence. “I tried numerous times to start a band, but nothing came about. I thought I would try it myself, and I was surprised that some of the material came out sounding so electronic.”
That desire for a band’s musicality transferred over to Mount Kimbie’s unique approach to make songs that reside on the fence — surely now a sad, rotting wooden fence — separating dance hits and pastoral folk. The duo passed a demo of original beats around and caught the attention of Paul Rose, a.k.a. Scuba, head of the independent British label Hotflush Recordings, who signed them even though they don’t produce the sort of face-melting dubstep that incites one-hand-in-the-air frenzies. You can absorb Maker and Campos’ sounds while swinging in a deserted beachside playground. I’d say that it’s music for trains and spaceships, grottos or mountaintops. But hey, that’s just me.
Last year Mount Kimbie dropped the EPs Maybes and Sketch on Glass, both on Hotflush, two stunning odysseys into the future of digital sound. Maker’ and Campos’ efforts have culminated with this summer’s excellent full-length debut, Crooks and Lovers (also on Hotflush), an electronic soundscape prone to the sort of expansive emotional wandering that you typically hear only in dusty blues records.
“As we have progressed as Mount Kimbie, both of us have become more interested in looking at [different] ways of recording and creating sound than just through the use of software synths,” Maker says. “The album is very sample-based, along with a lot of our own field recordings and recorded guitar and vocals.” This amalgamation of live and digital sound taps into electricity of a listener’s nerve endings. Finally, some of the nebulous forms of technological feeling whirling with me — cultivated by years of video game playing and Internet surfing and everyday 21st century living — are affirmed, even vindicated. I’m one step closer to naming them.
There’s something urgent about Crooks and Lovers: It navigates a nebulous emotional tension so present in this age as we use gadgetry to bridge our loneliness and exuberance. “Tunnelvision” opens the record with a foreboding ambient noise. As if to spirit us away to the other side of that warp hole, the humming bass empties into a floral guitar riff marked by layers of scrambled vocals and softly burping electronics.
“[“Tunnelvison” is] made up almost entirely of material that we field recorded in a wind tunnel in the small village that I live in by the sea in Brighton,” Maker says. “It is interesting to work with sounds that have more feeling of place.” This sort of topography of emotion carries over throughout Crooks and Lovers. In “Before I Move Off,” a collage of bleeping keys washes over heavy percussion and a dreamy string melody. The songs continually build in a repetitive momentum toward release. Tension expands, contracts, and lets go, rotating in a feverish order.
Some songs linger within introspection. Round synthesized cords and off-kilter drum patterns enclose “Ruby” and “Carbonated” into an abyss that feels more like a great open sky than a frighteningly deep hole in Guatemalan soil. These cuts are matched by outward expressions of joy: “Mayor,” maybe the only banger on the record, lets the sub-bass erupt in helicopter jolts of energy over whirling keys that burst in gasps of smoke. But dubstep’s integral wobble is toned down here, a softer and less obnoxious gyration of energy that fits into the song’s methodical momentum. And always the fissured vocal cuts emerge from the shadows, coded and manipulated and barely recognizable, but striking — a reflection of our own inchoate inner gurgles of sound-patterns unable to organize themselves into the right words or shapes to let us express what we feel.
None of Mount Kimbie’s singles on Crooks and Lovers stand out with the same level of warmth and power as say “William” or “Serged” on their previous EPs. But the record is cohesive, meant to rise and fall in a full listening experience. It’s the sort of record that connects with common personal experiences, and then stretches them outward. After listening to it a few times — and it is a record that has immense replay value — I understand a bit more where Mount Kimbie is coming from and how they fit into today’s electronic music landscape.
If Burial is the fettered graveyard of the dubstep alter-verse, then Mount Kimbie is the haunted hillside where spectral ghosts, fleshed robots, and strange wisps of ephemeral life make their retreat during an indigo dusk that could just as easily be dawn. There’s something utterly enchanting there. Field recordings of everyday noise and mechanical grind weave slinky shapes around digital drum patterns that limp and leap and do windmills around sampled chirps and spherical bleeps. It’s a soundtrack for dissolution: the rigid lines between human and computer, sentience and thingness, city and nature, all melt away into the gushing blood that pumps through the sewer arteries beneath Mount Kimbie.
If my rampant speculations offend, then let me add that the loose framework of their resonant topography is very open to interpretation. “Mount Kimbie is a fictional creation that is just made up from two different names, both are part of the track name of a song by another band,” says Maker and Campos. “It is quite nice to be under a name that has no meaning and suggests nothing. We are not fans of being blatant with meanings.” And so the sun sets over the old town of dubstep. What’s next?
With Dntel, Asura, Mary Ann Hobbes and DJG
Sat/25, 9 p.m., $10
Mount Kimbie with Dntel, Asura, Mary Ann Hobbes, and DJG
If you live in San Francisco and pay attention to public art, you might already be familiar with the work of longstanding Bay Area graffiti crew Inner City Phame (ICP). Their prolific murals – diverse in style and magnetic in form – grace walls across the city. There’s a tribute to Malcolm X on Third and Kirkwood in Bayview-Hunters Point, featuring intricately crafted aliases free floating among inspired quotes. On a vibrant wall on the corner of 19th and Mission, comic book characters from Ironman to Dr. Evil swing between stylized names forged in cracked stone. An Azteca-themed mural up the street on 25th has a jaguar warrior getting down with the gods. And ICP also curates the street level walls of the Defenestration building on 6th and Howard (that old tenement hotel with furniture flying out of the windows), making a dynamic open-air gallery out of abandoned space. Wait, who said graffiti wasn’t art?
“The first graffiti I saw when I was a kid growing up in the Mission was the Chicano writing on our walls,” says Twick, ICP veteran and original member of the group of close-knit friends, founded by Il Charo (then named Jes 446) back in 1988. “We called it Cholo writing, because that’s what it was. The walls decorated the names of the gang members of the neighborhood.” Surprisingly little of San Francisco’s Cholo writing has been documented, although street art researches have traced the origins of its Los Angeles cousin back to eastside barrios in the 1930s. What we do know is that today’s hip-hop tradition of graffiti didn’t take off in the Bay until ’83, a year that marked the momentous PBS broadcast of Henry Chalfant’s and Tony Silver’s Style Wars. After watching the stunning documentary about New York’s burgeoning youth culture, thousands of kids around the world racked some aerosol cans and took to the streets. A thirteen-year-old Twick, who had already tried to his hand at Cholo graffiti, was one of them.
“I fell in love with the art form right away and wanted to duplicate what the writers in New York were doing,” Twick recalls. Along the way Twick found a mentor in Antie 67, who introduced to him the values and elements of hip-hop culture – from the craft of lettering to break dancing and emceeing. It was an apprenticeship. Like many other kids, Twick felt pulled into an exciting and creative underground world, one that for the most part, kept him out of the real trouble. “I didn’t choose my destiny my destiny chose me,” he says.
Soon enough more and more crews popped up, a unique Bay Area style developed and an ever-evolving ICP made a name for itself on the walls across the city. “We dubbed the style we do Phunk,” Twick explains, “meaning, knowing the foundation of a letter and creating from that: stretching it here and there, adding connections – some arrows and a few bends in the right places with a shadow or a 3d.” Funkified calligraphy is readable, unlike widlstyle, which has helped ICP garner a large audience of appreciators and street notoriety.
In recent years San Francisco has taken an active role on trying to eliminate graffiti. City policies have enforced strict regulations on private property owners to buff vandalism and enacted tougher surveillance and punishments on the writers. Graffiti is known as a quality of life crime, but it seems easy enough make just the opposite case. “We don’t destroy neighborhoods and communities – we beautify them,” Twick says. While ICP now paints many legal murals and members sell canvases in galleries, Twick still highlights that the practice is fundamentally rooted in both an unsanctioned approach and the aesthetics of the tag. So, ICP maintains a balance between two worlds. “The most important thing we stand for is our family and our cultures, inspiring young minds through art – not violence – and blessing our community with colorful murals,” says Twick. “And we will continue to be one of the top crews in the Bay Area.”
MUSIC Few producers have pushed forward the aesthetic of West Coast underground hip-hop like Exile. His dynamic production style navigates a certain uneasiness at the heart of Californian reveries: warm pulses of boom-bap ride over blown-out bass lines and dirtied, jazz-strut melodies. Yet among the towering forces of Dr. Dre gangster pulp and Madlib beat tapes ad infinitum, Exile has been something of a submerged anonymity.
Exile (born Aleksander Manfredi) broke out into the Los Angeles scene at the brink of the millennium as part of the duo Emanon, formed in half by dexterous lyricist and singer Aloe Blacc. In reality, they had already been hustling an arsenal of cassettes since the mid-1990s, championing sun-bleached soundscapes and whimsical verses on the grind. It set the framework for Exile’s prodigious output during the last few years (holds breath): another decisive Emanon full-length, 2004’s The Waiting Room on Shaman Work; full production in the vein of Marley Marl for two freshmen rap debuts, Blu’s impassioned 2007 Below the Heavens on Sound in Color, and Fashawn’s solid 2009 Boy Meets World on One Records; a versatile 2006 beat conductor showcase, Dirty Science (also on Sound and Color); and the 2009 concept album Radio on Plug Research, which reworked a pastiche of sound bytes, vocals, and loops culled from Los Angeles’ AM/FM frequencies.
In any free time scrapped among those projects, Exile also helped spearhead a new form of live performance with the Akai MPC, a powerful drum machine and sampler tool henceforth used only for production. “The MPC is able to do almost anything any instrument can do if it’s programmed right,” Exile tells me over the phone. “Buttons allow you to trigger and manipulate sounds — and that’s exactly what music is.” No longer limited to mixing, scratching, and juggling prerecorded sounds on the turntables, the producer can build, layer, and freak music from its most basic building blocks. “The idea is to have your own instrument, made up of other instruments: a chopped up guitar, horn, bass line, and drums; then add some synth keys,” Exile says. “You have all these instruments at your fingertips and you can rework them.” Simply put, Exile brings a hip-hop producer’s analog studio to the stage.
Whether flipping robotic percussive breaks and lurching sub-bass that reach into your gut and pile-drive your sternum or reimagining Afrika Bambaataa with kindred spirit DJ Day, Exile continually impresses and body rocks the crowd in his live show. Sure, some talented laptop performers have incorporated similar techniques into their sets from behind glowing Apple computer screens, but it’s thrilling to see Exile openly at work in front of the audience. The visual aspect is key as he demonstrates unparalleled skills on the machine, tapping buttons in rapid-fire wizardry like a future-funked Thelonious Monk.
Exile invokes a natural musicality when playing the equipment. This makes his claims that the MPC is a real and serious instrument all the more convincing. “The first instrument I learned was an accordion, which has a lot of buttons,” he says, amused by the thought. “Then I picked up the keyboard and some drums. But I really learned to play the drums with the MPC.”
Exile was that kid in junior high finger-drumming syncopated rhythms on classroom desks and beat boxing in the hallways. Hooked on hip-hop and electronic jams, he was inspired to make programmed music with whatever tools he could find. “The first song I ever recreated was Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” with a turntable and two-tape decks,” Exile recalls. “I recorded a two-bar section of a song, rewound so there were two bars of empty space, recorded two bars again, and then empty space again. Do that for three minutes, then go back and fill in the empty space, and add another tape onto that.” Repeat that DIY method until the sounds of a loving genius knock out of the speakers in full android glory.
This restless impulse to create took Exile down a long road experimenting with four-track recorders, Roland samplers, and even helium balloons before he laid his hands on the MPC. Now, he’s a certified fiend, transforming the way we see hip-hop as much as we hear it. And there’s much more to come.
FILM Through the rear window of a nondescript vehicle, three lines of dotted lights stream by in the darkness. The perspective shifts, and you realize you are at the seat of a car, driving through a tortuous tunnel, about to emerge into a skylit, open highway. You’re unsure of your location, or even your destination, but slowly, like a detective story, clues help you piece together some semblance of meaning and purpose. You peer into the rear-view mirror, dive into the road flickering behind you, and let your mind wander beyond that concrete past.
From there, animated filmmaker and multimedia artist Al Jarnow guides you on a hypnotic trip through the interconnected pathways of nature, art, and machinery in Autosong (1976). The dark tunnel returns anew, and the car disappears, unhinging your viewpoint in a disembodied drift. Oceanic tides wash away the whirling road and grids of cubes emerge, twisting in harmony as Jarnow deconstructs the geometrical notions that give form to subjectivity, motion, and space. “In my experimental films I leaned more toward music than a traditional narrative structure,” Jarnow says, calling from his home and studio in Long Island. “Themes build up and then repeat, come back slightly changed and repeat again… like a jazz variation on a theme.”
Brooklyn-born Jarnow found a supportive and inspired community for animated films in New York during the 1970s and ’80s. Trained originally as a painter, he fell into the medium by chance, coaxed by a friend into animating humorist Edward Lear’s offshoot love story The Owl and the Pussycat (1968) with his wife Jill Jarnow’s vibrant paintings. “As we were in the process of making that film, I started doing experiments. And the thrill of seeing something move, and come alive, just woke up a whole new world for me,” Jarnow says. Fascinated with “sculpting in time” more than conventional cartoon plots, Jarnow populated his mesmerizing worlds with an atypical cast of characters and ideas.
Jarnow’s experimental shorts — handcrafted from cell-animation, stop-motion, painting, drawing, and photography — revel in the unending process of exploration and discovery. In left field films like Cubits (1978), Jarnow wields an unlikely power, bringing abstract concepts and formal procedures to life. Ink-drawn geometric shapes dance in rhythm on flashcards like robotic pop-lockers, revealing both operations of motion and a methodical creative process. Yet the logical rigor underpinning Jarnow’s stories feels human and impassioned, saturated with a visceral aura of wonder that is far removed from a scientist’s sterile research lab. Call Jarnow the Carl Sagan of animators (well, a bit more fun than that). “I think art is a form of play,” he says. “It’s a tactile experience of experimenting with the world around you, pushing it this way or that way, and seeing what happens. It’s as much for children as grownups.”
So it’s fitting that Jarnow also brought that playful spirit to bear on educational shorts for PBS’s Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact. In his first commercial piece, Yak (1970), the talking beast drops knowledge about the letter y, before running headfirst into the screen and terrifying many an imaginative youngin’ under the sheets (just check the YouTube comments). In Facial Recognition (1978), humans reproduce the computational functions of a dot-matrix printer, thanks to stop-motion magic. And billions of years are reduced to two minutes in the time-lapse of Cosmic Clock (1979), where the lifetime of a boy, a city, and nature all pass through their respective cycles (the last civilization even blasts off into space in a moment’s flash).
Even though Jarnow’s multilayered vision made a lasting impression on a whole generation in heyday of the Children’s Television Workshop, no one knew the author behind the box — and very few had the opportunity to penetrate NYC’s avant-garde animators scene. But earlier this year Jarnow finally got his due. Chicago’s archival imprint Numero Group digitally transferred 45 of Jarnow’s 16mm shorts and compiled them in a handsomely packaged DVD. Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow includes a 30-minute documentary and 60 pages of liner notes. The title piece, Jarnow’s most explicit scientific voyage, traces the window-light defining his studio walls from equinox to equinox, montaged with heliocentric frames of Stonehenge. It’s stunning — and difficult — but with some patience, you can travel the cosmos with the druids and back again.
The retrospective is hardly exhaustive. “Making art is a way of learning about the world,” Jarnow says. “It’s a way of processing the information coming in through you.” Jarnow hasn’t stopped experimenting with new artistic forays, ceaselessly searching for engaging mediums to provoke and compel. From installing exhibits at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (which set the framework for cofounding the Long Island Children’s Museum) and developing interactive computer software to making ephemeral sculpture on the beach, Jarnow continues to make a playful game, and invoke an animated wonder, of the world.
MUSIC In 1971, Herman Eberitzsch Jr. III decided it was time to record and somehow save his organic experiences of playing at clubs and avant-garde cafes in the city. He assembled a quartet from his “grapevine of connections” — including good friend Joe West, a Rasputin-looking guitarist, whom Eberitzsch originally met at the Post Office — and booked sessions at Roy Chen’s recording studio in Chinatown. With no previous studio background, Eberitzsch rehearsed the musicians, taught them the arrangements, and guided their inspiration in a quest for abysmal funk and thunderous jazz. These sessions produced an enchanting trip into “Rapture of the Deep,” a left-field meditation on rebellious passion, “Funk Punk,” and the ethereal moral fable “Dark Angels.” The unrestrained songs pull you head over heels into their internal worlds; their oceanic tides carry you great distances. Still, Atlantic Records saw no commercial success in the tapes, finding them much too experimental, and shelved the project.
Undaunted, Eberitzsch invested in a new quintet, Motion, “to bring some bread to the table.” He met Coke Escovedo along the way and joined his frenetic Latin outfit Azteca in 1973. During the first rehearsal, Eberitzsch called out “I got a tune!” as soon as a silence held the conversation. He taught them heavy joints that “came from outer space” — including “Life is a Tortured Love Affair,” “Make It Sweet,” and “Rebirth.” These songs would help land the contract for Coke’s seminal solo debut. They demonstrated Eberitzsch’s gift for concise, soulful lyricism, a quality he would cultivate over the course of his songwriting ventures.
Feeling reassured of his own talents and industry potential after such a success, Eberitzsch moved on to spearhead a new project with his close friend and lead singer, Johnny Lovett. He herded the grapevine once again, including songstress Linda Tillery, and brought Motion to Wally Heider studios in 1974. Always one to incorporate past experiences, Eberitzsch fused the propulsive pathos of Latin funk into his broad-flowing musical direction. The verdant, multilayered arrangements and groove-laden percussion were augmented by surging horn riffs and a lush string section.
These songs by Motion were tighter in form, shaped in part by Eberitizsch’s focus on concise lyrical narratives: testaments of joy and calls for solidarity in the face of injustice. It was the wake of the civil rights era, although America’s failed political experiment of dreaming national unity did not so much destroy idealism as redirect its boundless strength to a more grassroots level. “Our music was simply a product of people coming together in a community and expressing ourselves,” says Eberitzsch. “It was a groundswell of inspiration.” But Columbia also “didn’t hear it at the time,” and another set of tapes found their way to Eberitzsch’s basement.
These setbacks still didn’t disillusion Eberitzsch. He recorded at Different Fur Studios in 1976 and established the loose framework for an adventurous modern soul sound he would continue to develop and transform for the next five years. He worked extensively on Lee Oskar’s solo effort and collaborated once again with Greg Errico. He would record more challenging work in the late 1970s and early ’80s, fragmenting and experimenting with untapped techniques of musicality. (In 1984, he made “Morons,” a confessional tale about rude, party-crashers who eat all the furniture — something of a coarse minimal-wave racket destined to go viral on tomorrow’s blogosphere.)
A WISE INNOCENCE
“The music was very innocent,” Eberitzsch says. “We worked from a standpoint not so much of knowledge but of an ignorance of where we were going. We really were crawling to stand, to walk, to run. It was pure.” But by forsaking formula and conventional pop structures, Eberitzsch was able to craft a unique outsider sound hinged on his restless yet determinate spirit to create new dimensions of possibility in his music.
Eberitzsch brought that explorer’s ethos to the studio, where he played around with recording techniques. With a child’s amusement, he used an old- fashioned Fender Echoplex in “Rapture,” and applied a screwdriver to his Hammond keyboard to create wobbling noises. He then manipulated the tape loop, searching loosely for “weird sounds” that would produce warped textures. Those strange, idiosyncratic effects helped to shape the psychedelic, expanding quality of the music without smothering it in abstraction.
“It’s still earthy because it was manipulated not by machines, but by the hands of the monkey man,” Eberitzsch says with a laugh when discussing such techniques. He claims inspiration for his hands-on approach to technical play came in part from the infamous introductory scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the protohuman chimpanzee throws a bone into the air and it turns, in a twist of editing magic, into a spaceship.
Eberitzsch’s creative hunger also guided his poignant lyrical ability. He wrote ebullient songs that rejoice in the sweeter tastes of life, with invigorating messages about overcoming life’s struggles. In “Life is a Tortured Love Affair,” singer Johnny Lovett laces his words with an incisive despair, yet still gathers the vigor to belt out, “You’ve got to keep improving.” The mood is matched in “Dark Angels,” where fluttering keys charge an uplifting groove contrasted by a mournful guitar riff.
Soulful compositions such as “Life is a Tortured Love Affair” and “Dark Angels” possess different shades of tension, suspending aggressive and nurturing forces in a dynamic balance of sound and energy. While reaching to empower and gathering the courage to hope, the songs returned to sober realizations about “the nonresolvable conflicts of civilization.” Yet even today, Eberitzsch exudes a wise innocence, remaining simply and impossibly idealistic. “I wrote songs that have great messages about how it could be better,” he says.
Ecstatic that the world finally wants to hear his earthy psychedelia, Eberitzsch searches for some reason behind the new twist in his fate. “There’s a need for music that was from an era with a lot of vibrancy, wonderful messages, incredible originality, and spiritual feeling,” he says. Eberitzsch is right. His music not only embodies that iconic era of the Bay Area, but also, like a prism, distorts and enriches it from a new angle. It reminds us that much of this particular history has yet to be heard — let alone written. “That’s why the tapes ended up in the garage,” he reflects. “I thought somebody, some day, is going to end up in the garage and blow the sand off this cryptic message.”
MUSIC Am I the only one who feels an overwhelming sensation of near implosion when listening to Flying Lotus? I’m not talking about Steven Ellison’s crackling, low-end production that leans on off-kilter percussion while swerving on warm synth melodies like the late great J Dilla tipping on trucks (although that liquidic soul is mad electrifying too). Ellison also summons this other lunatic style that seeps into my android brain right when I least expect. It’s a sort of smattering mercury-noise that builds to the point of maximum intensity and then falls away suddenly, disclosing a clearing of purplish-orange haze.
All that cyberkinetic production, however, works in tandem. Ellison’s gift is not so much that he can shock and awe with singular frenetic beats, but that he can craft a holistic mood that engages, holds, and in the thick of its hypnotic momentum, casts an entrancing spell. I’d make the case that the effect is a movement of dislocation and reembodiment, parallel to the transcendental objectives behind experimental forms of both spiritual and space jazz recorded in the late 1960s and ’70s. There’s no question that Ellison channels the celestial blood of Alice Coltrane (his great-aunt and perhaps greatest muse) in his testament. And just as those avant-garde jazz legends made headway finding musical freedom within intergalactic space-ways (the infinite within), Ellison charts something of a fractured spatio-temporal exploration himself.
I’m going to take a leap (if you will allow a journalist such an experiment) and tentatively pretend that the titles for Fly Lo’s records map the spiritual blueprint shaping his music. We’ll see if we can make some progress with this approach.
Ellison’s first full-length record, 1983 (Plug Research, 2006), marks the temporal origin of the 27-year-old and a return to a certain aesthetic sphere of possibilities. Ellison graces this effort with video game bleeps and zaps, that stark retro-futuristic sound of 1980s sci-fi film and monstrous joystick machines. But the drenched robotics nourishing “Massage Situation” and the warped sonic bits that weave through arresting drum programming in “Vegas Collie” don’t mine nostalgia. Instead, Ellison recontextualizes familiar sounds in magnetic ways, breathing life into vacuous drones from the past. History is revived to reimagine the future and overlay a richness of sensual value onto the present.
In 2008, Flying Lotus made ground with Los Angeles (Warp), a pioneering effort that won the ears of hip-hop heads, pitch-forking indie rockers, and electronic bass fiends/geeks alike. The record seems to have quickly become one of those pivotal works of art that serve as a reference point for nearly everything new school in electronic music. And Los Angeles, the city itself, the last stop on the New World’s burdened journey for Manifest Destiny, has also become such a symbolic environment for today’s musical wanderers. It’s a city of tense contradictions: endless opportunity and suffocation, cosmopolitan diversity and isolating segregation, an artificial neon-lit haven placed in a sun-choked desert by the sea. It’s not so different perhaps from that Old Word paradise mucked with broken dreams — Jerusalem. Such is the spatio-origin and milieu for Flying Lotus’ second full-length, as we hop on a sizzling “Camel” and “Melt!”; disintegrate into fuzz-drenched traffic on “Orbit 405”; and open our new metallic bodies in the whirlwind swamps around a “Parisian Goldfish.”
The third record on the horizon, Cosmogramma (Warp), set for release in the U.S. on May 4, breaks away from particular spatio-temporal signifiers to reach for the universal. Ellison baptized the record as a “cosmic drama,” and the title itself suggests nothing less than a grammar of infinitum. The single “Computer Face//Pure Being” is perhaps the best example yet of the antagonistic force that fuels Flying Lotus’ adventurous work. It incites a centrifugal experience — perilous and transformative — out of malfunctioning and utterly animate computer jazz. Yes, the age of machines with soul has dawned.