Lewis Recordings

posted: 04-08-05
interview : brolin winning
I know it's hard to describe yourself, but for people who haven't heard your music before, how would you describe your style?
It's almost embarrassing to say you do hip-hop, because it's got so much connotations, a lot of times it's negative. Or rap music - it's kind of embarrassing. Especially when they look at me and they're like, 'what's he gonna rap about?' I basically tell 'em it's pretty much like collage art. It's just taking pieces of things from various sources and putting it together to make your own composition. I like the term collage, I know that doesn't really cut it, but I tell em that I rap or whatever, but I guess you can't really say much after that. More or less, you try to get people to hear the music and have it speak for itself. But I've been thinking about it, cause when words don't do justice to what you're trying to communicate, you gotta think of a better way to get your point across. I try to treat it like visual art only it's sonic.
How is "Beauty & The Beat" different from your earlier material?
It's different in many ways: it's a little less goofy, it's more serious, in terms of the tone and just the atmosphere. It's darker, it's a lot more wide-ranging, it's a lot more mature. I think I'm better at just reigning in the sounds, you know what I mean? It's more refined, it's more dynamic, there's parts that are chaotic, parts that are delightful. I'm just getting better at finding my voice and getting across what I want people to find or to catch from my creative output. It's just a superior product.
You use a lot of effects on your stuff - both on the beats and your vocals - echoes and delay and phasers and whatnot. Are you using vintage racks and pedals, or is most of that computer based?
I mean, I'm just a big fan of delay in general. In smaller intervals or larger intervals, it doesn't really matter. I'm using a combination: sometimes I use a little digital something. But I'm not really into the coldness of digital effects for the most part. [I use] a lot of it is Echoplex, or Space Echo, stuff like that. Or even like a BOSS digital delay pedal, which I use at shows just to make shit sound chaotic.
What's your basic studio set up? Are you using SP-1200, MPC, ASR-10, software, etc?
I've always thought that it didn't really matter, it's more so about just your creative approach, and making sure that that comes through more than worrying about what equipment you use.
Having said that, I have an MPC, I have a digital 16-track, like a little Portastudio. Growing up I used to fuck with the Tascam 8-track joints, cassette. But I guess I needed more than eight tracks after a certain point so I copped the little 16 track digital joint and I've been content with that. Most people will probably think I'm crazy, not using the Pro Tools and all that, but I'm just - I go braindead looking at a monitor. It's hard to feel spiritual when there's this box fuckin' staring at you. I can't really get down with it yet.
So that's the stuff that everything is fed into. I got the Tech 12s and the mixer, and the Mini Moog. Anything man, I got reverb when it's handy. Anything is possible, you can patch anything into anything. You know if you wanna patch like a fuckin' golfball into a fuckin' vocoder (laughs) - anything's possible.
Your songs use a lot of fuzz guitars and real heavy drums, especially on the "Rock And Roll" track. Do you ever use live instruments or is everything straight samples?
I'm open to everything, and I do play instruments, guitar and bass and everything included. But mainly, the live instruments that I played on the record was synths and keys. There was some instances where there was some little melodic stuff going on that I did with the synths, or just wanted to create noise, you know what I mean? What is it, like the French call it 'musique concrete;' just stuff that's sound oriented, just trying to evaluate sound as a respectable entity within composition. There's instances of that on the record. I didn't play any guitar on this record, really just synths, Echoplex, and just, you know there was some unorthodox manipulation at times that I don't think these clean cut cats would be fuckin' with. But, you know, sky's the limit and I'm never gonna say you gotta do one or the other.
I read somewhere that you also play folk music and other stuff on the side. Are you still doing it?
I only call it folk music because it takes on that format of playing an acoustic guitar and singing. But I mean, I don't know if that means it's folk music. Definitely not to compare myself, but I don't think Bob Dylan thought he was playing folk music. It's just that whole minimal sort of singer-songwriter thing, the immediacy of having a guitar in your hand, playing the changes and just singing on top of that. And so sometimes I write songs in that vein, just to get other emotions out there that sometimes hip-hop doesn't really get into.
Any plans to release that?
Yeah, sure. I don't have anything definite, but there's a friend of mine, we been good friends for a while and pretty good collaborators and he's actually now in this rock group called Dead Metal, which is on Matador. Regardless, me and him will probably get together and do something. I hope to release stuff, I don't really know what to call it, just I guess, guitar based, singer-songwriter type shit. But I like to have fun with that stuff. It's not all melodramatic, it's not gonna be too serious or too self-indulgent, it probably will just be well put together.
You're one of the few cats out there who's really doing it all - rapping, producing, and DJing. Out of those three, is there one that you really prefer or feel more confident with?
There's no need to look at one of them above the other, or below the other, cause it's all just a means to express yourself. It all gets mixed up in the same cauldron really, whatever I'm feeling at that moment I do.
You've dropped a couple mix CDs in the past, ("Fast Rap" and "Funky Drummer"), are you doing any new ones?
I mean, that's just for fun. I guess each one sort of had a theme. I might do some that are completely eclectic. I basically wanna break down the barriers as much as possible. At the same time, if you're a hip-hop dude, even if you're doing that, it's gonna come across with a hip-hop feel. If I touch a Velvet Underground record or a Kinks record, and throw it in the mix with any rap record, I still feel like I can freak it in a way where it still comes across like hip-hop. Not everybody will be able to get with it right off the bat, and I think that's part of the challenge. And knowing that not everybody can get with it right now, it gives me all the more reason to try to snatch these boundaries and compartments that everybody's stuck in. When I spin out now I do stuff like that, you'll hear some Beatles next to Treacherous 3 or something, and I think it comes off fine. I'm just trying to free up everybody's mind a little bit who wants that freedom. Not everybody wants it so they don't have to check for me, but whoever wants it I'll put it out there that way.
It seems like people are more open to that nowadays, with the whole Danger Mouse "Gray Album" hype, rock and rap mash-ups are all over the place now.
That's the thing, I mean, while I was thinking about putting these things that are usually considered polar opposites together, the whole mash-up thing, it's just a word that now probably has a negative connotation. It sounds like a quick gimmick to blow somebody's mind with a little bullshit combo of two records. You gotta do it with a little more sensitivity and taste. You can't just put Nine Inch Nails over whatever, Jay-Z. It's a matter of self-expression and it should never be about gimmicks.
"Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme" is kind of like a hip-hop history lesson. Did you do that as like a tribute to your influences, or to educate kids who might be too young to know about them, or both?
That wasn't any sort of authoritarian list, it was just for myself. I know that there's other people that would probably appreciate those same cats. Some of the people that I spoke on I felt were sort of in the shadows. Whenever a 'greatest of all-time' list is made, there's certain people that you're always gonna see on those lists. And there's certain people that I really dig on that don't really get a lot of mentions. I just wanted to see what it would sound like if I just mapped out for myself that little evolution from the beginning.
As a listener I definitely am a big fan of the music, I listen very closely and I check out everything that I can. And slowly but surely, timelines started to form in my mind, and I just wanted to put that out there verbally. I just think it's a nice little tribute to the MCs that definitely influenced me or that I respect as sort of an MC's MC, that was more of a musician. Because, I think someone like Chuck D, he's very musical, but he's more like an orator, someone like Malcolm or Martin Luther King, who's getting a message across foremost. But there's certain cats on a strictly musical level, like a Charlie Parker level playing the sax or Eric Dolphy. Musically they're very rhythm conscious and they're just colorful with their words. So it's really about touching on that kind of MC. And that's why I talk about someone like T La Rock. People might think, you know, he did "It's Yours" but other than that wasn't very significant. But when I look at someone like that, at the time, his voice really matched up with those drum machines that started getting heavier after the Run-D.M.C. phenomenon. So it's like the drums started getting a little thicker, a little more bass in em, on the way to the 808s and all that. His voice was that sort of a machine-like robot, powerful voice.
After that people were more technical with their vocabulary, it became trendy to be very big with your words. LL early on was on that vocab, hard delivery shit. In my mind, somebody like Tragedy from Queensbridge, I can't see how he would have been such a scientific sounding little dude if he hadn't been influenced indirectly somehow by T La Rock. And then Tragedy, people like that definitely influenced Nas. I can even point to specific lyrics, it's like, when Nas says something like "brain like a computer / the inserter" on "Back To The Grill," that's something I can right away attribute, that's a Queensbridge thing. So all these little ideas somehow I wanted to express, so I did it in like an overview sort of way on that song.
How did you get with Percee P? What was it like recording with him?
I can't remember how I hooked up with him exactly. The first time I met him I was doing a show at the Wetlands or something and he was on the bill and I bought one of his tapes - he was selling cassettes back then. He was always very approachable. He heard me mention his name in some song I did and got in touch. I sort of became like a friend of his. I had a lot of respect for him and he was always very cool and humble, so I approached him at some point about doing it and he did it.
There's a lot of Boston cats who are making big moves: the Perceptionists, Insight, Edo.G, 7L, etc. Are artists there pretty supportive of what you're doing, or is it more competitive.
All those guys you mentioned are pretty supportive of what I'm doing. I think early on there might have been a little more competitive shit going on, but as people get older and grow up, overall they just appreciate people around them that are doing music. Now it's to the point where, even Edo.G shows me love. And, my music, I usually would've thought it might be a little too left field for someone like that. But at this point it's all good, and I'm able to have a pleasant exchange with people about it and support them and just show them love.
It's good man, I know that when I look back on all of it I'll probably think fondly that there was quite a few people doing the music at the same time. I would say the scene to an extent gets less interesting to me as the time goes on. I mean, there hasn't been a lot of interesting shit as far as a movement out here lately. It's more just that energy that existed before is sort of just evolving and to some extent sort of fading or separating a little bit because people are moving around, living on the west coast and what have you. But at the same time, there's still talent here and there's still venues to do your thing at and build. It's cool. We're just all getting older and trying to progress. So our minds are opening up and focusing on the international scene.
Your label is over there, how did you hook up with Lewis?
Actually, Mr Complex heard a record of mine, one of my early singles, and I guess he liked it. I got in touch with him and we were talking. Even then I had a feeling that the UK was gonna be more receptive to the whole weirdness of what I do. So then he suggested Mike Lewis. I sent Mike Lewis a little bullshit Xerox copy convenience store burn of my joint and he liked it so much that he just started a label right then and there to put it out. So it was good, like I knew at that point that there was somebody very supportive shooting for me, you know in my corner. And the longer I've known Mike Lewis the better I feel about my affiliation with him; he's just a real down-to-earth dude.
You're overseas right now. A lot of artists I've talked to feel like audiences in Europe are a lot more open to different styles, and also more enthusiastic at shows, just less jaded in general than heads in America. Do you find that to be the case?
Definitely. For example, I just did a DJ gig out there, and I went on right after this guy Tim Westwood. He's like the Funkmaster Flex of the UK or something. He's always gonna play the hottest newest shit. And right after he was done I came on with my little eccentric, you know, but well-intended shit. It was a big club, probably thousands of people up there just dispersed in various rooms, and I was in the main room. So I go on right after him and it just turned out to be great. After about ten minutes the different crowd that was more open to my shit had integrated into the room, the place was packed and there was just so much love there. And it just made me feel good to be able to be presented on a bill with someone like Westwood and have it be completely embraced. Cause I'm all about diversity, and the fact that both of those things could really jump off within the same place is what this shit should really be all about. And in the US, you can just imagine, if I was going on after Funk Flex or Kay Slay, it would just be a disaster. I think that's a reflection of the narrow-mindedness of the US, and I think, it's really just that they're victims of a lot of marketing. It makes it hard for people to snap out of that shit. I just think its something for the US to shoot for: a more open-minded approach. Because ultimately it would just be their liberation; they're only gonna benefit from that. It's diversity.
Are you doing any outside production work for any other artists?
Lately music has been sort of a more personal thing, where I just don't make a bunch of shit and shop it around. When I really need to make a beat, like when my life depends on it so to speak, or just a level of inspiration comes along, then I do it, then I finish a song and write lyrics and knock it out. But, for example, Cut Chemist has been sending me some beats, so I'll probably pop up on his LP with a little verse. You know, anybody who comes along that I have respect for and will help enhance my creative path, I'm gonna fuck with.
Will you be touring this spring/summer to support the album?
I'm sure I'll be doing several. I know already there's a European tour locked in with Insight and Daga, who's done various things: he was in the group Electric Company with Insight and some other things. We're gonna go to Europe from late March to late April, and then I'll probably do a US tour in June or so, and then probably do a bunch of festival gigs overseas in the meantime to fill in, or any one-shot, one-off gigs that come along.
Do you still rap and DJ at the same time for your shows?
Yeah, and I mean it's something that I wanna develop and touch on a little bit further. Right now I really only have one or two routines where I do that. And I'd really like to just come out and do solo shows where I'm sort of just behind the decks and have the mic in hand most of the time. Maybe have a tux on, just have a nice classy presentation. Have like a spotlight on me, pull out the harp, serenade you. I don't know, I'm definitely into the idea of being a showman, figuring out good ways to entertain crowds. So I really need to work on that, and I just figure the more flexible I become with cutting and rhyming at the same time, the more it just opens up the possibilities. But it's a tough thing to do, you know, you gotta find records that lend themselves to the whole thing. But whatever, I'm gonna work on it.
The whole indie hip-hop scene is crazy crowded right now, to all the people out there trying to get on, what advice would you give?
I would say: music first. If you're dream lies within the fame moreso than it does the music, then you should pick something else. If you're goal is how beautiful you can make your shit, then you have a fighting chance. I would just say, never let anybody tell you what you can or can't do, I think hip-hop should be all about love and unity, and freedom ultimately. If you know that something is righteous to express, even though it may not seem like the trendy thing to do, then you should pursue it to its fullest potential. The music is number one, cause that's how it really came to fruition for me. I just ended up loving the music so much that I would make songs and people would take notice. And then all the business shit that I had to pay attention to, I adapted it and learned from that. But it really just started with having a deep, deep love for music and a longing, and if you have that then you're off to a good start.
"Beauty And The Beat" is now in stores on Lewis Recordings
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