Lushlife - November 2009 ENGLISH VERSION
CM>>>Raj, when I first listened to your new album called “Cassette City “, which came out in July this year, I was kind of bewitched, because of its rich musicality – playing around with classic hip-hop fragments, pop music, Sixties music and a new form of Hip-Hop. Wonderful! What was the ignition for creating this album? Was there a special moment or piece of music you listened to that inspired you to create this wonderful album?
Raj>>> From first concepts to finished master, the album took almost exactly two years. I spent a few months in the beginning laying out the album on paper. If you look at those early musings on paper, you’ll see a pretty clear vision for what ‘Cassette City’ became. For each song I laid out my particular goals: sounds like this, with a little bit of that, use this type of instrumentation, the vocals should flow like this, and be about that. These were the ideas that I had laid out. Then, over a good year-and-a-half, I slowly but surely checked off these ideas one-by-one and the songs came together.
Raj>>> Well, just like the rest of the record, coming up with an adequate title was a long process. Virtually every aspect of this project took awhile to come together, and the album title is no exception. When you mention mixtapes, yes, they were on my mind when the title came into being. I wanted an album title that was immediately reflective of a time in my life, when I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, with a backpack full of mixtapes, and headphones around my neck. As much as vinyl was a part of my life, so were cassettes, and so ‘Cassette City’ is a reflection of this music being built on all of the influences, hip-hop or otherwise, that seeped into my consciousness in these formative years.
Raj>>> Most of the instrumentals started with me in front of the MPC. I should mention that I had never used an MPC before I started recording ‘Cassette City’. The first song I ever put together using this type of drum machine is ‘The Fall of the Light Brigade’, which ended up on the album. But yes, the MPC was the nerve center of these recordings. After the basis for the track was laid out, with the samples chopped, and drums programmed, I did arrangements for live instrumentation. I would say that I played about 85% of the live instruments. From mandolin to glockenspiel, and snare drum to synths, I tried to play as much of the live stuff myself as possible. Still, I believe a good musician knows when to hand over the reigns to more qualified players. So, when I thought someone else could do a better job, I’d call up a friend or professional musician I knew, write out the parts, and have them come to my studio to record. For me, it’s ultimately about the quality of the final product. Of course, I don’t play every instrument, so I did have extensive sessions with violinists, cellists, and even a theremin player (on Meridian Sound [Part Three]). But even here, I wrote out all of the scores and had sheet music for the players when they entered the sessions.
Raj>>> When it came to the vocal sessions, part of the reason the album took so long, is that I pretty much recorded a demo version of ‘Cassette City’ in it’s entirety. After doing all of that work, alone in my project studio, I decided that I wanted this album to have a strong pop sheen. I remember saying to my engineer, that though I’m making a decidedly indie kind of release, it was important to me that it have the recording fidelity that would be more comfortable on a 50 Cent release or something like that. So, what I ended up doing, is getting all of the instrumentals prepared, and then flying out to Pittsburgh, PA and recording the vocals for the entire album with my man Big Jerm at ID Labs, where I had access to, you know, $10,000 microphones, and pre-amps, and stuff that I just didn’t have access to in my project studio. After those recording sessions, I flew back to Philadelphia, and edited all of the vocal sessions down. Finally, and another huge part of achieving the sound that I wanted, was to have Ryan West [who works with Just Blaze, Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, Beyonce etc.] mix the record. This was a real collaborative process that took months. He was in New York City, and I was in Philadelphia, so we’d send references back-and-forth via e-mail, and I’d go up to his studio in NYC and work through ideas with him. In the end, it was worth it. Not only did I realize my compositional aspirations, but was also able to get my sonic goals met.
Raj>>> Haha! Some people have described me as a little bit of a control freak. But I should say, that it really depends on the project. I’m not at all controlling when from the outset I’m collaborating with someone. But, specifically with ‘Cassette City’, I had a vision with each song, and to see it through, I really had to direct the cast of characters who played their part, and help them bring my ideas to tape. That’s also not to say that I wouldn’t take anyone else’s advice, but indeed my vision was very much in the foreground of the process. From a compositional standpoint, I do think I prefer, on projects like this, to work alone, because it’s just one less person to be OK with every single step of the writing and recording process. I mean, if I make a decision, then it’s my decision and I’m happy with the way things sound. I don’t have to defend my ideas to anyone. And though this album was pretty much my singular vision from the ground up, I did ask my very close collaborators to pitch in where they could uniquely do so. For example, my longtime friend and producer, Fakevinyl, worked with me to put together the stuttering symphonics of ‘Until the Sun Dies’, and there I let go of the reigns slightly and let him put together this wonderful piece of music that I could not have even imagined on my own.
Raj>>> I usually don’t like for anyone to hear my recordings while they are in-progress. I don’t think that others can really hear the potential that I personally hear in my incomplete recordings. However, my project studio is on the third floor of my home in Philadelphia, so often-times, my girlfriend will hear the tracks as they develop. She has a keen ear for music, and chimes in with her thoughts, but mostly she, too, likes to wait until I present a piece to her before giving any concrete criticisms. Beyond that, with ‘Cassette City’, I would bounce tracks down in various stages of completion for Fakevinyl or my A&R at !K7, Juan. I would definitely be approaching my A&R with early forms of tracks when we were discussing what side-artists and contributors we wanted to get involved with the project.
Raj>>> I do value the opinions of others when it comes to finalizing a piece of music. But honestly it’s usually right towards the end of the whole process. I usually distinctly know what I want and don’t want, and so I try not to have others opinions interfere with that. However, I like to get close friends and collaborators to help me with the finer points: Is this guitar a bit too loud? Should my vocals come out a bit more? Having said that, there were a few times where I was moving down the wrong path and it took someone to shake me and say, “this idea is just not working, and you’re forcing it…”
Raj>>> Yeah, I’ve got some classical training and some training in jazz. It was sort of expected in my family that the kids would take up piano at around the age of six or seven, so I just kind of followed suit. I followed a pretty rigorous curriculum of classical piano study until I was about seventeen. In the meantime, I started playing percussion/jazz drum kit around the age of ten. Picking up the drums was on the urging of my older brother, and I think that having both this strong rhythmic and melodic background has helped me to become a relatively well-rounded composer. With regard to production, well, to be honest with you, since I had been DJing too from a young age, I was always around DJs, producers, and people with studios… kind of as a young dude, though. I mean, I’d hang out at studios just hoping and praying to get in and do my little beats or blends or whatever. But really, the first thing I ever produced was using FL Studio, or what was then called Fruity Loops in about 2000. I didn’t know anything about compression or things like that, so everything between then and now has been an autodidactic experience, where I’ve learned a lot by trying trial-and-error but also by reading tons on subjects like: dynamic effects, signal paths, and, analog synthesis.
Raj>>> As I mentioned, my folks sort of expected my brother and I to take piano lessons. But, before that, I can remember being four or five and making a pretty sophisticated drum kit out of some pots and using this toy called a ‘pogo-ball’ as a kick drum.
Raj>>> Growing up in the so-called epicenter of rap music, it wasn’t so much an issue of “getting into hip-hop.” It was always sort of around, whether I was listening to it or not. That’s how most of the late ‘80s were for me, anyway. It was there on the radio, amongst friends, in the neighborhoods. You know, it was just ubiquitous. But, I think it was around late ’89 or early 1990 that I fell deeply in love with hip-hop. It’s no accident either that it happened when it did. Hip-hop at that time, was transitioning from this highly rhythmic atonal world of Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, etc. and I was becoming more transfixed with the burgeoning melodic sounds of artists like Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest. These were the sounds that made a huge impression on me, and as it turns out, a lot of other cats…
Raj>>> To be honest, I kind of kept all of these worlds separate for the most part. When I was studying Bach or Debussy with my very old-school, strict piano teacher, I sort of just focused on that. It was really in my off-time, when I was spinning records, or transcribing Outkast songs for my jazz group in high school to play, that these two disparate worlds collided.
Raj>>> If hip-hop was my muse as a pre-teen or teenager, then the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys was definitely my muse in my early twenties. I didn’t grow up in a household where my parents were listening to a lot of ‘60s American rock music, so I hadn’t even really heard the Beach Boys until I was in university at the age of twenty. But if I recall correctly, the first time I sat down and listened to ‘Pet Sounds’ the experience was something like hearing this sublime music you’ve always wished would exist, coupled with lyrics that perfectly articulated this idea of youth. I mean, that just knocked me the fuck out. With the ‘West Sounds’ mash-up that I did in 2005, I really thought it was just going to be this sort of one-off promotional thing that didn’t have too much relevance to my future body of work. Turns out, however, that the experience of putting those tracks together, and seeing just how well the music from ‘Pet Sounds’ could be reappropriated in a hip-hop context, had a huge impact on my designs and ideas for ‘Cassette City’.
Raj>>> Ah, with ‘West Sounds’? Well, I wasn’t about to try and get any clearances with this project. Brian Wilson has been quoted on many occasion as calling hip-hop things like a low-point in pop music and stuff like that. A lot of the reason I wanted to put the ‘West Sounds’ project together, was to really take these ridiculous words from someone whose output I admired so much, and turn them on their head. But, yeah, I knew from the get-go that getting clearance for this project would’ve been close to impossible.
Raj>>> Oh, definitely. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t management, so much as it was his lawyers… They delivered a Cease & Desist order a few weeks after the project launched. By this point, however, we’d already racked up hundreds of thousands of downloads, so I immediately took the project down from my server. But, you know, once it’s out there, it’s out there.
Raj>>> I wanted ‘Cassette City’ to have some real thematic continuity. I think when people think of continuity and concept-like work in hip-hop, they’re automatically prone to think of storylines and skits and things like that. I wanted to approach things in a more nuanced way. So, you’ll find that certain sounds waft in and out of the album. The mellotron is a great example. I wrote and performed mellotron parts for a couple different songs. On ‘The Songbird Athletic’ it’s a bit more prominent, while on something like ‘Meridian Sound [Part Two]’ the mellotron is a little bit more “in the cut”.
Raj>>> I can’t really express how much. There’s something absolutely extraordinary about these sounds. I think that, in a way, they evoke this history whenever a note is touched on them… like all of this music that you heard as a kid, from the ‘60s onwards, comes flooding into your mind. There’s this indescribable beauty to the sound of the mellotron, and I’m not being hyperbolic in saying that I feel privileged to have been able to use the instrument on my latest record.
Raj>>> As I mentioned before, I really started to fall in love with hip-hop during the soul and jazz-infused era of the early ‘90s. And I really owe it to hip-hop that I even got into jazz. I remember being eleven or twelve years old, and listening to Black Moon records or whatever and then finally being like, “well what’s going into this music? Where’s this all coming from?” And then, you know, going to the record spot [this is proto-internet era, remember] and digging ‘til I found the Donald Byrd joint that they sampled. From there, the floodgates were open. Around the same time, I started learning jazz percussion formally, and I straight-up fell in love with jazz: everything from big band to fusion. So, my moniker, it kind of is like an homage to that whole world, and the Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington jam. But it’s also somehow this representation of my lyrical breadth. I can’t quite describe it, but I think the name ‘Lushlife’ kind of just resonates with my lyrical content.
Raj>>> You know, I think that there will be an element of jazz in everything I do. I really think that some aspects of the music course through my veins: the polyrhythms and groove, the rich chord structures. But I’ll leave the pure jazz playing to more equipped players.
CM>>>Let’s go back to “Cassette City”! The album is full of hidden treasures, for example the fact that if you listen the first time to the album you probably won’t recognize the fact that “Innocence” and “Daylight Into Me” are two different songs. The gap between these two songs sounds like a break for taking a short new breathe … An effect that would make a live audience go wild. Are there any plans for represent the album on stage?
Raj>>> Looking back on the writing and production process for ‘Cassette City’, I realize now how much I was already thinking about how this album would be presented in the live format even when I was just putting it together. I remember thinking, even when I was just conceptualizing the album, like “oh shit, that transition from the first track to the second is going to work nicely, live”. But yeah, I just played some shows in the U.S. with ‘Anti-Pop Consortium’ and I’m preparing for some European dates early next year. The live show is turning out to be as dynamic an offering, I think, as the album is. It’s this one-man experience where I’m triggering tracks via a MIDI footpedal, rapping and singing while playing all kinds of instruments, and even doing acoustic covers of classic hip-hop records like ‘Dead Presidents’ by Jay-Z. I’m spending the next month or so, leading up to Christmas, really developing the live show, and I can’t wait to take it to Europe!
Raj>>> The initial inspiration for the ‘Meridian Sound’ triptych was from a 2007 internet release by the rapper Jay Electronica, who did a 20-minute piece where he rapped over the musical score from the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. When I heard this, I was just blown away: by his flow, to be sure, but also by how beautiful and emotive that real hip-hop sounded over this very filmic musical bed. So, I knew that I wanted to do something like that, three explorations of hip-hop over varied sonics, all with very limited percussion. With the first one, I wanted to flow over a track that had a real ‘My Bloody Valentine’/’M83’ sort of wall-of-sound vibe. With the second, it was a decidedly more sparse affair. I took a small mobile recording unit into a church sanctuary, and recorded myself playing that grand piano part along with a cellist, and basically rhymed over that. Finally, with the third ‘Meridian Sound’, the obvious touchstone is ‘The Beach Boys’. With the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’-style drums, the stack harmonies, and the live theremin part, I was truly trying to capture that sound through the lens of my own work as a hip-hop artist.
Raj>>> With Ezra, actually, in the end, he was unable to contribute to ‘The Songbird Athletic’ as we had hoped. Our schedules got really busy as we were both finishing albums around the same time. But, he’s a good friend from my school days, and we used to play together in the high school jazz group that I mentioned before. With Ariel Pink, yeah, early on, I put together a track sampling one of his, and over the months of production, saw it basically to a finished product. I really fell in love with the song, ‘In Soft Focus’, so when I approached him and his people about the sampling, I was really happy to find out that he dug the track, and gave us the go-ahead to release it!
Raj>>> When I set out to make ‘Cassette City’ I did want to avoid making a “concept album.” One of the basic tenets for the production and composition of this album, as a whole, was that I wanted to make only a beautiful collection of songs. No bullshit. But still, when it comes to recurring musical themes and lyrics referencing one another, it’s hard for me to avoid. Partially, it’s like my lexicon; the code I talk in. You know, the phrase ‘bottle rocket’ means something to me, and I use it as such in my life outside of music, so those things just tend to pepper my flow, too.
Raj>>> Hmm… That might depend on who you ask. I think I’m generally pretty stable, but the frenetic sort of life I have to lead as an artist could make anyone crazy.
Raj>>> I’d absolutely bring a piano with me. The instrument has such a steep and deep learning curve. I feel like after 25 years of playing, I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with the piano. You know, I love the MPC and everything, and I could see the infinite possibilities of sampling the sounds on an island [interesting idea for a project, eh?], but there are still so many mysteries to be unlocked in the piano, first. In fact, I think that once I’m done touring ‘Cassette City’ next year, I’m going to continue taking up a serious course of study, this time in jazz piano.
Raj>>> Actually,I grew up right outside of New York City, in New Jersey. But the music of the East Coast has always informed what I do. From the indie rock stuff coming out of Boston in the late ‘80s, to the incredible soul from Philly boys, ‘Gamble and Huff’, to the street sounds coming from New York in the ‘90s, it’s all a melting pot, through which my own music is synthesized.
Raj>>> Yeah, it’s called ‘Leisure Class/Stick-up Kids: The ‘Cassette City’ Remix Project’. A mouthful, I know! But the idea, was first to get six or seven of my favorite indie rock artists, bands, and producers to remix their favorite song from ‘Cassette City’. The mini-album, which will be released later this year via !K7 features remixes from members of ‘Broken Social Scene’ as well as Jimmy Tamborello of ‘The Postal Service’ [the drum and bass one you heard], and a whole slew of remixes from up-and-coming indie bands that are fantastic. Look out for the release, and keep up on all things Lushlife at my blog, http://www.theyoungandinlove.com/
Raj>>> First off, I think your english is fine, and the questions are really, really great. It’s really hard for me to answer this question. For some reason, I’m really attracted to these kinds of words like ‘sunlight’, and more cosmic stuff like ‘the stars’ and all that stuff. I try not to get too heavy with it. But, I think, looking back, what it comes from, is, if you know about the 5 Percenters movement in the urban areas of America. Well, they’re a branch of black Muslims, who amongst other things, refer to women as the ‘Earth’, and men as ‘God’ etc. I’m not sure about the particular nomenclature, but a lot of em-cees from the ‘90s were 5 Percenters, like Brand Nubian, the RZA, and a lot of others… So, I think a lot of these terms, which I often use totally out of context, were kind of delivered to me through this roundabout way.
Raj>>> Oh yeah, lot’s of cool stuff on the horizon. Right now, I’m really focusing on the ‘Cassette City’ tour. But I’ve also got some great remixes coming out in the indie rock/electronic sort of world. Also, of course ‘Leisure Class/Stick-up Kids: The ‘Cassette City’ Remix Project’ will be released later this year. In 2010, I’ll be spending awhile recording an album of decidedly non-hip-hop material with Fakevinyl.
Raj>>> Sunshine, the countryside, cold beer, good food, and great friends.
Photos by permisson of !K7/Rapster/Alive