A Family Affair

Laurent Fintoni is a DJ, label owner, writer for FACT magazine, and likes hip-hop from Germany (among many other places).

Betty Ford Boys

It’s late spring, 2012. I’m standing on empty train tracks and the setting sun is painting the sky in soothing colors. My friends and I are fooling around near some empty, rusting cars as the recognizable thud of a hip-hop beat drifts in the air from a nearby sound system. I’m on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany, for the yearly Beat BBQ event, hosted by local labels Melting Pot Music (MPM) and Up My Alley. This was my first visit and it proved to be one of the most enjoyable daytime festivals I’d ever attended. The crowd was mixed with everyone from families to music nerds, the music was perfectly suited to the weather, the food was tasty and drinks were flowing, and visual artists were busying themselves on various surfaces. As night fell, the festivities continued in an old, industrial hangar with live shows and DJs facing the outdoor area. In many ways, the party had only just started.

Cologne might not be the first European town you look to as a hub for indie hip-hop, yet this old Roman city—Germany’s fourth-largest and a major cultural center—is arguably one of the brightest nodes in a worldwide network of hip-hop-centric communities. Despite a relaxed, small-town vibe, Cologne has been putting it down for over a decade alongside cities such as Los Angeles, Montreal, Glasgow and Tokyo—towns with scenes that sprang up in the late 2000s as a revived interest around beats and instrumental hip-hop grew. The team behind the Beat BBQ can take some credit for that.

MPM was founded in 2002 by Oliver Von Felbert, a discreet man who sports an elegant beard, displays a jovial attitude, and speaks in an understated manner. Everyone affectionately refers to him as Olski. A former journalist, DJ and lifelong record collector, Von Felbert had always been a fan of labels. By the early 2000s, he had become increasingly interested in the creative process that goes into both making and releasing music.

Olski
Olski, MPM Records

Following a stint at Groove Attack, a key independent distributor for hip-hop in Europe that was born of the 20-year-old (and counting) Cologne record shop of the same name, Von Felbert decided to take a leap and start MPM. “I worked for Groove Attack’s Superrappin’ label and, after three years, decided I knew everything I needed to know to run a label. But as I found out, I didn’t know anything,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was just a music fan who knew some people. All the other boring stuff I had to learn by making mistakes.” What other way is there to learn in this business?

MPM’s early days focused on the kind of deep funk and soul that Von Felbert liked. The label’s first signing was Lefties Soul Connection, a Dutch outfit whose style he describes as, “hard, fast funk, like The Meters.” The turning point for the label would come a few years later with a release by California’s DJ Day. Von Felbert had met met Day on the old Soul Strut boards, back when music forums drove much of the interaction between fans worldwide. Day gave MPM a single with an uptempo track on the A side and a more mellow, instrumental joint called “Four Hills” on the B side. “That was the first record we put out that you could call a beat record,” Von Felbert explained.

Despite being a B-side, “Four Hills” became the more popular track and led Von Felbert and his label down a path he had always wanted to explore. “I liked the idea of releasing instrumental hip-hop. I was always a fan of people like Kenny Dope and Nervous Records,” he recalls, pointing to the New York label that dealt in both dance music and slower, headier beats. “We called them dope beat records—Frankie Feliciano, Ganja Posse, those guys, and also that first Nightmares On Wax album. I always liked the idea of doing hip-hop music without rap.”

Miles Bonny

The attraction of hip-hop beats sans the rap is nothing new. It’s a shared genesis, from the legendary UK label Mo’ Wax (original home to “instrumentalists” like DJs Shadow and Krush), all the way through to MPM. And as predominantly English-speaking hip-hop spread worldwide, many countries developed their own way of developing the art form on a local level. For Germans, English was not their first language, so able MCs were rare. This made hip-hop lyrics secondary to the music. For Von Felbert, German rap at the time just wasn’t good enough, and while he now feels that has changed (the label is releasing music from a handful of German rappers), it led him to focus on the beats.

Berlin-based Suff Daddy was the first German producer that MPM would sign. They hooked up via Myspace and it was on that platform that the label initially grew through recommendations and local connections. MPM has continued to grow organically with artists like Twit One, a Cologne-based producer and DJ, who also works at the Groove Attack shop. He is also the bass player and band leader for Fleur Earth, an act that has released three albums via MPM.

Fleur Earth

“What really kicked the whole thing off for us was the Hi-Hat Club series,” Von Felbert says, explaining the label’s growth and popularity. “It started in 2009, all by chance. Twit One and his friend Hulk Hodn had a whole bunch of beats they were sitting on. They approached us to do a short run of white labels. I liked the idea, but felt that this needed something special. At the same time, I met a local photographer, Robert Winter, who had done promo shots for some of our artists. He’d become friends with some of the producers here and had this very distinctive, hard contrast, black-and-white style. When he showed me the photos, it made bedroom producers look good. So the idea came together of putting these beats in nice packaging that used Robert’s photos to make it something special.”

The first volume of 500 12-inch records sold out within six weeks. A repress soon followed, and it became clear to Von Felbert that MPM had a sustainable project on its hands. Five volumes followed, presenting some of the finest European beat makers to the world: Suff Daddy, Dexter from Stuttgart, Brenk from Vienna and Fid Mella from Italy, Full Crate and FS Green from Holland, and Cologne’s Adlib, an ex-member of German turntablist outfit Noisy Stylus, who contributed his debut album to the series.

Suff Daddy

For Von Felbert, the series became a way to develop artists. Brenk went on to record an album with singer Miles Bonny; Twit One developed his solo hip-hop output; and The Betty Ford Boys, a supergroup comprised of Brenk, Suff Daddy and Dexter, was born from the series.

In 2013, I returned to the Beat BBQ. The public’s enthusiasm for primarily instrumental music and beats was still in full effect. While witnessing Suff Daddy play a three-hour beat set, it struck me that the event and, to an extent, Cologne, the audience, and many of the producers involved in the scene, had a predilection for a production style rooted in the classic 1990s East Coast sound. It’s a style you’ll instantly recognize in the beats of Twit One, Dexter, and others associated with the Hi-Hat Club series. Cologne loves the classics and reveres hip-hop’s sampling ethos.

“That classic sound is still pretty popular all over Germany, even in the more commercial records,” agrees Von Felbert. “For the label and me, it just happened that some of the producers we worked with have a strong connection to that sound,” he says, before pointing out that his own tastes in hip-hop were influenced by that era. But he’s keen for the label not to appear retro-minded or without interest in the present.

Twit One

“So many of the producers are also record collectors,” Von Felbert explains. “They’re very much interested in music in general, and the roots of it all. Dexter, for example, works with samples and has classical influences, but to me, the way he makes his beats is very different. There’s no record from 1996 that sounds like what he’s doing now.” Von Felbert notes how the label has also given space to producers like HADE and France’s Fulgeance, whose aesthetics are more electronic and dance-minded.

When I ask HADE what makes the five-year-old Beat BBQ event so special, he points to the fact that, like MPM, it’s like a big family gathering. “No matter how big it got over the last years, there is always this intangible vibe of being at home.”

MPM Records

A Look Back to Move Forward

Kaki King

“I’m glad that even if that particular technique—when I use body percussion and all sorts of crazy guitar—drove my career to be on television, I have a body of work worth releasing that doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

Metallic, frenzied finger-picking may have become Kaki King’s impressive trademark, but the guitarist and singer is quick to prove that the bulk of her catalog has nothing to do with the style that made her famous. Now a decade into her career, King is releasing Everybody Glows: B-Sides and Rarities, a collection of seemingly forgotten recordings gathered from various live shows across the world and numerous studio sessions. On the eve of its release, King took a minute to reflect on Everybody Glows, why she’s thrilled about the buried treasure deep within the lyrics of these tracks, and what it says about her growth as an artist as she begins the next phase of her career.

Bandcamp: It’s been two years since you dropped Glow, your last full-length. What led you to repackage your previous material with Everybody Glows?

Kaki King: You know, I found a lot of value in those songs over the years. I always wanted them to have some kind of home, whether playing them live or putting them on a vinyl-only collectors’ thing. It was very personal for me, capping off a decade of making music. I actually put the compilation together around the 10-year anniversary of releasing Everybody Loves You, the first record. I think there’s something about hitting a decade in music where you’re like, “Wow, I’m still standing! Okay! What’s next?” A lot of it had to do with me moving onto phase two, or the second decade. I wanted to let these songs finally see the light of day and give back to the fans who’ve supported me so much. There’s a lot of value to everything I’ve put on the record. I feel like it tells a story. It marks a moment.

BC: I’m sure condensing a decade’s worth of material to 16 tracks was a project in and of itself. Why are these the songs we’re hearing?

KK: I don’t have 80 songs lying around; I’ve always worked really economically. I’ve always valued my time in the studio and haven’t really messed around too much. There wasn’t a lot to pull from, I’ll say that. This is just the best of what I had. I feel like the live, radio version of an acoustic guitar song sounds entirely different [from the released version]. Then there’s a song like “Goby,” which really evolved over time, the more the band played it live with intros, solos, and everything. I saw how that song didn’t start out that way; it took touring for it to become what it is. “Tunnel” is another great example. I actually wrote a song about a physical thing—the Midtown Tunnel. I haven’t really shared that before. The intention is to drive through a tunnel while playing this song and see how you feel—the slight amount of claustrophobia it induces. It’s not been something I’ve done a lot of, saying “that was a thing I did that was interesting.”

BC: The geographic sprawl of the record is notable, with Japanese singles, Australian radio cuts, and Belgian live recordings all in the fray. Was representing this mix of places on the record intentional?

KK: It’s funny, you go to a radio station and you’re early, and you feel weird and awkward. Then you play a song, and afterward, they just hand you a CD of it. Half the time I lose it or stick it somewhere, so I have a few live recordings where sometimes the sound guy was like, “I made a recording tonight, here it is! Keep it!” There are tons of fan recordings, too. There’s a lot of live stuff to choose from. The geographical stuff, it just happened to be that I chose songs that were recorded in different parts of the world. I’m not an archivist, and I wish I had been! It’s sort of funny how someone can hand you a recording of a song you just played and then all of a sudden you’re like, “I am really happy that I have this.”

BC: Your cover of The Cure’s “Close to Me” is also on Everybody Glows. How did that particular recording come about?

KK: That’s the weirdest, funniest story. A record label in L.A. was doing a charity-only vinyl record of Cure covers. They asked me if I wanted to cover a song, and I said I’d love to, but it wasn’t a long, thought-out process. My friends and I recorded it, and we sent it in, and that was it. I didn’t give it more thought than that, so it sounds very cute and lo-fi and not out of design, necessarily. It ended up being the music for this Nivea advertisement in the U.K., and it was everywhere! It was kind of a huge ad campaign. Robert Smith had been asked by someone at Nivea, “Hey, can we use ‘Close to Me’?” and he said, “No. Actually, I just heard another version of this song, why don’t you use that?” And it was my version! The song that I had spent the least amount of time and energy on became the most successful single I’ve ever done (laughs).

Kaki King

BC: Your dad wrote the liner notes for the record. What got him involved?

KK: My dad is the biggest music fan I’ve ever met. The way it affects him and the way he shapes his life around being able to listen to music is a profoundly beautiful thing. He plays a little guitar, but he’s not a musician. He should’ve been a DJ or music historian in another life. He used to write reviews for Creative Loafing in Atlanta. A guy who worked for him (my dad’s a lawyer) used to work for the paper, and so my dad wrote record reviews under a pseudonym. He’s been my biggest supporter and biggest fan since day one, since I was a child. He’s never been a stage dad or pushed me toward anything, but he’s always seen something in me and found a way to tinder that fire without being pushy. I just thought it was so fitting to have him do this. It’s been very sweet, very touching. My dad’s great.

BC: Was there anything he said about the songs on Everybody Glows that surprised you?

KK: He did point out something. He basically said, “Kaki, the slapping, tapping hand technique is not on this record. This is a really beautiful record and it doesn’t need any of that.” It goes to show that there’s only a handful of songs I wrote using that technique. I’m glad that even if that particular technique—when I use body percussion and all sorts of crazy guitar—drove my career to be on television, I have a body of work worth releasing that doesn’t have anything to do with that. People are interested in me outside of all that stuff. The 95 percent of my music that has nothing to do with that is what’s represented on this record.

Return of the Colossus: Mr. Lif

Mr. Lif by Amanda MacchiaPhoto by Amanda Macchia

Keep your sunny days, Mr. Lif likes it moody. Since leaving his native Boston in the mid-1990s, the veteran MC has bounced between the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and of late, the Pacific Northwest. As it turns out, that region’s drizzly climate is good for his creativity. “Once it’s late fall, you get constant gray skies and that haziness. It gets me into a zone for writing and making beats, just crafting songs,” Lif says. Considering that he had been on a self-imposed, solo recording hiatus for several years, Lif fans should be happy that stormy weather is proving to be the catalyst for some new releases.

Since first emerging in the late 1990s, Mr. Lif has always cut a memorable figure: a slim, bookish dread head that somehow produced a booming, guttural voice you’d expect from someone twice his size. It was a flow he began to develop as a college student in Upstate New York, not exactly a hip-hop hotbed at the time. When he and his cipher partners first started freestyling, the local stores stocked so few rap records that they had to resort to rhyming over Portishead. “The Dummy album was out and we would just rhyme over ‘Sour Times,’ you know, because [singer Beth Gibbons] wasn’t rhyming, so we would rhyme over her,” Lif laughs.

Mr. Lif by Amanda MacchiaPhoto by Amanda Macchia

When Lif returned to Boston, he found a cohort of hungry compatriots, including 7L & Esoteric, Truth Elemental and Virtuoso. All were eager to lift the city out of New York’s shadow and they collaborated to record the Rebel Alliance compilation in 1997. Lif followed that with a series of profile-raising releases, including his solo debut 12-inch, “Electro,” and a single for the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal imprint, “Farmhand.” (All of Lif’s early releases are available through his anthology, Sleepyheads.)

Around this time, Lif crossed paths with El-P, rapper/producer for Company Flow. They became friends and as Lif was prepping a debut EP, Enter the Colossus, El-P approached him with an offer to release the record through his new label, Definitive Jux. “I had no idea he was going to build Def Jux into what it became,” says Lif. “I felt like I was just taking a shot, a leap of faith with a friend. And, wow, did he ever hit a home run.”

In Lif’s prolific time with Def Jux — a dozen releases over six years — his identity solidified as a politically engaged artist: nice with the flow, but also incisive in his messaging. “I think that really comes from me being the child of two immigrants from Barbados, and just watching them try to give me the best life possible, but struggle,” he explains. Through his parents, he saw the callousness of capitalism. “When the home phone rang,” he says, “you didn’t know if you wanted to answer it because it could be a bill collector…hassling my folks.” He also came of age through two different Gulf Wars, which informed his skepticism of U.S. militarism (see the cover of 2002’s Emergency Rations).

Mr. Lif by Amanda MacchiaPhoto by Amanda Macchia

For all of his success at the time, Lif admits that, “bottom line, I got spoiled.” When he first started, it was a mark of pride for Lif to produce his own material. “In the very beginning, I was working my humble little day job, dreaming of beats all day; I couldn’t wait to go home. It was just ‘attack the EPS-16+’ at that point.” As his career took off, however, he had heavyweights like El-P, Edan, Fakts One and Insight backing him. “I got away from my own philosophy of self-sufficiency and I was able to get away with it for a while because I was surrounded by all these talented producers who were in their own period of high output.”

However, when the mid-2000s rolled around and the bottom dropped out of the record industry, Lif felt unmoored and dissatisfied in his own music-making process. After recording his second LP with Def Jux, Mo’ Mega in 2006, he parted ways with the label and then laid low for three years until popping back up in 2009 to self-release I Heard It Today, which he describes as “a very humble, independent release — intentionally humble.” It was, as much as anything, a way to prove to himself that he could still do this on his own.

Mr. Lif by Amanda MacchiaPhoto by Amanda Macchia

Since 2009, Lif has chosen to focus more on collaborative work than his own material. He’s always had a long history of working with other artists (his Sleepyheads 2 is devoted just to his collaborations), but what’s distinguished his partnerships over the last few years is how eclectic they’ve been. For a while, he was living and recording with the Balkan brass band, Brass Menazeri. “I found a lot of natural pockets to rhyme in with Balkan brass music,” Lif explains.

He’s also been a preferred guest with Washington D.C.’s Thievery Corporation, who were introduced to Lif through a photographer. “I didn’t see it coming at all, but what a game changer! I’ve been touring with Thievery Corporation since 2011,” he says. One of the songs they recorded together, “Culture of Fear,” was remixed by Oakland’s Polish Ambassador. “My jaw dropped. It was just as professional as the original, and just an amazing spin on the song,” says Lif, and he sought out Polish Ambassador to work with more directly. Lif, Polish Ambassador, and singer/songwriter Ayla Nereo have now formed a new group: Terra Bella.

Lif explains that his penchant for collaborations comes from a feeling of liberation he gets from working with other people’s expectations instead of his own. “When you’re doing your own record…your own expectations are probably the hardest things to get out from under. But when someone hits you up, and they’re like — ‘Hey man, drop a verse on my record!’ — that’s freedom right there. For those 16 bars or whatever, you get to cut loose and have reckless abandon.”

Mr. Lif by Lacey TerrellMr. Lif with Thievery Corporation, Photo by Lacey Terrell

Looking forward, Lif is finally ready to get back to his own work. He’s been brainstorming on Return of the Colossus, an EP featuring Q-Bert on the cuts and Lif exclusively on both the mic and the production boards. As he sees it, he’s finally coming back full circle to his beginnings as a self-sufficient rapper/producer. “It’s been a beautiful adventure, getting back to my roots as a beat maker, making more of that uncompromising filth that got me noticed in the first place.” Just hope for gray skies to keep his creativity in focus.

Expanding the Expanse

Vicky Chow

“We lose ourselves in the groove, letting the bright sounds wash over our ears. But not all minimalism is idyllic.”

Listening to pianist Vicky Chow blaze through Tristan Perich’s Surface Image, one is tempted to cry “Minimalism!” After all, we’re dealing with a sonic landscape not all that distinct from the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley. With its overlapping patterns, static harmonies, and relentless repetition—not to mention its unbroken, hour-plus length—Surface Image might easily be seen as a 21st-century companion to the minimalist classics of the 1960s.

Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich
Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

Perich’s work investigates the sonic attributes of 1-bit music, whose low-fi quality trumps even the already low-fi, old-school video game sounds of chiptune (see: Anamanaguchi). In Surface Image, Chow’s unyielding piano is backed by forty hand-built speakers that intermittently blast bursts of 1-bit accompaniment. But even here, there are resonances with minimalism: the reedy timbre of the electronics weirdly resembles the looping saxophones of early Terry Riley or La Monte Young.

These days, every year seems like a landmark for minimalism. If it isn’t a celebration of a major milestone—in November, the 50th anniversary of Riley’s In C; next year, Riley’s and Young’s 80th birthdays—then it’s a Carnegie Hall premiere of a big, new Reich or Glass work. And with every concert or record, the music industry reminds us that Reich listens to Radiohead, Glass worked with Brian Eno, Young’s drones influenced the Velvet Underground, and Riley inspired The Who. The hyperbole surrounding minimalism is that it’s the rare experimental moment in American music that has close ties to the rock world.

That pop culture focus, however, often obscures the expanse of sounds that minimalism has encompassed. A number of recent releases available on Bandcamp—including Perich and Chow’s new album, out this week on New Amsterdam—opens up one’s ears to minimalisms that extend beyond the oft-cited quartet of Young, Riley, Glass, and Reich.

In case you’re not familiar with those pioneering composers, an excellent new recording of Reich’s New York Counterpoint by clarinetist James Falzone is a great way to dive into the sound of classic minimalism. Listen to how the musical lines fall gradually in and out of sync, producing waves of resonant harmony—a development on Reich’s phasing technique.

James Falzone
James Falzone by Robert Loerzel

It’s easy to bliss out to New York Counterpoint, and that’s the case with much minimalist music; we lose ourselves in the groove, letting the bright sounds wash over our ears. But not all minimalism is idyllic. In the 1960s, shaped by the minimalist visual aesthetic of Robert Morris and Donald Judd, Reich and Glass focused on process-oriented work—setting up chains of musical events and letting them unfold over several hours. But both composers eventually abandoned those forms of experimentation for more tightly crafted musical narratives.

Tim Munro
Tim Munro by Marc Perlish

Composer Tom Johnson, best known for his seminal Village Voice music criticism, has maintained a commitment to the experimental edge of early minimalism, forsaking sweet sounds in favor of harsh patterns. A new album on Parlour Tapes+ by flutist Tim Munro includes Johnson’s Counting Duets, in which voices shout numbers in tightly woven patterns. Munro’s plainspoken but aggressive counting reflects a more abrasive kind of process, minimalism as maddening rather than blissful. (One is reminded of the famous story of an audience member, during a Carnegie Hall performance of Reich’s severe Four Organs, yelling “All right, I’ll confess!”)

Several years ago, Johnson—based in Paris since the 1980s—visited Kansas City for a conference sponsored by the Society for Minimalist Music. In a keynote lecture, the composer was surprisingly dismissive of the direction that American minimalism had taken in recent decades (he shrugged off Adams’s Nixon in China, one of the masterworks of minimalist-inflected composition). Instead, Johnson offered up an alternative strain of minimalism: that of the Wandelweiser collective. This loose international grouping of composers takes after John Cage and Christian Wolff’s midcentury explorations of silence. For Wandelweiser, minimalism represents a minimal use of sound rather than a minimal use of materials (rare is the silent moment in the music of Reich and Glass). Pianist R. Andrew Lee, who attended Johnson’s Kansas City lecture, has since become an advocate for Wandelweiser on the label Irritable Hedgehog. (I should note that I write liner notes for Lee’s albums.) On his most recent recording of piano works by composer Jürg Frey, we hear stillness interrupted, repetition thwarted: minimalism as minor acts of sonic violence against a listener lulled by its expansiveness.

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee

Lee has committed to eroding conventional definitions of minimalism by performing works by composers like Frey and his colleague Eva-Maria Houben. He also recently commissioned a new work from composer Randy Gibson, who heads the Avant Media series in New York and is one of the few disciples of the famously reclusive La Monte Young. Young’s groundbreaking, drone-based works of the early ’60s set the stage for Riley and the rest. A 2011 recording of Gibson’s quicksilver Aqua Madora, played on just intonation piano and sine waves, captures his work with Young, with music rooted in Rāga and drones.

Randy Gibson
Randy Gibson by Stern Weber Studios

A similar austerity reigns in Fly By Night, a recent album from Adrian Knight. One can hear the ties between minimalism and ambient music—formalized by Brian Eno in his 1978 Music for Airports—played out as moody, ethereal clouds of sound.

And there are, of course, many composers today who harness just a smidgen of the rigor of minimalism and redirect it toward other goals. In Judah Adashi’s my heart comes undone, a reimagining of a Björk song inflected by the Estonian minimalism of Arvo Pärt, Lavena Johanson’s cello is looped to create an impassioned soliloquy.

Eve Beglarian’s Until It Blazes—released on an excellent album by guitarist Giacomo Fiore—is another example of riveting postminimalism. There is a nervous jitter to Beglarian’s processed music, which gradually accrues little strumming riffs that play off each other. Its restraint feels constantly on the edge of explosion—an explosion that finally occurs in the final seconds of the work. Much of the success here, as with Chow’s and Lee’s recordings, lies with the virtuosity of the performer, who balances clarity with a sense of vastness.

Giacomo Fiore
Giacomo Fiore

The mournful, abstract cello and vocals of musician Hildur Guðnadóttir—whose latest, Saman, came out in June—offer a perhaps unlikely companion to the repetitive sentiment of Beglarian and Adashi. With plaintive vocals sung atop a droning cello, and a polyphony of still and moving lines, the song “Heyr Himnasmiður” resembles, if anything, the minimalists of medieval music. I have no idea whether this falls under any conception of minimalism as discussed above; I just really like it.

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