Saturday, 5 December 2009

A Boom Bap Continuum Mix and Interview With DJ Kper & DJ 2Tall

Last week DJ Kper sent me a mix called A Boom Bap Continuum... ten years of beats from '99 to '09, which he and DJ 2Tall spent almost a year pulling together, with help from DJ Clockwork. This is one of those classic mixtapes that will go down in history - genre defining, thoughtful & insightful, and mixed to perfection. So many friends have sent this over telling me I'll love it (the playlist is a real dream come true for us beat-nerds) and they were right- so I had to shoot the guys some questions about what this Boom Bap Continuum means...

You put this impressive and definitive mix up a couple of weeks ago and it has been a big hit already - any producers you're kicking yourselves (or who have kicked you), for missing them out?

Even though we tried our best to include most of the producers we wanted to have on the mix, the thing about restrospective mixes like this is that you're always going to miss someone out - getting it 100% right for everyone is impossible. We had some funny moments in the last few months calling/texting each other every other day to check if producer X or Y was included in the other's mix (we worked on our mixes separately for most of the process). For example Joker was added at the last minute as we'd forgot him, and I somehow managed to slide in 15 seconds of one of his tracks on top of the mix which was already done. So yeah there's a lot of people I guess you could say I'm kicking myself for missing but that's the way it goes! Top of the head we missed guys like Edan, Mr Chop, Just Blaze... there's a few! And no one's kicked us yet for missing them out no! I'd like to think they'd understand why people are missing :)

2Tall Yeah Edan for sure, maybe a few more from Vadim, Spinna, Alchemist, and Pete Rock from my end. Also I'd like to have had some more UK producers in retrospect, people like Evil Ed, Lewis Parker, Last Skeptik, Ghost, IQ, Mentat, Stereotype and some of the other more new school guys - the list is long on that front, it'd be a good time for someone to follow suit with something exclusively UK maybe?

It's interesting you feel boom bap is an aesthetic rather than a genre - if you had to describe that aesthetic what would it look like?

Kper Ah that's the can of worms right there! For me the description of boom bap as an aesthetic rather than a genre stems from the work I did last year on a series of articles centered around the idea of a 'Return of the Boom Bap' in hip hop productions, looking at people like Flying Lotus, edIT, Nosaj Thing, LuckyMe collective etc... When we were going over the text for the website last month I think I wrote, unintentionally, something to the effect that boom bap was a genre and Jim pulled me up and was like 'nah'. Which is where I consciously started to write, and refer to, boom bap as an aesthetic because that's what it really is to me, in my head.
I dont know what it would look like, I don't see it visually but one of the defining things of a boom bap aesthetic for me is the headnod, or the head snap in some cases, that automatically happens when you listen to certain productions. That to me is the physical embodiment of boom bap and why it's not a genre, but rather something which transcends genre if you will. Classic 80s/90s hip hop productions have that boom bap, that neck snap, and to me the new generation, the one we've traced in this mix, has that same element in their music. So Premo or Marley Marl or Pete Rock made boom bap with their influences (soul, funk, etc...) and now people like Flying Lotus or Hudson Mohawke make boom bap with their influences (80s, video games, etc...)
If we take one of the dictionary definitions of aesthetic (the noun) as 'A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility' then to me boom bap is a guiding principle for production and beats - if your beat has that boom bap in it, chances are people's head will nod without them thinking, their bodies will start moving, there's just something in the music. And I hope we manage to translate that to the listeners with the mix, as for me every track in there has that 'je ne sais quoi' which is the boom bap aesthetic for me.

2Tall For me its just a taste thing, a lot of modern hip-hop or rap music production is centred around a straight 16th feel - i.e. its syncopation is based on triplets - so it looks more like a jagged angular design in my mind. The 'boom bap asthetic' is more of a loose thing, it's swinging and its heavier with the kicks and snares, the format has more freedom - it's more chaotic. Something about the unquantized groove to me engages you on a different level, my whole love for the style which has been sadly termed 'wonky' is that it forces you to listen and feel it, it's not so obvious and throwaway (although already the 'beat scene' has a stylised feel perhaps) - let's be honest, Dilla pushed that to the table, Madlib followed suit and between those two guys the whole world has taken note and ran with the ball to where we are now in this 'post Dilla era'.
For me its just 'the funk!' - when I was working with Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins on 'Beautiful Mindz' back in 2007, we would constantly be evaluating what they termed the 'fonk' which apparenly paraphrases an African term for the same meaning, i.e. the groove. For them and myself I feel rhythm is part of our spirituality as people, and it should be explored. So for me the idea of a heavy humanized groove is more of a deeper design. As someone who has taken part in shamanic drum rituals and the like, I can definitely see similarities between some of the more complex earth-based spiritual rituals and the music of Flying Lotus for example. So to me 'wonky' has more meaning than that - its design is more colourful - this is why people seem to approximate some of the new styles with 'cosmic funk' or 'space music'. I should add that to me a straight 16th pattern does not really engage me on that same level, and to me seems to be why the more club based 'banger' format doesnt either.

The tracklist is heavily peppered with Madlib & J Dilla right up until 2006 where they both disappear, and the baton seems to pass over quite abruptly to names like Flying Lotus & Hudson Mohawke. Was the death of J Dilla in 2006 an intentional part of the narrative of your mix, or do you feel it reflected a natural watershed moment musically? 
(Click here to read in full)

Kper We didn't really set out to have a narrative as such, the narrative very much happened as a natural process of putting the mix together in chronological order. So yeah as a result Dilla's death marks a passing of sorts, roughly halfway through the mix, from one generation of beatmakers to the next.
I think this brings up an interesting point about this 'post-Dilla' term that's been bandied about a lot recently. Jim's touched on it in his notes on the mix. For me I think the way you put it is close to how I feel - Dilla's death, however tragic, fed into the evolution process of the whole beat/production thing by creating a template for some people to follow (which you could see as a negative, inevitable though it is) as well as inspiring others to continue to explore the possibilities of beatmaking (the positive).
2Tall Dilla's passing definately created a revolution, it put a lot of people in touch with his music, this I would say is largely down to Stones Throw and people like The Roots making noise about him - alongside of course his huge fan base. I would say that there is nothing new about that loose 'on the one' feel though (see Fatback - Let the drums speak ) or the whole synth lines-over-unquantized drums (see 'Brandy - What About Us' from 2002) - I will say that him and Madlib were hugely if not singulary influential to a whole generation of people looking for a way to re-invent this asthetic and the mix shows it really - people at that point were growing tired of the same old DJ Premier-wannabe sound - unfortunately though we did have a good couple of years of Dilla-wanna be's. I like to think that now we have a healthy movement of people bringing their own elements to the table and growing each in their own way.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the difficulty in defining the 00s as a musical era, and one of the themes touched on in your mix is that a clear term for this so called wonky, post-Dilla, glitch, beats driven movement hasn't been settled on. Do you think it is just another niche sub-genre, a cross-section of styles that defies definition, or perhaps something else entirely?

For me it's hip hop, plain and simple. That's why all these other terms won't stick. The idea for this mix was partly driven by the articles I previously mentioned, and the main point I was trying to make in those articles is that all of this is just hip hop, yes there are shades, differences in sounds and approaches, but at the core it's all hip hop. Just like trip hop was just hip hop back in 96, just like glitch hop in early 00s was just hip hop, and so on. At the core of a lot of it it's beats and beats is one of the foundations of hip hop.
I think the chopped up intro with Waajeed, Oh No, Dom Sum and Take all talking on the beats thing highlights that - the beauty of the beat thing was that people just did what they wanted, like always at times of musical innovation (see dubstep's pioneering beginnings before it blew up), and so what came out during this last decade was an insanely diverse and rich mix of people's versions, ideas and possibilities for hip hop. Another side effect of doing the mix chronologically is that I started seeing patterns, evolutionary patterns, that I hadn't really before. The late 90s and early 00s comprise primarily productions that are still rooted in the classic 90s boom bap 'template' if you will. Diversions are starting but they aren't yet too prominent. Around the mid 00s you start to see this period of musical innovation and freedom I mentioned, from like 02/03 till roughly 06, everyone is just doing what they want because at that time no one, the media, the public at large, labels, really cared about what these guys were doing. So you have people like Prefuse, MAchinedrum, Dabrye, Take, Nobody, edIT, Danny Breaks, all just doing their own take on hip hop. And then '06 onwards you start to see a unification of sorts, templates are starting to be set and this brings us to the end, to today, where there is still diversity in the output but also a fair bit of 'uniformity' if you will. I hope that makes as much sense in words as it does in my head.
To go back to the period of innovation, as always when things like this happen, the media can't cope with it and so creates new little boxes for it to fit into more easily and be spread and digested. That's the way it goes, I can relate to it cos I'm primarily a writer/journalist. But I'm going to continue to call this whole beat/wonky/glitch thing hip hop because that's what it is as far as I'm concerned, and that's one of the points I hope the mix makes - we've got stuff on there that's been labeled trip hop, glitch hop, IDM, dubstep and wonky. And yet if you call it hip hop it all still makes sense, so why confuse things more. It only ends up hindering evolution, even if it's inevitable.

In your write up of the project you say of Simon Reynolds' theory of a Hardcore Continuum "2009 was not just the year that the beat came back to worldwide prominence, it was also a year where [Simon] Reynolds’ theory was broken down and rightfully (depending on where you stand) contested by a new generation of writers and producers." Last week Simon wrote an article in The Guardian entitled "When will hip hop hurry up and die?". Care to share your thoughts?

Kper Ha ha, can I be honest (and potentially controversial) but I'm kinda with Simon on that hip hop is dying thing. It's generalising, of course, but I do feel that a lot of hip hop is rather stale and well on its way out. That isn't to say it will die and disappear but rather it's not as fresh, exciting and [insert adjective of your choice] as it used to be. So maybe saying hip hop needs to die is drastic, but it raises fair points that I feel a lot of people don't want to argue in favour of saying 'nah there's still fresh shit look at X, Y, Z'.
Also I think a lot of debate around this article, and Sasha Frere-Jones' one too, centers around more mainstream parts of the hip hop world, which for me anyways don't really interest me anymore. I follow it on and off, but I really don't listen to much vocal hip hop, mainstream or underground (or whatever the hell people call it these days). So I can't speak on it proficiently by saying that there are dope rappers out there. However I think our mix makes the point that hip hop is far from dead from a production angle, an angle that isn't necessarily known to general population because, despite its recent popularity, it's still something that is bubbling underground for the most part.
I was in NYC 2 weeks ago and I saw Ghostface live as well as DITC, Large Pro, Brand Nubian and Immortal Technique. These are all people I've grown up idolising in a way, their music soundtracked my teens. And well without going into too much detail let's just say I won't be going to a live hip hop show for a while from now on. So I think attacking hip hop's health and relevance isn't a bad thing, that is what's needed if anything. I've always believed that if you love something, then you should be able to argue both for and against it - so if all these shouting loudly about how Simon and others are deluded, wrong etc... feel so strongly about hip hop's 'health' then I'd like to hear them argue about it's ills and why it's not so healthy. I use the analogy with dnb - I use to write about dnb a fair bit when I started, and today I really don't like the music much at all, but if I was pressed I'd happily argue for its health and relevance, even if I don't necessarily 'believe' it. I think that kind of attitude is healthy. Though I guess some people might think it strange. I blame it on the French school system, we like to argue shit.

2Tall Indeed its just been changing - from a mainstream perspective perhaps there are less sales of what one could argue as 'hip hop' but I think that's just it - there is still a healthy trade of mixtapes worldwide but it's more localised - it's just not cool to Guardian readers anymore. I can say say as someone who works with teenagers in London, they are fully into rap music as much as kids in the city were in the 80's but they just don't or can't buy it - it's all downloaded, this of course won't be reflected accurately from a mainstream perspective. Right now the no.1 artist for London's youth who listen to what they call rap music or 'urban' or grime or whatever is the rapper Giggs, to them its just 'their music' - and it's certainly not showing any signs of slowing to me.

As for the 'underground' which is perhaps what you might class our mix (I'd term it as progressive) as focusing on, you can definitely see a movement away from the MC to the Producer - but this is just change - again to most people this might represent a 'death' but it's merely a change - and it gives way to a lot more crossing of boundaries when you loose the MC, because you can blur the edges more. If you ask me the last 5 years of beat music seems to have generated more interest in uptempo grooves with some producers who were making more hip hop sounding beats moving to making house grooves to Detroit techno style pieces, and even a whole garage/broken beat influence.

As for the MC? - I'm sure the MC will return, but personally I'd like to see a return to hearing more content in a rap.

Who do you think might be featured on a Boom Bap Continuum 2010 mix?

Kper God knows! Hopefully a new generation of beat makers who continue to embody the most important element of this whole thing: just be and do yourself.

2Tall Right now it's hard to say but definitely I'm seeing some interesting stuff, right now I'm feeling the future to be people like Robot Koch, Tokimonsta, Loops Haunt, Kenlo..... err! - There's too many names! (Perhaps the problem?)


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