If you didn’t notice already, hip hop has gotten weird. The sound of rap in 2013 is no longer shaped by baggy-jeaned Dre and Premier worshippers mining their parents funk and soul collections, but is being made by kids who grew up on the internet; bombarded by a broad spectrum of culture. That isn’t meant to discredit traditional-leaning hip hop production of the last decade or so, only to acknowledge that right now is a particularly exciting time to be a rap fan. At the moment it feels like anything is possible, as new sounds are created with increasing frequency and old styles are revived from new perspectives. Fleeting ideas can form grand rap narratives seemingly at random, clicking into place with an ever-evolving zeitgeist.
Two people indicative of hip hop’s evolution in the digital age are Friendzone, an Oakland duo who have emerged from music’s experimental fringes to producing a beat on a US number one album in just a few years. Their beats for Main Attrakionz, A$AP Rocky, Antwon and others have put them at the forefront of a new wave of producers looking to print their stamp on this most malleable of genres, stripping out typical kick-snare combinations in favour of airy, often sombre sounds.
We caught up with James Laurence and Dylan Reznick of Friendzone to chat about this trend, who have also created a mix for us serving as evidence of their myriad influences. Friendzone's world is made up of jittering hi-hats, J-pop, sorrowful samples and love songs of all kinds; all of these things swishing around together to create the prettiest instrumentals in the game.
The. Prettiest. In. The. Game.
So firstly, could you fill us in a little on your musical background prior to starting Friendzone?
Dylan: We have both always liked to write music and have been starting bands and stuff since we were in high school. Both of us have been involved in many projects spanning a lot of different styles, but I have always been interested in a wide variety of music and wanted to play all of it and blend it all together to make new things.
Although Friendzone beats appear to be informed by a lot of non-rap music, has hip hop always had a presence in your lives or is it something that developed later?
James: I’ve always listened to hip hop but we didn’t start producing it till we heard Squadda B and the I Smoke Because I Don’t Care About Death tape.
Dylan: Rap has always been a major one but we’ve both been interested in a lot of different kinds of music for our whole lives. I think the era where people tied themselves to a single genre of music is ending... styles change too fast now. If you’re really into music, you’re experiencing new genres all the time on the internet. I think that’s what’s so exciting about rap... Its fluid, constantly evolving and encourages innovation. There are no limits or rules for the music, as long as it’s possible to rap over it.
I notice in the past you’ve cited Xiu Xiu as having a significant influence over your music. This interests me because it’s a band I love, but it’s rare that Jamie Stewart’s music crosses over in rap journalism. How would you say a band like Xiu Xiu informs your music as Friendzone?
James: I’m a huge Xiu Xiu fan and they inspired me to start creating music via software/computers when I was 15. I’ve seen them live nine times and I used to be penpals with Jamie. When I first heard Xiu Xiu, I’d never heard anything like that before, it rocked my 15-year-old mind and changed the way I look at music and songwriting forever. Jamie Stewart knows how to portray his real emotions through his music and that’s what I want to do with Friendzone.
Would you draw any comparisons between the separate appeals of Xiu Xiu and rap music? For instance, there’s a heart-in-mouth honesty shared between them that, although expressed differently, I think is what draws me to both…
James: Yeah, like you said, it’s all about honesty. I’m drawn to honest music. Hip Hop, Xiu Xiu…outsider music, because it taps into my heart. That’s when I know it’s good.
Dylan: Lil B connects with me for a lot of the same reasons as Xiu Xiu did. His music is pop and uncompromising art at the same time. People saw what he was doing and it opened their minds. He showed us what was possible if we let go of our expectations. He broke down all the boundaries and set the precedent for this whole movement.
You’ve got a number of releases lined up for 2013, are you able to tell us a little bit about each of those and when/how they’ll be available?
Dylan: In February we’re gonna drop Kuchibiru Network 3, the third in a series of mixtapes that we curate every year featuring all new original music by us, Main Attrakionz, and a bunch our friends. This year we’ve got some really nice tracks from Ryan Hemsworth, Skywlkr, DJ Kenn (from GBE), DJ 2 $tacks, Silky Johnson, Keyboard Kid and a few others.
After that, we’re releasing DX, which is a 50-minute record consisting of music we wrote after getting hit up to submit beats for Kendrick Lamar and TDE during the recording of good kid, m.A.A.d City. We actually made around 2 hours of new music that, in retrospect, was obviously way too weird to get used, so we decided to pick out some favourites and put it out as an LP. The rest will be released one way or another.
We’re also working on Main Attrakionz’ next LP, 808 & Dark Grapes III, which we are producing all the way through. That might be out in the spring or summer. We’ve been working on it pretty hard for a long time. I think it’s our best work.
Given what you say about the beats you made for Kendrick, do you therefore feel like your beats are suited to a particular style of rapper? How do you feel about working with more traditional emcees?
Dylan: A lot of rappers want beats that take up less space... I’ve noticed most other producers mix their drums loud and let the samples sit in the background, which makes it good for clubs and provides lots of space for the rappers to dominate the song. Samples and synths take up more space in our tracks... In our songs, the music and the vocals usually hold equal weight. They are like the “lead singers” of our “band”... It doesn’t gel well with a lot of the more traditional rappers and limits who we can work with, but the beats don’t sound like us anymore when we try to do it the other way.
Your beats for Main Attrakionz do a great job of emphasising both the sadness and joy at the heart of their music. What’s your relationship like with them and why do you think you complement each other so well?
James: Squadda and Mondre [of Main Attrakionz] are some of our best friends. We met them two years ago and have become very close. We always have them in mind when we make a beat. They are our favourite people to work with and a joy to have around.
Dylan: They are my favourite rappers. Even before we met them I was in love with their music. It resonated with me very deeply. I feel like we relate to them a lot; musically and as people. When we started working together our relationship was mostly business-only but now we hang out together a lot. We’ve recorded probably at least a hundred songs together since we started, but we only release it little bits at a time.
Having also produced ‘Fashion Killa’ off of A$AP Rocky’s LongLiveA$AP, how does it feel having a beat on a legit mainstream rap album? Was that ever in the game plan when you started out making rap beats?
James: We never expected it to happen. I truly think one of the keys to success is to never expect anything. You are setting yourself up for failure if you go into music expecting to make money or find a fanbase that appreciate your music right out of the gate. You have to be honest with yourself and work hard.
Dylan: I definitely never would have guessed things would go the way they have. I still don’t really believe it. But ever since the first time James and I worked on a song together I knew this was serious.
I also wanted to ask about your relationship with Japan. In your mix for us as well as your other music and artwork, it often seems to have a presence. When did your interest in Japanese culture begin and how does it fit into your work as Friendzone?
James: When I was 13 I took a trip to Japan with my father who was going on a business trip. What I saw completely changed the way I look at art, music, and the world. I went to every arcade, visited many record stores, and really soaked everything in. I fell in love with the way Tokyo looked and sounded. When you’re in Shibuya, you are constantly bombarded by music, beautiful lights, video, and all sorts of media. I hope to go back as soon as possible, we have a fanbase in Japan and they are wonderful people.
Finally, could you give any background info on the songs in your mix for us?
Dylan: Some of it is stuff that didn’t make it onto DX. A few songs are from other projects we’ve been working on. Others are just songs that we like or music that has had some kind of impact on us.
Kicking off the playlist this time around is Droop-E, who preps his forthcoming Hungry and Humble release with what might be my favourite song of 2013 thus far. Elsewhere there are new cuts from Pusha T, Antwon and King Louie, as well as an impressively wordy debut from 15 year-old newcomer Chester Weston. The influence of MF DOOM on young emcees has seemed increasingly prevalent in recent years, and Chester is the latest to have grown up studying the flow of the masked villain.
Featured mixtape: Starlito – Funerals and Court dates
Nashville’s Starlito is blessed with one of rap music’s most valuable natural assets, a voice capable of telling a hundred stories with each laboured word. His weary, Weezy-esque drawl manages to effortlessly convey struggle, loading each bar with a depth that reaches far beyond the lyric sheet. Signed to Cash Money during Wayne’s untouchable mid 00s era, things didn’t work out for Lito – perhaps there just wasn’t room for two guys croaking out smart, leftfield punchlines in a similar cadence.
But while Wayne’s success has made him an artistic casualty, Starlito has thrived on the indie circuit through a flurry of creatively strong mixtapes. His catalogue by now is extensive and intimidating, but his latest – Funerals and Court Dates – might be a good place to start for those uninitiated. At 27, Lito is an articulate lost soul, marrying tales of loss and regret with witty wordplay and brutal honesty. “Sad as fuck at the happy hour”, he quips on ‘Lost’, in what could almost allude to 2005’s ‘Grey Goose’ – his ode to Vodka that remains his biggest hit to date. Lito’s strained delivery can be at once funny and desperate, and songs like these can make you laugh or cry depending on how you read them.
Tree ft. The City – Tree ft. The City
It would be easy to have read the music press over the last year and argue that the soul has been battered out of Chicago by the city’s ongoing struggle against violence. Yet putting aside Young Chop’s ubiquitous hi-hat rolls and Chief Keef’s bleak, often nihilistic sloganeering, Chicago has seen an upsurge in rap music of another kind. Pulling together some of these other talents is rising emcee/producer Tree, whose Sunday School mixtape was among best releases I heard in 2012. With Tree at the helm, this compilation continues to advance the early Kanye blueprint of mangled soul loops, while also showcasing some of Chicago’s most understated and overlooked young blood.
Kilo Kish – K+
Kilo Kish is the art school rap project of Lakisha Robinson, whose music is as much about the process of creation as it is the end product. Why should we care about the process of creation? Well, In an age where you can download Nas or Jay’s canonised discographies in a matter of minutes, there’s something refreshing about hearing a relative newcomer to rap not trying to achieve ‘greatness’, but simply playing around with the form. Borrowing verses and beats from familiar faces such as Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, Star Slinger and The Internet, this is a record that isn't afraid of imperfection but still manages to sound lovingly produced, and – in moments - hits upon something special of its own creation.
The Underacchievers – Indigoism
The Underachievers occupy an interesting space in the current hip hop landscape, affiliated with recent purveyors of throwback New York rap (Pro Era, Flatbush Zombies), while also signed to Flying Lotus’ hub of west-coast invention; Brainfeeder. Debut full-length Indigioism straddles both of these camps and manages to err just on the right side of nostalgia. While these eighteen tracks do occasionally blend into one, the beat selection is strong and emcees Issa Dash and AK have all the technical clout as rappers. But while The Underachievers seem to have all the assets, there’s still something missing for me; I suspect it’s that the duo’s thematic choices of spirituality and third-eye-opening just don’t strike a chord with me. Even so, the best songs on Indigoism such as the undeniable 'Gold Soul Theory' and 'T.A.D.E.D' are enough to keep me coming back for more.
YG – Just Re’d Up 2
Teaming up with one of 2012’s breakout producers – DJ Mustard – YG might just have made the most cohesive full-length ‘ratchet’ record. Mustard’s spacious, clap-heavy productions were a dominant new force in hip hop last year, and they don’t look like going away anytime soon. Like Mustard, YG is somebody who has seen west-coast rap trends come and go, so it’s no surprise that he rides these beats with a natural ease. If you’re looking for complex rhymes or insightfulness, YG probably isn’t your guy, but he has a knack for transforming a great beat into a tightly-constructed club thumper sure to demand rewind after rewind.
Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story
While Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d City might have won all the major plaudits in 2012, early signs suggest Future’s Pluto could prove equally significant. The way that record dropped its guard now feels like a landmark moment, daring to be romantic and street-tough at the same damn time (go ahead and add me to the list), while almost single-handedly resuscitating the trajectory of auto-tune rappers. Future released a tape of his own since my last column, but it’s this Kevin Gates record released in the Future-mould that I’ve returned to more often. As a rapper Gates has enormous range, and now that certain barriers fencing hip hop into corners are beginning to crumble, he’s able to flourish under this new freedom. Gates is equally comfortable whether his domain is crooning or coke rap, and the depth with which The Luca Brasi Story handles both of these things makes for a varied and rewarding listen.