King Britt remains a holistic musical powerhouse, forward-thinking and unbound by codified structures. An attempt to summarize his career arc is bound to inspire an Expanding Brain Meme or two. Time itself seems to scramble trying to catch up with this influential Philly-based musician, DJ, and producer. Not much of a surprise, given the fact that Britt used to visit the residence of Sun Ra himself in his childhood. Recollecting images of an urban temple with cosmic deities dressed in gleaming attire, that’s bound to unshackle something in your brain.
In his formative musical years buying/importing at the local Tower Records, Britt became the type of head who could level with any person about any type of music. Whether he talks about Alice Coltrane, Burial, Ariana Grande, or Cocteau Twins, his cultivated reflections always manage to enthrall and inspire. How many artists can say they’ve had a serious heavy metal phase, yet still romped the West Philly rave scene with DJ Jazzy Jeff?
Indeed, Britt’s receptive mentality towards art and music makes him a bona fide trailblazer. His Transmissions show on Red Bull Radio is an essential crash course for aficionados eager to expand their taste further. Britt’s time-honored acumen in production techniques and instrumentation allows him to synthesize and tether music in not so obvious ways, granting the listener both a deeper understanding and willingness to discover more. Throughout his career, amazingly enough, Britt kept himself soundly at the vanguard of music’s ongoing metamorphosis. He co-founded the influential Ovum Recordings with Josh Wink, manned the turntables for hip-hop deconstructionists Digable Planets, and did soundtrack work for the likes of Michael Mann. And that’s just a tip of the iceberg of his total output.
In 2012, his Fhloston Paradigm project grabbed the attention of cutting edge label Hyperdub. The latest Fhloston Paradigm-record AFTER, released on independent imprint KingBrittArchives, finds Britt drifting in the deep end yet again. Unlike previous Fhloston LPs, however, he deliberately abandons a rhythm-based MO. Each track represents an awe-inspiring aural voyage for King Britt, meandering in unearthly ambiance, hypnotic loops and powerful vocal improvs with an eclectic cast of fellow travelers. The album features notable contributions from vocalist/musician Pia Ercole, guitar virtuoso Tim Motzer, fellow Philly omni-artist Moor Mother and producer Nosaj Thing.
As we connect by phone, Britt is noticeably riding an emotional high. He often utters the word “unbelievable” with contagious bewilderment, as if he’s still in his artistic infancy. For one, King Britt glows about his upcoming live project with ensemble Alarm Will Sound, taking the Fhloston Paradigm, um, paradigm to a 17-piece orchestra. “It was unbelievable man. The whole thing premiers next May.”
DiS: Fhloston Paradigm organically grew in 2009 after doing a tribute to your friend who passed away, Charles Cooper of Telefon Tel Aviv. When I look at the song titles of this new album, it appears the music was bred from very visceral feelings. Fair assessment?
King Britt: Actually, the funny thing is, those song titles all came after the fact. I came up with the title AFTER and figured: “Ah it would be clever if each song was a suffix of ‘after’: AFTER ‘...The Storm’, AFTER ‘...Math’, and so forth. The titles didn’t influence the music, they were literally the last thing I added. All these tracks came from very pure improvisational places.
Let’s say for instance, ‘…The Storm’. That song features Ryat, and she one of my favorite artists. We were in LA and we in the Red Bull Studio LA. I said to her: “we are just going to go for it.” So I started to make some loops using this Roland Scooper, a sampler & looping device. I made a few loops and then she played some key ideas on the mellotron. I sampled that, cut it up, then I got on the Dave Smith OB-6, dropped a keyboard pad and a bass line. As she went in I told her wanted no lyrics on the album. I wanted all my singers and collaborators to evoke pure emotions. So I told her: “Whatever you’re feeling at the moment, let it out.” That can be love, it can be anger. So Ryat went in and just destroyed it. What you hear is the first take of that vocal. I took it home added a few things, and that’s how the track was finished.
But other tracks like ‘...All’ with Moor Mother, developed differently. She lives right around the block. All she brought to the studio was this little synth called the Kastle. It was so small, it fit in the pocket of her jacket. But when she plugged in, dude… this thing was unbelievable! We just improvised for maybe twenty minutes straights, I was on the Moogs and she was on the Kastle, running it through effects, different Moogerfoogers and things like that. Of course, I had to edit things for the record, but it was hard! Cause the whole thing was so good: one day I might release the complete version. I multi-tracked everything so I could manipulate it more into the finished track. But that’s pure emotion, and we once did it live together. I did a Fhloston show with everybody, both in Philly and New York, and during the Philly show Moor Mother passed through. And it was just magic, man. She always pushes me to go deeper.
And Jacqueline Constance, who sings on ‘...Glow', I discovered her on Instagram. She was doing videos of cover songs, with just her voice doing the beat and everything. I immediately noticed that this girl’s voice is just unbelievable, I had to get her on the album. I hit her up and she was totally game. I actually had two tracks that I sent her before she came to the studio. The funny thing about it, she works best with a looping pedal, I tried to do what she was doing, but in Ableton. It just wasn’t working, it wasn’t fluid enough. So we just used her pedal straight into Ableton, with no separation, and it sounded amazing.
Did Ryat reveal to you AFTER what she felt? Or did she keep it a mystery?
Later, she revealed it to me. I can’t say it though, because it’s very personal. But once she did, we both knew we got it right.
The conception of this music sounds very conversational, with nothing overtly premeditated.
Yeah, it’s really all about improv, about going on this journey together. These are your tools, these are my tools. Let’s see where we end up. But the thing about Le Guess Who? is: there’s unfortunately no budget to bring along the singers. So I’m performing a solo version of Fhloston Paradigm. I did a few of those shows recently. I take some of the elements from the album and basically remix them live. And every show is a different experience. I bring all the hardware and software, and just dive into it.
Which music venues are pushing the envelope in your opinion, as far as creating an immersive sensory experience?
My favorite venue I played recently as Fhloston is National Sawdust. For any multi-media performing artists, it’s one of the greatest places to be. It’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a place created and owned by artists. The room itself, it’s like being in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Visually it’s one of the most stunning venues I’ve ever been in. We didn’t even use visuals that night because it was so beautiful. Sonically, the walls, the place is made for sound. The people who work there are top professionals. The lady who owns it, Paola, I didn’t get to meet her that night. But she did a great job.
I’m also playing an audio surround sound event in November at the Envelop in San Francisco. It’s led by Christopher Willits, and it takes place in a spatial audio club. I’ve never done that before, so that’s probably going to be a mind-blowing experience. I don’t even know what to expect. There are twenty speakers in there, so we’re going into different dimensions. Hopefully, I’ll be able to manipulate sound like never before.
And finally, here in Philly, we have this place called Johnny Brenda’s, which to me is the best venue for intimate gatherings. It holds around three hundred people. The sound, the visuals… you have a balcony so you can see what electronic musicians are doing from above. Definitely my favorite place to play in the world. And I live only two blocks away.
You are celebrating your 49th birthday this year at Le Guess Who? as part of Shabazz Palaces curated event. I reckon you’re pretty giddy for that one too.
I’m so excited to play this festival. This is probably one of the most incredible line-ups I’ve ever seen…AND it’s on my birthday! So I’m pretty amped about it. It’s crazy! I’ve been friends with Shabazz, both Tendai and Ishmael, since the ninth, and all the way during the Digable Planets days. So it’s natural they asked me to play, since they curated the festival. I actually booked the first Shabazz Palaces show ever. I brought them to Philly and had them open for Flying Lotus. So it’s been this natural progression. We keep helping each other out. Then I turned Natasha Kmeto onto them because Ishmael does A&R for Sub Pop. So I was like: you should sign Natasha. But it didn’t work out for this project, but they kept in touch remained friends And Gonjasufi is his cousin. It’s funny, because I’ve been friends with Gonjasufi for a long time as well, I once did a remix for him. So, it’s like a family gathering. Oh, and with Tendai Maraire, I did an album in Zimbabwe!
So I heard. I’m eager to hear more though. What brought you two there?
It’s coming next year, but I can’t talk about it yet. Tendai’s dad is Dumisani Maraire, who is one of the original mbira players. They brought him to the States in the late sixties to take this new sound abroad. So he wound up in Seattle, he started an ethnomusicology program there at the University of Washington. So he stayed here a while and eventually started a program of ethnomusicology back in Zimbabwe. After he passed away, he left Tendai all his masters. So when Tendai was in Philly, when I brought Shabazz for their first show, they stayed at my house for a few days. We just started messing with all the multitracks. And we didn’t come out of the studio for two whole days! Because it’s such sacred music, we had to get permission from Tendai’s mom. We played it for his mom, we got her blessing.
Then I got a grant – to get this grant is so difficult. And literally, I just asked for it and got it, to my surprise. Tendai would’ve gone to Zimbabwe anyway, but to have this grant and stay there for a month, to record at the school his dad founded, it was amazing. He goes all the time of course. But for me, it was my first time in Africa. So on our way there, we played South Africa. I DJ’ed there and did some Redbull stuff. Then we landed in Zimbabwe and stayed for a month, recorded with all the musicians there, we brought that material back. I later came over to Seattle and we added stuff. The record sat for a minute because Shabazz Palaces blew up, they were touring a lot. So during that time we never got the chance to finish it, but Tendai kept chipping away at it. Now it’s done, man, it’s mastered and everything. It sounds unbelievable. Now we’re figuring out whether we put it out ourselves or if we’re going to shop it. I think we’re shopping it, because it’s such a big project. It definitely deserves some sort of next level release.
What’s your take on handling, as you put it, “sacred music” from days past? Would you preserve those records as an anachronism or rather insert them into a contemporary frame of reference? What’s your own proclivity here?
I did this record calledKing Britt presents Sister Gertrude Morgan, which is probably my biggest record yet. It’s been in a lot of TV shows and movies, Miami Vice, True Blood. But the pureness of this record speaks for itself: Sister Gertrude Morgan was an evangelist in the sixties and seventies and a painter. But she thought she was the Bride of Christ, so she would hang on corners in New Orleans preaching the gospel. One day, Allen Jaffe from Preservation Hall discovered her and owned a label, he came in and recorded this album in 1970. Then fast forward to 2005, I got asked to redo this whole record. I did it together with Tim Motzer. But yeah, it’s definitely sacred music. When we were working on it, we knew it was like no other album we’ve ever worked on. It was like a spiritual enlightenment, it just blew our minds. The album just got a reissued on double vinyl. We did something right, because we treated the source material with respect. But not everything needs to be remixed or retouched.
It can be potentially irksome I reckon. You reimagine this singular music, but still filter through your own reference points and taste. It’s interesting once that result, in turn, is re-contextualized within moments of pop culture. Like, for instance, in the Miami Vice reboot film you scored. What’s it like to see your own work juxtapose with something from a completely separate realm?
Well, we have to approve everything first. The Miami Vice thing was amazing. Michael Mann’s wife collects Sister Gertrude Morgan’s artwork. One day they were listening to NPR, playing one of our Sister G songs on the radio. Michael, who was literally making the Miami Vice movie at the time, wanted this one song in a scene. So he called me, and he flew us out to LA and asked if I could score ten other scenes. So I’m like: yeah! So Tim and I scored these scenes with music based on Sister G. And it fit perfectly! In one scene where one of the characters may die in the hospital, the music expressed both the good and the bad side. The drugs-side, and what was about to happen. And accepting your fate in two different ways. The song ‘New World In My View’ totally set that up.
But not everything works. This amazing hip hop artist from New Zealand, David Dallas, sampled our version of Sister G for his song. He sent it to us to get cleared. And initially, we felt it wasn’t a great fit. He was rapping about drugs and drinking and ho’s. So we were like: you can use the sample if you change the lyrics of the song. Because the beat and everything else was simply bangin’! The lyrics were just horrible, and we wouldn’t want to place Sister G in a position of disrespect. So he changed it and dude, it became this MASSIVE song!
Did David Dallas tell you how the change of lyrics affected him personally?
Yeah, he did and we were like: ‘Amen!’ We gave him the thumbs up. And the video was absolutely beautiful. I think he had some sort of religious experience changing those lyrics, because it was like a total three-sixty.
That’s so inspiring to hear, how a little bit of musical discourse about Sister Gertrude Morgan can change another artist’s path so profoundly
Totally! Well, right now I’m actually writing a book about that. I don’t have a title yet. I’m about halfway in. It’ll be out hopefully this time next year. It’s all about my collaborations and processes, and how I made certain records. I talked to De La Soul about our collaboration on Sylk 130’s Re-Members Only. They responded with their take on that. The book will be one of those collector’s items, especially for geeks, because I dig deep into what kind of equipment I use. You can randomly pick any chapter and read it. One chapter is about the track ‘Skipping Stones’ with Alison Moyet. And another is me in the studio with Wendy and Lisa. They were just here in Philly recently, we hung out and took some photos for the book.
Speaking of “remembering”, did your own recollections of certain collaborations differ from artists who appear in the book?
So far, no. But before I interviewed Everything But The Girl, I only met them in person. But I wasn’t in the studio with them. To hear about their first reaction to my Rollercoaster remix, that was a real treat.
It’s a cool perk of collaborations in-general. People can fill in each other’s blanks like that.
Woah, that’s a good title: fill in the blanks! That’s going on the list.
Well, to fill in one of my own blanks: Your To Unprotect And Subserve performance in WORM with Moor Mother, Nyfolt, and Morgan Craft was one of the most intense gigs I ever witnessed. It makes me wonder how you experienced it yourself.
Thank you. That was a beautiful night. We had a good time. It was the second time doing To Unprotect And Subserve, but before that, it hadn’t been developed to that point yet. I did a little version of it in Ferguson during the Black Lives Matter marches. It was still very raw back then. The show in Rotterdam was more developed, and more intense. I had such a beautiful time expressing this during a really heavy time in America. And it still is. That was just a great event. Rotterdam is a lot like Philly, the Surinamese food is amazing. The Ferguson performance was intense too. We showed video from the marches. It was heavy. It took place in a church. That was also the moment when I realize I needed to take this thing a little bit further. But it was good, very cleansing in a way.
Especially in an age when the US president makes these pressing issues all about him. Maybe someone outrageous like that needs to rise for established powers to conspire in a more empathetic and compassionate message.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, man. I try not to get too caught up in all of that. But I do pay attention to it. He is just a distraction, a puppet. The people we should be worried about, are the ones we don’t see. All I can do myself is bring the light. I do it through music, by getting people to look from within, instead of looking outside themselves to find answers. The more you look within, the more love you have. And that’s what we need. We don’t need political solutions, we need inner solutions. Which in turn will translate into the outer solutions. We have to navigate ourselves around all the politics. I’m going to continue my mission of spreading the light through music.
King Britt performs as Fhloston Paradigm on November 11, on his 49th birthday, at Utrecht’s Le Guess Who? Festival. He will be part of Shabazz Palaces’ curated event. To get a better grip on King Britt’s many activities, like The Buddy System Project, visit his website and/or join his mailing list.
Photo Credit: Olinda Del Mar