True innovation is a gradual process
To create something new and unique takes years of experimentation, tweaking and realisation. One producer who has committed to this sometimes painstaking process, is Nimzo. Coming out of New Jersey, this beat maker has continued to innovate and inspire throughout his career. Building a truly unique hybrid sound centred around concepts that interest him. With the release of his latest project, ‘Waves, Vibes and Frequencies’ we took the chance to chop it up with this exciting producer.
I want to kick things off by talking about ‘Waves, Vibes and Frequencies.’ What is this album all about, in your opinion?
I was making this album and feeling a little bit philosophical. Not to get too deep, but it was thinking about the purity of sound and how every sound has a wave, a vibe and a frequency to it. I feel life is like that as well. Thinking in terms of physics and how waves and vibes just go through the air. You catch a wave, you start going one direction; a vibe comes, it brings you in another direction.
I feel you.
I was trying to get a synthesis between what I was exploring from philosophical concepts, from a physics and materialist standpoint, to how that related to my music.
Do you like to explore physics and other topics as themes for albums?
I think I do. ‘Singularity’ was very much embedded in the concept of the technological singularity. I know I have an album when I can get a theme to centre it on -something that I feel that’s important to me.
As for WVF and physics, I don’t have a lot of knowledge on physics. I read about it a lot, but it’s just a heavy subject, and it’s not my specialty. But I have a really strong interest in it and how it relates to the physical world. I also have a very strong interest in Daoist philosophy . There are a lot of connections between Daoism and some advanced concepts of physics. A book I read that had a big influence on me was ‘The Dao of Physics’, where they explore these concepts. This album is somewhat related to those ideas that I explored on a personal level.
‘Waves, Vibes and Frequencies’ also has some gorgeous artwork (which I have hanging above me now), how did the it come about?
When I went on a work trip to Italy in December of 2017, I went to this small town called Brindisi in Southern Italy. While I was there I had a couple nights left before I was scheduled to leave, and I was walking around town looking for a place to eat. I saw this sign that said something like Vaglie Del Indie and I thought it was an Indian restaurant.
I walked inside and it wasn’t a restaurant at all. It was some kind of antique store. There was this old Italian guy inside with this white hair, white beard, red glasses and this black jacket. He almost looked like a magician or something. His name was Galliano. I asked him if it this was his store. He told me, it was. He had so much cool shit around the store. Especially for somebody who’s into Lo-Fi stuff. 8-tracks, cassettes, old record players, all this kind of stuff.
I saw some artwork that was hanging on the wall and I was really impressed with it. I asked him if it was his and he said it was. I started talking to him about his artwork and I was actually so inspired I just whipped out my phone. I don’t even know why, but I just whipped out my phone to record it. I start recording him talking about his art and I stayed in the store for about an hour. He showed me a good ten paintings and talked a bit about them.
I wanted to buy some to bring back to the States with me, so I asked if I could meet him the next day and if I could take him out for a coffee because I wanted to talk to him a little bit more about his artistic processes. He said ‘Just come over to my house because I live right across the street from here’. I said, ‘All right, cool.’ So I went over to his house the next day and I was there for two hours talking about his art and spinning old Jazz records, we just became friends. He gave me a couple paintings, I bought a few prints and I brought those back with me. When I got back we stayed in touch on Facebook and would talk now and then. I just really like his art.
It’s gorgeous. Did you come to him with the idea or was it a pre-existing piece?
I went to Galliano and I asked him if he would do something original for me. I told him what the album was about and I knew that it fit in with his artwork. When you look at the cover, you can see these rolling cylindrical shapes with circles around them. That’s a reflection of one of his artistic principles, and it’s also related to matter and the physical world. He talked a lot about Pascal and his philosophy of the physical world and how he integrated it into his art e.g., how nothing is solid even if it appears to be. Those ideas fit so well with the concept that I was thinking for 'Waves, Vibes and Frequencies’, so I commissioned it from him originally, gave him the idea of the album, and then when he gave it back to me I thought it was so spot on.
Absolutely! So going back to music, I know you’ve been experimenting with live composition and also sampling for a while now but how would you say the creation process or production process differed between ‘Waves, Vibes and Frequencies’ and ‘State of the Art’? I would say ‘Waves’ is a little jazzier, and ‘State of the Art’s a little bluesier. So I was wondering, how do you go about integrating these styles?
You’re spot on with that in comparing the sounds between ‘State of the Art’ and ‘Waves'. It really just stems back from when I first started getting back into music creation in 2016 and when I was making albums without knowing anything about any beat community or scene.
It started with talking to Audio Arcade in the middle of 2015 and him sending me beats to write rhymes to because that’s how me and him used to work in the past. That was just out of fun, just looking to do something different, because I’d been playing chess for about two years. I was just getting bored of playing chess so I wanted to explore different hobbies. I had been playing video games too for about six months for example.
Anyway, I sold my gaming system and bought a Maschine and started getting back into beats without knowing about the scene. I always would make albums anyway, even if it was just for myself; but back then I had no audience. I would do the same thing though, where it would have some kind of concept to it. When I started making beats again in 2016, I wanted a sound that was a throwback to the classic Hip Hop days. Not even really the Golden Era, but the Classic Era. The late 80s, early 90s era.
The first album that I made was ‘Radio Enhanced Telepathy' I had no intention of dropping it, but it had a whole concept behind it. It explored that classic sound, and it was based on Funk. That album, you listen to that, it’s just all Funk. Then after that, the second album I dropped was ‘The Beat Generation’, and that album I wanted to do an ode to a Jazz sound but also my interpretation of what the Lo-Fi sound was that I was hearing at the time. I didn’t even really know what it was, I was so new to the scene.
I remember when we talked before, when we did the Lo-Fi interview, it was just starting to grow to the kind of size that it is now.
That was a year after I had made ‘Beat Generation’ right?
I made ‘Beat Generation’ was I was just getting an idea of what the Lo-Fi scene was, and it was my interpretation of that and Jazz Hop.
I wanted to mix those two. I had a Funk album, then I did a Jazz album. Then with ‘Singularity’ I wanted to do something which was a bit more cinematic and also a throwback to some kind of Wu-Tang era. If you listen to that, there’s some really hard, crusty Lo-Fi on there. Like RZA and Lord Beatjitzu type shit. Then, to get onto what you were saying about ‘State of the Art’; the original approach to it was to say, I did a Funk joint, I did a Jazz joint, I did a Wu joint, now I want to do Blues and I want to do it based on original instrumentation. That was the aim.
When I came up with that idea I approached my brother with it, because my brother has been playing guitar for 25 years. He’s an expert guitar player, his knowledge of American music and just music in general is broad and extensive. He’s an accomplished engineer and producer too. Me and him always wanted to work together and he was staying with me a couple days a week at the time. I had some equipment and he had his guitar here, so I’m like, let’s just do an album. We’ll just do a Blueshop album.
He was like, yes, let’s do it and I was surprised, because it was Hip Hop based, but he just wanted to work. We went to work, me, him and then another childhood friend of mine who’s a bass player, who has been playing bass for 25 years and is really rooted in a Funk style.
Anyway we brought him in, and then we brought in another one of our childhood friends who had been playing guitar for 25 years. He played Funk style too, but whereas the bass player was a hard Funk style, the guitar player was more in a James Brown type style. So, us four started jamming weekly for about eight or nine weeks and we brought in a drummer as well for a few of the sessions. We were just exploring different kinds of Blues/Hip Hop songs.
In the end we had about eight songs, but I wasn’t vibing with all them for an album, so I said I’ve got to pivot from doing just a straight up Blues Hip Hop to a more Trip Hop kind of sound. That’s why on 'State of the Art’ you hear a lot of Blues influence on it, but then you hear that Trip Hop sound which was the transformation of the album.
That’s an incredibly cool story. I like the fact that there’s this lovely link between you going back to the roots of American music and Blues and then doing it with your childhood friends. There’s a lovely marriage there. You mentioned about adding to it. How did you approach or achieve that? How do you tackle a technical but also creative problem like that?
I approach each song with the view that I’m going to start it with a drumbeat or a sample and then from there I’m going to get inspired by the sample to add something else to it and make it my own. There was a conscious effort for every song to either be totally original instrumentation or have some instrumentation over it that really changed the song from just the sample.
Even the opening song. That bass is a sample, which would be somewhat recognisable, but then I add the lead part over it to really take it to a different place. That bass is actually from a Jazz song and when you hear it, it doesn’t really sound like a Jazz song at all. The piano almost sounds like a guitar. It almost has a kind of Rock influence to it.
Whenever I approach a song where I’m going to do that, I want to make sure that the instrumentation totally changes the sample. I want to try and own the song so it’s not just me sampling.
‘State of the Art’ was this idea that blossomed from these little bits. How did ‘Waves’ differ in the regard of live instrumentation or original composition? On Waves you sound a lot more like, ‘I know what I’m going now. This is my walk,’ How did the two projects differ?
It’s funny you say that because, like I said, I was working with my brother heavily and basically it was boot camp for me. Learning how to mix properly when you’re recording all instruments, which I hadn’t done before. ‘State of the Art’ and 'No Monkey Junk’ are two songs on ‘State of the Art’, with no samples in them. Every sound in those songs was original except for the vocal samples on No Monkey Junk. l.
So, that was my training and for the next one my brother was like ‘you’re doing to do this one alone. You’re going to produce this one by yourself.’ So WVF I produced solo, so it’s funny how you say that. On going from a Blues to a Jazz sound, I know I have one or two Jazz albums left in me. There’s so much other stuff I want to explore besides that, but I felt like I haven’t said what I wanted to say in that regard, so I think that was a conscious effort to do a Jazz album this time.
As far as approaching each of the songs though, it was kind of the same concept. There are some songs on ‘State of the Art’ that don’t have any samples and it’s the same thing on ‘Waves'. Some are just built with the core sample where I then add instrumentation over it to change it. One thing I was doing on ‘Waves’ was collaborating a little bit more. I had three of them here. One of them was with W00ds and that was funny, because we were just talking on Twitter one day and we just decided to collab. I was like, 'All right. Send me something’. Right away he sent me some guitar shit he’d been working on. This real Jazzy, moody shit. I was immediately inspired by it and I cooked up everything else for the song in two hours that night. I sent it back to him and he was like, ‘Yes! This is dope!’ We cooked up the song just like that. It’s kind of funny how some songs come together. Some songs take three months and some songs take a day.
This is quite a big talking point within the community now, but do you think the scene as a whole is moving towards more OG compositions ?
Definitely certain labels or collectives might be. But just the other day on Twitter I saw Athena Koumis had shared an article about how sampling is still being used even in popular music, by Drake for example. So, sampling is definitely still alive. Sampling will always resurface because sampling died pretty much in the late 90s when all the lawsuits started happening but it resurfaced in the underground. To me, that’s what Lo-Fi is in part. Just a resurfacing of that 90s sampling culture.
When SoundCloud was more prominent, it really gained traction because SoundCloud really wasn’t policing it. Now you see a shift towards more OG compositions because people are worried Spotify are policing it - and people are making money off Spotify, so nobody wants their money getting fucked with. They want to make sure that if they put something out, they’re going to be able to collect from it. I’m sure there’s some aspect of that to it too.
There’s also a competition aspect to it as well. A lot of cats are like, ‘Oh, you’re doing OG composition? I’m going to do one now too. Watch this’. That’s healthy though. It is definitely being shaped by a lot of different factors, but you can see a bit of a trend towards that.
It’s making the scene far more lush in my opinion, so I’m all for these discussions.
The interesting part is how the technology from other companies influence that.
A lot of people talk about the saturation and when Spotify hit last year that really shook the community in a lot of different ways. For the first time, people were getting paid for music.
Absolutely. I’ve been producing for maybe eight years? I never could’ve imagined that I would’ve made any money from people actually listening to my songs.
Nobody could have.
That leads me to another question I had about ‘Waves.’ You posted recently about it reaching 20k with no major playlist placements. What’s your take on that achievement? Because it is a massive achievement, in my opinion.
Thanks. I appreciate that, man. More and more that’s going to be possible for people, if they can hustle and find the right opportunity at the right moment. It’s definitely about relationship-building and trying to get to know different curators and building a relationship where both of you benefit from it. If you can do that and get enough avenues, then that’s the road to be able to get anywhere from 25k to 200k streams.
Yeah. The sky’s the limit, because this is uncharted waters that we’re dealing with. I can’t think of any scene during my lifetime as a musician, where there’s been such a groundswell of people doing well musically and financially.Pushing things, but also being able to eat off their art. Which is the goal.
Yeah. For a lot of people, that is definitely the goal. I’m really happy to see that people could make even a part-time living off their music, and I’m really happy for people who are in their 20s and able to do that. For me, and for some other people that I know who are older and maybe more established in their profession, it’s just gravy.
Yeah it’s a nice little extra.
Yeah but for people to be able to do it – I’ve met a few of them and talked to them about it – I’m really happy to see that. It means that some independent artists are getting at least some piece of the pie. Now they’re talking about maybe upping the amount of royalties, the percentage they should get. At least here in the States there’s a discussion about that. That’s good too but then, at the same time everybody can’t just rely on the one revenue stream.. Look at Cloudchord and STLNDRMS, for example. They’re making a living off their music music by generating multiple revenue streams.
I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your musical influences. I’d really like to know who inspires you musically.
Well my mom got me into music because she would always play what we call oldies music, which is Bubblegum and Pop Music from late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, things like that. I grew up on that music with my mom and it was really catchy, so I was always inspired by that. That’s not really reflected so much in the music that I make, but that was the starting point with me.
When I started really getting into music in my early teenage years, I was really influenced by Jazz. We have this real famous Jazz radio station here in Newark, New Jersey, which is just five minutes from my house. It’s called WBGO. I also got into Hip Hop from there. Those are my earliest influences, Pop Music, Jazz and then Hip Hop. But the sounds that I try to reflect in my music are influences that came in my early 20s. Or not even my early 20s. Maybe my late teen years. I started moving a little bit away from Hip Hop when I was around 21 or something like that, and started listening to a lot of Classic Rock like the Doors and Pink Floyd and Zeppelin etc.,.
This is mid 90s to late 90s, so ‘OK Computer’ dropped in 1997. That album had a big influence on me. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t. Also Dust Brothers’ work with Beck. I have a lot of different influences, from Jazz to Rock, Pop, Hip Hop. I don’t just want to just give that stock answer, but it’s true haha.
I’m also inspired by people who really dare to be great. Godard, Kubrick, James Joyce, people like that. Every time they come out they do something different that’s totally ground-breaking. I don’t do that. I wish I could do that. At least, that’s my aim, but I’m really inspired by those types of people. If you’re going to do something, you should try to do something that’s different.
Who do you think is really special coming out right now?
You got another hour? Haha
Seriously, because there’s just so many cats out there. Even though a lot of people think the scene is saturated, it’s also saturated with a lot of damn good beat makers. Some people that are really doing some different stuff. Take G Mills. His drum work is incredible. He’s also got some really interesting sample choices and his bass lines are off the hook. G Mills is someone I enjoy.
G Mills I’ve been able to see up close because I’ve seen him do a show here. I did a show with him in Harlem and I was just really impressed with his sound and his performance.
I also like NOUGA JR.. Just seeing his videos in different groups and stuff like that. Every time I see one of his videos I’m just like ‘Holy shit, man’. That sound is incredible and his bass lines are just… Man. Those are just two people I’d jump to off the top.
But also definitely the Atlanta Controllerise scene is incredible. A lot of cats down there. The whole scene out in Brooklyn, here in New York, it’s really taken off in the past year. You’ve got the whole Bushwick Syndicate scene along with the InPlainSight collective.
There are definitely pockets you see regionally and internationally. The Italian scene, the scene you guys got in Great Britain, it’s definitely off the hook as well. but definitely you can see so much talent in all these scenes that are going on.
Of course and that’s the beauty of it. Every day you can have a new favourite beat maker.
Yeah exactly. For example I dropped my album in January and I was following real closely everybody who was also dropping albums, and it was just amazing man. It was amazing to see every week three or four people releasing some dopeness. I was listening to all those albums and it was just incredible, man. Big shout to everybody who dropped an album in January. Fucking lit that shit up.
Soyou’re from New Jersey. Proudly from New Jersey, I could say…
How do you think that has influenced your music?
It’s had a huge influence. I live like seven miles from Downtown Manhattan, so it takes me about 30 minutes to get into the City. Being so close to New York and then living so close to Newark, New Jersey where you have acts like Fugees, Redman, Lords of the Underground, Artifacts and they were hugely influential. I was growing up during the Golden Era in the early 90s, so all around I was just the East Coast sound of the Golden Era. It’s just that classic sound.
That was all around me and that’s definitely reflected in the music that I make now because my drums are rooted in Boom Bap, that’s for sure. Compared to some others, I wouldn’t say my drum sounds are so current or experimental because they’re so rooted in Boom Bap. I’m really impressed by different kinds of drum styles, but I love Boom Bap. It’s my roots, my core. And that comes from just growing up around New Jersey and New York.
One other thing is that New Jersey, New York; there’s a little bit of attitude. So even though I do some Jazzy stuff, my drums have some kind of punch to them like that.
When I spoke to Stxn.x from NY last year, he said a similar thing along the lines of ‘If you get it, cool. If you don’t, we ain’t going to try and explain it to you.’ Haha
That’s it, man haha.
Do you think New Jersey gets slept on a little bit as a Hip Hop hub?
It depends on who you’re talking to. If you talk to somebody from the 90s on the East Coast they might not say that, but if you talk to some of the kids who are out there today, a 22-year-old, for example, I’m not so sure of their response. It definitely shone back in the Golden Era much more than it is now though. Not to say that there aren’t good rappers or good producers out here, but it definitely had more of a shine back then.
Then, of course, New Jersey’s just always in the shadow of New York, so when you think of the Golden Era on the East Coast I don’t think you necessarily think of Artifacts or even Redman, but you think of Queens, Uptown, Brooklyn, Primo and stuff like that. Whether it’s slept on? That’s a good question. It shouldn’t be. I’ll tell you that much. Especially now. Like I got Brainorchestra 20 minutes from me and he’s absolutely killing it. We also have AudioArcade and MentPlus here. The four of us are out here in New Jersey.
On top of that, not only is the Beat Scene very strong in New Jersey, but the art scene is incredible as well. If you go on my Instagram you can see a couple times where I do some art exhibitions. There’s really a marriage between art exhibitions and the Beat Scene. It’s growing more and more too with stuff like The Freak Show.
That leads nicely into my next question which was about playing live. What’s your favourite part of performing live?
Just going out there for 20 minutes and getting lost in the sound.
I try to go out and not think about the crowd or anything like that. It’s a little bit of a cathartic experience, but I’m looking for something transcendental. I want to do something where I just lose focus on everything. If I could just hit one pocket of that then it’s all worth it. At the same time though, it also gives you some anxiety and stuff like that because you don’t know what to expect when you go out there. Are you going to be able to hear, you don’t know what the venue’s like, you’ve got to do a set… It’s not like you get to do a soundcheck in most cases.
Last year I played about ten shows. If half of them went well, I was lucky. Then it’s a thing of doing it enough so you can learn from it, so the next time you go out you can improve. But when I go out for a set I’m looking to just get some kind of experience out of it.
Obviously this type of music has lived online predominantly for the last few years. Do you think it’s necessary for us to build a live scene? And given the fact that we’ve done it all through the internet, do you think there’s more of an onus on thinking bigger in our scene in terms of performing live?
A live scene is definitely important for a lot of different reasons. It gives exposure for the artist, helps the artists connect with each other, some people get paid from it; things like that. So there’s a lot to be said for having a live scene. With the Lo-Fi live scene, I’d like to see people take a few more chances. Now that we were talking about people towards more original composition, I like to see people come out and do a little more than just a 404 set. I mean that’s what I do but after playing ten shows last year, I was getting a little bored just coming out, bringing my 404 and just throwing some effects over it. I’d like it to see some one or two man bands or something like that. Or coming out there and adding a keyboard for example.
So you think in the actual act of playing, we should be looking to be more ambitious now?
I think so. If you’re looking to take it to the next step, if you want to get out of the cafés and the bars and get more people to come we have to think bigger. More people who are on the fringe of this culture would need to see more in a live set. That said, in California they do a lot of beat sets where it’s just 404 and they really throw it down, so let’s not take anything away from that either.
So you’re very active in the community too. Why do you think this sense of community or network is so important in the Beat Scene?
Probably because it’s just the Instrumental Hip Hop scene. How long has that even existed for? Maybe in early 2000’s California, stuff like that, Dilla etc. but in the 90s, to me at least, there wasn’t really an Instrumental Hip Hop scene. You’ve got to start looking at it from 2016 until now. If you look at the whole Instrumental Hip Hop Beat scene, it’s young.
Another thing is who was the audience for this music? It wasn’t really such a big audience. It’s only since 2014, 2015 when the audience became huge and started to get out of the underground into popular fringe culture. People were writing articles about the YouTube livestreams and stuff in popular internet magazines etc. That’s when it started to come out. The root of it was beat makers supporting each other. You see that in the SP forums for example. When it was really starting to take off as a scene, especially on the internet, 2006, 2007, 2008, they immediately formed a community on these SP and MPC forums.
Instrumental Hip Hop wasn’t as huge of a thing back then. Because of that the beat makers were the main audience, so from there the community became really tight-knit and relied on each other. And then it just continued into today.
In your opinion do you think that as it grows, we’re going to be able to retain that sense of community?
I don’t want to go technological determinism, but it totally is influenced by what tools you have at hand to communicate with each other. If all of a sudden Facebook or Twitter or one of the social media channels goes down, our community would form somewhere else. There’s no stopping this community haha. It will always continue, but maybe how we do it will change. It’s always influenced by the technology.
What’s next for Nimzo?
I have an EP that I’ve just wrapped up. I’m looking to release that maybe in a month or two. It’s just about wrapped up and I’m just waiting on the artwork and stuff. I haven’t really promoted it. This is the first little hint that I’m going to be dropping that, actually. I’m really excited about it. I’m really happy, actually, with the work. It’s definitely a little bit of a continuation of the sound that I was exploring with ‘Waves, Vibes and Frequencies’ but it’s also different in its own right. I actually feel it’s a little bit more cohesive, even if it’s a little bit shorter. I’m really excited to drop that.
This one is jazzy as well, so I think I’ve said what I need to say for the moment in that regard and next I really want to just get into something different. Like, really different. I don’t know what it’s going to be, so I’m excited to take that journey. However, after I drop this next EP I need to take a little break and then come back fresh and do something that really surprises me.
Listen to Nimzo here:
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