As an interviewer, it's never great to demonstrate your own ignorance. Midway through this interview, I mentioned an MPC i'd seen in pictures of his live set up...
“Well, I don’t use an MPC. What you’ve seen is the MPD.”
Shit. -10 nerd points.
Kurtis Hairston – aka KRTS, the MPD user in question – has just released his second album on Berlin's Project:Mooncircle, after a decade of beat making. The album in question, 'Close Eyes To Exit', manages the rare trick of covering a range of tempos while still retaining a cohesive centre: Plaid-esque staccato melodies glide over all-encompassing kicks, rhythms drift from skittery footwork to deep house to head nodding Boom-bap, keys and strings mix with unnatural textures to create a peculiar balance of sweetness and grit. The MPC failure came from a question about the process behind the album. Melodically, you can tell this is a guy who can play keys, rather than someone who can glue the right samples together, so I asked whether it would be fair to call him an instrumentalist first, or a beat maker?
“I never thought of myself as an instrumentalist or a beat maker. It was 1995ish that I started using my older brother’s Ensoniq EPS 16 Plus that he was using to make HipHop tracks for his crew, Trill Mafia. I was used to making melodic loops with my own hands but then got exposed to sampling with it too. I actually love keys over pads any day of the week. My fingers spread wide for a piano or synth but don’t clutch the same way for pads....but an instrumentalist? I guess maybe. I don’t know, I just made what felt good and sometimes people would rap or want to sing over it. I didn’t know if I was making Jazz or what. It had bass, emotion, percussion, melodies, and whatever else would fit. As far as influences, there are just too many to name. From Herbie Hancock, Art of Noise, Chic Corea, Weather Report, Yes, Gentle Giant, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Miles Davis and everything off of early Def Jam Records. At that age I surrounded myself with Spice 1, Compton’s Most Wanted, Tech Master PEB and DJ Magic Mike, Outkast, 5th Ward Boyz... and I'd still listen to Smashing Pumpkins. The weirdest young buck living in a Crip neighborhood”.
Having been born in Pittsburgh, he lived in Brooklyn for a third of his life, before moving to Berlin in 2013. I sent these questions just after the attacks in Paris, and having released an EP entitled “The Foreigner” upon his arrival, I asked how things were for an immigrant in Berlin at the time.
“It’s a trade off for some things of course, but mainly I really enjoy my life here. As an artist I’m appreciated differently. As a Black man I’m treated differently. I had to get used to white people looking at me and not thinking in my head, “They’re judging me. She’s about to pull her purse to the other side. Damn, don’t look or walk 'suspicious' with this cop”. I feel like if I was born here, my parents and grandparents would have never had to tell me - “Pull up your pants when you see a cop. Don’t look them in the eye. Make sure when they pull you over that you don’t make any sudden movements. Take your hood off in a mall. Walk and talk “normal” or “proper” when you’re in a white neighbourhood.” Granted, there’s always a time and place for things, and society can bite down on you to change a certain way, but here it’s much less. When they say to be proper in a way, it doesn’t mean be “white”. Well, not most of the time - It’s Germany, not Mars; there are more than enough xenophobes, racists, fascists, and just plain out assholes, like all over the world.”
One thing that stands out on the album is the willingness to shift away from monotonous 4/4. Tracks are full of edits, polyrhythms, and long beatless passages. Unsurprisingly, a glance at his facebook shows tracks by Fanu and Enduser alongside jazz classics. Did this cause an issue with Berlin's 4/4 focus? Yet again, I was corrected.
“Left-field sounds in all genres work very well in Berlin. This is a multicultural and international city - Berlin birthed its' own punk scene that is so punk that it’s easily the most punkest city I’ve ever lived in. It hasn’t died, it hasn’t become safe, it still lives and dies punk. They protest in masses, they take over buildings, they organize, they sleep in the streets, they ask for money in an honest way and will let you know, “it’s for beer and weed”. Then you have the amazing HipHop scene - I hear more HipHop in Berlin than I did in Brooklyn”.
Berlin is also the home of Project: Mooncircle, who've released material from Submerse, Robot Koch, Deft, memotone, and Sieren, amongst others. About to hit their 150th release, the connection with Kurtis happened after his first show in Berlin.
“P:MC stopped me in a back staircase after I did my first show at a spot called BeatGeeks. They told me about their label and I checked them out when I got back to Brooklyn. I was stunned by all the great sounds they were putting out, so I sent them an EP and then, boom! It’s an old school story really. How often do you hear of the label going to a show and finding the person they want to sign? Nowadays it’s just going online and picking up the hype. P:MC is pretty much anti-hype. I mean, they’d take Trap music if someone pulled it off in a very different way that would move them. Kinda like Submerse, he’ll take Juke and or Trap and make something different and beautiful out of it. Working with them hasn’t altered my music in a negative way. They push me to show my full potential. I haven’t hit my full potential yet, but they’ve gotten a lot out of me. They're honest with me when they hear my music. They don’t try to tweak it, but they’ll let me know I could do better or more. I appreciate them for that. It’s hard to hear if they don’t like a track or two or three, but they’ll also say, “If I don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that others won’t”.
The LP also features two vocal collaborations – indie band Legs on the charming “My Head Is Jumpin'”, and a dread-filled tirade from Mad Flows on “Serve and Protect”,
“When it came to collaborating, I knew everyone personally which made it easy. Working with Tito and Charles of the band Legs was ridiculously professional. They’d send me long emails about what their plans were when recording vocals or guitar work and sent files of wet vocals, dry vocals, different mics and amps recordings. I gave them a track and they gave me back a playground! I didn’t know Mad Flows all that well though. We’ve met within the same circle of friends and associates but never really talked. I listened to his music online and thought to myself, “He really just says whatever the fuck he thinks”, which is what I needed in a rapper to talk about police brutality. One night we had some beers and talked about life. Our experiences as being different, according to our surroundings growing up, our experiences with the police and such. It’s different to really sit down with a person and get to know them before making a track. It sounds more organic in the end and the person(s) don’t want to screw anything up for more than just their own ego. You know? Like I want to make sure he sounds dope on the track not just because I wrote the music. That goes for all 3: Charles, Tito, and Mad Flows.”
“Serve and Protect” is certainly a politically heavy track for a mostly instrumental album, but it sits alongside tracks like “White Privilege” and “Convict The Butchers”. Considering the influences of Jazz, Hip Hop and Punk - all stridently political movements – I wondered whether he felt such statements were lacking in electronic music more widely?
“I feel electronic music has been on some bullshit just like every other genre. We do, however, need songs about clubs and dancing. We need those too, because we all need an escape from reality sometimes. However, I think we’re escaping too much. Music has a way of bringing people together for a cause. Hip Hop, Jazz, and Rock all had eras that brought good people and a good cause together and still made people dance. Well, what the fuck happened? When it comes to Hip Hop I don’t need another track about hustling and guns popping off. It’s old. We had our era of Gangsta Rap which was supposed to alert the world that this part of America needs your attention and help. Instead, it became a genre, it became money making, and it became all thats mainly left of Hip Hop to reach the masses. We need more Kendrick. We need more Atari Teenage Riot. We need to realize that there was a time where we’d dance to politically charged music. Not even political. Just music about the people for the people. Remember that? We danced to music like this. We smoked to it. We went to shows and cheered it on. As a musician we can all choose to be bold or be safe with our topics and sound. I say fuck safe. I'd rather die knowing I made music with real content, rather than just putting a high pitch sound in Ableton with bass underneath it and play at every festival possible. You want to know what made me write about this stuff? Simple: I thought to myself, “The world is bigger than my own personal bullshit”.