If the walls between genres are crumbling, the guys in Supreme Cuts are holding a couple of the sledgehammers.
Supreme Cuts is the Chicago-based duo of Mike Perry and Austin Keultjes. Their music weaves together swirling samples, quicksand bass, and percussion that is steeped in hip-hop while unafraid to challenge its conventions. In a short amount of time, they’ve put out their own releases, collaborated with left-field rappers Haleek Maul and Main Attrakionz, and remixed R&B crooners like Miguel and The-Dream, all while exploring and establishing a distinct sound.
After seeing them support Haleek Maul at Mishka’s CMJ showcase, I spoke with Perry and Keultjes about their musical commune, changing norms in hip-hop production, and their favorite Chicago rappers.
While based in Chicago, Perry is originally from Sacramento and Keultjes is from Chicago exurb South Bend, Indiana. “I grew up in the shadow of Chicago,” says Keultjes. “My older brother was heavy into [rap group] Do Or Die and [ghettotech pioneer] DJ Funk, so I inherited that a little bit.” In high school, he toured as part of an experimental metal band before finding that he was adept at making rap beats in Garageband. They both came to Chicago for after high school and met soon after.
“We really hit it off: we could actually talk to each other about music without dumbing it down or having to explain who Too $hort was,” says Keultjes. “It was a perfect connection, as far as knowing a lot about rap and respecting it, but also listening to ‘avant-garde music’, for lack of a better word.”
About two years ago, after trial and error on a couple projects, Supreme Cuts was born. “It took us a minute to fully work together, because we both have egos, but once we did, it was magical,” he says. Like so many others, they put their tracks on the Internet and “people listened, surprisingly,” laughs Perry.
Their first effort that garnered attention was ‘Amnesia,’ a twisted slice of R&B that was created “without expectations in mind.” Rather than a specific type of track, the song was the first time Perry was “able to vibe with a song and let it take me to the point where it was finished.” Of their first EP Trouble, Keultjes says: “We were done with nostalgia and done with genre constraints.”
For their first full-length, Whispers in the Dark, the pair had an idea of what they wanted it to sound like for years. “A couple of years ago, I said the best album would be a mixture of [Stevie Wonder classic] Songs In The Key Of Life and Goo by Sonic Youth,” says Keultjes. While that might not describe the final product, it is a “mixture of soulful, honesty with noise and it all running together,” that bounces between moods and textures. “They say it takes your whole life to make your first album, and Whispers was definitely that for us.”
As they established themselves as instrumental producers, hip-hop production was never far from their mind. This year, they worked with Haleek Maul and Main Attrakionz, relying on a production style that is unorthodox by contemporary styles. Rather than what Keultjes calls “the whole Myspace beat pack producer” method, they find that forging a true connection bears the most fruit. “One thing Supreme Cuts really stands for that really baffles a lot of artists that ask to work with us is just the concept of vibing together as opposed to sending a bunch of personality-less tracks to choose from.”
For example, even though they sent ten tracks to the Main Attrakionz, the two beats that the cloud rappers chose were the ones Supreme Cuts had “secretly produced” with the Bay Area duo in mind; those tracks became ‘Take U There’ and ‘Life Is Love’ on the group’s full-length debut Bossalinis & Fooliyones.
The process with Haleek Maul (aka 16 year old Barbadian prodigy Malik Hall) was an “extraordinary situation.” The three talked almost daily about his life, influences, and interests, building a relationship that made collaboration seamless, as Keultjes explains. “I would make a 10-minute demo, he would be like “I absolutely love this,” and I’d be like “I figured you would.”” As Perry points out, “We started at the same level: him as an aspiring rapper and us trying to get more into making beats. It was interesting to see how that all panned out over the span of a year.”
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The main result of their team-up, Chrome Lips, is an especially grim tableau of depressing, nearly suicidal rap. “We probably wouldn’t have done so many dark and aggressive tracks if it wasn’t for Malik’s personality and aesthetic,” says Keultjes, putting the proportion of “dark and aggressive” tracks at 70%, versus perhaps 40% on a Supreme Cuts effort.
Getting that dark was a constructive process. “In all art, boundaries really help, because if you can do anything you want, you just do the same thing every time,” he says, comparing it to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s creative block-breaking Oblique Strategies cards. “We’ve been trying to do more things out of our comfort zone,” says Perry.
With their growing hip-hop production resume, they always pay attention to the rap of their hometown. “We’ve been into King Louie, Katie Got Bandz, and Sasha Go Hard since they started putting songs on Youtube, and luckily they’re all blowing up. Those three are our favorite, but Lil Durk is destined to be the hook man of Chicago,” says Keultjes. For starters, Perry points to Durk’s ‘L’s Anthem’ (“A classic”) and ‘Jack Boy’ (“Why autotune was created.”).
They also offer high praise for Tree, who Keultjes says “is as talented as Cee Lo.” The rapper also produces, and Perry says that “he samples in a specific way that’s very strange, but very good. I hope he’s number one. The Sunday School mixtape is a Chicago masterpiece.” But while they love Chicago hip-hop, it’s not all good. “They have a saying about Chicago: 3 million people, 2 million are rappers,” Perry explains. “You get some clunkers.”
While they love Chicago rap, and despite the presence of like-minded producers The-Drum and Sich Mang, Perry is skeptical of rumors of a “rad scene” in the Chi. “I don’t want to call it a scene; we have contemporaries. Around town, it’s a lot more loose. I don’t want people to think [that] and they come here and get disappointed,” he says. Of the romanticized idea of a city coalescing around a scene, Keultjes adds: “It’s kinda sad that it can’t be like that, because Chicago is a weird place, and every few years it happens — and I feel like we’re on the verge of it — but we haven’t really hit the height of it.”
Outside of their hometown, the duo does finds inspiration from the DJ/producer subculture at large, beginning relationships over the Internet before linking up offline. Still, the net aspect shouldn’t be overstated, either. “I just vibe on music, sometimes it will be stuff my friends send me, or sometimes it will be stuff I see live, but I’m not the kind of person that will spend all day on message boards looking for the newest, trendiest things,” says Keultjes.
While I saw Supreme Cuts DJ and backup Haleek Maul’s performance, their own live set is completely different. “A lot of people that don’t understand our recorded music, really lose their minds to our live set. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m just being honest. A lot of people will hear Whispers and say ‘not for me,’ but then come to our live show and start crying,” boasts Keultjes. “We wanted to base it off of this quote from the Orb saying ‘we base our live show more on Pink Floyd than on dance music.’ We like it to feel like an experience.”
Currently, the two are working on their follow-up to Whispers in the Dark. Perry says the pair are “starting to hone in on specific things that we want to get to as producers.” That means moving outside of their BPM comfort zone, but it also means moving into vocal-based music. While they can’t reveal who will be featured, he promises that they’re “going over the top.” Keultjes adds: “People have probably heard of everyone that will be on the album. Most of the vocalists are known as hardcore, up-and-comers: people we trust, whose voices and sensibilities we trust.”
But don’t expect the chopped up vocals that have plagued electronic music for the last few years. Perry lays down a marker: “I haven’t chopped up a vocal in a year, I’m just going to say that.” “With Whispers we really wanted to move on from that,” Keultjes elaborates. “If you listen to Trouble it’s at the forefront, but on Whispers we use it as more of an instrument.”
However, they admit their early tracks helped them gain exposure. “There is validity to the vocal chopping, because it allowed us to have an international following: a lot of fans don’t speak English, and none of our songs are based on the English language, because they’re chopped so thinly, but there is still a melody you can follow,” explains Keultjes. “There is something beautiful about that, but at the same time, the world keeps turning and me and Mike aren’t the type of people to stick to one sound forever. We’re going to have the same melodic sense and the same sensibilities forever. In America, they want you to stick to the same thing for your whole career, so by the fourth album you might be huge, but that’s not what we’re trying to do.”
Their next album is tentatively due out next spring. Originally planned as a concept album about a documentary called Small Town Ecstasy, they’ve titled it Divine Ecstasy. But as Keultjes explains, “When we say ecstasy, we mean the feeling of euphoria. Me and Mike don’t really do E.” Perry agrees: “I’d rather do mushrooms, to be honest.”