Photograph by: Brandon Tauszik
Friendzone have helped define the sound of “cloud rap” by producing hazy beats for the likes of Main Attrakionz, A$AP Rocky, and more. As they prepare to release their debut album, the Bay Area duo have created their most ambitious project yet.
The 12-track DX (out soon) finds Friendzone expanding the scope of their sound and sharpening their songwriting. Whether that means referencing forebearers like Aphex Twin (‘RETAILXTAL’), pulling from gentle R&B balladry (‘LUV YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING’), or embracing rhythmic excess (‘POLY’), it’s all done with a sense of melody that borders on the orchestral.
Ever prolific, the duo has also produced the entirety of Main Attrakionz’ forthcoming 808s and Dark Grapes III. FACT spoke with Friendzone’s James Laurence and Dylan Reznick via Skype about the album, the ease of working with Main Attrakionz, and who is the bigger Aphex Twin nut.
How did you two first connect?
JL: We are both from the Bay Area, grew up here. We met back in 2005 when I was doing this noise project called “doe” and Dylan was in the band Robin Williams on Fire. I was invited to play a show at his house. Later, we were in a band called Destroy Tokyo.
DR: We grew up in neighboring towns and both had pretty similar approaches to music, so naturally, we started working together on miscellaneous projects.
What were you listening to at the time?
DR: When we started playing together, we were both into… I wouldn’t call it “pop” music but we were very interested in a melodic approach.
JL: I was listening to a lot of Xiu Xiu and The Smiths [when we met].
DR: Pictureplane, Perfume, Daniel Lopatin’s stuff, Boredoms’ later stuff. We actually listened to rap more than any of that but at that time we hadn’t thought of actually making it. Lil B was probably the most inspiring artist to me at the time though.
JL: He’d just came out with ‘B.O.R.’ and I remember watching that with Dylan and we were both set back so much, like, “damn.” It was really jarring for a lot of people, actually.
DR: That time was really inspiring: all of a sudden it felt like musicians could do anything they want, that anything was possible. A lot of barriers were broken, all at once, really rapidly. It was very cathartic as well, too: I feel like people were really fed up with the old concepts of what music should be like and how it should be made. People were very eager for a radical change.
How did you go from making your own music to working with rappers like Main Attrakionz?
DR: We were doing our own music — not “instrumental hip hop”, something different. We hadn’t thought about working with rappers until we saw the video for ‘Fuck The World’ by Main Attrakionz. That was a very, very new sound and it resonated us with us very deeply.
JL: I tweeted [Main Attrakionz member] Squadda B and he was pretty close to us. We went and picked him and Mondre [M.A.N.] up, and the chemistry was there 110%. It was amazing; Dylan and I realized, “wow, holy shit, we can do hip hop.”
DR: Yeah, the first session was pretty unforgettable. It was a really beautiful time. We made a few instrumentals with rap drums but we didn’t really know what to expect. We took them to my house and played the music for about 10 minutes and they just listened and started writing. We had 2 songs recorded within an hour — ‘Rap Paradise’ and ‘Zombies on the Turf II’ — and I was kinda in awe the whole time.
We didn’t release those until much later though: I recorded them with a bad mic and was never able to make mixes I was satisfied with. The next day I went out and bought a Shure SM7B and a pop filter. Ever since that time, we have done sessions with them on a regular basis, once a week usually. They are very very passionate about music; we both have the same kind of work ethic so it’s a great partnership.
There’s definitely this push for new, more, and free content all the time. You guys (and Main Attrakionz) are pretty prolific – how do you balance productivity and quality?
DR: A lot of people have a negative take on that, but to us, I think it is really very liberating. Releasing just one album a year would be torture. We’ve been trying to space out our releases lately and it’s really an uncomfortable feeling.
JL: We always think about each release — nothing is put out without thought and love. We have a lot of unreleased material. We have learned to not flood the audience, or at least to flood them in a smart way.
DR: Since you’re not investing money in the release and not asking for people to pay $20, you don’t have to worry as much about trying to make one “perfect” release that represents you. I think that actually holds people back artistically. I don’t know if it’d be possible for our music to be as diverse as it, without releasing a lot of stuff. It really has refined what we do and I think our catalog as a whole is better because of it.
How have you approached releasing music?
DR: Our approach for the first year or two was to — instead of releasing an album — put out all of the songs as singles one at a time and build it up very gradually. Then, after a year or so we threw all of our favorites together and the ones that stood the test of time together and made Collection I.
JL: We actually had no idea people would be that into Collection I, but it did very well and it was just a casual release for us.
DR: Releasing it that way makes a lot more sense to me than releasing 12 songs that no one has heard before. There’s a lot more uncertainty there, a lot less insight going into the decision making. It benefited us a lot, putting out little bits and seeing how people respond. It made us a lot braver Ithink. A lot of the time the stuff that people respond to the most is stuff that when I’m making it, I’m thinking “man this is gonna be over people’s heads.” It’s really encouraging to see people respond to stuff like that.
Can you remember a time when positive feedback really pushed you in one direction?
JL: I can say that ‘Perfect Skies’ and ‘Chuch’ were two songs that had people ecstatic.
DR: We did not think much of those beats when we made them. They were just another two tracks, nothing special, but once I heard what Main Attrakionz did over them, I was in awe a bit. But even then, I didn’t expect the kind of response we got from the listeners.
JL: I mean, Gigi Masin even gave ‘Chuch’ his blessing. That’s amazing times 100. He reached out to us; he was just really really stoked on the song [which samples Masin’s ‘Clouds’].
DR: Yeah, especially considering how there are a few other, much higher profile songs that have used the same sample, but he still felt compelled to contact us. Very self-affirming.
JL: Definitely a highlight in my life, not just my career!
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Tell me about DX.
JL: DX is gonna be our first release where people haven’t heard most of the songs. DX is an album 100%, this is our heart and soul.
DR: After Collection I, and during the time when A$AP Rocky was working on ‘Fashion Killa’, we started getting approached by a lot of major label artists, so the logic was that we had to start to keeping our best stuff under wraps so we could save them to send out to rappers. But over time, a lot of stuff accumulated that we felt wasn’t quite destined for a major label rap album placement.
The idea of making DX originally came about as a way to just get that stuff out. In its first incarnation, DX was done in January, but after Long Live A$AP dropped, we felt a lot of pressure: suddenly we were getting a lot more attention than before and it felt like our next release should be as good as it can be.
JL: We couldn’t just drop a bunch of b-sides, basically. This album is much more full.
DR: We started rewriting it and that’s basically what we’ve been doing between now and January. We’ve been working on it so long that I can’t even tell if I like it or not anymore. All the feedback has been very positive though.
JL: We almost have a warped perception of the record; it’s always nice to hear people like it.
What was your goal with the album?
DR: We wanted to do something ambitious. I wanted to make an album that would make people’s heads spin, make them rethink their ideas about music a little. I remember thinking, “I want people to hear this and be like ‘what the fuck?’” In the end, I think DX came out sounding very head focused, in contrast with Collection I, which is more “body” music.
There’s an Aphex Twin sample on ‘RETAILXTAL’ — who’s the bigger fan?
JL: Ha, I used to be such an Aphex Twin nut. ‘XTAL’ is in my all time favorite songs list.
DR: I had three of his albums when I was a kid: Richard D James Album, Drukgs, and Selected Ambient Works Volume II. James picked the sample out, though.
At a few points on the album, I was wondering if you guys have thought about working with singers. Any dream collaborations?
DR: We have not ever seriously pursued a singer. I think maybe our music is so melodic that rappers compliment it better — they provide contrast. Most every time I’ve heard someone singing on our beats, it just felt like too much and too cluttered.
JL: We like to cram our songs with lots of melodies, it might be hard to work with as a singer.
DR: It gets in the way of the rappers sometimes too. For every hit there are a couple misses that were beautiful beats but didn’t leave enough space. It would be so suffocating to have to make our instrumentals work with vocalists every time.
DR: I’d love to work with R. Kelly and Perfume, though.
JL: I still want to work with Chief Keef and Young Thug.
Any update on 808s and Dark Grapes III?
DR: We’ve been taking a little time to relax after DX, but 808s is the next on the agenda. Our managers just had a meeting yesterday about planning the Mondre solo and 808s release dates around each other; not sure how it came out but the record is basically done in terms of songwriting.
We are in the mixing stage and that’s been a long process. We have always engineered everything ourselves; we are very protective of our work and really hesitant to let other people touch the mixes or anything. I think that approach has slowed the process a bit: it’s incredibly hard to stay objective while mixing your own music.
JL: We can say that it’s gonna be really, really, really good and that it’s done.
It seems that it has become more acceptable for “hip hop producers” to work with rappers as well as make music under their own name. How have you found that experience?
DR: There are a lot of preconceptions in people’s minds about what “hip hop producers” are supposed to be, and what boundaries the music is supposed to fit into. When people hear we are hip hop producers, it makes them have all these expectations about us and I resent that. It motivated the songwriting on DX.
JL: Yeah, people definitely have preconceptions on what it means to be a “hip-hop producer,” but I feel like an artist can do whatever they please. They don’t have to hold onto doing one type of thing. I love when I see electronic music producers produce for rap artists and stuff like that. I think it adds a very different element to the song.
DR: Preconceptions are a really powerful thing. It’s what defines a category in peoples heads. If something doesn’t fit that definition, then it’s “wrong” and “bad” and that stifles the artists. For a long time — especially during the late 1990s and early 2000s — rap music was flooded with really generic acts and it created a really dull time for mainstream music. Even today, I feel like when I tell people that we produce for rappers and also do instrumental music, they expect us to sound like DJ Shadow or something.
Hopefully that’s changing, with you guys, Supreme Cuts, Ryan Hemsworth and the like working with more rappers.
JL: I agree, people seem to be open to that kind of stuff now, which makes me super glad that we could be a part of the “movement” of internet rap and just the production wave.
DR: Yeah, definitely. Things have changed a lot in the last two years. It’s a beautiful time to be alive and making music. Lots of artists are redefining things; I really want to contribute to that as much as I can.
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