When Guillermo Scott Herren first moved to New York City in the 1990s, he ended up inside a tiny apartment on Suffolk street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Fresh from high school and in town to begin his college education, he was also focused on another kind of learning. Making beats had been an interest of Herren’s for a few years, and even though by his own admission his early attempts at instrumental music sucked, he was intent on making creativity his life. 20 years later and Herren’s discography includes over 15 solo albums, more than 20 EPs and singles and a vast body of collaborations all released under a string of aliases, the most famous of which remains Prefuse 73. Herren’s hip-hop alias, Prefuse is how he made his mark on the world. It’s also the reason why I’m meeting with him.
It’s a cold February afternoon when I meet Herren for the second time outside his flat in the Bowery, between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The chill of one of New York’s harshest winters to date bites through our layers of clothing. We take a brisk walk to a nearby basement bar on Allen Street, four blocks over from Suffolk Street where Herren’s NYC tale began. Inside the bar he keeps his grey wooly hat on, framing his face into the portrait most people know him by with its thin, delicate beard and nerdy glasses. Behind him, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel is playing on a loop against a wall, the bar’s cheesy music selection acting as soundtrack to its surrealist plot. We’re here to discuss Herren’s return as Prefuse 73 with a new album and a new label after a four-year hiatus, but to fully understand what Prefuse 73 is today, I also had to make sense of Herren’s tangled past; in the process I discovered an artist who remains somewhat misunderstood.
In 1999 Herren signed to British label Warp Records. In 2001 he released a debut album as Prefuse 73, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, which announced his arrival with a loud bang unlike any that had been heard coming from an MPC, the drum sampler that was hip-hop’s sonic architect in the 1990s. Both Vocal Studies… and its 2003 follow-up One Word Extinguisher established Prefuse as a unique voice, an artist capable of giving hip-hop what it thought it didn’t need. At times, the early 2000s hip-hop underground felt like a strange musical wilderness. Parts of it were uncharted ground where artists like Herren could thrive even the music was often too hip-hop for electronic heads and too electronic for hip-hop heads. Warp, which had snapped up other hip-hop mavericks of the time such as Antipop Consortium, would remain Prefuse’s home for 11 years.
“I couldn’t even release a 10-year anniversary of my debut, even though that changed the face of what kids are doing now.”
Sometime in 2011, having delivered his eighth album for Warp, The Only She Chapters, the label informed Herren that it would not be taking the next option, thereby ending the relationship. “I didn’t know what to do. If I’m not on Warp who the fuck else is going to fuck with me?” The question was rhetorical. Four years on, Herren still seems a little shocked about how it all went down. The relationship had clearly soured, and someone at Warp – Herren still isn’t sure who or why – decided to end it. Such a sudden split would have perhaps been okay had it not been for a particularly painful twist: legally, the label retained control of his masters. “I couldn’t even release a 10-year anniversary of my debut, even though that changed the face of what kids are doing now.”
Business and art are like oil and water, and Herren knows this. He says he felt himself slipping into a darkness after it all went down. He got legal advice and had to face the reality that what had been his job, his whole being in a sense, was finished. Not only did Herren turn in an impressive body of work for the label – eight albums over 11 years – he also helped bring onboard some of its best known acts, including math-rockers Battles and beat scene prodigy Flying Lotus. He doesn’t seem bitter about the split, but saddened it had to be this way, pointing out that being on Warp opened him up to a whole world of music he would have never had a chance to encounter and put him on bills with the likes of Björk and Fennesz, experiences that helped shape both the man and his artistic personas.
Over the course of multiple meetings in the winter and spring, I came to realise that Herren is a lot like his music: multi-layered, unpredictable and complex. He might still be dismayed by the Warp debacle but he’s just as quick to point out how he shot himself in the foot a few times over during his career, passing on opportunities that could have made his life easier because he was too scared. “Do I look back on it and say I fucked up? Yes, yes I do,” he says with a laugh. One of the most important sides to Herren’s artistry, and a key part of his complexity, is identity. He regularly returns to the fact that people, especially critics, never got who he really was; that they never understood the man behind the music.
When Warp picked up Herren in 1999, licensing his first album under the Savath & Savalas name as well as signing him for the Prefuse material, they got more than just a wunderkind about to reinvent hip-hop. They got a young man whose identity and links to hip-hop weren’t easily definable. “It would have been easier to package if I’d been from the Bronx,” Herren laments during our last meeting. “Instead I was from Miami, and lived in Decatur.” Over the next few years he found himself subjected to questions and assumptions about his cultural background that felt like they were trying to box him into something he wasn’t. What was a white kid from the suburbs of Atlanta doing recording rap joints with MF Doom? Within those questions lay misunderstandings about both Herren’s upbringing and racial identity.
For much of his early career he was framed as an outsider to hip-hop culture, appropriating rap and transforming it through an electronic lens when in fact it was rap, not electronic music, that he came from. It still makes him a little angry when he casts his mind back to the promotion surrounding his first records. “I couldn’t understand why they were treating me like I was 10. They were ignoring all the cultural references that were to be found throughout that first record.”
The son of Catalan and Cuban parents – a tattoo of the Cuban flag adorns the inside of his right wrist – Herren was born in Miami and immediately adopted by a Jewish woman and her husband, who later also left. His adoptive mother brought him to Decatur, a commuter town east of Atlanta. Today the city is painted as a trendsetting suburb, but back then it wasn’t always a pleasant place. Atlanta’s notorious Zone 6, the central point of the city’s current rap dominance, is nearby. In the 1970s and 1980s, Decatur was the kind of area where a young kid could easily go the wrong way. Herren remembers his adoptive mother as someone who embraced his heritage and supported him through thick and thin despite the bad hands she was dealt. While she would open Herren’s mind to new possibilities, she was also keen to keep him out of trouble. To that effect she instilled a regimen of musical and sports practices. Every year he had to learn an instrument and a sport, and Herren developed a growing interest in music. He learnt the violin and the piano and discovered hip-hop at the local roller rink and indie rock through his sister. He went through the motions year in, year out, following the rules from his mother until eighth grade, when he learnt the drums.
The drums proved to be the first instrument that allowed Herren to venture outside of the rules his mother had set down. A few years later, towards the end of high school, he met some kids from New York. By then he had learnt to fade his own hair, a neat trick to ensure high school survival. He invited the New York kids back to his house for free fades and games of basketball. In exchange one of them introduced him to sampling, bringing over an SP–1200, one of the early workhorses of hip-hop. Flicking through his mom’s record collection, Herren learnt the ropes of looping and sampling. They would run the SP’s outputs through the stereo and the kids would rap in a way that Herren remembers as being typical of the New York sound that still dominated hip-hop at the time. This was all in contrast to the music they would be subjected to coming out of the jeeps in and around Decatur: a bass-heavy mix of early Miami and Southern records. An organic connection between New York City, Atlanta and Miami would become central to Herren’s early years.
Herren finished high school a year early and instantly escaped to New York. He got a bulky Emu Emax 2 keyboard sampler from a pawn shop in Decatur and along with a four-track recorder set about making more beats in his apartment. In New York he soaked up the vibe of a city in the throes of sweeping gentrification. This was a time when the so-called illbient movement was thriving in downtown, with shows at The Cooler in Hell’s Kitchen and Max Fish in the Lower East Side that explored the sweet spot between instrumental hip-hop, ambient and dub. Herren recognised some of himself in that sonic soup, especially in the early experimentations of DJ Spooky, seeing links to his own attempts at making sense of different musical strains. One day while reading Grand Royal magazine Herren found out about Tortoise, the Chicago experimental rock band. He went looking for their music and was blown away. He wrote to the band and sent a tape of his own musical dabblings, leading to a connection with Tortoise’s drummer, John Herndon, and their engineer, Casey Rice. In 1995 he released his first ever 12″ record, Fluid Ounce, alongside Herndon (as A Grape Dope) and Rice (as Designer). Released on a subsidiary of German label Source, Fluid Ounce is a relic that not even the internet seems to know about. Herren’s credit was under Delarosa. Two years later, he released his first album as Delarosa & Asora, the hypnotic Sleep Method Suite.
During the second half of the 1990s, Herren split his time between New York City and Atlanta, finishing his college degree in spurts while bartending and refining his craft. From the money he made working he would collect second-hand instruments, trying to get to the essence of the music. Back in Decatur, he found himself in a local recording studio helping his friend’s band mix their record. He gave the studio owner a copy of his first record and struck up a relationship. The owner made him a deal: come work for him and handle the hip-hop clients and in return he’d buy Herren an MPC, which the young producer would have to pay back.
For the next couple of years, Herren found himself dealing with local artists that the owner, a man who idolised The Beatles as the pinnacle of modern music, couldn’t handle. He worked the boards and early Pro Tools system, bouncing tracks down to cassette tapes so they could be played in cars. All the while the local Dirty South sound was beginning to rise to national prominence through the work of acts like Outkast and their crew the Dungeon Family. At work Herren was neck deep in the South’s rise, but at home he was busy working the MPC to find ways to make it say things it never had. As such his early work was partly a direct response to the overbearing aesthetics of Dirty South beats. His cut-ups and syncopated beats were a reaction to the relentless machine gun rhythm of hi-hats that characterised the Dirty South production template.
During this period of college and studio work Herren reconnected with his Miami roots. While working at the studio he met Joshua Kay and Romulo del Castillo, two Miami-based producers who in 1997 had founded the Schematic Music Company label. That same year the pair had released an EP on Warp under the Phoenecia moniker, four tracks of intricate, chopped-up electronic music that fit neatly under the umbrella of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), a term Warp had inadvertently helped popularise a few years earlier through their Artificial Intelligence compilations. If Warp was the home of IDM in Europe, then Schematic was its equivalent in the US, with early releases by influential artists like Richard Devine, Push Button Objects and Herren under his Delarosa & Asora name. Herren’s work for Schematic emulated the computer-driven cut-ups and electro vibes of Phoenicia and Devine on the MPC.
Recording and composing by himself before sampling and chopping up the results, Herren delivered something that fit the Schematic aesthetic but was somewhat more organic. He recalls it as trying to fake what they did on computers with the MPC, a process through which he convinced himself that he was, in fact, making hip-hop and not electronic or dance music, much less the intelligent kind. “Simplifying things was the only way I could come out as Prefuse,” he says. “It was my reaction to the Miami guys saying it’s not hip-hop.” Herren decided to prove them wrong by making his beats unique but still, somehow, rapper friendly. His Warp debut, despite being primarily an instrumental album, made the point with vocal contributions from Freestyle Fellowship’s Mikah 9 and New York wordsmiths MF Doom and Aesop Rock.
In the mid to late 1990s, when Herren was working at the studio and first releasing his take on IDM, he also began to immerse himself in DJing thanks to another local music nerd. Late 1990s Atlanta was still small enough that if you were into a specific kind of music you’d soon come to meet most anyone else who was also on the circuit; that’s how Herren met Josh Winkler, aka DJ Klever. Winkler was a turntable prodigy, a local kid that Herren recalls would show up at local DJ competitions wearing Misfits T-shirts and sporting dreads. Appearances can of course be deceiving, and despite his look Winkler would clean up at these local competitions thanks to dazzling skills that would later earn him the US championship title at the DMC turntablist competitions. When Herren first saw Winkler’s dexterity on the turntables, he recalls thinking that there was a new era approaching, a change in the air for hip-hop. He wasn’t wrong. The turntablist movement of the late 1990s was a direct reaction to the DJs being pushed out of the music earlier in the decade as the MC rose to prominence and rendered the original hip-hop music makers economically irrelevant. Despite its insularity, over the following decades turntablism would prove just as influential an experimental force for hip-hop as Herren’s work.
Winkler and Herren struck up a friendship that led the young producer to teach the turntable prodigy about more abstract ways of producing hip-hop. In turn Winkler taught Herren about DJing through osmosis. Herren points out that on his debut you can hear that there are two turntables plugged into his MPC. The sonic cut-ups that characterise Vocal Studies have often been linked to the IDM scene, but they can just as well be understood within the context of scratching and turntablism, where snatching small elements of records and re-contextualising them was key. Most of the cut-ups in Vocal Studies are pilfered from hip-hop records, from Nas and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Erykah Badu, suggesting that turntablism was perhaps more of a direct influence on his debut’s aesthetic than the electronic cut-ups of the IDM crowd.
“Simplifying things was the only way I could come out as Prefuse.”
At the basement bar on the Lower East Side, Herren tells me he’s thought of a different angle on the multiculturalism that has informed his life and work. The reason people don’t get him, his upbringing and background, is because he didn’t see his own roots growing up, he says. It feels like an important admission on his part, an acceptance that no matter how tangled his roots might have been, making sense of them was an important and necessary rite of passage, as it is for most multicultural kids. It’s why, following the release of his debut, Herren moved to Barcelona in the early 2000s to try and understand the Catalan heritage his father had bestowed upon him. A side effect of this learning process was a return to his original name. His early publicity refers to Scott Herren only, but sometime after his return to America he began to be referred to as Guillermo Scott Herren. Guillermo is in fact his birth and legal name, while Scott comes from his adoptive grandmother, a historian and photographer in Decatur. Guillermo, however, wasn’t very practical growing up in the South. Once in Barcelona he found out that, in turn, most people couldn’t pronounce Scott that well. He reverted to Guillermo and stuck with it “instead of living a duality.” He also points to Miami and the friendships he made there growing up as another place where multiculturalism is a norm rather than an exception. He calls it a fractured view of the world, kids inheriting curious cultural mixes from their parents and being left to deal with them as adults. All of which underscores the frustration he felt when the first Prefuse records came out and his racial and cultural entity was mischaracterised.
In the years that followed his split from Warp, Herren kept musically quiet, referring to his output as minimal upkeep. By this point his early work as Prefuse had become one of the foundations of what has been referred to as the late 2000s beat scene, a worldwide movement with focus points in Los Angeles, Montreal and Glasgow. One of the figureheads of this new movement was Flying Lotus, the LA producer that Herren had helped bring to Warp. Even if the kids didn’t know it, Herren was integral to their scene coming into existence in more ways than one. In early 2012 Herren announced that he was collaborating with Teebs (real name Mtendere Mandowa), another LA-based producer connected to the beat scene and signed to Lotus’ Brainfeeder label.
Together Mandowa and Herren formed Sons of the Morning, a duo that would be the central piece of Herren’s first post-Warp return. They officially debuted the act with a session for the Boiler Room and an appearance at Low End Theory, the weekly nightclub which still acts as a site of pilgrimage for artists and fans alike. In early 2013, a tweet let slip that Herren was collaborating with another beat scene progeny, Jason Chung aka Nosaj Thing. He then launched new label called Yellow Year alongside photographer Angel Ceballos. The plan was ambitious: over the course of 12 months the label would release Speak Soon, a string of collaborations between Herren and a who’s who of underground mavericks old and new. These included Mandowa and Chung as well as the reclusive Swiss musician Dimitri Grimm, aka Dimlite. Herren had helped Grimm connect with Stones Throw a few years before and refers to him as another kindred spirit, someone who was intent on using his own voice at a time when most people weren’t necessarily interested in hearing something honest.
The announcement of Yellow Year sent Herren’s fans into an excitable state. The first volume of the Speak Soon series, featuring Sons of the Morning, was released shortly after in the autumn. Other releases were still nowhere to be found when Herren embarked on a month-long US tour in January of 2014 under the Yellow Year banner alongside Chung and New York’s Drew Lustman, aka FaltyDL, another artist attached to the project. And then nothing. Yellow Year seemingly vanished. Herren regrets leaving the project’s collapse unexplained, but he’s not one to publicise business matters on a whim. As it turns out, the end of Yellow Year was down to creative and operational differences scuppering their ambitious plan, despite everything being in place to fulfil it. As with the Warp debacle, Herren is saddened by its demise, more so because he was left to look foolish. He still has hopes of reviving it, though how realistic that is remains to be seen.
And so Herren found himself back at square one, with no home through which to channel his creative output. For most of 2014 he again went quiet; in reality he was busy finding a new label. Fresh from two acrimonious splits, he talks about that period as akin to soul searching. More than anything he says he didn’t want to deal with drama, but wanted to leave those experiences behind and find a smaller label that would easily accommodate his output and vision without the stress that can arise when creativity and business clash on a larger scale. He seemingly found it in the Brooklyn-based Temporary Residence Limited, a label founded by Jeremy deVine that originally focused on rock-related bands and today houses the likes of William Basinski, the experimental modern classical composer. Herren found Temporary Residence through recommendations from Nigel Godrich, who releases as part of Ultraista on the label, and Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, who uses Temporary Residence for American distribution of his Text Records label. Both artists are old friends of Herren’s and made him feel comfortable with the move.
Herren first met deVine when he was still living in Brooklyn and found him to be down to earth and receptive to his creative ideas. Despite interest from other trendy labels, Herren signed with Temporary Residence for an album. In the months during which we met up, however, Herren became increasingly troubled that the label might not be able to do the work full justice in terms of connecting the music to what he refers to as the “right channels”. It feels like a recurring problem for Herren – a fear that things won’t lock together as best they can when the time comes to release his art into the world. In the early years of Prefuse he was pigeonholed in scenes he had no relationship with, and today he is worried that the new label and his audience won’t match. Yet the music industry is such a different beast in 2015 that the worry strikes me as disproportionate to the reality. Those who want to find his music will, regardless of which label puts it out.
In the end Herren delivered to Temporary Residence one album, Rivington Nao Rio, and two EPs which in effect make up another full-length. Sitting on his couch, his small dog peering from behind his leg, Herren says he creates best when he has a mission statement of sorts, a concept he can latch onto. The two EPs have that. Forsyth Gardens is themed around the downtown neighbourhood Herren has lived in for the past year, while Every Colour of Darkness relates to the nighttime and its denizens. There’s also a mixtape of Jamaican ragga and dancehall influenced material, so far unreleased but created at the same time, which was inspired by the recent violence and chaos in Syria. In contrast, Rivington Nao Rio was more of a collection of songs than a conceptual body of work; it still has its moments but lacks the conceptual glue that has bound the majority of his work to date. The music on the EPs was in fact written in a six-month period following the album being handed in at the label. It’s a time that Herren refers to as tuning back into his old way of thinking and working: “Things exploded.”
During our basement bar conversation, Herren mentions that after his break from Warp he spent time retreating away from music. Instead he focused on world affairs, soaking up NPR everyday. He clearly feels deeply troubled by the state of the world and the difficulty with which any of us might attempt to reconcile what our governments tell us with what they do. He points out that One Word Extinguisher was partly influenced by the second war in Iraq, and says he finds the confusion that news can create to be a catalyst for creativity. His cut-up approach to vocals and lyrics, which is how most voices make it into his material, is his way to channel the moods he feels into instrumental music. His songs are full of fractured lyrics and snatched moments; words and sounds that are stripped of their original context. By doing things his way, rather than getting someone to sing on the track, he feels more creative, more empowered. In his apartment, rolling news on the TV acts as background noise and our conversation again turns to the helplessness that some of us feel in light of the news onslaught. Perhaps Herren’s chopped up approach is the most logical one to take in today’s non-linear world, where making sense of it all in a traditional way requires more effort than it ever has. Just chop it up, rearrange it and soak it all in. Maybe then you can start to see patterns, to discern a way through it all.
Rivington Nao Rio and its accompanying EPs mark Herren’s return to solo work after four years in the wild. It also marks the return of one of hip-hop’s innovators to a sound that helped lay the ground for the rise of the hip-hop producer as an artist. His debut was released in the shadow of the South’s dominance of mainstream hip-hop, and his return comes at a time when trap, one of the many styles of Southern production and one which Herren dabbled in when working at the studio in Decatur, has achieved a second dominance both mainstream and underground, infiltrating dance music too. There’s an irony there, as if Herren’s best work was only possible as a reaction to the world around him. He tells me he needed to relieve himself of the new album, to let it go and put it in the hands of someone else, someone like deVine and his label, so that he could overcome its meaning and move on. At the same time he’s aware of just how influential his early work has been to a new generation of musicians who might not even know who he is. “When I was younger, you could call people out, like ‘yo don’t bite me!’ Now [my music] is just part of the fabric, so people don’t even realise it’s me that they’re biting.”
The first time I met Herren in the spring he was fresh off a conversation with Tom Brown, the head of Lex Records, Warp’s original hip-hop offshoot and now home to Danger Mouse and Herren’s old MC sparring partner MF Doom – the pair had even been rumoured to have an album together in the early 2000s. The next time I see him he says Lex has offered him a production deal to make a record with a yet to be confirmed MC. It’s the most animated and upbeat I’ve seen him be about music since our first meeting in January. After all the ups and downs since 2011, he seems to have found a next step forward that feels like the right one to take. Then he shows me the private message from the rapper he and Brown currently have earmarked for the project. It reads, “Let’s do some cool shit.”
Correction: Herren’s first 12″ release was in fact released on the Fluid Ounce label and was called Let’s Talk Swimming Pools. It came out the same year as Herren’s debut under the name Delarosa & Asora .