“He’s that artist who made great electronic music but never really got heard”: In search of Zap Francis

Zap Francis is real. That much I can tell you. Search a little deeper and it gets murky.

The Zap Francis EP is the latest release on Bleep, the label offshoot of the eponymous online store. It comprises six instrumental hip-hop tracks on some, to borrow from Nice & Smooth, “old to the new.” The label calls it a soundtrack to “journeys across intergalactic realms,” which certainly captures some of the music’s futurist energy. They also refuse to say who the artist is, hinting only that more music is to come. Mystery games are all well and good for promotional purposes but they suck when you have to interview someone.

I call the number given to me by the label in the afternoon. A man answers, his voice sounding like he just woke up. He tells me he’s always been around, though he “never really had the opportunity to really do his thing.” Zap sounds like hip-hop. You know, the way you can tell someone’s hip-hop just by how they talk. I try my luck and ask who he is. “He’s like an artist from the early Euro pop days,” is the answer I get. “Someone that has elements of the greats of that era like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, or The Human League. But he’s the one that didn’t make it though. He didn’t get the exposure. He’s that artist who made great electronic music but never really got heard. A little dirtier and more lo-fi.”

Even before reading the promotional blurb from Bleep, listening to Zap’s music had brought to mind space and science-fiction, the kind of beats Star Trek‘s Klingons might bang to. “When I’m creating this music, I imagine a whole industrial environment and state of mind,” Francis admits. Close enough, I guess. Without divulging any details he admits to a long career in music. Zap Francis is in essence a new project, a way to explore ideas about the intersection of hip-hop and electronic music. The sound is still being developed, which is why it’ll be coming at us in short bursts for now. “It’s meant to be party music, uptempo but with a grimy vibe. I want people to dance to it, not just nod their heads. At the same time I don’t want to make obvious party shit, that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

“You can speak through the sounds of the music.”Zap Francis

The music that Bleep is releasing was first heard in public last year during a special Boiler Room DJ set by Detroit producer and MC Black Milk. When asked about Zap’s identity, Milk replied only that he’d been given the music by the man himself. I try Milk’s PR for more, but they stonewall me so I decide to go back to the label. Raj Chaudhuri, who handles Bleep’s releases, tells me he discovered Francis a few years back though he won’t reveal how. “It’s about the music, not the person behind it, and I think the music he makes comes at an interesting time,” Chaudhuri explains over email. While not overly active, the Bleep label has flirted between hip-hop and electronic over the past few years, issuing techno from the likes of Karenn and Objekt and, in 2009, a compilation celebrating the then-ascending beat scene with Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke.

Ever since the American South decided it was going to say what it had to regardless of the industry’s attention, the crossing of hip-hop and electronic music has been accelerating. Over the past decade it has intensified further. From Drake to Flying Lotus, hip-hop has never been more honest about its electronic roots and tendencies. For Chaudhuri, the key is that this coming together of the two has now fully tipped into mainstream culture. “With Zap Francis, we have given an artist rooted in hip-hop creative freedom to explore that intersection further,” he explains. 

Early fans of Zap’s music include drum & bass chameleon Om Unit, Ghostly International founder Sam Valenti, and Sean Booth, one half of pioneering British electronic duo Autechre. Booth’s reaction upon hearing this debut release was succinct and to the point: “Fuck, nice.” A small but impressive consensus from a spread of contemporaries.

As my short conversation with Zap winds down, I ask what he thinks the purpose of instrumental music is. The question seems to stump him and he gathers his thoughts for what feels like a minute. “I’m making what I want to hear as a fan of electronic music, and hopefully it connects with people who hear that too. The music isn’t instrumental for the sake of it. It’s about creating something that doesn’t necessarily exist. Even though there are no vocals or lyrics I still try and create something that tells a story from beginning to end. An experience. You can speak through the sounds of the music.”