“I’m just an asshole with a drum machine”: How Hieroglyphic Being met his heroes and charted the past

Whether you know him as Hieroglyphic Being, I.B.M. or simply the man behind the Mathematics record label, Jamal Moss’ dedication to his craft is staggering.

He doesn’t see his prolific release record as anything unusual, though, saying that it’s simply the inverse of artists who drop an album per year and extensively tour it. “I’ll hustle through my structure that I build for myself to get it out there to be heard,” he declares, be it through other labels, his own, or even on CD-R. Loyal to his Chicago house upbringing, he’s wary of “zombies” showing up to any commotion, gormlessly gawking instead of dancing. “I guess my energy is only meant to be tapped into by a select few and not the many, and that’s what I’ve accepted in what I do,” he notes, his outsider status exemplified by releases such as The Worst DJ Ever. “I’m not bitter, I’m not hostile, I’m comfortable in my lane.”

A new challenge for Moss came recently with the proposition of collaborating with the musicians he’d studied. Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl’s We Are Not The First sees Moss creating with Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, vocal improviser Shelley Hirsch, Guardian Alien and former Liturgy drummer Greg Fox and synth artist Ben Vida, among others. The album is a sprawling, multifaceted mass orbiting the idea that all present creations are formed on the foundations of those that came before us. The challenging nature of the album, and Moss’ work in general, propose an uncertain question for us to consider: are we ready to face the music of our ancestors?

Along with the interview below, Hieroglyphic Being gave us a selection of his jazz influences ranging from Alice Coltrane to Billy Cobham and Herbie Hancock. It’s wonderful, and you can stream and download it here (tracklist follows the interview):


How much of a perfectionist are you when it comes to your own releases?

I’m not. That’s the problem, I kinda go with the feeling or a certain energy and just let it be what it is. Life ain’t that perfect. So the way I look at it is: People will accept me in my truest form. When I go out and do live shows, I don’t use the same material. I always design new stuff. It makes no sense to charge 20 bucks to get in the show [and] they hear the same stuff I did on the record. I think I should give them a new experience. That’s the type of control I like to have. As far as the whole vinyl situation and putting it out to the market, you see me as I am, so when I go out and do the shows, you don’t expect this whole God complex, this whole holier-than-thou aspect sonically. It’s about the conversation I have with the people who wanna hear what I do.

Where are you listening to music now? Where are you going out, where are you going to shows?

At home. That’s it. If I do go out, it’s maybe three times a year in Chicago, and it’s not anything that’s on the radar. It’s something that some friends of mine would do, I know there’ll be some good music that’ll make you wanna move. But in general, even DJs that I know from 10 years ago – because they need to survive, I’m not knocking it – even their sound palette has changed. They call it growth. But what type of growth? You have flowers that can grow in the ground. They can grow sideways. They don’t have to grow upright and reach the sun. Places I used to beat it on the floor, I can’t go because it deadens me inside. I’d rather stay at home and play the records that I buy and enrich my soul personally. Right now, it’s all outcasts fuelling what I do.

I’ll find places to play, but it’s all for the outcasts. Me dealing with RVNG now, and dealing with Ninja Tune and Soul Jazz will possibly put me in the arena, a higher realm of existence in this culture, but I don’t know if they’re really ready to absorb what I got. I’ve been told many times, that, “This is not your time. People are not ready for what you do.” I dealt with RVNG because they’re respecting, they show interest in me, to showcase what I do because they actually believe in my capability and my artistry and what I represent. We’ve been programmed to believe hype, not this other stuff from long ago, the folklore, the myth. We’re not trying to hear about these cats from 20 years ago, we’re about now. Ourselves. This self-induced egotistical moment that’s about us, and not about the collective.

I did something with Ninja Tune, album will come out next year. It’s stuff that I’ve always done before, but now it’s set at this industry standard that’s supposed to be respected because of the whole structure of the sound format and the way it’s present by a certain high level label brand. Which is ironic, that it competes with the whole throwback of what Crème Organisation or L.I.E.S. or some of these other labels with the dirty analogue sound do, which I’ve been doing for years and I always got laughed and made fun of it, but now the next generation of people are doing it and they’re applauded. I’m not saying I’m bitter, it’s just kinda weird how the industry and the people in industry are herded into certain things.. A lot of labels closed the door on me for having that sound from back in 2004, the height of “minimal”, or “tech-house”. 10 years later, everybody’s all about that sound.

What I’m doing now with these labels that are affluent and highly respected, I’m doing a modified sound of what I do, catered to the old minds, the people who came before us, the avant-garde jazz greats, the people who did avant-garde noise, the people who did industrial, the people who did spoken word. I’m grasping stuff from the past and melding it with today. Making a future-forward sound like I’ve always been doing. That’s why I say what I do it’s more, “cosmic bebop”. What I call it is, “rhythmic cubism” and “synth expressionism”. People are so disconnected from the original source and they don’t know their history, or they only know bits and pieces, they’re confused. It’s funny – you can know all, but know nothing. There are people on the forefront that have been lost, cast aside, whitewashed, buried, forgotten about. I’m not saying people are doing it purposely. Ignorance alone, without methodical, conscious will can be its own undoing. Lost knowledge, lost tribute. Lost ritual to the people that came before you. That’s kinda what the album’s about, We Are Not The First. I’m trying to remind people it’s fine to feel good about what you’re doing, but you didn’t get here alone. You got here through other people’s sacrifices for you to have this moment now, and you should be really celebrating. Not sitting around, looking hot.

“I’m trying to remind people it’s fine to feel good about what you’re doing, but you didn’t get here alone.”

From what I understand, RVNG got in touch with you to set up the album.

Yeah, it was almost three years ago when they hit me up. They basically wanted me to do what I did with machines, but with human beings. Which I thought was demented because I could get really far out with analogue machines, so making me try to do what I do with humans was an interesting proposition. I said, “OK, I’ll give it a try, I think I’m ready. I’ll give it a go, let me just do some research and try to figure stuff out and come up with a concept.”

When I did, they set things up for me to come out to New York and go in the studio. We got stuff laid the first eight days, then they had to sit back for a while and figure out what they wanted to do. The directions they were going, it felt like it was not genuine, it was watering down my connection with the project. ‘Cause we get too many people involved in the project, then what’s left of me? All it becomes is my name, and a bunch of other people doing a bunch of work on the project, and it’s not really a representation of what I’m trying to do. We had to figure out something where I could get in the studio and have a representation of me, good or bad, success or failure, and I have to make it be what I’m trying to project. Then I had to come back a year later for another five days, go to the studio and get everything worked out. So that album was done a long while ago and it’s coming to daylight now which I’m grateful for. But it was a long process, the album that’s coming out now is not the original album. I had to go back in and reformat it to make it more palatable. Because the original source is way the fuck out there. I mean, it is bonkers. I knew I had to water it down some for people to digest it, and maybe people can open up their third eye and accept it.

As someone who doesn’t really water down things in general, how did you go about making this something that more people could approach?

I had to make a conscious decision and say, “Oh I can be this bitter old dude from back in the day who can’t let go, or I can progressively move forward and work a way to navigate the system.” Technically speaking, it’s not about me. This whole concept is about representing other things that came before me and that’s how I was able to let go of my ego and get back in there and then compromise and then change the palette a little to make it digestible to the listening audience. I can sit there and be frustrated but a lot of people came in and put their time and effort to make this project what it is. For all I know, a lot of those artists probably think they didn’t wanna be part of it. If they can sacrifice and get on board and then partake their effort, energy, knowledge and expertise of like their musicality and artistry and be part of this, then I need to push my ego aside and be part of this too. That’s the bottom line. Any people who work together, you gotta make sacrifices for the greater good.

When you went out to New York, did you know who was gonna be there?

The people who came on board, I checked out what they did and then I tried to sit down and work out stems and sound structures that I think they would identify with and be able to play along with. I was able to lay out all this stuff before I came there and then let the people in the studio hear it, and then people came in on different days and I gave them my ideas on the tonality or the way it should be structured and then they went in and started jamming out. The whole job was to go in after all the artists – because all of them weren’t there at the same time, there was a lot of improvisation and overdubbing. Then me and the engineer would sit down and arrange everything in sequence and lay certain things, take certain things out, try to make it cohesive.

I improvised with 90% of them. I just came in with backing tracks and when you’re working with a band, that’s what it is. You come in with a certain groove, a certain sound so they can hear, and because they’re veterans or musicians, they get an idea of what direction I wanted to go. I don’t know musical notes, I don’t know music theory. I just do it from the top of my head and they hear it, they know what direction I’m trying to go. You gotta realise they’re professionals. I’m just a guy with a drum machine trying to front to do what they do. You have to know your place and not disrespect other people. I never wanna call myself a musician, I’m not a musician, because it’s machines. Machines are a band in a box and there’s the buttons that control muscular action through brain activity from the individual vessel that’s hitting the machine. But when you go in the room with other people, you can’t hit them, you can’t press them like a button. You can’t send them an electric charge and say, “Hey, make this sound!” There’s a whole different dynamic of how you interact or react with people. Dealing with people like that in the studio helped me evolve my craft to be in a better situation of self.

“This is my call, this is my way of life.”

You’ve played with Marshall Allen on stage before, right?

Somebody originally wanted me to come play the Tate Modern with Chris & Cosey but I couldn’t come. They said, “When we got something in the future for you, we’ll get back to you.” And leading up to that point, because I was a fan of what Sun Ra and the Arkestra did – I always tried to do my interpretations in my own way sonically through machines to give a variance to what they do – and because I interjected that into the universe, other people equated me as being the “Sun Ra” of electronic music culture. I don’t really don that, I always wanted to be known for me, but I was paying tribute to the people who came before me, and it got intertwined. And because things got skewed, the message distorted and brought us together full circle.

This gentlemen who worshipped Chris & Cosey, was good friends with Sun Ra for a long period of time, was good friends with Marshall and was part of a function at the Barbican said, “Hey, we got something for you, heard you’re coming over this period of time, can you come?” All I was supposed to do was play music in between the Arkestra’s show. That was it – intermission. But when I got there, they were like, “Oh you’re going on stage with us!” I’m like, “No I ain’t, I’m just supposed to play some jazz records.” And they were like, “No, you’re getting up there with us.” And then he put the stuff on and I’m going on stage. I introduced the Arkestra and they had me read poems from Sun Ra’s book in front of 2,000 people. It looked like I was Dave Chappelle at a comedy show, people were cracking up because I was still trying to digest what was going on. The band came on and did they thing and I was hanging out back with them, one thing led to another, Matt [Werth] from RVNG was actually there – it all ties into each other. From there, a friend of mine was able to make it happen for me and Marshall to be together to play in Belgium. That was the first time we officially jammed out together live in front of people. Even though it was in a studio before, a year before that, that was the first time publicly.

They got you on stage and you weren’t expecting it?

Yeah!

How often do you end up outside of your comfort zone?

A lot. When I leave the house, I’m out of my comfort zone all the time ’cause I have serious anxiety levels. I get overstimulated by things. Literally, if I see a crew of pigeons eating bread I will just sit there and watch the pigeons make noise, eat bread and take a shit. My brain is just weird that way. I can’t help getting distracted, overwhelmed and just high anxiety levels.

Are there plans to play with anyone else from the album?

There’s stuff in the works to try and get a few members to go and try to promote the album and play some of the stuff out, it all might be improv with new sounds. That’s what I did with Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson. We just went for it. Sometimes you get some of the best stuff out of improvisation. With my machines, it’s only so many pads, sequences and rhythms I can do until I don’t have to practise any more because this is my call, this is my way of life. Working on that part of my aspect of my fibre and being in life, I overcome that type of anxiety.

When I first started going on the road and performing in front of people out of Chicago, I had big anxiety issues. I would look at the machine and have vertigo, looking at the push button to hit play. People were thinking I was doing some Prince Purple Rain shit, meditating for five minutes, burning incense. No, I was literally freaking the fuck out. And the sound engineer would come up like, “Is there a problem, we don’t hear any sound,” and I’d be like, “Oh no I got this,” and hit the button. Now it’s one of those things, we go on the road, we get ideal, we stay in zones or whatever. Right now, because everybody else is in other bands or got other things going on, it’s hard to get people to come together as an ensemble to do shows. At RVNG they’re trying to figure out how to make it work.

Talking about knowing the limitations of using machines that you’re so familiar with, how do you avoid becoming too formulaic?

I’ll buy something for its capability, and then I’ll play around and tinker with it for a couple of months. And I’ll get every sound out of it – noise, structure, note, melody, harmony, whatever. I’ll save it and dump it in stems into an external hard drive and then call it later down the line. Then I’ll get another machine. I don’t find myself being stagnated or unchallenged. Two machines I’ve kept over 15 years is there DR5 and then I got the original Casio drum machine that Steve Poindexter did ‘Work That Mutha Fucker’ on. I’m in the process of getting other stuff to challenge myself, a different type of sound design, be it apps for the iPad or software for the computer or standalone analogue. It’s kinda funny now because most keyboards, they’re not really analogue any more, they use a digital copy of a analogue architecture and it’s watered down. I try to challenge myself and get involved in different stuff. I actually have a guitar that I’ve been practising now, trying to learn. I’ve actually got a saxophone I’m practising to learn, and then I have a flute and a bunch of other stuff. Maybe in about five years I’ll be able to be respectful, to walk onstage with real musicians who play real instruments and jam along with them with an instrument. Until then, I’m just experimenting.

“I don’t wanna call myself a musician. Cats who get a little drum machine and will call themselves a musician – have at it. But for me, no.”

With the people who are playing analogue machines, especially in recent years, there is that debate: Are they a “real musician” because they’re using machines or are they not? How much does it matter?

It matters a lot because then people get the idea [that] when they pick up a drum machine, they’re making music. I’m sorry, it’s disrespectful. This is not to diss anybody else, I’m just setting the picture in front of you, how things are skewed this day and age. I’m just an asshole with a drum machine who got lucky. And I did it in a format of a culture I came up in. But you have people out there to this day that don’t have the opportunity. So out of respect for them, I never wanna call myself a musician because there are people sacrificing for their kids to go to school to be real musicians. When these kids graduate from college or from music school. they have to go out there and audition to be part of a symphony or orchestra. And from what I’ve heard, they’re dying now. Symphonies and orchestras are not as popular any more, they gotta find other ways to stay viable. I think people need to really wake up and separate what is what, and be real with themselves. That’s just personal to me, I don’t wanna call myself a musician. But other cats who get a little drum machine, a little analogue box, they get their little effects box, and do some vocals, and will call themselves a musician – have at it. But for me, no, that’s a disservice to them.

All I’m saying is know your lane. Know the sacrifices of other people who are actually real musicians. Don’t let your ego get in the fray and think you’re the end all be all, because perception’s a mother[fucker]. You get a drum machine and you go out in front of 500 people and they’re dancing, [and you’re] thinking like, “Yeah, I’m the Real Deal Holyfield”. But you’re playing a machine in front of zombies. You’re playing a machine in front of people who are putting on a facade. You’re playing a machine in front of people who are still trying to find their own spirituality, their own soul in the construct of what is dance music culture. I know musicians who just play for themselves at home, and I’ve seen them put on a record and play with Weather Report fluently. And then I gotta go to a show somewhere where somebody has a guitar and they build some low, strumming hums, do some effects, and it takes about fifteen seconds to go through the box and it comes out [as] this static, whatever, harmonic resonance in the background. And it’s nice, but it’s sound art, or sound experimentation, I wouldn’t really consider it full-on music.

You can proceed in your own lane without going into other people’s lanes.

It’s lame, and now the person who went to school to be an actual musician, people will not go out and see that person play the violin or play the guitar or play the piano. I respect Herbie Hancock because he encompasses all, he encompassed organic as well as the technology. Even if you can’t really learn everything that they did and how they played, at least do your research and listen to the music, feel the music. That’s what I do, I listen to the music and feel the music. I got tonnes of jazz records, it’s all I buy now. I put my money into the people who came before me.

The stuff is so skewed now that you got people buying all these 12″s that come out with two tracks on it that are just analogue drums. But then you have this plethora of great music that came out before ’85. And I feel like that needs to be bought as well so these guys can still have a living. So these people can actually get back on the road and showcase. Moroder’s back on the road. They’re bringing Eno back on the road, they’re bringing Vangelis back on the road. EDM, they’re doing it, but as far as the culture we’re in, how many are actually reaching to the forefathers of what they do and bringing them back in? You got Rabih [Beaini] from Morphine Records, he’s doing it. I respect him because that’s what he’s doing to educate the younger generation like, “Hey, there’s a connection in between what’s going on now and what happened 30 or 40 years ago.” Even I’m at fault for not connecting the dots at times. It’s ironic, here I was, hyping Laraaji up to Matt and then Matt’s like, “He’s on my label!” I’m glad there are people out there like Matt and Rabih finding these guys and then getting them to the forefront so people know.

In my outsider situation, people know now, thanks to things being brought to the forefront by other artists that people know, who Marshall Allen and the Arkestra are. Now people know who Shelley Hirsch is. People know who Daniel Carter is. People kinda know who Shahzad Ismaily is but he’s a big man behind the scene that people don’t really understand. Everybody in the industry know who the hell he is but the average person doesn’t have an idea.

If you’re not in the studio then you don’t see that.

Yeah, you see what I’m saying? This is me trying to not be the bitter motherfucker talking shit and not being proactive, this is me actually being part of the continuum of what I’m talking about and hopefully people will see this and they will do the same thing. I try to do it my own label.

You sent us a jazz selection, what was the aim behind it?

That selection was just stuff that I’m going out to buy and learn. I actually make more of a living off of doing my CD-Rs than I do doing tours, which is crazy. I would go to the record shop that I go to, this guy had this record shop [for] around 40 years. Any record I wanna get, any music I wanna learn about, he knows. He will pull ‘em out his warehouse or he’ll put it in his store for me to come grab the following week and I’ll spend 40 bucks on this record. Spend 50 bucks on the record. I won’t spend 100, I won’t go that far! I just wanna let people know I’m actually doing what I’m talking about. When I reach out and try to do research, I literally will do it. The records you hear in that selection of jazz music is stuff that I bought recently. That was like 400 dollars of records I just played. I just want people to hear the tonality. I wanted people to hear the structure of it, I wanted people to hear the rhythm of it. I wanted people to know that there’s more in the world. How can you run around and say you have a background, a cultural history, but you don’t know it? Just go out and connect the dots, that’s all it is.


Hieroglyphic Being’s We Are Not The First Mix
Tracklist:

Emerald Web – Photonos
Jaco Pastorious – Okon kole Y Trompa
Alice Coltrane – Shiva Loka
Weather Report – The pursuit Of The Women With The Feathered Hat
Herbie Hancock – Hornets
Billy Cobham – Bandits
Soul Translation – ?
Ken Nordine – Hunger Is From
Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Akestra – Myth Verses Reality Angelic Proclamtion in Space
Trio Of Doom – Para Oriente
Sun Ra – Outer Nothingness
New Conception Of Jazz – Jazzland – ?
L’Incendie – Les Borgias
Herbie Hancock – Thrust – ?
Knoel Scott – Noblese Oblige