Lee Bannon: a Squarepusher fan making Golden Age beats, musique concrète and Voigt-a-like drone. Not your average rap up-and-comer, then.
Bannon came to public attention as a key member of Joey Bada$$’ Pro Era crew, working as their tour DJ and cooking up some of their finest in-house productions (the deep freeze soul of ‘Enter The Void’ in particular). Although less well-known than fellow Pro Era affiliate Chuck Strangers, he’s been making serious moves being the scenes: his production CV includes work for ticket-topping megastars (2 Chainz ,Busta Rhymes), buzzy space cadets (Ab-Soul) and affectionate old-timers (Souls Of Mischief, Talib Kweli).
Bannon’s discography is adventurous without being foolhardy. 2009 debut Me And Marvin twisted Marvin Gaye into odd new shapes; The Big Toy Box was redolent of Flying Locus c. 1983; and his Caligula tapes explored the darker nooks and crannies of the trap. Most remarkable was 2011′s Fantastic Plastic – a psilocybin-fuelled rampage up the same sort of purple hills previous traversed by the likes of Odd Nosdam and Matthewdavid. Latest EP Never/Mind/The/Darkness/Of/It strips out the drums almost entirely – a stark contrast to Super Helpful’s lovely boom-bap disc The Help, one of 2012’s best short-form rap releases.
FACT caught up with the Brooklyn-based beatmaker to discuss his crush on Goldie, working with Zach Hill and wanting to be the “Stanley Kubrick of music”. If you’re new to Bannon’s music, head here for a short crash course.
You’ve been in L.A. for the last few days – what was going on over there?
I was getting up with [independent booking agency] Windish, and I was working on the new album. I actually hooked up with [L.A. experimental rap trio] Clipping – they’re really good. I hooked up with them and I hooked up with [George Lewis Jr. from] Twin Shadow and Juan, the bass player from The Mars Volta, working on the new album and everything. I’ve just been trying different things: I’ve been using them in an unexpected way too: George I’m using more for a narration-type thing, and Juan the bass player, I’m using him literally just for bass.
Never/Mind/The/Darkness/Of/It feels like a continuation of some of the ideas you were looking at on the Caligula Theme Music 2.7.5 EP – do they come from a similar sort of place?
They’re related in the fact that they have some of the same bpms maybe – I did it all double-time – and the overall feel of it. It’s more of a progression of that, yeah. I abandoned a lot of the drums this time around and explored the sound a little bit more on Never/Mind/The/Darkness/Of/It. I took away a lot of the drums, exploring more noise and silence in general. I just wanted to expand on that sound as much as possible – I didn’t want to do it and explore it and not put my own stamp on it.
On this EP in particular, there’s a strong ambient and industrial influence – is that a genre you spend much time investigating as a listener?
Everything’s been so turnt up: I spent the better part of last year touring with Joey Bada$$, I started out as his DJ in the very beginning up until the end, up until January of this year, and we basically did shows all over. We were in London, we played XOYO – we played all over. And when you’re out that much and you hear the same kind of music, when I get home it got to the point where I was listening to Burial, more calm and chill stuff. It just grew on me more and more, and as I create new projects, it’s just showing up in the work more.
There’s an alternative history of hip-hop that’s influenced by and indebted to ambient music that’s been going on for 20 years – people like Dälek and Senational…is that a lineage that you’ve been tuned into?
A lot of things, like Therapy?, Goldie’s been a huge influence too – it deserves exploring too. I’m a fan of a lot of that, especially more recently. I know we’re talking about calm and atmospheric music, but even early Squarepusher stuff – if you take away the drums, that’s kind of what you have. If you take away the Amen break, you kind of have that. Especially on this newer project: it won’t come until later on this year, November or something like that, but I’d almost call it jungle. It’s scratching the surface of being some type of new version of jungle. It’s not like future garage or anything like that – it’s just really fast hip-hop, but the drums are kind of faint.
As a listener on this side of the pond, it seems more and more Stateside producers are starting to fall in love with jungle – particularly footwork producers, this sound from the UK in the 1990s starting to cross the Atlantic…
Yeah, for sure. A lot of producers getting close to that sound, they might not even know they’re getting close to that sound. It’s happening naturally in a lot of places, you know? I think it’s a natural progression right now for a lot of progressive producers in the States.
On a similar note, your production history is enormously varied: you can listen to your Pro Era work then listen to Fantastic Plastic, and it not be clear that you’re listening to the same producer. What do you get artistically out of all that shapeshifting?
I think that came from early on. One of the first people I met – I’m from California originally, from the Bay Area – was Del (Tha Funkee Homosapien) by accident, and started playing him beats and stuff like that. He was on Fantastic Plastic. But being around him and watching him work and being around Alchemist and watching them work, I kind of got two sides of it. Dan The Automator too. Over time, I just perfected the craft a little bit to where I can shapeshift a little bit, but as I progress it’s become more solid and not as liquid anymore, a liquid state – it’s becoming more me and less of the influence over time. That’s one thing I’ve been asking myself: am I capable of creating a sound, or do I want to only pick this sound and that’s only going to be me? That’s a Rick Rubin thing – early on, he had the same thing going on.
Having a particular sound makes you more marketable in a way.
…if you’re listening to Araabmuzik track, it tells you you’re listening to an Araabmuzik track with the production stamp. Whereas people like Madlib track construct different identities, become a superhero.
Yeah – again, I looked up a lot to Madlib. It kind of didn’t happen by choice. I try to embrace it, it is harder to market, but as time progresses if the listener sticks around they’ll get to point where they can identify the sound a little bit more. Or maybe not – maybe it’s like Peter Gabriel, or it’s something that’s forever going to be evolving. That in itself could be marketed as “you won’t hear what you heard before” – the “Stanley Kubrick of music” type thing.
You mentioned Squarepusher earlier – him and similar artists from that same Warp bracket, their USP became that you never quite knew what to expect from each record.
I definitely don’t want to limit myself. I think having a consistent sound is easier to market for a good five, ten years depending on how you play it, but it can become a cage, a wall if you let it. I think 9th Wonder in a way made the mistake, and by the time he tried to change it was too late. I’m not saying that it is too late, but you already expected that.
On a related note, talking about the market: I know you’ve produced in the past for some huge names. Are you currently working on beats for any larger names of that ilk?
That comes with the progresssion – a lot of the people I work with in the past, it would be impersonal, it would be soulless – it would be email based, or I’d meet them once and they would do their thing, I’d have no input. But now, as I’m getting older, I try to choose the people that I work with. Joey Bada$$ – he comes over , I sit down with him and we develop a song. Me and Chuck Strangers have actually sat down with Joey and been piecing together the new album and actually developing the sound. I prefer that way better than just emailing a beat and have somebody…that just becomes another monotonous song. And I’ve done a lot of monotonous music in the past – I’m at the point where I see that as kind of like my training.
So everything I do now is very selective – in the last past year, you might have only seen my work with Joey, but it’s more like I’m actually producing him rather than just making beats. I think that’s what it is: I’m becoming more of a producer than a beatmaker. Earlier on, I think I was just a beatmaker – the best way to put the earlier work is training, it was a lot of training. Some of it was sloppy, I think it’s just a progression of just getting better and more organised and less sporadic. I like the consistency of just working with Joey at the moment, but there’s other people I’m working with. I’m also expanding the range of people I’m working with.
I’m from Sacramento, so there were people that were in the area that I live, like Zach Hill from Death Grips and Stefan [Burnett], or Riley Montcrieffe – I’m around them – Zach came over and listened to what I was doing and gave me input, so having weird input from all these different types of field, that’s also part of it as well, but I think it’s all beginning to make sense at this moment.
In the last past year, you might have only seen my work with Joey, but it’s more like I’m actually producing him rather than just making beats. I think that’s what it is: I’m becoming more of a producer than a beatmaker.
Do you aspire to be a figure similar to Zach Hill – someone who transcends any idea of genre?
Eventually. Zach is a lot older than me at this time, but i think he’s just now starting to really hit what he’s been doing all this time with Hella and all these math rock albums and all his own solo stuff and now he’s with Death Grips, that’s his biggest – I think it’s kind of like that with me too – I’m working towards the grand opus type thing, you know?
I guess this ties in with what we’ve already talked about, but you’ve put out a lot of material in recent years in quite a scattershot way. What are you favourites out of this large body of work?
Again, this goes back to the training aspect. I feel like my training is kind of complete…it’s not complete but I’ve learned everything that I need to know to start making real solid bodies of work. I think Fantastic Plastic and Caligula and Never/Mind/The/Darkness/Of/It, I have those as my real body of work. Everything else is training, and I think the shift will be with this new project, Alternate Ending – that’s the title of the new project, but it also states where I am. That will be half of another project called Placecrusher – you’ll see. I think that’ll be more of a defining project. With this upcoming album, it’ll make a lot more of a splash than anything else I’ve done. It’ll come out in a bigger way.
In terms of working with other people at the moment, Joey has basically been my number one focus for the better part of last year and this year. The album that we did for him, I love it – I think it’s some of the best hip-hop that’s come out in a while. I’m going to move onto other things after this drops, maybe some stuff other people wouldn’t expect. I want to expand my sound to where I could eventually be… I think I’m one of a rare breed of producers, especially in hip-hop, I think it’s rare that they have a sense of history and production in a lot of hip-hop music. Phil Spector and things like that, I’m aware of them, and I think the simple fact that I’m aware of them and what they did reflects in my work.