“I’ve spent a lot of my life partying,” states Lil Jabba. “Right now I’m just trying to improve my art.”
It’s a lofty statement coming from somebody whose past interviews have weaved a mischievous mythology around cave dwelling and third eyes. But Alexander Shaw, it turns out, is very serious about his art – and so he should be. His debut LP, Scales*, marks him out as one of footwork’s most compelling outsiders, while talk of new material at slower tempos suggests he’ll be shedding even that title before long.
Shaw is an itinerant figure, Australian-born but studying at art school in Baltimore at the time when he became fascinated with Chicago’s footwork scene. Now a member of the city’s revered Teklife clique alongside Rashad, Earl and others, he’s relocated to Brooklyn, where he seems more absorbed in his music-making (not to mention his painting) than the city’s bustling scene. FACT caught up with Shaw to talk influencing Rashad, being scared in Chicago, and why he’s attacking his art from every angle.
You’re based in Brooklyn now. When did you move there?
I’ve been back in New York for a little bit over a year now. Since I graduated uni.
What’s life like in New York compared to Baltimore? Is there more going on, music-wise?
I’m used to this kind of life – I went to most of middle school and high school in New York. So it’s good to be back. There’s more parties in New York, but the scene down in Baltimore is pretty solid, as far as all aspects of music go. People are slowly getting into electronic music down there, and they’re more driven than up in New York. I mean, obviously there’s tons of brilliant musicians up here, but I live quite a secluded life for the most part these days. I’ve been putting so much time into my work that it’s not worth my time going out and shit like that. I’ve spent a lot of my life partying. Right now I’m just trying to improvemy art.
It was in New York that you first met Rashad and the Teklife guys, right?
Yeah, it was on my birthday a few years back. The whole Lit City shit was just starting to pop off. Me and Rashad and Manny and all those guys had been shooting emails and talking on Facebook for a while, but the first time I physically met them it was in New York. After that I went up to Chicago, almost a year ago, to Juke Fest. And I keep running into Rashad all over the world in weird-ass places. He was in Western Australia coincidentally when I was doing my little mini-tour. We ended up kicking it pretty hard. He played a gig one night and I ended up doing a little set after his gig.
Was it hard initially to get in touch with those guys, or were they quite approachable?
Obviously I was quite intimidated. And, looking back, I think that was pretty brazen of me, because honestly most of my early work is not… the mixdowns, the instrumentation, all of that is much more amateur than the stuff I’m making now. Of course, a lot of footwork, the producers – especially the younger dudes – the production level isn’t the main concern. It’s about making a banging track. But my earlier tracks weren’t even really banging, they were just kind of… bizarre. I had become so infatuated with the footwork sound that I just had to get my stuff out to [Rashad], let him hear what I was doing. But he was nice from the get-go. And obviously it worked out, he was giving me tips and stuff. I also noticed – a track [that I sent to Rashad] might not have been fantastic, but it might have had a little bright spark of something interesting. And I could hear Rashad, or Earl or whoever – I could tell that they had heard it, and they were injecting it into their own work. So it was nice to see them interested in my work, even though it was kinda leftfield and coming from a different place, you know?
When you became a part of Teklife, did people start to take you and your music more seriously?
Oh, yeah. People definitely took me more seriously. Oftentimes people didn’t even believe it, because obviously it seems a little weird that they inducted me into the crew. Especially as I’m not living in Chicago, I’m not directly part of the dancing scene or anything like that. When Rashad offered me this position, obviously it proved my seriousness and it gave me a lot more drive and determination, in the long run, to make better music. At the end of the day, Teklife is all about music. Teklife is not necessarily just footwork, it goes beyond that – it’s about trying to be as cutting edge as possible, not necessarily being trapped into any sort of genre. It’s about the most interesting, forward-thinking people – that’s what it boils down to.
What was it like when you visited Chicago?
I’ve been to quite a few places in my life. I spent four years in Baltimore. But Chicago was fucking rough, dude. I was staying on the South Side quite a lot. I remember I was staying at [Sirr] Tmo’s house, and Tmo wouldn’t… I wasn’t really allowed to walk around the neighbourhood. If I wanted to have a bogey, I could only go a little bit out the porch. It was kind of scary out there. But obviously I had a great time. I stayed with Earl, I stayed with Tmo, and we would just make beats all day.
It’d be good to talk about the album. It seems to have been a slow process putting it together.
Yeah. Since it’s my first album we wanted to encapsulate all the work that I’d done to reach the point that I’m at today. So I was interested in displaying my earlier works that had, at least in my opinion, a certain… weight and gravity. Some of the earlier tracks obviously are gonna sound more lo-fi – because back in those days it wasn’t really my goal to make immaculate, crisp, perfect electronic music. But [I was] just being fun and free and naive, but through that had a certain freedom to make weird choices that maybe these days I’m not necessarily gonna make.
How do you think your sound developed in that time? Have you refined it?
Yeah, it’s all about refine, refine, refine. I’ve got a whole ton of music right now that no one’s even heard that’s so next level – really rich, I think it’s really ambitious. I like it a lot better than my earlier work. My improvement over the past two, two-and-a-half years has been pretty major, I’d say. I’ve also been slowing down my work a little bit, working at different tempos. I’ve been getting into sounds that are more Jabba, as opposed to footwork – much more unique. Of course, footwork is my roots, I’ll always be a footwork producer. But I’m also delving into other styles that I was really into prior to getting into footwork.
Do you think there’s any crossover in aesthetic between your painting and your music? Looking at some of your paintings, there’s this kind druggy tone that’s detectable in some of your music too.
I’m not really a druggy dude. Obviously I can see the association… I’m trying to make my music and my art a little bit hallucinogenic, a little bit abstract, a little bit blunted. But I think it’s all me. Lil Jabba ties into the artwork aesthetically, inexplicably, somehow. The music and the paintings reflect my self very deeply, I think. And it’s all about trying to express myself to the highest potential. I want to formulate an image that is completely unified and cohesive. A lot of people might only be musicians and they get trapped – directed by designers and stylists who are telling them, “You’ve got to fit into this criteria” or whatever. Then you might have a designer or an artist who’s not necessarily savvy to music. I want to make a complete image. In my opinion you have to attack it from every angle in order to get that.
* full disclosure – Scales is distributed by Local Action, a label independently operated by FACT staff member Tom Lea