This month marks two milestones in the life of Rizzla: the release of his proper debut EP, and his first days as an NYU graduate student.
To those familiar with the work of the Fade to Mind DJ-producer (aka Brian Friedberg), the two are intertwined: already armed with a Master’s in culture and communication, his music has been defined by both its aggressive, queer-Caribbean sound and its sociopolitical underpinnings. When he tweeted a few weeks ago, “Wish I could dissolve my body into pure ideology and swim thru information systems eternally,” it was less a tongue-in-cheek joke and more a hyperbolic statement of purpose.
“I’m addicted to consuming information, almost chemically,” he says via Skype. That’s a key part of why he ended up at NYU, in a music technology graduate program. “Expression isn’t my problem, knowing how to do it is,” he admits, and truly understanding the tools that he uses to create music is not just a professional aim but a life goal. “I want to be in a studio until I lose my hearing and I’m too old to walk.”
At NYU, he’s studying topics like digital signal theory, audio processing and Csound (a programming language that lets you “code your way into complex musical execution”), and he’s already eyeing his next thesis, on Carnival acoustic studies, a topic he believes has been neglected because academia privileges European and American subjects. “I want to understand scientifically what goes on with Carnival: how it affects production, how to mix on the road where people are literally absorbing the frequencies — nerdy shit,” he explains.
As always, he is fascinated by global club music. “With the new wave of baile funk, there’s something genuinely sonically different about this stuff — some kind of crazy new way of mixing and prioritizing frequencies that makes this minimal music sound so incredible.” His focus on sonics rather than culture reflects a general change in his approach, especially in the age of social media. “We don’t really need cultural anthropology in the same way we used to: people have those tools themselves now,” he says. “I’d just rather listen to what they have to say about themselves than to take this distant position and observe it.” For him, science has come to represent the best way to achieve rigorous, academic analysis of music.
“I want to be in a studio until I lose my hearing and I’m too old to walk.”
The technical knowledge he’s picking up at NYU is also something he hopes to share with other producers in his community. “There are other creative and professional jobs that need to be done by people with our same ethics and aesthetics,” he says. “It shouldn’t be all jazz band kids that are doing high level audio stuff — there should be a more diverse set of opinions and styles in those fields.” Even before starting the program, he had mentored other producers, not just on what to expect in the music industry and how to protect ones identity, but on how to mix for good sound systems. “[The industry] tricks you into thinking that if you express yourself, everything will be fine, but if your shit isn’t technically sound, it won’t be able to take you as far as you should be going,” he says.
“Bringing that knowledge to queer producers is important,” he continues. “We can’t just expect rebellion and critique to be enough.” He acknowledges that technical knowledge is often used as a weapon against female and queer artists. “Numbers and science can be a prison, or tools of patriarchy, or delegitimizing,” but cis-gendered male allies supplanting technical knowledge in these communities can help. “People always say, ‘let’s change society and work our way down’ — no, work around you! You have to do the work.”
While Iron Cages (due out September 25 via Fade to Mind) predates his new academic pursuits, it is no less rigorous than the more “deliberate” music he’s hoping to make in the future. The EP takes its name from social theorist Max Weber’s analysis of capitalist control and Ronald Takaki’s book (about race and culture in 19th century America) of the same name. “The stories that I associate with the all tracks are complicated hybrids of my sociopolitical view of the world and weird, traumatic experiences that I’ve had,” he explains.
Last year, Friedberg was diagnosed with a very rare form of leukemia, and while he says it is “manageable,” he describes the diagnosis as “not the kind of shit that makes you want to go to the club.” Rather than being designed with the club in mind, much of Iron Cages is “hazy and angry memories of the club.” For example, he began work on ‘Black Jacobins’ in the hospital: “It’s a very primal scream.”
‘Black Jacobins’ is named after a book about the Haitian Revolution by influential Caribbean Marxist writer C.L.R. James. Friedberg tries to view Haiti’s revolutionary victory as a “a moment of black triumph” rather than “the contemporary third world tragedy” presented by the media. “It’s very personal to me in a strange way, because trying to overcome your own internal struggles, to keep doing what you want to do, to establish your identity or your daily life and health — all those things were mixed together for me in the last year.”
The histories of revolution and contemporary decolonization movements are at the core of his artistic identity. “Music has such potential to tell the intricacies of those stories without saying them out loud,” he explains. “With these tracks, I’m trying to translate the aesthetic and political traditions of the music that has been my primary source of inspiration, and I’m translating them in my own way, with my own issues and internal struggles.”
The sonic palette of Iron Cages — sub-bass, reggaeton snares, elements of trance, “fucked up vocals” — is similar to that of previous Rizzla music, but there are new developments, as well. The title track features singer-producer-DJ Odile Myrtil and Inc.’s Daniel Aged, who interpolates the melody of Ultra Naté’s ‘Free’ on guitar. While the inclusion of jazz guitar is Friedberg’s “fuck the club” attitude showing, the track can still live there: “It’s the romantic moment between whatever horrible things come before and after it in my DJ sets,” he laughs. It’s also a “false flag” for the rest of the EP: a melodic, post-club pop song that isn’t as raucous as what follows.
That’s clear on ‘Airlock’, a song Friedberg wanted to call ‘Event Horizon 2’ in tribute to the cult horror flick he had playing while he made the track. Along with the film, the song is influenced by first-person-shooter games, and amid its carnival-contagion-zombie apocalypse rhythms are chopped-up vocals, a “demon” that haunts the track. “Confronting the nature of evil in the middle of outer space is my thing,” he says. An element of sci-fi horror is in all the music he makes, even on more direct club tracks like ‘Twitch Queen’. “For me, [‘Twitch Queen’] was what I was dancing to in my head at gay clubs when I started going at 18 or 19,” he says, relating stories of naively asking DJs to play “Latin house” or “tribal house” at afterhours basement parties, without really knowing what those genres were.
“Confronting the nature of evil in the middle of outer space is my thing.”
By taking elements from various threads of club music and translating them to tell personal stories, Rizzla is similar to contemporaries like Rabit and M.E.S.H, artists whose music sounds great on a club system, even if it isn’t built with the club in mind. Friedberg calls it “the Total Freedom effect” and finds beauty in the discursive element of these interconnected musicians. “To be able to come from the same influences and have a final product that sounds nothing like each other is so beautiful,” he says. “There’s space between each artist’s sounds, and while they converse with each other, it hasn’t been formularized.”
At the other end of the spectrum from these “new noise” producers is the nature of “corporatized club culture,” one of his primary concerns, on Iron Cages and in general. “I don’t want to ever condemn money-making opportunities for artists,” he maintains, “but people have to pay attention — it’s about consciousness as much as ethics.”
“Personally, I’m really bad at playing that game — I’m not super-inclined to grin and bear it. But by me not participating, it clears up the space for other people to take advantage of it,” he explains. “Everyone has enough room to operate how they want to. I’m lucky enough to do exactly what I want to do, even in New York — to play exactly the kind of parties I want to, with the exact DJs I want to be with. That is what success is.”
But despite wanting everyone to be able to navigate corporate culture in a way that makes sense to them, Friedberg’s anti-corporate, anti-bureaucracy streak isn’t going anywhere: “I’d burn it all down if I could.”