Daedelus on Daedelus: LA’s beat scene vanguard traces his musical evolution

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We all want to belong.

It’s wired into us, a precondition of human existence. For some this desire leads to politics, for others to religion, and for others still to art. Growing up in Santa Monica in the 1980s and ‘90s, Alfred Darlington found himself captivated by The Bomb Squad’s unique productions for Public Enemy and Ice Cube. “It was the one thing that really compelled me musically for years,” he recalled in a Venice Beach coffee bar three years ago. Then came the tumbling breakbeats of rave and UK hardcore, discovered during trips to Europe. He wised up to sampling and its infinite possibilities. “It was this vital thing,” he thought. “It lives.”

Today, Darlington is best known as Daedelus — an edit of Daedalus, the skilled craftsman and artist from Greek mythology and father to Icarus. Under the name, Darlington has spent the past 16 years making a unique space for himself in electronic music where composition meets performance and classic meets modern. With a penchant for history and a restless desire to experiment, Darlington has become one of the most interesting artists to emerge from Los Angeles in recent years. But it wasn’t always easy.

Studying at the University of Southern California with a major in double bass, Darlington was “an outcast,” he says. He wanted to belong yet could not see how. The drum and bass scene was of interest, “but no one would have me.” Undeterred, he struck up friendships with fellow students Mark “Frosty” McNeill and Edward “The Con Artist” Ma (later edIT of The Glitch Mob). Alongside McNeill, Darlington ran a record pool and worked at a local pirate station, where one day he fielded a call from Jon Buck that eventually led to the formation of Dublab, an internet station and non-profit organisation. Unknowingly, Darlington had played a hand in the creation of a home for the musical misfits and outcasts that were crowding the sidelines of LA’s scenes. A home where he could also belong.

Following his years at USC, Darlington’s recording career began in earnest. Since 2001, he has released 14 solo albums, another two in collaboration with his wife Laura (as The Long Lost) and Frosty (as Adventure Time), and over 20 singles and EPs. While his discography shows an inquisitive and experimental mind, it also tells a story of acceptance. “I think a large part of my professional life has been this slow acceptance,” Darlington admitted back in 2013. “And not even other people accepting me, but myself accepting me.”

In February I visited Darlington at his home studio in northeast Los Angeles to explore his discography, album by album. The idea came from a similar excavation of the career of one of his earliest collaborators, rapper Busdriver. Over the course of two hours, we traced the evolution of Daedelus through each album, looking at his inspirations and moods, his collaborations with the likes of Madlib, Kelela and Flying Lotus, and the time he kidnapped MF Doom.

Daedelus - Her's Is

Her’s Is > [sic]
(Phthalo, 2001)

It’s funny to even think about music being a series of collections when it’s really all a never-ending gyre of songs that land on a particular record or another. I’d been working on material, some of which came out on the Freeways compilation Dublab put out the same year, and some that would become Invention, when this record suddenly happened. Her’s Is > was made in a weekend. A weekend of distilled madness.

The whole conceit of that record is that it’s based on found sound. Specifically, audio messages found on a mini cassette, the kind used by answering machines. It was somebody talking and singing in a never-ending stream of manic words into their phone, hence the cover. What do you do with that kind of stuff?

There’s an internal narrative you have as a producer. You’re trying to find your sound, make sense of all your own crazies, and then you come across somebody’s entire universe. I’m sure that if there’s one cassette like this, there probably more. As a plunderphonics artist and someone who likes to dip my toes into sound places, to go so wholly into such a world was intoxicating. It interrupted my life. That’s why I often say Invention is my first record. But this was something else. That’s why it is so abrupt and noisy and cantankerous. It also has the seeds of so much to come. Years later I’m still trying to figure out how to get to some of those places I burrowed into here. Innocent ears are so important.

Daedelus - Invention

(Plug Research, 2002)

This was a statement. A line in the sand for me. It utilised a lot of collaborations: Ben Wendel from Kneebody shows up on here, and it’s also the record in which I meet Busdriver, Sach, and, very importantly, Madlib.

In the early parts of the process for Invention, Carlos Niño stepped forward as a conduit for this energy that a lot of the record flowed through. The vibe in LA at the time was that there were strong scenes, but in the large part they weren’t inclusive. Dublab was an outlier, an oasis of possibility amongst the sea of ‘no’. It took people like Carlos and Mark [McNeill, aka Frosty, Dublab co-founder] to see the possibilities of the city coming together.

Madlib was suggested to do a remix of the album’s opening track, ‘Playing Parties’, for The Quiet Party maxi single. And I’d also gotten vocals from Busdriver and Sach. However, this is not a hip-hop record, not particularly beats-y. It has plunderphonic fidgets. I was thinking about hip-hop, about artists like Madlib (specifically Stones Throw and similar labels), but that scene wasn’t thinking about me. The album is such a strange mix of acoustic and sampled sounds, but you can hear what was to become my sound poking through.

Carlos set up the meeting with Otis [Madlib]. I came with my friend Dimitri. I didn’t have enough money to pay the dude properly for the remix so we agreed on half the fee in money and half in weed. We’re talking pound and a half at least, I think. [That’s a hell of a lot of weed for a remix –Ed.] Dimitri had access to very good weed. The math was sound, this being a value-added item. And Madlib expressed his gratitude in the actual remix itself – it begins with a panned stereo bong hit. It was so phenomenal. I remember at the time telling myself, “This is some found sound!” It’s what was going on in the studio. It’s such an important LP to me, beyond being my first release. It’s a quiet, intimate record yet it’s still one of my most [well] regarded efforts.

Then, a few years later, ‘Experience’ was flipped by Madlib for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’. That changed everything. I went from being the person who hunted rare grooves to becoming a rare groove. I also ended up in the video for ‘Accordion’ because I knew Andrew Gura, the director, from his first music video for the Invention track ‘Soulful of Child’. I get a call: “We have the dancer from ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ we can use, MF Doom is down to do it, the label says go, we’re go.” Both videos were low gloss, gritty. I ran over with my accordion, and proceeded to look like a weirdo in the background.

Daedelus - Rethinking The Weather

Busdriver & Radioinactive with Daedelus
Rethinking The Weather
(Mush Records, 2003)

This was an incredible time. After Invention I felt such possibility. The same year I was introduced to a very early version of the Monome, a device by Brian Crabtree which quickly became the centerpiece of my live show, and still is to this day. Before that my own fidgets with audio had been limited by how much 10 fingers could do, or whomever I roped into playing along. The Monome presented limitless sample manipulation, and this thought was to bleed into my productions.

I think Busdriver put it really well: The Weather was a challenge round. The LA scene at the time, to me, was full of talented producers that were under-recognized. And Regan [Busdriver] put my name on the cover of that record. He didn’t need to do that. I come from nowhere, far flung Santa Monica. I was still living at home. Regan would come with Radioinactive and we would have sessions full of experimentation: “What’s the most fucked up beat I can give these guys?” “What time signature can they flow on top of?” I don’t know if we were breaking ground, I just think we were playing in a sandbox, ‘cos these guys are insanely capable.

The record had enough impact that Mush hit me up about doing instrumentals. At the time that was the standard hip-hop formula. But this material was made so much in the relief that the MCs were leaving, their footprints were so strong in the dirt of that record, that when I took their voices away the record was empty. The beats were comical. It became really clear to me that it had to be completely remixed.

So I revisited every track. It was a really important lesson for me. If you listen to one song sentence it’s almost gobbledygook, but if you listen to it as a whole, there is an overarching sense of narrative. So I replaced their words with things I felt had meaning by virtue of where they were sampled from. ‘Robotic Girls Are Hard’, for example, utilised a bunch of electro melodies and records that spoke with robotic futurism. This work is me having a conversation with my records, alone in the studio.

Daedelus - A Gent Agent

A Gent Agent
(Laboratory Instinct, 2004)

This is my first international record, released by a label based in Japan and Germany, affording me the chance to better tour those territories. Absurd gigs followed, like playing with Ricardo Villalobos, which was super weird. I don’t know what happened to the label. This was a turbulent time, people trying to figure out what was going to happen with the music industry. The album has an accompanying piece called Meanwhile.

I love the way this album took shape. All my junglist and rave past, pulling at those strings until the sweater came apart. This was the height of my “trying to tell a story” phase. Every sample in this album is supposed to speak to a narrative of spies and subterfuge. In my mind I had buried these characters and the adventure they go on as a compelling secret to be uncovered. I was really trying to plumb this meaning, and to my shock no one seemed to get it, nobody cared, which isn’t surprising in hindsight. As a musician you have all this intention and then other people have their own take.

This record is also the first I got sued over. I sampled a little too big, a little too wide. I can’t speak on it too much but I got hammered. I now understood that every time you sample it’s an illegal act. No matter how much clearance you get, or how obscure it is, there is someone whose job it is to squeeze that little lemon to make a tiny lemonade.

The experience cemented this idea for me that we’re doing something illegal and inherently dangerous by being creative, which is good. I think it should be like that. It makes it all right. It forces people to be intentional. And all of my intentions, to have this record tell a story, went over people’s heads – but the thing they did get is that I sampled a bassline from one of these bands that you don’t sample, ‘cos you get fucked for it. It was a different narrative.

Daedelus - Of Snowdonia

Of Snowdonia
(Plug Research, 2004)

I came out of A Gent Agent with a lesson learnt. I began to work on Of Snowdonia around the same time, but without the baggage of a narrative. It’s almost entirely acoustic – there are only a handful of samples and they aren’t even buried. The record is an intimate love letter to Wales. Why fall in love with that place which has nothing to do with me whatsoever?! A childhood infatuation. This would also be my last record for Plug Research and, in a lot of ways, my last record as – and this is a tricky term – a ‘downtempo’ artist. It has all the fidgets of what was to come but it kinda sleeps and slumbers. It took me a long time to be able to come back to anything that resembled this.

The album features Busdriver and Pigeon John on ‘Something Bells’, and ‘Dumbfound’ was remixed by both edIT and Subtitle for the single. Everyone really did their thing. The LP was navel-gazing but the remixes did much in the experimental side of the then-growing LA beat scene. There were parties, things called Infinite Complexity, Dark Matter, Sketchbook, that all of us were involved in and they felt so fruitful. The dude from .clipping was doing a lot of shows with us at the time under his Captain Ahab moniker. The most fucked up kids getting together and having these strange gnashed up events. It was really rad.

Not to speak for Ed [edIT] but for me this remix is his Hangable Auto Bulb, the Aphex Twin EP that came before the Richard D. James Album. It’s clearly the RDJ alias but not as fully formed – all the tricks, all the sounds are there. I think you can hear that idea in the edIT remix. Ed and I go back to university, we have history. So maybe this record, despite being quiet, was fundamental not only for my pivot but also as part of edIT’s and others.

Daedelus - Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse
(Mush Records, 2005)

This my second LP for Mush but also my first released on Ninja Tune. A lot of this record I feel came out of a pressure for Mush’s owner to reach for the stars, to do something a little more uppercase, which is why MF DOOM is on there. Madvillainy had done its thing by this point, and I did a little touring for it alongside Madlib, MF Doom, J Dilla, and J Rocc. God, that was a wonderful moment. I only did two shows with them because I was so short-sighted, but spending time with those gentlemen was incredible.

Exquisite Corpse is a bit of a mish-mash. Pretty much every track features some lyrics or guest production. It follows the idea of the dadaist game of the same name. The record being with Ninja Tune also made it feel like a breakthrough. For my first big-budget video, directors flew in from Japan to shoot it and hired a young version of me through a kids’ talent agency – quite ridiculous. The record did well enough and I think it recouped in the end, but that’s when I realised the music industry was changing.

I wrote Exquisite Corpse at the same time as Rethinking The Weather, I was churning out material then. But there was a pushback from Mush – they didn’t think it was enough, they wanted bigger names than Prefuse73, CYNE, and TTC. I remember being angry, because what the fuck? I was left waiting forever for DOOM. I had allotted 16 bars, short. Boom. Easy. He’d agreed to it when we were on that Madvillainy tour. Me being inexperienced, I paid him before the verse was recorded. “Half upfront, half upon mastering,” he said himself. Passed it to his manager, who was like, “He’s totally going to work on it right away.”

They did not work on that shit. The label is pressuring. This record isn’t done because we’re waiting for the verse. DOOM is at a peak of his power at the time, no other underground rapper had sustained the way he had. So I paid and it’s crickets for a long time. I try to give him space but am also hitting up his manager regularly. Trying to be official. It’s always, “Oh we’ve got this.” “He’s gonna be on tour for a minute, but he works on the road.” “Give us a few more weeks, he’s already worked on it, he’s happy with it.” And if I remember correctly, at one point I got asked to send the song over again.

Eventually DOOM comes to town to work on what I understand was to be Madvillainy 2, and Kutmah calls me up and lets me know that DOOM and his guy need a ride back to the airport. Perhaps he knew I needed this moment, but Kutmah saved the day. I picked up DOOM and his manager at the hotel and politely kidnapped them. “We have plenty of time before your flight, my house is on the way to LAX, and if you could just do the verse right now we could be done, there are refreshments.” But I’m telling him this as we’re on the road, and this will not be a ‘no’ situation. There isn’t any way I’m letting him get out the city without this verse.

We have a short window of time before he truly misses his flight. They’d performed the night before, everyone is out of it. Dude hadn’t written anything. He asks for this amount of weed and a bottle of Henny to get in the zone. Dimitri, again, comes through like a champ. It was really hot in LA that day and I had no air con in the studio. DOOM’s manager proceeds to fall asleep. If you crank up the a cappella and listen really carefully you can hear him snoring in the other room. DOOM gets shirtless, smokes, drinks, and just murders the verse. He was very polite about the contents, even asking if I minded the line, “a pro-con white man with a Cali like tan.” Very thoughtful of him to ask. He does the verse, I get him to the airport, I guess on time, I don’t even know. And I don’t think I ever heard from him directly again until I saw him years later.

Deadelus - Denies the Day's Demise

Denies The Day’s Demise
(Mush Records, 2006)

One of my first records dealing with Ninja Tune directly. Even fewer samples, though if you listen you might hear them, all fairly synth-driven. The cover itself is a sample, an image by Windsor McCay that was out of copyright. Denies is mostly instrumental, and as a shift from Exquisite it’s a bit extreme. I probably shouldn’t have tilted so completely in that direction. People were kind about it critically but I often wonder what it could have become if I’d gotten guest vocals on it.

The concept behind the album was a love affair with Brazil. It felt like I was cheating on Wales! The insight and samples on the record were inspired by a trip to Brazil with the Stones Throw guys. Brazil was so wild but also so musically emasculating. I had one of those moments that was inspiring but also, “what the fuck am I doing with my life?”

We were at an outdoor café in São Paulo. A band was playing in the corner doing standards, well executed. And a lady from the audience went up and started singing with them, a song seemingly everyone knew. I don’t think she was famous, just a person singing her heart out. Everybody picked up their forks, knives, salt shakers, and began to play along. Not some easy clap along, they were playing rhythms, complicated rhythms. In that moment I realized I could study this music my entire life and never get so casually perfect. But every single person in this open air café, from all walks of life, just… damn, so good. How inspiring. So I wanted to burrow into that, to become a small part of it.

Daedelus - Love To Make Music To

Love To Make Music To
(Ninja Tune, 2008)

The most striking thing about this record is the life of ‘Fair Weather Friends’, which ended up being featured on the MySpace homepage, back when that felt like front cover of the internet, a concept we’ve shed in the time since. The fact that there was a place everyone saw before getting to their own profile! I was featured for five or so days. Hundreds of thousands of listens every day, so many eyeballs and eardrums!

It’s so ridiculous, thinking back. As a musician you want your music to be in front of people, and we are now in an age where where it’s your face and your social footprint that people see first. Often it feels like the face is more recognisable than the sound. I had a net positive from the splash this afforded, but what a strange world it let me briefly look into from being so very underground.

This album took root in my fascination with first hearing rave music in 1992, on the radio at a YWCA in London, the same one Morrissey sang about in ‘Half A Person’. Flying Lotus would play ‘Hrs:Mins:Secs’ from the LP in his sets a lot at the time, and he also included it in a BBC Essential Mix. All the while, Low End Theory was really getting going, morphing from a 50-person club to the globally revered institution it now is. Dubstep and the beat scene were mingling, a lot of music at 140bpm, bass spilling into everything.

Another thing about this album is that it was during a moment when the EDM scene was taking notice of what had been going on in the LA underground. And the sad truth is, a lot of people didn’t get the attention they deserved. You saw people like Prefuse and Dabrye not getting talked about so much. Why aren’t they coming along with the rest of us? Or Merck Records even, who folded around then. There were these great sounds afoot, but perhaps not the bandwidth to get it all heard in context.

Daedelus - Righteous Fists of Harmony

Righteous Fists of Harmony
(Brainfeeder, 2010)

I consider this an album, it was an EP only by virtue of its length. The dance scene was so loud at that point. Everybody was pushing bins with monstrous weight, the EDM invasion had begun in earnest. I felt such a need to do something intimate, and so returned to imagined roots. The ‘big room approach’ had really started to infiltrate smaller venues, brostep was taking hold, and my reaction to it all was very allergic. I needed to get perspective, quiet out the world. The album features intimate voices, like Kid A, my wife Laura Darlington, and my high school friend Amir Yaghmai.

It was the beginning of a series that is ongoing where I revisit Victorian-era conflicts. The concept for the record was a historic revision of the Boxer Rebellion of China, which involved the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists. The record also references the Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical cult of the late 1800s. In a way, this was me returning to telling stories.

Daedelus - Bespoke

(Ninja Tune, 2011)

Bespoke is me grappling with modern music genres, like juke and all the varieties of bass coming from UK shores. I’d spent years playing this kind of music at live shows, and when I felt ready to produce some, Bespoke came tumbling out. I was making the weirdest fucking juke, like ‘French Cuffs’ featuring Baths, or the wrong disco-house of ‘Tailor-Made’ featuring Milosh. I was also grappling with melody in an increasingly atonal club world. Why I even felt part of the conversation with club culture escapes me.

Kelela features on the track ‘In Tatters’. That was so much fun to record and it’s been so great to see her career take off. She goes by her full name on the album, Kelela Mizanekristos. I remember having this conversation with her about it at a café in Venice. I was like, “This is a very long name and I’m happy to have it posted it as you want, but is there any chance we could shorten it for the credits?” And she was like, “No way, this is my name and I’m proud of it.” Rightly so. And now years later she’s just Kelela. The industry will have that effect on you.

Daedelus - Drown Out

Drown Out
(Anticon, 2013)

In between Bespoke and Drown Out there were a lot of projects. The Archimedes visual project with Emmanuel Biard, further releases on my Magical Properties imprint, and much touring, including taking Nosaj Thing, Gaslamp Killer, Tokimonsta, and Shlohmo on their first American tours.

Back in 2009 I began to change the way I played live, using the Monome to perform what could be understood as more of a DJ set but really getting into the potential of deconstruction. So a lot of the music I made after that change came out of wanting to make records that lived apart from the dancefloor. I felt I could write songs that were free from BPM concerns. But, of course, that wasn’t what the labels wanted. I understand. Philosophically, I was at ends with myself. Drown Out came out of a difficult moment beyond BPM identity struggles. I was losing my father to disease. Other members of my family had passed recently. Life was pressing so very hard on my chest.

I’m so proud of this album but it’s almost as if each song is mired in this inside voice. I think it has an almost classical sound, very different to what was happening on the ground at the time. Outside there was an upswell of sci-fi and futurism in the scene, from HudMo to FlyLo, so much energy, and I was inside looking at my navel again.

Anticon were so down for this weird record and I just adore them for it. They were reinventing themselves at this point too. Every artist, every label needs to evolve, and let that progress kind of be our northern star. There was an EP called Looking Ocean that came out around the same time and it featured Austin Peralta, the last record he was on if I understand correctly, and so both projects were mired in that. He passed and Looking Ocean was in my hand, a free thing that the car company Scion had a part in. But it was all drenched in death. That whole period was a little bit… down.

Daedelus - The Light Brigade

The Light Brigade
(Brainfeeder, 2014)

This album is a continuation of the series I had begun with Righteous Fists, this time based on the Crimean war. Also an almost entirely ambient record, my first in fact. I think only one song has some sort of rhythm. Ten years after I felt like I’d left the downtempo tag behind, here I was returning to it. This was me coming up for air after a period of darkness. It’s an ominous and heavy record but I feel that in the end there’s uplift.

I had played my first show in the Ukraine years before, making friends there. Sometimes you encounter special people on tour and just click, and this was the case with the Ukraine. The corruption there was a day to day occurrence. We were on our way from the airport to the venue and the police pulled us over for who knows what. The driver said he’d wait the police out, because if you wait long enough they tend to let you go, and proceeded to spend eight hours or so with them while we just bailed into a different car to make soundcheck. I don’t mean to seem so sheltered but I found it all shocking.

Everyone who was part of that show was super solid. They just made it work in that flawed system. The main promoter I was dealing with was getting married, he was asking me for tips on ties. And at the same time I’m learning some of the history of the region and I decided then and there to make my next album about this conflict because it fit with my concept for the series.

A little later, as I was finishing the record, war breaks out in the Ukraine – a modern conflict based on this ancient separation I’d sought inspiration from, and my friends are under threat of conscription because they need bodies to go fight the weird green men, the name they’d given to the Russian soldiers that were appearing in eastern Ukraine. That record came out of all this. It was so eerie. We were talking of war and as the record came out, war responded.

Daedelus - Kneedelus

(2015, Brainfeeder)

All throughout my entire catalogue I’ve had Ben Wendel from Kneebody jump in to do bassoon or saxophone parts. He’s always been my first call. I’ve known him since high school, a forever friend. He’s a part of the very talented Kneebody outfit. They’re on Concord, a jazz label, but make a sound that would be hard to describe simply as jazz. A while back we made a record together that refuses definition but which I hope is a pure example of both our crafts. I eventually proposed the record to Flying Lotus.

Steve [Flying Lotus] has deep jazz roots and it’s been showing up a lot recently on Brainfeeder and in the Los Angeles world – all the Kendrick stuff, Kamasi Washington’s breakout success, Steve’s own output. When I first tried jazz studies as a double bass major 20 years ago I wouldn’t have foreseen this album being birthed. I’m happy that the intervening years have brought so much music in so many different genres across all these albums, but nothing could have made my young self prouder than Kneedelus, an album so full of inventive sounds and friends.

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