Interview: Rabit

The Houston native on DJ Screw, his city’s musical legacy and What Dreams May Come, his most ambitious project to date.

Houston sounds like no place on earth, but these days everything sounds like Houston. From H-town’s finest – Megan Thee Stallion, Beyonce, Solange, Travis Scott – cloud rap prodigy Yung Lean and witch house pioneers Salem, the loose bounce and languid pace of the Southern sound has crept slowly but surely into the sonic textures of our everyday. Though broad in its reach and spanning over two decades in evolution, within its essence is the revolutionary sound of DJ Screw. It isn’t an overstatement to claim that the slow motion beat magic of Robert Earl Davis, Jr.’s chopped and screwed production and the steady chorus of Big Hawk, Big Pokey, Trae tha Truth, Lil’ Keke, Z-Ro and the rest of the Screwed Up Click is the sound of Houston, Texas. As Lance Scott Walker DJ Screw: A Life In asserts in his lovingly assembled oral history, “there is no music that is more Houston, no music that more represents Houston, than the music of DJ Screw.” Few understand this more intuitively than Houston native Eric Burton, the artist otherwise known as Rabit. “If people have been paying attention to Texas, they’ve either already been listening to these things or they were able to see them coming”, he says of the mainstream’s adoration of Houston rap. “It’s like Andre 3000 said, the South got something to say.”

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

A similar trajectory can be traced within a sound that some have termed deconstructed club, a broad collection of sonic and visual motifs initially spliced together by artists like Rabit, Elysia Crampton and Chino Amobi. This style also eventually faced commercial assimilation, with avant-garde elements of dystopian club sonics and aesthetics bubbling up into the mainstream. Unsatisfied with the space the scene he had helped cultivate across their early releases now occupied, Burton turned back to a sound emanating from a very real place, to Houston and to DJ Screw. In the years following his contribution to Bjork’s 2017 album, Utopia, he quietly released a series of cult mixtapes, beloved by those in the know, each a contemporary homage to the legendary self-recorded DJ Screw tapes. On these tapes, stamped with instantly iconic cover art from designer Collin Fletcher, t.A.T.u. can be heard melting into UGK, Rihanna is slowed to an irresistible crawl and Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody’ is slurred flawlessly into Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s ‘Dilemma’. The edits range in their truly virtuosic blends: from nigma’s Gregorian chant pop oddity ‘Sadeness’ stretching out to envelop Paul Wall’s ‘Sittin’ Sidewayz’; to Megan Thee Stallion’s lascivious ‘Sex Talk’ vocals riding hard over the elongated romantic melodrama of Art Of Noise’s ‘Moments In Love’; to sex anthems that had always been begging to be edged out, Trick Daddy and Trina’s ‘Nann’, UGK’s ‘She Luv It’; and tracks you never knew needed the Southern treatment, Tirzah’s ‘Gladly’ and Molly Nilsson’s ‘I Hope You Die’.

Some of these edits are permanently transformative, feats of production sorcery that leave an indelible mark on the music they touch. The Dope Show opens with Burton seamlessly blending Aphex Twin’s most heartbroken composition, ‘#3’ , with Boosie Badazz’s ‘Trust Nobody’, a pairing that is nothing short of miraculous. The former track’s ethereal pads, amniotic bass and blurred feedback treats Boosie’s raw testimonial of paranoia and anxiety with the audio equivalent of benzodiazepine, reality rap on Xanax time, gauzy dissociative drift setting Boosie’s words loose in eyelid-twitching bliss. Next follows another magic trick, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Venice Bitch’ vocals bobbing along the surface of Three Six Mafia’s ‘I’m So Hi’ as though they always belonged there, her caustic ode to toxic love and the vulgar beauty of twenty first century Americana tethered back down to earth by the visceral heft and slow burn of the dirty South. Lana’s playful manipulation of all-American signifiers takes on a slower significance drenched in codeine cough syrup; being ‘American-made’ means something wholly different in California than it does in Houston. “When youíre a DJ there are times when you know instantly that something is supposed to exist”, Burton explains with a grin. “This felt like a blend that needed to exist.”

An existentially necessary quality is something these productions share with DJ Screw’s. As Walker poetically describes, “Screw slowed it down to reveal more complicated notes, to find the nerve endings in the music”. Burton achieves exactly this across his own mixtapes, slicing open pop music and letting the emotion seep out into the melting pot of his own Houston sound. The nebulous potency of this technique is something the artist understands within a legacy of music making both highly technical and tinged with the occult. “What DJ Screw was doing was super scientific in an inadvertent way, it’s like when Coil would talk about Sidereal Sound”,  he explains, referring to the mythic group’s use of phase processing to shift the perceived location of sound within a composition. “When you manipulate a track, things are phasing, they’re turning into other instruments, even turning into other sounds”, Burton continues. “It’s pretty spooky. Say you reverse a Whitney Houston vocal and you do so many different things to it that you create an  entirely new track, there’s a lot embedded in that voice. You’ve turned it into something different; it’s almost like you’re creating a different place, a different reality to what’s in front of people. That is the definition of magic. I think.”

Grasping a more intimate understanding of the magical potential of his own music and its inextricable connections to Houston inspired Burton to begin working on his most ambitious project to date, a new album, layered with as much live instrumentation and vocals as intricately crafted sound design, called What Dreams May Come.

“Some of it was about my place in music, my place in art”, he says. “It was reflective of the mood of being unsettled and the opportunity in that.” Preempting the pandemic with some strange premonitions, Burton raced back to Houston from a tour towards the end of 2019. “I just needed to get home”, he recalls. “It was really strange because I had made up my mind that I was gonna say no to every booking and I don’t know why.” Back in Houston, Burton realised that the most subversive response to the commercial assimilation he was bearing witness to within certain experimental music circles was to stop, go outside and listen to his friends. “Part of it was coming to terms with the algorithm, being disenchanted with the algorithmic aspect of jockeying for a position to be the person that has something to say”, he admits.

“It was important for us to show Texas in a way that we didn’t feel it had been seen”, explains Lane Stewart, Burton’s creative partner and co-founder of the Halcyon Veil label, who worked on What Dreams May Come from its very conception. “We really wanted it to be very unique to our experience, we were getting the opportunity to show people what our lives are like.” This is exactly where we find ourselves with ‘No Ceiling’, the album’s transcendent first single, accompanied by a dazzling visual from Stewart, captured in a friend’s garden. Evoking the work of another Texas native, Terrence Malick, the snapshot sees Burton in an unusually optimistic mode, eschewing the shadows of his former projects in favour of a tangibly domestic glow, a household radiance that sets the tone for the entire project. Appearing alongside Ledef, a core member of ballroom house and queer art collective House of Kenzo, with whom Burton has worked closely since 2016, as well as model and dancer Lagniappe, Burton situates his focus as inherently offline, on those he surrounds himself with and the real relationships he has cultivated over the years. “The ‘No Ceiling’ video was our first time doing anything with people outside of our own houses post-pandemic” notes Stewart. “It’s very much a document of that experience.”

Drawing from the ecstatic mob energy of the Screwed Up Click and the diverse array of voices and styles they were able to weave into their own mixtapes, Burton’s gut feeling was to keep it in the family. “He was reaching out to people that he knew, friends that he knew would be open to collaboration”, recalls Stewart. Perhaps most crucial among these was composer Maxwell Sterling, with whom Burton had connected during two live performances in support of 2017’s Les Fleurs Du Mal. “For those shows I was playing double bass with different effects and processing and then Eric was playing stems on CDJs”, Sterling recounts. “There was no set list, there was no preconceived structure. What was really interesting was that he had control of my volume too, so he was literally using me as another stem. It had this immediacy that I hadn’t really experienced in other live performances.” Sterling’s playing vibrates through What Dreams May Come like bone conduction, a recurring motif of swelling strings serving as a vibrant strand of acoustic optimism. The spirit of those performances can be heard on ‘Safe’, where ascendant strings are set in counterpoint against restless synth arpeggios, sci-fi squelches and barely audible whispers, all folded into queasy forward momentum.

Another of Sterling’s contributions to the album’s alchemy is the use of parallel fifths, a technique adopted by the composer from his study of medieval music that characterises Gregorian chant, but also appears in grunge power chords, as well as in folk music and minimalist composition. It’s also considered verboten within classical European music theory, as it obscures the independence of individual notes. Like DJ Screw’s manipulation of pitch and tempo, which, during his most prolific years, was similarly considered illegitimate by major rap labels, parallel fifths open up the composition, creating space in superimposition. “I think it’s something that speaks to a lot of people because it allows you to interpret it in your own feelings”, submits Sterling. “There’s enough that’s not there that you can hear it in your own way.” Perhaps the most devastating example of this can be heard on ‘Georgia Boy’, where mournful double bass saws straight through Burton and Manchester producer Croww’s sombre assemblage of crushing percussive pressure and reverberant guitar. Sterling’s strings are charged with desperation and erotic ache, a tension that is only released during a smog-clearing coda, a sequence of parallel fifths that leaves the track wide open, its melancholy lifeblood and nerve endings exposed.

What parallel fifths achieve conceptually is a doubling of voice, an intervallic chorus that opens up the sound world, making space in a way that mirrors Burton’s intimate vision for What Dreams May Come. By chopping live instrumentation from Sterling, Victoria Wright, CJ Calderwood of Lol K and Tony Harewood in with production that draws from every phase of their career, Burton excavates a singular space within the Houston musical tradition, a space which can be then filled with the voices of their friends and collaborators. “One of the things I did was just hit up people and asked them to record whatever they were thinking at that moment and save it in their phone as a voice note and send it to me”, he says. “That was my best way of getting a temperature. It felt like the realest thing I could do.” These testimonials are woven throughout the texture of What Dreams May Come, evoking the same diaristic immanence of Stewart’s backyard visuals, as though the space Burton continually clears with sound might itself be a garden, a place of safety, suffused with a polyphony of voices, a Houston chorus.

The image of the garden was the primary inspiration for artist and photographer Linder Sterling’s lysergic photomontages for What Dreams May Come. “I used lots of cut-outs from 1970s House & Garden magazines, the hues chimed perfectly”, she describes. “I love to disrupt the domestic, to turn it upside down and skewer it. What Dreams May Come plays with the familiar behaving in very unfamiliar ways, the world that Rabit and Lane were creating felt prelapsarian and celebratory.” Discovering Burton’s music via a recording of a live performance with her son Maxwell, a recording which Linder would use for one of her own films, it was fittingly a family connection that led to the artist recognising some of her own practice in Burton’s. “Rabit and I both make lots of cuts and layering in what we do”, she explains. “We work in similar ways, painstakingly slowly at times, both acutely aware of tone, whether sonically or visually.” Exchanging chopping and slowing for scissor and scalpel, Linder built up the garden of What Dreams May Come with every bit of care, intimacy and erotic charge the album is steeped in. “Queering the garden is important”, she enthuses.

If What Dreams May Come is a garden, then it is also a haven, an enchanted queer dreamscape built in the middle of one of the most historically discriminatory states in America. “Texas is definitely magical, but there’s aspects about living here that are not so gorgeous and glam”, says Ledef. “I feel like we create a bubble in our reality here and What Dreams May Come definitely speaks on it.” Queer, trans and non-binary voices make up a large part of the album’s most powerful contributions, from Lagniappe’s quiet recollection of a formative romance on ‘The Growth’ to Lauren Auder’s heart-stopping annunciation on ‘Epiphany’ and Colin Self’s startling hymn to liberation through ecstasy, ‘No Air’, on which they sing Diane Charlemagne’s immortal words from ‘Inner City Life’, sending them soaring as bright flares through darkness. “I was most definitely working through what it meant to have a lot of your identity validated through others looking at you”, explains Auder, “the search for a way to be OK, regardless of what the outside world has to offer you, for that rich inner world”. “I think the intention was, and always is, to make something transcendentally beautiful and beyond our own flesh,” adds Vancouver techno legend Baby Blue, who, alongside John Beltran, worked on the production for ‘Epiphany’, channeling the numinous sparseness of Mark Hollis in the track’s iridescent float.

Though transcendent, the space of What Dreams May Come is by no means presented as wholly utopian. ‘Georgia Boy Interlude’ centres around a recording of one of Burton’s friends speaking about their experiences of living with HIV. “If there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do, I’ve always wanted to escape America”, Boochie admits on the track. “Part of that was noticing the conversation around HIV and AIDS for younger people was so different from the conversation older people were having”, says Burton. “How governments navigate these things is still botched. My partner’s brother died of AIDS. His best friend died of AIDS. His other friend’s brother died of AIDS. Within a matter of months almost everyone he knew died. It just felt like a necessary statement.” It also underlines the urgent necessity for the space Burton excavates across What Dreams May Come, a refuge in sound amidst the din of a country cursed from the ground up. “Part of this moment is noticing that politicians aren’t gonna save us”, continues Burton. “We’ve just seen in America, with Roe v. Wade, that voting isn’t going to save us either, they’re all liars regardless. When things go to shit, you realise that all you have around you is the most important thing.”

There is both intimacy and urgency in What Dreams May Come. The project is held in balance between a profoundly empathetic articulation of the personal, a patchwork of the innermost thoughts and feelings of friends and family, and a vast expansiveness, a turn towards transcendence imbued within every flurry of strings, every swell of synthesis. “There’s a locality to the album, but I think there’s also a universality that everyone can relate to”, reflects Burton. It’s the same universality that was tapped into by DJ Screw, another artist who was able to amplify life as he heard it, who wanted to screw the whole world, but always drew strength from home. “The result was a broadcast”, concludes Walker, “a transmission of voices into every neighbourhood”. What Dreams May Come can also be thought of as a broadcast, reverberating across the gardens of the Houston suburbs, amplifying a hopeful dream of a place that might be possible. “I’ve been really fortunate to link with Rabit”, levels Ledef, “I definitely consider her my mother. It goes beyond art”. Momentarily safe in a place of mother Rabit’s design, a cautious optimism surges up within What Dreams May Come. A new day is dawning on a Houston garden, the seismic bass rattle of passing cars bumping Screw tapes trembling the ground beneath as a new Houston sound emerges.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.

WORDS: Henry Bruce-Jones
PHOTOGRAPHY: Tony Krash, Lane Stewart, Junior Fernandez
MODELS: Josue Hart, Ledef, Bobby Britton (House of Kenzo), Lagniappe, Rabit
LAYOUT: Collin Fletcher

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