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Escape Velocity

Holistic Concepts: An Interview With DonChristian
Laurie Tuffrey , January 9th, 2014 05:46

Harlem-based rapper DonChristian's debut mixtape The Wayfarer was a Quietus favourite of last year. With his follow-up set for imminent release, he speaks to Laurie Tuffrey about learning to produce on the fly and "Tokyo nostalgia"

Photograph courtesy of Lindsay Keys

When the Quietus interviewed Le1f last year, he told us he was excited for the release of the first mixtape by DonChristian. With the pair having met while studying at Wesleyan University, the Philadelphia-born, Harlem-based rapper had already featured on a couple of Le1f's tracks, showcasing his unwound, staccato baritone in deft verses on Dark York's 'Gayngsta' and Fly Zone's 'So Fly'.

It proved an excellent tip-off. The Wayfarer undoubtedly has one foot in the dense underground hip hop being fine-tuned on the East Coast. DonChristian attenuates Le1f and Mykki Blanco's club-friendly output into boiled down cloud rap cuts, aided by some typically hazed sonics from the scene's frequent producers, Boody, Cybergiga and Squalladay - an aesthetic crystallised on 'My Crew' (you can watch the excellent video for that track below). But alongside these firmly contemporary components, it's also steeped in altogether more vintage references - the mixtape opens with a sample of 'Breezin'' by jazz/soul guitarist George Benson - and DonChristian's love of R&B, producing skewed slow-burners like the fragmentary, soul-inflected '$erenade'. A pleasing duality, no doubt, but some of the album's most rewarding moments lie somewhere between those zones, such as the Le1f-produced electro-churn of 'Rvin' (he also returns the vocal favour with a verse on 'Morning Glory') and the Aphex Twin-like electronic soundscape of 'Harikari', a track that suggests the kinetic sensations of a city by night.

DonChristian is set to follow up The Wayfarer this month, with a mixtape inspired by and named after the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano. The latter is an aesthetic reference point that's perhaps unsurprising, given that he majored in art at Wesleyan and works by day with young people producing murals for communities around New York for the arts organisation Groundswell. Ahead of that release, the Quietus caught up with him to talk about learning to produce on the fly, "Tokyo nostalgia" and the social impact of music.

You worked predominantly with paintings and art pieces prior to making music. What turned you onto music?

DonChristian: Yeah, I have been drawing and painting since my beginning. I've been singing and writing since the beginning too, but never took it so seriously. I would sing all the time in the company of my friends and family and when I'm alone. I used to creative write, but I didn't start writing down my raps until college I guess. I just finally made the decision to create music of my own.

The Wayfarer has an incredibly assured feel to it, especially for a first album. Has it been a long time in the making?

DC: No, I had recorded 'Morning Glory' over the summer, and it took me months and moving to the city before I decided on a definitive project. At first it was gonna be like a five-song EP. I had just graduated and moved to the city, up to good and bad, and broke all the while. I was feeling kinda aimless but motivated. Like things could go several ways.

So what changed to turn into a fully-fledged album? Did you find a way of drawing on that motivation?

DC: I started thinking I was probably less sure about what it was that I was making, then I moved to New York and was just constantly working with Boody and my friend Cybergiga, and Le1f obviously, and then I was learning how to produce and mix myself. So I was just making more and more material to choose from, and then it expanded into something much bigger.

What was that experience of learning to produce like? It must have come together pretty rapidly.

DC: It definitely did. I had just been watching my friends for so long, you know, engineering from behind them and over their shoulder, so I guess it was more intuitive than I thought. And I was watching a lot of YouTube tutorials [laughs]! So I'm still very much picking shit up as I go, but it was cool to be doing all that simultaneously. I guess I always just had an ear for this stuff, and always loved writing melodies and singing and humming melodies, so it was just much easier to be able to have it all in front of me and be able to do it.

I'd be really be interested to know who you're listening to. The record feels like it shifts over its duration, moving from close hip hop cuts in the first half and then onto more expansive electronic terrain with 'Harikari' and 'Angel' later on, and I wondered if there were any particularly significant musical influences?

DC: Yeah, I mean, I just love rap and R&B, so people like Andre and Cam'ron are always going to inspire me, as well as Frankie Beverly and Teddy Pendergrass and my parents put me on to bossa nova… As for some of the other sounds, it's what Cybergiga would call "Tokyo nostalgic", with the techno-industrial sounds and stuff. I think it's as as much about Final Fantasy and future car concepts as it is about soul.

The tracks have this almost disassembled feel to them, like they were whole and then have been pulled apart. Did you have a very clear idea of the kind of sounds you wanted to achieve going in? How hands-on were you with the production process?

DC: Going in I wasn't as specific, but as I started mixing and building beats, I started to see a plot develop, and at the point I was like, "Ok, this kind of makes sense… you should keep going". I worked with my longtime boys Squalladay from Philly, and Boody, Le1f, and Cybergiga all very closely in making those songs. They very much catered to me, and from them I was learning to produce and mix myself, so it was very cyclical. I made 'Starbuck', then 'My Crew', and would add to the beats I had been given. I wouldn't have started without those guys.

How does it feel to be in such a creative crowd? The whole group - Le1f, Cybergiga, Boody, Squalladay - are forging a sound that's a very unique voice, with these definite sonic trademarks. I wondered if your line in 'So Fly', "Changing the game like Cash Money/ Beat it out the frame like crash, dummy", was a reference to the way you guys see Camp & Street, as a defined collective?

DC: Yeah, definitely! I didn't know if people would pick that up or not, but that was definitely what I was getting at. The way we interact is very casual, so it's not that we talk about it in such terms, but I think it's a general feeling that we are very much doing what comes naturally to us individually, and it so happens to work when we work together as well and it feels cohesive. So it feels, for me at least, that I want to pursue it further.

Thematically, it feels like there's a very strong sense of place in your work. I was really interested in your artwork 'Home', and then on The Wayfarer tracks like 'My Crew' and 'Harikari' are rooted in very particular places and scenes. Would that be a fair assessment?

DC: I'm one hundred percent a visual person, and I want to create spaces from which you can envision me singing or rapping. Like, on a trail in the woods, or in the middle of a piazza in Rome. I love natural and urban landscapes, alike, and I think about sound in a visual way.

You're also doing some incredible work for Groundswell. Has this imparted anything to the way you approach music-making?

DC: Yes, Groundswell is an incredible organisation, as is the Mural Arts Program in Philly. I'm still learning a lot from their models for making these large-scale, collaborative works. It's impacted me greatly, making murals, particularly when they're in the hood, or in a prison hallway, or what have you, because the work itself stands to make great impact. I'll be working with a group of youth at a community center in north Philly or at a school in Brownsville, and all they want to do is rap and debate over whether Gunplay is better than Chief Keef or not. That's very much why I enjoy it, and the questions that arise that they ask me, I'm learning more from, than I am teaching or imparting to them. I'm gaining a greater insight of what rap really means to people [laughs]. Rap culture is inexplicably tied to every hood. My thesis 'Home' was about that some, and I had a Triple Six Mafia edit playing on loop from a big ghetto blaster the whole time. I see the power in art and music, and I guess I'm just trying to find a balance between being fully honest about my own experiences and feelings, while still being aware of the greater implications of my words and images. It's important that I represent things that are true to me and I try not to be negative in impact with my words!

Have the people you're working with heard your music?

DC: A bunch of them have, yeah. Some of them like it to an extent, a couple of them have even come to my shows, which feels really good. And others, it's pretty visible that it's not their style, but that's cool - even the fact that they would give it a listen and that they respect what I'm doing, that's all I can really ask.

A lot of your art has a conceptual basis - 'Home', parental death in 'Early Box' - and then your next mixtape is influenced by Renzo Piano. How does this approach affect the way you make music?

DC: I guess, specific to Renzo Piano, I'm certainly inspired by his work and I've been studying and reading about him for some time now, so that when I thought of it and vocalised it, it felt right, and from there I was able to build off that concept. It has as much to do with the way his name sounds as it does his work - it's kind of like a moniker and I'm going to drop it for a minute. It's easier for me to have a more holistic concept around music, I think, from the fact that I'm so visual, so being able to call it Renzo Piano gave me imagery to be able to run with and think about, in terms of making videos or making things sound a certain way and styling and designing around it.

I read that you were recently listening to Yung Lean and Kelela. You've recently done a remix of 'Gatorade' by the former - is this the start of a bigger collaboration?

DC: [laughs] I wouldn't say that! I went to Stockholm to play a show and ended up linking with him and Sad Boys and went to see James Ferraro and it was just a really awesome experience. That whole scene, I was really inspired by them, because they are so prolific and work really hard and are very aware of what it is they're doing. It was cool to see, so I was like, I have to make this remix. I wish I could collaborate with Kelela! I've met her before several times, she's an amazing performer, a real talent, but she's blowing up, I haven't seen her for a while.

What's next for you? What can you tell us about the new mixtape you're about to release?

DC: Right now I'm working on this Renzo Piano tape, which is set for release in January. It's about space and structured sound and R&B, and I'm singing a lot more. Producing a lot of it, working with some of the same guys, as well as a lot of collab with Jeremiah Meece from The Drum, and our Camp & Street songstress, Rahel. Just recently I made a really cinematic vid for the first single, with Sam Jones who did 'My Crew', [Le1f's] 'Soda' and 'Wut'. Video is definitely my next medium.

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