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Escape Velocity

Boundary-Free Work: Future Brown Interviewed
Christian Eede , March 4th, 2015 14:42

Before Fatima Al Qadiri, J-Cush and Nguzunguzu released their much-discussed self-titled debut last week, Christian Eede talked to the group about the album, their cast of collaborators and using parody as critique

Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Alexander Huseby

Collaboration is a key word when it comes to talking about Future Brown. Not only is it a project that sees the coming together of four individuals already operating across three separate production personalities - that is, Fatima Al Qadiri, J-Cush (Jamie Imanian-Friedman) and Nguzunguzu's Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda - but their self-titled debut album is also hinged on the contributions of an ample cast of contributors, with every track on the album featuring at least one guest vocalist. Among these are the shamefully underrated former Ludacris associate Shawnna, Chicago singer and rapper Tink (whom Timbaland has had some very favourable words for), the much-hyped and versatile Kelela and a slew of London's finest grime MCs.

While the touch of their individual production traits is never masked, the selection of associates appearing on the record sends the group flirting with a number of differing musical styles and genres on the album. Grime, for one, is a heavy reference point, notably on the Riko Dan-aided 'Speng' and 'Asbestos', the latter also featuring Prince Rapid and Dirty Danger of Ruff Sqwad and former Roll Deep member Roachee, all of whom previously appeared on non-album track 'World's Mine'. All four of Future Brown's members have been heavily involved in and influenced by grime in their individual work, audible in the music of Al Qadiri and Nguzunguzu, as well as the output of J-Cush's Lit City Trax label and its associated club night. Cumbia crops up on the Maluca-featuring 'Vernáculo', which also bears hallmarks of Al Qadiri's solo debut album, last year's Asiatisch, in which she channelled her skyscraper-like basslines into an album packaged as an "imagined China", an attempt to simultaneously critique Western stereotypes of Asian culture while seemingly knowingly incorporating them herself.

Naturally, the variety of incorporated styles and sounds has led to some discussion around the substance of Future Brown's work. At the time of writing, conversation around the quartet has become fraught with critical accusations of vacancy and appropriation being rejoined by allegations of falsity and preconceived agendas from Al Qadiri. Talking to the group (and battling bad phone lines and Skype connections), before this dispute took place, it seems that mutual respect between them and their collaborators comes across as a central driver behind assembling this album. "It came from really admiring these artists, whether they be newcomers or veterans in the game or whatever; it didn't matter to us," says Maroof. "We made a list of people we wanted to work with and we went about trying to get them on board," adds Pineda.

Addressing the lack of attention given to some of their collaborators - namely Shawnna and Maluca - I ask if it was their intention to shine a light on these names and make people more aware of their widely undervalued talents? "Those people all, of course, have a body of work, so we spoke to them firstly because we're fans of what they do," says Imanian-Friedman. "They're already out there, so if we can bring them any new fans, that's awesome, but I think we're just fans of what these people do mainly." He stresses that the four never approached any of their vocal partners with the view that they were bigger than them. Maroof agrees, adding: "This is our first album, so it's not like people know us too much." But your individual, pre-Future Brown work has all been given a fair amount of attention, I reply; there's no uptake, but we'll put that down to those dodgy Skype connections again.

Playing as a collective, the four always aim to perform with at least one of their guest vocalists on stage, ad-libbing or freestyling as they cut through the club music they would play as individual DJs. At their London ICA show the night before our chat, they're joined by Riko Dan, Prince Rapid, Dirty Danger and New Orleans rapper 3D Na'Tee. Referring back to a comment made by Al Qadiri during her talk with Lauren Martin at RBMA Tokyo last year, I ask her about how her unease with the idea of 'live' performance fits in with that billing often being applied to Future Brown's shows. "The only live element is the vocalists," she says. "Everything else is a DJ set and we don't pretend otherwise. Promoters in the past have wrongly booked us as a live act when we weren't supposed to be billed that way." Imanian-Friedman interjects that they like to have as many guests as possible per show, but "either way, the idea of our shows is that we always have at least a vocalist. It's great when you can take this music to a bigger audience, especially when you have the opportunity to collaborate. It's definitely amazing to see how people react on that scale too."

The four have all been linked with a variety of record labels across their many individual projects. Al Qadiri's Asiatisch was released last year via Hyperdub, following up releases with Fade To Mind and Brooklyn-based imprint UNO; Nguzunguzu have shared past EPs through Hippos In Tanks and, again, Fade To Mind, and Lit City Trax's past releases have come from Visionist, DJ Rashad and Traxman in its three-year history. The four, however, settled with Warp Records as a home for their debut. With its already well-storied history tracing 90s rave and some of the most high-profile electronic music releases over the last two-and-a-half decades, Imanian-Friedman explains it simply as a natural decision for funding and distributing the album when it came to the final stages of its production. "It's a big record and we needed a label that knows how to deal with that," he says. "Warp were very experienced: they understood what we were trying to do and weren't trying to alter our vision in the slightest, which is really just what we were looking for."

From here, conversation swings round to the idea of creative control, especially in the eye of working with for-profit companies and organisations, a subject that Fatima eagerly takes up. "Somebody asked us a question yesterday about how we feel to have our music played in different spaces like museums and galleries as well as in clubs, but once you put your music out there, it's not like you have complete control over what context it's played in anymore. We were talking before about this metal band - I can't remember their name - who discovered that their music was being used for torture purposes. You don't have so much control anymore, so whoever wants to use it is gonna use it." Maroof suggests that this lack of control does have its benefits as well as its pitfalls, suggesting that it extends into their desire to break, or remove, as many boundaries as possible. "Aside from having to sue the government for using it for torture or a corporation using it for advertising," Pineda interjects, the rest of the group quickly voicing their agreement.

The accompanying visual materials and artistic collaborations (by the group, individually and collectively) are both a key focus for the group and a major source of debate in that back-and-forth. The four all have close connections to New York streetwear label Hood By Air while Al Qadiri previously soundtracked the debut of a clothing collection by Telfar. One of the four's first works as Future Brown, in November of 2013, involved choreographed basketball drills set to their music as part of a MoMA PS1 exhibition in New York, a project put together with DIS Magazine. Another artistic collaboration of the group's came in the form of a recent video for album track 'Vernáculo', premiered at Art Basel Miami late last year. "Appropriating the advertising language of global beauty brands like L'Oreal and Revlon, 'Vernáculo' is an exercise in capitalist surrealism," explained Perez Art Museum Miami, who commissioned the video. Imanian-Friedman describes the video in much the same terms, adding that "it's a reaction to… a parody of the sexualisation across society." Al Qadiri stresses that the video is a lot more than a parody though. "Advertising is not something to be underestimated," she tells me. "The way beauty has been marketed for decades is something that is very endemic to women and is part of a struggle that many women have in society as a result of the kind of women that are portrayed as well as the racism in the fashion industry. There's a lot that is being questioned, played with and flipped over with the video." But is this kind of hyper-extreme parodying an effective form of critique? "It's definitely a form of critique, but it's a playful one," says Al Qadiri. "You can make it as serious as you want; you can make it as playful as you want. That's the beauty of music, and also the fact that Maluca's lyrics on that song are in Dominican Spanish, so they're more alien to some people than, let's say, a song being sung in English."

Musing on Maluca's lyrical content on the track, Al Qadiri suggests that both work in tandem to bring home this censure of the cosmetics industry: "Her lyrics are very strong; they're very hard and about a tough woman. The chorus is, 'Mira mi culo, mi Vernáculo', which translates to: 'Look at my ass, my vernacular'. It's about language and that is basically a kiss my ass to the beauty industry and to the music industry as well," she laughs.

Much has been made of a 'thesis' behind the Future Brown operation - that despite their insistence on coming into it free of agendas, the layers of artistic theory that arise from those aforementioned projects only form a distraction - but Al Qadiri again refuses to be drawn on any kind of 'mission statement' with this particular project. "The entire project involves not having boundaries, working with vocalists regardless of what they were doing, regardless of what language they use, so it's hard to come to a conclusion on an ethos for the project if there is such a thing," she says, concluding: "I suppose it's just boundary-less work with vocalists."

Taking this train of thought, Imanian-Friedman settles simply that "the album sounds, in the end, just like us. We weren't trying to make one particular sound or style with any track. Maybe some of them would have been done with a vocalist in mind but we're not trying to touch on all these different sub-genres." For all the talk of theory, the group, it seems, refuse to be drawn in. "We're just making the music that we want to make as a group and we live in an age where there's a lot of music readily available out there," says Imanian-Friedman. "As DJs, we share music and so we're just playing around with different ideas and being influenced by our surroundings a lot."

Future Brown's defenders and detractors can shape a statement like this to suit whichever viewpoint they settle on with regards to their work. For some, the divergent scenes represented on Future Brown are the audio equivalent of having one's fingers in too many pies, while for others it's the sound of a group laying bare the sounds that inform their work. Whichever camp you fall into the group appear, at face value at least, to be sticking to that line, that Future Brown is simply a chance to team up with other artists that they admire. "It's a group of people that we all collectively respect and love," in the words of Maroof.

Future Brown is out now on Warp Records