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A Quietus Interview

True Collective: An Interview With Equiknoxx's Gavsborg
Bernie Brooks , May 24th, 2022 09:49

Gavin "Gavsborg" Blair digs into the genesis of his new Gav & Jord 12-inch (with Jordan "Time Cow" Chung), telling Bernie Brooks about persistent misconceptions about Equiknoxx, and his early days as a producer

Gavsborg, by Niclas Weber

"The RZA character is definitely not there," says Gavin "Gavsborg" Blair, discussing his outré Jamaican music collective Equiknoxx from his place in Berlin. "We're a group of people that really love and care about each other. It's not like me and Time Cow are these two head honchos."

Blair and I are ostensibly speaking on the occasion of the release of his new instrumental 12" with Jordan "Time Cow" Chung called Writings Ov Tomato. Though you'll find this ultra-savoury slab of outer-sphere beats filed under the alias of Gav & Jord, Blair is quick to point out that this project is neither a new nor separate thing for him and Chung. It's simply a body of work "born out [their] celebration of MAL Recordings," the fledgling imprint started by their early supporters, UK-based DJs Jon K and Elle Andrews. [Jon K was responsible for bringing the Equiknoxx sound to the attention of Sean Canty at DDS who in turn released the future dancehall album Bird Sound Power in 2016.]

"We're just happy that they're happy," says Blair. "The first impulse for Writings Ov Tomato came from Jon telling us he was starting a label and I was like, 'Please do!' Because the DDS stuff happened, and Jon was very much a part of that process. Jon was in there with every single one of those emails with DDS. He also designed the covers, you know, so when he wrote, I was like, 'Whatever you need, just tell us and we're happy to come through.' Jon is somebody that we really love. Just somebody that we have a lot of time for."

For the record, MAL didn't request a Gavsborg and Time Cow production, nor was it intentional. At least not exactly.

"He wrote all of us, very early on," says Blair. "I said, 'I'm gonna send these tracks, and I'm not gonna tell him who did what.' So, he didn't know what he was selecting or who he was selecting it from. There were some tracks from Nick Deane [formerly known as Bobby Blackbird] in there as well. Eventually, he fell in love with Nick's song so hard, that he wanted to make it a release on its own. After that, we were left with songs that Jordan and I made."

That said, he's also quick to acknowledge that this release could reinforce misconceptions and narratives that have persisted since the release of the DDS material, Bird Sound Power and Colón Man: primarily that he and Chung are Equiknoxx's core and running the show, with everyone else – Deane, "Shanique Marie" Sinclair, and Itumo "Kemikal Splash" Carty – rendered ancillary instead of equal. This, perhaps more than anything, is why we're chatting on a chilly morning in late April.

Equiknoxx, by Kadeem Montgomery

"Like, Shanique being called our 'hype woman'? It's ridiculous," Blair says. "We have the information out there, but there's this story that's been made and people refuse to let go of it. I think this is the first time I've been so forward in speaking about it. Half the time, I'm like, 'Whatever. Do I have to chase everything?' But I think it's part of the work to say, 'No, no – this is what's really going on here. Everybody's out here doing their thing.'"

Though these days Blair is the one mostly running Equiknoxx Music – the Kingston label he founded then established with Deane that has released much of the collective's work – he's no Svengali.

"I might make a little check in," he says. "As musicians, we can sometimes keep ourselves to ourselves. But it's not a check in with demands. It's more like, 'What are you up to?'"

Speaking of misconceptions, I'm looking at the Discogs page right now. And it just says, "Jamaican music collective of Gavsborg and Time Cow plus associated artists."

G: That's a funny one, because I've actually edited that, and I think someone has re-edited it. I don't know how Discogs works, but you know, I'm assuming it's a space where people can keep it updated. I don't think it was anything malicious, but I have gone on there and edited that before.

I think it's like a Wikipedia sort of thing, where anybody can go in and make changes, but it definitely seems like people have glommed on to a narrative that's contrary to reality. From the outside, it seems to me that Equiknoxx is basically a true collective.

G: Yeah, absolutely. We all found each other quite naturally, and in kind of a similar timeframe. We didn't really start thinking of ourselves as a collective. Initially, it started off as Equiknoxx Music being a label that was primarily producing for other vocalists. Shanique Marie and Kemikal were two of those vocalists, and who was doing the production at the time was myself and Bobby Blackbird. Maybe a few years later I met Jordan – Time Cow.

It was about 2009 when I met him. He's a little bit younger than I am. I think he was still in high school at the time. And I started university just a little after that, maybe 2010. By then, Jordan was already in the university with me. So, we started lunchtime hangouts. That's kind of how Jordan came in. We just shared lots of music – not our own music, just our own taste. I remember we listened to [The Free Design's] Kites Are Fun – just all kinds of stuff! And you know, we really liked each other, which is basically the same way all of Equiknoxx came together.

Kemikal was a little bit different. Kemikal lives in a neighbourhood that I used to live in. I just knew him as a guy that liked bikes, and that's how I thought of him, at first. I found out that he was doing music just kind of by the way. And I'm like, "Oh, alright. You're doing music? Cool. Let's do music."

Everything started out quite loosely and naturally. We didn't have group meetings or anything like that. It just turned out that we started making music together. And that's how it happened. But the basis of what we were doing was really built around us producing music for other artists. That started as early as 2005.

Gavsborg & Time Cow, by Nuno Cardoso

How did you get into production? What made you want to do it?

G: I wanted to rap but I wasn't as good as my other rapper friends. At least I didn't think so. They had bars, I just thought I was pretty basic. But I really wanted to be a part of this thing still. So, I learned how to manipulate other people's beats. I didn't really realise that I was sampling at the time. I didn't know what it meant to sample. I was like, 'Oh, I like parts of this Outkast track, but parts of it I don't." So, I started editing – editing it out, speeding it up. There was a drum bit in 'So Fresh And So Clean' – I got a clean, higher snare kick. I was like, "Oh, so I can make a totally different piece of music with this - cool!" And it started with that.

Then, a friend of mine called DJ Stretch, who is like my neighbourhood hero, asked me – just from my zeal – to edit out curse words from a mixtape that he made, because he was double booked. He wanted to keep the two dates and one of them was a kid's party. So, you can't play curse words. So, he's like, "I can just send a mix with a fake DJ. You have to take the bad words out for me." Cool. So, he gave me this little machine. I don't remember what it was called. It was a little Roland. I think it had like eight channels. And he put me around that, and he's like, "Just edit." OK. So that's where my hands on with gear started.

I realised that he had this little machine called Dr. Sample. I would take that, and I just started messing with it. Between that and the Outkast stuff is more or less how I started making beats. And also, I wasn't very good at it! I wasn't very musically literate or anything. I was just like, "I kinda like that kick and I like that bass." Mark you, they did not go together. I didn't care. I still liked them.

But what really got me off was, I was in community college at the same time and there was a friend of mine there called Jimmy The Toucan. He was really good at making beats. And I saw him and he was playing all his beats, and they were sick. So, I went up to him, very arrogantly, and I was like, "My beats are better than yours." He's like, "What?" [Laughs] And I'm like, "Yeah!" So, he says, "Well, prove it then!" And yeah, I put myself in a tight spot.

So, I basically asked my other friend, Damien, "What can I do?" And he's like, "I have this program called FL Studio. Maybe you can download it and make some beats really quick." And I did just that. He actually downloaded it and gave it to me. And luckily for me, there was a talent show happening at school the next day. Some kids that were there heard when I was boasting that I had the best beats. So, they went up to the little open mic thing, where they had poetry and rapping and MCing, and they were like, "Let's play one of Gavin's beats!" And I had it. So, I automatically became the best producer in the school just because I was the only one who had their beats played. Mark you, I was nowhere as good as Jimmy The Toucan, but you know, I spent a lot of time just trying to see how I could be as good as him. He's still sick, even though he doesn't do music anymore.

It started off as this very community focused thing. There were no real foreign influences or even "more real" local influences. I didn't know at the time who Lee Scratch Perry was. I didn't know any of these people. I just knew these people that lived nearby, and they were doing cool stuff. I wanted to be like them. That's more or less what came into play. I think primarily what really got me heard by a lot of people locally was just passion. I don't think I was any much better than the other person, but I was always ready to say, "Hey, listen to my beats." And I can say that with every member of Equiknoxx. That's the same spirit that we all have. That's maybe the binding thing with us. We have that kind of spirit.

Gavsborg, by Kadeem Montgomery

So, when the time comes to make something, how does it typically work?

G: It happens differently. Often, the intent is not necessarily to collaborate, which is weird because we do identify as a true collective. We just kind of show up at the studio, and maybe Nick will have something. He used to work in a rum factory as a chemist, and he would be at work and he would hum stuff. He would be like, "What you think about that?" That kind of a vibe. Perhaps I'd take that and sample it, just because I liked how it sounded. But I don't think his intention would have been, "Let's make a track together." That's hardly ever the intent. That does happen sometimes. But that's not what we're about. I think we all have our own ideas and direction overall. Everybody's pretty good at it. There's always this show-and-tell vibe that happens when we see each other. From the show-and-tell, people get curious about what the others are doing and they maybe want to get involved. There's always space for that, you know. Like, Nick or Jordan or anybody will always be willing to send me their stems or send a little draft. That's always there. I don't think we wake up saying, "We need to make an album together," or anything like that.

Well, sometimes with Shanique there's that feeling. Shanique and I go way back. There's this connection that we have, where she always has these little vocal ideas, and they're always far out. Sometimes I get up thinking about that. Like, "What would Shanique think about this?" Or I'll just ask her what melodies have been stuck in her head. It's normally really fast and really direct.

But generally, with each other that's not the vibe. We're all just patient with each other, and each person cooks up their own stuff. We all have studios in our own separate spaces. We do have a main studio, which we hook up at, but you know, it's not this kind of utopia where we're chillin' at the studio, and these ideas come, blah, blah, blah.

As far as I understand it, outside of Jamaica, people in the diaspora community were aware of what Equiknoxx was doing for a while. Then later, the instrumental DDS records came out and exposed you to the Boomkat crowd and other folks outside of the diaspora. All these years later, it seems that maybe one's perception of Equiknoxx is still a bit different depending on one's community. Do you think that's the case?

G: Absolutely. It's still split. I mean, there's a few middle ground moments, but generally, it's still two different worlds really.

Do you find that you basically have two different groups of fans? Like, there are people who are more interested in the in the crew records like Basic Tools and then there are the people who are way more into in the instrumental stuff like Tomato or the DDS records?

G: Absolutely. I have friends that will tell me that. I have friends that will buy all the records, and then tell me, "Yeah, we bought them because we want to support you, but we only like 'Brooklyn'." And then I have friends who will be like, "Oh, yeah, 'Brooklyn' is cool, but we really only like Bird Sound Power." There's a very small cross section of people that like the two, which is funny still, because all of it is us in our truest form. You know, we're not one or the other. We're all of them. I guess that comes from our listening tastes. Because that's how we listen.

People like Stamma definitely get both, but the general DJ in Kingston will be like, "Yeah, not really following you there." There are some songs, in Jamaica and the diaspora, that just stay as proper local anthems, and the people that go for those songs generally aren't going for Writings Ov Tomato. They might see it and be like, "Oh yeah, that's a cool riddim but who are you gonna let sing on it?" They don't really see it as a total piece. And then the person who likes Writings instead might look at the song with a vocal as... there's always a little comment there happening on each side. And I'm like, "Ah, can't we all just get along?" [Laughs]

It's interesting to hear that, because there was a part of me that was wondering whether your forked fan base had merged by this point. I had hoped, over the last six years, that had happened.

G: I know what you mean. It's definitely something I go through all the time. I don't try to fight it. And I don't try to please anybody. There was this sentiment shared by some journalists who thought that when we did the vocal records we were trying to please somebody. That's primarily ignorance, because if you check the discography, you can see that the vocal stuff has always been there. And the instrumental stuff has always been there, too, which is primarily how people like Mark Ernestus and Jon K got into the music in the first place. That's how the quote-unquote Boomkat crowd caught onto it, because of people like Jon and Mark – who I wasn't even aware of, you know? At the time, I maybe knew Mark through his reissues of the Bullwackie stuff, but I wasn't aware of him as a person. Little did I know that he was in Germany playing this stuff, and people were catching onto it. And that's primarily what made Bird Sound Power, which was more or less a compilation album. There's a few originals on there. But for the most part, it was stuff that was already out there and with vocal cuts.

Bird Sound Power for me, was a dream come true, because I always wanted that to happen. I started out just with beats. Even though I was a part of this group of people who were rapping, we didn't have a studio to go to record them. So, half the time they would stand up in a circle at school and rap and that's it. I was left with my beats just by myself. I felt Bird Sound Power represented a part of us that we didn't get to express before. We never had the instrumental as the primary focus, and it did that. But it definitely wasn't the start of our journey. We'd already been doing it for years before that.

When there's stuff floating around that credits Time Cow and I as the primary people, it creates this erasure of everybody else. And it's a serious thing. Kemikal will remind me that an idea started because of something that he said, which is a very important part of the process. Kemikal doesn't make beats, but I don't know if I would think the same way if I didn't have Kemikal around. And that's extremely true for Time Cow as well. I really started taking proper note of Time Cow because of how he and Kemikal got on. There was a fluidity that they had that I hadn't seen in a long while, and I was like, "This is amazing!" Time Cow talks about that all the time – the early vibes with Kemikal. A lot of those beats wouldn't have come if he wasn't there with his craziness.

So, stuff like that brings a lot of erasure, and it's a real failure, because it gives us a lot of unnecessary homework. Sometimes we have to go back and ask people to make edits for things that we didn't say. "Cut it out, we didn't say that!" [Laughs]

Yeah, it has been really good, really positive. But you know, on the flip side of that, there is this urge to create the RZA character we spoke about earlier. And it's not there. It's made up!

Writings Ov Tomato is out now on MAL