Dabrye: Cold Front
- Words: Daniel Siwek
"Ann Arbor is like a soundclash," says Michigan native Dabrye, while chiseling away at his veggie enchilada from inside San Loco, a Mexican joint on New York's Lower East Side. Taking some time off from his beloved job manning the counter at jazz and soul retail outpost Encore Recordings back in Ann Arbor, Tadd Mullinix is in New York to talk to XLR8R about his new Ghostly International release, Two/Three. But first he's content to wax poetic about the place he calls home; a city with so much green they call it "Tree Town."
"Being so close to Detroit, you've got that urban influence," he explains. "Now that music and culture are so global, you can get anything you want in Ann Arbor, yet it's still relaxed." The contrast between laidback Ann Arbor and hard-knock Detroit is a perfect foil for the music Mullinix makes as Dabrye (pronounced "dob-ree"). The Dabrye sound is rugged, technical, and sometimes banging-often closer to Timbaland than, say, El-P-but it does away with the aggression and in-your-face posturing one has come to expect from hip-hop. The music is unassuming and unpredictable, with lots of secret twists and turns-in short, it reflects Mullinix, who shows up to the interview looking like the avid skater he is, sporting an army green Etnies crew-neck sweater, a scruffy beard, and a laissez-faire hairstyle that makes him look much more approachable than his erstwhile shaved head.
A Man of Many Sides
Dabrye isn't Mullinix's only alter ego. Under his James T. Cotton guise, he delivers acid house and EBM that'll make you think you're playing Tempest on poppers; as SK-1, he makes mashed-up ragga-jungle; and, as Tadd Mullinix, he's made experimental electronic pieces that could teach Luigi Russolo a thing or two about Futurism. Then there's a character that he won't cop to: Charles Manier, the maker of spooky, darkwave-disco masterpieces (as heard on Ghostly's Disco Nouveau compilation). "I don't talk about him," he says with a mischievous grin. "He'll remain my special secret."
What all these aliases have in common-besides sharing a home on Ann Arbor's Ghostly and Spectral Sound imprints-is a sound that is at turns evil and humorous, one that's remarkably forward thinking but with an endearingly kitschy tinge. "The early '80s-especially 1981 and 1982-had a big influence on my sound palette," says Mullinix, who counts "Transformers, GoBots, Thundercats, and Silverhawks" among his favorite things.
Other favorites include decks (of both the turntable and skateboard variety), cheese, and weed, though he's "taking a break" from the latter. His heritage may account for his dairy cravings. "I'm almost one hundred percent French," Dabrye reveals, "so I'm eating bread, cheese, and wine on a daily basis." So serious is he about his Roquefort that he's close friends with cheesemonger (and DJ) Carlos Souffront, who works at famed Ann Arbor deli Zingerman's.
Getting A Bad Rap
Dabrye debuted in 2001 with One/Three (Ghostly), an album that was the perfect soundtrack to Battlestar Galactica Cyclons doing the bump and grind; it was followed up a year later with Instrmntl, for Prefuse 73's Eastern Developments label. He intended the music-which accentuated hard-edged electronic elements rather than the genre's traditional funk and soul sounds-to serve as a calling card for future vocal collaborations with MCs. The indie hip-hop community got the gist-with Dabrye earning nods from J Dilla and collaborating with Five Deez's Fat Jon-but critics and fans sometimes didn't. Dabrye's music was variously described as glitch-hop, click-hop, instrumental hip-hop or IDM, which he found more than annoying. "[Being labeled an IDM artist] bothered me a lot," he confesses. "I understood that it happened because of Ghostly's orientation and all that, but it didn't come off as I intended." Dabrye wanted his project to smell of industrially infected hip-hop. Instead, he laments, "It came off as another kind of electronic music."
Dabrye was also a little confused about what was going on at his live shows (which, up until recently, had consisted of him performing solo in front of a laptop and some outboard gear). "I thought, ''Maybe I'm not painting the right picture for people,''" he recalls. "I was playing for white boys that would stand there and stroke their chins, and that bothered me. Some would dance a little, but I was like, 'This music has sexiness in it and it needs to get to the right audience.''"
The June release of Two/Three, the second installment of what's intended as a Dabrye trilogy, will go a long way towards reaching hip-hop heads. If his first two albums were sparse and instrumental, Two/Three plays like a cipher, as Dabrye meshes his distinctive beats with vocals from a variety of MCs. "Air" features MF Doom's intense narrative punctuated by SK-1-like interruptions from a vintage soundclash siren. "Nite Eats Day" places a fierce Beans a capella over a skittering rhythm.
The MCs here-including Wildchild and Vast Aire-don't mince words... and neither do Dabrye's cuts-nine out of 10 tracks on Two/Three clock in under four minutes. "I hate ornamental music," Mullinix says firmly. "I don't need to butter anything up." Simplicity is the order of the day for Dabrye, who uses just two samples for most of his signature sounds. Half the time these soundbites don't come from a dusty record, he explains. "They're not even samples. I just went into Cool Edit Pro and generated a tone, and that was it-no keyboard or anything. Sometimes I'll use a low-pass filter and put a chorus on it, but I do it all with an old SoundBlaster card!"
"I''m definitely coming through hard on the synthesizer shit," he says of his new direction. "My new beats are coming off pretty dark, like a very cold and electronic vibe-almost ghetto tech." Not surprising, then, that Two/Three features a ton of Detroit MCs, including Kadence (who will tour with Dabrye), Invincible, Finale, Guilty Simpson, Paradime, Big Tone, Phat Cat, and Slum Village members Ta' Raach and Waajeed. "[Two/Three] is a very Detroit thing," explains Mullinix. "Unfortunately, Detroit doesn't get all the credit it deserves."
One Motor City stalwart who does get shine is the recently departed J Dilla, the founder of Slum Village who Dabrye credits with inspiring him to make instrumental hip-hop in the first place. "If you listen to Slum Village, you're talking about laidback, creamy soul that's street but still conscious, and without being backpacker," he says with admiration. The prolific producer shines as a rapper on Dabrye's "Game Over" single, the cornerstone of Two/Three, and the regard he has for Dilla is obvious. "Jay Dee was my hero," he says humbly. "A lot of people slept on his rapping style because it was little too subtle for most people to understand."
The only question remaining is where does Dabrye go from here? When asked what direction he's planning on taking this trilogy, Mullinix presents two options. "The first idea is to make Three/Three an instrumental end-cap, so it'll go instrumental [album]/vocal [album]/instrumental [album]," he explains. "The other idea, since I have so much momentum in the hip-hop community, is to go [to] the next level with MCs. If I could get Busta Rhymes on the album I'd be stoked!"
Mullinix is quite expressive when he talks about other people's music and the MCs he's worked with, but he is noticeably more introverted when, as the interview comes to a close, he's grilled for adjectives to describe his own sound. "Music fills in the gaps," he offers. "It expresses the emotions that we, or at least I, don't have words for."
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