XLR8R's Favorites of 2009: Hudson Mohawke
- Words: Zainab Jama
- Photo: Shaun Bloodworth & Give Up Art
Glaswegian beat kid Hudson Mohawke delivers one of the year's most anticipated LPs.
It's hard to imagine that at age 13—when he produced his first beat—Hudson Mohawke's music career was already five years deep. The Glaswegian boy wonder actually started mixing when he was eight, on a “shitty little hi-fi turntable and cassette deck,” and since then it's been nothing but upward trajectory for the man born Ross Birchard, whose debut LP, Butter, was just released on UK powerhouse label Warp Records. We sat down with HudMo at Warp's London office to get the lowdown on everything that's led to this point, what else he's been feeling this past year, and what lies ahead.
What was your general introduction to music?
Hudson Mohawke: I grew up in Glasgow, but my dad is actually from LA. He used to have a radio show, actually, in the mid-to-late '80s. It was like an American chart show; lots of vinyl in the house. I had my own shitty little hi-fi turntable and cassette player, so I would try and mix between the two, rewind the tape and play a record. It was a basic set-up, but that’s what I learnt to DJ with. A little after that, when I was 12, I got my first proper turntables. I say“proper,” but they were super-basic, and at the same time, a game on the PlayStation came out called Music [Music Creation for the PlayStation], which was like my first experience with making music, I guess. It's like an Atari sequencer, and Atari's is the original. It was a simplified version and very versatile. Then the follow-up was Music 2000. On that one, you could take the disc out and put in an audio CD and sample off it, and that’s how I first learnt to sample. It was completely laborious and stupidly complicated, even more than it is on, like, the original samplers. It was really time-consuming to find that little bit you wanted, but it was really good training for sampling.
I also got some mixtapes from my cousin. Rave and jungle was huge in Scotland at the time, so he gave me some tapes that had lots of scratching and cutting—that was a really big attraction for me and I really got into that scene, the sort of turntablist thing, and I started to do some DJ battles off the back of that when I was 13 or 14. I was 14 when I first did the DMC and got to be a UK finalist. I didn’t win the UK—they’d never let a fucking Scottish guy win it.
What was the first track you made, and how did you make it?
I used some really dark, stupid drum and bass names, but I don’t even have any of that stuff anymore. My house got flooded in 2000, so I lost everything I was working on up to that point. So I started again from there. I guess it helped in a way, 'cos I got some insurance money so I was able to buy some better DJ equipment.
Do you play any instruments?
Not really. I did a few years of extracurricular drum lessons; lots of pissing around on keyboard, but no real training. I used to play recorder like everyone else in primary school, too. I did [play instruments] on a few of my records, but very badly. I can train myself to a reasonable standard.
How did Butter come together?
Basically, I got picked up by Warp in 2007, and it was such a huge deal that I didn’t make any music for a while after that 'cos I couldn’t get to grips with the idea. I didn’t really have a back catalog, and only had a few releases before that. And then to have potentially massive exposure with such a prestigious label, it freaked me out for a long time. It was about nine months after I signed that I almost couldn’t do anything, but I got over that eventually and from there it took me about seven, eight, nine months to cut it all together. Most of it's all new, except for a few old ones that I worked on again.
What hardware/software did you use to make it?
I've got a really simple set-up. I've got Fruity Loops. It isn’t considered a professional set-up, but it's what I’ve always used and never really wanted to move on to anything else. It does everything I need it to do, and it's really quick. Also, I bought a few keyboards, an '80s one and a Korg board. The whole set-up is really simple: mainly my computer, and turntable for sampling. I recently bought a talk box, but haven’t figured it out yet.
Tell me about the collaborations on the LP.
How did you get together with Dam-Funk
and Olivier Daysoul?
Well, I met Olivier through a mutual friend of ours called Oddisee, who's an MC/producer from Washington, DC. Olivier is a friend of his, so Oddisee played me some of Olivier's tracks that I liked. They were more on the traditional neo-soul kind of tip, but he had a really versatile voice, and after he introduced us, it became apparent he wanted some more fucked-up-sounding stuff. We did our first thing in '07. He’s great to work with and he lives in Oxford now.
With Dam-Funk, I was a fan of his, and had been in touch with Stones Throw. I had a track of his that had his vocals on it that I really liked. You know, he’s not an incredible singer, but he has a sort of charm, which really appealed to me, and I wanted to see if he was up for doing something. We were gonna do some instrumental collaborations together, but I wanted to do some vocals, and luckily he was up for it.
Who would be your dream guests to work with?
I used to do everything with vocals in mind, but I’d always get two complaints—or suggestions, if you will. One was from the vocalists, which was, 'Yeah, we like it, but it's too busy for us to lay vocals on top.' And the other side was people saying they really like the instrumental tracks and they’re fine as they are. I’d still love to do vocals, and I have plans to do more vocal stuff. I’ve got a few things in the pipeline, but in the very initial stages. Hopefully gonna do some work for Erykah Badu, and there's a possibility of doing some Chris Brown a while down the line.
Why did you call the record Butter?
It came from a few places: Mainly from a '90s description of R&B, and the idea of melting sounds, and the sort of contrast as butter as a solid object that takes on different forms... and is part of an ingredient to make bigger things. But basically I liked the name.
People describe your sound as everything from aqua-crunk-step to glitch-hop and beyond, but what would you call it?
I mean it kinda pisses me off that I have to call it anything, but I know at the same time that I had to have be called something, 'cos it can't go unnamed. The main problem I have is people calling my music “wonky.” Just from 'anything that’s not straight is wonky, mate,’ [in Mockney accent]. I dunno. Sometimes I used the term “turbo soul.” There’s a lot of really shit names for it.
What do you think of the new gen?
I like the things that are coming out of that label Hotflush. I really like Untold, too. But at the same time, there’s a lot of people who get jumped on when they have one good track. People are heralded as this amazing new sound when they haven’t really done anything, but it's not their fault—it’s the media's. They just want something to hype over, so they just jump on a new craze.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
I don’t know. Pretty much for the last year or so, I've been in a constant state of amazing shit happening all the time, so I'm really taking it all in; I'm a bit overwhelmed by it all. Sometimes I think,“Is this really happening? What the fuck is going on?” It's constantly surprising.
If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing now?
I have no clue, honestly; I never wanted to do anything else. I’m so lucky to do this and make a living from it, 'cos I would be on the rocks if I wasn’t doing this. I was working in the Sub Club in Glasgow, and I found the manual labor torture, but the music was great.
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