Bubblin' Up: Marquis Hawkes
- Words: Steve Kerr
When Cabrini Green, Marquis Hawkes's debut EP, arrived on shops' shelves last year, it received a fairly ponderous reaction. This was a record named after Chicago's most infamous housing project, made by a producer with a suspiciously African-American-sounding name—not unlike Ramadanman's Maurice Donovan alias—and released by a fledgling Glasgow label, all of which suggested that its creator hailed from the UK (which he does). A whole mess of complications about dance music's African-American legacy logically arose, but in any case, the EP's four tracks were not simply Dance Mania rip-offs; while clearly influenced by ghetto house, the songs hardly aped its motifs. As it turns out, this kind of controversy is partly what the producer intended.
"You see so many DJ photos of someone looking into the distance with some industrial landscape," he says, speaking from his home in Berlin, where he has lived for two years. "It's the same thing with biographies—'so-and-so got into music from an early age...' It's interesting to have a little bit of intrigue. You almost say more by saying nothing these days." Speaking to that point, Hawkes is insistent that he never claimed to be from Chicago's inner city, in spite of some claims made by Crème Organization. "That was nothing to do with me at all!" he protests. "It was speculation that got out of hand." Moreover, he intends nothing but respect for that scene, and remarks on the adversity many of its practitioners went through in order to create those formative tracks. "I knew these two Irish guys who did a trip to Chicago 12 or 13 years ago," he remembers. "I met these guys in a record store in London cuz they came back with two boxes full of Dance Mania records, and we all wanted to buy them off them. They went to Ray Barney's place [Barney's Records] and they were telling us stories about the studio there and it was like... the roof was falling down, the ceiling was falling down, and they had an MPC2000 with half the pads broken, and they were hitting the pad contact with a screwdriver to trigger beats... they literally didn't have any money; they had one MPC between 10 people. It's quite an interesting history of dedication to write music."
As a longtime sound engineer and DJ, the shadowy producer's employment of the Marquis Hawkes pseudonym stems from a desire to keep his music separate from his personal life, attesting that he has, "seen a lot of people get messed up by the music business." He even considered donning a mask, but realized that inevitably, "the mask becomes as identifiable as the face." Besides, he says, "I don't think it's very comfortable. If it's going to get in the way of how [I play my] music, then it's really destroying the point. How well I play is more important than concealing my identity. Nobody knows who I am anyway—starting out, it was just a fun [idea], and then I noticed all the other people who wore masks and thought, 'Oh shit... I don't want to be another guy in a mask.'"
Hawkes may be an unknown, but he's made music for at least 15 years by his count, and wonders whether a recent uptick in ghetto-house-referencing records has afforded him this opportunity. There's certainly some truth in this, as new records by Delroy Edwards and Gerd's Geeeman can be found sharing space in "new releases" sections alongside reissues of Parris Mitchell and Drewsky. Still, Hawkes' tracks are more measured and melodic than those artists' respective outputs. "It's a progression," he says. "When I DJ new [records] next to the old Dance Mania records, the bass is just overwhelming. I hear some of this old stuff and it's really badly produced, but the ideas were so strong that it just comes through. That's why I think there's space to do something a bit new now."
In accordance with this advancement, Hawkes isn't as concerned with hardware as many retro-leaning producers, though he says that he, "likes the tactile experience [of using hardware]. I'm really open to making music in whatever kind of way—I don't think one necessarily sounds better than the other. It's all tools to be used, really. I've used a lot of different gear, but this more recent work has been mainly computer based." The level of comfortability in his music points to that decade-plus germination period. Hawkes is stringent about quality control, and certainly seems to be his own worst critic. "I could spend a week and come up with nothing," he says. "[I] could make 10 tracks, and out of those 10 tracks there's only one that's going to be the one. I want a record of four tracks that are all the one. When that one track actually happens, I tend to find it happens very quickly, like in an hour. It's just a lot of experimentation, and when you hit the loop, it's almost like the thing just writes itself. It's so cliché, but all the best things in the studio do happen by accident. It's just about knowing how to capture those moments and knowing when it is that moment and when it isn't." Even if Hawkes' best tracks are born of these happy accidents, his sound-technician roots inform the process as well. "[I] get it sounding right in as many different listening environments as I can: in a club on a soundsystem, on a studio monitor, on my laptop speakers, on my headphones."
Hawkes is also adamant about the role Dixon Avenue Basement Tracks plays in his production process. He has known its management for years, dating back to times spent in Glasgow clubbing, or hanging out in pubs and at Rubadub, the shop and distributor through which the label is run. "They knew I'd been working on music for quite awhile and got in touch with me. I think they thought I might be able to come up with the kind of thing they were looking for," he remembers. "We had a rapport and trusted each other. After the first record, they were like, 'Look, it could be beneficial for you if we have a kind of exclusive arrangement, and you [only] record for us.'" He describes this as the label's primary goal at the moment, and speaks warmly of the familial bond he's developed with its founders.
"[They] want a label with five or six artists, and want to get behind them, build a real solid core, a real solid family," he says. "It's been really great to hook up with them, because they really push me. They'll say when something's not good enough, when I can do better. They [want] the best out of me and I think that's what a label should be doing. A two-way thing. It's not just [sending] a demo and they say, 'we'll take these three.' There's a real interaction between me and the guys at the label. It's a close, tight-knit relationship." As a result, Hawkes plans to take his future productions one by one. Apart from the frshly released Higher Forces At Work EP and a remix of Rochelle Jordan for the Vase label, his main plan is to improve his DJ skills. He asks, "What's the point of doing all this stuff if you're not going to do it properly?" It's the sort of question that can only be asked by an artist who's wise enough to ponder his career in terms of the long run.
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