Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood is home to much of the city's Latino population, but with its ample dive bars and affordable rents, it also attracts a significant cross section of Chicago's artist and musician community, a small number of which seem to gather regularly at the home and studio of leftfield R&B production duo The-Drum. Made up of roommates Brandon Boom and Jeremiah Chrome, the pair of twenty-somethings often plays host to a number of electronic-music-making peers. On a recent visit, a girl who has performed as a back-up singer and dancer for Grimes and one of the members of glitchy juke outfit Sich Mang were sitting idly, surfing the internet on laptops, and Boom mentioned that Austin Keultjes of Supreme Cuts, another Windy City duo crafting R&B-inflected chillout beats, had just left.
Boom and Chrome like the company. Both have set aside other career aspirations to make music full time and a collaborative spirit runs strong in each of them, especially Chrome, who has already achieved some success with the Italo-disco projects Clique Talk and Valis, the latter of which he's still active in. Wanting to branch out from synth-based dance music, Chrome approached Boom, at the time just a friend from the neighborhood, toward the end of 2010 about exploring what the two could do with rap and R&B production, specifically with the intention of producing for other artists. "Initially, it was never about making music to put out as our own records," Boom says. "As soon as we started, it was like, 'Oh, we’re literally nobodies, nobody is going to mess with us no matter how good the music is,' so we’re like, 'Let’s just cut up vocals, change things a little bit, and make it more interesting to put out as our own.'"
Heavy Liquid EP
The two also point to their complex productions as a sticking point with potential vocalists. "We run into a lot of trouble with not wanting to loop stuff that much or repeat the same parts that many times, which is what most beats are built on," Chrome says. "Pretty quickly, things get so dense that it would have to be some really flexible singer to get on it, especially the early stuff, it’s almost claustrophobically a million sounds at once." "I remember thinking, oh, this is going to be the most progressive rap track," the fast-talking Boom adds. "But it’s like, 'Well, no one could ever rap on this, so...'"
While the move to produce for MCs and singers has been laborious, they are starting to see some progress there, and the time in between has gone a long way toward helping the two hone in on what they want The-Drum to sound like, namely meandering, fluid, and spacey R&B that owes as much to Art of Noise and Philip K. Dick as it does artists like The-Dream and Chicago young blood Jeremih. After beginning 2012 with the excellent Heavy Liquid EP on Audraglint, The-Drum's recently released Sense Net EP for music-loving New York clothing house Mishka just might be the greatest realization yet of the duo's artistic vision. Sharing a similar headspace to Bladerunner soundtrack composer Vangelis, songs like "/BLD" recontextualize brooding dystopian atmospherics and cosmic Italo rhythms into syrupy crunk beats that ooze with reverb. Then there's "/SYS," which goes further into R&B territory with chipmunked vocal snippets echoing in and out of jittery double-time drums and waves of static warmth.
The EP is a glimpse into The-Drum's forthcoming full-length, a sci-fi concept record. "Basically, there’s a universe that we created and in that universe there’s a company called Sense Net that’s a pharmaceutical company mixed with a hardware and software developer," Chrome explains. "Imagine, like, a Videodrome thing where you put this thing on your head and it flashes all these lights and sounds and it’s like, 'Oh, now I’m high,'" Boom chimes in. This gets to the core of the pair's musical philosophy: "The primary thing," Chrome says, "probably more than R&B and rap is the psychedelic-ness of it, trying to be an audio intoxicant. Instead of taking drugs, you can listen to this music."
Boom and Chrome remain steadfast on applying this idea to tracks for other people. The duo is hard at work on a mixtape that tones down the sci-fi elements in favor of trippy, weightless beats and vocal riffing from, among others, Dave Robertson and Khallee, two up-and-coming Chicago singers The-Drum is keen to champion. They are just the tip of the iceberg, really. The-Drum has aims to approach—and in a few cases, continue to work with—a diverse array of artists, including voguing rapper Le1f, Cakes da Killa, and on a local level, the tough-talking King Louie and south side femcee Sasha Go Hard. Listening to them rattle off one admired MC, singer, producer or musician after another, the sense that these two would like to expand into a collaborative community looms large.
Yet even with like-minded acts like Sich Mang and Supreme Cuts so close at hand, they're hesitant to call it a scene. "People want there to be a scene because it’s easier to market, but really, it just comes down to us hanging and just sitting around listening to tracks," Boom says. For these guys, right now at least, it's just about fostering opportunities to make cool music. "That’s the thing about The-Drum, it’s but a [single] facet of tons of music being made all the time," Chrome says. "It would be fair to say that 10 to 15 tracks are made on a good week. We kind of figure out what they fit best into afterwards."