PopMatters talks with British musician Dan Black about hip-hop, mixtapes, sampling, and defusing N-bombs.
What do you get when you mix samples from Prince, Dizzee Rascal, Billy Squier, and European composer Henryk Górecki with lyrics from Busta Rhymes’s “Gimme Some More”? If you’re Dan Black, you get the wonderfully weird mash-up “Górecki, Fix Up My Girlfriend Some More,” a track from his recent mixtape Weird Science.
Although he sometimes covers hip-hop songs and has collaborated with rapper Kid Cudi, don’t dismiss Black as another white rapper – he sings all of his songs, including his rap covers, in a voice that is part Perry Farrell and part Thom Yorke.
His solo debut album, ((Un)), a sonic collage of recycled sounds that is alternately dance-able and introspective, was recorded mostly in a marathon 30-day session in the basement of his Paris flat. His first US single “Symphonies”, a downbeat track featuring a drum loop sampled from Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, was an iTunes Single of the Week. He’s been drawing rave reviews from everyone from Justin Timberlake to Perez Hilton to People magazine.
Black, a Buckinghamshire, UK native, recently wrapped up his first U.S. tour which included six shows at the South by Southwest Festival. PopMatters sat down with Black before his sold-out gig in Chicago.
What drives you in the studio?
It’s kind of a mysterious question. I’m not sure of the answer. I talk about it in a few of the songs. There is something driving me to do what I do. Why am I amazingly compelled to make songs, these little periods of sound? Any given time when I’ve got a moment free, I find myself at a laptop and suddenly notice that I’m writing a song. But at the same time, I do have a propensity for indolence. So when I’m at home, I’ll say, “OK, I’ve got to do some work.” Getting into that state of mind, there’s always things that are more fun and distracting to do. Once I’m at the desk, once I’m concentrating, I can’t do anything else.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails said that he lost years in the studio when he was playing Quake.
I don’t have any fun in my studio. I either work or I don’t.
You’ve said that you chained yourself to your studio to make your debut record—not literally…
So no S&M?
I wasn’t being whipped. Maybe self-flagellating…again, metaphorically speaking. I don’t look after myself particularly well when I’m making a record. I wake up and sleep in the same room as the studio, crawl across the room and start working, and think, “Oh shit, I haven’t eaten any food!” Luckily I have some friends who sometimes have to come and drag me out and literally say “eat something.”
You compose your songs on your computer, rather than on a guitar or keyboard, mashing up bits and pieces of other records. What’s it like trying to learn to play your own songs on guitar?
It’s quite fun. Normally it’s the other way around. So it’s fun to go, I made this on the computer and I want to play it in some situations. Partly for fun, and partly because it’s useful to turn up at a radio station and play it and not bring fifteen computers with me. It’s also fun to do that, and it’s fun to get at the heart of the song.
Let’s talk about your rap covers. In your “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” cover, re-titled “Spank the Cure Til Brooklyn” on the mixtape Weird Science, you sing the original Beastie Boys lyrics “born and bred in Brooklyn” and “I’m M.C.A.” Did you think about changing the lyrics to something more personal?
It wouldn’t sound as good. [hums] “Born and bred in Buckinghamshire . . . UK.” [laughs] A lot of it has to do with re-contexualizing and hearing things in a different way. You’re taking the cultural baggage of that song. One, you’re looking at the song a-fresh, and two, you’re seeing how it would look in different clothes. When I write my own songs, I write about my life and about myself. So far, I haven’t taken on characters in my solo work. It’s the cliché of write what you know. But at the same time, it’s fun to take the themes of other people and be inspired.
You need a certain cultural license to pull some things off, to breathe life and meaning into something. I tried some where I just kind of rapped, and generally it’s not something that I’m able to pull off, sadly. I’d love to be able to. I don’t have the history – a middle class white boy from England—to make it work in its original form. When I did “HYPNTZ” [a cover of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”], Biggie uses the N-bomb. No one ever picked up on it, but I changed it to be “brother” or “people.” The N-bombs were defused. And replaced with pillows.
A lot of the rappers that you’ve covered are more East Coast than West Coast… Busta Rhymes, Missy…
I’m more Biggie than Tupac.
I was kind of Tupac growing up.
Hey man, that’s the genius of life. There’s plenty of diversity for all. I do love Snoop, I love N.W.A. Obviously Dre is a genius. I’m not totally all about the East Coast.
Your songs are built out of samples, although on your Weird Science mixtape the sources are more recognizable than on your debut album ((Un)).
Using other peoples’ things is key. I’m melting them down and re-casting them in some other form. Normally I would polish it down and all the other peoples’ material would disappear. [For the mixtape I said] “I’m going to leave it, I’m going to stop now.” It’s like the Centre Pompidou in Paris. All the air conditioning and the pipes are on the outside. It’s the same kind of thing, all the workings are there. You can literally see how the songs are sewn together.
I’m sure it would be pretty expensive to clear the samples on your mixtape if you were to release it commercially. What does your record company think about you spending time working on the mixtape, as opposed to something that they could make money with?
One, I didn’t really ask them. Two, I don’t really care. Well, that’s not completely true, but I’m not going to ask my record company what they think of my every artistic move. They give me some money and we have a deal that I’ll produce a level at some point, and together we’ll try and make that record sell. My record company is quite clever in their own way. Ways to make money with music are very much in transition. My main thing is that I make things that I think are really good and then worry about how I’ll make money later.
Girl Talk, whose sample-heavy record Feed the Animals has been called “a lawsuit waiting to happen” by the New York Times Magazine, is another cut-and-paste artist. He doesn’t disguise his sources or clear his samples on his commercially released records, though.
At South by Southwest, there was a seminar called “Why Hasn’t the Record Industry Sued Girl Talk?” There must be like 500 samples on that record. And they just fly by. To take him to court would cost a lot of money and time.
The whole world is built on copyright now, but all good ideas are built on previous ideas. The best ideas are other peoples’ ideas being free. When people start not allowing other people to use their ideas, it’s pretty much against the interest of mankind, as far as I’m concerned.
Picasso said “Art is theft.”
It’s true. People have told me they’ve ripped me off already, which I thought, cool. But I’ve not actually heard a clear, “Hold on, that’s me.” It’s very hard for me to go, “that’s me. That’s unique to me.”
Even the drumbeat from Rihanna’s “Umbrella” that you sampled in “Symphonies” wasn’t unique to Rihanna; it was, ironically, a sample itself.
The drums are from [the Apple computer program] Garage Band. Everyone’s music is basically part of a tapestry.
And now your music is part of that cultural tapestry. Your song “Pump My Pumps” was in a party scene on the new Melrose Place.
I do like the fact that pop music is kind of insidious and seeps into the world in a unique way. I try to do pop music, music that has a duality to it. A welcoming, immediate quality to it, but at the same time there’s always something hidden in the track in the background. I like that pop music seeps into life and marks out time. It reflects time and defines time.
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