[17 December 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s an acknowledged fact that the biggest key to making it in the music business—or any business—is being in the right place at the right time. It’s not what you know, but who you know. This was conclusively proven in December 2012 by Al Walser’s shocking Grammy nomination for Best Dance Music Recording.
Being nominated along with Avicii, Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Swedish House Mafia, Walser’s “I Can’t Live Without You” garnered enough votes to be ranked among the biggest names in EDM today. Released only nine days before the end of voting, and allegedly created from stolen stems, the hilariously terrible pop song achieved its nomination solely through an intensive marketing campaign of self-promotion, regardless of any actual musical talent or vision (which it is clear from the video that Walser entirely lacks). A voting member of the Grammys himself, Walser had played the game and won, karmically screwing hundreds of other artists who put their energy into creating good music rather than belligerently spamming themselves.
Far too often, the reverse-Walser happens to legitimately talented and visionary artists. Despite their abilities and efforts, some producers didn’t happen to click with their prospective audiences, ending up in some kind of digital purgatory. In this installment of The Difference Engine, we look at a few artists that, for various reasons, slipped through the cracks. These are cuts without pastes.
Getting kicked while down: Caural
Chicago based producer Zachary Mastoon began his involvement with music at the impressionable age of six. He and his pal Stuart Bogie (who later played saxophone for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra) would mess around with a Casio PT-80, drum kit, and guitar, and document the results on a Fisher Price cassette recorder. Mastoon, Bogie and friends ended up jamming out punk-infused jazz in a group called Transmission, then moved on to live hip-hop as the backing band for noted Chicago emcee Diverse.
Ever thirsting for knowledge, Mastoon went on to attend Wesleyan University, to study jazz guitar and improvisation from avant-garde legend Anthony Braxton. During the Semester At Sea program, he picked up a taste for Indonesian gamelan, and at NYU, he delved deep into experimental electronic music. Yet, it wasn’t until 1999 that his education and aesthetic coalesced. This was the year he got a Yamaha SU700 sampler.
By 2001, Mastoon had completed his debut solo album Initial Experiments In 3-D. Released through the modest experimental consortium Töshöklabs, the album delivered what its title suggested, initial experiments that, by and large, sound like initial experiments. Despite its rather uneven production, there was something in his beats.
By the end of 2001, he had released a follow-up EP on the influential Chocolate Industries. Home to infamous rappers like Vast Aire and Diverse, as well as noted oddballs like Via Tania and Ghislain Poirier, Chocolate Industries seemed like a natural fit for Caural.
In 2002, Mastoon produced another EP and his sophomore album Stars on My Ceiling. This album saw a refining of his style, a cerebral collage of left-field instrumental hip-hop, shoegaze indie, and University-informed world and experimental electronic music. It was a fine blend of fragmented beats with composed bleeps, organic samples (i.e. the lush piano on “Camphor”, the mbira on “All These Todays Just Melt Into Tomorrows”, the gamelan sounds heard in “Lilac” and “Sipping Snake Blood Wine”), and a side of recognizable field recordings (i.e. balloons being filled, phones hanging up, crickets), all smothered in recording noise and record static. The album offered a chilled out alternative to the more aggressive glitch-hop of Prefuse 73 and turntablism of DJ Shadow.
Mastoon continued his growth over two more albums: 2005’s Remembering Today and 2006’s Mirrors For Eyes, both released by the consistently great Mush Records. Remembering Today wasn’t a proper album so much as a collection of tracks he recorded between 2001-2003, during his time with Chocolate Industries. His third proper album, Mirrors For Eyes was by far his most ambitious.
Mirrors for Eyes utilized multiple guest vocalists, including Hrishikesh Hirway of the One AM Radio, while Mastoon attempted to incorporate the works of many of his friends, either by sample or direct contribution. The result was a richly produced release perfect for headphone connoisseurs, flush with styles and sounds while never coming off overworked.
Unfortunately, a confluence of events, largely out of Mastoon’s control, led to his eventual disillusionment. Though Stars on My Ceiling received positive press from the likes of Pitchfork and Exclaim, Chocolate Industries was never capable of seriously promoting the album. Many of the label’s young artists such as While and Push Button Objects ended up being non-starters, despite their massive potential. The Cool Kids referred to their prolonged tenure with Chocolate Industries as being “label jail.” Though the label is still going, its schedule is so sparse that, as of this writing, they still had an article from 2010 on their homepage news feed.
By the time Mastoon released Mirrors for Eyes, instrumental hip-hop was in serious decline. It was a decade after Endtroducing….., and at that moment DJ Shadow was committing career hari-kari with the overproduced floor-cuttings of The Outsider. The genre was no longer the ‘now’ sound, and despite Mastoon’s loathing of being pigeonholed by journalists, he ended up lumped into that group.
Mastoon’s frustrations climaxed after his prize Yamaha SU700 was stolen from his studio apartment. And with that loss, so ended the era of Caural. His few remaining tracks were assembled for a post-humus 2011 EP called Die Before You Die, a fitting epitaph for a career that appeared doomed from the start.
He Ain’t Ill, He’s My Bient: DJ Wally
The case of DJ Wally, oddly enough, seems to be one of being in the right place at the right and wrong time simultaneously. Born Keef Destefano, DJ Wally caught on fast. In 1995, he self-released released a couple EPs, which caught the attention of Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle, who ended up licensing “My Bloody Valentine” for the influential Headz 2A compilation in ‘96. By ‘97, Destefano had released a collaborative full-length with DJ Swingsett called Dog Leg Left, and had become involved with the Liquid Sky collective, who released his solo debut DJ Wally’s Genetic Flaw through their Home Entertainment subsidiary.
Liquid Sky was a Brazilian clothing and cosmetic company that took root in New York in the late ‘80s, and went on to become one of the first American labels to feature drum and bass, hence their Jungle Sky sublabel. Their Home Entertainment branch tended towards the then-new hybrid genre known as “illbient.” The roots of the term “illbient” remain a source of debate, with some parties attributing it to DJ Spooky’s characterization of Manhattan’s multicultural digital arts scene and others siding with DJ Olive’s allegedly joking description of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, but it’s definition is fairly solid.
In its basic form, the notion of illbient represents a combination of hip-hop (which was “ill”) and ambient music. Yet, the genre’s associated acts ended up producing a mixture of trip-hop and jungle, with dub and world music influences abounding, reflecting the urban decay and cultural melting pot of its Brooklyn home base.
DJ Wally’s Genetic Flaw and its 1999 follow-up The Stoned Ranger Rydes Again fit their context perfectly, with Home Entertainment also handing releases by DJ Spooky (two breaks records) and We™ (an illbient super-group consisting of DJ Olive, Once11, and Lloop) around the same time. Destefano’s first two albums mixed a taste for cinematic trip-hop with gnarly drum and bass, with slices of humor here and there. His reworking of “The 59th Street Bridge Song” by Simon and Garfunkel for “Feelin’ Groovy” (Genetic Flaw) took many by surprise. Simultaneously, Destefano produced two pure drum and bass albums under the name Pish Posh for a subsidiary of the influential hip-hop Rawkus Records in 1998 and 2001. For a moment, it appeared Destefano was poised to become one of the brightest stars in jungle and illbient music.
Sadly, as we all know, 2001 was a bad time to be in New York. Despite having Chloë Sevigny working at their boutique store in central NYC, the label/design company Liquid Sky fell apart after the World Trade Centre collapsed on 9/11. With it, the whole concept of illbient music seemed to dry up and become passé overnight. Also, after flourishing to the point of having New Forms by Roni Size / Reprazent win the 1997 Mercury Prize and 4hero’s Two Pages receive a nomination the following year, drum and bass was on the wane to start the new millennium. One of the biggest names in the genre, Photek released a house album called Solaris in 2000, and Roni Size / Reprazent followed up New Forms with the disappointing In the Møde, marking the brief end of the mainstream’s infatuation with the genre. Compounding matters, Rawkus Records folded abruptly in 2001, and sold itself off to MCA. It looked as though DJ Wally had shown up to the party just a little too late.
Regardless, in 2001, Destefano managed to release his greatest work yet. The Creepy Crawlies saw Wally fully commit to haunting instrumental hip-hop. Where his previous use of Simon and Garfunkel kept it lighthearted, his recontextualization of Bill Haley’s “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” for “Smoke” made the otherwise joyous rock and roll track seem unusually ominous, disembodied atop a sluggish beat, ethereal electric piano riff, and samples of crickets and coughing. Yet, despite its more serious tone, The Creepy Crawlies flowed flawlessly from start to finish, showing great poise and vision in its execution.
In 2003, Emulatory Whoredom delved even deeper into his fascination with horror and science fiction. Samples from Sam Raimi’s classic b-movie Evil Dead II can be heard on several tracks, while “Guardian” is essentially a Halloween 4 interlude. Where his sci-fi fascination had clearly been indicated by things like the Darth Vader hook in “Join Us or Die” (The Stoned Ranger Rydes Again), Emulatory Whoredom took it to another level with a Blade Runner sample in “The 29th Day” and a sample from The Fifth Element in “Skull N Bones”. Furthermore, with talk of shape-shifters in “Reptillian Agenda” and its sample of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV, Wally’s recurring theme of madness, as heard on “Outa My Head” (The Stoned Ranger Rydes Again) and “I Must Be Mad” (The Creepy Crawlies), was brought into greater relief.
However, even as Destefano released his most accomplished albums, he had run into the same problem that was befalling Caural at the time. Instrumental hip-hop wasn’t paying the bills. The title of Destefano’s 2003 jazz crossover album Nothing Stays the Same, part of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, seemed an all too apt summary of the state of affairs. Since then, Destefano’s output has been spotty as best. With one DJ Willie Ross, he produced Mrs. Millers House, a concept album based on a mentally disturbed lady and her spooky house, for Halloween of 2006, and then fell off the map. His AllMusic bio hasn’t been updated since Y2K.
Loop Da Loop Erasure: Danny Breaks
Also counted among those whose AMG bio has not been updated in over a decade, British producer Daniel Whidett is like the Nicola Tesla of drum and bass. Though acts like Pendulum would later go on to worldwide major label success in the genre, Whidett helped forge their path with his 1991 single “Far Out”, produced under the name Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era for the highly influential Suburban Base Records. In early ‘92, this piano-driven track reached #36 on the UK Top 40 singles chart, his only such charting.
1993 turned out to be a defining moment in Whidett’s career. Late in 1993, as Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era, he released the Flowers In My Garden LP, which remains notable as one of the first drum and bass full-lengths in existence, completing the genre’s transition from breakbeat hardcore. However, rather than court a major and attempt to work his way up the corporate ladder, he chose instead to ditch his Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era moniker and set up his own label called Droppin’ Science. He would launch his new venture in 1993 with a volume one of a drum and bass singles series produced under the name Danny Breaks, a series that would stretch easily into double digits before the new millennium.
And as drum and bass began to peak and roll back by the year 2000, Whidett began to shift his focus. That year, he released a compilation on True Playaz called Music For Martians And Other Extra Terrestrials, which drew a influence and tracks from his EPs Dislocated Sounds (1999) and From Beyond Infinity (2000). Like DJ Wally’s early albums, these releases bridged the gap between sci-fi affected hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass, though Breaks tended to emphasize the jazzier side of jungle and had a knack for nimble turntablism. To this aim, Whidett founded Alphabet Zoo as a Droppin’ Science sublabel in 2000.
With the release of the slick, bossa nova rich drum and bass album Vibrations in 2002, the era of Droppin’ Science wound down to a close. From that point on, Danny Breaks was all about instrumental hip-hop. His style was beyond most producers of the genre. He mixed crate-dug samples, scratched with the proficiency of a DMC champ, and massive, warped bass lines that complimented his tasteful sample manipulation rather than contrasting it, like the often anti-melodic bass/noise oscillation that the codifying dubstep movement would eventually do to death.
Whidett’s Another Dimension (2003), The Outer Dimension (2005), and the Transmit Fantastic EP (2006) had an instant nostalgia about them. Where DJ Wally pushed his sci-fi influence in a more horror-based direction, Danny Breaks possessed more of a retro-futurist vibe. His works of this era felt at once like the future and the past’s idea of the future. Indeed, their weakness was not their technique, but being essentially self-released and lacking major distribution, the albums failed to make much of an impact on the world at large, and Alphabet Zoo hasn’t been heard from since.
It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over
As the attempted retirement of Jay-Z shows, it can be hard for artists to walk away cleanly from their craft. Sometimes, despite intentions and happenstance, they never actually stop. Though the biggest breakthrough potential for Caural, DJ Wally, and Danny Breaks may have passed, they are all still invested to some extent in the game.
With his days as Caural behind him, Zachary Mastoon has fully invested himself in a shoegazy, psychedelic pop band called Boy King Islands. The roots of this band were laid one summer night in 1995, when Mastoon and Jason Hunt improvised a progression that would become “Feeling Nowhere” some years later. As roommates in Chicago, the duo began to rekindle the project in 2002, exchanging ideas as Mastoon split his time between the Windy City and the Big Apple, as well as his Caural alter ego. After the loss of his Yamaha SU700, Boy King Islands became Mastoon’s primary creative outlet. They released their second album Sun Worship earlier in 2012.
DJ Wally made a triumphant, if under-publicized, return to the game in 2012. Through Bandcamp and Soundcloud, he released an album of “18 piffed out head nodders” called Fun For The Whole Family under the name Wally Pish Posh, an EP called 8 Bit Bath Salt with Green Dutch, and a couple other singles.
Following a modest “Free Danny Breaks” campaign on Facebook, though it’s unclear if this had any actual effect, Daniel Whidett brought Danny Breaks back in February of 2012 with a Mark Prichard/Om Unit collaboration care of the Red Bull Music Academy. This was followed by a Tempo Clash mix, reported to be his first official compilation in two decades. Breaks even has an active twitter account now.
Though it’s doubtful any of these artists are about to talk their way into a Grammy nomination any time soon, it is encouraging to see that passion for music can thrive even when left largely unrequited. At a time when social media can award any random unforeseeable levels of fame, it’s not all about awards and social standing, not for everyone. For the rare few, it’s actually about music.