Churning out works encompassing a vast range of electronic music rooted in hip-hop culture, producer and rapper Thavius Beck has been plying his trade as one of the founders of glitch-hop for 25 years. His work is varied, such that his talents have raised the interests of artists like Saul Williams and Nine Inch Nails in both the rock and hip-hop genres, seeking his production and remixing skills. When not turning knobs for a variety of musical luminaries, Beck is busily producing his protracted works of sound. With about 20 albums under his belt, he has continued to make designs on hip-hop music’s always shifting and evolving dynamic.
Beck’s aesthetic involves judicious use of electronic music in his brand of hip-hop, employing busted loops, jazzy detours, and a gothic flair to create atmospheres of buzzing panic and mounting tension. Much of this particular panache can be appreciated in his two Mush releases, Decomposition (2004) and Thru (2006). These darkly-tuned works explore breakbeat and illbient in a home base of hip-hop. Along the way, Beck has turned out some solid and challenging instrumental works, including The Most Beautiful Ugly (2012), a set of gothic hip-hop experiments, and the more soulfully burnished Cosmic Noise (2021).
The Minneapolis native, however, is in special peak form when spitting impressive lines of poetry and verse over the flows of his complex beats. Dialogue (2009) and Technol O.G. (2017) stand as some of his very best works, opting for the kind of minimalism that the rapper-producer prefers while sated with the pressure of an assaultive low-end. Beck’s latest release, LEO, a work he prefers to call a project rather than an album, follows a similar trajectory of poetry and pulse, where his baritone boom skims the even heavier boom of the pumping, catawampus beats.
Pushing the artist’s hip-hop into the more uncomfortable reaches of the dance club, where only the bravest dare to indulge in the album’s tricky rhythms, LEO offers a set of turntablist jams alongside Kraftwerkian noodling. “So Rare”, a ghettoblaster anthem, gains much mileage from its shuddering bass hook and Beck’s crisp, shouldering rhymes. On the single “Aye: Sequenced Prose”, the rapper’s lyric ribbons effortlessly around a rubberbanding bassline and scattershot beats. Then there’s the interstellar groove of “One More Revolution”, which features a striking stanza that throws the number into sharp, chiaroscuro relief: “One more revolution ‘round the sun it goes / The orbit’s like a groove, the planets like a needle / This dubplate’s made from dark matter / Cosmic turntable making star stuff scatter.”
Beck’s work in music production has taken him beyond the recording studios, as well. When not making albums, he is a professor of music, training students on Ableton Live, a musical software sequencer used in electronic music. LEO emerges in the wake of personal hardship and, as a lyricist, a longstanding writer’s block. With his latest, he extends the perimeters of his pioneering glitch-hop to encompass more emotional ambits, where the bruising beats pulse with the soul of numinous verse. The rapper-producer talks with PopMatters about his past influences and the places they have taken him musically.
You’ve recorded both instrumental albums and albums with vocals. Why do you choose to release many albums without rhyming? Or rather, why do you feel some material works better as instrumentals?
I started off rapping when I was probably eight. I remember I had to write a rap about air pollution for a school project in third grade. I still remember the verse! My biggest inspiration around that point in terms of hip-hop was Public Enemy. When I first heard “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, I was blown away and knew what kind of sound I wanted to go for. I also appreciated that the rhymes weren’t about typically superficial topics and that Chuck D had a weird, quirky rhyme scheme. There was also Son of Bazerk, who worked with Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad. He had a weird flow that I loved too. I felt I could hear bits of it in some of Chuck’s verses.
When I moved to L.A. in 1996, I became part of a collective of MCs and beat makers called Global Phlowtations Artist Committee (GPAC). Four of us made beats, but I was probably the main producer for the three albums we did. So, even though I was rapping on stuff, I began to view myself as more of a producer. Then when I signed to Mush Records in 2003 and started releasing music under my real name, I began exploring more experimental instrumental production, doing more progressive jazz/fusion stuff with bass-heavy beats instead of doing rap albums.
In my 20s, I had this idea in my head that I shouldn’t still be rapping in my 30s and 40s and that, coupled with the way the indie electronic music scene was going at the time, it made more sense to focus on making weird beats instead of making rap albums. The big thing is, I don’t have a notebook on me writing raps all the time. I rarely write lyrics, and when I do, it’s because of some burst of inspiration or a need to get something off my chest.
So, to answer your question about not rhyming on all my albums, it’s mainly because I never looked at myself as a “rapper”. I consider myself an electronic musician. I rap when I feel the music calls for it, and as someone who grew up listening to a lot of instrumental jazz/fusion and progressive rock, I don’t always wanna hear someone rapping at me. Even if it’s me.
Your hip-hop is distinct from other rappers and producers because it seems your influences are primarily electronic musicians. Which music artists captured your imagination growing up, and why?
The funny thing is that my influences are all over the place, but the biggest single influence in doing music on my own was Public Enemy and the production work of the Bomb Squad. It all takes shape from there. My mom would play different records in the house growing up. I would hear everything from Maze to Pat Methany to Jean-Luc Ponty to Chic. So, as a young kid, my ear was already open to a wide range of sounds that had nothing to do with hip-hop. But as a child of the ’80s, I loved hip-hop, and I loved the idea of repurposing sounds to make something new by sampling.
So, back to Public Enemy. Their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, totally opened my mind and ears. I was also into rock and heavy metal, Rust in Peace by Megadeth being one of my favorite albums. So, the dense and heavy production of the Bomb Squad was right up my alley, and the fact that they sampled Slayer for the song “She Watch Channel Zero” still makes me smile while banging my head relentlessly! When Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, came out and I first heard “Welcome to the Terrordome”, I probably listened to that song 20 times in a row, if not more – no exaggeration. That song changed my life. That beat is just a wall of sound and aggressive and chaotic and beautiful – just giving zero fucks. I saw the future when I heard that song, specifically that beat.
It was all about the melding of influences from artists like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Lenny White, Lonnie Liston Smith, Nine Inch Nails, Jungle Brothers, Wu-Tang Clan, GangStarr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Tool, but with the idea of creating something like sound collages held together by heavy beats and bass – much like what I heard from the Bomb Squad. That’s still my ethos today. I can make any sounds work as long as I can feel the bass and find the beat.
On all your albums, there is a strange interpoint between minimalism and heaviness. The beats are often minimal, but they are delivered with a low-end, bassy texture. Tell us about this particular style in your work.
Well, I don’t try to make passive music. I want the music to grab your attention and kind of force you to listen to it. I want to feel my music on a physical level, and having spent so many years in loud clubs, I know that the best way to feel the music is to give energy to the lower frequencies. I love bass. It can be delivered smoothly and soothingly; it can be a heavy burst and create an impact, it can create the sensation of riding waves, or it can be disorienting. I remember feeling nauseous in a club once because the subwoofers were so loud, and my position to them had my body reacting in odd ways. It’s powerful but subtle because not everyone has the right sound system to reproduce the bass to its full effect. You can hide elements in the sub frequencies that only appear when played on the right system.
As far as minimalism goes, that is something I have been actively working towards. Many of my beats are dense – probably too dense – and it’s hard to rap on top of a thousand conflicting sounds. So, if the purpose of the beat is to rap on it, it needs to get stripped down to make room for the vocals. It’s also fun to see how far I can get using the least amount of elements. For example, the song “Temporal Vision” off of LEO is made from a single sample cut in a few different ways. When I can pull off something like that, it’s satisfying.
What are some of the themes and ideas you are exploring on LEO?
LEO is all about creation, survival, self-empowerment, and seeing the bigger picture. My mom passed away earlier this year on her birthday, and her passing triggered a wide range of emotions, thoughts, and self-reflection that I had to deal with while still teaching multiple classes at two campuses. My mom and I had a good relationship and were on good terms. I got to tell her everything I felt I needed to, and she let me know she was proud of me. So, even though her death has been difficult and is still not easy for me, I have also felt this sense of peace. It’s hard to explain, but to make a long story short, my focus has since shifted. I feel like a different person like I’m slowly emerging from a cocoon I didn’t realize I was in all this time.
The last time I wrote a collection of raps for an album was about five years ago for a project called Technol O.G. At the time, I was really angry and frustrated, and that album reflects that. I didn’t write anything until I was hit with a major burst of inspiration that seemingly came out of nowhere. I had an idea to create and release a beat tape on my birthday. As I started going through tracks, there was a beat that I kept listening to, and I decided just to sit there and loop the track and finish writing the damn song.
It can be difficult to get back into the habit when you don’t do something for a long time. I hadn’t written a complete song in so long that the idea of doing so felt almost impossible for a few years. But this entire project is the result of seven days – five of them writing and recording the lyrics. When the inspiration hits, I’ve learned to ride the wave. LEO is the result.
Ultimately, the lyrics in LEO can be seen as an insight into how the project came to be. The project was willed into existence through me, and I just had to be open and pay attention and catch what came through my mind. At the same time, I live in this physical reality and have to pay attention to physical obstacles. So, how do you balance that and stay open enough to be a channel for positive and powerful manifestation? That’s what LEO is about.”