L'Orange “Some sort of beautifully surreal nightmare.”

For a man who hears in near-mono, L’Orange makes music that is anything but singular. His instrumental albums and collaborations with some of hip-hop’s most forward-thinking MCs are exercises in stereophonic storytelling, exploring such complex themes as urban dualism and apocalyptic love. And yet, he accomplishes all this while rarely, if ever, venturing outside of the old-time jazz and radio samples that have come to define his sound.

This year, L’Orange has released two albums: the first, a collaboration with Windy City MC/producer Jeremiah Jae called The Night Took Us In Like Family, which has been described as a “noir-hop opus”; the second, a concept album called Time? Astonishing!, starring none other than Kool Keith as a time traveler who comes to our present day from where else but the early 20th century.

Tiny Mix Tapes spoke with North Carolina-bred, Nashville-based producer/poet L’Orange about both projects, as well as his crate-digging process and being haunted by his guardian angel.

Jazz music is clearly a driving force behind your sound, but not really the hard-bop or smooth jazz that people most commonly associate with hip-hop. You seem to sample more early be-bop or even hot jazz. Why do you think you’re drawn to those styles?

It might be the nurture of it. I think maybe I gravitated toward those sounds early on, [because they offered] something that was low-key and more emotive for me, and I think that’s what everyone looks for in music, is to find what they identify with or what reflects the way they feel. Whenever I would listen to jazz — and I explored jazz when I was young — I don’t know if I knew what I was listening to, but I did know what I liked, and the stuff that I liked the most was the singers, the pianos, and the dust, the lo-fi recording and the sloppiness of not only being able to do it once, but the precision to be able to do it once. And so I was definitely drawn to the early 20th century sound that I think was a little bit more contemplative. I was always more attracted to this lounge feel. You could knock in the right way, get in, and smell the smoke in the air.

You mentioned the word “dust.” Your music is given a very rough texture by the cackle and the pops of your sample sources, and it seems like you often don’t bother to take any of that out, which can make for a very interesting listening experience when I play your records on vinyl.

[Laughs] Yeah, a lot of people have told me they tried cleaning my records over and over.

What do you think of as your preferred format for your music?

That’s interesting, because I’ve always described my style as headphone[s] music. It’s something that you can really hear the space [in], and you can go inwards more easily if you’re walking down the street, wearing headphones, making eye contact with strangers, but it’s hard for me to not say vinyl, because it’s not only such a big part of the culture, but it’s also a big part of my own process. It’s the way that I take in music most of all, and it’s also the source, the origin…

Looking ahead, would you prefer your music to be preserved and collected or forgotten, rediscovered, and then manipulated by others?

Can it be both? [Laughs] I love the idea of the cyclical nature of hip-hop and that’s one of the things that the genre does so well. I think I might even be in the minority, but I would love to have my work be recycled throughout the culture, even if that means that someone is taking something I’ve done and obscuring it so much that my original piece is unrecognizable. That’s not really the point, the point isn’t always an homage, the point is newness, creating something, and manipulating and finding these amazing patterns and sonic qualities that would have never existed without this process.

Time is obviously a central concept of your latest album, Time? Astonishing!. Tell me a little bit about how this project came to be. Who came up with the time-travel concept?

It was shortly after I did that joint off Mello Music Group’s compilation Persona, “Sometimes I Feel,” with Kool Keith, and I had been toying with this idea about time travel. It’s always very important to me to have concepts behind my records, and that might be as much for my benefit as the listener’s, because I find myself able to create something more cohesive if I know the story that I’m telling. With the process of creating beats and music being so perpetual for beat-makers, sometimes it can be tough to distinguish what fits better aesthetically, so, for me, to have a story to guide me through this is helpful.

I pitched the idea to Keith about doing a project about time traveling, because a lot of my stuff is very somber, it’s very dark, it may have some quirkiness to it and some comedy, I hope, but it’s a very dark tone, and so for this one I did want to escape that a little bit and escape myself a little bit. And doing a project with Kool Keith, there’s no way I’m going to get on the phone with him and say, “I want to do this project about a writer who drives himself mad alone in his room and dies.” You know? I’m not going to do that, so I came up with this concept that sort of came [from] this recurring dream I had where I was being followed by a time traveler who was always two minutes in front of me. I sort of became obsessed with this guardian angel-type time travel idea.

Sometimes in music, I think, the easier the concept at its core, or the easier the premise, the more you can expand on it and [have] people still be able to digest it. So I pitched this idea to Kool Keith about doing this time travel record, but what was really important to me was that we could explore the ideas about a man without time, while still allowing Keith to be abstract and indulge in his non-sequitur style and do what he invented, really. I wanted to put Keith in a position to be himself, and do the same for me…

He was feeling it, and he introduced a couple concepts about space travel tied in with that. I liked that, because the way I envisioned it was him moving purely to the future, like he ate breakfast and was like, “Alright, what am I going to do today? I’ll go to the future.” So yeah, he really embraced it.

What were your interactions with him like?

They were fairly brief. He knows what he does, so there was no element of me trying to make him into something he’s not. And that’s something I’ve learned over and over again with MCs… I have to always remind myself that I can only really control what I do. We [talked] probably four or five times while we were doing this, and all the interactions were very quick. I would sort of pitch him something, then he would just go, “OK, I got it, alright, I’m going to the studio tomorrow.” Alright! You’re Kool Keith, I trust you.

I imagine that before the notion of doing an album with Kool Keith actually materialized, as a producer and fan, you might’ve thought it would be cool to work with him someday, so how close is the music that you made here to what you might’ve envisioned?

It’s similar. Kool Keith has developed this new, slower style as he’s grown, and a lot of [his] stuff that I was listening to was very energetic. The beats were designed to showcase Keith. My favorite of his work was with Dan The Automator, who happens to be one of my biggest influences. It was very important for me to not depart from what I do completely, because part of the reason that my style is what it is, is in some way because of Kool Keith and the generation that he brought in, so I tried to ask myself what I wanted to hear Kool Keith on, and what I wanted was that old production from the 90s, the production that was very high-concept and lo-fi. I wanted him to shine with something that wasn’t glamorous, polished, shiny and terribly distracting, even though I think my stuff tends to be…

It was a genetic thing. I had a tumor in my ear, which sort of destroyed my ear, so now I’ve got a sort of a robot ear, but not in the good way. Normally, when you hear about robot body parts you think ‘better.’

The creative process drives it in a different direction.

Exactly, so at the end of the day, [when I’m able to] look back on what I created, I’m like, “Yeah, no, this is what I wanted. Even though I was putting it together the whole time, I don’t really think it dawned on me until now.”

Considering your affinity for jazz, what do you think drove you to become a beat-maker and hip-hop producer rather than a jazz instrumentalist in the first place?

Probably intimidation. I played bass for a long time in jazz groups, hip-hop groups, and rock bands, and I sort of scoured the Earth for it, but I don’t think I was ever as good at bass as I wanted to be. I could never really do what I kept envisioning. I would write these songs, and I would bring other musicians in, and I would tell them the parts I wanted them to play, and we would all get on the same page, and we would play this song, and then I would hear it, and I would realize it was fucking terrible. That’s a disheartening moment [for] musicians. Some are better at workshopping their stuff without hearing it, and for me, I wanted to control what I was doing.

For hip-hop production, I’m able to sit in my studio and torture myself for days if I want to in order to make something sound the way I want it to, and I don’t have to look someone in the eye and try to explain what I envision to justify the process. Maybe it’s a conceit, maybe it’s a resistance to collaboration, or maybe it’s an insecurity. But yeah, hip-hop production was always where I really felt I had value, even before I was good at it. I thought maybe my creativity was the most important thing for me there, and it wasn’t my technical ability. As I’m getting older and doing this more, it’s becoming more and more true. You can work the MPC like Dilla, but if you don’t have Dilla’s mind you’re not contributing something as substantial.

Do you still play bass?

Unfortunately, no. I played all the bass on my first two albums, Manipulation EP and Old Soul, and I think maybe [on] one song on The Mad Writer, and then I sort of switched over. KON Sci, a guy from a group called MindsOne in North Carolina, put me on.

He’s on the new album, right?

He is. I’m happy to have him on the new album. He was very much a disciple of Kev Brown from D.C., who’s one of my favorite producers in the world, and Kev has the greatest bass lines in the world, so studying that way of production sort of led me to how I do my bass lines now.

Another person you’ve been collaborating with for a very long time is Erica Lane. Is this Erica Lane the same as the Nashville-based Christian recording artist who’s starred in her own reality TV show?

[Laughs] Did she really?

I don’t know, I’m asking you.

No, no, it’s not her. I don’t know her. My Erica Lane is in a band called Evening Darling out of New York. My only correspondence with [Nashville’s] Erica Lane is when she hit me up on Twitter to please tell my fans that she is not the Erica Lane I work with.

Well, now you have.

[Laughs] Yeah, now I have. I have no sympathy for that. She can turn the other cheek.

So how did you meet your Erica Lane?

I met her in high school actually. We were both art students in college. Well, we ended up going to the same college. We weren’t very close in high school and then somewhere the summer before college, she and I just started hanging out a lot. She was a really good friend of mine, and I didn’t know she could sing. She would come to my shows when I was with these terrible bands, and then one time I recorded her. I was running a studio at the time, so she came in and asked to sing something, and it blew me away. I was floored, because this girl’s voice is just absolutely beautiful and like flawed and perfect in that. She has this very gorgeous and emotional tone to her voice that I really love.

Do you two share similar musical tastes also?

Somewhat, I think she draws more to the sort of indie-folk influences, maybe a little bit on the more classic country side than I do.

I would go through all these dollar records — I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and I thought there might be better stuff around the corner, in a different city, in a different state — and then I would bring them home and I would be sampling stuff that nobody had really sampled before, or maybe they had, but I hadn’t heard of anything, you know?

You’re sure this isn’t the same Erica Lane as the other one?

I’m telling you, she doesn’t do hymns. The band that she’s in now is sort of an indie-folk band, it’s really good, and I like my share of that music, but I don’t think she’s anywhere near as exposed to hip-hop. I think her being involved in my records is as close to being involved in hip-hop as she’s ever been.

Living in Nashville, which is known as a home of country and bluegrass, do you draw any inspiration from the city in your music?

I do actually. I don’t think I take from the country, the bluegrass or even the indy scene that’s around here, but what I definitely am forced to be influenced by is the amount of talent in this town, because anything you’ve ever heard about Nashville’s musicians that seems like hyperbole isn’t. There is no exaggeration to be made in terms of the quality of musicians in Nasvhille, to the point where for the first year that I lived here I didn’t tell people I produced hip-hop. I think there was a time when I first came here, and I was talking to someone and they’re like, “What do you do?” and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m a hip-hop producer,” and they’re like, “Oh, cool.” They’re real interested, they want to know things, and I’m telling them all about it and sort of feeling myself, and I’m like, “What do you do? and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I just got off tour with Bruce Springsteen, I was playing sax for him, and right now I’m just sort of waiting for the next gig. I think I’ve got a show with Victor Wooten down the street next week.” I completely didn’t realize who I’m talking to and where I am. This is a town where tomorrow’s legends make you coffee and today’s legends are walking the streets.

Let’s get into The Night Took Us In Like Family, which came out just a few months before Time? Astonishing!. Was it a challenge working on two albums that are this far apart conceptually within the same time frame?

Luckily, they were absolutely separated. That was very important for me, because it would have been incredibly hard to separate myself that much, but the first one was a lot easier for me, I think. The Night Took Us In Like Family probably [required] the same amount of work, but it came a little bit easier to me because it was a pretty easy transition [from The Orchid Days]. I knew what I wanted the album to sound like. I knew I was going to make an album that was a true homage to what people have been saying my work is for years. Old Soul was called “noir” even though I never thought that. These were old radio clips, and I wanted to tell the story of Billie Holiday. It was maybe vintage, maybe it was early 20th century jazz, but I didn’t think noir. So, when I started getting that [response], I was working with Jeremiah Jae, and we shared the collaboration in terms of the story, because he wanted to create something like that too.

Since it was going to be a true period piece, I wanted it to be more modern in terms of production techniques, so I used the same samples but I treated them differently. I went at it more aggressively. I did some things musically that I wouldn’t have done with any other MC. That’s one of the things that I think Jeremiah Jae is incredibly underrated for is his ability to ride musically with tracks. All through that album there are weird time signatures, random bars, breaks, arrhythmic bridges — I threw everything I had at Jeremiah Jae, and he never showed any resistance to it. He loved it, and that’s what I liked so much about working on that. He’s a musician, and you can tell from the way he uses his voice as an instrument.

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