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

Was he at all involved on the production side?

It was interesting, because normally I think I have a little more involvement in the content of records, and I think he normally has more involvement in the music. I think both of us just understood that the reason we were doing this record was mutual respect. I didn’t want to push him in any direction that he wasn’t already going to go, and I think that was the same thing from him.

So you didn’t really contribute many ideas to the plot development or the themes that were going on in that record?

No, in terms of concept, we sort of shared ownership, but [not] in terms of how he wanted to address it. The concept is at its core just an idea, and we can create together a little bit beforehand, but all these details — [on the album] he goes to jail at one point, he breaks out, there’s this revenge song — were things that he brought to the table.

What lessons did you learn working on The City Under The City that have informed these two more recent MC collaborations?

Oh yeah, that was my first one, and I even referenced earlier saying I don’t want to get too involved in how somebody raps. That was the most important thing, because I’m a little bit of a controlling musician/producer and that can potentially create some opposition when you’re working with someone, no matter how much you respect them, just like I don’t think I would appreciate it if an MC came in and said, “No, change your drums on this song.” I think initially when we first started [The City Under The City], I had this grandiose idea I wanted to impress. This was going to be the debut. Mello Music Group brought me on for this, which was my dream label. I wanted to impress Mello, I wanted to impress Stik, I wanted to make sure that everyone knew I could guide an album, that I could create something with another artist, so I felt like I had a lot to prove and, initially, I probably got a little too involved in what Stik Figa was doing. I was on the phone with him, saying, “OK, I liked that, but how about we do something like this?” and it was 20 degrees away from what he was already doing. Stik Figa was a really nice guy, and he’d be like, “Yeah, but do you see what I’m doing here? Do you see why I’m a rapper and you’re a producer?” And so that sort of kept me in check, because you can’t control everything. You’ve got to let things happen.

Were there technical tricks you picked up that then carried over to your later records?

There was a lot on The Mad Writer. That was when I really fell into my style. There are some trade things in terms of how I build beats or how I sample — BPM, bars, time signatures, how to get your drums right, swinging, layering, all these little technical things — but for me [The City Under The City] was a conceptual journey that was going to push me to adapt. In terms of technical things … there’s a song at the end called “We Were Heroes,” and I’ve never heard someone mention this, but that song has one of the weirdest structures I’ve ever done, because the entire song loops in 7/4 but ends up being 16/8 with a bar of 2 at the end. So, when you’re listening to it, when you’re nodding your head, there’s never a moment when you go, “Wait, was that off?” It feels fluid and it moves very well. That was a little trick that I discovered when I was just messing around one night, and I’ve actually returned to that. That was the same thing I did on “The Concrete Some Call Home.” It was the same sort of odd signature that you can sort of fight in order to make it cohesive, so you can explore a little bit differently in terms of how you phrase your instruments.

Working with Stik Figa throughout the whole thing, it was also about carving out where the MC was going to go, because I had worked with MCs obviously, but for a whole project, I wanted to make it a canvas for Stik Figa. Up until then, I wanted to dominate the track. Every frequency was going to just fill your ear holes with my music, and that was going to be compressed and loud and thick. With Stik, I wanted to make sure that the drums were where people were riding to, and that the drums and Stik’s vocals were the main focus. That was something that was different for me, because I’ve always been a melody-influenced producer.

Did the album title The City Under The City have anything to do with a novel?

No, which novel?

I don’t want to get too involved in how somebody raps. That was the most important thing, because I’m a little bit of a controlling musician/producer and that can potentially create some opposition when you’re working with someone, no matter how much you respect them.

There’s a China Miéville novel called The City & The City. It’s a noir-ish detective story, but it takes place in these two cities that are basically one, and it’s kind of a commentary on apartheid states or segregation. These two cities live directly amongst one another but don’t interact at all.

Wow, that is surprisingly similar to the concept of that record.

That’s why I was asking. I highly recommend reading this book.

I will. I’ve definitely never heard of it, but I’m always very interested, because I feel like if I could leave one legacy, aside from anything else, I would rather have 50 people debating the details of the stories of my albums than to have a million people listening 100 years after I’m dead. That’s the sort of effort that I put in most distinctly. The things that I leave the most of myself in are these stories, and I’m always so curious to know whether people can tell.

On your instrumental albums, the vocalists sometimes function like characters in stories — they pop up at important plot points — but on your collaborative albums, it’s almost as if your instrumental interludes serve the same exact function, especially when one factors in the radio clips. What’s your take on music as a storytelling medium?

I love the idea of telling stories in music. I think it makes the experience more personal. I’ve never made a song and thought ‘How would this play live?’ [My goal] was always this focus on the story, and if you look at producers like Dan the Automator and Prince Paul, you’ll see that people have recognized this genre as a great medium for storytelling, but I guess I wanted to leave my impression sonically or with a trace of a taste in the back of the mouth after you hear it, and you can’t quite figure out what it was, but you know that there was a progression and maybe even a resolution. It intrigues me. It’s something that I want to expand on, maybe even working more directly with someone as a full-time narrator. The closest I ever did to that would be the intro to The Orchid Days, which was with Erik Todd Dellums, who’s a very talented voice actor. Returning to something like that definitely interests me.

Your Facebook page describes you as a poet. Have you had, or do you have any plans to have, your poetry published, or is it just something you keep to yourself?

No, it’s something that I’ve toyed with a lot, and I have some little chat books. My first collection was [completed] a couple years ago. It was called Love Poems For Those Who Don’t. I was actually shopping it, and I ended up talking to a few people about publishing it, [but] I wasn’t sure if it was the right time or the right place to do it. One thing that I thought about doing was releasing it next to The Orchid Days, because The Orchid Days was sort of based on those works. That was definitely my love album.

The love-at-the-end-of-the-world album.

What could be a more authentic or genuine love?

As a record collector, I get the sense that you do a lot of digging in dollar bins, flea markets, garage sales and the like. Is that accurate?

I don’t do as much at flea markets and garage sales as I used to, but a lot of that stems back from me coming up in Wilmington, N.C., where there was really only one record store, and it wasn’t as if this one record store was curating their collection to the benefit of crate diggers. They mostly had stuff they knew would sell and then they had dollar records, and there was almost nothing in between.

But oftentimes the best stuff is in there.

That’s what I found out. 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 find a musical from the 1950s that you just bought because it was a Hail Mary, and you bring it and home and you’re like, “Oh damn, nobody’s looking for this stuff!” And so when I was going back I would basically buy anything that was made before 1950 and just figure it out, because I knew the music I liked, and I knew the music I wanted to express, and I wanted it to reflect that.

Take me through your digging process. How do you find not just records that you think you’re going to want to use, but also places where you think you will find them?

The first thing that I go for is the miscellaneous category. I try to find whatever they call miscellaneous. They may call it exotic, various, weird, or any strange title. Anything where they were they were like, “I don’t know how to sort this,” that’s where I want to go first. Those aren’t the samples that you’re going to blow people away with, but those are going to be the most unique sounds that you can draw from. When you find a comedy section or a radio section, those records are worth their weight in gold to me because they’re extremely rare. I’m in my studio now and looking around, the top four shelves of my record bins are all just radio recordings. Those are the ones that I make sure I preserve and I make sure are in good condition. Then from there, I probably go to the hip-hop section to see if they have anything dope, which, usually they don’t, but it’s always worth a check. See if they have a few break records or anything else that may have just slipped through the cracks when no one else was looking for them. Then, while my head is still above the bins, I’ll go check out the jazz and see if anything pops out at me, or if they have a soul section or even an international.

Some places have this section called pop vocal, which is perfect for me. It’s like you just built a little section for me, because that’s usually what I sample. In Nashville, that section I refer to as the “Shit I Didn’t Want” section, because the only stuff that’s still there is the stuff I didn’t want. It takes me two seconds to look through those sections, because all I’ve got to do is look at the first three records that came in and see if I want them, then peace out. Then you go into the dollar bins, and that’s where you’ve got to be a little bit more savvy, and that’s sort of where I cut my teeth.

I think every producer has their own system. I was digging with Amerigo Gazaway — he did Fela Soul, he’s incredibly dope, he lives in Nashville, and he’s a good friend of mine — and we were talking about how he thinks it’s really crazy that I don’t normally listen to records before I buy them. I just don’t feel like I need to, because I have these cues. The first thing is the album art; that’s always what’s going to grab you. Then I look at the typography to try to get a feel of when it was made. If I can’t do that then I look for a date, and if it doesn’t have that then I read the write-up. I look at what instruments are on there, I look at if I recognize any of the song titles or where it was made, and then I read a little write-up on who they are.

Do you prefer to recognize the song titles?

Well, the only thing that helps me sometimes is with this old music, everyone was playing the same songs, so if I can recognize one song I can get a feel for the whole album. If they do a cover of “Round Midnight” then I sort of know the genre, I know where they’re going, and if it was that song I’ll probably buy the record, because it’s probably right up my alley. After that, I look at the price. If the price is under $3, then it’s mine. If it’s over $3, I will listen to it.

Is there any vinyl, not necessarily hip-hop, but in general, that you consider sacred in the sense that you collect it but you never have any intention of sampling it? Or is it open season on anything you buy?

No, there absolutely is. There’s music every now and then that I’ll find that I’ll be so interested in that I not only don’t think I could sample, but it’s possible I just don’t want to. There was one that was Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald together at a live performance somewhere. I can’t remember the name of the record, but it was like $30, and this was way after Old Soul, so I sort of did my thing with Billie Holiday, I hopefully provided an homage to her, and I don’t want to move into the business of exploiting her. She’s my favorite artist in the world, so I will collect Billie Holiday records if I don’t have them. A lot of radio recordings that are like that too. Even though I sample a lot of them, I don’t necessarily buy them with the intention or with the expectation that I will. There’s some that I’ve just become so interested in; there’s one I just got called Drugs Is A Family Affair. I’m looking at it right now … what the hell is this? Side 1: “Drug Addicts Relate To Their Experiences.” Side 2: “Parents of Addicts Talk About Their Feelings.” I don’t know what I could use this on, maybe I will, maybe I won’t, but I love that I own this.

This is a town where tomorrow’s legends make you coffee and today’s legends are walking the streets.

What are some records that people who are familiar with your music might be surprised to find in your collection?

Joanna Newsom, Melody Gardot, ummm, might be surprised to find in my collection?

Walk us through one of your most memorable record-digging experiences.

There was one where I found one of my most favorite records I’ve ever found, which was another one of these vocal records, a record called Scary Spooky Stories. Something about the way they recorded that guy’s voice — it’s just such high fidelity considering when they were made. Most of the records I have that are vocal records are dusty and lo-fi, and you’re not going to get a full spectrum of bass from a person’s voice. But yeah, it was back at Gravity Records in North Carolina. This was when I was first starting, and I felt like I’d finished digging [for the day], and the guy who owns the shop was like, “Hey man, I know you like these records. Why don’t you grab this one too?” and he handed me Scary Spooky Stories. I felt like was I was starting to get understood. I guess that’s what that represented to me, where I was able to go in and he knew what I was looking for; he knew my style as well as I did at that time, and so that might be one of the main turning points, because I remember bringing it home and listening to it and being like, “Yes! I know exactly what I want to do with this.” I ended up not using that record until The Orchid Days. That was on “The End.”

That’s one of my favorites.

Thank you. Yeah, that track was serendipitous. I really liked what billy woods was doing, and I reached out and gave him that beat. If you remember, the beats per minutes jumped in the middle of the song.

It reminds me of that MF Grimm song “Slow it up, speed it up.”

“Tick, Tick…” Yeah, man, MF Grimm was actually an important part of my life there for a minute. He and I were sort of close for maybe a year or two.

Huh, tell me about that.

Grimm reached out to me two or three years ago, right after The Mad Writer. He really liked my stuff, and he wanted to work with me. He’s an incredible writer, he was a role model for me for a while, it was amazing even getting that attention, being able to talk to him, and this is speculation, but I think he sort of envisioned me becoming a bit of a protégé and working with him more closely. He had talked about working on writing with me, because he knew I was a writer, and I think he was trying to build something with me, and I think when I signed to Mello I might have — well, I don’t know, I haven’t heard from him in a while.

Did you guys actually collaborate on any tracks?

Nope, never did. We talked a lot, though. He’s really good people. I’ve got nothing but love for MF Grimm. I love where he’s gone in his career. He’s gone into comic books and really been embraced by that community.

Do you have anything coming up next [in reality] that you can hint at?

I’ve got possibly one more thing before the year and then I’ll probably be trying to do something a little grand, a little more live instruments and something probably with an MC. I’m trying to create something with my hands.

Are you trying to totally distance yourself from sampling, or are you trying to meld sampling and live instruments?

It’d probably be a hybrid. I want to largely focus on songwriting. I think that’s where my mind is right now, and I want to develop that. I’m looking at the growth that I’ve seen from Oddisee to Black Milk to Danger Mouse. I want to get my chops a little bit better musically, because I want to take on the role of a more traditional producer at some point and that’s something that’s important to me, and I want to feel like I can create.

How did you go deaf in your right ear? What happened?

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.’

Do you any have auditory sense in your right ear now?

About 10%. It’s something that I’ve dealt with since I was a kid. I wasn’t aware of what it was until the last two years but [throughout] my whole life, I knew I had not good hearing in my right ear. It was only in the last two years that it just went completely off, but what was so crazy about this was [while] working on [Time? Astonishing!], I was recovering from surgery and so I still have deadlines, I still need to do my work. This is just sort of who I am, I’m not going to keep pushing things back if I feel I can do them, and so I was on a lot of pain medications and whatever else they had me on there. I probably took two days after the surgery where I didn’t do anything and then after that, I went back to work.

It was a very surreal, strange experience, because I’m not used to working inebriated. Being on pain medication is sort of this interesting blend of euphoria and frustration, where you’re irritable but it doesn’t matter because the world is a beautiful place and you’re the most beautiful person in it, and so it’d be me working on these things and then the next day, coming back and being like, “What was I doing? What was I thinking? I need to do this over.” Then I’d come back the next day and be like, “No, what I had was probably better, I just fucked it up,” so the workshopping would be just like past L’Orange working against present L’Orange constantly.

That sounds oddly like the recurring dream that you said inspired the album’s concept.

Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? That’s interesting. Maybe that’s more about how I think. Now that you say that, it sort of reminds me of the concept for The City Under The City too. It’s divorcing your self from yourself in order to maintain. But yeah, the Keith record was a little bit of some sort of beautifully surreal nightmare.

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