Music with beats can get some people down in the mouth, as the demands of the commercial dance floor wedge music into narrow genres and expectations, awash in nostalgia. And that’s just the time CDM turns to our regular columnist Matt Earp, not only to help us find the artists dancing to their own drummer, but to get to know the people behind the music. Next stop: Brighton, for a Brixton boy. -Ed.
Sometimes you just need a little boom bap in your life. I don’t care if you consider your tribe to be techno or house, trap or ambient, post-rock or pre-choral – the right hip-hop groove at the right time can be so perfect it’ll restore your faith in just about everything.
Fortunately, Brighton’s Mute Speaker, born Rob O’Hara, has you covered. There’s nothing overly flashy about what he does or the beats he makes – no crazy crunk synths, no over-the-top tumbling drums where you can’t find the one, no buried layers of guitar wash or anyone yelling over top – O’Hara’s just a consumate worshiper at the temple of classic DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and some Saint Dilla – and he has a really good ear for getting just enough soul in his productions to hit a sweet spot without having to emote all over the place. Plus, his work manages to be both emotional and fun at the same time, all within the framework of a steady groove.
O’Hara’s not just aping his heros and trying to recreate ’94 all over again. Instead, his music is cut from classic cloth, but sounds in the moment, right now. He’s got a perfect sense of how to combine little drum rolls, bits of record crackle, snippets of live percussions and all kinds of layered keyboards from rhodes to wurlies to hammonds – and then he fuses it all together with just enough swung wonderfulness that the last decade of hip-hop production has brought to the world. His genius is in riding that line between sounding absolutely live while doing things with his productions that a band could never do – no wonder he name checks The Quakers, with their strong connection to Portishead, as a major recent influence.
Each one of his tunes, with lengths averaging around the 3:45 minute mark, is the sonic equivalent of a complex puppet show. It’s entertaining, slightly mysterious at times, elements set up to make their entrances and exits for maximum effect, all staged by a master choreographer who’s adept at letting you think the show might be getting out of hand, when really it’s all running according to plan. When he features some of the wonderful MCs, vocalists, and instrumentalists he’s picked up along his journeys, so much the better. And it’s not as though he’s just recently tossed off a couple tracks or put together an EP here and there, either – he already has a three full lengths of material out (2010’s Baboon Poetry, 2011’s Smart Bomb and 2012’s Post Block) in addition to a clutch of official remixes for Fybe:One, DJ Vadim and Miles Boney, lots of unofficial remix nuggets (his DJ Shadow/Little Dragon Remix remains a favorite), and appearances on some of the finest beat compilations of the last few years (including the Outsourced comps and both the original Beat Garden and Beat Garden 2, coming released next month)
Turns out, in addition to everything else positive I could say about him, he’s a super nice guy and managed to answer the little group of questions we sent him in just over an hour. Who does that? Mute Speaker does – all while holding down a full time job! Check him out below as he talks about his process, as well as an upcoming EP for Gergaz, a new album with MC Gajah, and plans for a forthcoming beat tape made out of sounds he recently recorded in Asia.
Bring me through your background a little bit – Brighton, born and bred?
I was born in Brixton, London. Moved close to the south coast when I was young & then across to Dublin in my teens, finally settling in Galway on the west coast of Ireland for a good few years until moving to Brighton in 2007, where I still live now.
Your last album was called Post Block – was that reference to writers block? Can you tell us how it gelled and came together?
That kinda had a few meanings at the time, I had a track called ‘post block syndrome’ a long while back, a term described by the urban dictionary as ‘times when you are using social networking sites only to realize you have nothing to say to the world’ – it had no personally meaning to me as such but I thought it was funny and sounded cool! But when I settled on Post Block for the album title it eventually did turn out to have a deeper meaning for me – as while I was trying to put the project together, my mother was dying and I found myself struggling more & more to complete it. But when she did eventually & sadly pass, having the album to work on was very theraputic for me & I completed it fairly soon after the dust had settled so to speak. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy really and quite an important chapter in my life too I think.
Pick a few of the vocalists or instrumentalists you’ve worked with and tell me about them – how you met, how you work together, why you chose to work with them, something about the nature of the collaboration, etc.
One of my most regular collaborators is Gajah, an MC from LA – we got chatting through soundcloud a year or two back now & have worked on quite a lot of material. In fact the next release from myself will be the Gajah / Mute Speaker album On & Offspring that should be ready soon, hopefully for a release in March or April. Gajah has been a great contact, not only for the tracks we’ve done but also for broadening my world and introducing me to a whole bunch of artists stateside, many of who are feature on Post Block – Damien Rodrigues, BeOnd, Joel St. Julien, Adam Warlock, Short Fuze & Express Fresh. Many other vocalist I’ve worked with (Genoveva, Conor Nutt, Segilola, Shiula, Amdime) have also been people I’ve found & connected with on Soundcloud, that’s always been a great platform for me in many ways.
Name me four albums from the past that are having an impact on you/your production/how you think about music today. Bonus props if you can do one from the ’70s, one from the ’80s, one from the ’90s, and one from the ’00s.
Oh that’s tough, there’s too many!
70’s really has to go to James Brown, the man & his band just had the groove going like no-one else before or since in my opinion – can’t pinpoint a particular album because his catalog is so huge! Honorary mention has to go to Marvin Gaye also though – What’s Going On is such an incredible album – ‘Inner City Blues’ is one of my top tracks for life.
80’s is the hardest, not a great decade for music – although at the time I was getting into the ZTT stuff like the Art of Noise – they were really pushing the bounderies of music at the time, helping kickstart the sampling culture. Talking Heads were great too, and toward the end of the decade – Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet has to be one the top 80’s records for me – great beats, great ryhmes, strong conscious vibes.
90’s belongs to A Tribe Called Quest for me, torn between The Low End Theory & Midnight Marauders as my favorite. Tribe just had a unique timless vibe that still sounds fresh today, & they helped evolve hip-hop to evolve in a big big way. Honorary mentions to De La Soul & Gangstarr for similar reasons.
And more recently in the 2000’s – Edan’s Beauty & The Beat – pure genius psychedelic hip-hop & Eryka Badu’s New Ameryka Part One – Eryka’s best so far in my opinion, maybe due to the production talent involved and of course her own content; a few of the most important records of the time but took me a few years before I really discovered them.
And more recently in the last year, the Quakers album has been one of my favorites – lots of great beats, lots of great MC’s, still got the old skool boom bap feel to a lot of it but quite experimental also.
What’s the best environment for you to be creative in and get tunes made? “Environment” can be loose, could be place or mindstate.
Unfortunately, I tend to get sounds & grooves drumming through my head when I’m at work doing mundane shit, or travelling when I’m miles away from my gear – but I think that’s quite common! Being at home is the only place for me to truly work out, & I work a lot, most nights – but the right mood can make all the difference, and occasionally I get just too damn tired – I work a day job too. Most of the time it’s just a question of turning all the shit on & messing with a bunch of different sounds until all of sudden I’ll hear something cool, and that’s how it starts!
The promo hustle – what have you got coming up and where can readers find it / hear it?
Well, plenty on the horizon! First to drop is a new track of mine on the Gergaz Netlabel Beat Garden 2 compilation, and shortly after, my new EP with the same label, ‘Spook Meter’. I also have a track, or maybe two, on the next Urban Waves compilation due out very soon also. Then it’s the new album with Gajah, which I think will be dropping on Acid Lab Records in the next month or so.
I’ve two more EP’s in the works too, one a pure hip-hop/rap themed album with as many different MCs as I can muster on it – and also more of an instrumental ‘beat tape’ kinda thing, making use of some newly aquired sample material on my recent travels in south east asia, thinking of making the whole thing asian themed – not sure yet – these two projects could even collide and become a full album yet – I’m just gonna throw these new beats together and see were it all takes me!
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