Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Beatles cover versions

50 years ago this month, The Beatles released Strawberry Fields Forever – a song that ushered in the psychedelic era and changed the course of popular music forever. But have you ever heard the Latin ska version featuring Blondie’s Debbie Harry? Few would argue it improves on the original, but it certainly brings something different to the table.

As the most popular band in history, The Beatles are also the most covered. Many versions of their classic songs have been attempted in a whole gamut of styles, moods and even languages – often with results that Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison and Starr) could never have imagined. Here are some of the most unusual.

1. Strawberry Fields Forever by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs y Debbie Harry

Strawberry Fields Forever is one of The Beatles’ most idiosyncratic songs, heavy on obscure instruments such as the mellotron and the swarmandal, and spliced together woozily by super-producer George Martin from two wildly different takes in different keys. But that hasn’t stopped legions of other artists having their own crack at it, from Peter Gabriel to Marilyn Manson. Baggy chancers Candy Flip even took their raved-up version to No. 3 in 1990. However this 1995 effort by Argentinian ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs – featuring Debbie Harry singing in English – stands out for its foolhardy attempt to mash together at least four different musical traditions in the same recording. We’re not in Liverpool any more, Ringo.

2. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by William Shatner

Once voted the worst Beatles cover of all time, Captain Kirk’s shambling spoken-word cover of Sgt. Pepper’s psychedelic centrepiece has long been a focus of ironic appreciation. But it’s worth hearing again for just how genuinely weird it is, with Shatnerhamming it up to a ridiculous degree – even by Star Trek’s exceptionally hammy standards – in an attempt to fully convey the altered dimension experience. Shatner didn’t single out The Beatles; his 1968 musical odyssey The Transformed Man featured an equally upsetting dismemberment of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, while in recent years, and with a tad more self-awareness, he’s doled out similar treatment to Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady and Pulp’s Common People.

3. Eleanor Rigby by Eddie Ojeda with Dee Snider

As one of the most covered songs in history, Eleanor Rigby has been re-rendered in numerous different musical styles from hip-hop to big band jazz, most completely unsuitable for the song’s sombre subject matter. But Eleanor Rigby actually works pretty well as a headbanging rock chug, a fact first discovered by late-70s proto-metal band Ethel the Frog and also picked up on by Californian post-hardcore band Thrice. But by far the greatest hard rock cover of Eleanor Rigby is by Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda and Dee Snider, whose snarling, accusatory tone – “WHO IS IT FOR?!” – makes it clear that we’re all responsible for Eleanor’s lonely death. Because life lessons are always more powerful when delivered by a screeching poodle-rocker in a leather waistcoat.

4. Nowhere Man by Tiny Tim

A childlike crooner with a ukelele and a wobbly falsetto, Tiny Tim was one of the odder pop sensations of the late 60s. Famous enough that his marriage was watched on TV by an audience of 40 million people, he fraternised with all the big stars of the day, including The Beatles, who invited him to perform on their 1968 fan club Christmas disc. Encouraged by George Harrison, Tim offered this fragile, otherworldly take on Nowhere Man.

5. While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Wu-Tang Clan

When George Harrison penned While My Guitar Gently Weeps for The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled ‘White Album’, he couldn’t have envisaged it being used as the basis for a drug-dealing melodrama by Staten Island rap sensei Wu-Tang Clan – but that’s the beauty of sampling. Built on a 1974 cover of The Beatles original by jazz-funk guitarist Jimmy Ponder, The Heart Gently Weeps also features fresh input from Erykah Badu, sometime Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante and – nice touch from producer RZA, this – George Harrison’s son Dhani. Not everyone shared RZA’s newfound enthusiasm for classic rock – “He’s trying to do too much of this guitar s***,” complained Wu-Tang rapper Raekwon – but the unusual combination of melancholy riffage and Ghostface Killah’s loquacious rap about a scuffle in a supermarket undoubtedly works.

6. The Long and Winding Road by The Langley Schools Music Project

In 1976, Vancouver music teacher Hans Fenger assembled a group of local schoolchildren to record versions of classic rock hits by the likes of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and David Bowie. Although ignored at the time, when rediscovered and reissued in the early 00s, the recordings were praised by critics for their haunting qualities, capturing the innocence of the performers as they grapple with the songs’ emotional demands. Given that Paul McCartney always hated the schmaltzy orchestration overdubbed by Phil Spector onto the original version of The Long and Winding Road, he may well have appreciated Langley Schools’ sparse and hesitant rendition.

7. Got To Get You into My Life by Earth, Wind & Fire

The soundtrack to 1978 musical movie travesty Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – featuring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, alongside Donald Pleasance, Steve Martin and Frankie Howerd – is a swirling repository of atrocious Beatles covers, most of them perpetuated by the brothers Gibb, in league with George Martin. The only group to emerge from the farrago with any credit were Earth, Wind and Fire, whose funky lounge version of Got to Get You into My Life is certainly odd but not entirely unpleasant. Google Steve Martin’s zany mauling of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer at your peril.

8. Tomorrow Never Knows by Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston

A heady psychedelic swirl of sitar, tape loops and backwards cymbals, Tomorrow Never Knows is practically uncoverable. That hasn’t stopped plenty of people from trying, among them Oasis, The Mission and even Phil Collins (seek out his 1981 album Face Value for the ugly truth). But perhaps the only faithful way to approach the song is with complete freedom from square constructs such as rhythm and melody, as in this gleeful clobbering by outsider musicians Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston. “Do not surrender to the void!” as Johnston shouts towards the end.

9. Oh! Darling by Klaus Beyer

Sometimes referred to as the German Daniel Johnston, Klaus Beyer is a former candle-maker who has recorded lo-fi German-language covers of every Beatles song – initially for the benefit of his mother, but latterly encouraged by members of Berlin band Mutter as a ongoing outsider art project. Beyer has steadily worked his way through the catalogue, with Rubber Soul reimagined as Gummi Seele, and Yellow Submarine becoming, rather wonderfully, Das Gelbe Unterwasserboot. You may wonder if the melodies were lost in translation, but Beyer’s idiosyncratic delivery is all part of the charm.

10. Taxman by Rockwell

It’s never a good look when wealthy rockstars start moaning about having to pay tax, but The Beatles’ original at least did so with plenty of wit and verve. The same cannot be said of the limp electro-funk cover of Taxman by Rockwell, son of Motown boss Berry Gordy and mate of Michael Jackson. It even kept the original’s references to Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, which must have meant very little to Rockwell’s largely American audience in the early 80s. Amazingly, Taxman was not Rockwell’s worst offence of 1984 – he also released a single called Obscene Phone Caller, a very literal rant against phone pests that features the lyric, “If Alexander Bell were alive today / Would he want the telephone to be used this way?”

11. I Am The Walrus by Lord Sitar

With George Harrison helping to popularise the sound of the sitar on Beatles songs such as Norwegian Wood and Within You, Without You, it’s no surprise that in 1968 some enterprising soul would attempt to rush out an album of pop hits – including several of The Beatles’ own – rendered in sitar-heavy easy listening style. The blurb surrounding its original release was left deliberately vague in order to encourage rumours that Lord Sitarwas actually George Harrison, but record detectives didn’t have to search too hard to uncover the real culprit, given that renowned session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was one of the few other people in late-60s Britain to own and play the instrument. He’d even released an album of sitar-based covers under his own name the previous year. The Lord Sitar album was dismissed as a crass cash-in, but its version of I Am The Walrus retains a strange, pungent charm.

12. Hey Jude by DJ Faber

Hey Jude is divisive. Rolling Stone may have named it as one of the greatest songs of all time, but plenty of other people clearly can’t stand it. The solution to its mawkish hollering? Take a sad song and make it… HARDCORE! Proof that there’s no tune in history that can’t be immeasurably improved by sticking a donk on it.

The Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music

Visiting Brian Eno’s studio in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, there’s plenty to catch the eye. Shelves sag beneath books and records, a spiral staircase climbs up toward the rafters, and a kitchen table is filled with wine bottles in preparation for a party. Standing in front of a computer monitor, Eno listens to an excerpt of a Baroque opera at formidable volume. Large skylights flood the white-walled space in natural light, and an open doorway affords a tantalizing view into the room where the producer makes his music. Two glowing light boxes, artworks from Eno’s Light Music series—four feet high and priced up to £35,000 apiece—cycle slowly through a series of geometrical shapes in rich pastel colors, like melting blocks of fruit sorbet.

Once the opera stops playing, I ask Eno how long he’s been in this space. “All night,” he says. If that’s true—it’s 10:30 in the morning—he looks remarkably fresh. I clarify: But for how many years? “All night for the past 22 years,” he deadpans. The room’s appeal is obvious; it feels like an oasis. A few tree branches are faintly visible through the skylights, silhouetted against February’s slate-grey sky. The city feels far away.

One of the scene’s most striking details is the way Eno jots down quick notes on his laptop—in pencil, right on the aluminum exterior of the MacBook Pro. The computer rests between us, already covered in scribbles and smeared graphite, when we sit down to talk over cups of almond rooibos tea, and by the end of the hour, fresh markings will have been added to its hieroglyphic tangle: lines of MIDI data, economic diagrams, a pyramid illustrating the hierarchical structure of a symphony orchestra.

You won’t find that note-taking strategy in any user’s manual, but then, the 68-year-old has made an entire career out of turning convention on its head, from his freeform studio methods to his invention—or advocacy, anyway—of ambient music, a form he once dreamed to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Clearly, his counterintuitive instincts are working: In the 44 years since he quit Roxy Music and struck out on his own, he’s made some 50 albums and produced dozens more for artists such as David Bowie, U2, and Coldplay. Not bad for a self-described “non-musician.”

If, once upon a time, Eno seemed the very embodiment of glam panache—eyeliner, feather boas, etc.—these days he’s better known as a sort of kindly philosophy professor, a persona that he lives up to in person, right down to his blue flannel shirt. In the 90 minutes I’m with him, he’s thoughtful, engaged, and prone to self-deprecation. More than once he remarks upon the allegedly frightfully messy state of his studio, exaggerating for comic effect; his housekeeper is scheduled to clean up for the party he has planned, but she’s nowhere to be found. “I just texted her,” he mutters, before we sit down. “I said, ‘Are you coming? I’m shitting bricks here!’” He’s a natural performer, in other words—and that extends to the role he plays as an interviewee: Whether talking art or politics or philosophy, everything in the world seems suddenly much more interesting in Brian Eno’s company.

With his new album Reflection, Eno picks up a thread that has run through most of his career. The soft, contemplative LP is not just ambient, but also generative—that is, it is not a composed piece of music, but rather one for which he set in place a system of musical variables and then stepped back to witness what would happen. Every combination of sound is the product of chance operations: An all-encompassing warmth, like that of cats napping in sunlit corners, is tempered by the occasional otherworldly trill, as though a highly efficient spacecraft were powering up. Every now and then, a bell rings out, breaking the meditative calm. He once used tools like magnetic tape to achieve similar effects; nowadays, his colleaguePeter Chilvers codes randomization scripts that Eno drops into Logic Pro, setting in motion his cottony chain reactions.

But Reflection differs from previous generative pieces, like, 1975’sDiscreet Music and 1993’s Neroli, in one important aspect: The 54-minute album is but one iteration of the piece’s virtually limitless sprawl. A corresponding iOS app, co-authored with Chilvers, will never play exactly the same thing the same way twice. Unlike the album, the app is not a recording of the piece; it is the piece itself, a virtual machine with all the probabilistic clockworks coded right in. It’s less something you listen to and more something you use to color the air around you.

It might seem like a strange time to be putting more soft, contemplative music into the world. But for Eno, who might be the closest thing contemporary pop music has to a public intellectual—he recently co-signed an open letter criticizing the British government’s overtures to Donald Trump—creating generative electronic music is, in itself, a kind of political act: a rejection of hierarchy in favor of ecological models of existence.

But ambient music represents just one facet of Eno’s boundless curiosity. I’m reminded of this after our interview, when he brings me into the music studio to show off the generative processes he used to create Reflection. Leaning against his standing desk, he flips through randomization scripts in Logic Pro, and skeletal percussion patterns suddenly explode into wild, distorted formations, more Autechrethan Music for Airports.

An iTunes playlist of rough drafts contains 4412 tracks; the most recent of them, something called “Jubilant Hair Sad,” was made just the night before. “I can’t remember what it is,” he says. We listen to it for a moment: slow string pads—the kernel of an idea, maybe, but not much more. “That’s not very interesting,” he says, turning it off. Perhaps part of genius is knowing when to give up on a ho-hum idea and move on.

“I have to show you statistical guitar,” he continues, queuing up an unsteady arpeggio perforating a kind of trip-hop beat. “This tempo’s too slow to make it work,” he mutters, but then he flips a variable, and the song comes bounding to life: a wild chakka-chakka that sounds strikingly like disco’s “chicken-scratch” guitar, all created using the same randomization scripts that drive Reflection’s slowly undulating form. “I’ve always loved rhythm guitar and I’ve never been able to play it,” he beams, his inner philosopher having apparently been replaced by a much more innocent figure: tinkerer, amateur, wide-eyed thrower of dice.

“The path of least resistance for anyone with a lot of sound-making tools is to keep making more sounds. The path of discipline is to say: Let’s see how few we can get away with.”

Pitchfork: What are your studio habits like when making a generative piece like Reflection?

Brian Eno: I often work here in the evening. It’s when I get a bit of peace. I have speakers everywhere, so I can have three-dimensional sound. I just start something simple [in the studio]—like a couple of tones that overlay each other—and then I come back in here and do emails or write or whatever I have to do. So as I’m listening, I’ll think,It would be nice if I had more harmonics in there. So I take a few minutes to go and fix that up, and I leave it playing. Sometimes that’s all that happens, and I do my emails and then go home. But other times, it starts to sound like a piece of music. So then I start working on it.

I always try to keep this balance with ambient pieces between making them and listening to them. If you’re only in maker mode all the time, you put too much in. It was a discovery I made right in the beginning of making this kind of music, where I would make something—I was working on tape then, of course—and find that if I played it back at half-speed, it always improved it dramatically. One reason was because of the change of sonic color that you get; the thing is suddenly mellow. But the other one was that much less was happening per unit of time. That was the lesson I really took. As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less.

The other way I had of moving myself towards minimalism, shall we say, was when I would think at the end of a day’s work: OK, now I’m going to do the film soundtrack mix of it. As soon as you think of something as a film soundtrack, you’re thinking of something that is behind the action, that is not the action itself. And I would think,Where is this piece? It feels like evening, it’s a river, there’s vines hanging down over the water—some kind of picture would come to me. And then I would find it very easy to do quite minimal versions of things. It’s a discipline, because the path of least resistance for anyone with a lot of sound-making tools is to keep making more sounds. The path of discipline is to say: Let’s see how few we can get away with.

You equate action or effort with authorship.

That’s right. I find that you’re a completely different person as a maker than you are as a listener. That’s one of the reasons I so often leave the studio to listen to things. A lot of people never leave the studio when they’re making something, so they’re always in that maker mode, screwdriving things in—adding, adding, adding. Because it seems like the right thing to be doing in that room. But it’s when you come out that you start to hear what you like.

Given the infinite nature of the Reflection project, was it difficult to select the 54-minute chunk that became the album?

Yes, it was quite interesting doing that. When you’re running it as an ephemeral piece, you have quite different considerations. If there is something that is a bit doubtful or odd, you think, OK, that’s just in the nature of the piece and now it’s passed and we’re somewhere else. Whereas if you’re thinking of it as a record that people are going to listen to again and again, what philosophy do you take? Choose just a random amount of time? Could have done that. Just do several of them and fix them together? Is that faking it? These are very interesting philosophical questions.

Which approach did you follow?

A hybrid approach. I generated 11 pieces of the length I’d set the piece to be and I had them all in my iTunes on random shuffle, so I would be listening at night, doing other things, and as one ran through, I would think, That was a nice one, I particularly like the second half. So then I would make a note. I did this for quite a few evenings. There were two that I really liked. On one, the last 40 minutes of it were lovely, and on another, the first 25 minutes of it were really nice. So I thought, This is a studio, I’m making a record. I’ll edit them together! It was like the birth of rock’n’roll. I’m allowed to do that! It’s not cheating. It was quite a bit of jiggery-pokery to find a place I could do it, but the result is two pieces stuck together.

I find myself listening to the app differently than I would listen to an album. I might hear something, and my interpretive brain tries to ascribe meaning to that event, but then I remember it’s essentially accidental, and it defies interpretation.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while. So in a way, the apps and the generative music are borrowing from all of the technology that has evolved in connection with recorded music and making a new kind of live, ephemeral, unfixable music. It’s a quite interesting historical moment.

Do you find it easier on the ego to release something like this instead of an album of traditionally “composed” music?

Yes, I think it is. If I make something like Reflection, people know it’s a sort of calculated, dispassionate piece of music. But if I record a song with my voice, people assume, Oh, it’s his voice, therefore it must be carrying something deep. A voice is very exposing, and of course, a voice is always seen as being the voice of the creator, no matter how many times you tell them it isn’t. A lot of singers are really trying out personalities when they sing. It isn’t them. It’s just like somebody writing a play: He isn’t the person in the play, he’s inventing personas and seeing how they interact. I think David Byrne does it; David Bowie did it a lot. Just saying, “Who do I want this character to be? What’s the world they’re in, and how are they going to behave in that world?” But of course people always read it as autobiographical. So yes, there’s much more ego tied into anything that uses your voice, essentially. Even if you try to abstract your voice wildly, people still think: Hm, that Brian—doesn’t sound too happy.

I was listening to your 1993 album Neroli and noticed that it’s in the same key as Reflection. I had them both running at the same time—the album on my laptop and the app on my phone—and it turns out they work really nicely together.

Do they! Oh, I want to try that. I often think I’ve only ever had two ideas, and I keep finding new approaches to them. And each time I do, I think, Wow, this is really new! But it actually isn’t. It’s the same idea from a different angle.

You’ve said that the difference between classical and contemporary music is the difference between architecture and gardening. Do you keep a garden yourself?

“Keep” is not quite the word. I do garden, yes, but I’m not very good at it. I’m much better at theorizing about gardening than doing it. My gardening is similar to my cricket. When I was at school I always used to think, When I get out on that field, I’m going to bash that ball all over the place. And I was nearly always out on the second ball. I had enormous confidence and very little skill. Which you could say has typified my whole career, really!

The original price of the Reflection app was around $40, which is quite a bit higher than previous apps you’ve done. Why was that? Were you trying to make a statement about value?

Yes, I was. There are two statements: One is the price and the other is that it isn’t interactive. That was quite important to me, to try to keep it free of anything you could do with it. I just did not want people sort of fiddling. I was trying to say, “This is something to listen to.” Think of it like a finished piece of music. It happens to be a finished piece of music that will never repeat, but it is a finished piece. Some people were a little bit annoyed there was nothing they could do to it. My response is: You don’t expect to be able to do anything to a CD, do you? You just put it on and turn it up.

The point about the price was that if you make a vinyl, it costs 22 pounds in England, a CD is 16. Both of those are reduced versions of the app, in the sense that they are a tiny fraction, infinitesimal, of the lifetime piece. I really want to make the point that this is an endless piece of music. And one of the ways I can make that point is to price it higher. So in England, the app went to 30 pounds. A lot of work went into it, as well. It was only the two of us, Peter and I, and it took about a year to make the app.

Last time Pitchfork interviewed you, in 2010, you said that you still listened to CDs. Is that still true?

I do. I’m much less attached to analog stuff in general than a lot of people seem to be. I think there’s quite a lot of black magic about it. For instance, I really don’t think I can tell the difference between a well-mastered CD and a well-mastered vinyl. If I’m listening to CDs for a long time, and then I put a record on, I think I notice a slight difference. Or vice versa, actually. But both ways ’round, I quite like the difference.

Do you stream music?

Not very much. But what I was just playing there [before the interview] was streamed, actually. I’ve really only started doing that recently. But I don’t listen to that much music that isn’t mine; the only problem with being a composer is you don’t get to listen to very much music. You can’t really have the radio on while you’re doing it. The people I know who are writers or painters or designers know so much more about music than me because they’re listening all the time. Those are the people I always ask about what should I be listening to. I have a friend, a social worker, and he has the most interesting musical tastes. I always say to him, “John, what’s happening right now?” He makes me CDs. Every month he gives me one. He’ll put on 25 things he thinks I’ll be interested in, and they’re nearly always things I never would have heard otherwise.

In the notes to Reflection, you write of ambient music, “I don’t think I understand what the term stands for anymore; it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows.” What surprises you about the way that ambient music has evolved?

It’s interesting what part of ambient they took as being the center of it. For me, the central idea was about music as a place you go to. Not a narrative, not a sequence that has some sort of teleological direction to it—verse, chorus, this, that, and the other. It’s really based on abstract expressionism: Instead of the picture being a structured perspective, where your eye is expected to go in certain directions, it’s a field, and you wander sonically over the field. And it’s a field that is deliberately devoid of personalities, because if there’s a personality there, that’s who you’ll follow. So there’s not somebody in that field leading you around; you find your own way.

In my case, because of my musical tastes, it also meant quiet and mellow. But it doesn’t have to be that; [1982’s] On Land is an example of ambient music that isn’t quiet and mellow, it’s sinister and quite dark. But mostly people took the quiet and mellow bit, which for me was just a stylistic aspect of it, not the philosophical aspect—they took that as being what ambient music is. So for me, a lot of the stuff that gets called ambient is a kind of an accidental offshoot of my taste.

Flattering, but limiting, perhaps.

Yes, that’s right. Of course, you don’t own an idea like that, and I don’t have any objection to whatever people do. But when I listen to things that are called ambient sometimes, I think, Oh, I see, it’s that part of the thing they’ve taken.

You’ve been working on generative music for decades now. Are there any techniques today that you see now as you did generative music 40 years ago—ideas with great potential that people are only beginning to scratch the surface of?

I don’t think it really is there yet, but I find some kind of idea of group composition very promising. I don’t really know what form it will take. But there have been some quite interesting experiments with thousands of people coordinating on the internet to make one piece of music. To me those are more interesting in theory than in practice so far; I may not have heard the best ones, I don’t know. It’s an idea that I like.

“You can’t really make apolitical art.”


I was curious about the album’s title, Reflection. You wrote a very thoughtful post on New Year’s Day about the current political moment, and I think many Americans, at least, have become more reflective since the presidential election. Did Trump’s win come as a surprise to you?

Not to me. About three months before the election, I wrote to all my American friends and said, “Trump’s going to win.” I was convinced everybody was in the state of mind we were in before Brexit. Brexit was the surprise for me. I thought, It’s going to happen again.

Does the current political moment change the kind of music you feel it’s necessary to make?

It does in a way, yes. I think that one of the interesting things that’s happened since Trump is that everybody who isn’t a Trumpist, has become what I call a “liberal conservative.” Suddenly, we realize that those old-fashioned institutions that we liberals don’t think about much—like the judiciary, the infrastructure of government—are actually worth protecting. The basis of stability in a society is in those deep structures. So we’ve all become conservatives—and liberals as well. It’s consolidated a lot of people who have buried differences they might otherwise have had. That’s a new coalition. And it’s a powerful one. In that sense, the Trumpists are much more radical than I’ve ever been. They’re Leninists, basically.

Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon even said he was a Leninist.

Fucking hell. Christ, I got him right, then. That’s so interesting. It is the idea that you remake society by smashing it up—but I think you just smash it up by doing that. There’s a lot of precedents for that, where complex societies have just fallen apart under the weight of their own complexity. It can happen! The Roman Empire is the great example of a society that was incredibly organized, well-run, and very successful, and in a generation disappeared. Really. One generation. It went from the Forum being the center of global civilization to being a place where people grazed their sheep.

And what is the impact on art? Is there a need for political music now? Is making art itself a political act?

Yes, I think it is. You can’t really make apolitical art. We started out talking about ways of composing; ways of composing are political statements. [Pulls out his pencil and points to a diagram on his laptop.] If your concept of how something comes into being goes from God, to composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub-principals, rank and file, that’s a picture of society, isn’t it? It’s a belief that things work according to that hierarchy. That’s still how traditional armies work; the church still works like that. Nothing else does, really. We’ve largely abandoned that as an idea of how human affairs work. We have more sophisticated ways of looking at things.

But to make something is to express a belief in how things belong together. To me, that’s a political statement. So I’m suggesting a funny mixture of bottom-up and top-down, which is actually what I think nature does. It’s a mixture of will and desire with an understanding of ecology—how complex things mesh together, and how much you can interfere with that. Where do you allow freedoms and where do you try to constrain results? That’s what I’m learning and practicing in doing this. It is a political statement.

News Jay Z and Hot 97 Combined Forces to Take Over Hip-Hop

Funkmaster Flex is a gifted storyteller. When asked about meeting Jay Z in the mid 1990s, the legendary Hot 97 DJ must first set the scene. “I want you to imagine Puff and Big and Bad Boy shining bright as hell, like nothing else moving,” Flex’s tale begins. “Roc-A-Fella, Dame Dash, and Jay Z were outcasts.”

At the time, Jay Z was best known for his cameo on his mentor Jaz-O’s goofy 1989 single “Hawaiian Sophie.” On most of his early records, Jay didn’t stand out lyrically and rhymed in double-time flows with an unearned confidence. Like some rap fans, Flex, who just happened to be the most influential DJ on the most influential rap radio station in the world, was unimpressed. “I had no faith in Jay Z,” he says. “I did not think he was going to be a hill of beans.”

Still, Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash hounded Flex whenever they crossed paths. “You know you’re fucking sleeping, right?” Dash would tell him. He never asked Flex for his opinion on the music. “He spoke to me like a loan shark,” Flex remembers. “It was like, ‘Bro, this is going to fucking happen—whether you’re on board is going to be your fucking choice.’”

Jay Z, of course, did happen. Within five years he was the most popular rapper in the world not named Eminem. He now has 13 No. 1 albums, the most among solo artists, and has won 21 Grammys. Dubbing him the best rapper of all time is a matter of opinion; calling him the most accomplished rapper of all time is a matter of fact. Dash was wrong about one thing though: Flex and Hot 97 ended up playing a huge part in Jay Z’s rise.

Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex was not a fan of Jay Z’s earliest recordings. “I had no faith in Jay Z,” he says. “I did not think he was going to be a hill of beans.” Photo by David Corio/Redferns.

Taken within the scope of today’s music industry, the Jay Z and Hot 97 partnership—and yes, it was a partnership—seems archaic. In an era before Twitter, Snapchat, and SoundCloud, Hot 97 acted as a one-stop shop providing similar services for Jay Z. The radio station was an ally, a safe space, a platform to break records. It was where Jay Z turned to for both promotion and to share professional dirt. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

Nowadays, the top rapper in the world, Drake, has a similar relationship with Apple Music—OVO Radio is Drake’s forum for premiering records while talking his shit. But he is aligned with Apple because Apple wrote him a check. In lieu of a bond forged on personal relationships is a merger of brands negotiated by lawyers, managers, agents, and more lawyers.

While the Apple/Drake collaboration is an avowal on the state of today’s industry, it reveals little about either faction. On the other hand, the story behind Jay Z turning Hot 97 into “Hov 97”—as enemies of both Jay and Hot 97 dubbed the station—offers a peek into the head one of hip-hop’s greatest hustlers and how he harnessed the mechanics of this era to his advantage. “We were Hov 97 for a good six years straight,” says former Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee. “Hov was very strategic with his moves.” (Jay Z’s reps did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Jay-Z maps out the future in 1996. Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Hot 97 wasn’t always Where Hip Hop Lives, as the longtime slogan boasts. In the early ’90s, WQHT New York was struggling, having recently switched from Top 40 to house and dance. More changes were ahead. Beginning in 1992, Hot 97 incorporated rap and R&B into their playlist. There was pushback from listeners—Funkmaster Flex remembers angry callers venting about “nigger music”—but the new format boosted ratings. Hot 97 went full-time hip-hop and R&B in October 1993.

It was a transitional time for mainstream New York hip-hop: Eric B. & Rakim and EPMD had split; Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane were on steep declines; Run-DMC were making Christian rap; and LL Cool J was chasing trends, parroting Das-EFX’s “diggidy iggidy” flows. With the path clear, West Coast artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Ice Cube became hip-hop’s biggest stars. The New York underground scene was fertile with talent though, and Hot 97’s latest facelift dovetailed with the emergence of gritty New York lyricists such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G., artists who’d eventually swing the pendulum back to the East Coast. Hot 97 were the gatekeepers to this scene.

Jay Z had also undergone a makeover, emerging from Jaz O’s shadow to make a name for himself rapping alongside Kane, Big L, and Mic Geronimo, transitioning to a more mainstream flow along the way. He was now also more than just a rapper, having co-founded Roc-A-Fella with Dash and Kareem Burke. But he still needed approval from the gatekeepers.

The 1994 single “In My Lifetime” was the first Jay Z record to make a dent on Hot 97, winning “Battle of the Beats,” an on-air people’s choice contest between two songs. A few weeks later, Jay and Dash visited the station to show their appreciation, presenting a bottle of Cristal to Angie Martinez, the DJ who hosted the segment. Dash then screened the “In My Lifetime” video for her in the back of a white Mercedes Benz with the Roc-A-Fella logo imprinted on the hood.

In the mid-’90s, Jay Z and Dame Dash presented Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez with the video for early single “In My Lifetime” along with a bottle of Cristal.

Though it wasn’t payola, the whole encounter—the champagne gift, the luxury accommodations—demonstrated that Jay Z and Dash were familiar with the give-and-take expected between artists and radio. “I was impressed, not just by the music or the video,” Martinez wrote in her recent memoir. “Their whole presentation was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was clear these guys were different.” (Martinez, now at Hot 97 rival Power 105, declined an interview.)

The Roc-A-Fella duo also lobbied then-Hot 97 programmer Tracy Cloherty, who remembers the time Dash and Jay came up to her one Friday night at the Palladium. “I asked [Dame] if he had a business card. He didn’t, but promised to bring me one the following week,” she writes in an email. “That Monday, we had a huge snowstorm in NYC, but Dame showed up at my office anyway to give me that card. It read ‘Damon Dash CEO Roc-A-Fella Records’ and underneath CEO, it had spelled ‘Chief Executive Officer’ just in case anyone wasn’t familiar with the title. I remember teasing him about that, but secretly I was impressed that he had trudged through a snowstorm to make good on his promise.” Cloherty says she knew Jay had the potential to be a superstar after he and Dash played her a rough cut of “Ain’t No Nigga.”

Funkmaster Flex also became a believer in early 1996 after hearing the same song. Respected NYC hip-hop DJ Big Kap spun it early one night around 11 p.m. at the Tunnel, the raucous Manhattan nightclub where Flex reigned over a scene that was vital to a rapper’s ascendance. The beat, produced by Jaz-O, sampled the Whole Darn Family’s “Seven Minutes of Funk,” one of Flex’s favorite breakbeats. On his next radio shift, Flex played it himself. “Flex broke that record,” Mister Cee says. “Jay Z was well known in Brooklyn, but when Flex broke ‘Ain’t No Nigga,’ it made Hov famous in New York City and nationally.”

After Funkmaster Flex broke “Ain’t No Nigga” on Hot 97, the song became a hit and appeared on the Nutty Professor soundtrack in 1996.

In an off-brand moment of humility, Flex downplays his role in Jay Z’s success. “He was going to go regardless, he didn’t need me,” he says. But Flex leaning on the record was vital for a song originally released as a B-side. Without Flex’s co-sign, “Ain’t No Nigga” wouldn’t have been the lead single on Def Jam’s heavily promotedNutty Professor soundtrack in the summer of ’96. Taking a chance on Jay Z was also a low-risk/high-reward move for Flex, who recognized the importance of being a tastemaker. When he debuted on Hot 97 in 1992, he championed new acts such as Black Moon, Onyx, and Jeru the Damaja, knowing that older artists belonged to the previous generation of radio DJs. Listeners would never associate them with Flex. He could never claim them.

Jay Z was a new act who also embodied what Flex loved about hip-hop: bars, hooks, hard beats, street cred. Above anything, Flex, an unapologetic capitalist who has always compared himself to one-named moguls like Russell and Puffy—and not his record-spinning peers—was impressed with Jay’s business acumen, his vision for building a name and a movement.

Flex banged “Ain’t No Nigga,” and then “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” and “Feelin’ It.” Jay Z seemed destined to fill the void of slick-rapping Brooklyn hitmaker left following the March 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G. But the momentum slowed with the disastrous singles “(Always Be My) Sunshine” and “The City Is Mine,” from Jay’s second album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1. “Trash,” is all Flex says when I mention both records.

“It’s Alright” from 1998’s Streets Is Watching brought him back on board. “Did you hear when I launched that record?” Flex asks, entering raconteur mode. Once again, the sample caught his ear; “It’s Alright” lifted the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” a new wave record from the early ’80s that was also a favorite amongst B-boys and roller skaters in the Bronx.

“Hearing Jay Z rhyme on that record was huge,” Flex says. “As a DJ, that touched my nerve—and the shit he was kicking was hard! I must’ve played that record 30 times in a row.” Top 10 hip-hop singles “Money Ain’t a Thing,” and “Can I Get A” soon followed, and once the blockbuster Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life hit, Hov 97 was born.

Funk Flex in the mid-’90s. Photo by PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images.

Hot 97 was Jay Z’s home for the six straight summers he ran rap. He was featured in the station’s ad campaigns and on-air promos, and performed at Hot 97 sponsored concerts—The Player’s Ball, Hot Night Jamaica, and, most notably, three successive Summer Jams, from 1999-2001, culminating with a legendary set that featured the debut of his Nas dis record “Takeover” and a Michael Jackson cameo.

Naturally guarded, Jay even welcomed a Hot 97 DJ into his inner circle: “As his career started to take off and I’d have him on the show regularly, we clicked as friends,” Angie Martinez wrote. He also regularly played his new albums for her upon completion. Their friendship made for good radio; Jay was at ease opposite Martinez, often betraying his inclination towards reticence. “Angie had, like, the Bat-phone to Jay,” says Hot 97’s DJ Enuff. “I don’t know if they were trying to be a team, but it was definitely a team thing.”

Jay’s bond with Funkmaster Flex was more complicated, a business relationship built on influence and favor. Flex supported Jay, of course. Jay, for his part, contributed to Flex’s albums and made appearances at the Tunnel and on Flex’s show. It was and was not a quid pro quo. “Jay and Flex used each other as tools,” says former Hot 97 DJ Cipha Sounds. “They never clicked. They weren’t friends. They just knew each other’s power.”

Flex’s nightly show was also where Jay turned when he wanted to introduce his new artists. In the early days, Roc-A-Fella had a scant roster: mixtape legend DJ Clue; a ferocious rapper from South Philadelphia named Beanie Sigel; Jay Z’s longtime protégé Memphis Bleek; and Amil, who was dropped from the label shortly after releasing her debut album in September 2000. With the label’s next wave of artists on deck—a handful of Philly MCs in Sigel’s mold—Jay needed a platform. On the morning of January 12, 2001, he called Funkmaster Flex.

Following a conversation between Flex, Jay Z, and then-Def Jam VP Mike Kyser, it was settled: Jay would appear on Flex’s show later that evening, new acts in tow. And though he wouldn’t rap, he instructed Flex to “get the beats ready.” Flex then went for a drive. A car enthusiast, the Bronx-born DJ selected his instrumentals based on which knocked in his automobile. He also braced for the evening; DJing live for artists is different from mixing on the radio. “I’ve DJ’d for artists in clubs, and, um, I’m not very good at it,” Flex admits.

The Roc’s untested squad of battle rappers—Freeway, Oschino, Sparks, and Young Chris—also prepared for a potentially career altering event. Freestyles during Flex’s nightly primetime shift reached audiences beyond Hot 97’s broadcast range. DJs often packaged the rhymes onto mixtapes and compilations, while newfound peer-to-peer file-sharing services such as Napster spread the music online. The freestyles also lived on at Hot 97—a peerless self-aggrandizer, Flex often replayed highlights from his own show.

“I was ready for it,” says Freeway, who had recently debuted on “1-900-Hustler,” a standout track from Jay Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. “I spent the entire week beforehand getting my bars together. My whole mind frame was: This is my platform, this is the first time the world is really going to hear me.”

The mood was celebratory inside Hot 97’s downtown Manhattan studios on that evening. Freeway and the future members of what would become Philly rap group State Property, along with Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek, popped bottles of Belvedere vodka, rolled Backwoods blunts, and rhymed over classic boom-bap productions (Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm,” Biggie’s “Kick in the Door,” and LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya”) for nearly an hour of gripping radio. “It was the spark to their careers,” Cipha Sounds remembers. “Everybody was wondering about these guys afterwards. Everybody wanted to hear more from them.”

Jay Z executed the hardhat duties of a hype man throughout, chuckling at the hottest lines and punctuating verses with cries of “It’s the Roc!” He then thanked Flex and Tracy Cloherty for permitting what was dubbed “The Roc-A-Fella Takeover,” a talent showcase for the label that doubled as free advertising.

“That was a little unusual for me to have a bunch of unknown rappers freestyling,” Flex says today. “I probably wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for Jay Z.” Because what was good for Jay Z was good for Hot 97—until it wasn’t.

In 2001, Hot 97 hosted “The Roc-A-Fella Takeover” featuring then-unknown artists from Jay’s label freestyling for nearly an hour.

The first strains between Jay Z and Hot 97 manifested in 2001 during the rapper’s battle with Nas. Unlike the Drake/Meek Mill beef, which, for the most part, took place on OVO Radio and social media, Hot 97 owned the moment from when Jay debuted the first verse of “Takeover” at Summer Jam 2001. Surprisingly, though, Hov 97 did not pick a side. Funkmaster Flex premiered Nas’ retort, “Ether,” on December 4—Jay Z’s birthday.

Once Jay rebutted with “Super Ugly,” the station staged a Battle of the Beats-like contest between the two records on Angie Martinez’s afternoon show. “Ether” won with approximately 60 percent of the listener vote. Martinez made the announcement as Jay arrived for a scheduled appearance, and despite the result he stuck around for an interview. He sounded dazed, almost on the verge of tears. “Me, as a guy, I listened to the last verse [of “Ether”] like, wow, like, wow, you know what I’m saying, it’s just, it’s uneasy, you know,” he said. “It’s, it’s, it’s hard, man. It’s very vulgar.” Only Angie Martinez could have scored that interview.

Hot 97 thrived on the conflict. A segment was renamed “The Takeover” in which DJ’s and listeners weighed in on the records and the beef and the insoluble question of who was the better MC. It was good content. Good for business. “Our job was to get ratings,” Cipha Sounds says. “Beef was just a way of getting more people to listen. It was all business.”

Though the tension waned throughout 2002, Nas intended to reignite the beef during his headlining slot at that year’s Summer Jam. He planned to hang a life-size animatronic doll painted to look like Jay Z—there were gallows and everything. When the station refused to allow it, Nas walked. Was Hot 97 finally siding with Jay Z? Did their shared history factor into foiling Nas’ plans? “I don’t think so,” says Mister Cee. “It had to do with Nas bringing that apparatus onstage, that was the concern from the station.”

The fallout was brisk: Nas appeared that evening on rival Power 105, where he dissed Flex, Martinez, and, naturally, accused Hot 97 of favoritism. “You gonna tell Nas, me, myself, what I cannot do on a Summer Jam stage when it’s been done—the same acts have been done?” he said, referring to Jay’s disses from the previous year. “Then I dropped the ‘Ether’ napalm bomb, and their whole crew was running like roaches. And now you got that station over there crying because he lost.”

When Jay appeared on the Angie Martinez show later that summer he had just returned from a European vacation with his new girlfriend, Beyoncé. Known as the “Hovi’s Home” interview, Jay shouted the phrase throughout the interview. He knows a good double entendre when he sees it.

The relationship between Hot 97 and Jay Z has grown distant in recent years. Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Through the years, as Jay Z transcended rap and elevated to a different stratosphere of celebrity, his appearances on Hot 97 grew fewer and further between. The Angie Martinez interviews started to resemble state of the union addresses. But even as he became alleged text buddies with President Obama, Jay Z still delivered exclusives to Flex. “I made this just for Flex and Mister Cee,” Jay rapped on the 2009 single “D.O.A.” which Flex premiered. “This is for Hot 9-7.”

Off the mic, Jay was also helping out Mister Cee, who he has known since the late ’80s. In 2011, when Cee was arrested for public lewdness after being caught receiving oral sex from a male prostitute, the backlash against him within the industry was swift and harsh. “My financial situation was kind of messed up,” Cee tells me. “I thought: Who could I turn to for some immediate financial help?” He called Jay Z. “I told him I needed some help getting sorted out because a lot of dates are getting cancelled and I got bills to be paid. I never told him how much money I wanted.” Jay told Cee to meet up with his driver, who gave the DJ $5,000 cash. “That’s Jay Z,” says Cee, who left Hot 97 in 2014. “I’m sure if I was in trouble now or if I needed guidance or assistance, he’d pick up the phone.”

In recent years, the relationship between Jay and Hot 97 has withered. Martinez left the station for Power 105 in June 2014, and at this point Hot 97 is regularly beaten by its rival in the ratings game. In January 2015, Flex went on a long rant on his radio show accusing Jay Z of stealing app ideas from him—rap beef in the digital age has come a long way from “That’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.”

“I don’t think there is a relationship,” Flex tells me. “He’s not happy with me because I’ve voiced my opinion on him. The music business is built on phoniness, lies, and how can I control you by making you believe that I’m really a supporter of yours. I learned that I’d rather not sell my soul.”

Flex, who has grown more untethered with age, is also feuding with Drake after accusing the Toronto rapper of not writing his own raps. He seems untroubled by the rift. “I don’t know if Drake is a Hot 97 artist anymore,” Flex says. “Tell me the real difference between Drake and Justin Bieber. Think about it. There’s not really a complete difference, except one artist maybe has more bars—which he possibly doesn’t write.”

Drake hasn’t reconciled with Flex. He doesn’t need to. He has Apple Music. Jay Z might not have much use for Hot 97 either since purchasing the music streaming service Tidal in March 2015. In fact, he hasn’t appeared on the station since an interview with Martinez in 2013. He ghosted on them, as Jay Z sometimes does—ask Jaz-O or Dame Dash.

Next album cycle—and there will be a next album, eventually—how will Hot 97 fit into Jay Z’s promotional rounds? Martinez, his favorite interlocutor, is across the dial. Funk Flex recently called him “a commercial, corporate rapper.” With Tidal reportedly bleeding heavy losses, why would Jay funnel exclusives to Hot 97 and not to his own flagging company?

The answer could be complicated by the fact that Jay still tunes into Hot 97. He was certainly listening on the July morning this past summer when, on the “Ebro in the Morning” show, co-host Peter Rosenberg confronted a caller, a police officer, after the death of Alton Sterling, a black man shot and killed by police in Louisiana. “He emailed Ebro afterwards and told him to give me props,” Rosenberg says. “It’s nice to know that he still hears us as a voice that matters.”

Jay Som’s will Hard-Working Dream-Pop

“My heart is beating so fast,” Melina Duterte spurts out. “We just had a connection. Did you see that?”

It’s a Friday afternoon in West Oakland, and I am sitting at a plastic children’s table-and-chair set with Duterte. We’re at the Cat Town Cafe, where felines up for adoption preen in hammocks and roam among a scaled Oakland Tribune Tower and a miniature “Tacos for Los Gatos” truck. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge depicts a looming Catzilla. Our mission: to drink coffee and chill with the cats. That secret locked-eyes moment, then, was with a slightly tentative, black-and-white domestic shorthair named Huck.

Duterte is a noted animal lover with a tattoo of her childhood dog Yung Yung on her arm. She once named a pet guppy fish after Jónsi, from Sigur Rós. An especially brisk cut from her sparkling upcoming album is admirably titled “1 Billion Dogs.” The Cat Town Cafe is one of Duterte’s favorite places in the city, where she recently relocated after a year in San Francisco. (She grew up in the nearby East Bay suburb of Brentwood.)

Idyllic as the picture of cats and coffee may be—one of Duterte’s favorite bands, Broadcast, is even gliding out from the cafe’s stereo—things were not always this way for the 22-year-old, who records music as Jay Som. She has risen in the past year on the effort of 2015’sTurn Into, a self-released collection of impressively architected dream-pop, as well as the narcotic big-screen-beckoning torch-song “I Think You’re Alright.” But success only came after what Duterte calls a “dark period” of grueling overwork and perilous self-doubt. She funneled her emotions through Turn Into, though, and its title proved prophetic. It was eventually put out on tape via emo-oriented label Topshelf before indie stalwart Polyvinyl released it late last year.

At times, Duterte’s low, hushed voice and precise arrangements make Everybody Works sound like an alternate-dimension Lorde record. Texturing her songs with keys, trumpet, and even accordion, Duterte collages her interests: vivid guitar rock, spectral 4AD dreamscapes, orchestral confessionals. Most beguilingly, the album is anchored by a wondrous pair of slinky funk jams, “One More Time, Please” and “BayBee.” “All of my songs are so different, but you know it’s me,” she says. “I just don’t like staying in one place at all.”

A bespoke pop sensibility shines, and her sharp lyrics make quotidian moments gleam. “The Bus Song” captures the free sense of anonymity that only cities allow. “I feel like everyone is very self-conscious of their image,” Duterte says. “But in the city you can have your own persona. No one is going to judge you.” As she curls the album’s opening lyric into a poetic phrasing—“I like the way your lipstick stains/The corner of my smile”—it has a subtle power. When I mention these lines, she succinctly says: “I’m not afraid to sing about women.”

Duterte lives on a residential street in a charming mustard-yellow and mint-green house, in a neighborhood that she says is full of DIY spaces: punk houses, warehouses, “opened abandoned places.” Thetragic fire that killed 36 at Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse just a few weeks prior is still on the minds of all—one nearby cafe placed a memorial of amethyst and flower petals at its register—but a pluralistic sense of community has persevered. “I’m very, very proud to be a part of the Bay Area music scene right now,” Duterte says.

Like Turn Into, Duterte recorded and produced Everybody Works in her bedroom—but where her first collection bears the unvarnished edges of a home-recording, it’s astonishing to learn the sleek new record was made the same way. It’s patently 3D. In her room, black soundproofing foam covers each wall; Wild Nothing plays from her computer; a poster hangs for a sold out Chicago date of the Mitski tour. The room is strewn with six guitars, endless pedals, and a drum set that consumes most of its space. Outside, there’s a persistently out-of-tune piano. “I kind of like shitty pianos,” she notes.

Duterte’s outward inclination is towards simple things. She drives me around in her PT Cruiser. She is dressed in humble blue flannel and black jeans. She calls herself a “homebody and a couch potato.” “Melina is incredibly easygoing,” Mitski tells me. “Not in the ‘chill’ and somewhat oblivious way people are when they’re described as easygoing, but in that she seemed to take things as they come and remain pleasant to everyone around her in situations that would have stressed me out.”

But in the car, Duterte spiritedly sings along to two beloved records:Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION and Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe. “E•MO•TION is one of my favorite albums,” Duterte says with a tinge of glee, and Carly left a discernible mark on the funk songs at the core of Everybody Works. She describes, too, her deep admiration of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, in his transformation from Saddle Creek emo as Lightspeed Champion into a legitimate pop force. You get the sense that Duterte’s ideas are only beginning to manifest.

Your first record is called Turn Into; what did you turn into?

It’s mostly about wanting to turn into something, wanting to change, to be a better person. A version of myself that I’m happy or content with. It’s a very sad album for me. [laughs] I was in a very dark place during that time, very angry at the world.


I was in school and working full-time; I worked in food for four years, in delis and cafes around the Bay Area. I did community college for two years, and music was just a hobby. I was at this weird point in my life where I was like, “Why am I doing this music thing? I love it, but it’s not financially viable for me.” I was having some family problems, too. I felt like I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing. Because if you’re an artist, you’re kind of looked down upon by regular people. You’re looked at as lazy, like it’s not a real job, which is unfortunate. I had people telling me: “You need to go to college and study business or become a nurse, you can’t do this for the rest of your life.” That made me very disappointed within myself. It was a very confusing time.

This makes me think of your new album’s title, Everybody Works.

“Everybody Works” is literally about that. Everybody has their own set of goals they’re trying to achieve. Everybody works mentally, at their jobs, to be better. It’s this weird mantra I always think about. For me personally, the album is definitely about finding some peace within yourself, in the stages of adult life where you have to settle and find what is right for you.


Who is an artist that’s changed the way you think about music?

Phil Elverum from the Microphones. The Glow Pt. 2 was the first record I heard that was totally different from the music I was listening to in middle school. The Microphones was just weird music, very raw, it seemed unfinished. It’s soul-crushing, it’s so fucking sad, and I just didn’t know that you could make that kind of music.

Listening to the Microphones, it’s like you’re stepping into Phil Elverum’s world. Your record is also atmospheric in that way.

That’s what I want. His lyrics are really weird, too. Sometimes they don’t make sense. That inspired me to be as vague or as blunt as I want. I saw Phil Elverum play at a place here that shut down, the LoBot Gallery—he was touring at the time in his truck by himself and I was high out of my mind like, “Oh my god, that’s Phil Elverum.” I also saw his band Mount Eerie at the Chapel in SF and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. I actually cried.

I read that you were super into jazz and playing jazz trumpet in high school. When did you start playing trumpet? How did that influence the way you think about music?

It was fifth grade. My teacher brought a bunch of instruments into class, and when he played the trumpet, I was like, “That’s the one!” It’s loud, brassy—it’s just a confident kind of instrument that I really identified with. Also, none of the girls played it, so I wanted to be different, too, in a sense.

The trumpet takes discipline. I did it for about nine years, and I was studying music theory. My senior year, I was the section leader—I was first chair. I was doing honors band, a musical, and also stuff for a church. I was always playing, always surrounded by different musicians, always listening to trumpet players. I was very immersed with this instrument. I read about all the intricacies of it. It was my number one thing for those nine years.

It’s weird, but I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. Sometimes I feel like I play my guitar like it’s a trumpet. What I love about jazz is—it’s not like you’re just playing this instrument, there’s more to it. It’s so complex. It’s very attuned to your emotions and what you’re feeling in that moment.

You also play accordion on the album—how did that come about?

It’s actually my dad’s old-ass Italian accordion from the ’70s. It was in our storage thing outside and it was all dusty and gross. I started playing that back in 2008. I tried to make it sound like a violin, like an orchestra.

I read that you and your parents would do karaoke in the living room when you were growing up—why do you think your parents were attracted to karaoke?

I know everyone does karaoke, but it’s kind of a Filipino thing—my parents were both born in the Philippines. Go into any Filipino person’s house and their parents probably have a karaoke machine. My mom taught me how to sing. My dad was a DJ in the ’70s and ’80s, too—like really cheesy-ass disco. In the pictures he has an afro. I still have the tapes of all the mixes he did. He just had a lot of records around the house and would play them.

Did any of them make a big impression on you as a kid?

Yeah. The first genre of music I fell in love with was funk, like R&B. I was surrounded by that all the time. I was always listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey.

You can hear that influence pretty clearly on “One More Time, Please.”

I wanted that song to sound like Steely Dan. I love Steely Dan.

Do you feel like karaoke influenced the way you sing?

It has, now that I think about it. With karaoke, some people sing really dramatically. I got used to that type of singing because my mom’s a dramatic singer. She kind of yodels. But I learned how to tone that down throughout the years, from listening to my favorite singers—like the singers from Yo La Tengo, very low-key, and also when I started listening to My Bloody Valentine. I learned that I like to sing in a very quiet, boring manner. That’s, like, my thing.

I actually thought of Lorde’s voice, maybe because it’s low, the first time I heard your new album—I’m not sure if you’re into her.

She’s amazing. I love pop music. I don’t know if you’ve heard about my love for Carly Rae Jepsen.

What’s your favorite Carly Rae song?

“Boy Problems.” She’s so underrated. She’s just a great pop star. A lot of the sounds on my album are influenced by her music—I’m not ashamed to admit that.

It’s cool to hear you talk about both Phil Elverum and Carly Rae.

I love hip-hop, too. I love watching interviews with Tupac. He’s very eloquent and he’s respectful.

With your singing, sometimes it feels like you’re telling someone a secret. You have lyrics like “Our pinky promises/Were never meant for this” on “Remain,” and you sing “Are secrets still a thing?” on “The Bus Song.” Is that all intentional?

It is very intentional. I like my singing to be intimate, like I’m right there with you. I like doing that live, too. I just sing quiet. A lot of this work—I’m solo. At it’s core, it’s all about the comfort in solitude. Sometimes with my work, I’m very private about it. Sometimes I feel like: “I don’t have to share this song.” It’s about taking that courageous next step to show people how you can be vulnerable and show that you’re human, in a sense. Sharing art, it’s not for everyone. I’m still working on that.