A liminal, shamanic figure, Gonjasufi’s world is one of stark honesty and limitlessvision
You think the voice of Sumach Valentine, known as Gonjasufi, is a throaty, husky mumble on record? You should hear him at ten in the morning. “What up?” he splutters, utterly amiable if slightly put out. A bit early? “Early as fuck”, comes the croak in reply.
While he struggles to find his voice early in our conversation, it’s not long before the man’s enthusiastic, fiery personality begins to shine through. While nothing but a gentleman, it’s clear that the San Diegan has an almost intimidating level of passion simmering below those creaking tones, constantly on the verge of bursting forth. It’s a passion, a frankness and an honesty which permeates his latest release, the droney, fuzzy, dusty gem MU.ZZ.LE.
Described as a mini-album, the label is clearly something Sumach feels reluctant to embrace. “They call it a mini-album” he mumbles, “but whatever, it’s ten songs.” As tenuous a matter as length may seem, there is something striking about his ability to express himself in a short period of time, with most of the ten songs falling shy of the three minute mark. To create something as evocative as the psychadelic Feedin’ Birds, or as troubling and intense as closer Sniffin’ in under two minutes is no mean feat, let alone creating a complete musical journey in the space of just over 20 minutes. Yet it’s something Gonjasufi treats as the challenge, “of saying more with less.”
His 2010 debut, A Sufi And A Killer, came as a bolt from the blue, Warp immediately lauded for unleashing such an uniquely striking voice and creative spirit. At the forefront of much of the hype around the album came high-profile collaborations with such esteemed names as Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer. Yet for MU.ZZ.LE, Sufi went it alone. Again, it’s seen as something of a statement. “It’s just showing the world my production, the MPC side of me. With GLK and FlyLo, they’re on the road so much these last two years I haven’t had much time to sit down and get rooted and collaborate.” In fact, one of the few outside contributions to the album comes through the voice of Sumach’s wife.
As he expands, it becomes clear rather than MU.ZZ.LE being an exception in its solo nature, it was in fact his debut that represented a change in method. “I’ve been putting out records since the early 90s of just my production. A Sufi And A Killer was the first record that I had someone else in to produce.” But is there a danger of collaborations overshadowing the contribution of the artist himself? He is quick to emphasise a sense of ownership over the album’s content. “Everyone seems to think that GLK and FlyLo produced that first record, but I feel like I produced that record. I spent more time on it than anyone. I mean, the energy and time I put into that record …” So does it bother him that the credit has been diluted somewhat? “No, not at all. They deserve that shit. When I work with heads, I give them their credit man. That’s how it is.”
Despite the organic sound present for much of his latest offering, the majority of the work was put together using samples and Sumach’s skills on the MPC. “Most of it’s just chopped: chopped drums, chopped guitar. I brought in a bass player and a keys player and chopped up old breaks and samples and looped some things, distorted some shit. Not trying to outdo shit, just staying basic, old boom bap style.” Boom bap, used by Gonjasufi as a stylistic term to replace what he sees as the outdated ‘hip-hop’, occurs time and time again.
At points MU.ZZ.LE becomes intensely personal, perhaps a symptom of being locked away for so long with just himself for company. The Blame, for example, is an extremely confessional song, featuring vulnerable lyrics such as “I’ve done some things in my time / Even I’m ashamed of me.” From a man never wary of confronting his own mortality, weaknesses and failings in the most stark of terms, it still seems a difficult statement to make. “You know what, it’s difficult to listen to”, he offers. “Recording that shit is easy, it’s just one on one. When I’m recording no one else exists, it’s just me and I’m in the zone. It’s me and God going back and forth. But when you listen back to it, it becomes difficult. I can’t listen to that song now. Telling the truth is easy to me, it’s listening back that’s the hard shit.”
This idea of challenging the listener applies strongly to the album’s aforementioned closer, Sniffin’. A song clearly heavy in terms of thematic content, it quickly degenerates into being physically difficult to listen to, peaking and horrifically distorted. It’s more than enough to send your headphones tumbling to the floor. “Well, shit man, Sniffin’ is an honest song. It’s a song about someone close to me sniffin’ heroin and shit, and me going at them about that but then I found myself sniffin’ too much cocaine and I end up on the same shit. It’s just about being honest and not worrying what the world thinks about me and just dealing with myself. As far as it hurting with the sound, that’s what I like, man. I like it when it’s crunchy and sharp enough to make people’s face clench a little, but then they learn to love it and turn it up a little bit more.”
Sumach has never hidden the influence of substances on his music, and indeed his life as a whole. In terms of nurturing a creative spawning ground for his hazy, psychadelic visions, the impact of weed and mushrooms is considerable, verging on essential. Yet the practicalities, particularly when recording alone, of capturing that on tape seems almost unfeasible. “For me, it’s yoga” is his immediate answer. “Yoga keeps me grounded. I say it a lot, but it’s easy to learn how to fly, but to get back to the ground ain’t so easy and that’s what yoga does for me. That’s balance.” The place of yoga in his life has been well publicised, working as a yoga teacher when time allows it, and stating repeatedly that without it his tendency towards self- destructive, and even violent behaviour, may have become the definitive factor in his life. That place is now firmly taken up by family, music and yoga, the latter of which he describes as “more important than anything else, more important than the music itself ”. While he’s firm in what he believes, he’s reluctant to generalise his religious or spiritual beliefs. “I’m as much a Jew as I am a Muslim” he states, the only label he’s prepared to adhere to being the simple yet profound adage, “keep a straight back and an open heart.”
This aversion to definition looms large throughout Gonjasufi’s output. There’s simply no name for what he does. In a previous interview when quizzed on collaborations he may be keen to partake in, names as diverse as Bristol gods Massive Attack and Seattle fuzz punk fuck-ups The Spits were mooted. And indeed, there has always been a relation to lo-fi garage rock within the Gonjasufi sound, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious as on SuzieQ, a bass-led stomper from his debut. That aesthetic is key to his ethos. “There’s something about garage rock shit; that lo-fi four-track tape hiss and distortion. The feel of the room it was recorded in. There’s so much digital fuckin’ bullshit coming out that there’s no warmth or feeling in anything any more, everything just feels synthetic. I’m into tapes man, I have piles of four-track tapes lying around.”
When it’s suggested if you showed some listeners one of his more garage-based or droney/psychadelic moments and told them ‘this guy makes hip-hop beats, and always has done’, they’d find it difficult to accept, Valentine takes it more as an attempt to address the dilution of the phrase. “Well hip-hop, boom-bap, whatever, that shit was what it was; it was heads like me not having a band but taking records and creating their own band. I don’t like the word hip-hop cause it’s been so bastardised: boom bap, that’s what this record is, that’s what A Sufi And A Killer is: that’s approaching the beats like I’m rapping but somehow switching my cadence and wailing on that shit. I mean, what hip-hop is coming out today? What is hip-hop, Rick Ross and shit? Please.”
When it’s put to him that in terms of ‘rap’ music, artists such as Shabazz Palaces have released incredibly high quality music in recent times, he softens dramatically. “Oh yeah, Ish (Butler, Shabazz Palaces mainman) – that’s my motherfucker. That’s my cousin! Ish is a genius, straight up. Every record he’s put out, his career, his sound … look at him, man! He looks young as fuck, still. He has this aura around him of youth because he’s stayed true to his shit and he’s carved his niche in everything he’s done. He’s inspired me from the get up.” Indeed, last year when Crack spoke to Ish he seemed similarly keen to distance himself from the term ‘hip-hop’, though we had no idea that he and Sumach were cousins. “Yeah man”, we’re told, “he and I used to live together back in like ’98/‘99.”
When elaborating about music that has inspired him, Sumach shows a clear tendency towards the UK. Perhaps it’s the graininess of so much output from urban Britain which appeals, but there’s certainly a case of geographical empathy at play. “I grew up listening to Tricky a lot; Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, Radiohead. That shit just took a hold of me. There wasn’t much shit coming out from the West but all that music right there, I feel like it was a city full of gloom and these are cats trying to find the sun.”
The way in which this is immediately associated with a sense of place rings true with Gonjasufi’s own music. When faced with the sometimes harsh, sometimes far-reaching and atmospheric film of dusty crackle which coats each tune, one cannot help but join him right there in the room in the desert which birthed MU.ZZ.LE. “I think it just comes through”, he explains, “it’s not like ‘I want motherfuckers to feel the desert. It’s more just me being in that room, hot as fuck, and you can feel me saying ‘I’m sick of it being 120° for four months straight’, y’know. That just comes through in the song”. He immediately pulls it back to his experience of British music. “It’s the same shit as me saying that listening to music over here I can hear that gloom and people reaching for the sun. Whatever internal shit that’s going on with musicians, the key for us is to be honest and open and to catch that shit on recording.”
And perhaps that’s as clear an illustration of Gonjasufi as we can ever really achieve; of simple, effortless and pure honesty. Of “not worrying what the world thinks about me and me just dealing with myself ”. And the man that we are presented with is one of opposites; of the unbearable heat and loneliness of the desert, but just as much of the intensity and aggression of urban life; of technical, forward thinking beats, but equally of lo-fi guitar fuzz; and of a man who in the blink of an eye can switch from shamanic whisper to feral scream. Gonjasufi creates his own world where you have no idea where he’s heading next, and it’s this which makes his music such a disarming, mysterious and ultimately intriguing thing.
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MU.ZZ.LE is out now on Warp Records
Words: Geraint Davies