Hudson Mohawke: hands on the wheel
In the early stages of his promotional campaign, Hudson Mohawke uploads a YouTube playlist of stuff that’s inspired his forthcoming album Lantern. It’s a fairly standard move, probably suggested by his publicist with the hope of generating a couple of online music news articles. The content compiled, however, is not so ordinary.
Musically, he’s picked out soulful hip-hop instrumentals, a track from the deeply unfashionable 80s new age group Shadowfax and Kenji Kawai’s opening theme from the anime film Ghost in the Shell, while the footage compiled includes clips of a speech from chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov being interrupted by a penis-shaped mini helicopter, Akon hauling a fan up on his shoulders before throwing him off a stage, clubbers going wild to Fleetwood Mac at the final Optimo clubnight in Glasgow and a crowd of sweaty, shirtless young men embracing a moment of pure ecstasy during a colossal drop at a hardcore rave. It’s completely ridiculous, but it all makes sense.
Hudson Mohawke – real name Ross Birchard – has always embraced absurdity. Despite receiving critical acclaim, his music tends to ignore any preconceptions about what said critics would normally have considered ‘credible’ in the first place, and despite the increasingly high stakes of his professional relationships, Birchard’s online presence eschews slick PR for his surreal, no-holds- barred sense of humour. On the afternoon I interview the 29-year-old Glaswegian in an empty East London pub, however, he comes across as polite, down-to-earth maybe even slightly shy. Not displaying a trace of the ego that his success probably warrants, the bartender looks us up and down and scowls when I ask if she can turn down the music a little while we record our interview.
At this point in his career, Birchard has found himself at a unique crossroads. Last December saw the release of The Rap Monument, a 42-minute posse cut which saw the likes of YG, Danny Brown, Young Thug, Raekwon, Action Bronson and many more spit verses over his hard-hitting, futuristic beat. And a few days prior to our interview, it’s announced that Birchard has co-produced Antony Hegarty’s forthcoming album HOPELESSNESS with Daniel Lopatin, aka avant-garde producer Oneohtrix Point Never.
News of Birchard’s collaboration with Lopatin broke last year via pictures of the pair in the studio sharing a packet of Haribo (Birchard is famously enthusiastic about the confectionary, and is known to collect rare editions on his travels). It’s been revealed that the HOPELESSNESS project is an electronic record with “sharp teeth” that sees Hegarty’s lyrics explore dark political themes such as the increasingly omnipotent presence of NSA surveillance. “It’s been a very collaborative record,” Birchard says. “It was very much an equal thing between the three of us.”
It’s testament to the strength of Hudson Mohawke’s vision that he’s found himself invoicing the teams of both rap royalty and cultivated baroque pop songwriters for his production work. “The funny thing is, I’d actually been trying to work with Antony for years, the same deal with Kanye in fact,” he explains. “In both circumstances they’ve ended up coming to me, like ‘Let’s cut the managers out of the equation, let’s be in direct contact, fuck the A&Rs. Let’s work on a project together as if it’s nothing, as if we’re just doing it for fun, not thinking of the impact that a collaborative record like this could have.’”
In June, Birchard will release Lantern – his first full-length album since 2009’s Butter – via Warp. While Lantern includes signature elements of Hudson Mohawke’s style – thunderous drums, slippery chipmunk vocals and synths that feel like the aural equivalent to an additive-laced soft drink – the album largely ditches Birchard’s recent forays into rap machismo for a sincere, bright sense of (p)optimism, and the collaborations with RnB vocalists such as Miguel, Ruckazoid and Irfane wouldn’t sound too out of place on mainstream radio. It’s going to surprise people.
Listening back to Butter, it becomes clear that Birchard has chosen to apply restraint to his method. Butter was a genre-melting, BPM-darting, hyperactive headfuck that was lauded for its deliciously indulgent sound palette and striking originality, but criticised for the fact that listening to it in one sitting could leave you with the strange sensation of musical motion sickness. “I have a thousand songs that are the most confusing, technical shit ever,” Birchard admits. “What I wanted to do with [Lantern] was to consciously make an effort to strip it back. That’s something I learnt from Rick Rubin. We’d listen to a song, and he’s not even touching any equipment. He’s just sitting back and listening, being like ‘get rid of this, get rid of that’”, he says, impersonating the wizard-like super producer. “And before you know it, a 20-part song is a 5-part song, it’s just the essentials. I tried to incorporate what I learnt from him with this record. Which is why it isn’t quite as fucking all over the place as the Butter record.”
“I’m still Into happy hardcore, I’ve always strived for that euphoria”
As has been incessantly documented, Birchard hooked up with Rick Rubin once he’d been recruited for the now-mythologised Yeezus sessions. Perhaps to a US audience not so familiar with Hudson Mohawke, it may seem like he’d been catapulted to the upper echelons from relative obscurity, but really the story of this softly-spoken Glaswegian kid producing for the likes of Kanye West, Pusha T and Drake is no fluke. With a passion for scratching and beat-juggling since his early teens, under the moniker ‘DJ Itchy’ Birchard became the youngest finalist in the UK DMC turntablist tournaments at the age of 15, and rap producers such as Just Blaze, Pete Rock and DJ Premier were formative influences before the broken beats of Prefuse 73 and Dimlite later inspired him to deconstruct the hip-hop template. “I remember when DJ Premier came to Glasgow,” he recalls with a smirk. “The two DJs who ran the night were like die-hard collectors of old, souped-up Ford Capris. And they were like ‘Right [claps hands] we’re taking Premier out to do some donuts’. He was in the tiny backseat of my friend’s car and he managed to break the suspension,” he laughs. “They almost killed DJ Premier.”
Although the influences of classic sample-based hip-hop have given way to more contemporary strands of – for lack of a more specific term – ‘trap’ beats in recent Hudson Mohawke productions, Birchard insists that the garish, intense euphoria of happy hardcore remains a major inspiration to him right up to the present day. “That’s my teens personified, and that’s what I’ve always aimed for,” he says with a great deal of affection. “I’m still into all that stuff. I went to a happy hardcore party in Whitechapel last Friday. Normally if I want to go to one of those shows, I have to go to a shitey place somewhere in the north of England. Not that I’m going to name any shitey places.” Birchard is known to play hardcore and trance edits in his DJ sets, removing the 4×4 kick and replacing them with his own signature drum patterns. As a gesture of respect, he enlisted hardcore and trance legends Gammer and Darren Styles to collaborate with him on Lantern. “It came full circle because they started covering some of my stuff,” he smiles. “So I was like ‘fuck it, we might as well do something together.’”
“I take pride in holdIng a crowd wIth a five minute ambient track, which you can’t get away with when there’s a huge fucking moshpit at a TNGHT show”
While the inclusion of Gammer and Styles might make sense musically, and the likes of Miguel, Antony Hegarty and Jhene Aiko make for an eye-catching tracklist, Lantern is strangely free of big name rap collaborations considering that Birchard has gone from regularly retweeting a Rick Ross parody account to actually befriending Rick Ross (“I have multiple stories about my encounters with Rick,” he grins, “but they’re not suitable for, erm, public consumption”).
But even the biggest hip-hop producer has to be content with a behind-the-scenes role, and Birchard claims he’s had to turn down some big offers to steer his career in the right direction. “Essentially, these producers – and no disrespect to them – but their ultimate goal is to work with these artists, they don’t really have the ambition to be solo artists in their own right,” he tells me. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be a big hip-hop producer. But having had a little taste of it, it’s like the rap and hip-hop world is…” he pauses for a moment, choosing his words cautiously, “it’s not really as big as it seems from a UK perspective, and from me growing up listening to all that, thinking this is the absolute pinnacle of what you can achieve. Obviously there’s a lot of money in it, but it’s not quite as wide-reaching as you might be led to believe.” And in an industry where a culture of braggadocio is a central part of image maintenance, Birchard explains that it’s not always been easy to say no. “There have been times when I’ve been like ‘I’m sort of in the middle of something right now, I’m really sorry but I can’t just go to the airport and fly to Jamaica,’” he laughs. “There’s a great deal of ego involved in the rap and hip-hop world, so that can become a problem, because people can take that as if you’re disrespecting them.”
This isn’t the only example of Birchard having to make difficult decisions. In 2011, he teamed up with Montreal-based LuckyMe labelmate Lunice to form TNGHT, a project which saw the duo blend musical styles to create trippy but club-ready bangers that were “too obvious or too mainstream” for their own solo projects. TNGHT’s 2012 EP spawned the hit Higher Ground, which, though brilliant, due to its high-octane aggression, could slip seamlessly into a frat boy’s Friday night playlist. Seemingly at the height of their demand, TNGHT announced a hiatus. “It was great fun at the time. But we found ourselves in a situation, I guess in the summer of 2012, where it felt like almost every show we did was a bigger show, bumped up to a bigger level, but at the expense of diversity in the crowd. In my own sets, I’ve always taken pride in being able to hold a crowd with a five minute ambient track or something, which is not something you get away with when there’s a huge fucking moshpit at a TNGHT show.”
TNGHT’s rapid and meteoric rise coincided with the Yeezus sessions. Couple this with Birchard’s frequent Hudson Mohawke appearances at dance-orientated festivals (he’s remained closely affiliated with Glasgow’s Numbers label) and his apparently hedonistic appetite, then you’ve got a pretty intense schedule. Too intense, Birchard admits. “The problem was something I mentioned earlier. A lot of the producers that are involved with those rap records are willing to be like ‘yeah I’ll be there tomorrow, and I’ll just write off the next three months and I’ll be at management’s mercy!” Whereas I’d be in like Hawaii for five days of the week, and then go and travel and do three European festivals and then fly immediately back to Hawaii. I hadn’t experienced anything like that, and it was kind of overwhelming. You can’t be doing that for a good few months. It does take its toll on you.”
On more than one occasion, Birchard has referred to a particularly intense incident where – in his own words – he nearly joined the ’27 Club’. So did he push himself to the brink? “No, I don’t think it was that bad. I mean there was a lot of partying going on and a lot of … unmentionables. But I don’t think I was ever at the point of ‘the brink’,” he says, chuckling slightly at my melodramatic choice of words. “I’m glad that now, with this record, I’ve had the luxury of saying to people who’re doing features: ‘You guys come to me. I’m making a record, and I’d like you to be involved if you can make it out here.’”
As the pub starts to fill up, we decide to finish our drinks and wrap up the interview. Birchard is worried that we didn’t talk about Lantern enough, but he agrees that it was good to cover some old ground – a lot of his newer fans aren’t aware of his backstory. Later that evening, Kanye West appears onstage at the BRIT awards with a transatlantic, flamethrower-wielding entourage to premiere his new single All Day. The performance is considered an instant classic, sending the internet into a manic frenzy, but the track still needs mastering before its release. Birchard agrees to let Ye use his studio the Health Farm, or as he calls it, ‘HudMo Heights’, to polish off the track, and during the sessions Kanye decides to announce to his 11 million Twitter followers that his new album will be called So Help Me God. Once again, the name Hudson Mohawke appears as a footnote to a globally trending cultural event. And while this isn’t Birchard’s main priority – he’s got his own shit going on – it proves he’ll still lend a friend a hand, as long as you can make it out there to meet him.