In Conversation with King Britt

Photo: Colin Kerrigan

Photo: Colin Kerrigan

SF: What was one of the first musical experiences that touched you?

There are so many, but the one that helped shift my perspective was seeing The Art of Noise at Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia.  I had been a huge fan of theirs and Trevor Horn, who was responsible for all my fave 80s bands, including ABC (whom I had the honor of working with), Propaganda, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and YES.  They came to Philly for a rare tour of all the members plus Dwane Eddy on guitar. Hardly anyone at the show but it absolutely floored me to see the Fairlight and Synclavier on stage next to a grand piano with Anne Dudley, one of my favorite composers.  They did “Moments in Love” full version! I was with my dad too, which made it that much sweeter.  

SF: Who are your creative influences or what have been your most influential or impactful collaborations?

There are too many influences to name just one but I can do maybe top three.  Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock and Larry Heard. As far as collaborations, all of them are special but top three, Alison Moyet, Martin Fry from ABC and Kathy Sledge.

SF: What does your compositional process look like? What are the main challenges of composing music for you? What are the parts that feel easy, if any?

The process is in constant change.  I like to keep it fresh, so I can keep learning new ways of getting places. I recently did a sample pack for Splice, which explores various ‘systems’ within my studio. I am a huge fan of IG (Synthdactyl Program is my fave curator of artists) and Youtube, so I have been learning so many exciting things just with things I already have. So, I pick a system as the basis for the experiment and then go from there.  This also tends to define the sound for whatever the project turns out to be. At the moment, Moksha Black project is my fave unexpected project that is now turning into an album! Just having fun originally taking it sonically elsewhere and winding up with a nice dirty field recording esqu sound.  If it is a specific project, like how I’m producing and writing two songs for Moor Mother’s new album, I have a direction of where I want to go before hand. She is so open and free that it is easier than say Jill Scott (whom I am also working with), because she has a certain aesthetic that allows for some boundary pushing but is rooted in R&B. As far as easy vs hard, it’s all fun.  I don’t look at it like that!

SF: Can you talk more about how you pick systems as the basis for experiments?  What sorts of constraints do you set for yourself?  What sorts of freedoms do you give yourself within a system?

Well, I look around the studio and see what haven’t I used together. Like, what results will happen with Roland System500, running through the Moog Sonic Six into an amp. My favorite thing is the iPad. What apps can I use together to get weird results? Like FieldScaper into Borderlands into SpaceCraft. When I’m on airplanes this is like my savior. I try to stay with the number 3 in regard to items used. 

SF: When and why did you start to use different aliases? How do you conceptualize the difference between your aliases? Do you have a favorite alias?

Photo: King Britt

Photo: King Britt

Ah yes, the blessing and curse of loving many genres.  It’s all King Britt but due to the way the music business is structured sometimes, it’s hard to do it all under one name (although times are changing in this regard, Four Tet is a fine example).  I use them for marketing purposes and the names come last, after projects are done usually. Like what does the sound conjure up in terms of names. My old alias Scuba (which this other guy uses now) which I started in 1994, was my favorite. Aquatic house music ...immersive.  But now Fhloston Paradigm is my baby. My sci-fi adventures. No limits (except people misspell it all the time, thus cant find the pages).

SF: How has the process of making music changed for you over the years?

Process wise it’s gotten insanely easy, too easy.  This is why I love to change the way I do things constantly. Like lately I’ve been avoiding the computer for composition, only for recording. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I can do things faster, but that’s not always the best thing. For example, I was in the studio with Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy) working on a project and he asked to put the snare track down live all the way down. So for 4 minutes it was him and the snare pad all the way down.  I’m like you could have looped it and he was like, it wouldn’t feel live. The original PE records were all unquantized and played in live, this is why there is a push and pull to the album. He said it would NEVER sound like this in a DAW, too clean and exact.  It’s the happy accidents which make great records. So a balance of new and old for me.

SF: What got you into synthesizers?

As far as the dream of getting into synths, it was the album Sunlight by Herbie Hancock. The back cover was just him and his synths. This was the dream, and now I’m living the dream. When they became somewhat affordable, I dove in. As far as the modular world, I dip my toe but cant get too far in the water. Too addictive and expensive, but the 4MS pods have made it so that you can create small systems without breaking the bank.

SF: How much are you dependent on technology and how much are new technological inventions important for developing your sound?

I look at technology as tools. I am an electronic music musician, so I do depend on the machines to work, but how they work is up to me. I try not to depend on one way, although Ableton is my main DAW. I don’t think new technology necessarily dictates the sound but definitely helps shape what I’m already doing.  Like I love the iPad for its immediacy, fun and thought provoking apps like Borderlands. The things you can do with it, you could not with other things.

SF: What attracts or draws you into exploring or learning a piece of hardware or software? What instruments or tools inspire you?

That it guides me to do things in ways I haven’t before. For example, Just Friends by Mannequins, is like having many extra ‘hands’. Monome, changed the whole landscape of making music with grid based composition.  Software like Pure Data, have helped people come up with incredible patches. So all these things inspire me. (I need to learn Pure Data this year.)

SF: What’s something that you’d like to be able to do with technology in your work that you can’t at the moment?

Amazing question. I don’t really have an answer, because wow, everything is here!!!

SF: In the vein of Eno’s Oblique Strategies, could you share a few suggestions, patch techniques, or exercises for composition for incorporation into a music-making workflow?

Coming from a super nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons background, I love, love to use dice in decision making. I have a set of musical 12 sided dice (pictured below) which I use for picking scales, and other dice for generating things on parameter charts I make up. I love chance and randomization. Always fun and helps you avoid process feedback loops.

Also, years ago I did my hip hop album Adventures in LoFi. I used to pick 20 records a day randomly with my eyes closed and see how many tracks I could make. This was 2002.  Now Mass Appeal does this with their Rhythm Roulette series and I love it, although I have yet to be on [laughs]

Photo: Olinda Del Mar

Photo: Olinda Del Mar

SF: Using chance operations as a compositional strategy has a long history going back to at least Cage and extending through to the present.  Are there any particular works that you are drawn to/inspired by in this domain?

A few aleatoric pieces I love are “Variations IV” (live album) by John Cage and “Art Decade” by Bowie. This is where Bowie first really used the oblique strategy cards…the results of those decisions made for many of these compositions.

Rhythm Roulette on the Mass Appeal site. Definitely the most creative sampling of all... Here are my top three: Erick the Architect, Wondagurl, Diabiase (unofficial one). Lastly, my last episode of Transmissions, I used crazy chance ideas for the full show, from picking sounds to keys and effects.

SF: "Chance operations" can take on a very wide range of possible implementations, from dice as you suggested, to improvisational decisions at performance, to algorithmic or stochastic process baked into hardware modules.  How do you approach and balance these different vectors of chance?  Do you favor some over the others?

It’s all feeling. In the studio, dice are used all the time. I make say a chart for many projects that have 10 ‘rules’ in which I use a 10 sided dice. Sometimes I use a number generator on the internet if I need larger ranges like for many parameters that are 0-127 

SF: Here are a few tracks I’m interested in knowing more about re: your process…

Wow, great choices.

“Little Child Runnin’ Wild” (King Britt Scuba Mix) - Curtis Mayfield

So, when doing vocal remixes, I usually strip all original music and start fresh with just vocal.  So taking Curtis’ vocal, I created a beat around it. I was heavy into Dilla at the time, so the beat is completely unquantized (used the MPC200xl). I then made the pad sound on the Roland JD800 (which I used on all Scuba remixes). I sampled a chord using this sound in MPC. I then made the bass on Minimoog Model D. After the basic groove, I got my brother from another, Tim Motzer to come and play guitar, which he just destroyed. He also did textual things underneath to fill up space. Lastly, field recordings of helicopters and children to create a soundtrack quality. I mixed this in Logic back then (before I started using Ableton). I overcompressed everything for a kinda west coast feel.

“Released” - Moksha Black

Ah yes, Moksha Black is so fun to do.  Most of Moksha Black stuff is done in one take. Layer one is finding whatever is laying around and sampling this into my iPad using a very creative app a friend made for me.  The program divides up to three sounds into twelve sections that can cross over each other visually, layering the sound and triggering it by drawing lines thru it. Using this you get extremely weird rhythmic ideas.  Next layer, Is the magical Organelle patch Zone. Influenced by old church hymns, creating droney changes. Playing the low end of that for that sonic frequency but no real bass, so it still feels floaty. Moksha then sings nondescript vocals, more like an instrument, reminiscent of Liz Frasier process of her own language. Later it goes into a kind of second movement which is the Moog Mother32 doing an arpeggiated thingy into pedals, keeping it kinds dry while the rest falls into spring reverb bath.

“9.11 (Dreamers)” - King Britt

Yes! So for a couple years on 9.11, I would do a dedication to all those lost in the tragic incident.  I was in NYC at the time and was just in complete shock. This started as a Fhloston Paradigm track. I used the Pocket Piano by Critter and Guittari as a first rhythm.  I then used the Roland MKS50 for the driving main rhythm that modulated between notes. Its sequenced by the ipad but using push to shift notes. I then added Rhodes through the MIDI MuRF and analog delay for the dreamy floaty part.  It all just happened. I was a conduit for something greater, which is how I live my life.

Photo: Olinda Del Mar

Photo: Olinda Del Mar

King James Britt (his real name) is a Philadelphia born, Pew Fellowship recipient, composer and dj. Traveling globally, he carries the history of his musical legacy into the future.

Honing his skills as the first resident (’90) DJ at the legendary, Silk City (Philadelphia), King established Back2Basics; a new and innovative music collaboration which merged a live band with a DJ performance. This format serendipitously proved a perfect fit for King to become the original DJ of the Grammy Award winning Digable Planets. After a world-wide tour, King decided to leave Digable at the height of their success to focus on his DJing (house, techno, hiphop, soul), and production aspirations. Since then, King has continued to DJ globally, spinning in every continent except Antartica. Over the decades, King has played at thousands of clubs and festivals including AfroPunk (NYC), Berghain (Berlin), Liquid (Tokyo), Capital (Johannesburg), Rex (Paris), MoogFest (Durham) and Output (Brklyn)

King has performed his live work as himself and his sci fi pseudonym, Fhloston Paradigm, in a number of forward thinking performance contexts and spaces, including National Sawdust (Brooklyn), CTM Festival (Berlin) and Le Guess Who? (Utrecht).

As a composer, he has collaborated with the likes of De La Soul, Madlib, Alarm Will Sound Orchestra, Saul Williams and many others, being called for remixes from an eclectic list of giants, including, Meredith Monk , Solange to Calvin Harris, and composing for films like Miami Vice. The role of music event curator is a natural one for King. Given his respect for creative endeavors, his comprehensive experience, his global connections, and determination, King is a perfect conduit to combine music, culture, and performing arts, curating collaborations for MoMA PS1 (Queens), Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia) and Cleveland Museum of Art (Clevland).

He also co-founded Ovum Recordings with Josh Wink, produced for Hyperdub, Nervous, Rope A Dope, then later went on to establish the experimental collaborative label, The Buddy System.