Journey to the New Heavy:
CVLT Nation interviews DJ Oktopus
There’s little pleasure to be had interviewing artists in the spotlight. The most pressing questions have already been asked, and the interesting answers have already been given. The fun is to be found by interviewing those artists in the shadows; the bastions of the avant-garde and the unsung heroes of the underground.
Enter Alap Momin. You might know him as DJ Oktopus, former dälek member; you might be familiar with him as Alap Now, one part of the Harlem DJ duo MRC Riddims; maybe you ran into him in Berlin and talked about Rhythm and Sound, or maybe his real moniker is listed as producer on the back of your favourite record. The point is, Momin’s life is one dedicated to music and for over twenty years he has been at the centre of sonic innovation as creator, producer and aficionado. Whether he is making noise hip hop, dark house and techno, warping pop records or moulding shoegaze textures with bass heavy beats, Momin’s sound is anchored by an ancestral drone that drives his search for what he calls the ‘new heavy.’ It’s this search, and the restlessness that comes with it, that makes him such a tireless pioneer of the underground.
In this interview, Momin talks about his past, the sounds of the New York underground and the Berlin sound, his rich tapestry of influences and the future of music…
Let me start by asking you about dälek. How did this group come together? Were you making music before dälek?
Yeah. I always LOVED music, from like age 2. I had an organ and a recorder when I was 5. Then I started playing trumpet when I was 9, and eventually switched over to guitar when I was 12 or 13. From there, I picked up drums as well, and started playing in a bunch of different hardcore bands through high school. When I went to college, I sort of got tired of all the old bands and music I was involved with, and got more into the recording side of things. I started my first recording studio at 19 and started recording jazz bands, punk, hardcore, metal and indie bands, classical, country, rock, etc. I just got REALLY obsessed with sound and didn’t really feel like being in a band anymore. Drums, bass and guitar started feeling constricted and didn’t really represent the sounds that I had in my head. I met Will Brooks (dälek) and Joshua Booth both at William Patterson University. At first, I was just engineering for Will’s early hip hop demos. It was ’95, so he had that Nas, Black Moon, Wu Tang, Mobb Deep vibe going and I really loved his beats and voice. So after about a year of working on demos together, we started to bond and influence each other with new music and sounds that had been outside of the music we grew up on. I was getting really into the Beatles, Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine etc. At that point, we realized we could make music together that could encompass all the energy and vibe of punk and hip hop that we had grown up on, but take in new noise and more avant garde influences and textures. Joshua Booth was in an incredible Shoegaze band I had recorded called All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors. His melodic and musical sensibility was/is unparalleled; to this day he understands music at a level I can’t even begin to comprehend! Hahahaha. He became the perfect third addition to what me and Will were starting to venture into. Josh came in and added synth and guitar hooks/melodies/soundscapes/ambiance/noise/whatever. It literally jelled immediately, and basically the first batch of songs we did together became the first dälek album, Negro, Necro, Nekros.
Were dälek part of a scene?
Sort of, but not in an obvious way. There weren’t ANY cats blending hip hop and noise at that time. But since I had the studio, I had ties to a TON of indie bands that I worked with as well as indie labels. So our first tours/shows were with a lot of these types of bands, although looking back it seems really out of place! Hahaha. At the time, we just wanted to play, and there was literally no scene or audience for our sound, so we just jumped on every type of show we could get. From hip hop to indie to punk to basement/vfw shows to noise – anything. We were on a mission; we definitely felt like we had something that no one else was doing and just wanted to get the music out to as many people as possible.
Your sound in dälek was very challenging and unique. What excited people was, like you say, this blending of noise and hip hop. How did you arrive at this style of music and what were your influences?
I sort of mentioned it in the previous questions, but basically I had spent most of my teenage years at hardcore/punk/hip hop shows, CBGBs, Wetlands, Pyramid, etc. So that sort of extreme energy is in my DNA. When I was growing up, there was this vibe in NY that no one else really was on and it was a great blend of hardcore, hip hop, club music, dancehall/dub, and metal. All those scenes were underground and not in the mainstream yet, so MTV and the radio played Glam Metal and really watered down pop, and NY was coming out with literally groundbreaking/life changing sounds, vibes and groups every single week. You would go to the CBs matinees for the Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front and then that night you’d go see Red Alert DJing all the newest tracks from Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest, BDP, etc. Then late night after parties would be at the tunnel or other spots like that, and you could hear amazing house/techno/club stuff and dancehall. And you would literally see half the same people that were at CBs earlier at all these spots, so the scenes definitely bled into each other for a lot of heads. KRS-One and Sick of it All played together, a few years later Digable Planets and The Lemonheads, etc. So for me, I was really naïve when we started dälek, it was super normal to just be into any sort of underground extreme culture. Dälek took all of that energy as well as what Will and Josh were bringing to the table and put it all into a blender. I totally thought people were gonna LOVE our sound!! Hahahahaha. When I hear “Absence” now or tracks off of “Gutter Tactics,” I can hear the sound and vibe of old NY and the Lower East Side in there, like the same sonic quality I love about the Cro-Mags “Age of Quarrel” or Leeway “Born To Expire.”
Then, as I mentioned, by 18 I had kind of overdosed on all that music and a lot of it was starting to become commercialized, so it just didn’t give me the same energy that I had felt before. I started getting into Jazz, Classical, Classic Rock, Ambient, Experimental, Noise, etc. That really opened me up to a whole new world. And like I said, Josh and Will were a HUGE part of that push and exploration. We were all getting into it together and putting each other on to stuff. Josh and his old band got us into My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, VU, Jesus & Mary Chain, etc. It became really apparent really fast that we could add that to all of our teenage influences and get something really next level which became the blueprint for all the dälek records after that. The other MAJOR influence that’s been with me since I was born is Indian classical and folk music. My parents are from India, so I grew up on all types of Indian music. I never understood the words, so for me the voice was always just another sound/instrument. On top of that, music even now doesn’t feel right to me without a drone or a harmonic wash. All of the dälek stuff and even my new projects have that drone, which is totally Indian.
A track like ‘Culture for Dollars’ really captures your sound in dälek; there is an amazing blend of atmospheric noisy textures alongside a real bass-driven hip hop beat. I really haven’t heard anything like it! What was the process for making this kind of music?
Like 95% of the dälek stuff started with Will. He would just constantly be making beats on the MPC. Like hundreds every week! Hahahaha. Every couple weeks we would have a listening session and just go through all his basics. We would pick the best of them and put them into folders for different albums. We did “Absence” and “Abandoned Language” at the same time. Half the tracks he would play ended up in the “Absence” folder and the others went to “Abandoned.” After we had the basics nailed down, I would arrange out all the songs. Like intro, verse, choruses, bridge, outro, etc. It would usually at that point just be drums and bass and maybe a couple melodic/ambient/drone samples. Once the framework was down for all the songs, we would make a sort of sample library that would be used for the entire album to give it a cohesive flow/sound. So for “Absence,” we set up Josh’s guitar and ran it through a ton of processing and literally recorded 3 hours of us banging on it with mallets, playing it with a bottle, just kinda killing the instrument. Then, that 3 hour footage became the background ambiance/noise as well as a lot of the riffs you hear. The songs were framed out, so it was super quick and easy to just hear like a melody in the feedback and loop that for the verses. Then go to the footage and grab another melody in the noise and loop that for the choruses. And we just did that for all the sections of the songs. So then it would be beats, bass, ambiance, drone, and riffs. After that, Josh would come in to play actual parts on top that would beef up the drone, add hooks, melodies, lushness. When he was done, Will would add the vocals. Then we would bring in a DJ to do cuts on some of the songs. It was dense music with a LOT of information, hahahahaha. But that was the general workflow. There were a handful of songs that were super minimal, like “Spiritual Healing,” that basically Will played me out of the MPC and I was like, okay ,this one’s done. Sounds great just the way it is!
You were part of dälek for a long time, well over a decade. Why did you leave?
Yeah – I started with Will in 1995 and went with it up to 2010. It was a HUGE part of my life, and literally some of my greatest experiences. But after 15 years, I felt like the mission I set out on was accomplished. All I wanted was to present an alternate way to make hip hop records. By 2009, I started hearing all these newer, younger cats coming out that were taking hip hop into even crazier directions, so like I said, I felt like, alright, nice, there’s finally a whole new generation that “gets it.” On top of that, since I was 6 years old I’ve been looking for the “new heavy.” Like I thought a lot of the pop stuff when I was 6 was sooooooo dope and heavy. Joan Jett, Billy Squier, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, etc. Then I graduated to metal and couldn’t believe how heavy Slayer “Reign In Blood” was. Then I discovered punk and was like, wow, its even faster and these cats are talking about shit, especially the hardcore bands. It was all about NY.
Then came Public Enemy “Takes A Nation of Millions.” That record changed EVERYTHING for me. I was like wtf?!?! This shit is heavier than Slayer or the Bad Brains, and they don’t even have guitars!!??! Hahahaa. It was the first time I realized how important sound/sonics were to create heaviness. It was no longer about distorted guitars and mosh parts. There was a new heavy. Then I got that feeling again when I got really into dub and dancehall music. I remember listening to Cutty Ranks “The Stopper” when I was 17 and thinking, I can’t believe how heavy this is!!! The new heavy. Then I got into My Bloody Valentine and again, a whole new way to be heavy. Then I discovered Rhythm & Sound and I was like, god damn, there’s barely anything going on in this and its soooooooo HEAVY!!!! Hahahaha. So for the past 35 years, I’ve been on a journey to discover the new heavy. With dälek we literally would get reviews saying that we were louder than the Melvins whenever we would open for them!! Hahahahaha. So I felt like, alright, well we sort of perfected that way of being heavy, what’s next? Like a real junkie. Hahahahaha. I could’ve just continued doing the same old formula, but I was always aware of jazz musicians and the journeys they would take in their creative lives. People like Quincy Jones and Miles Davis to me really provided the map on how to live a life-long musical existence, constantly evolving. As much as I LOVE Motörhead or AC/DC, I never pictured myself playing the same songs and sounds I wrote when I was 23 at 63!
After you left dälek in 2009 you moved to Berlin until 2011, where you immersed yourself in the Berlin sound. What drew you to Berlin? How did this scene influence your approach to music?
So the first time I went to Berlin was in 2000 when dälek was touring with Techno Animal and Markus Hablizel. The Techno Animal guys were from England so they were much more tuned to dub and the whole Euro bass scene. Markus Hablizel was from Germany so he knew EVERYTHING. In the van every day for 2 weeks, we just listened to Rhythm and Sound and Fluxion and other Basic Channel stuff. They took us to Hard Wax in Berlin and there we bought a ton of Rhythm and Sound records. From that moment on, I was HOOKED on the Berlin sound. It had elements of dub and techno, but was really GERMAN in its sound and approach. Like literally the opposite of everything I had ever done musically. After dälek went on hiatus, I was feeling super burned out from all the touring and non-stop lifestyle. I was also burned out on NY, and my wife and I both felt like we needed to hit pause for a year or two and just reset and take in new influences. I had toured Europe for 10 years at that point, so I knew all the cities and countries inside and out. I knew Berlin was cheap and a few German friends of mine helped us get situated. It ended up being the BEST thing I could’ve done for my creativity.
I had been obsessed and still am with Rhythm and Sound and that Berlin sound. I immediately just started going to raves and parties and sound systems. Every single day, for like 2 years. I met a TON of INCREDIBLE producers, musicians, artists, etc. from all over the world. I got lucky and met Tikiman, who is part of Rhythm and Sound, and I would chill at his home studio a bunch and smoke and drink tea and just listen and watch him work. It was REALLY special. I got to meet and hear Mark Ernestus from R&S spin a bunch. I met Skweee producers from Norway and Finland. I would hang with those guys and watch their process. I started going to Minimal techno parties like everyone who first goes to Berlin, and really started hearing how it was literally “inverse dälek” in its approach, but just as heavy! Again the new heavy was starting to reveal itself and I had to have it!! Hahahaha. I hung out with House producers, dub producers, drum n bass cats, dubstep heads, the Jahtari Crew, anyone I could find that was making music differently from me became a huge influence.
I didn’t really perform much those 2 years. I became a fan and student again. It was really amazing to be 35 and feel like I was 13, discovering punk and hip hop and dancehall all over again! The club/bass thing just hit me HARD. To me, it was punker than punk. The records were all white label and had no artwork. The DJs and producers didn’t take press photos or do interviews. There were no merch stands at the shows. It wasn’t about selling music at all! A lot of the parties I went to were like 3 euros to get in and it was the same 50 or 60 people there every week, like CBGBs was. People that went to the clubs were REALLY invested in the sound and vibe and community experience. Everything punk was supposed to be, but didn’t become. Club became the new punk for me there. Soooooooo many great people out there took me in and helped me find new ways to be creative, I don’t really know how to even express the time there in words. It freed me.
You can really hear the influence of this period on a number of your projects post-Berlin, particularly your work with Merc Anthony in MRC Riddims. What’s really striking about this music is the heavy approach to making dance music; there is still something chaotic about this music but it’s so infectious too. You are definitely still dancing (excuse the pun) between genres with this music.
Merc is one of my oldest friends at this point who is still evolving at the same rate and direction as I am. He was in All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors with Josh, and then he did a noisey/synth/rock project called If When, so we came from very similar backgrounds as far as experimental music goes. Back in 2005, both he and I started to really get into pop and commercial music again. Both of us had obviously grown up on pop music and the radio and MTV, but like a lot of people in our 20s had gone the other extreme into noise and avant garde music. But something was changing in 2005, and we were feeling it. Destinys Child, Outkast, Ludakris, J-Lo, Amerie, Jay-Z, Hot 97, Reggaeton, etc were putting out singles that we were really loving. From those influences, Merc started producing dancehall/club/hot 97 sounding beats. I remember hearing them and just being blown away!! Like you said, it was total club music, but still had a heaviness and sort of chaos to it. Again, it was the first indicator that there was going to be a new way to be heavy. Merc tried to get some of our older rapper friends to spit on the tracks, but they were more old skool and into boom bap and 90s hip hop, so they just didn’t hear how ill his shit was. So by 2009, being in Berlin and getting exposed to club culture, I was kinda like, yo, let me get in on those joints and we’ll do a dancehall/new skool hip hop/club sort of blend together. That became MRC Riddims. It was super important for me, as it helped me transition out of what I had been doing for so long with dälek and started me on this journey I’ve been on for the past 6 years.
The Third Culture Kings record is coming out next year on the label Ici D’Alleurs. It has a real psych feel, but there’s still that trademark anchoring drone/harmonic wash behind it all. What was the idea behind this record and who else is part of the project?
3CK is me and my friend Jan Johannson from Copenhagen. He was in a shoegaze band called Glorybox for a long time and has played with people like Sufjan Stevens and Serena Maneesh and Neil Halstead from Slowdive. He’s my age and comes from a similar background as far as noise/shoegaze go. We met at a dälek show in Copenhagen in 2005 and sort of stayed in touch loosely over the years. In 2013, Jan contacted me and said he was staying in Brooklyn for 3 months and we should try to collab on something together while he was here. Both he and I felt kinda burned out on our older sounds and we were both looking for a new way to express ourselves. It was the perfect step for me after MRC. With Merc, I was really focused on new and different sounds and production and tempos than I had done before. Synths, 808s, sequencing, etc was all new for me. But Jan is more of a songwriter, so 3CK was great to get me back into writing songs again, not just making beats or dance tracks or whatever. It was super organic. He had a handful of riffs and melodies and words. He would come into my studio once a week for about 6 or 7 weeks. Each week, he would play on guitar and sing a basic song idea. I would then pull up a beat/rhythm I had that might fit with his song. He then recorded one live take of him singing a scratch vocal and guitar on top of the rhythm. We did this for 11 songs. After he went back to Denmark, I worked on and off for a few months on the overdubs/production. Then he came back to NY and did his overdubs and backing vocals and we edited all the songs together. It turned out really dope. Kind of a blend between Suicide, Jesus & Mary Chain, Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, early Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Bambaataa, minimal techno and booty bass.
Everything I had been doing post-dälek was sort of exercises and demos to help me find a new way to create. But the 3CK record was the first thing I have done since dälek where I have that same feeling I had, like, man no one is doin’ this shit!! Hahahahaha. Since we are a side project and live on two different continents, we didn’t have too many prospects, label-wise. So we have just been sitting on the album for almost 2 years now. Stephane, who runs Ici D’Alleurs, is a very good friend who has done dälek vinyl reissues for “Filthy Tongue” and “Absence” as well as releasing Third Eye Foundation and other cool projects. He was recently in NY and I played him the 3CK stuff and he immediately got it and wanted to put it out, so it should be out next April or so. It’s REALLY heavy, but you can’t tell that right away. The top feels mellow/light, but when you hear it on a system with proper subs, you feel how engulfing and heavy it is! My first step towards the new heavy – it may not be a perfect album, but it’s a huge one for me and my new sound. Doing that record, I stumbled on to a vibe I call Dubbed, Drugged & Ghosted. I’ve been working on it for a couple years now and got it pretty dialed in. I can apply it to any style of music and have a ton of mixtape ideas I need to execute, but it’s gonna be SICK.
BKGDaudio is your first solo project. The mix you have posted on soundcloud is great; seems to pick up where MRC Riddims left off in many ways, following that dark house and techno sound, but you even drop Beyoncé in the mix around 20 minutes in. It’s a really layered and infectious mix! What are your plans with this project? Will you be releasing records or focusing on online releases? Are you going to be touring?
I was never interested in doing solo material. From day one, I have always been a team player. I LOVE working on music with other people and seeing how the different ideas can gel together to create something you could never try to do or imagine. But part of the past 6 years for me has been to get over my weaknesses. I thought at first doing a solo thing would be good, ’cause I’ll have no one to cover my ass when I do weak shit. Then as I started getting deeper into the Dubbed, Drugged & Ghosted thing, the ideas started to come to me and I realized I kind of have to do this solo, at least to get the sonic blueprint defined. Once I get that blueprint tight, I can work with other people and apply that vibe to all types of music/genres. I’ve got this really specific sound in mind and the stuff on soundcloud is older, unfinished raw ideas.
But recently, I’ve really hit what I’ve been looking for. Really stripped-down, minimal, bass heavy, Neanderthal rhythms. Super heavy for the ladies. Hahahahahaha. I don’t give a fuck about straight dudes at all anymore. I made dude music for 30 years. About 10 years ago, I really started to notice from my wife’s tastes and perspectives and when I worked with women how their perception of music and what they found to be heavy was sooooooo much deeper than what dudes hear. And with dälek, we really perfected that dude heavy. So I’m totally over it. But the club thing, and a big part of why I love it, is its heavy for chicks and gay people. That is sooooooo much heavier than just throwing distortion and feedback on everything! It’s in the rhythms and the BASS! Hahahaha. Plus, I’m not a chick or gay, so to make music that needs to be heavy for that crowd is a real challenge!! I’m kind of obsessed with it!! The past few years in NY, the vogue thing has been coming back HARD, with labels like Qween Beat and DJs like Mike Q, Byrell The Great and Divoli S’vere. You wouldn’t believe how fucking HEAVY and RAW these parties are and it’s all Trans/Gay/Black. Super underground, and has that old NY heavy in a totally updated way. It’s just incredible. Like CBGBs all over again! Every week, they drop brand new tracks and productions, soooooo inspiring!! That has been a really big influence on me the past few years. And again, an eye opener on how to be heavy in a deeper way. So basically, BKGD Audio is my attempt at being heavy and empowering people who actually need it. I can’t think of anyone who has been and is still being persecuted and attacked as much as women, gay people, and black people. If I can come up with rhythms and vibes that make people forget about their persecution for a minute then I’ve succeeded. Heavy escapism, I guess.
There’s real variation between all your projects, but for me there does seem to be consistency in your attention to atmosphere. Your music always sucks the listener into whatever world you are creating. That’s my interpretation anyway. Would you say there is a music philosophy that ties your projects together?
Like I said earlier, that is totally true and is definitely from being Indian. Drone and atmosphere is number one for me in any music I work on. Without that, I literally get butterflies in my stomach and feel like something is missing. And it’s totally not a conscious thing at all, it’s just been there all along. I had it in my hardcore bands as a teenager and never even knew it. Now I hear it and can really wield it. Without sounding like a total weirdo, when I nail it I can literally hear/feel my ancestors in the sound. I’m looking for ghosts and a connection that can only be made through sound. Shabdha; it’s an ancient hindu word that means sound. They say that sound/shabdha was the first element after creation, so I’m drawn to that and songs for me are just a vehicle to get closer to shabdha. I’ve been finding ways to get less songy and more shabdha. Again, club music, when done right can get you there. Almost like ambient music, but WAAAAAAAY heavier! Hahahahahaha.
As well as producing your own music, you have worked as a producer for a range of hip hop and rock bands. Producers come in all shapes and sizes; some are heavy-handed with an artist’s writing/creative process whereas others are happy to sit back and facilitate when needed. What’s your approach as a producer? Are there certain styles of music you prefer working with?
I would say producing for me changes, depending on the needs of the artists I’m working with. I’m a pretty aggressive person, so there are definitely times where I’m practically remixing the artists original idea, and that’s what they are looking for from me. Then other times, I literally do the Rick Rubin, just lie on the couch and say, it’s perfect, don’t touch anything, don’t add anything, don’t even breathe!!! Hahahahahaha. I don’t know if I really have a preference of styles. I just LOVE all music and I also like switching it up. I love doing a country record one month and then techno and then something classical or Indian. Each style helps influence and expand the other. I don’t just eat one type of food and love only that – why would I only digest one type of music all the time? I’m a NYer – I’ve got cultural ADHD. I need something different every day. In general, as long as the artists I’m working with are like-minded and open to trying and failing and trying again, I’m down for whatever.
You have also composed music for films. What films have you composed for? How do you approach film projects?
Dälek did the score for a horror film called “Lilith” by our good friend Sridhar Reddy. On top of that, I have scored scenes in a handful of indie films. The Guitar by Amy Redford and Choke are probably the bigger ones, but still small indies. I did music for Sundance Film Festival the past 3 years. I’ve also been doing a ton of ad and jingle work the past decade. I’m in the middle of doing 20 songs for Skullcandy headphones and things like that. My approach for scoring is really based on what the director/client is looking for. I haven’t been in too many situations outside of Lilith where a director was like just go for it and do you. Most of the time they just want me to do a version of LCD Soundsystem or Diplo or Trap or whatever. It’s cool though, I really enjoy it. I ALWAYS figure out some new tricks and techniques being forced to be someone else! Definitely a great exercise, super rewarding.
What’s next for you?
Wherever music takes me. I always said I’ve never followed anyone, I’ve always just followed music. I’m 41 now been doing music since I was 5 and it’s saved my life and rewarded me numerous times. So I’m just gonna keep following it. Wherever the new heavy turns up I’ll be there. Hahahahahahaha. I’ve been working with all these 16 and 17 year old rappers from Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens for the past year and it’s been LIFE CHANGING. They put me on to some ridiculous new hip hop. I mean RIDICULOUS!!! Hahahahaha. Also I’ve been linking with a couple of 17 year old producers and the shit they are on is soooooooo fucking inspiring. I can literally tell you what music is gonna sound like in 5 years ’cause these kids are part of the next wave that’s gonna change it!!! So awesome!! Also I got lucky and met up with some great musicians/singers from Houston. 20 years old and SUPER BLACK. Sooooooo dope!! They just create purely, and have no preconceived notions on what things should sound like and be. I thought I was like that but all these young cats have shown me how much room there still is to be even more free! And finally I just got lucky and linked up with this cat from Atlanta, Bryson Green. He’s 25 and about to drop his debut. It’s FUCKING INSANE!!!! Hahahahahaha. Like the kid is like a blend of Outkast, Isaac Hayes, Seal, Prince, D’Angelo, Bruno Mars, Pharrell, Bobby McFerrin, Tracy Chapman, and soooooo much more!!! But super WAVY with 808s and all that. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s really that sick!!! I also hope to come out with a bunch of new BKGD tracks next year and start touring with all these new projects. Thanks so much for your time and interest.
Thanks for your time Alap!