By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
By Hilary Hughes
By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
Abraham Orellana, a/k/a AraabMuzik, stands outside a nightclub in Greensboro, North Carolina. It's late October, just a few days after his much-discussed performance at Santos' Party House in Manhattan, and he's ready to step on yet another stage and deliver yet another rousing performance on his MPC-2500 drum machine. The 21-year-old producer, known to Harlem rap enthusiasts as the mastermind behind Diplomats reunion track "Salute," seemingly speaks only in topic sentences: "I'm an innovator," he declares, with no affect whatsoever, staring from behind his sunglasses. (It's been dark for a few hours now.) "I don't even have a name for what I do."
Instead, the hip-hop noisenik's ears are wide open, and he rolls whatever he hears into a one-of-a-kind mix of skittering hi-hats, sucking treble, and high-BPM assault. "I listen to everything," he continues, phrasing that as a simple fact rather than a boast. "Everything from, like, Spanish songs all the way to rock and techno and trance. I just bunch it all up into one and come with something that's not out yet." Like "Salute," a darker take on Jersey Shore rave-up music. Or "Let's Talk," from Duke Da God's new Dipset compilation The D.I.P. Agenda, which turns the Alan Parsons Project's "Let's Talk About Me" into amphetamine-addled hip-hop. Or "Cuffin," a standout from Dipset boss Cam'ron's September album Heat in Here, built around an ominous squeak of synths, horror-flick atmospherics, and dense '90s-hip-hop drums.
Those last two, along with 28 other AraabMuzik beats, can be found, unadorned by Cam and company's absurdist thug raps, on How to Be an MC: Instrumental Kings 5, a free mixtape released online this spring. Along with his live shows, the glorified beat tape makes a case for the producer as not so much a hot street-rap beatmaker but as another purveyor of demonic dance music. Some of his sonic peers: Atlanta producer Lex Luger. Dubstepper Zomby. M.I.A. on that last album nobody liked. Chicago's DJ Nate. Sleigh Bells!
And for those who've not yet witnessed AraabMuzik live on the MPC, YouTube houses dozens of iPhone and FlipCam videos, as well as Digital Glitch, a trilogy of short films presenting the producer composing beats on the spot. First comes a drill 'n' bass workout with a DJ Shadow coda. Part two dices up Cannibal Corpse's death-metal clatter. Part three, released earlier this month, samples early-2000s Euro-pop hit "Turn the Tide" and showcases AraabMuzik's improbably fast hands: a blur releasing millisecond-long coughs of sound that hit a Merzbow-like peak of experimental noise.
Orellana began as a child-prodigy drummer in Providence, Rhode Island (also home to rapid-fire drums-and-noise duo Lightning Bolt. Just saying). At age 11, influenced by flickering soul-beat producers like Swizz Beatz and the Alchemist, he followed suit. "I just put my drumming onto a machine," he explains. "I pretty much move the same way [on the MPC] as I do on a drum kit." In 2006, Orellana e-mailed some beats to Dipset cohort/a&r man Duka Da God, and began producing as AraabMuzik. "People think I'm Arabic or something," Orellana notes for probably the thousandth time. "No—I'm Hispanic." A friend had dubbed him "Young Arab"—just one of those random childhood nicknames that sticks for life.
For both the increasingly fractured Harlem rap crew and the producer himself (who was still in high school and considering a music scholarship to Brown), AraabMuzik's entry into hip-hop came at a rather fortuitous time. Dipset's sound-defining producers, the Heatmakerz, were out of the picture, leaving him to keep releases from guys like Hell Rell interesting; he also gave Cam'ron "Get It in Ohio," a highlight from the rapper's underrated 2009 record Crime Pays and a sonic precursor to the apocalyptic party rap of "Salute." "I pretty much brought them back with something new," Orellana explains. "With something better. Something different."
More recently, though, the producer's virtuoso live performances are getting him the most attention. Onstage with just his MPC, he races through live re-creations of his most famous beats, AraabMuzik-izes radio hits (his take on "Hard in Da Paint" is particularly winning), and injects crowd-pleasing moments of explosive, inhumanly fast drum-pad-pushing, the hip-hop equivalent of a cathartic, finger-tapping guitar solo. Unlike most such displays of virtuosity, however, these technical freak-outs aren't the sort of thing people simply step back and appreciate: The volume and speed of his playing ratchets up the energy to hardcore-show levels. Arms swing in the air. Quasi-headbanging occurs. Lots of elbows are thrown. People love it. "To be able to do everything I do live? That's something else," Orellana says with a laugh. "I like to stand out from everybody and just be different."