Helado Negro Deconstructs Latin Rhythms to Make Abstract Pop
From loose sketches to downtempo lullabies
In a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Brooklyn performer Roberto Carlos Lange told a reporter that his musical project Helado Negro (Spanish for "black ice cream") is named after "food from a country that doesn't exist." His music, too, is at once of everywhere and nowhere, carving out a place in the world for a feeling that has yet to be defined — a novel hybrid of Latin rhythms, mainstream-pop melodies, and noisy sound sculptures, all laced with butter-soft vocals.
To understand the downtempo lullabies of his new record, Private Energy, which came out last month, it helps to understand Lange's many earlier projects, which over sixteen years have shaped his sound into what's now Helado Negro. His first, ROM, blended acoustic instrumentation and glitchy electronic textures. Next was Boom & Birds, which focused on processed sounds and rhythm-driven composition. By the time he started recording instrumental hip-hop under the name Epstein, he'd honed his skills with MIDI instruments. The Latin influences in syncopated rhythms bubbling just beneath the surface had moved to the forefront, blending with elements of soul, jazz, and funk. "[I got to the point] where I understood the sounds, which sounds I like, and how to make those sounds without having to actually have those instruments," he says.
Lange records in the living room of his Crown Heights apartment, with a huge table of various gadgets and synths fed into his computer. He tracks many of his own loops and samples, eventually sending rough mixes to musician friends and having them come by his house to lay down tracks. "He doesn't give a ton of direction. His music has so much clarity, it's easy to find where you fit," explains Trey Pollard, a multi-instrumentalist who played pedal steel and piano on Private Energy. "You know he'll take whatever you give him and mold it into something amazing. It's like you're dropping off a bunch of raw pieces of marble or something, and he'll sculpt and polish them until they're ready."
Private Energy was released on Asthmatic Kitty, the label founded by Sufjan Stevens that Lange has worked with since 2007. He'd sent his first Helado Negro demos to Michael Kaufmann, at the time a project manager there who had been impressed with Lange's remix work and asked to collaborate; Kaufmann loved the demos so much he urged the label to release the record. Lange was initially skeptical of Asthmatic Kitty's roster of "white indie-rock folky stuff," but he was impressed that they had put out the only record by Hermas Zopoula, a multilingual West African songwriter. "That's maybe the stupidest reason to sign to a label," Lange admits, "but it showed me that they cared about music." (Although Asthmatic Kitty is still distributing his albums, Lange is no longer signed to the label.)
With the first Helado Negro record, 2009's Awe Owe, Lange's identity started to come into focus. As an undergrad at Savannah College of Art and Design, he'd studied deconstructionist composers like John Cage and Gordon Mumma, who had traditional music educations and then spent their careers undoing those inculcated philosophies. Lange took their path and reversed it, starting with a self-taught deconstructionist style and assembling the pieces as he learned more about his craft.
Despite playing to mostly English-speaking audiences, Lange kept the lyrics in Spanish; the language barrier formed a protective layer. As his confidence grew, he began writing songs in English, starting with 2013's Invisible Life. He recorded prolifically, releasing six records in five years. "I feel like Roberto's the kind of person who has to test music externally and get feedback from the world," says John Beeler, a project manager at Asthmatic Kitty who's worked extensively with Lange. "Then he kind of retreats and makes more music. And this process doesn't take years, like other artists. It takes weeks."
With the label's support, Lange was able to shape his loose sketches into complete songs, and his music started to reflect his experiences as the American child of Ecuadorian immigrants — one foot in the old world and the other planted firmly in the new. Growing up, he saw people of all colors speaking Spanish, but in college, he often found his identity was decided for him. "I moved to Georgia, and I realized to white people I was black, and to black people I was white, or I was Mexican," says Lange. "And I didn't really understand [it]."
Lange considers questions arising from this paradox on Private Energy. "How can I be more specific and direct about my identity?" he recalls having wondered. "And what about that feels great sometimes, and feels fucked up sometimes, and feels confusing and pluralistic?" You can hear it on tracks like "Young, Latin & Proud" or "It's My Brown Skin": persistent optimism in the face of a brutal reality. (It's not a coincidence: Lange began work on the record in March 2014, immediately after the Department of Justice declined to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.)
The result of this inward turn is surprisingly focused, and Private Energy is Helado Negro's most accessible album yet — even with abstract noise dotted throughout the tracklist. He experiments with abrasive textures, but the songs are draped in a shimmering sheen anchored by his soothing croon. He plays guitar and keys and samples records, live players, and field recordings, manipulating them beyond recognition, and with considerably more skill than on his early recordings.
The work also doesn't skew generic to make itself more palatable to an English-speaking audience — fueling hope for a future where artists of Latin descent are no longer a rarity in the indie world. "He fully lives and inhabits that space. For him, it's not fiscal, it's not a form of rebellion, trying to be nontraditional," says Kaufmann. "He so deeply values art and music and the power it has to empower the disenfranchised, and also to unite people across differences."
Helado Negro plays the Bowery Ballroom on November 2 at 9 p.m.
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