“There are two pigeons right there, so if I threw some bread and scared them off, I could turn that flutter sound into a Mannie Fresh snare roll.” With that, Hot Sugar claps his hands and, as if on command, the two pigeons stop their strut through Tompkins Square Park to flap and flutter off. For a moment, the rapid sound their wings make seems like something you could happily hear Lil Wayne or Juvenile rap around.
Hot Sugar is the alias of Nick Koenig, an artist whose associative music technique is hooked around sampling the sounds of the environment and objects around him and, through some sort of technical processing wizardry, turning them into original samples and melodies. It’s a technique he’s been perfecting since the age of 13, and has recently found some wider recognition: The Roots’ opening number on Undun is produced by Koenig, and Das Racist affiliate rapper Big Baby Gandhi included four of his productions on his recent No1 2 Look Up 2 mixtape.
He released an EP, Moon Money, on the Ninja Tune label last week, and is celebrating it with a release party at Littlefield tonight. SOTC sat on a park bench with Koenig and got him to reveal all about his disdain for rap’s lazy approach towards sampling, a rumored supergroup with Michel Gondry and MC Paul Barman, and how he came to work with the most famous rat on the Internet.
Your name has recently been linked with Big Baby Gandhi. How did you end up working with him?
Earlier this year, after his first EP came out, he quoted a Slick Rick line on Twitter and I followed it with the next line and we started DM-ing. I asked if I could send him beats and he did that song “Hi It’s Me, Baby” which was over one of my older songs.
What was the Slick Rick rap you tweeted about?
It was from the Wu-Tang song “The Sun.” You know that song?
Yeah, one of the ones that were cut from Ghostface’s Bulletproof Wallets for sample issues.
Right. He wrote “You can’t look stare at it long or your face will do like this,” but he did the emoticon, which was amazing. We’ve been really close ever since. I actually just spoke to him 20 minutes ago.
What did you respond with?
I responded with Raekwon’s, “He’ll sit right there even if you pull your gun out.”
How do you rate Big Baby Gandhi as a producer?
He likes sample-based stuff like most MCs, and I hate samples, so that’s always a struggle. We’ve found some common ground now. I’m helping him get more into production, ’cause he’s going to be producing his next album and I’m showing him all these associative music techniques. Ideally his next album will be sample free, but we’ll see.
Why are you against samples?
I was a fan of the people that are being sampled. When I started working, my start really was when a producer couldn’t clear a sample so they’d hire someone like me to come and replicate it, replay the riff and mimic the character of that recording. My trick is to make something sound like an Argentinian rock song from the ’60s or a British library synth-pop track. Through that I developed an appreciation for the people that were being sampled rather than people that just took the loops and threw kicks and snares over it. Part of why I’m doing this interview is I’m a fan of your article you wrote about instrumental hip-hop [and why it possibly sometimes sucks].
It kinda got misinterpreted as an anti-J Dilla thing published on his birthday, when it wasn’t.
The truth is—and that’s why I was confused why you’d be interested in my music to begin with—oddly enough I feel like I’m clumped into that beat scene to begin with, but I’ve never compared myself to them. I don’t listen to any of that music. I listen to rap music. But I also do think there is a potential for instrumental music, the same way Ennio Morricone exists, and Beethoven, and the list goes on.
There’s a difference between creating an instrumental song and just putting out a loop.
Exactly, and it’s someone else’s loop.
It’s like a beat-tape that happens to get released.
Right. There’s always repetition in music, but it’s not really impressive any more. When sampling began, the equipment was really primitive so every new development was based on the equipment that they had, but now with computers you can do infinity more complicated things and people are stuck on that fetishizing of break-beats and that—most of which I can identity at this point. That doesn’t impress me and I’m not really into that in general. But at the same time, I still love instrumental music and I believe that there is a way to make it even if it has heavy drums like a rap song has.
Are there any current hip-hop producers whose music you would happily listen to instrumentally?
[Pauses] Coincidentally, it’s the producers that treat the equipment like an MPC as its own instrument, so that being someone like AraabMuzik or Exile—someone who plays it live and it’s not just playing on your computer and dragging and dropping drums on to it.
You mentioned work you did replaying samples for hip-hop producers. How did you get into that?
I was working on hip-hop videos at the time, but this goes way back, I guess. It started from the beginning when I was younger and started listening to rap songs—I didn’t know about sampling when I first discovered it. I heard Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” when I was in third grade and assumed that Coolio made the entire beat and was playing on the whole thing! Later on I discovered that it was a Stevie Wonder song and that a lot of other people had went into the original sample before too. I guess that naivety inspired me to try and learn every instruments and become that producer that didn’t exist. I do think I can play every instrument well enough to record it in an interesting way. What I lack in technique I make up for with innovative recording.
So after that, I was working on hip-hop videos for other people and realized a lot of producers were getting screwed ’cause of sampling laws, so I offered my services: I’d say, “I can play that sample for you, it’s really easy, it’s three notes.” I started to focus on not just playing a sample but having it sound like a really dated recording.
But the thing is, I started ghost-producing for people and they never really gave me the respect, credit or money I felt like I should have deserved—and there’s some big names involved too so I don’t want to give them the respect that they never gave me. I will say that the person that inspired me the most that I did work with and was pretty much the only straight forward and respectable producer in that capacity was J-Zone. J-Zone inspired me when I was started out and I played guitars for him and stuff like that. That was on an indie level.
Were you ever surprised by the samples hip-hop artists asked you to replay?
There were times when I worked with people and they’d pick a Barry White song that’s been sampled a million times and they would ask me to play it. That’s just lazy on all fronts; you’re not even digging at that point. If that’s your only claim as a producer, it’s a shame.
How did that turn into making your own productions?
I started recording when I was 13 years old. I’d use a desktop computer, an old PC, and the sound recorder which was the default voice memo device on the computer. I bought one of those two dollar Radio Shack webcam mics—although there weren’t webcams at that point, but it was like them—and I’d record separate tracks and since I didn’t have many instruments I’d improvise the sounds. So for drums, I’d take a CD case and slap it closed for a clap. Everyone has that story about how they started by banging on pots and pans, but I literally still do that for production.
How did the idea of sampling everyday objects and sounds develop?
Well lately I’ve been trying to record the most counterintuitive sounds possible. I mean, anyone can make a percussive sound.
Like tapping the metal on this bench.
Right, and I don’t want to be compared to something like Stomp. I’m not trying to show that everything is an instrument. I’m trying to turn things—I don’t know how to phrase this—but everything is an instrument and that’s been demonstrated for a while, but I’m trying to make melodies out of things that aren’t melodies.
How much of that involves processing the sounds you capture?
Processing is more than 50% of my work.
Does it get tedious?
So tedious! That’s why I’ve been so hard-pressed to inspire people to make assertive music. It’s a lot easier to download an album called Hottest Beats and throw a drum loop under it and call it a song. I spend more time on a hi-hat or a snare than I feel like most producers spend on a beat.
Is there a chance that always looking out for sounds to record can turn you a bit crazy?
Completely! But I think I’ve gotten more comfortable. At this point, and I don’t want this to be confused with arrogance and ego, but I know that I can turn anything into anything. So rather than being driven mad, I feel like Neo in the Matrix—I can warp many things into the sound of one!
But a few years ago I was driving myself mad. There were times I was recording static for hours from the TV. Every piece of white noise has a sound. It’s silly, because I’ve always had a fascination with static and white noise. A lot of people look at the radio and it’s one station and then the next—back in analogue radio, obviously—and you encounter different types of white noise in-between. But the general consensus is to keep going until you hit the next station, which is some corporate entity playing Katy Perry or whatever. I just hated how people would dismiss the white noise as nothing when if anything it was the sound of the universe and the sound of just noise in general. I wanted to prove that you could use it. So I’ve made entire songs from static: drums, synths, basses, the works. But that was definitely the low point in my sanity! I’ve kinda like chilled out since then.
It sounds like the pursuit of white noise was more like a science experiment.
Well, I was so tired with the pretension involved with the sampling of a record—it disgusted me. SO I was trying to prove that I could sample anything, and white noise was the utmost challenge because it defined garbage in the eyes of anyone else.
Have you had much in the way of support for associative music from other producers?
Yeah, everyone—but when it comes to it they get kinda lazy! Keyboard players in The Roots were fascinated with what I was doing and I was like I’ll even make patches for you—you don’t even need to do much! It’s like when synthesizers first came out they were treated as a novelty: The Theremin was immediately used for ghost noises; when the Moog came out in the ’60s, no one really used it and they had to validate it by replaying all these classic songs [on albums like] Switched-On Bach and the Scott Joplin Moog album. It was just to validate it as an instrument and now you can’t turn on the radio without hearing a synth. I hope some day people realize the benefit of associative music and it will be as pervasive as a synth is now.
You mentioned The Roots. How did you come to work with them?
Me and Aaron Livingston, a singer, have been friends for a while. We have a bunch of demos done for songs and he sang over it and I guess this blog, Okayplayer, was a big fan of mine. The Roots already knew Aaron, so the guy from Okayplayer sent a lot of my demos to The Roots, unbeknownst to me. They were really into it. The first time I met The Roots’ manager he said they were doing a new album, it was a concept album, and my song was the first song for the album. It set the tone. But the track as it is on the Roots thing is still my demo. I didn’t finish it. ?uestlove didn’t even play drums on it. That’s me, and I’ve never played drums in my life on the Roots album.
You must be one of the only people to usurp ?uestlove from The Roots…
Yeah! But I think it’s because those guys are so into production in general that they recognized some positive quality in it.
There’s a rumor that you’re meant to be in a supergroup with Michel Gondry and MC Paul Barman. How true is that?
[Pauses] I don’t even know… Paul Barman’s an old friend. He’s been an inspiration to me for a while. Him and Michel have been doing stuff. I just know that… I don’t know. Playing around with demos, that’s it. I don’t know what’s going on.
Are any of those demos likely to come to fruition any time soon?
[Paul Barman and Michel Gondry] already put out a song. They sound great. Michel is obviously a unique artist in sound and video. With this project, if it comes to life, which I really hope it does, it will be really special. But I can’t really talk about…
Moving on to your new EP—what’s the strangest thing you sampled for it?
Well one of the beats that we have right now was performed by a pet rat on a keyboard. It walked on all the black keys, which was E-flat pentatonic scale.
So it was a classically trained rat.
Exactly! But again, you’d never know until I released the footage [to YouTube].
What happened to the rat?
The rat’s dead. Rest in peace to Sarah Michelle Gellar, the most famous rat on the Internet.
That’s quite a boast—there are a lot of famous animals on the Internet…
Research Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’ve been trying to get her on ASCAP. It’s hard trying to collect royalties for a dead rat.
Hot Sugar performs at Littlefield tonight with Big Baby Gandhi and Extreme Animals, as well as DJ sets by Xaphoon Jones, Das Racist’s Dapwell, and J-Zone.