Tadd Mullinix is a hard man to pin down. The Ann Arbor, Michigan native is as remarkable for the range of genres that he produces under a gaggle of aliases - leftfield hip hop (Dabrye), acid techno (James T Cotton), jungle (SK-1), glitch/IDM (under his own name) - as he is for doing all of them extremely well. Dabrye’s two acclaimed albums for Ghostly International, One/Three in 2001 and Two/Three in 2006, raised the bar for instrumental hip hop and experimental MC-focussed fare respectively. Christine Kakaire caught up with Mullinix after a day’s work at Ann Arbor record store Encore Recordings, to discuss working with J Dilla, the whereabouts of 'Three/Three', and why this is his first ever official DJ mix as Dabrye.
Pulse: You’ve just knocked off from work, what kind of records did you sell today? Dabrye: We sold some library records, we just got a big buy of a bunch of old Chapelle and DeWolfe catalogue.
You mentioned that you used a lot of library music in your mix, how did you piece it together? I recorded the mix in parts. I played a string of tracks that are of a certain tempo, like slow jams, so i recorded it in different parts with little electronic music interludes from post-war early electronic records, to connect the different parts of the mix
DJ mixes from you as Dabrye have been nigh on impossible to find over the years, has that been intentional? This is my first mix as Dabrye. I’ve been DJ’ing for many years, but mainly disco, techno and house, drum & bass too, but I never considered myself a very talented hip hop DJ. A lot of hip hop DJs and turntablists use a different technique of mixing, and I never really approached that way of mixing so no, I just decided to start.
Do you feel any pressure then that this is THE Dabrye mix? If I like how it sounds and how its received maybe I’ll do some gigs as a DJ until I get a live set going.
So a Dabrye live set is on the horizon? Yeah I think so. I mean we were talking about the fact that I have a day job, and I’m going to be quitting that soon so I can focus on music all day, all week, all the time. So I have to consider paying the bills, and to do that I have to come up with a live set again.
Has that decision to let go of job security been a long time coming? Not really. I definitely noticed a slow down lately in my productivity and I think I can attribute that to the fact that I bought a home and had a lot more financial responsibilities, so I never really considered quitting until the owner of the record shop told me he was retiring. It made me think really seriously like ‘what am i gonna do now?’ I realised this is something I need to do, I’m not getting any younger so I just want to focus on music. It’s always been a dream to live off music so this is my opportunity.
Do you think quitting your job will result in a greater quantity of music or just a greater focus? More focus definitely. I found I was just really inspired to make techno and house, and there was kind of a hip hop drought. Just after Dilla died my drought started.
Do you mean that Dilla’s death caused that drought? It’s a little more complicated than that. After he died, a lot of new producers, people in the electronic music world, started making hip hop that was clearly inspired by Dilla, or Madlib, or myself... it was a little overwhelming. It’s really complicated, but i wasn’t very inspired. There’s other producers that inspire me, like DJ Premier and Pete Rock, more on the hip hop side and less on the electronic music or wonky, or new beat side of things.
Listening to the current wonky/instrumental hip hop scene it seems clear that it’s using what you and producers of a similar ilk were doing a decade ago, as something of a jump off point. What’s it been like to see that sound blow up? It's funny I don't really follow that scene. I hear something once in a while that sounds good, some Flying Lotus, some Samiyam, but I’m not really looking for that because I've been preoccupied with discovering music at the record store. I'm always finding out about new music there, and a lot of it is a lot more experimental than that. I have also a stronger interest in and connection to more traditional forms of hip hop and sometimes it’s a little bit weird when I hear something that sounds like its been inspired by something from one of my albums. Its interesting because i don't feel like anyone’s copying me or stealing, I don't have a weird attitude about that, but i get interested in things that sound new to me. I don't get interested in something that sounds like maybe i had done a little bit myself in the past.
Even though you must be hounded by this question, I have to ask: is Three/Three ever going to be released?! Definitely! I'm not a quitter (laughs), and i still have a love for this and i still have something to say. I’m lucky that anybody’s still listening since this beat scene has happened, so I have to keep at it. Sam Valenti of Ghostly and I haven't really decided, I think I'm gonna do an instrumental EP first, then do another full blown hip hop style album for Three/Three.
How did the One/Three, Two/Three, Three/Three concept come about? Trilogoes are fun [laughs], three’s a good number. I was signing a contract with Ghostly and could comfortably promise three. It wasn't like an interesting concept or anything, I could just kind of see myself doing three albums. In the future I'd like to produce beats for MC’s, and it’s what I've done for artists like Foreign Beggars and Beans. That’s what I'd like to be doing more of after Three/Three, just being a hip hop producer.
Why is that? It’s what I've always wanted to do, and my first albums were instrumental because i wasn’t really connected, but I was proud of my music and had an opportunity to release it. I decided that having a few instrumental albums out there would be a good resume for the MC world and that’s kinda what happened with Jay Dee. He bought my albums and then found out that i wanted to work with him. It worked out and that’s how i managed to accumulate the list of MC’s for Two/Three.
Like with most things Dilla related, the track that you made with him and Phat Kat, “Game Over”, is still idolised amongst underground heads, but I’m curious what kind of effect it’s had on you directly, as a producer? It really gave me a lot of hope. It was really inspiring, as a little white dude that was trying to find his confidence, and somebody established from the Detroit hip hop underground, where there’s this legacy of really high quality MC’s and producers like Wajeed, Black Milk, Marv One and Guilty Simpson. And i think it helped for other MC’s that i was looking to work with, to see that i had already worked with Jay Dee. Not to say that they cant think for themselves or come to their own conclusions, but it’s encouraging for them to have the stamp of approval from someone so highly regarded in the hip hop world.
Speaking of MC’s, I listened to Two/Three again today, and it struck me that a lot of the harsher, almost industrial sounding tracks are paired with MC’s. Was that conscious on your part? I didn't realise that, i think its just how it played out. I mean Get It Together is a little more uptempo and organic sounding in terms of the sonic palette i was drawing from when i sampled for that song, but yeah i think its how it played out and one of my fave tracks is my own remix of Air with MF Doom, and gosh that one’s really dark [laughs].
That remix really blew up around the time the album came out, how long after the original version did you do put that rework together? That’s a good question because it was immediately after the original. I had just made this beat and i got the vocals back from Doom, and i wanted this new beat out immediately! I didn't have to make any big adjustments to make it fit with Doom’s vocals. I have a lot of techno and electronic music and that’s my library, so whenever it’s time to go through and find good snare hits and strings that's what i was doing, so i think it lends to that sort of sound.
Detroit has long and storied histories in both hip hop and electronic music, is there much cross-pollination between those two scenes? I always view underground hip hop as being quite insular, in how it views itself, and its relationship to other styles of music. Yeah it can be. The funny thing is Dilla was sampling Daft Punk or Thomas Bangalter for Raise It Up. He was shopping at Record Time in Roseville, and these record stores have the dance music room which have hip hop and all these other records. Its a part of our heritage in Detroit. We had Electrifying Mojo on the radio and Jeff Mills was DJ’ing as the Wizard. I remember listening to booty house and ghetto tech on the radio every single night, like when you get out of your job on Friday night and you’re driving home, or from home to the club. That's the environment here and I think a lot of producers in Detroit are open minded, they don’t just sample jazz or soul records. I’ve sampled elements of classic Detroit techno records on Two/Three. When this is your environment, i think its impossible to only think about how New York produced hip hop.
What do you make of the current state of hip hop in the US? I'm always hearing great things in the hip hop world. DJ HouseShoes sends out some really great beats, the same with Wajeed and Black Milk. Again, the talent in Detroit is just really inspiring. The heads know that Detroit’s on the map, and the hipster kids need to learn about it too eventually and i dunno, maybe they do. All i know is there’s this weird thing I've noticed through touring the States and through Europe after my first two albums: people still didn't really understand hip hop. They like the funky beats and the sexy rhythms but they get alienated by the different styles of MC’s, whether it be someone like Dilla or AG, who at that time were having a more gangster style, versus someone like Kadence who is really philosophical and heavy in lyrics. It’s surprising to me how strongly opinionated people are about that. That's one issue that the beat scene perhaps addresses, from what i see they're often not working with MC’s, and that makes it really accessible for a lot of people.
I read recently that you’ve been producing for Kadence and Shigeto recently. Can you tell me about your current and forthcoming projects? I've been doing some remixes and one of the artists is a really popular band, the other was a remix for a famous old Motown musician who recently had an album out. Before that was the King Midas Sound and the remix of Cee Lo for Adult Swim. So I've been getting the juices flowing back in the studio.
So is there anyone left on your list of collaborator wishlist? Oh my gosh yeah. I've been really lucky, I've been a big fan of Count Bass D and he contacted me a coupe of years ago and i was just totally thrilled. I wanna work with Guilty Simpson again, I'd love to work with Marv One from Detroit. Ghostface Killa is one of my favourite MC’s. Everyone i worked with on Two/Three i would love to work with again, whether they want my beat on their album, or their lyrics on my album, I'm totally down.
Pulse.029 - Dabrye: Tracklisting
1. Mandre - l'oasis
2. Cloud One - doin' it all night long
3. Mass Production - slow bump
4. Michal Urbaniak Group - inactin (excerpt)
5. Roy Ayers - d.c. city
6. Tyron Davis - a little bit of loving (goes a long way)
7. Esther Byrde & Solid Gold Orchestra - touch me tease me
8. Dynasty - adventures in music
9. Blomdahl - suite from aniara (excerpt)
10. Busta Rhymes - woo hah (jay dee remix)
11. Marc Rosen - the connection
12. Kan Kick - chickenhead reality
13. Rhythm Heritage - three days of the condor
14. Mike Vickers - the man in the white suit
+ Jakki "O" - for club dj's only
15. The Roots - da lesson 1 (instrumental)
16. Georgia Anne Muldrow - hello
17. Gene McDaniels - dream of you and me
18. Count Bass D - bullets hit brains / doxology
19. Dabrye - temper
20. Weather Report - river people (excerpt)
21. Manzel - midnight theme
22. Arthur Blythe - uptown strut
23. Thomas Clausen - bio rhythm #3
+ Andres Lewin-Richter - study no.1
24. Jeff Lorber - water fall
25. Kleeer - tonight
26. Visitors - joyo can you hear part 1