Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
As technological dread and capitalist ennui accelerate, the disenchanted 'West' has seen a growing interest in Buddhism, with meditation in particular prospering. There's a charming naivety to our Eastern affinity, not least because in countries where Buddhist practice is ingrained, meditation has become a little passé. The principle of conscientiousness has basically been transposed to the everyday, while actual meditation thrives mostly among practising monks. Interestingly, the monks' main role is to demonstrate to the nation that Nirvana can be attained; not that regular folk will attain it, but it is nice to believe, in godless times, that it can be attained.
If there's something spiritually valuable in this kind of collective imagination, its flipside informs Fatima Al Qadiri's 2014 album, 'Asiatisch', a mostly instrumental meditation on the West's cliché, decontextualised vision of an "Imaginary China". And intentionally or not, that transcultural discord trickles into the self-titled debut by Future Brown. The hyped supergroup, signed to Warp Records, comprises Al Qadiri, Nguzunguzu, and Jamie Imanian-Friedman, aka J-Cush, founder of Lit City Trax. The fantastical record depicts a murky new empire, where distantly familiar styles squeeze up and rub shoulders, all washed over by a choking dystopian fog. Crammed among the group's constricted, backstreet beats are international spokespersons, including a few of grime's (Riko Dan, some key Ruff Sqwad luminaries) and dancehall's (Timberlee), as well as Tink, Sicko Mobb, and more reps of Chicago's rising elite.
With its misty atmosphere and cultural signposts, Future Brown has an intriguing breadth. It toys with an unconscious web of associations, partly generated by our casual consumption of cross-continental music. But the four-piece have sparked an ideological turf war. Last week shots were fired when Alex Macpherson dismantled the group's "magpie-ism" and art installation cultural hybridity in a thoughtful takedown that rippled fast and divisive through the caverns of music Twitter. Alex's piece seemed to touch a nerve: the day after its publication (and the morning after a heavy ICA show) I caught group members Asma Maroof (half of Nguzunguzu) and Jamie in fraught spirits. Slumped in Warp HQ, we talked curatorial music-making and its political implications, as well as the group's take on "capitalist surrealism".
Fatima has said your music doesn't feel like appropriation, since your guests actively advance their respective scenes. But is there any danger in replacing those guys' context with Future Brown's?
J-Cush: "I never thought people would react that way. It's frustrating to try and bring people together on a record and make something special, and then have it…"
Asma Maroof: "…come off in a way that wasn't intended. No one was forced to get on any of our beats. When we make a beat and send it to somebody, they're not at gunpoint. We're not like, 'Here's a bag of money.'"
J-Cush: "We didn't have Warp behind us either, when we were getting these vocalists. They wanted to work with us once we sent them the beat. They were interested to have a dialogue and figure it out. It's a bit rich when some person who doesn't really know the situation wants to paint it over as pastiche, or us coming from a place of privilege and overshadowing these people's careers, because that's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard. These people, whether they've been around for a long time or a short time, they've established themselves and have a serious career regardless of what we're doing. So it's fucked up for anyone to suggest that somehow we're overshadowing their shit."
Asma Maroof: "I understand that the context that we're presenting it in isn't a full album – there'll be one to two tracks with [each of] the featured artists. So listening to it in that context, I can see how people would think that. But where we come from is such a pure place in terms of loving the artists that we work with, loving the music that we make and sharing a bond with people. And collaboration is the key of this project: unity and working together for a common goal. When I think about this appropriation or watering-down, I'm like, 'Ugh.' That is not it."
J-Cush: "We like a lot of different music. What year is this? How much information is there floating around? Of course we're gonna be drawing from here and there. But collectively, yeah, we have a sound."
Asma Maroof: "When I listen to Riko spit, I don't just hear London. I hear dancehall and Jamaica. That's what we're touching on in the album. It's not like, 'This is what it is'. I feel like that's what's watering down things. When it's like, 'You have to be contained.' I feel like that's the oppression. 'You need to be this, what are you. I can't contain you, I don't know how to talk about you, so you freak me out.'" [laughs]
Are you making more palatable or marketable versions of international styles?
J-Cush: "I hope not. We wouldn't say we make grime. We might try and make something grimey, but I'd feel a bit weird saying we make grime. When you're making music and thinking about who you want to spit on the tune, that affects what comes out. If you wanna have somebody like Riko or [Prince] Rapid or Skepta come do a tune, you should think about how they're gonna fit on it."
"It's a bit rich when some person who doesn't really know the situation wants to paint it over as pastiche, or us coming from a place of privilege and overshadowing these people's careers. Whether they've been around for a long time or a short time, they've established themselves and have a serious career regardless of what we're doing. It's fucked up for anyone to suggest that we're overshadowing their shit." – J-Cush, Future Brown
One major job of old fiction writers, before commercial travel, was to visit foreign countries and report back on local colour. But maybe now that we're surrounded by simplistic representations of the world, the opposite is true: we need to defamiliarise ourselves, remystify instead of demystify. I sort of heard that in the album.
Asma Maroof: "I enjoy the mystery more than the actual answer. With music, that language, it's kind of hard to pinpoint the sound or a genre. I like when it feels like, 'What is this?'"
J-Cush: "When things are definable, it's less exciting. When you're comfortable it's boring. We know, because there's four of us, we're gonna keep coming up with different ideas, keep developing it. We're going in a lot of different directions simultaneously, that's the momentum. Everyone's so unique and they all tell their own story in their own way."
Asma Maroof: "But it's not like it's discordant. There's an element which brings them together, which I don't know how to talk about. I guess it's more a sound palette, regardless of geography. The quality of the sound more than what it evokes – that's how it resonates to me as a producer."
You and DIS Magazine described the Vernaculo video as capitalist surrealism. Can you explain that?
J-Cush: "We were parodying the beauty industry. It's sad how this industry is based on this idea of beauty – you need perfect skin or you need to wear makeup."
Asma Maroof: "It's funny, but it's dark. We're trying to portray how absurd it is. This idea of matching your skin tone so you look like you're not wearing makeup, but you're totally wearing makeup. Or when you wipe your face and it smudges. Everyone's so into Photoshop to blur their imperfections, as if scars aren't beautiful."
J-Cush: "But people are vain, so it exists."
When I spoke to 18+ about sarcastically idealised images of beauty in their videos, they related it to social media, where we self-brand and…
J-Cush: "…control what we look like."
Yeah – and looking at the Future Brown logo [which resembles Facebook's], it seems connected to the Vernaculo video.
J-Cush: "Yeah, we find that shit really funny so we parody it, but it's subtle, hopefully. People are too quick to generalise about how things 'should be' or need to be. The idea of normal is just weird. Normal's whatever is normal to you, however you feel like living your life. It might be weird to someone else, but that's your normal. The idea that you're depressed so you're crazy, you need medication – that's fucked up. But people have emotions, man, people feel different types of ways."
Asma Maroof: "The visual language of our 'fb' logo, you see it and immediately think of the Facebook logo, but it's not. It's totally different, but it still reads as that. And that visual language relates to our sound in that you think it's one thing, but then you're like, 'Wait.'"
J-Cush: "You play with the idea of something to the point where you've gone to a new place."
Asma Maroof: "It also relates to the song – what Maluca is saying is actually very dark and comedic, it's the same vibe as the video is portraying. Like, 'I know you're staring at my ass, so I'm talking to you with my ass.' It's just flipping the roles, and it gives her power in that way, because she knows how you're looking at her, and how you're interpreting her."
"The visual language of our 'fb' logo, you see it and immediately think of the Facebook logo, but it's not. It's totally different, but it still reads as that. And that visual language relates to our sound in that you think it's one thing, but then you're like, 'Wait.'" – Asma Maroof, Future Brown
You talked about bringing lots of ideas, languages, styles together, and the album creates a sort of dark vision of a space without cultural borders. But do you think, in reality, that we're moving in that direction?
Asma Maroof: "As far as that utopian idea of no walls, although it sounds great, I don't even think that's what the future should be like, or that it would change anything. I understand there needs to be walls. That's comfortable. [laughs] The first time I heard Azonto music, I actually heard it here but it definitely made me think of Ghana, specifically. But I guess when you hear our record, it's not just London, not one regional sound."
J-Cush: "You can't have a free-for-all with society, but with music you definitely can. I hope people keep doing that."
Warp Records released 'Future Brown' on February 24th 2015 (buy).