Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
It’s a hot and sweaty September afternoon and I’m on the tube en route to dinner at a friend’s place. I have my headphones on, lost in the neon-rainbow world of HUDSON MOHAWKE’S ‘Butter’ for the second time that day. At Waterloo, a striking girl gets on. Every man on the train stands a little straighter. I want to check the name of a track, so I reach into my bag to retrieve my ancient iPod Mini. A hand on my arm jolts me. It’s the girl: “You’re listening to Hudson Mohawke. I love him! Have you seen him live? He’s amazing!”
Fast forward two weeks and I’m sat in Warp’s office in Kentish Town, waiting for Ross Birchard aka Mr Mohawke to arrive. He’s running a little late. Apparently, he’s still getting used to the London transport system having recently made the move down from Glasgow. His freshly pressed vinyl is on display on the bookshelf next to me – an ‘80s fantasy landscape with vivid pink eagles and lime green iguanas. It’s probably the most fitting cover work I’ve ever seen, the handiwork of fellow Lucky Me cohort KONX OM PAX. Fitting because after years of snowballing hype, the softly spoken, camera shy Scot has made a truly astounding, visually evocative, joy-filled album. There’s a childlike undercurrent to ‘Butter’, a bright’n’shiny new world feeling that exhilarates. It’s the music of Earth Wind & Fire, George Clinton, Outkast, Aphex Twin, En Vogue and the cast of Sesame Street re-imagined by Roald Dahl. There’s glittery, glitchy, funk pop in the form of Joy Fantastic and Just Decided (both featuring the awesome US singer OLIVIER DAYSOUL ), heavy dancefloor bass via ZOo00OOm and Gluetooth and tribal sci-fi gloriousness from Fuse and Trykk.
Back in March, his ‘Polyfolk Dance’ EP had hinted at what was to come. Rihanna’s people were calling up, Flying Lotus sung his praises and just about everyone got hot under the collar about possible production hook-ups. So when finally a tall, young-looking guy wanders quietly into Warp’s office, it’s a bit of double-take moment. The only clue is his technicoloured trainers. With back-to-back interviews lined up, we sit down with very un-hip hop glasses of water and get going.
I got the album a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been playing constantly.
Really? Thank you very much.
The whole yellow brick road, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, giant floor keyboard thing – that whole childhood fantasy thing…
We’re working on a video right now and it’s going to be vaguely in that psychedelic yellow-brick-road style.
Is that something you’re working on with Konx-Om-Pax?
That aesthetic really speaks to me – music for me is all about fantasy and escape. A lot of hip hop through the years has been about trying to create different worlds to either escape some reality or make something new. Your music really feels like that to me. What’s that sample at the beginning of ‘Joy Fantastic’?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s Olivier.
Is it him? I thought that’s got to be off Sesame Street…
No, that’s him doing it. He’s amazing, he’s properly fucking amazing. We’ve done a reasonable amount of stuff but not as much as I would have liked because he actually works as a scientist at Oxford at the same time as being this crazy singer. (Laughs)
No way! What does he do there?
I don’t know to be honest. I know that he works in the labs there.
I’m getting mental pictures of this guy with mad George Clinton hair, bubbling up stuff in the lab…
We’re trying to get him involved in the video. I need to arrange that later today because I haven’t spoken to him for a while.
How did you hook up with him?
I met him through this guy Mike Slott who I was doing collaborative records together with various MCs. We approached this guy we liked called Odyssey from Washington DC and did some work with him. He introduced us to Olivier. At the time he was doing more sort of neo-soul. DC is famous for a more traditional hip hop sound. So he was doing that but he also had a couple of other tracks which he wasn’t really doing anything with, really crazy stuff. Just going on what I’d heard on those other tracks, I really wanted to do some stuff with this guy. First of all we were just going back and forth online because he was still living in DC at the time. Then he moved over here and we did a couple of gigs and some music together.
It must be exciting to have someone like that you can bounce stuff off. Did he just come to you and say, I wanna do this childlike thing…
Yeah, it’s amazing how the dynamic of it works. With that track in particular, the majority of it was done just sending files back and forward. For me, sending him a rough instrumental track, not really telling him…I mean obviously I had an idea of how I wanted the track to turn out but I put it across to him vaguely. And when he sent me back a rough version of it, he just nailed it completely. The dynamic between us just works really well I think.
I read that you said you really want to make emotional music and when I listened to the album, I was just seeing this big magical world. It’s so stitched into the music.
I’m happy that it’s come across like that. With some people that have been doing interviews with, it’s kind of… because it’s not explicitly spelled out, the whole background of it doesn’t quite come across I guess, which is why we’re going to do the video.
There’s been a lot of hype about you. Back in 2007, you got called Dilla’s disciple. Did you feel that pressure or expectation?
I did feel it for a while. I used to be really into finding out what everyone was saying about various things I’d done, doing all this googling. But I got to the stage when I would read a hundred really nice things then see one bad thing and be furious. It would totally put me off making music. I got to the conclusion of not paying any attention at all. I think it’s the best way if you don’t want to have a lot of outside influences of what people are expecting or what they want to hear. It’s the best approach for me. Also when I first signed to Warp, just the thought of having to stand alongside these giants on the label, that really freaked me out. That was a lot for me. It took me a long time to get over that. It was probably about nine months after I signed to the label that I even started to work on the record…
Like a writer’s block?
Kind of. I have a bigger idea of what I what to do here but I didn’t know how to take the first step. I started so many things and just scrapped them. I was almost at the point of calling up the label and saying I can’t do this.
Wow. Well, glad you didn’t. So, are you happy with the album?
(Laughs.) I’m reasonably happy with it. If I had to give any qualms about it, I would have liked to put more thought into the structure of it. A couple of people have said that the fact it kind of feels all over the place is a reflection of the overall thing.
It doesn’t feel all over the place…
Good. I don’t think it really is all over the place, I just think that, um, I maybe could have had a bit more of a storyboard before I started. But the tracks do work together.
So how has working with Warp been?
It’s been really good. What I really like about them is that they’re a big label doing a lot of massive things but they operate on a very grassroots level. Even Steve, who founded the label, you never feel like he’s out of reach. I like that grassroots way of operating. Just good, honest, friendly, hardworking people. The opinion I had of them before I started working with them was – I thought they’d be really moody.
Going back a bit to when you first started getting into music as a kid, what kind of stuff were you into?
The first music I collected was just pop music, at that age – 7, 8 or whatever – I was buying a lot of cassettes, collecting tapes and my dad had some records in the house. The first mixtape I made was jungle and happy hardcore when I was in the last class of primary school. I photocopied all the covers.
What did you have on the cover?
Magazine clippings, not even words, just images. Pretty lo-fi! But nobody wanted to hear it. (Laughs.) I ended up giving a lot of them away. Sold two of them or something.
Ha! Our generation has been so influenced by American pop culture, the movies that we see, the TV and also the music. Growing up in the 90s, so many female R&B groups – TLC, En Vogue, SWV. Did you listen to a lot of that growing up?
Yeah, I was really into listening to the radio and that was the main stuff that was played. That big En Vogue track…I always play that when I DJ.
Never Gonna Get It? (Embarrassingly, I try to sing this.)
No…later on. Don’t Let Go.
But also, being around my dad who’s American. Even though he’s from the States, he’d been in Scotland a long time. But it wasn’t like there was this huge American influence. I’d only been there once in my life up until about two years ago. But the music I was listening to was coming out of there.
I love it that you tag your music. Why did you decide to do it?
The first time I started doing it – about 2004 – was to stop people bootlegging stuff. I got my little sisters to say lots of stuff and chopped it up, I’ve ended up using that for years now.
Journalists are always trying to find new ways of describing music and I know some of the labels irk you quite a lot. How do you describe your music?
Recently I’ve been using the term turbo soul. On my myspace it’s listed under emotronic. Basically as long as it’s not ‘wonky’, it’s such an ignorant term.
Why do you think that?
It just reeks of someone who’s listened for five seconds – there’s no appreciation for anything other than the initial reaction, no thought put into it. It’s very much a judged-by-the-cover situation. Just because it doesn’t have a 4/4 beat or whatever.
Fair play. What’s happening with your live set-up? I can so see you with a brass section, the big orchestra…
In the long term I really want to do it like that but at the moment for me it’s just a financial thing. I need investment to put into that. I’m working on a better show – getting psychedelic visuals, going to do some gigs with Olivier. I also wanted to get some dancers and stuff like that…
Steve’s idea was to go a bit Spinal Tap, have a Stonehenge made out of butter…(laughs).
Ha! I’ve been loving all the butter puns Lucky Me have been tweeting – Butter by Spread Perry…
Yeah, Lurpak Shakur was my favourite.
So what’s happening in the future? There’s also been a lot of talk about you producing other people – including the Rihanna thing…
The Fuse track was supposed to go to her. Basically they didn’t want if it was going to go on my album as well but I didn’t want to not have it. But the option is still there. I think I’ve probably been too much of a bigmouth with all this stuff because everyone is asking about it. It’s something I really want to push through but obviously nothing has materialised at the moment because of whatever circumstances. But it’s set up to. We are speaking about doing some Eryka Badu stuff though…
Wow! That’s a really exciting – and unexpected – link up. Although unexpectedness is kind of what we’ve come to expect from Hudson Mohawke…
Terror Danjah isn’t usually listed alongside HudMo, but he also makes psychedelic bass music, and we interviewed him here.