The 10 Best Examples of Chinese Instrumentation in Hip-Hop/Pop, according to GZ Tian
Matt Cutler missed rave the first time around, but that didn’t matter. He was first exposed to the sound a few years after the fact, discovering a box of rave tapes dating back to 1991/92 at a schoolfriend’s dad’s house, and found a comforting familiarity in the energy and euphoria of this electronic music from a childhood spent playing video games. Hardcore formed the basis of his fourth album under the name Lone, 2012’s ‘Galaxy Garden’, an eruption of artificial colours and flavours that presented a personal interpretation of rave nostalgia rather than a mere stylistic retread.
But in the months following the release of that record, Cutler found himself uninspired. “With ‘Galaxy Garden’, I got obsessed with wanting everything to be super bright and artificial and ravey, and as colourful and synthetic as I could possibly make it,” he explains over a cup of coffee, “And, as with every project I do, I get obsessed with it – and then just get bored with it.”
Retreating from mentalist, synthetic rave sounds, Cutler turned inward, listening back to a lot of the ‘90s rap music of his youth. Coinciding with this, he found himself listening to a lot of “sample-y, dusty house and techno” coming out from producers like Funkineven, Delroy Edwards, and the L.I.E.S. camp, as well as the jazzier, swung house of Theo Parrish. The two styles collided, and eventually he found himself formulating a shape for his new album. “I had the idea of something that could soundtrack a city atmosphere, as opposed to some artificial environment.”
The result is new album ‘Reality Testing’, which pairs the bright melodies of his earlier releases with big, boom bap beats, swung house percussion, spoken word samples, and warm vinyl crackle. Where ‘Galaxy Garden’ was nostalgic for a memory never experienced, ‘Reality Testing’, explores a far more personal nostalgia, and feels like a truer expression of Cutler’s personality than anything he’s released before.
The most obvious thing to start on is that this album makes a clear change to ‘Galaxy Garden’, returning to rap beats. Do you make a conscious decision to change up your style with each new project?
Lone: “With every project I do, I want to take on something different, in the same that that a film director might. It’s a different subject matter each time, but it’s by me, so it’ll have my stamp on it. I’m not consciously going out of my way to be like, ‘Oh, what can I do next? How can I surprise people?’ But it’s just keeping myself interested, more than anything else.”
So you didn’t approach it thinking: this is a new album, this is a blank state?
Lone: “I always work in albums. I always work best when I know that I’m working towards a complete piece of work – otherwise, I’m just kind of lost. So it had to be an album for me. Once I get the idea – almost like a storyline for it, the theme – I’m away. I can just go and do it. It comes together quite quickly.
“[This album is] a bit more relaxed, I guess – a bit more chilled out. It reflects what I’ve been listening to, more than anything else. [With ‘Galaxy Garden’] I was obsessed with old school hardcore and rave and stuff – and it’s not like I feel I took it as far as it could go, but I was bored of making that stuff, and it seems like a lot of people seem to be jumping on that kind of thing now. I just wanted to go completely the other way. I was going to records by people like Theo Parrish.
“With the hip hop stuff as well, I’ve always been obsessed with ‘90s hip hop, and a lot of the house music I’m referencing is kind of built in the same way. I don’t see the two as being a different source, just a different tempo.”
Why did you go back to that ‘90s style of hip hop now?
Lone: “That’s the era I grew up listening to. As a teenager, I was obsessed with Wu Tang and stuff like that. I used to make hip hop tempo stuff. Again, it go to the end of that cycle and I didn’t listen to any hip hop for a long time because it seemed like loads of people were making that ‘beats’ stuff, and with anything I just get bored easily.
“I also got back into skateboarding. When I was skateboarding, that’s what first got me into hip hop. I’d hear Wu Tang or Gang Starr in a skate video, and you’d find out what things were through skateboarding. So just by chance I got back into skateboarding again, and it made me go back to all the old records. Hip hop’s really interesting right now – there are people like Joey Bada$$ taking that style who are new to it, almost, and getting into those guys made me go back and listening to my records from that time.”
Your music has been used by rappers before. Is that something you want to actively pursue more in the future?
Lone: “It might be interesting to try and reach out to some of these people and see about working with them. I think the person I’d most like to work with is Earl Sweatshirt; I’m really into him. We actually talked a really small amount on Twitter over privates messages – turns out that him and Tyler actually used one of my really old beats on something that was supposed to be for the first Odd Future mixtape, but it didn’t end up getting used.”
Are you trying to reach out to people then?
Lone: “It’s just getting your foot in the door and seeing if they’re into it. If they are, then I’d definitely be up for producing, especially with hip hop – that’s where I feel most comfortable, with MCs as opposed to vocalists.”
But you have worked with vocalists before…
Lone: “Yeah, with Machinedrum and Anneka on the last record. That’s it, in terms of my stuff.”
Do you feel comfortable doing stuff like that?
Lone: “To an extent. All my favourite music is instrumental, at the end of the day. I’m a really stubborn artist; I just wanna work on tracks. I work at home, too, and I love getting lost in my own little world, not worrying about what everyone else is doing. So it’s much more natural to make it instrumental. With this album, especially, I wanted to keep it all instrumental.”
All the stuff you’ve done over the past couple of years explicitly references dreams and fantasy, and there’s that sample talking about lucid dreaming on this album.
Lone: “Without being cheesy, dreams have always been a big part of what I do. Those moments where you wake up in the morning, and you’re not quite awake yet, but you’re not half-asleep, and you can feel your thoughts start to change and it gets really strange.
“For this album, I had this really weird dream. It was at a time when I was struggling for some kind of theme. I had this dream about a ball of energy floating through a city, like New York or something, and I thought: maybe set this one in the city, as if it were a film. A lot of ideas come from dreams, trying to soundtrack weird emotions that you can’t put your finger on.”
"I had this dream about a ball of energy floating through a city, like New York or something, and I thought: maybe set this one in the city, as if it were a film. A lot of ideas come from dreams, trying to soundtrack weird emotions that you can’t put your finger on." – Lone
Is that the image on the album cover?
Lone: “Yeah, totally. I wrote something stupid on Twitter ages ago – the last album was set in the Amazon, this one is set in New York. I do see it very visually, and see them as if they’re films, almost. I want it all to tie in. The last one was so artificial and spacey, this one’s much closer to home.”
So how do you visualise it? Is it quite a tangible space you imagine, or is it a bit more abstract?
Lone: “I’ve never had synaesthesia confirmed, but I do visualise music in a really abstract way – colours and shapes that are the exact shape and size and space. It is like the senses are combined, almost. If there’s a lot of reverb on something, it’ll create space – I see it in terms of how much space there is. The highest string will be bright white, and the lowest bass will be black, and everything else is the colours of the spectrum.
“So I do visualise individual sounds, and on top of that I imagine scenes where the music could exist. The ball of energy in my dream is the chords and the melodies. It’s not a grimy album – you have the dustiness and the rawness of the hip hop beats, but there’s also that magic to it. That’s how I see my stuff; it’ll always be dreamy, but it’ll be in a specific place.”
"I do visualise music in a really abstract way – colours and shapes that are the exact shape and size and space. It is like the senses are combined. The highest string will be bright white, and the lowest bass will be black, and everything else is the colours of the spectrum." – Lone
And the album is called 'Reality Testing', which evokes all those ideas of lucid dreaming, and unreality.
Lone: “Well, ‘reality testing’ is, when you’re trying to lucid dream, a test to see if you’re awake or not: you turn a light switch on and it doesn’t work, or you look at your watch and it’s completely messed up. That’s so you know, ‘Yeah, okay, I must be dreaming.’ So it’s got that dream element to it, but it’s also got the word ‘reality’ in it. On the one hand it’s a lot more real, it exists on earth, but at the same time it has a dream aspect, like you’re not quite sure if you’re awake or asleep.”
You’re not just trying to imply all of these ideas, as you’ve actually got sample from documentaries about lucid dreaming.
Lone: “I used to be well into it a few years ago. I managed to do it maybe two or three times, which was really weird. In one, I was at a house party and I went into a room and there was a big fish tank, but it had a tap on the top to fill it up and someone had left it on. I opened the door and walked into the room, and it was just full of water, and the fish were swimming around the room. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this can’t happen – this has to be a dream.’ I walked around a bit, and was swimming with all these fish, but then I woke up. But for those few seconds, I was aware.”
Do you see your music as escapist?
Lone: “Yeah, totally. In fact, I do hear music a lot in my dreams, and I wake up and for a few seconds I’ll remember it. I might question whether it’s a real song. And I’ve never been able to recreate it, but it exists. I’m always trying to chase that thing. With the melodies and chords in my tracks, it’s something that’s just a little out of reach almost, but also something that’s dreamy and relaxing and escapist.”
There’s also a nostalgic element to your music.
Lone: “It’s always there. Like a dream, it’s always slightly out of reach. The way you experience reality is quite mad – you’re only in the present for a second, and then it’s the future or the past. All you have left of something is a memory, and music and art can get you back there. I can’t think of any other way to get back to those feelings and emotions, so music is a great way to grasp onto those. My music is like a diary of my life, almost. I want it to be as personal as possible. Through music, you can grab on to those memories.”
If you think so visually, why do you think you chose music as a particular form of art to express yourself?
Lone: “Probably because I got into it when I was really young. I used to do drawing, but that was about it. I just understood music on a level that worked for me, and it just kind of came naturally. Like, I can’t play instruments or anything. I can play the drums a little bit, and I can play keys a little and work out chords, but because of the visual stuff, I can just imagine music all of the time; it just flows into my brain. So it’s just because it’s the easiest thing.”
"I understood music on a level that worked for me, and it just came naturally. I can’t play instruments or anything. I can play the drums a little bit, and I can play keys a little and work out chords, but because of the visual stuff, I can just imagine music all of the time; it just flows into my brain." – Lone
So you can’t play?
Lone: “Nah, I can’t really play at all.”
That’s cool, because “melodic” is the word that so many people would use to describe your music.
Lone: “The first tracks I made that were sort of listenable were on Music 2000 on the Playstation. I remember making melodies on the piano roll and thinking, ‘Shit, that’s a lot easier than I thought it’d be.’ I specifically remember that. Melodies are always the easiest part for me – everything else is a nightmare, but for some reason melodies and chords are really simple. They just kind of land in my head, and then it’s just a case of working them out.”
How much is your musicmaking a case of trial and error, and how much is it improvisational?
Lone: “Sometimes I’ll lay down the chords, and then those kind of dictate what the melodies can be. It usually starts with a set of chords or something, and then the melodies will follow really easily. The rest is a long process of building it into an actual song.”
Do you listen to much of your older music?
Lone: “I actually listen to the really old stuff, from before I was signed, quite a lot, because it takes me back to being 18. But I listen to all my music – I listen to my music more than I listen to anyone else’s. I get to choose how the music goes. I get to make it how I want to make it. So it’s my favourite music, in that sense. It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Oh yeah, my music’s better than anyone else’s.’ It’s just custom-made for me.”
Do you listen back to your old stuff to get ideas for what you’re doing now?
Lone: “Not at all, really. I’m always waiting for a new idea. If I wanna make an album, it has to be completely new. I enjoy listening back to older stuff because I’m proud of it, but I’m done with those ideas.”
I like how you put caps on these things, where you literally can’t go back to it afterwards – but it does make me wonder how you ever manage to start something again.
Lone: “I finished the album back in February, and I’ve done a few remixes since then, but it’s been almost six months, which is the longest I’ve ever not worked on music. I have a few ideas. I’d love to put out something that’s completely beatless, like an ambient record. But it’d have to be beautiful to capture people’s attention. I wouldn’t want to put out, like, a double album, or anything like that. It might not work, but I’m definitely into the idea.”