Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
While Rabit is sat across the table from me, telling me “I was from the Suburbs, which was super average,” it strikes me that nothing else he’s talked about in regards to growing up could be accurately described with that word. Having had to deal with going to Catholic school as a non-religious queer person and then being exposed to some of the lurking darkness in society after being arrested for writing graffiti with his best friend, he had to challenge a lot of the ways that the world works at a young age.
Being brought up on New York rap and then hooking onto some of Bristol’s finest electronic exports as well as Aphex Twin he was constantly absorbing music but it wasn’t until his 20s that he started making beats. He has an appreciation for improvisation and letting things fall into their natural place with his music. The parts of his debut album Communion finally came together in 2 weeks, he doesn’t like to plan any of his DJ sets in any way and he doesn’t even own CDJs. He becomes more animated when he talks about first officially using CDJs at SXSW last year – “I don’t own any of the gear that I DJ with so the only time I get to use it because it’s so expensive is when I play so for me it’s a treat, like “oh my god I get to use CDJs!”
It’s this level of enthusiasm that is peppered throughout our conversation that makes sense when he tells me he came to producing purely from the aspect of being a music fan. Having come up releasing through grime labels (Glacial Sound, Soundman Chronicles, Different Circles), it’s only natural that people have made stronger links to grime in his music than Rabit actually feels relates to it.
His debut album Communion, which will be his second release on Tri Angle, is an entirely different being to anything he’s put out before. The focus was on everything to be forceful, and that’s evident – drums that feel so overwhelming they could knock the wind out of you, blistering 8-bit crunches and punchy breaks sections. There’s even snippets of the whirr of a reload, a heavy connotation to grime DJing. Communion is also the first time that he’s really thought about using voices in his music as well, apart from having Riko Dan jump on his track Black Dragons; everything he’s released has mostly come from an instrumental perspective.
It’s easy to get lost in conversation with him, as we trail away from the how and why about his music that he feels he really doesn’t have that many answers for. Sitting across from each other in a hotel restaurant, we talk about everything from conspiracy theories to his musical upbringing, how fear instilled society is and his debut album.
People have labeled your music grime or club music, but I don’t think it really fits into one genre or area, there're parts of lots of things – you’ve listened to jungle, and there are parts of breaks in tracks… I was wondering what is in your musical DNA?
Rabit: “Firstly, it was probably rap music. Mainly because I have quite a few siblings, but the sister of mine who was closest in age was listening to that. A lot of us get our musical taste from siblings, so it was rap music she listened to and whatever was on the radio at the time. I think the first actual thing I got was a Madonna Cassingle when I was 7 or 8, a 99-cent cassingle that had a radio edit on the other side. The first actual CD I remember toting around and really being super into was Mobb Deep – Hell On Earth. It’s weird, but that was my path into what I’m making now – all the New York rap.
I wrote graffiti all throughout my teenage years, so that was how I got into music, music that graffiti writers listened to. It’s not quite that clear cut, but usually it’s going to be rap music, Company Flow, Cannibal Ox, Duckdown, Black Moon.”
There is anger and tension in the music of those hip hop artists that I can see in yours as well.
Rabit: “That was what first came about naturally. Then when it came to electronic artists, it was figuring out more mainstream stuff like Aphex Twin, Bjork, Tricky, Portishead.”
It’s interesting because people have called your music club music, but you’ve said that your intention isn’t to make people dance.
Rabit: “I’m glad you brought that up because club stuff, almost any producer in America with bass roots, that’s the first point of reference or even the main one so I think for the acts and the labels who make that their focus they do really well and as far as Americans go that’s their thing – the club environment and the sounds and what it can mean. But for me, that’s one of the things that’s been the hardest for me to describe contextually… clubs are never that space for me.
I don’t really have that context to my music – whenever I see a reference to that about my music it feels really out of place to me. It doesn’t mean if I feel like it I won’t play Jersey club or house if I want to – because I will – but that’s not really the main notion. – Rabit
Making music just stemmed from being a teenager and a fan – not quite retreating into music but it being that headphone world, anything could be going on. It’s like I’m going to walk to my job or school, and that’s a big part of your life, what you’re listening to at the moment. I started producing late compared to some people because I started in my '20s, so that’s funny. For a lot of people, it was something they started when they were 14. I played records with my friends a lot, we would go to places in Philly and buy rap CDs or 12”s and get into it, so that was my first experience with DJ culture.”
You said before that you were writing graffiti as a teenager, what were you up to at that point?
Rabit: “I think I just started walking around my neighbourhood. My best friend and I were really into magazines and the VHS tapes of people graffiting in New York.
Philly has a really deep graffiti history but it’s rough, it’s very inner city-oriented. You would get respect for writing in worse neighbourhoods if you travel every train and bus line and do as much as you can in each neighbourhood – that was the goal. That’s what my friends and I got into so we hooked up with people who grew up in it which was around my mid to late teens but I got arrested too many times and quit.
There are a lot of ways in which Philly is not good, which is another reason I quit doing it, I got robbed a bunch of times at gunpoint, writing in the wrong neighbourhoods. One time when I had community service, this was one of my first experiences with the government, in general, I got community service for writing and my friend and I was on this van where they let you out of the van to pick up trash with your vest. There were these two guys that ran it, the whole time I thought something’s not quite right then when I moved away a year or two later, discovered the two guys that worked for the city were running a crack cocaine ring, and they were using the van to drop off at different points. They were driving us around to do our thing, but they were using it to distribute… that was mind blowing. Not even from a crime aspect but the idea that things could be going on that you don’t see immediately on the surface that’s always been interesting to me.
I don’t think that comes out in my music; it might come out by itself in some weird way, weird feelings beneath the surface or moods but it’s nothing intentionally. Society and how it exists and everyone in it is so interesting to me.”
I wanted to talk about something that’s just in the recent past, at the end of last year you put out an EP called 'Sun Dragon' on Soundman Chronicles and Atacama Skeleton is one of the most mental, alien tracks I’ve heard, it slipped under the radar. Where was your head at when you were making that?
Rabit: “The thing with that is that it was a collection of some things that had been around that I’d done throughout that whole year. Parris wanted to sign one of the tracks first off so it was a matter of what else do I have that would work in that context, and Atacama Skeleton was something weird I chucked on there. With it also being a vinyl-only release, I feel a lot of people haven’t heard it either… maybe I can still do something with it digitally.
It was one of those things, everything always starts for me as an experiment, this is cool, I’m going to keep fucking with this sound. That was this weird collection of sounds; I was into weird theories at that time, and that’s where the title came on, I don’t know if you looked it up, but it’s pretty weird [Laughs].”
"There are a lot of ways in which Philly is not good, which is another reason I quit doing it, I got robbed a bunch of times at gunpoint, writing in the wrong neighbourhoods" – Rabit
Yeah, a 6-inch skeletal structure and they’ve never figured out what it is…
Rabit: “I don’t think it’s a hoax either; the stuff that comes up about it is weird scientific stuff. I remember thinking this track sounds like something unknown and like some unclassified document, so I went around and thought this was cool. This goes back to before, the unknown parts of society – it all loosely ties into that… the unknown. The terrestrial unknown has gotten less interesting to me; I’m lately more interested in the unknown that’s all around us, things that aren’t goblin stories.”
You made the EP Baptizm as well (the first Rabit release on Tri Angle), was that related to being part of a Catholic school and experiencing that?
Rabit: “I was forced to take my sacraments, there’s no option to skip the confirmation part. It’s not elective, so there’s someone that’s like this is the part where you confess all your sins, and you’re purified… to a 7th grader. It’s pretty weird.”
Were you religious at all?
Rabit: “No! I don’t think anyone at that age is, unless they’ve been reincarnated from a priest or a nun. I had to deprogramme myself from growing up with Christianity – especially with being queer; you feel guilty. As a teenager, you’re really just experiencing these feelings for yourself but you’re going to school in the day and they’re telling you that it’s wrong.
It’s not the kind of thing in retrospect I’m like oh my god I was so agonised. My main issue with Christianity is instilling fear and shame… The process of growth for me has really been about deprogramming from that structure of fear. Even if you don’t have experience with Catholicisim or Christianity, our culture is still driven by fear – that’s the main fear of society. My personal growth feels like I still don’t really know anything.”
Were people accepting of you when you grew up as queer?
Rabit: “No. I didn’t come out to my family until I was in my 20s, it’s the kind of thing where a lot of people probably knew, I’m sure a mother’s intuition is super strong… you know what I mean. I even remember her asking me when I was 19 or 20, and I was like “what are you talking about?” I’ve always been quite quiet anyway so it’s not like I would be shouting it from the rafters now in any way. If you consider the whole span of my life, it’s more recent which is funny to think about. I grew up feeling I needed to be a people pleaser. There are a lot of factors, but I always feel that it’s easier not to say anything in every situation and not speak up, pretend everything’s fine. That’s where it came from, just not feeling comfortable. Even now, it’s one of those things; we were talking about society portraying this narrative that everything’s happy, and it’s all a rainbow world. It’s not quite that simple. I think this is the difference between internet life and real life, there’s this thing, all of my friends are so accepting and progressive, and I wish that the real world could be like that.”
"My main issue with Christianity is instilling fear and shame… The process of growth for me has really been about deprogramming from that structure of fear" – Rabit
I wanted to talk about the use of voice on your album Communion because there are quite softly spoken voices, there are some fully formed samples and then some that are fragmented – like a scream or a word passage. What interests you about using the human voice in your music?
Rabit: “I talked about a couple of years ago just making stuff and listening to music that’s vocal driven or has a beat. I think that could be a part of it, a progression, knowing I could put a vocal on top of this beat, and it doesn’t have to be a singer or an MC. It could just be someone saying poetry, like on one of the tracks. I had made this album before I started working with Chino Amobi; he’s been really influential to me in that regard because that’s something that drives his work that goes over the music. I like the idea of this futuristic, imperial world – even the term “imperial”, doesn’t it make you think of Star Wars? As far as using the snippets, it’s a natural extension of listening to so much rap, trip hop and pop rock. I’m making textural music, but then that’s just another texture. It also has tones you can’t get from a synth.”
Throughout your back catalogue, your drums have been getting heavier and more in focus, especially on Communion – is that an intentional thing?
Rabit: “No, I think the main intention for the album was to make something forceful in the most immediate way. I really like making dreamy melodic stuff, but that wasn’t where my head was at the time. I’ve made an album or two’s worth of material in the past year that was more melodic but when it came time to finish the album and decide what was on it, I felt more comfortable having those forceful sounds. You were talking about someone saying how could instrumental music be politicised? That feels like my way of politicising it. If you get it, then you don’t need an explanation.”
Listening to some of the album, there’s almost this anxious feeling for me personally, especially with the pumping heartbeat on Flesh Covers The Bone, is it something that you feel?
Rabit: “I think fear is probably more appropriate. I was talking about a fear-based society and culture before; anxiety is a natural extension of that. If we weren’t trained from birth that our purpose is to struggle then, we would have no reason to be afraid. There’s a fear and an aspect to it because what I make is an extension of how I feel. Sometimes I feel confident and happy with how things are going, and then it’ll be like I need money to live and eat and in ten years… that can be a thought that pops in from time to time. Where I prefer to be is where everything is perfect, and I show love to people.”