At the forefront of instrumental hip-hop and modern electronic music, Take has spent years helping forge a strong scene within his native Los Angeles, but also constantly evolving to avoid stasis. Before critics got misty-eyed over James Blake’s sweater set this winter, Take had already covered similar territory, manipulating and stretching his own vocals over glitchy electronic music on last spring’s “Only Mountain.”
Just last month, Alpha Pup released “Only Mountain: The Remixes,” which successfully extended the shelf life of the original and offered interested takes from Mono/Poly, Tokimonsta, Free The Robots and Falty DL. He opened up his Hollywood studio and apartment to me recently for some insight on the history of the Los Angeles “beat scene”, Low End Theory, and his own beginnings as an artist. We also discussed the future of instrumental and electronic music, as well as what form his new material will be taking when he starts his next record this year. —Aaron Frank
How did you initially get in to making music and when did your first record come out?
My first record actually came out in 1999 on K Records. I’ve always been involved in music since I was a kid though. I started playing guitar when I was eleven years old. Then in high school, I was in a bunch of little bands that played in garages and school parties and stuff. I was really into rock and roll, heavy metal and psych-rock when I was younger, then I started getting into hip-hop when I was around 17. But my friend got to DJ this huge house party when I got to college in Olympia, and I was just fascinated because I had always been trying to organize bands, which was difficult because of everyone’s scheduling and trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas equally.
So when I saw this DJ playing, I was fascinated by the fact that you could rock a show on your own like that and it really inspired me. And towards the end of the night after everyone had been drinking, I was like “Come on man. You gotta let me try this.” And it was a packed house, there were like 300-400 people, and I didn’t know shit. He just showed me the crossfader and volume, and I managed to somehow match this crazy house song he was playing with a Michael Jackson song, I think it was “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” Everyone went crazy though, and even though people always go crazy for Michael Jackson that was right when I caught the bug.
Of course the next record, I completely trainwrecked, but that sold me and I was at my friend’s house everyday after that learning. He’s actually no longer a DJ, but I started buying records after that and just calling him all the time asking to play his turntables. Eventually that lead to buying a lot of hip-hop records and learning to beat-match and scratch, and then we started a hip-hop night in Olympia. It was a really great time for hip-hop because we were playing stuff that no one had ever heard and I was having records shipped to me from Fat Beats NYC. And it was just such a fun party every Wednesday. It was before hip-hop had gotten really commercial, and then from there I just got my first drum machine and started making beats.
AF: Even though DJ Shadow had already gotten pretty big, instrumental hip-hop was still very much in its infancy at that time. Who were your inspirations back then?
Take: Shadow had just come out. Krush, all of the Mo Wax stuff, Wall of Sound, early Warp stuff. Ninja Tune was big then. Psycho Les, No ID, Outkast, El-P, Spinna, Jay Dee, INI. Other than that, Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, all of the second generation golden era hip-hop stuff. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Dr. Dre.
I remember when I first got my shitty BOSS drum machine though. This was my freshman year in college, and I remember sitting with the Illmatic record and trying reproduce the beats from that on the drum machine. And I would get the patterns down, but it didn’t have that raw, grimy sound to it.
So after I got in to my second year in college and started taking audio, engineering, and MIDI courses, it all started to make sense and a friend actually told me “Those are all samples. They’re all sampled from old soul records and stuff like that.” This is when I was like 19, so after I figured that out, I just started buying all kinds of old soul records and trying to match those with the samples on the hip-hop records. And that was when I ended up making my first album on K Records.
Like you said, nobody was really buying instrumental hip-hop back then so it was basically packaged as a scratch album because those were really popular at the time. It was called “Emergency Breaks” though, and it was basically a scratch record and it had five beats on each side. That was for K Records though, and they’re a world famous indie rock label. They put out Beck’s first album and some early Nirvana. Calvin Johnson, who runs it, is basically a legend in that world. It’s a legendary punk rock, indie DIY-aesthetic type of label.
AF: So how did they find out about you and end up putting out your record?
Take: Well they would come to my hip-hop night. It was kind of a small town and Calvin and all the guys from K Records would come to that. And they were just really interested in how I was even getting the stuff that I was playing at the time. So they asked me if I produced and I told them I just started, so they were interested in putting something out and I had just gotten my sampler. And literally the record came out six months after I got my sampler. So looking back on it, the material really isn’t great but it was a great opportunity to have. Fast-forward to 10 years later, and it’s really been all about fine-tuning and growing my musical experiences and so on.
AF: Well your style has obviously changed quite a bit since then. How have you made that transition from hip-hop to electronic over the years?
Take: I always loved electronic music but my heart was always in hip-hop. So when hip-hop really started to suck, I decided I was going to try and take that hip-hop aesthetic and incorporate whatever else I loved in music. So it was sort of just a natural progression to the stuff that I was listening to at the time. I started listening to more electronic music and less hip-hop and I got tired of trying to work with MCs. I just felt like that world was kind of on it’s way down and I wanted to do something new and fresh and creative.
AF: So when you were in college, was it your initial intention to take those audio engineering courses rather than electrical or computer or something else?
Take: Yeah, I was going to school for Studio/Audio engineering. Taking audio engineering classes taught me a lot, but it also showed me that I didn’t want to be engineer. I realized that I didn’t want to sit in a studio for 15 hours a day recording bands and other people’s music. I wanted to do my own shit, not eat cold sandwiches at 4 in the morning while I’m mixing someone else’s record.
AF: So after college, the inevitable question is “How did you become involved with Low End Theory?”
Take: Well, Before Low End Theory, there was a night called Sketchbook and this was the original beat night in Los Angeles. It started off at the Room in Hollywood and then it moved to Little Temple in Silver Lake. It was Kutmah who started it, and it went on for five years. It was Kutmah, me, Eric Coleman, and this guy named Orlando. And that was the original beat night for everyone in Los Angeles. Everyone from Flying Lotus to Dibia$e, Nobody, Ras G, Prefuse 73, Dabrye, and many other people. A ton of people who were playing similar types of music at the time either performed there or just came and hung out. Madlib would come through, Peanut Butter Wolf.
That was essentially the first “Beat Scene” party. And what ended up happening was Dibia$e would bring a boombox every week to this area outside where you could smoke weed and hang out. So everyone ended up outside every week smoking weed and listening to each other’s beat CDs. Ras G was there, Nobody, Lotus, Kutmah. It was like a cipher for producers. It was a beautiful event. Everyone was so young and sort of starting out with their beats, but what ended up happening was it ended up being all for producers. Very few girls would show up and everyone would be outside smoking weed and listening to beats. So we kind of got sick of it as DJs too because towards the end, only a few people would be inside watching the actual performances. So Kutmah ended it. We weren’t making enough money and this was before Serato, so we were spending all the money we made on records, which only ended up being like 20 bucks each at the end of the night.
Then literally 4 or 5 months later, Kev, Gaslamp Killer and Nobody started Low End Theory and it was basically a natural transition. Everyone that went to Sketchbook started going to Low End Theory and it was basically just the next step in the evolution of the scene. Kev is a great businessman and a great promoter, and we were kids that didn’t really know how to do any of that. So Kev and the crew were able to do a lot more with it than we had been able to at Sketchbook. It was a similar idea musically but drastically improved with good sound and good promotion behind it. Pretty soon Low End became the go-to night to hear left field beats and underground hip-hop. I was tripping out the first time I went that the sound was so good and there were so many people there compared to what we did with Sketchbook. And then I just ended up playing there because they were all friends of ours. So that’s the history behind that. A lot of people don’t know that actually. That whole pre-Low End Theory scene was Sketchbook, and that was really where I came from.
AF: How important is the actual scene to you as an artist? To have a place where people can exchange ideas and work on each other’s projects.
Take: I think it’s essential. Just having a place where you can exchange ideas, and bullshit and talk about music. It’s like ground zero for any scene. Even when you go back to when jazz started out, they had these places like the Blue Note where people would gather and people would jam. It’s the same as in New York with the disco days when you had Studio 54 or wherever. You always knew that every Friday or every Wednesday, there were going to be some cool people there and people would show up with the latest like acetate edit of some disco jam and give it to the DJ. So I think that having a place for all of that is great. It’s good for exposure, it’s good for growth, and it’s just a good place for like-minds to meet.
AF: With that said though, how can something like that support itself and keep progressing without getting corny and burning out?
Take: To be honest, I don’t really know the answer to that and I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but every hot trend and movement eventually fades. The golden days of hip-hop in New York didn’t last. The same thing happened with disco and with drum and bass, which is kind of similar to this beat scene movement or whatever you want to call it. It slowly faded out, and a few artists were able to come out of that and do some interesting things, but as a whole it kind of stagnated and fell apart.
I think the key is to not get stuck in a formula, to always think for yourself musically. I think people definitely need to keep things moving and not be afraid to try new things and incorporate new ideas. Myself personally, I listened to so many different kinds of music. My influences are so broad and I try to incorporate them in my own productions. I feel what’s happening all over the world is that this beat scene thing is so hot and trendy that you’ve got kids all over the world trying to emulate Flying Lotus and Samiyam and there’s just so much stuff out there that sounds very formulaic and all the same. I think that’s sort of what kills any movement is when things become a formula and things become standard and you know what to expect. The most important thing as a musician, producer, DJ, and an artist, is to find your own voice.
AF: So you’re basically saying that people who try and become involved should always be bringing something new to the table to keep things progressing?
Take: People need to keep it creative and not be afraid to try new things. If you look at the people who have had success in this scene, the most exciting artists to me are the people that are always changing and recreating their sound from song to song and people who have their own voice. I would say that if you listen to the LA scene, the one thing that’s so incredible about what we have here is that most of us have our own sound. I like to think I have my own sound, Matthewdavid, Daedelus, Teebs, Ras G, Flying Lotus Samiyam, Free The Robots, and countless others from LA all have a distinguishable sound. None of us sound alike. It’s important to be individualistic and to explore your own sound, your own voice.
AF: Well your sound has obviously changed quite a bit over the years. “Only Mountain” obviously has more vocals, there’s a more melodic experimental sound. How did you get to where you’re at now and manage to expand your style so much?
Take: Well for me, I think I just get bored easily. I get bored of other music. I get bored of my own music pretty fast. And for it to stay fun I have to challenge myself and try new things and come up with new ideas. The second it turns in to a stale process is when I say “Why am I doing this?” and it just isn’t fun anymore. It’s not like I make a ton of money. So in order for it to be sustainable, it has to be fun and remain interesting. It has to make me constantly challenge myself and that makes me feel good about myself. A lot of the music that I make is just trying new things out.
And also, just since I’ve gotten older, my musical knowledge base has expanded so much. I listen to classical music a lot, jazz, indie rock, tons of weird electronic records, house, techno, hip-hop. I listen to everything. And that kind of goes with the name Take. It doesn’t mean “to take things” or “give and take”. It’s basically my “take” on things and that’s what my music has always been. It’s always just been me processing everything I see and hear and experience in life and it being processed through my filter and with my “take” on things.
AF: Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
Take: Destroyer, Deerhunter, Caribou, Dimlite, Hudson Mohawke, Blonde Redhead, Wild Nothing, Pantha Du Prince. Phantogram, Sonnymoon, Sufjan Stevens. To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of beats when I’m at home chilling. I listen to more indie stuff. Creative stuff though, most of those people mix electronics with instruments. Atlas Sound, Panda Bear, that type of shit. Hard to list all the stuff I’m listening to but that’s what comes up off the top of my head.
AF: So with the new stuff you’re working on, it seems like there might be more of a vocal influence, especially with the melodies and how they’re composed. Do you see yourself going in more of that direction in the future as far as structuring the songs around vocals?
Take: I definitely want to use more vocals. I’m gonna be doing some singing myself. Obviously it’s going to be chopped up and processed, but I sang on the last record. I’m not the greatest singer, but I’m also looking for the right people to collaborate with on vocals. I really see myself heading that way a lot more and getting away from the formulaic beat sound. I really want to get away from that and get on to the next step in the progression. I’ve been doing beat shit since 1999 and I’ve seen the whole process of how everything’s gone from Premier to Dilla to Madlib to Flylo. I’ve been along for that whole ride and I feel like I’m trying to explore other things as well. It’s only natural I think.
AF: So you’re going to be working on your next album later this year?
Take: Yeah I’ll probably be collecting ideas while I’m on tour and then as soon as I get back, I’ll be diving head first into making this new record, which is always a challenge.
AF: That’s obviously a fun process for you though right. You make it sound sort of daunting.
Take: It is, but honestly it’s an emotional process. Because as you get more mature, as your ears get more mature, you realize how much work actually goes in to one song, to finish one song. It takes a long fuckin’ time and a lot of micro-analyzing and thinking and trying stuff out. And like I said, as you become more of an experienced listener, you take that hard critique you use for everyone else’s music, you use it on yourself too and it becomes hard. It can become really difficult.
AF: So with your next project and in the future, are there any vocalists or people that you would like to collaborate with?
Take: Yeah, there are some people I’d like to work with. I’d love to work with Sarah from Phantogram. I’d love to work with the singer of Blonde Redhead. I love the singer from Warpaint. I’d love to a track with Steve. We’ve been talking about that for a while. Me and Nosaj are gonna do a track. As far as rappers, I haven’t really thought about that in a while. I’m really in to female vocalists.
AF: So as much as the scene has grown over the years, where do you see it going in the future? Do you see people like yourself working with more rappers and singers and having more of an influence on popular music?
Take: Sure, I do actually. I think if you look at popular music they’ve always gone to the underground to get their new, latest ideas. Commercial music always stems from the underground. Timbaland’s sound is obviously influenced by some drum and bass and the same thing with southern rap. Now you’ve got people like Rusko producing for Britney Spears and Hudson Mohawke I think is en route to producing some pretty big major label rappers. Mux Mool just did a remix for Blaqstarr on Interscope. So I do see it going that way, and I don’t have any problems with people doing that because we all need to get paid. There is nothing wrong with living well off of your craft. Sometimes you have to do moneymaking gigs in order to have the financial stability that will allow you to do more non- commercial projects.
It’s not like a lot of these artists are seeing big payoffs from their albums because most of the kids download it for free anyways, so I’m definitely open to it. And I think it will trickle in to the mainstream in one form or another. And back to your question, I don’t really see where it’s going to be honest. I’m trying to figure out that question for myself while I’m working on this next album and that’s about as far in to the future as I can see with it. I just try to keep it fun, new and interesting for myself and hopefully people will still like it. I think instrumental is music is a lot more accepted than it was five years ago. A lot of people that used to put out albums with vocals on every song now have two or three instrumental songs on their albums.
AF: Can you just tell me a little bit about the selection process and how the idea came about for the Only Mountain remix album?
Take: The idea came about just because I felt like with Only Mountain, each song had so many different, interesting aspects. It was a really dense record, and I felt like opening that up for other people to interpret would be so cool because there’s so much in each song. You could potentially make three songs out of each song. So I asked Kev about it, and he thought it was a great idea. He told me to just reach out to whoever I wanted to do remixes. So I pretty much just hit up all the homies and sent stems out all over. The response was huge and I had to cut it off after a certain point. At first I had opened it up to friends of friends and producers, and there were like 60 people that wanted to get in on it. In the end we trimmed in down to like 25 that were all really good. Then the contest we did for promotion separately to get one last person. With the remix contest, there was like 150 or 160 submissions. So the turnout was phenomenal and I was actually pretty shocked. This was all in about 30 days. I listened to every single one multiple times. I just spent days playing them all.
AF: Who ended up winning the contest and what made you pick them?
Take: The Clonius, A guy from Austria. He’s really dope. What I was looking for in the winner was for someone to completely flip it from the original. Also high quality production, and a song that I would want to listen to. When I say that, I mean, one problem I have with the beat scene or whatever you want to call it is that, so much of the stuff that comes out is just beats. They’re just that, they’re not songs. And you hear them once or twice and you’re like, this is cool, but it’s not something I want to go back and wanna listen to because it’s touched me emotionally or touched me in a certain way that I’d never heard. It’s the same reason why you go back to Radiohead or certain bands, because there’s something there that captures you, and I don’t really feel a lot of that coming from the beat scene. So that’s what I really wanted to do with the remix contest was for someone to take it and give the original a whole different spin, but also make it a listenable song. The Clonious’ remix did just that for me.
AF: I think a lot of people still don’t understand that difference between beats and songs.
Take: It’s a huge difference. It’s easy to make a beat with an eight bar loop that changes in to a four bar loop and then back to an eight bar loop, but making a song that carries an emotion and vibe and puts you in a different place, it’s a whole different animal.