A Pyrex Scholar: An Interview with UK Producer The Purist

He's produced for Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Danny Brown, Cas, and more.
By    March 12, 2015

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There are no rules. The efficacy of a beat is measured by head nods and screwed faces, not Billboard. MPC, computer, keyboard, live band or all then some—the method is irrelevant. One man’s Alchemist is another man’s Zaytoven. Still, one formula has proven undeniably potent for decades: dig, sample, chop, loop, add drums. Because Gilbert O’Sullivan proved the Biz could be beat in court, you now need Interscope money to sample the Isley Brothers; and creating sample-able music with live musicians often feels forced. So it goes that the best contemporary producers dig deeper. Enter 34-year-old UK producer The Purist.

Over the past two years, The Purist has produced some of the most compelling tracks from rappers like Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Danny Brown, Cas, and more. His resume isn’t extensive, but it’s practically unimpeachable. He also knows the importance of diversifying your bonds, crafting everything from soulful Blaxploitation infused boom-bap to ethereal and eerie trap. The ethos is at the top of the BandCamp page for his label, Daupe!: “Quality, Not Quantity.”

The Purist’s latest LP A Pyrex Scholar, drops March 17th. With features from Your Old Droog, Tree, and Freddie Gibbs among others, it might be his strongest work to date. We recently spoke via Skype about the album, growing up in the UK, grime, digging across the globe, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, and more. In addition to the Q&A, we’re also premiering the second single from A Pyrex Scholar, the Roc Marciano featuring “Patina.” Marci is in rare form and The Purist flips minimal soul-jazz brilliantly. The quality is, well . . . — Max Bell



How was your day?


The Purist: Not bad. Went to breakfast. Then I went into London and went to some record shops trying to find some records to sample. Then I did a community radio show called NTS and played some hip-hop songs. Now I’ve come back here to do this interview.


What does NTS generally play?


Purist: It’s a local, quite progressive Internet radio station and they do a lot of dance music and hip-hop and soul, funk, and reggae. They’re based in Dalston, in south London.


What were some of the songs you played?


Purist: I played a lot of 808-based hip-hop like MC Tree, A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg. Stuff like that. Quite a departure from the sort of music that I personally make.


Were you born and raised in the UK?


Purist: Yup. I was born in a place called Chichester, which is on the south coast. That’s in between Brighton and Portsmouth, about an hour from London.


What’s Chichester like?


Purist: It’s dull. It’s very white. It’s actually quite well off, quite wealthy. The main word being dull. Very, very dull.


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Was it difficult to hear hip-hop in that neighborhood?


Purist: I think the first hip-hop that I heard was Illmatic and Doggystyle. They were shown to me by a Swedish exchange student. I’d never heard rap until that moment. My first dose of hip-hop actually was “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas. Until then, I’d never heard a drop of rap.


How old were you? Did you hear those records in 1994?


Purist: I must’ve been thirteen. Yeah, [I heard them] when they dropped.


What kind of music had you heard up until that point?


Purist: Just the typical, sort of English music. A lot of dance stuff. Seal was very big around that time. The Prodigy and a lot of dance stuff.


Did either of your parents play music in the house?


Purist: They did. My mother played a lot of stuff, but it was all terrible. It wasn’t rubbish, but it wasn’t cool stuff. [She played] Fleetwood Mac and stuff like that. Obviously great music, but not really progressive cool stuff.


Did any family members/siblings play instruments?


Purist: No. I’m the first person in the family to be a creative.


When you first heard Illmatic, did you immediately know that rap was the genre of music you’d been looking for?


Purist: It was absolutely mind-blowing on so many levels. Because of my age, the fact that they were swearing on a record was amazing to me. The production—the hard drums with the melodic jazz loops. I hadn’t heard it before and I imagine many people hadn’t heard anything like it at the time. It really touched me and stuck with me. From that day on I was a rap fan, a rap fiend.



Was it difficult to find U.S. rap music?


Purist: Absolutely. In England at that time you would have to go into the local record shop and buy an import CD or an import vinyl for—in dollars—maybe $40. It was a very expensive hobby.


Are there any purchases you regret?


Purist: Definitely. There was the first album by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. I’d heard “Crossroads” and “1st of the Month”. Then I bought the album and it sounded nothing like that stuff.


What was one CD/record that you were excited about?


Purist: Reasonable Doubt, The Infamous, De La Soul, Tribe—all of the stuff with the really melodic production. Less so Wu-Tang because of the heavy drums, and it was quite abrupt. I was more into the melodic stuff with the nice music behind it.


Was rap responsible for exposing you to other genres of music (e.g. jazz, funk, soul)?


Purist: Absolutely. When I read the liner notes to see what they sampled or realized what they sampled that’s when I started digging, trying to find the records that were used to make the records that I liked. It opened an entire new world to me, all of these wonderful musicians and artists who had never really got any shine but had made these amazing pieces of music.


Are you a big fan of Blaxploitation films/soundtracks?


Purist: Massive fan. I think Ghostface’s Bulletproof Wallets and Alchemist’s work on that and Prodigy’s HNIC album were quite a big influence on my sound. The big strings, the sweeping sort of chase music soul thing. It’s something I’m really into and something you can’t recreate in a computer. So that’s what I go for. Samples that you couldn’t easily recreate, that sound like they’ve been sampled.



How old were you when you first started producing?


Purist: I first started collecting records at 16 or 17 and actually producing around 21.


What equipment did you use?


Purist: MCP-60. S900 vinyl deck. It was a very simple analogue setup when I first started. Then I moved on to doing a lot of stuff in Pro Tools and Logic and things like that.


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Is that what you use today?


Purist: I would say the main two things I use are the 1210, to sample everything into the MPC60, or sample directly into Pro Tools and just chop the stuff up. So I actually make the beat in the sequencer because it’s faster and the sound quality is better.


Did you have anyone who helped you learn how to do all of this? Or were you self-taught through trial and error?


Purist: Trial and error. I’m a big fan and believer in reading manuals. People don’t ever read the manual, but if you read the manual you can learn things very quickly and discover things that people don’t even know machines can do. [I read all my manuals] in depth, again and again.


Do you make a beat every day? What’s your work schedule like?


Purist: The way that I mainly work is that I spend a lot of time digging. I spend a lot of time digging for records that are so good that you haven’t got to do much with them. A lot of my favorite records, a lot of the best records, are just loops. Just really nice pieces of music that people have found and thought, “I can use this.” So I probably spend about 75% of the time digging and 25% actually making beats.


So you must go digging every day.


Purist: Yeah, pretty much.


Where do you dig? Do you always frequent the same spots?


Purist: I travel the world. I go everywhere. Japan, America, Paris—I go there a lot because there are some incredible French easy listening records that haven’t been discovered. I would really say that the French music scene in the ‘70s produced some of the best music, probably after the soul/funk of America in the ‘70s.


Are there any good French records you’ve picked up recently?


Purist: I’ve got a stack in front of me now. Here’s one. It’s called “Histoire d’o” by Andre Popp. Just a ’45 from the ‘70s from Paris. It might be from a film soundtrack. It’s just incredible and dramatic with wah-wah guitars and strings. It’s amazing.


How do you finance your travels?


Purist: Japan is a good one because you can fly to Japan for around $1,000, maybe stay for two nights, and literally buy a few thousand records for around 200 yen a piece, which is roughly a dollar. Then you bring them back to Europe and you sell them for $20 a record. It’s a self-financing trip. I’m a big record flipper. I’ve met a lot of the American rap community via flipping records, people like Lord Finesse and Marco Polo­­—traveling the world, buying records to either sample myself or sell, and then connecting with people.


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Do you do most of your sales online?


Purist: I’m selling less these days because [my] records are performing quite well. That allows me to keep the better records for myself and make money from doing shows, record sales, and vinyl sales.


Can you walk me through one of your encounters with an American hip-hop producer? How did you meet Lord Finesse?


Purist: I’ve got a blog called A Pyrex Scholar, which I’ve run for around six or seven years, where I share some of the records that I find for free for people to listen to enjoy. Through that blog I’ve been contacted by a lot of people and obviously word spreads. I’m pretty sure it’s via the blog that Lord Finesse hit me up saying, “Do you have any records for me to sample? What can you sell to me?” And we became friends through that.


Do you two communicate frequently?


Purist: Quite often. Last time I was in New York he gave me the Lord Finesse hip-hop tour of New York. He took me around everywhere. He took me to the Big Pun mural, then I went to a steak dinner somewhere.


Peter Lugers?


Purist: I went to Peter Lugers separately. It was amazing. That’s the best steak ever. I went with some friends and we ordered steak for four, a big amount. I got full up and when the guy walked over to give us a doggy bag he said, “O, you’ve left the filet.” And I realized I’d been eating the rump and thinking it was the filet. Isn’t that crazy?


Did you have another name before you decided on The Purist?


Purist: I did. I was making a lot of different records. I was making dance records. I was producing and songwriting for a lot of people under my real name, which we’ll leave out.


Did you release any projects as The Purist prior to Double Feature?


As The Purist that was the first thing.



Under your real name, is there any music available online?


Purist: Absolutely.


Do you not want people to find them?


Purist: If people look they can probably find them. But it’s a completely different thing. The Purist is rap music, crate digging, doing things in that ‘90s way of just sampling and making rap music often about selling crack and things, the things that interest me. Not doing crack or selling crack, but the things that interest me, like Mobb Deep, Ghostface. And everything before that is a different thing.


That’s why the name of your blog is called A Pyrex Scholar.


Purist: Yes, it’s from that Ghostface lyric. With the blog, I was trying to think of an interesting and Googleable name. And on that Ghostface song “Kilo” he says, “Pyrex scholars / Professors at war, killing partners for a million dollars.” I just liked the phrase of Pyrex Scholar in the way of describing someone who is an expert at making crack. In a way, it’s very similar to what I do. It’s not like I’m taking terrible records and making great records. I’m taking really good records, beautifully made pieces of music, and giving them a polish, that extra 10% and adding a rapper to that formula.


So making beats is similar to making crack . . .


Purist: Yeah. [laughs] Basically.


What is Brixton Briefcase?


Purist: It’s my production company. It’s what I invoice from. But a Brixton briefcase is London slang from the ‘70s for a ghetto blaster. Brixton in the ‘70s was a very black neighborhood and a lot of young black guys would carry around big ghetto blasters pumping out music. So they were called Brixton briefcases.


In addition to your own releases on your label, Daupe!, you put out Tree’s Sunday School II on vinyl.


Purist: I’m a massive fan of Tree. I was sending beats back and forth with him and when that dropped I thought that project deserved to exist in more than just the digital realm. I thought it was so good that it should exist on vinyl so people can touch it and hold it and put it on a record player. So we put that out and it did very well.



How do you feel about the rap coming out of Chicago?


Purist: I think Chicago is just an absolute hub of talent right now. For me, hand on my heart, I would say Chicago is like New York in the ‘90s right now. It’s just pouring with talent.


Do you DJ as well?


Purist: I do. I did a show in Switzerland on Sunday and got back on Monday. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world playing records . . . . [It] gives me a great opportunity to go digging while I’m out there too.


Do you spin solely hip-hop or do you spin all different genres?


Purist: I’m a record collector; I’m a crate digger. So I love to play soul and funk and jazz and boogie/disco and hip-hop. I like to play grime. I’m a big grime fan. Growing up in England, that was basically our version of hip-hop.


When did you first hear grime?


Purist: The minute it came out. It’s so entrenched in London culture that you couldn’t have missed when grime started. I remember Wiley dropping “Eskimo” in 2001 or 2002, then smashing it with “wot you call it” in 2004. Skepta’s DTi …. Dizzee Rascal dropping Boy in da Corner in 2003 and changing everything. Have you heard of garage music? There was an act called Oxide and Neutrino. People will argue that they were garage, but I would argue that they had tracks that were kind of pre grime, grime. Or at least some of the elements in their music were early versions of grime. They had a song called “Rap Diss” and I was really into them.



Who are some of your favorite contemporary grime artists? You’ve worked with Cas . . .


Purist: I genuinely rate Cas as the best rapper to ever come out of England. Ever. I rate him that highly. I literally can’t speak any higher of his talent. To me, he’s a combination of Nas, Big L, Mobb Deep, and Dizzee Rascal. All four in one. If you’re not English, because of the language and the colloquialisms, a lot of it might go over people’s heads. But if you’re an English person—he really is the British Nas. He’s talking about being a drug dealer and street culture with such intelligence and such vivid pictures. He’s the best.


Do you like The Streets?


Purist: I’m a massive fan of The Streets. I really think the first Streets record was the first real UK rap record. The subject matter it talked about was so on point with my life and my friends’ lives, talking about gambling, going to the bookies, watching football, and drinking beer down at the pub. It was a real working class English person’s record. The rapping wasn’t great, but the songs were great. Then his second album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, is a masterpiece. It tells a story. Each song is separate, but it tells the story of a guy losing his money, going crazy, and at the end of the album the money has fallen behind the TV—he finds it. It’s genius.


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The only thing is with him, as with Cas, is that when it’s trying to translate outside England a lot of the turns of phrase are so English that people won’t understand them or understand how clever they are. It’s very much like the film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. With the language in that, I don’t know if you know what they’re talking about all the time, but you might miss little bits of it.


You played Kasern Basel, right? What is that event?


Purist: That’s where I played on Sunday. It was amazing. It’s in Switzerland. Basel is the name of the city and Kasern is the name of the venue. That weekend was a Swiss festival. It’s not a music festival per se, it’s just celebrating Swiss culture and politics. It’s very hard to explain. You really have to see it. The streets are all shut down. Everyone is walking around in masks and costumes with crazy lanterns. They open up all of the basements of the city. All of the old buildings all have basements, crypt-style basements. They’re all turned into bars where they serve traditional Swiss drink and food. It’s a real experience, to say the least.


From afar, it seems like ‘90s east coast rap is big in the UK.


Purist: Well obviously albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle did very well here, but I think outside of those main two albums west coast rap didn’t do as well as east coast rap.


Did you listen to a lot of west coast rap?


Purist: I didn’t really go beyond Doggystyle and The Chronic. That’s as far as I went when I was younger. These days I love TDE and all those guys. And I love the disco/boogie from that coast. But as far as west coast rap I can’t think what I really like.


I’m trying to think of west coast rap you might not have heard. Coolio’s first album?


Purist: That was massive out here. In fact everything Coolio has ever done has been huge out here.


Really?


Purist: God yeah. Coolio is massive. Going slightly off topic, RA the Rugged Man was here about two months ago and we were chatting with some of his friends and we’re in a massive conversation and I was saying to people that Busta Rhymes is a bigger rapper than Snoop. They wouldn’t believe it. But in England Busta Rhymes is a bigger rapper than Snoop. He’s had about thirty top-five songs. He did a show maybe a year ago and he did maybe an hour of just hit records. And when I say hit records I don’t mean hip-hop hit records, I mean actual chart, top-five records. It was incredible.



When the Internet came about did you stop going to record stores as much? Did you find more American music than you ever thought you would?


Purist: In terms of looking for samples it didn’t change anything. If it’s on the Internet it means someone else can find it and it’s not rare. So it didn’t stop that. But in terms of buying rap music and general music it changed everything because you could have everything instantly for half the price or a quarter of the price. It changed everything. Especially being able to combine that with Serato. You can go and buy a record and play it straight away and not have to carry it around. It was a real change.


You’ve been to the States before. Where do you visit most often?


Purist: The two main places are New York and L.A. I spent a lot of time in New York over the past couple of years just digging, networking, studio sessions. I’ve got an old housemate who lives out there, so I can stay with her in Manhattan and run around and try to find those records and build those relationships and be a part of the scene. Although now the scene isn’t what it used to be. The music scene there is not as it was in the early 2000s when there were a 100 rappers there with running around with record deals.


Are there any producers coming out of England, rap or otherwise, that people should know about? Budgie obviously did The Good Book with Alchemist.


Purist: Budgie is my boy. I’m literally in his house while he’s in L.A. He’s a phenomenal producer, a great crate digger. I don’t even know where to start. I’m going to end up leaving out so many names and they’ll get angry. I’ll e-mail you some names. [From said e-mail] Sumgii, Flako, Budgie, s-type, Beat Butcha, Jon Phonics.


How do you go about initially contacting artists like Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs etc.?


Purist: The biggest thing that I’ve done is that I spotted all of these people before they were famous. To sort of approach Jay-Z now and give him a beat tape, he’s never going to hear it. But if you found Jay-Z before Reasonable Doubt, before he was famous, he might have an interest in checking out your beats. And with Bronson, the minute he dropped “Shiraz” I knew he was a star. He had charisma beyond measure. He was an incredible rapper and rapping over the right beats. So I tweeted him straight away, “What’s your e-mail? Let’s work.” A few days later I was sending him beats and we were making music. Then with Danny Brown it was a similar sort of thing. I spotted him before XXX and just hollered and sent beats and built a very simple relationship and waited until the time was right to release the song. I think the main thing is spotting people before they’re famous, spotting the talent as it rises. Anyone who is famous is getting inundated with beats, thousands upon thousands of beats. You have to find them before they make it. That’s the secret.


Do you have personal relationship with these guys?



Purist: Me and Roc are very cool. I send beats to him all the time and vice versa. Whenever Bronson comes over we always hang out and go to the show. When Danny comes over we do the same thing, maybe go out to dinner after and just chill.


Do you ever work in the studio with your collaborators or do you often work via the Internet?


Purist: It depends. With someone like Cas we’ll probably be in the studio together, but when you’re working with people like Danny and Action sometimes you don’t want to take them out of their creative space. It’s almost like you don’t want to rock the apple cart. They’re good. They make good songs and sometimes when you collaborate in the studio you can upset that balance. Some people don’t think of it that way, but I like to send these people one beat with some directions and then let them do what they do. You can’t do that with all artists. Lesser artists I have to talk them through it and have them redo it. But the reason why people like Danny, Action, and Freddie Gibbs are so big is because they know what they’re doing.


How did you end up working with Rag N Bone Man? Do you know him via the UK rap scene?


Purist: Yeah, we’re from the same town. Brighton, where I lived for about ten years. I was in my friend’s studio working on some music and Rag N Bone Man, when he was very young, maybe about seven years ago, came through to hang out, started singing, and I was like, “This guy is going to be a star. He’s going to be absolutely huge.” From that point on we just worked on records and worked on records. None of them ever actually came out because I was never happy with them. He was such a big talent that I didn’t want to put out a record that wasn’t perfect. There’s a lot of stuff in the vault that will come out one day. He’s a very, very talented guy and it’s going to be absolutely huge.


Do you make every beat with a rapper in mind?


Purist: I don’t think it’s the same every time. But normally I’ll hear a sample and via the instrumentation and the feeling of it there will definitely be a group of artists that I’ll give it to. Then maybe when I finish building the beat I’ll be like, “Yeah, Roc Marci,” or, “Yeah, Action Bronson.” Almost always, once I’ve made the beat, if the person I made it for doesn’t like it, I just throw it away.


So you have folders of throwaway beats?


Purist: I’ve got thousands.


You mentioned to me before the interview that you composed one of the beats for A Pyrex Scholar in 2005. Did anything change?


Purist: It may be older than that. It may be 2003. The only thing different is the snare.


Are all of the beats that old?


Purist: No. That particular beat is one that I’ve had and played for rappers and they’ve never quite liked it. But I liked it so much that I wanted it to see the light of day. When you played me that song that sampled the same sample I was a bit gutted. I was like, “O no, people are going to think I sampled them or didn’t find it myself.”


How long did you work on Pyrex Scholar?


Purist: Two years. It was meant to come out last February.


Which track are you happiest with?


Purist: It’s either the Roc Marci track (“Patina”), because it’s so left-field and the cadence he raps in is so odd and the sample is so odd; or the Freddie Gibbs track, because I took him somewhere else that he doesn’t normally go. Until people heard him with Madlib nobody had really heard him over sample breaks. It was mainly over 808 production and trap production. So I wanted to take him somewhere different, to get him into the pimp aesthetic I thought worked really well with that beat.


What’s next after A Pyrex Scholar?


Purist: My next aim is to do a short project, maybe a ten-song album, with one rapper. Hopefully someone of the ilk of who I’ve been working with, a near top-tier indie U.S. rapper and just do ten songs—something along the lines of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib or Alchemist and Prodigy.


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