Brenk Sinatra aka Branko Jordanovic is one of Europe’s finest beatsmiths and a truly unique presence. He’s arguably the only resident of Vienna-Kaisermühlen to communicate per gang sign and outsmart your geek friends about vintage gear, while on a pedal boat, facetiming with your favorite West Coast OG.
Five years ago, while slacking my way through the purgatory stages of finishing literary studies, I was helping out two days a week at a Cologne-based record label that was at the time best known for instrumental hip-hop. Exciting days for a number of reasons. On a very niche level and with a massive delay, the aftermath of Donuts and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series had spawned a potent European beat scene that ranged from simple-but-effective jazz loops to the more elaborate electric relaxation of the LA-beat scene and the glossy surface aesthetics of the Glasgow-school. At the time, the image of the bedroom producer started changing rapidly.
Brenk’s instrumental album Gumbo from 2007 had anticipated this micro-movement with a mixture of moody pads, Korg melodies, G’d up adlibs and heavy-hitting drums and shakers. When Gumbo 2 hit the stores in 2011, the beat bubble in our neck of the woods had reached its creative peak. The album stood out from the inevitable jazz flip mutations that were released by the dozen in those years, not just because Viennese producers always seemed to have a broader referential framework but also because Brenk understood the short-attention-span dynamics of the instrumental record better than most.
Besides steadily chopping up samples with his Austrian comrades, Brenk started touring and recording as Betty Ford Boys with Suff Daddy and Dexter. Eventually he went West—mentally and physically—producing for his West Coast heroes like MC Eiht, Outlawz, Xzibit, B-Real, and more. Now that Gumbo II gets re-released as a double album, and his full-length with MC Eiht Which Way Iz West seems closer than ever, we gave the man a call for a status report from the Kaisermühlen-Compton axis. —Julian Brimmers
Where’s your head at musically at the moment?
Brenk Sinatra: My taste is completely different from the rap records I’m listening too. I don’t think I ever bought hip hop records on vinyl. I mostly buy old stuff ’70s, ’80s, ’60s, whatever… for the past 2 years I’ve been stuck on prog and krautrock. To me that’s the best and least predictable sample source. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a dirty soul loop with the original drums intact and someone rapping on it, like Conway and Westside Gunn, for example. But as much as I love to listen to it, soul music as a sample source is pretty predictable by now.
Did Austria have any prog bands?
Brenk Sinatra: Not like Germany, where you had tons of great bands, some of which only released one or two records and now bubble up again as re-issues. We had some bands in Austria but that was mostly private pressings, quality stuff, though. While working on my record Chop Shop 2 with Fid Mella, for which we only sampled Austrian music, I discovered how complex our homegrown scene was in the ’70s. You had a few great krautrock bands, soul bands, you wouldn’t believe it, but it was here.
Like who for example?
Brenk Sinatra: Man, I’m really bad at sample snitching. Well… nah fuck it. [Laughs] Type “Austria” into Discogs and put some work in it yourself, that’s part of the fun.
Vienna has always had an incredible pool of producers, can you drop some names that people need to check out?
Brenk Sinatra: True, instrumental music has always been Vienna’s trademark sound to the outside world. None of us actually think about how we’re indebted to Kruder & Dorfmeister, that was a different time. But of course there are similarities and we’ve added some flavor to this tradition.
There are at least 6 or 7 great producers around right now but Fid Mella is hands down my favorite. Not just because I made records with him. He’s a wizard. There’s beat makers and wizards, he’s a wizard. Clefco is another very talented and humble dude, Mainloop, Max Pad, Saiko etc. And oh yeah, Wandl, a super young, talented producer. He’s probably best known for working with rappers but his solo stuff is very dope too.
So how do you listen to rap then?
Brenk Sinatra: I’d say it’s 90% gangsta stuff or wavy type shit. I can listen to 4 hours of prog rock and choir chants, flute records, whatever and switch to Max B or some G shit from Cali the next minute. To me there’s no contradictions in music. Everything that’s authentic, I’ll listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I like conscious stuff too, but it has to have a certain attitude or vibe to it, or I can’t listen to it.
You’ve always had that West Coast fixation…
Brenk Sinatra: Yes, people know that by now, although… probably not yet on the West Coast [laughs]. East Coast came much later for me. It started with Eazy-E who is still my hero. But it never stopped, just the other day Nipsey Hussle dropped some music I felt was dope. Right now it’s pretty much Oakland stuff for me, I listen to a lot of Jacka and Joe Blow at the moment.
I just revisited some old Messy Marv tapes yesterday…
Brenk Sinatra: I loved his shit back in 2011/12, I think, but I grew up in the ’90s so E-40, B-Legit, 3xKrazy etc. those were my Bay Area dudes back then and they still are. I also listen to a lot of Curren$y and LE$, Houston shit in general. I was down with that whole screwed up click movement after I first bought me a Fat Pat CD in the late ’90s. I’m also a HUGE Pimp C fan. That man was the truth. UGK is one my top 5 group of all time, right up there with Outkast, Bone, Mobb Deep etc.
For our generation of rap fans in Europe it’s rather unusual not to start on East Coast hip hop…
Brenk Sinatra: Simply put: in Vienna the Austrian kids rather listened to East Coast, the migrant kids rather to West Coast music. Sounds stupid, but that’s how it was. And since I was one of them, I started with Ice Cube’s Lethal Injection, that was the first CD I bought myself. It all was pretty black and white back then, either you loved Pac or Biggie for instance. Foolish but that’s how it’s been for us.
That level of identification through music seems to have vanished—‘I’m Onyx, you’re D.O.C. so I can’t buy that record…”
Brenk Sinatra: True, plus you just don’t listen to a single album as much. You can’t spend a whole summer with one record, just because there’s so much great stuff out there, plus I always want to hear what everybody I like is dropping, just to keep up. I enjoy that emotional attachment that you have with records you’ve come a long way with. But yeah, Sometimes you completely miss out on future classics simply because there’s too much music out. I always have certain memories to certain types of music in my head. That’s what I enjoy the most about making music, I want people to feel the same way I felt when I made it. Don’t matter if it wants to make you smoke 38 blunts or makes you want to break shit, mood is everything to me.
When was the last time you found a record that deeply meant something to you?
Brenk Sinatra: That’s a really difficult question for me. Besides the 70s music I listen to everyday, I’d probably say some Curren$y records, Stalley, the Yellow Album and Get Home Safely by Dom Kennedy… I had the first TDE releases on heavy rotation, Ab-Soul, the Schoolboy Q album, too and judging from the first videos I will be listening to Blank Face twice as much. Young Roddy from Louisiana is a current favorite as well.
Your beats are mostly sample based, plus a lot of vintage synths and blues-tinged, often melancholic atmospheres. What’s your verdict on the state of rap productions right now?
Brenk Sinatra: I’m always open to any kind or genre of music, but some rap stuff is just too sterile, way to clean with no feeling to back it. I like 16th hi-hats and 808 drums in a way that UGK and 3-6 used them. I also bang some of Gucci’s stuff on a regular basis, but a lot of the current ‘hit’ productions are too cheap for my personal taste. It could be mixed and mastered on the most expensive equipment, it still has no life or soul.
It’s often made with the same ingredients, same goddamn snare, no sense of innovation or risk-taking in most of these chart-targeting rap productions. Everybody is pretty much riding one formula until it won’t sell anymore, then they jump on the next “hot shit” and ride that wave until the next one comes along. I just can’t fuck with all that…
Your Memphis-phase never stopped, did it…
Not really, I just got back to listening to Tommy Wright III. I also went back to my Koopsta Knicca collection after he died. Some of these records feel very unfinished, some of the hooks lose the beat, I love all of those imperfections. But to be honest, I could talk just as much about how fucking dope Roc Marciano is.
Tell me about the Betty Ford Boys—this is a touring three-piece producer band, playing beats live in front of notable audiences. Does that live factor play into the beats you create together?
Brenk Sinatra: BFB are Dexter from Stuttgart, Suff Daddy from Berlin, and myself. We met up at a now legendary open air in Cologne called Beat BBQ. We made our first unofficial gig there and got stopped by the police. I never played live before, Suffy and Dex also DJ but I don’t, really. Our first record was put together in the cloud, through Skype sessions and WeTransfer links. The second album, Retox was a true common effort. We locked ourselves into a cabin in the woods. We didn’t know if we’d just end up drinking for a week straight and going for walks, or really put something great together, but eventually we returned to civilization with 40+ loops.
As for playing live, you sometimes do have that in the back of your mind, “we might need something more banging”. We know by now which instrumentals and tiny elements will work live. But like I said before, the mood is by far the most important thing when it comes to music. I just released an Instrumental album called Midnite Ride which is basically mellow beats to ride to when the sun goes down. Sounds pathetic, but that shit is the waviest album I ever put out.
And touring is still fun?
Brenk Sinatra: Music is my calling and thankfully my day job for a few years now. That definitely changes your perspective, you’re much more eager to get stuff released, for example. As for touring, it’s definitely true that we drink less than in the beginning [laughs]. We chose an admittedly stupid name, by now we’re almost healthy on tour. No bottles of Hennessy each before the show. If you’re on tour for 3 weeks straight, you may have 3, 4 slip-ups where you completely destroy yourself.
So now Gumbo 2 gets re-released. When it first came out it really felt like the European beat bubble was peaking. How do you remember that?
Brenk Sinatra: What most people might forget is that my first Gumbo came out in 2007, 2008. Before that I released beats and produced for rappers for over 5 years, stuff that just never left the Austrian scene. It started to get a bit frustrating when things just won’t go beyond a certain realm. I’ve always been a realist and knew perfectly well that as a producer you’re naturally behind the scenes. That changed when Donuts was released. There just wasn’t any hype about instrumental releases. It felt nonsensical. Gumbo was definitely inspired by Petestrumentals on BBE, Madlib’s Beat Konducta series and Donuts, for the simple fact that you didn’t seem to need anybody else to drop a dope record anymore.
There were a lot of instrumental albums before that, of course, but these few made me feel like an instrumental album can be a well-rounded product. I listened to Dilla since probably Fantastic Vol.2, but for us beat heads, Donuts was the bible, and I’m not gonna stand here and pretend it wasn’t, just because it became so oversaturated and suddenly people are too cool to admit it. The Waxolutionists, an Austrian turntablism and producer crew, started a label and gave me the platform to release my first instrumental record. Europe’s biggest hip-hop mag back then, Juice, once pronounced Gumbo one of the 20 best instrumental records of all time. I was proud of that. In hindsight the mixing on the record was catastrophic—I was all about the ideas, not about the sound I guess [laughs].
And Gumbo 2?
Brenk Sinatra: As you said, it changed pretty drastically—all of a sudden we had a listenership that wanted to hear us, not rappers on our beats, us. We had photo shoots, were pictured on magazine covers, it was wild. Most producers I know don’t really care and don’t have that kind of ego, otherwise they’d become rappers [laughs]. I think that’s what you mean—around 2011 the image of the producer had changed. MPM’s Hi-Hat Club series, for which I did one installment with Fid Mella (Chop Shop), became a big thing… sometimes I’m shocked how positive people regard those records in hindsight. It really felt like the start of something bigger. Kudos to Robert Winter for giving us all a strong look.
At the time I released these records I started talking to DJ Premier, hung out with the homie House Shoes…House Shoes mixed the snippet for Gumbo II and Preemo recorded an intro for it. With Gumbo II I felt like I had to make the best instrumental record I was capable of doing. It’s one of the very few things I can still listen to.