The Name of the Game is Lightworks: An Interview with Rah Zen

Mano Sundaresan speaks with the Boston beat ambassador speaks all about his Nightworks show series.
By    August 19, 2019

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The walls of Jake Gilman’s home studio in Boston are plastered top-to-bottom with black-and-white photos of jazz legends. Stan Getz, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Cobb, and more, all peering over Gilman’s shoulder as he chops samples. They aren’t just artistic inspiration. They’re artists that once graced a stage about 40 minutes north of here at a jazz club off Route 1 in Peabody, MA, called Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. In the late fifties, if you were from the North Shore, Lennie Sogoloff was how you found out about new jazz. After serving in the Army in World War II, he worked for Columbia Records as a salesman, granting him access to the latest records. 

You’d stop by Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike on the way home from work, order a roast beef sandwich, and listen to the jazz records Sogoloff had loaded into his jukebox that day. Per his wife’s suggestion, at the turn of the sixties, Sogoloff transitioned to booking acts out of the venue. The names read like a who’s-who of jazz greats: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, Buddy Rich, Weather Report. Later in the jazz club’s run, Sogoloff booked the band America. The opener? A then-unknown Jay Leno, who had just quit his standup gig at a Billerica strip club and was looking for work.

Five years ago, not long before Lennie Sogoloff passed away, he was sitting in a hospice listening to something different: a set of jazz flips by his grandson, Jake Gilman. The music Sogoloff played to sold-out shows and to his grandson while babysitting him, repurposed and reimagined. “There’s an image I have of him with my headphones on, and he’s bopping his head and feeling it, like ‘Good stuff, Jake!’” he tells me. “That was a super special moment to me.”

Jake Gilman is Rah Zen, a Boston beatmaking polymath at the vanguard of the city’s burgeoning beat scene. His relationship with music feels innate, pulsing through his bloodline in an easily traceable way but also readily apparent in his thought process. He was a listener well before he became a maker; the making only started in college, when a freak lacrosse accident left him bedridden with a newly purchased MPC-500 for weeks. He talks about his new album Upon the Apex in terms that evade aesthetics. “This is my guideline,” he says. “I created this music that feels so authentically me. This feels like little particles of my soul.” 

Out via L.A. label Dome of Doom, Upon the Apex ambles with intent, slowing time and radiating through its intense detail. It’s bare and triumphant in the way that the cover art is: Gilman gazing out over an expanse of shrubby New Mexico dune, the San Andres Mountains clipping the horizon. The beats swagger and stagger, sometimes through drunken strings (“Godspeed”), other times through leering bass (“New Beginnings”). Gilman renders distintly human sounds — crinkling paper, jangling keys, uh, the voice of Alfred Hitchcock — otherwordly, yielding songs that feel deeply spiritual, grander than their parts, and indebted to the world-building of beat sages like Flying Lotus and the late Ras G.

This sort of ambition is justified. Upon the Apex maps out Gilman’s past two-and-a-half years, which were fast-paced, transformative, and what he considers to be the best of his life thus far. He recorded chunks during a three-month stay in Tel Aviv; others on a winding road trip to L.A.; the rest back home in Boston. Having dealt with crippling anxiety and depression in the past, Gilman attributes part of his newfound happiness to having found greater purpose in the Boston music scene. “I want Boston to be a better place for artists to live,” he says.

A few days prior to our conversation at his studio, I’m at Backlash Brewery in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. A midsummer heat wave has swallowed up the city, giving the faces here a slick glow. The brewery isn’t the place it normally is. Local producer BZA and his blaring beats are the center of attention. A growing crowd bobs in front of him as he unleashes a set of stomping funk and rap remixes on an SP404. 

No one’s dipping after his set, which goes for only 20 minutes or so; there are six more beat musicians on deck, including legendary Virginia producer Ohbliv. On the wall behind BZA, there’s a massive digital projection of psychedelia — pixelated swirls, levitating androids, hurtling stars — courtesy of artist Samo. Booths line the walls of the venue — all local vendors of streetwear, thrift, art, and vinyl. This is Episode 11 of Nightworks, a bimonthly showcase of Boston’s beat music scene founded by Jake Gilman. But as you can probably tell, it’s much more than that. Nightworks is a universe in itself, an ever-expanding world woven together by local, underground artists spanning different disciplines. Beat music is front-and-center, but the real connective tissue is a greater solidarity around Boston art.

“Honestly, I made Nightworks because it was what I wanted to go to,” Gilman tells me. In some episodes there are wild soul train lines, with the participants’ bodies projected onto a wall as dancing origami. Other episodes, like the most recent one, are comparatively meditative, more trance-inducing. No matter the mood, every episode has progressively helped build and unify a Boston beat scene that was lurking in the shadows before.

Drawing inspiration from Los Angeles’ now-closed Low End Theory, once the mecca of live beat music, Gilman wanted to create an experience that transcended the standard beat show. In late 2017, before departing on a trip to L.A. to tour his debut album Midnight Satori, he pulled together the first Nightworks in Allston clothing store Mass Apparel. Nearly 80 people squeezed into the tiny streetwear spot to catch sets from Rah Zen, Foisey, BrainOrchestra, and others, as well as a sprawling art display. It was a breakthrough moment for the scene that gave Gilman the confidence and motivation to turn Nightworks into a recurring series.

Since then, Nightworks has seen tremendous success in the form of sold-out shows, sets from renowned producers like Dibia$e and Ewonee, and growing national attention. Rising Boston producers such as Catman, Dephrase, Loman, and Grubby Pawz have played sets, exposing them to a wider local audience. Gilman has also launched a spinoff called & Friends, an intimate beat show every second Thursday at Somerville’s Bow Market that spotlights a different producer each episode.

Nightworks’ spirit has carried through an array of acts and venues thanks to the artists that have stuck since its inception. Samo provides the visuals. Mattapan rapper Kadeem hosts. DJ Manipulator, Rah Zen, Inspektah, and Gnat rotate as residents.

Gilman’s just sticking to the script, continuing his mission daily. Nightworks, Rah Zen, and his day job at Zumix, a non-profit that offers music education to the Boston’s low-income youth. — Mano Sundaresan

I know your stage name Rah Zen carries a lot of meaning. Can you unpack it?

Rah Zen: I was raised Jewish, so To-Rah. But the idea of a written word of a destiny. Music feels like my destiny, that’s why I relate to that. And also Ra being the sun god, I just have a lot of feeling of rising up. Music is my mechanism of shedding layers and rising up. Also I just like raw music, simple as that. I like Wu-Tang. ODB was my shit. That’s raw music. El-P is raw. So it was really as simple as that.

And then Zen: I got interested in Buddhism and especially Zen Buddhism. And it’s more of where I’m going. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist or a Zen Buddhist. I’m culturally Jewish but I like to practice Zen mentalities. I’m not necessarily naturally inclined towards it, but what I’m trying to do is let go of attachment to conclusions. That’s one of my favorite Zen ideas. I just put out this album and great things have happened from it. I’ve had great reception and feedback and articles, but when I released it, I tried to not be attached to good or bad results. Just do the thing, continue doing it. Same with Nightworks: do the Nightworks, make the show happen, continue going. And it’s not something that comes naturally, but those are the types of things I’m practicing.

How does music fit into your Zen mentality?

Rah Zen: Because there’s no thought involved in it. Sometimes there are beats that have thought behind them and they’re usually not good. The ones that are good don’t have thought. The ones that are good are just, I get a feeling and it needs to come out and I have a creative itch. That was the idea of Midnight Satori. “Satori” is a sudden flash of insight. At midnight for some reason, or like 11pm-1am, I was getting a hit of creative spark and I had to make a beat right then.

It’s that half-awake state.

Rah Zen: The flow-state. Zen talks about the flow-state. Music is my mechanism of getting into the flow-state. I used to get into the flow-state in sports. I remember feeling like nothing else in the world existed. I didn’t care about any of the troubles or whatever shit I was dealing with. I was in that game, that was it, and I didn’t have to think about my body moving. I could get to a point where it was just second nature and that’s the way I wanted to get with music and that’s how I feel now when I’m making a beat.

What was the process like behind Upon the Apex?

Rah Zen: I started it not long after Nightworks Episode 1. I did three months volunteering at this vegan health rejuvenation center in the mountains in Patagonia, Arizona, in the middle of nowhere. Totally off the grid, worked my ass off for eight hours a day in the garden. That was the impetus for the feeling behind it of being in this amazing nature, feeling like life is limitless and all these possibilities were there.

Not long after that I went to Israel. I did 10 days of birthright but then I stayed for two-and-a-half months after. That was when I met all these people in the Tel Aviv music scene. Super cool people. I ended up recording out there, and that’s when “Incandescent” with 3Deity came out. Then I traveled around Israel a little bit, and Jerusalem and Haifa and Safed and back down to Tel Aviv. Then when I came back, some stuff was made in between Israel and going to L.A. Midnight Satori was released, Nightworks Episode 1 happened, and then I went on this trip to L.A. A lot of stuff was made in L.A. and when I got back. So just all those travels, the new experiences, the new people, new places, the amazing nature we experienced in White Sands, New Mexico, where the album was shot. It was a ton of life happening and it got me to a certain point of inspiration.

It’s also about that decision that we talked about, planting my feet in Boston. Midnight Satori was all about floating into the dream world and alternate realities. This album is about bringing anything learned in that period, using it in the physical world, using it in the real world. Making things happen, forming relationships with people, trying to bring that energy into the real world.

The album has all this percussion that sounds DIY, especially on songs like “Angels”. I feel like you probably notice percussion and rhythm in your day-to-day life.

Rah Zen: That is what it is. It’s life rhythm. All the greatest teachers teach you there’s a rhythm to life. That is what I’m trying to capture with the percussion. A lot of the percussion comes from stuff that isn’t actually instruments. It just comes from sounds happening in life and then distorting them and pitching them in certain ways and making them sound textural.

What was the weirdest sample you used?

Rah Zen: Definitely crinkled stuff that was randomly in my pockets. I heard Madlib say, “I don’t remember what I sample.” And I totally feel that when I make it. I’m not really taking into account what I’m sampling, so it’s hard to notice sometimes.

I feel like this last Nightworks show put people in a trance.

Rah Zen: Yeah. It’s pretty cool when people are so focused on what the producer is doing. They’re like, really watching. You have your people that are walking around talking, then you always have a group of 20, 30 people all lined up in the front watching. It was a great episode.

What do you think the demographic is at the shows?

Rah Zen: There’s for sure the beatheads that get excited by certain people being brought out, that know beat culture and history and are producers themselves. Then there’s a portion who are Boston hip-hop community people that also like going to beat shows. And then I’ve seen people hear beat music for the first time at the earlier Nightworks and they’ve been coming back. That’s super cool to me. People are hearing beat music for the first time at this show. I don’t know how they ended up there, but that’s just amazing to me. Then there are people who are just attracted to the event in general. There’s music, there’s visuals, there’s vendors, there’s clothes, there’s sound, there’s vinyl, there’s thrift. I think there are people who come for that and actually don’t really care about who’s on the lineup. They like the music but they’re gonna come anyways. They’re just there for the show. I’ve definitely seen the crowd get more diverse. Last time we had a bunch of new people in the building.

Why did you found Nightworks?

Rah Zen: Honestly, I made Nightworks because it was what I wanted to go to. That was the impetus for it. I was influenced by Low End Theory growing up but I didn’t go to it until that L.A. trip. In Boston there was a beat show called East Meets Beats and there were the beat battles, but there wasn’t anything with the visuals and art and other things happening. I wanted to just create that. Then it kinda came about that there were so many producers in the community that were interested in doing that and needed a place to showcase it. That’s what it became. When I was in L.A., my friend who was out there was like, “Why are you going back to Boston again?” My family’s here, my friends are here, and my collaborators are here, so I decided that I wanted to do what I can to make this a better place for artists to live.

Was that a tough decision?

Rah Zen: Yeah, cause I’m trying to do this and make it a real thing, and there’s all these opportunities out there that just aren’t here. There’s so much industry out there that there’s just opportunities at your fingertips. You never know who you’re going to end up in a room with. But at the end of the day, I like the aspect of building from the ground-up here, and the realness of my community, and the people I’m working with and being close to them. So I’m 100% sure I made the right decision. As soon as I came back and planted my feet and was like, I’m staying here and doing this here and building it from here, everything started falling into place.

When did you begin to notice there was a beat scene in Boston? Was it before Nightworks?

Rah Zen: I think when I really realized there was a community happening was Episodes 4, 5, and 6, when there were producers in the crowd, and next show they’d be performing. And just seeing us stay late at the venue, sharing new beats and insights. Just seeing relationships start from the shows, new collaborations and friendships start from Nightworks. And then people popping out of the woodworks. All of a sudden, I’m hearing about all these new beatmakers in Boston, like whoa ok, it’s really happening here. During Nightworks was when I really realized this is more than just a show.

What do you want the future of Nightworks to be?

Rah Zen: Kadeem and I have talked a few different times about wanting it to last past a decade. That means becoming more than just a show. The show is the impetus for the community to grow out here. The show is the meeting place. So there’s a million different ways it could go outside the show realm, but as a show, I just want it to continue evolving, continue bringing in new interesting elements, but also staying very much beat-focused.

I want to help as best as I can, launch the beat community into greater possibilities here. I’m trying to connect all my friends with anything I can offer them. Not even my friends, just people who are doing good things in Boston and making great beats and need to be heard. There are so many dope producers out here that are at a ridiculous level but just not known about. Like Dephrase played Kadeem and his girlfriend and Loman and me a bunch of unreleased beats, and he’s trying to decide how to release them. And it’s crazy to me that this dude barely has anything out. His beats are ridiculous. Same with Self Serv. His beats are absurd, he should be up there with some of the ones that are being talked about right now. Catman’s great. He’s doing awesome stuff with Latrell James. DJ Manipulator is amazing. I’m just trying to push the culture forward here. I want Nightworks to be a place where this culture can live and grow and breathe and influence.

Do you think your work at Zumix is doing that too?

Rah Zen: Yeah definitely. I very much compartmentalize my stuff but there’s also an intersection of it. There may actually be a collaboration between Zumix and Nightworks in the future. A lot of what I’m doing with Nightworks is actually coming back into Zumix, especially because we have beatmaking programs there. I’m mentoring a nine-year-old there. His name is Ezra and his favorite producers are Flying Lotus, Just Blaze, and Large Professor. He just freaks out over samples and is amazing.

Who’s your dream artist to bring to Nightworks?

Rah Zen: I have three. Madlib, Flying Lotus, Thom Yorke. It’s crazy cause Low End Theory has just already done it. They’ve just done that already. I hope this show is a mechanism that leads to Boston beatmakers being able to be on that stature. How long will it take us to be on that level? Max Bell and I were talking about this, and he was saying he doesn’t know if there’s another wave of producers that is going to be as iconic as Ras G, Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Samiyam, Knxwldge, Mndsgn, all those people whose personalities and sounds are super unique to them and you hear them soaked up in their music. I’ve tried to do that with my music, and I know other people in Boston that are doing that with their music. I know Dephrase is a character, Catman is a character, they’re like weird twins of alternate universes. People in this scene have the potential to be on that level. That’s definitely where I’m trying to go down the road.

Nightworks Episode 12 lands September 14 at Backlash Brewery in Boston and features sets from Exile, Sirplus, 1st Official, and more.

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