“Digging Really Opens Up Your Mind In A Million Different Ways”: An Interview With Brainorchestra

Oumar Saleh speaks to the New Jersey raised rapper/producer about being influenced by video games, being exposed to the golden age of hip-hop, the natural sonic distinction between each of his albums...
By    July 19, 2023

Image via Brainorchestra/Instagram

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Common’s “Be (Intro)” is still a top 5 intro in Oumar Saleh‘s books.

It’s at the halfway point of our conversation when Brainorchestra recounts what really inspired him to take his sample sourcing to another level. During his maiden European tour last year, he visited Sebb Bash in Switzerland and was immediately transfixed by his friend’s mammoth record collection. It wasn’t the number of vinyl that awed him, though. Despite being an avid crate digger himself with a fondness for video game scores and vintage Italian film soundtracks, he still couldn’t help but marvel at the range of Bash’s vast library. “I didn’t even know most of what he had,” he recalls.

From there, Brainorchestra would broaden his search even wider, becoming more meticulous when hunting for vinyl and through YouTube. His latest instrumental joint, the enchanting RITUALS, is the culmination of his adjusted approach. From blunted boom bap to nimble keys that tinkle from afar, tonal shifts are all over this 11-track trance best experienced in one sitting. “Nowadays, if someone comes to my spot and puts on a random record, they’ll understand why I bought it,” says the ascendant producer/rapper.

Even before he was alchemizing in the lab he’s christened “The Sanctuary,” Andrew Melo was constantly surrounded by music. A native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, his childhood was mostly spent messing around with his cousin’s drum kit, as well as the guitar, bass, trumpet, and violin. Later on, he’d spend family nights out at this lively neighborhood hangout called the Portuguese Club, where his drummer uncle would also croon covers in Portuguese and Spanish. Being from Elizabeth, a culturally diverse city not far from Newark and NYC and whose state introduced George Clinton, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, and Redman to the world, meant that there wasn’t a genre Melo wasn’t exposed to. He took notes on Jersey club’s breakneck tempos and chopped samples, the Latin pop reverberating from the Portuguese Club’s speakers, the classic rock his dad would blast everyday, and everything else in between.

As he got older, he sank his teeth deeper into hip-hop, getting hooked on Rakim, Biggie, Big L, Dipset, the Lox, and countless others. Inspired by his early favorites, he formed a rap group with three other friends and called themselves “The Doom.” They shared gig slots with punk bands, while Melo himself would skip classes and tinker with FruityLoops in his school’s computer lab. After signing up for a music production class during his junior year, Melo’s teacher spotted his early potential and set aside some extra homework. He’d challenge his pupil to add some melodies and to harmonize his beats more, pushing his grasp of the MIDI and programs like Logic and Reason to untapped limits. It was in those sessions where Melo — by then a faithful devotee of Donuts and Dilla time — would gain the confidence to keep producing, eventually dropping his first beat tape a couple of years after graduating high school.

A keen gamer as well as a studious hip-hop head, Brainorchestra would regularly weave influences together from Madlib to Metal Gear Solid. Like how Alain Goraguer embraced the weird, Brainorchestra reimagined Fallout 3’s wastelands and The Immortal’s dungeons to compose meditative sonic odysseys. As his more experimental alter-ego “lovetones,” he coped with the stresses of dead-end jobs, empty bank balances, and losing loved ones by making the immersive DOMÍ — a sombre, synth-laden tapestry that sounds as if Vangelis channelled 9th Wonder and Pink Floyd and refixed the Blade Runner soundtrack.

Whether it’s a concept album or a casually collated beat pack, each Brainorchestra instrumental presentation is his way of telling stories without words. His oeuvre shifts between nostalgic Golden Era homages, piano-heavy ruminations, and sepia-toned soul loops, veering towards ambient electronica whenever he’s in his lovetones bag. It’s this aural variety that’s earned him co-signs from one of his chief inspirations, The Alchemist, as well as beloved figures like Evidence, Pink Siifu, and Lord Apex – with the latter two confirmed to be featured guests on a future Brainorchestra album.

When Brainorchestra raps, his casual flow harks back to the whimsical mischief emanating from Del the Funky Homosapien’s earliest work. You can’t help but grin and nod your head whenever he compares his pengame to Hattori Hanzo’s way with swords. It’s fitting that he’ll be supporting Blu & Exile at San Francisco later this month; despite hailing from different coasts, Brainorchestra is a stylistic heir-of-sorts to the duo, but he’s a more mellow cat who’s showcased his burgeoning mastery of aspirational slick talk on his two rap releases (It Means a Lot and E-Town General 2) so far this year.

Less than 24 hours after rocking the Brooklyn Monarch stage for Souls of Mischief’s “93 ‘til Infinity” anniversary show last month, I caught up with the prolific E-Town General on Zoom to discuss his come-up, his musical influences, growing up in the Garden State, ‘70s European film soundtracks, scoring video games, and more.

Many congrats on the tours and for the Souls of Mischief show! Meeting A-Plus must’ve been a f*cking trip, so major props, man! Talk us through your adventures going coast to coast these last few weeks?

Brainorchestra: Yeah, we had an East Coast run with my homies NOLAN and Jah-Monte where we hit up Vermont, Maine, Boston, New York City, Philly, and Washington, D.C. And then a week later, I went out west and performed in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Oakland. There was a lot of love being shown, and things are picking up fast, so it’s good to see. We’re getting on proper stages and the shows are getting more support. It’s just one of those moments for me where I’m like, “damn, I’m doing some cool shit,” so I gotta continue doing cool shit.

You’re a ‘90s kid with a deep love of Dilla, the Golden Era, and the Mixtape Age. Can you remember when you were first fully exposed to hip-hop?

Brainorchestra: A lot of the early stuff I listened to was because of my older brother, my aunt, and her boyfriend at the time who was a DJ. Also, just growing up in the city I live in. Hip-hop’s a big thing in Elizabeth and the East Coast in general, everybody f*cks with hip-hop out here.

I’ve driven through New Jersey in the past, but my only real exposure to the Garden State has been rewatches of The Sopranos. Given that you’ve got two records dedicated to Elizabeth, talk us through the impact the city has had on your work as a whole.

Brainorchestra: Where I’m from in this one pocket of America has really shaped my perception on life. A lot of my music is about my experiences in Elizabeth, where I’ve seen a lot of shit and been in a lot of shit. It’s where I learned a lot growing up, and it’s helped me understand the world, from the culture to the good and the bad.

Absolutely, man. And when you started out, you were a rapper before you began making beats?

Brainorchestra: Yeah, I went by a different name back then. Obviously, I don’t really acknowledge it anymore just because it was a different time, where I was just f*cking around before focusing on levelling up through making beats. When I became a producer, that’s when things kinda started making sense to me.

What triggered this pivot from straight-up rapping to this newfound focus on making beats back then?

Brainorchestra: I loved rapping, and at the time I was a lot younger, so it was just me f*cking around. But later on, I realised that I really liked making beats. I learned early on that the beats kinda control the scene, so I wanted to learn how to do that. I wanted to learn how to set and build that scene for myself or a rapper to do their thing on, y’know? So I took it upon myself to learn that practice.

And all those hours spent on FL Studio and having to master the MIDI and then the MPC… all of those things just formed together to get to the level you’re currently at right now.

Brainorchestra: Yeah, all that, man! Just constantly practising and searching for sounds, and now, 12 to 13 years later, I have an idea and I know how to do it. Nowadays, it’s more searching and sourcing than ever as far as how to make it all interesting.

I remember stumbling on a tweet that praised you as “New Jersey’s Alchemist,” and they weren’t wrong!

Brainorchestra: [Laughs] That’s a big compliment, and shout-out to Sadhugold for that! He’s got a bunch of joints in that new Mach-Hommy that dropped earlier this year (Dump Gawd: Triz Nathan, entirely produced by Sadhugold). He’s a good dude, does a lot of work, and when he told me that, I was like, “wow, okay, that’s cool!” To have someone who’s as sick as Sadhugold say that I’m like another version of Alchemist, without copying him or anything like that, is dope because he’s up there in my top three.

I also see a mix of 9th Wonder, Large Professor, Kev Brown, and Nujabes throughout your work as well. Would you agree? And who else would you class as your influences over the years?

Brainorchestra: 100% agree, because I’m just a huge overall fan of production in general. Growing up, I also listened to a ton of 9th Wonder with Little Brother and Nicolay with Foreign Exchange, so I definitely feel like I’m a mix of all those guys. It all shows in very different, weird ways throughout projects, which I think is very important. It’s like jazz, where musicians before us have set those stepping stones, and we’re now wondering who’s going to take things to different levels.

When I make shit, I feel like it’s a version of this artist’s work too, like I’m channelling them. There’s a ton of folks I admire right now, like Madlib, Alchemist, Ohbliv, Kenny Segal, my boy Roper Williams, and so many more who are on constant rotation and are all killing it. I can go on for hours about those guys, but I can’t do a top five because it always changes.

You’ve got this trilogy of atmospheric, synth-heavy projects (Patterns, DOMÍ, Fragments) under the lovetones moniker, which are markedly different from the jazz rap on albums like More Blends, My Persona, and Live and Direct. How much of a distinction is there between your Brainorchestra and lovetones records?

Brainorchestra: People know that lovetones is an alias, but it’s still me because it’s still attached to the ideas I have with sampling but in a weird, elevated form of stuff that I hear when I compose. I’ve got two lovetones albums ready to go, but I’m just trying to plan out their releases at the moment. A lot of people bring up my lovetones shit, so it’s dope to hear that they’re still in tune with it. lovetones is an extension of me, in that it’s like the electronic side of how I hear sounds as a hip-hop producer. Those are the joints that I really experiment with, where I’m being all super spontaneous and whatever, y’know?

One of my absolute favorite works of yours is DOMÍ. If I didn’t already know the story behind it, the record comes across as a sonic meditation of grief. Given what you were going through at the time of making the album, would that be an apt analysis?

Brainorchestra: Yeah, man, that project was really expressive. There’s a lot of ebbs and flows of things going on, and it’s me trying to tell my story without words.

DOMÍ is laid out as if it’s separated into “sides” A and B. Listening to it for the first time, it kinda feels like you’re processing all the shit that you were going through on side A. Then, from the jump on side B, it’s almost like the sonic equivalent of waking up ashore on the beach, signalling a gradual road to recovery which is in line with your ethos of creating musical storylines…

Brainorchestra: It’s crazy you see it that way. I feel like I subconsciously sequence a lot of albums that way where they start at one place, then by the time you’re on a side B of whatever record, it’s like the answer to your questions are there or however people like to perceive it. Honestly, I’ve never thought of DOMÍ like that, but that’s just how music works. I probably did map it out like that without realising, but I’ve always tried to pay attention because all my instrumental projects don’t lie. They’ll have an audio story where the listener is allowed to come up with a conclusion, which is cool because there’s no words. It’s all just sound.

There’s a couple of lines on Big Brain’s “Hit the Map” that I keep coming back to: “They love me like Prince in the ‘80s / F*ck whatever style you want, know we get it wavy.” Is that bar an allusion to your belief of not immediately gravitating towards what’s hot or trending right now?

Brainorchestra: Most definitely, because Prince was one of those dudes that was in his own bag, y’know? He was this big ass pop/rock star but my perception of that bar was that Prince was ill with it. He had his own style, synths, that was him. Dude played hella instruments and recorded and they all mixed together to form his own shit. It’s good when you’re in control of your own music, and just do what you want, y’know?

100%. And for me, that bar hit for like a totally different reason than I had anticipated because those kinda raps are usually just brags. You’re propping yourself up, but then I thought, “no wait, he’s going for something deeper than that.” And that’s pretty f*cking cool.

Brainorchestra: I try to do that because I wanna keep the essence of what writing raps is about. I have songs where I’m talking real shit about my experiences and stuff I go through, but there’s also that side where I try to make up some witty shit like that [laughs]. I want people to sit back and be like, “oh wait, hold on, what is he trying to say here?” That’s a good sign.

I also wanted to highlight a couple of projects where you showed off some cinematic flair: 2021’s Message to You and More Blends a couple of years prior. Especially the latter, where you had those soaring guitar licks on “Jade Warrior,” and “SpliffSide” plays out like something Madlib might’ve cooked up if he was scoring for Michael Mann. As you’ve made so many records since you started out, is there a sonic distinction that you make with each album?

Brainorchestra: I think so, but I don’t really do it by choice. As well as those two records, My Persona was another one that I made in the same timespan. With Message to You, there’s a lot more going on, it’s a little more open compared to My Persona, which is more minimalistic with the loops. And that’s just because every phase of beat tapes is just a version of what I’m working on at the time, like in this one, I’ll have more drums and breaks, and in another one, I’ll be more experimental.

My next joint’s a little different; it has beats from an instrumental project I made with joints I had over the past year to see how it would come together. But it’s interesting you ask that, because sometimes I’ll think about what I’m making and stop if, for example, there’s too many guitar beats because I’ve already got enough of those in a record. But a lot of it comes down to what I’m doing on a particular machine I’m working on, like how I’m listening to records. That’s why it’s always good to go back and listen to stuff, because there’s always a chance you’ll make something else in a different way.

It’s clear that you’re a huge crate digger, but you also get a lot of inspiration from random YouTube clips…

Brainorchestra: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of all those crazy rock and jazz records and how they all transition between each track. Like the prog rock bands of the past which have a 20-minute track separated by several songs in one, I want my beat tapes to have a similar format. That’s how I set out projects like Message to You and My Persona, because I didn’t want the listener to stop. Even when there’s silence, that’s just a part of it, but it’s never a dead stop, y’know? Things are just still. Madlib’s beat tapes are like that, where it feels like he’s taking you on a journey and there’s a beginning and end but no in-between.

Digging really opens up your mind in a million different ways. Some people are lazy [laughs]; it seems like they’re not ready for the amount of information you need to know, like the instruments being played and the years and labels those records were released under… it gets that deep. I’ve been digging for a long time, but I feel like I’ve only really understood what I’m trying to find and how to find it in the past couple of years. I’ve sold my collection over and over again because I’d just go bargain-hunting in a dollar store and rack up a ton of records before re-selling them. But my collection nowadays is about 500 deep, and if someone comes to my spot and puts on a random record, they’ll understand why I bought it.

It’s something I learned while I was chillin’ with Sebb Bash in Switzerland, and he had this crazy collection which inspired me to be my own audio encyclopaedia. With every record he had, there was a reason he owned it, y’know? I didn’t even know most of what he had, but after making beats with him and listening to loads of vinyl, I was like, “man, you’ve really shaped your sound through shit you liked to hear.” That’s a powerful thing with the digging, and it reflects in the music. If you end up coming here and seeing my collection now, cats who know will be like, “damn!”

Did Sebb Bash also put you on to Beretta 70 and Alain Goraguer’s La Planete Sauvage and all those awesome ‘60s and ‘70s Italian and French film soundtracks?

Brainorchestra: I can’t remember off the top; it was just the session and how much info we were relaying to each other with vinyl, and after a session, I’d be like, “Goddamn, this guy has so much shit!” He has stuff I’ve never even seen, and that’s just one example. You know when you’re sitting with somebody who really knows their shit and lives for it, you know they searched forever. That’s the important thing with digging, because it shapes your whole sound and you’re eventually getting a real understanding of what you’re trying to find. You’re sampling music that you like. So when you start finding shit that you love, then it gets real deep. Like, damn, the sample’s crazy, the song’s crazy. Then you’re making your own rendition of it to impress folk if they’re to hear your music.

You paid tribute to Goraguer himself upon his passing earlier this year. Given your affinity for ‘60s and ‘70s Italian and French film scores, how much of your more psychedelic work like More Time to Come and DOMÍ to the likes of Goraguer? Because his stuff is basically a cheat code for producers, right?

Brainorchestra: Shit’s insane, man! His stuff’s like a boot camp for producers. With the amount of crazy shit that’s on La Planete Sauvage, it feels so unreal. I also gotta pay homage to musicians like Ennio Morricone and Piero Piccioni. Their music is the kind of material producers are always hunting down because it’s damn near perfect. It’s like drugs, bro, because it f*cks your head up so much [laughs]. Cortex’s Troupeau Bleu is another one where you listen to every song and you’re in awe throughout, and you know they’re not playing around!

I wanna put people in a space, and a lot of that soundtrack music for these crazy art films and crime flicks really shape the scenes. When you could do that with beats, it puts listeners in this otherworldly place where it feels like they’re somewhere in space, y’know? With my music, I’m always trying to bring the feeling you’d get when listening to Goraguer.

Thanks to you, I’ve been f*cking with Beretta 70. It’s the same feeling I had when I first got put on to Cortex. It’s crazy how many producers, including yourself, adopted the sound from classic European cinema and implemented it into your own work…

Brainorchestra: Shit’s so inspiring to a lot of us. Respectfully not just me, but bigger producers too. I think hip-hop, as a whole, kept a lot of those careers alive. Though if anything, we owe them more than they owe hip-hop. That’s how the likes of Cortex and Arthur Verocai have been touring these past couple of years. It’s nuts how nobody gave a f*ck when Verocai dropped his first album [his 1972 self-titled debut] back in Brazil. I’m Portuguese, so I know a lot about Brazilian music, but people back then weren’t ready for that.

It’s the same with jazz musicians like Roy Ayers in that hip-hop plays a huge role for those artists and their records. We’re over here trying to interpret their music in the same way they were doing with their fellow artists. We’re here to keep reinventing the wheel and reintroduce music that’s lost in time, and I’m down with that. It’s like what you were saying about discovering Beretta 70. Listening to it will only keep encouraging you to keep searching for weirder, crazier shit.

I’ve also noticed a similar approach when you’re creating a “musical prequel” to a ’90s video game in The Immortal and a sonic reimagining of the Fallout series. You’re even calling back to Metal Gear Solid in some of your tracks. What is it about those video games in particular that strike a chord with you?

Brainorchestra: Man, Metal Gear… Hideo Kojima is the GOAT of gaming! He’s just so f*cking different and his brain is on another level, and I really only realised that as an adult after playing so much of his games. I’m thinking, “holy shit, this guy is shaping an entire universe within his work.” With the Fallout series, they offer such a crazy outlook on an alternate timeline which leaves us wondering what if this actually happened. It’s a great “what if?” story, with a lot of wit and hilarious shit like the radio broadcasts throughout the games.

At first, I wanted to do a mix of video games in general. But after seeing what Nicholas Craven was doing with Grand Theft Auto 4 and Niko Bellic, I just went into another direction with Fallout. With GTA 4, Craven snapped. He took it to a level that I wasn’t even thinking of. So on my Fallout: Vault 908 project, I had to include those crazy radio broadcasts from Fallout 3 and 4 and make it a timeline. It’s as if you’re in the game and driving, and you got the radio on with all those commercials [laughs]! I was just attaching myself to that world. The same thing happened with The Wizard’s Scroll, where I immersed myself into The Immortal and tried to find out what happened before the protagonist was inside those labyrinths, you feel me?

I’ve always been a huge video game cat. I’ve been playing my whole life. My first consoles were the N64 and the Game Boy Pocket, and growing up, me and my friends and older brothers spent a lot of time playing video games together. They’re another art form to me.

With The Wizard’s Scroll and Fallout: Vault 908, it’s almost as if you’re auditioning for a role as a video game composer, like you’re channelling Harry Gregson-Williams…

Brainorchestra: [Laughs] You know it, bro! I’m waiting for them to hire me. I’d love to score a video game someday, dude.

I only ask because I know a lot of producers have a keen interest in composing music for films or TV series one day, and video games would be right up your alley.

Brainorchestra: Most definitely. I found out about Del the Funky Homosapien through Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and I’d love one day to hear my beats in a game or score some atmospheric shit in a game. Or hearing NBA Street when they play “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” from the intro! What a crazy way to open a game, and that’s something to look up to. One day, I’d love to score some weird art film or an out-there sci-fi game. I would go bananas with it. Once I put myself in a headspace where I gotta score a scene, you start doing weird shit. That’s when lovetones comes into the mix, because it all requires me to go to certain places.

When looking at a lot of your album covers, I noticed a prominent triangle insignia on some of them. As it’s associated with strength, resilience, and clarity, does the triangle hold any personal significance for you?

Brainorchestra: Yeah, the triangle and two circles on either side? It comes from the European Firebug I’d always encounter as a kid when we’d be in Portugal. The symbol’s on the back of the bug, and I’d always be drawing it back in the day because I just loved drawing. And I was always interested in those bugs because they’re orange and red, and they have circles and triangles on their backs. There’s a lot of symbolism in general, but for me, it’s really based around the firebug, and how the triangles and circles are just as alive as the bug itself. I’m just trying to be out here living, you know what I mean? There’s life behind that logo, and that’s where the music comes in. It’s all about perception.

You’ve got a couple of new records coming out soon, including one where Pink Siifu and Lord Apex are listed as guests. How did those links come about?

Brainorchestra: Through SoundCloud! Sensei [Apex] and I have known each other for a minute, where we’d repost our songs and tip our hats to each other on the regular. We were just rapping and putting it all on the internet, making beats as part of this growing online community. Beyond that, the whole SoundCloud era that we were all a part of, there’s a huge backbone to all of this. A lot of the rappers that people are listening to right now are being produced by folks who are directly inspired by years of work that artists like us have done, so it’s just us knowing each other and working hard, eventually getting to a point where we meet each other and feeling like it all makes sense.

I met Apex for the first time in person when I went to London last year, and that’s when we made our track. We went to a spot and we were just talking, hanging out, smoking, drinking beers, playing PlayStation 2 games, just wildin’ out. We made a bunch of shit together, including the track that’ll be on the new album. As for Siifu, he’s another cat I’ve known for a long time. We’d meet at shows, eventually being really cool with each other, and it’s dope that he works with a lot of my homies and vice versa. He’d come over to my house sometimes, where we’d just chill, smoke, play him the records I found, and make beats with him. That’s the homie, for real. As for our song, it just came about because I played a tune with a lil’ outro on it, and I suggested to him that he’d really like this, and he wanted to be plugged in. It was one of the quickest collabs I ever did [laughs]. He’s the kind of guy who works nonstop, and Apex is the same.

Those collabs happened because we have the same drive. Like, we pull up and we wanna do some dope shit. I’ve known Apex for eight years, so we go way back, bro. We’ve been putting work in since 2012. It’s crazy how far back that shit goes with some people, because I only really started catching steam in 2016, but we all knew of each other way before that. SoundCloud was awesome for the amount of things that I’ve done and the people I’ve met. That platform got us shows and tours.

It’s great how SoundCloud connected you with like-minded artists. On the topic of Siifu and Apex, and the wave of producer/rapper tandems like Freddie Gibbs & Madlib or Curren$y & Harry Fraud over the past decade-plus, do you see yourself becoming a sonic auteur to a particular rapper? Or do you prefer producing for multiple artists in the same project?

Brainorchestra: I think both, man. I believe it’s all the same, because at the end of the day, you’re still producing for other people. I definitely have albums and EPs locked in with a couple of artists that are about to be finished and fully produced. Now that I’ve found my sound, I’m starting to get into that bag a lot. It’s all starting to come together.

With all the love you’ve been getting on shows and your records, it’s all paying off massively, man. As a ferociously independent artist, what advice would you give budding artists with similar mindsets and aspirations?

Brainorchestra: Just keep a close circle of people that get what you’ve got going on, and you get what they’ve got going on, and just keep doing what you’re doing. Invest in yourself, because if you don’t do it, no one’s gonna do it for you. A lot of people ain’t built to do shit for themselves. They need, like, 20 motherf*ckers to do the shit that one person could, you know? So I just tell people to stay up in their lane, and f*ck with like-minded folk that are gonna lift you up and show you that you’re doing something right. It’s advice that can be applied to anyone, not just musicians.

100%. Finally, if the world turned into a post-apocalyptic Fallout-style scenario where we’d be encamped in vaults, how would you like people to remember Brainorchestra as an artist? Is legacy important to you, or would you just be content having an island, a house with six floors, and a Porsche in the future?

Brainorchestra: [Laughs] Nah, legacy is important. You don’t have one without building something, and I think that’s what’s going on right now. I’m just trying to leave as much music behind, to the point where people can say that I was simply expressing, y’know? I want to be remembered for having a bunch of dope music that expressed what I feel and what I’ve seen.

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