|Label of the month: Mathematics
Jamal Moss' Chicago-based label has had a prolific 24 month period, seeing the imprint's catalogue nearly double. RA's Lee Smith calls up the man called Hieroglyphic Being to see why there's so much noise to be heard.
Idiosyncratic—it's a word you'll often hear used when you come across people discussing Mathematics Recordings. Despite releasing everything from smoky deep house to abstract electronica, from overdriven lo-fi acid to neo-classical composition, from strutting punk-funk to a freaking Ministry EP, the label never comes across as willfully erratic, or as a randomly contrived scattershot of experiments for their own sake. Somehow, unraveled at the furthest ends of the label's seemingly infinite web of references, it feels like it all makes sense—that there's an underlying continuity between all the disparate ideas and elements, lurking just beyond tangible grasp.
The same description could be applied to Mathematics' owner Jamal Moss, whose body of work on the label—usually under his Hieroglyphic Being moniker—provides perhaps the most pertinent, and certainly the most regular, example of the unorthodox Mathematics approach. Run with some help from Chicago legends Adonis and Steve Poindexter, and his cousin and business partner Noleian Reusse (who he records with as Africans With Mainframes), it's the kind of brilliantly unpredictable yet historically-grounded imprint that by turns confounds, contorts and connects with everything you thought you knew about underground electronic music. So it's no surprise that when I phone Jamal at his Frankfurt hotel room as he prepares to start a European tour, I find that's he's every bit as complex, intense and engaging in person as he is on wax. It is, in his own words, "a story from Chicago that needs to be told."
Technically, Mathematics started in 1996, but quickly went into a five year period of non-activity. What made you start it back then?
"One day I woke up
and my third eye said,
"Nah, you ain't getting
any younger or sexier.
Go ahead and get wet...
[or] make room for
someone else who's going
to be serious about it."
It basically started out of necessity and rejection, and out of necessity for me to have what I was trying to accomplish heard in the medium. It literally started just from cassette tapes, but my mindset was not what everyone in Chicago was doing in 1996. When you got labels like Guidance, Prescription, Cajual, everyone had DAT machines for their shit. I'm runnin' around with cassette tapes, and everyone's looking at me like "you need to bring your shit on CD or DAT." There were plenty of doors I could walk into, but they were definitely laughing at me when I walked back out of 'em.
So… I had my mentor Adonis, and he told me just do it yourself, don't expect to go out there and for the world to give you something. Make something your own way, even if people think what you doing is whack, just keep at it. So I went around passing out cassette tapes, but people wouldn't take 'em. So I took 'em to rave parties and sold 'em. The people at those parties were more open to what I had going on than the industry club standard. That's where I got my huge following from—the after hours parties, what they called raves. It was a continuation from what I came up with in the '80s, when I was coming up… the cultural perception had changed, but they still supported the music. So that's how the label started.
Some of the older people and figures in my life—this is kinda weird to even say this—some of the people in my life were into mysticism and Egyptian sciences. Let's call it what it is—masons. I grew up around a lot of those and I seen a lot of stuff that was going on but didn't really comprehend, and one thing that always came out was that supreme maths rules all.
When it came to name a label, I thought that would be cool. My mentor, Adonis, he was all about science and logic. He was telling me music is another form of mathematics, so the term is also a term for music.
Much of the music you put out is highly freeform and abstract—kind of the opposite of mathematical...
That's the whole thing. Mathematics, algebra, geometry, calculus—it's freeform, it deals in hypothesis and theories. It can evolve, it can devolve.
People might hear the [label's] sound, and think it's not that finished or correct. But at university, in physics class, somebody else might have a different way of doing that formula, or come up with a different theory. It's like that with the music, there's a certain way I make music sound. There's also a way I would like to make it sound, but I can't, because I don't know the actual science to make it done. I'm not claiming to be trained or pro, I do it by ear, I try to immolate [sic] things I like.
I want to go out to find people who I feel are 100 times better than me, and give them a chance. That's what happened to me. I try and put out the more polished version of what I try to do... the more finished theory or formula.
In an interview you posted on your MySpace page, you're quoted as saying that you spent the years between 1996 and 2001 "bullshitting." What did you mean by that?
Just like in life, you know what you want to do, or you think you know what you wanna do, but sometimes you need certain motivations to get you get it done.
Some people might have a family—that's what gives them motivation to get up at six in the morning. I don't have that structure—I was free, I knew what I had to do, but I never had it inside me to get in done. It's a common factor that people in music do it for other things—for the fame, for women, to try to be part of the nightlife. I went through that phase, but one day I sat down and realised the older it gets, it's not that fun anymore, it not that great runnin' around trying to perpetrate.
By you being in the club scene, I know you see lot of people who're just talking. I was one of those people. I admit, I was at fault. I reached that point where I still had that BS factor in my life. One day I woke up and my third eye said, "Nah, you ain't getting any younger or sexier. Go ahead and get wet, step in, do something else, make room for someone else who's going to be serious about it 'cause you're wasting space."
The label started up again—properly, this time, as it turned out—in 2001. Were there any key events in your life that year really shook you into action?
Definitive Mathematics moments
Steve Poindexter feat. Hieroglyphic Being – Untitled (1996)
Not to toot my own horn, but lots of people are emailing me saying "where is that [first Mathematics] record, we wanna get our hands on it." And I don't know, but there's a guy in Finland or Norway or somewhere who's selling a copy for about 105 euros. So I'm like, "If you want it, you can go find him and hear exactly what it sounds like." My cousin and music partner Noelian, he has two copies, but he won't even give me one. I was so geekin' that I actually got something on vinyl in 1996 I gave it away to everybody, and didn't keep copies for myself.
Noelian messes with me to this day about it. He's like, "Dude, that's like the dopest record you have ever put out, and that you will ever put out." That's fucked up. I'm like, "Put it down for me motherfucker, release it," and he's like, "No, until you get back to that point in time, and find whatever made you make this record, you will never see this record ever again." So I'm screwed. Unless I get back with my ex-girlfriend, who I was dating at that period of time in my life. Because the sex was really that damn good. It made me get up in the morning and hit those drum machines. When I was tagging that ass… hell, yeah. It was her, something was going on with her back in '96 that made me do something wild with that record.
EDMX - Can't Remember EP (2007)
I wasn't down with the science of the PR one-sheet, where they are always bragging and saying this is the definitive Virgo sound, this is definitive of Larry Heard or whatever. I would run out and buy these records and be like, "It don't sound nothing like no Virgo." People were hyping up this classic house sound, and, you know, Ed DMX brung it. People say they make classic house music, and the Ed DMX record, they hate it. And I know why they hate it. Because I told you before: I put out music that I'm so pissed off I can't make, that I'll put it out. And when I heard Ed's thing, I was like damn, this is as dope as hell. I was pissed off because I kick around with my shit all day and I can't get my shit to sound like that.
Bocco Grande - The Bremen Orchestra EP (2008)
Bocco Grande bought a fusion of classical music, with minimal drum dance structures. So you would hear on promos sheets, again, that this person is classically trained and that this person is a composer with this and that orchestra and whatever. With Bocco Grande, they never gave me no track history, or told me that they work with some orchestra, or they are professional theorists or whatever. They were like, "This is what we got, accept it or not." No extra hype, no extra bull. When it was put out there, people thought it was going to do well, but it jumped over peoples' heads. People still don't know about that record. But it got licensed to Mercedes Benz—somehow they knew about it! So… go figure.
Hieroglyphic Being Presents Analogous Doom - Living in a Zome EP (2008)
She's analogue, hardcore, and she's young. It took a long time for me to get her on board—almost a year-and-a-half to convince her to finally do this. And when it finally happened, it made people admire the fact that she put so much emotion in such a short period of time into her compositions. You look online and you'll see people brag about this 15 minute version or that 19 minute version, but compared to that, the two point five minutes that she did...I think it speaks more than anybody could in the 19-minute versions they brag about.
It was a progression, a series of events. It was me falling in love, and falling out of love, which really broke my heart. The person I was with, I thought we were supposed to be lifemates, but she didn't support what I did. And partly because she thought it was bullshit, she was like "you need to buckle down and do this, then we can be together." I kinda felt hurt because I thought she believed in me and what I did, she would support me, and then one day I realised, I need to believe in what I need to do. I need to put myself in check, instead of rely on someone else to build my support structure, to support my ego, you know, to fill my id. So I had to take that energy away from her and put in on myself. It wasn't her that made me do it, to use an excuse—I came to a revelation that it was me that had to do it.
Then, my father passed away. He bust[ed] his butt all his life to make sure I had a proper standard of living, not to go without. So he went through this six in the morning 'til seven at night, for what? For me to sit around and bullshit? I really needed to go ahead and do something right, I had to make something of the family name, something of myself. And that's what I did—I did not want to make what he did for me go in vain.
Had your agenda for the label changed by that point, musically or ideologically?
I already had an agenda in an ideological sense in '96, and I kept the essence of that. At that time, it was youth hormones. I was out chasing booty. I was out at parties. I was like "I'm a DJ baby, I got drum machines and I make music baby, gimme some booty!" 'Cause that's what everybody was doing! I thought, if everybody is doing this, then this is how the game is played in the music thing.
But I was also hanging out with people who were more logical. Like Steve [Poindexter] and Adonis, much older people, and jazz musicians who hung around my dad before he died. They were telling me: "Nah, that's the trap. That's what will make you fall in a different direction and not remain focussed on what you're supposed to do." It was all already set, it was just for me to make that move and step into the picture.
Also in 2001, after 9/11 happened—not to bring in a weird conversation, or sap energy from that tragic situation—but it started something in my head. I was like, these are people who I believe were doing something they loved everyday, and then it's taken away in a minute. It made me realise that I too need to go ahead and get to this. Not every day is guaranteed to you.
What's been your main aim with Mathematics, over the years?
It's still a formula in progress. For myself, I'm still growing as person, trying to find that right key, that right chord, that right melody. But with other people [on Mathematics]—I try find music that is so palpable, so…moving or different, or the best I think it can be. It has to be so damn good that I hate the fact that I can't make it, so I got to put it out. Hands down. You can hate on people's music so bad 'cause you can't do it yourself—I just flip that energy and find other artists way younger than me, with real musical structure or training. When I hear something that pisses me off so bad that my ego is hurt, I'm gonna put that shit on vinyl. It's therapeutic, it works for me… I learned how to turn negative into positives, and not let negatives get in the way.
As you state on the labels of Mathematics releases, all artists own 100% of the rights to their work. What's your thinking behind that policy?
It don't make any sense to try and own anyone else's soul. I'm serious. Like—I learned certain things about the industry. One—if I could really afford to pay them, I would. But the numbers I deal with—it makes no sense to try and own any percent of their music, it hinders me and them, it's extra resources that stops me from getting other people out there… I don't need to whore other people's compositions. I take it and put it out there. If it does well, they can take third party licensing, so they can make some money or whatever. So basically it's a vehicle for them, to get this stuff heard and further their career. They can always take this stuff and put it out on another label, they can take it and put it out as a CD album, both of which I encourage them to do, and market it in a more modified situation so they can further their career.
A lot of people say it's a tough time to run an independent label as a business right now, especially if you're dedicated to putting out vinyl. Have you found that to be the case?
Well, the whole thing is—vinyl is never really dead. It's only dead if people give up on the philosophy and the structure on which it was founded… Where I live, in South Chicago, there's about three or four shops [that have] been around for twenty years. They sell turntables and needles along with the wax. So it's still happening.
But there's some people in the industry, and I ain't gonna talk about 'em, they're all like "hey, let's support the vinyl" and stuff, but you'll see 'em DJ with some CDs, with the latest laptop software. I ain't knocking it—hell, if you got soul, and you can rock it, use whatever. But don't say one thing, and do the other. Don't downplay one thing and find out you got tons of money supporting a whole other infrastructure. Don't knock vinyl, and then we find out you got a company selling MP3s, to push your own agenda. I'm not saying no names, I don't know anyone personally who does that. I'm just saying now everybody wants to push something new, but they gotta push their own philosophy, their own ideology.
By far the biggest contributor to Mathematics is yourself. You seem to have a pretty crazy work rate…
Let's put it his way… be careful what you ask for. I spent so much time runnin' around with cassette tapes and VHS tapes, to be in a situation where I'm able to put vinyl out, I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth. There are some hits and misses—I'm not gonna front and say everything I put out is 100%. There's some stuff I should have just sat my ass on and scratched my head over before I released it. But I put a lot of stuff out—for one, because nobody books me. Technically speaking, right now I have no other career choices. I'm all in it or nothing.
"If I walk away from this,
I walk away from myself."
There's a strong sense of history in a lot of Mathematics' output—not that it's necessarily retro, but you seem to have a strong awareness of music from the past.
I used to study cultural anthropology, and then I studied ethnographic film, media studies too. A lot of that applies to what I do. If you look at it, what I do is based around music scenes or cultures derived around a chronological time in Chicago—like the Members Only edits.
It's not necessarily about the Music Box—I need to clear that for the record—the Members Only thing is based on the perception of the people who went to a certain type of venue, like the Music Box, or along those lines. It's from the crowd's perspective, of certain tunes that made them go off, and me, the observer of watching people how people react to certain tunes, and the ones I remember to go back and try to immolate [sic], from the crowd's perspective…. Like the way it was EQ'd. That's why you hear my edits are not so… industry polished. Because it wasn't all the clean stuff people heard that made them go off. I try to give that same graininess or feel.
In anthropology, when you try and represent something about a certain culture, you try and give it its best representation, its full true nature. You don't try and take a guy from a Dogon tribe and bring him from Africa and bring him to Harvard and put him in a nice Armani suit, clean him up, and say "this is a guy from the tribe, and he's a chief." You would say he's the guy that works over at the law office. So it doesn't work in this presentation, and that's what I try and do with the Members Only.
Yes, it does pay homage, not trying to take anything away from Ron Hardy, but paying homage to that culture, and other clubs that were going on inside Chicago that maybe people don't know so much. You know, outside of Chicago, only 10% of what actually happened back then is really known to the outside world… what I try and do is put that other 90% out and people can go and research it on their own, and learn for themselves.
Why is it so important to you that people are aware of this hidden musical history?
Well, because a lot of people don't really try to do it. I try and reach out. I didn't even know about Greg Wilson until, say, the last three years… that's somebody who contributed regularly from the UK scene... so it's lovely now that some guy like him can come to the forefront. Everyone had a Ron Hardy. It's not just Chicago that was the centre or epoch—the happening happened everywhere. Tokyo had their own Ron Hardy. Somebody in Nigeria may have been their Ron Hardy—someone needs to tell that story. It's kind of fucked up to say it, but there might be a Ron Hardy in Afghanistan, if they had discotheques in the '70s or early '80s. I have no idea but you never know.
Is it working? Do you feel more people are looking to the past for musical inspiration of late?
I think it's just one of those things. People are starting to look back now. Everything happening at this moment in time is technically whack, so they gotta go back. Now people are starting to do their research. There are too many people putting out music now who ain't done their research, that has no history behind it. Literally, somebody comes along every two years with a new name for something, then they're all over the press, and then it's gone in the next year or two.
People really started to respect the older guys, because they realise they had to make this scene valid. I was hanging out with the older cats in the beginning, before I even tried to put myself out there. I was a dancer for a bloody long time before I even realised I wanted to touch equipment. When I did get hold of some equipment, it was just to fuck around. But I knew if I did this I would need to find the originals, the forefathers, to get a grasp on what was happening. So what they're trying to do now, that's what I naturally done back when I was starting. Because without the past there is no future. Bottom line.
What keeps you doing this?
The dedication and time I already put in in. Like I said, I have to put some meaning and definition into my existence.
I'm not rich. Literally, I had to buy my own ticket to come the hell over here to Europe. And nobody's trying to really book me because what I do is unorthodox. And when they can book me, they can't really afford to have me here themselves. Like, I'm literally in a hotel room I had to pay for myself. I had to fly myself here myself, you know… I lost half my shows because, not to badmouth [the promoters], but the situation they got going on, they could not come up with the money to take care of a global pass.
I don't know if they thought I was trying to con them, if they thought I was gonna jerk them around.... and so, nobody would chip in for a global pass. So I'm like, if you're not going to chip in for a global pass, I cannot come to where you are at, because I cannot take any more money out of my pocket, and hope that I show up to your event, where you claim that it's hard to get me a showcase because nobody knows me—and that's the whole thing, nobody knows who the hell I am. But I'm like, for some reason, my records be selling a lot in the places nobody knows who the hell I am. What the hell is going on, is this ghosts buying my shit? I don't get it….
So it's one of those situations—this my life. This is a way of life for me, I mean—there's other things I can do, but this is something I put so much into, that if I walk away from this, I walk away from myself. And I'm not walking away from my identity. So I will make those sacrifices.
I left with my landlord threatening to kick me out the crib. Like literally. I could have just paid my bills, and know I would have had a house to live in for the next couple of months. But I actually took all that money to come over here to do this because I believe in this. So when I go back home, I don't even know if I'm gonna get handed the eviction notice. I have no clue.
Wow. I hope that works out for you.
I wasn't try to get no violin or something, but this is how serious I take it. I gotta believe. I gotta have faith—I gotta believe. Everybody got to believe and have purpose in something. This is my Matrix, and I gotta be the Neo. I gotta make this shit work.