Of late, though, his biggest project has been The Index label, which he co-runs with Dub War's Dave Q. If things go according to plan, an album based on the material from that show in Poland will emerge by the end of the year. In advance of his performance at Unsound Festival New York, I called up the city to talk about his unusual childhood, his connection to the illbient scene and his love of dub.
I'm intimidated by your biography and discography, so I guess it would be best to simply start from the beginning. At the age of seven, I've read that you went to a refuge camp where you sat in on a Sufi ceremony. Can you tell me a little bit about and what impact it had on you?
Sure, my godmother is Sufi and she was studying with a Sheik named Murshid Hassan in a Palestinian refuge camp called Balata, which as far as I know is not there anymore and has been utterly destroyed. The Sheik and his students performed a Zikr, a Sufi ceremony. During the ceremony they played the framedrum, which is what spawned my interest in percussion. Meanwhile, right around the same time, I was going deep into instrumental hip-hop during the early b-boy era in New York City. I grew up in New York in the cesspool of b-boy culture.
Did you immediately see connections between the two?
Yes. Absolutely. There's a strong and obvious link between ancient ecstatic trance ritual and urban dance music culture, bass music, sub cultures, early hip-hop—I say early because there was a real energy between the music and the dance, which has changed. It hit all of the senses—you had the graffiti for the eyes, you had dance as the physical interpretation and you had the music along with the poetry. Early hip-hop was actually probably more influential to me, though, because it represented a new form and a new culture, and it gave me hope that things can go on in that way without religion.
I've read that you abandoned religion at some point. I'm wondering if "abandoned" is the right word, though. It seems like religion cuts through a lot of what you do musically. Or perhaps it's just spirituality...
Yeah, I'm definitely not a religious person. But I'm definitely a spiritual person. At one point I left my mother and became ultra-orthodox for a few years in order to get some structure in my life. I learned a lot from it and became disciplined, at least in my art. I was getting up at 5 AM, making some scrambled eggs for the rabbi, going to Yeshiva to study, praying. I did that for two years and I learned a lot from it, but I left that whole situation. The Badawi project, you can really hear it, is like someone falling from grace in a way. Every record gets darker and much more philosophically opposed to where I was before.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel or does the tunnel just go on forever?
Man, I have no idea really. I'm not the most hopeful person, I'm more of a pessimist.
but I'd say, 'I can't take the name off of
a 12-inch that came out a year ago!'"
When did you first start making music?
Well, when I was around ten years old I got my first drum machine and a turntable. I used my mother's old answering machine to record. I didn't really understand how to sample, but I used to record on cassette and later began cutting the tapes into pieces to make loops. But I really didn't get rolling until I was 16 when I started DJing, and then I started producing again by the time I was about 17 years old.
When you came back to doing music, what sort of music were you making?
I came back with hip-hop, but at this point had developed a knowledge of Middle Eastern music—Yemenite Moroccan and particularly Braslav Hasidic music that used to flutter around on cassettes. I lived in Jerusalem for a few years, that's when all of that happened. So I started playing percussion sparked by that experience with Sufism but was also always combining it with electronic instruments. When I was 18 my percussion teacher gave me a Tape Echo machine and I started recording my percussion playing, making tape loops, so those were my earlier tracks.
Had you heard stuff like the stuff that you were creating, or were you trying to create something that you hadn't heard before?
Yeah, I was just seeing what happened and experimenting. It's good to experiment a lot, because when you have kids you have no time to experiment anymore. It was a ritual, it's definitely connected to spirituality.
How did Badawi begin?
Badawi began as a comic book that I started making while I was making all of this experimental music. I'm obsessed with comics, but eventually I saw clearly that the music was representing the story more than the comic, even though there were no words to it. So I continued on with the project in a musical form, but that didn't get rolling until after Sub Dub.
How did Sub Dub come together, how did you meet John Ward originally?
I was 18, DJing and was also making experimental music, mostly dub-related with echo chambers and tape and all that stuff and I'd sell it on cassettes on the street in downtown New York City. We met in a record store called Vinyl Mania, and he said, "I have a studio, you should come in and check it out," and I'd never been in a proper studio—I was working with two track tape, not even four track at that point, just cassettes bouncing back and forth. He showed me a lot of the ropes in the studio. Eventually we pumped out two or three twelve inches and then got signed to Instinct Records, which was Moby's label at the time. But that kind of went awry and we never did another record with them, said "fuck everyone," and we put out two 12-inches, which a lot of people say are landmark 12-inches in experimental dub.
Was there an immediate connection when you starting working together?
Yeah, I think it was pretty clear. As soon as I got in that studio and I learned how to load recorded audio into that sampler and put tape on a reel-to-reel, we started making a lot of music. I'd never had my hands on a real sampler before so I was going bonkers! There was no one really doing what we were doing at that time. There was the Orb and a few other groups in Europe obviously that were doing dub-infused dance music, but we combined it with hip-hop as well as jazz, global music, horror film samples… you name it.
I don't want to bring up bad memories of horrible genre names, but all of this found you within a scene that was called illbient, right? Did you feel like you were a part of something, that there were a lot of people exploring the same territory, but coming at it from different angles?
Yes and no. Sub Dub was going before the illbient thing happened, and we ended once the name became really well known. I became terrified that a name was put to it, I thought of it as a nail in a coffin. But we all knew each other. I met DJ Olive, We, Byzar, Wordsound and I knew DJ Spooky for a long time as well. So I knew all these guys, but Sub Dub had already put out about two twelve inches and one album. Once that big Wire article came out, we were already kind of pulling out. Unfortunate name, but I guess dubstep isn't the best name either.
You said you were pulling out. Where were you moving towards?
I was then approaching Badawi. I did my first Badawi solo album in '94, Bedouin Sound Clash. DJ Olive gave me a Tascam four track cassette recorder and said, "Let's see what you do with this," and I made my first solo album in a few weeks. That was a different experience because I was layering a lot of my own percussion playing as well as dub mixing like I used to in the earlier years. It was just me in my own world.
Meeting John Zorn
I spent a few years after I was ultra-orthodox in Woodstock, doing a lot of drugs and hallucinogenics and washing dishes for money. I would listen to the Woodstock radio station there, and they would play works by John Cage and Morton Feldmann and all kinds of great composers. Eventually I got really deep into that stuff.
Before I met Zorn, I was doing this music and pretty much didn't know there was any scene going on related to it. I just knew about modern composers such as Morton Feldman—who's probably my favorite—as well as people like Edgard Varèse. I was influenced by them, but I didn't know anyone was really applying it to dub music.
I met Zorn at a fundraiser for this venue called The Cooler. I was playing percussion on this wooden box that was running through a Line 6 and distortion pedals and stuff. I came off the stage afterwards and he said, "Who the fuck is this kid with that fucking box? What the fuck was that?" Just screaming at me and laughing his ass off. I was like, "Oh my god, this guy's a prick, who's this guy?" He had Tzitzit, which is what Orthodox people wear, but he had no yarmulka—he's a total enigma and a wonderful guy. So I went up and pulled the Tzitzit and was like, "What the hell is this?" and everyone in the room was dead silent, like you could hear a pin drop, and he left and went to play and someone was like, "Do you know who that is?" "Who?" "John Zorn!" "Oh."
Later on I started listening to his music and I started realizing what a big deal he was. One day he came to a show that I was doing, and he said he wanted a record. I said, "Oh, do you want a Badawi record?" and he was like, "Fuck that Badawi shit! I want something new, I just want you to explore, just go as far out as you can possibly go—just use your abilities and try to come up with something new," so I did the record Before The Law. It was a pretty amazing experience—it changed my life.
Yeah, with [1997's] Jerusalem Under Fire I hit this very apocalyptic stage in my life. War was always the biggest inspiration for the Badawi project. The point was to take these fears and recreate them as fiction. Dub Fiction. Clones & False Prophets and Soldier Of Midian was similar. Those became more politically-inclined than religiously-inclined. For instance, I did a track called "Anthrax Sandwich (Today's Special)," before 9/11 and I got into quite a bit of trouble afterwards because of that name. People were freaking out about it, saying, "Take that name off," and I'd say, "I can't take the name off of a 12-inch that came out a year ago!"
I'm trying to hold onto Badawi but I feel like it's gotten a bit away from the initial concept. So I'm starting to question whether or not I'm going to keep doing records under that name or just go under my own name from now on. I think the separation between myself, like my records as Raz Mesinai on Tzadik and my records as Badawi is a problem now. I need to come to terms with the similarities between them and not really separate them.
Let's talk about The Index, the label you run with Dave Q. Do you remember when you first heard dubstep?
I heard some dubstep for the first time in Rotterdam, but honestly I didn't quite get it because I wasn't hearing it on a proper sound system. These days I try to play to the sound system, and to the audience second. I mostly focus on the sound system that I'm playing through in order to reach the audience. I went out to Dave Q's party Dub War. Dave's pretty much responsible for bringing dubstep to North America, he's brought out Skream, Mala, everyone. For that one, it was Mala. And it totally blew my mind because it reminded me of the early b-boy era, there were so many different, diverse people who were dancing. It felt like the diversity that had kind of disappeared in the New York City dance scene, but it was back with dubstep, there was two female lovers dancing together, a business man dancing alone, different races, different worlds colliding.
I think dubstep is undeniably a very interesting phenomenon. I don't know if it's going anywhere anymore, I think it's going to disperse into various genres because that's the only chance a genre has to survive. At first, it had a very wide spectrum but now the term has gotten a lot narrower. Everyone, especially in the States, is like, "Oh Rusko, that's dubstep." So eventually that's going to have to change. As far as my take on it, I didn't want to make dubstep at all. I kind of arrogantly felt like I was doing that in '92 so I just started writing music in that tempo, lowering my bass a bit, and that's it.
It's interesting you mention tempo, because I think that's one of the interesting things about it. All you have to do is put something at that tempo, and everything else past that is quite free.
Yeah, exactly. What is also interesting is how music changes according to the technology or the loudspeakers that are used. Dubstep is a form spawned from the underground clubs and the sound systems that they supplied. If it doesn't sound good on a club's sound system, it's just not going to work there. But this doesn't only apply to dance clubs. It's all sorts of sound systems. Like, for instance, you hear a lot of electronic music now that has a lot of higher frequencies that are compressed really tightly which wasn't a normal sound back in the day. It was all about being warm. Now, it's about being super bright.
That's mostly because of the speakers that come out of laptops. People are pretty much all buying their music online using laptops, so they browse through Boomkat or whatever and listen to music that they might purchase through the speakers directly from their laptop. Most of the time they aren't listening through a proper sound system to buy some tracks. So the producers began using higher frequencies, extremely compressed so that the music could be heard through those speakers and come through to the buyers loud and clear. So, again with dubstep, I really just hear the tools being used. That's what's interesting to me—hearing the process of what people are doing with the tools that they have.
at all. I kind of arrogantly felt
like I was doing that in '92."
I became really interested in your work just recently after seeing you play at Unsound Poland. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I told a friend that it sounded like Shackleton 2.0. Will you be doing a similar performance at Unsound Festival New York?
It won't be too different. I definitely want to pursue what I was doing there further, because it's the basis for an album I'm working on called The Unsettler. It won't be exactly the same as in Krakow obviously because there was a lot of improvisation involved and the piece will develop more. The idea is a one hour-long epic that I'm just trying to expand. All these short tunes, they drive me crazy, you know everyone's putting out little tunes, like four minute, five minute tracks. I'm trying to do bigger works.
Do you find people are responding to that?
The show, yes. We'll see how long it lasts on a record, but at a concert I think it does actually do something. People are transfixed, and they're going to stay there for the entire duration of the show. If they don't like where they are, then they can just leave rather than sit there and think, "Oh, maybe I'll like the next one."
There is no "next one."
Precisely. If I DJ, that's a whole different story, I'm mixing a new track in all the time, but with my shows I like to take my time and really say, "OK, this is what it's going to be." I think there's a lack of commitment from listeners these days. I try to make people commit to the music. If they don't want to commit, that's fine. But that's what I try to do.
Think about the first acid house track—or at least one of the first ones—which is "Acid Trax" by Phuture. That's over ten minutes long! Who knows why they did it, but I'm sure they realized that, "We can't really give you the experience unless we do it for this amount of time." So the acid, the 303, came quite far into it. You really had to wait for it because they were trying to put the listener into the experience of tripping, waiting for the acid to drop and the sound of your brain cells popping. It's similar in contemporary classical music. Morton Feldman has a string quartet which lasts for seven hours—that's a commitment. Dance music doesn't have to be switching from one track to the next. It can be one thing, it can take you for a trip.
Do you feel like you're getting to a place where contemporary music and dance music are meeting? When I listened to the set in Poland, I was struck by how well the strings sat in the mix. It felt natural, rather than some sort of mash-up.
Well, I've worked with the Kronos Quartet and I've written several pieces for strings, but I've forced myself to overcome conventions and learn how to do that in my own way, and to apply that to DJ culture, to electronic music, to dub and other modern ways of making music. I think what people lack when they try to combine those two is a real knowledge of both of those aspects of music. Some people I hear try to do it—and I'm not talking about everyone, there's a lot of great stuff out there—have "classical music" idealized. They take it as serious music, and to throw it into their tracks gives them a sense of entitlement. They are missing the point, it's about sound. That's all.