The Chicago duo certainly don't make cloud rap, but their R&B and hip-hop-infused brand of sensual gossamer beat music seems undeniably analogous. They're devout hip-hop fans, but their music lacks the top-heavy boom-bap that informs other oddball American takes on it, like LA's flourishing beat scene. The influence instead comes through in the samples and the cascading drum patterns, which are rendered more gently than their inspirations. "I feel like hip-hop is the most dominant thing... the actual influence comes at least 90% from rap," says member Mike Perry. "I've been obsessed with it ever since I was a little kid. It's just naturally going to be what I want to make, what sounds the best to me, what I like to dance to," continues his partner Austin Kjeultes. Locality is a factor too, noting "we've been obsessed with DJ Funk and a lot of the early house stuff, a lot of Chicago tracks... if you're in Chicago, you're gonna see Gant-Man play. Juke and footwork, we just listen to it—you can't not listen to it, it's the shit!"
But their twilight saturnalia carries so much more than just hip-hop or their local brands of dance fare. "I think that, growing up, all the music that I gravitated towards naturally—I'm from a small town in Indiana—had a certain vibe to it, no matter what genre, if it was like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Three 6 Mafia. Once I moved to the city—my brother was into the DJ Funk stuff, from the rave scene or whatever—there was a new evolution of that going on with footwork at the time. Then there's this even more like heavy ridiculous over-the-top apocalyptic style of rap, and then there's a huge noise scene in Chicago, that sort of instrumental, experimental music aspect. Once I moved to the city I realized I wasn't the only person that liked these aspects of the music," says Kjeultes.
The two met at a night in Chicago and were soon DJing "feel good music" together. This soon led to making music. "We tried playing in bands, we each tried... and Austin had a weird juke side project. Crazy Pimp. I had one that I was doing that was more of a house-type thing," explains Perry. "I haven't produced rap beats since high school, just for a 'dudes around town' type of situation, for fun, on GarageBand... but I made hip-hop-oriented stuff that was influenced by the other music I was listening to, as opposed to just making banging hip-hop tracks. That came really naturally, and it actually started as a production project for local Chicago rappers," explains Kjeultes, with Perry continuing "we had one track for this group BBU, a local rap group, but that was about it. If we're going chronologically that was the first Supreme Cuts thing, even though I actually had nothing to do with it. But we had the intention of starting a rap production team, I guess."
But that didn't quite pan out, and the duo's priorities soon changed: "It was really hard to find MCs that were on the same page as us. Eventually we were just like 'let's just mess with vocals,' inspired by UK garage-style vocals. We'd always been into that, we tried to incorporate it into different projects, but rappers aren't really into that kind of thing, especially in Chicago. They weren't feeling it. So we were like 'let's just make these twisted vocals' because we were producers and we couldn't find vocalists—not having to work with someone else," explains Kjeultes. "These days... it's more of a trend thing. We were just doing it out of necessity—we had no one to work with, no one was having it."
Their first real visible foray into the world of ethereal beats and sampled vocals was their debut Trouble EP on the obscure Small Plates label, a four-track EP that garnered comparisons to similarly between-genres acts like Mount Kimbie, dealing in quaint and emotional tracks that sounded more like late-night bedroom reveries than early-morning club bangers. "I guess that in the past few months, there's a lot of comparable stuff, and I think that's really fucking exciting. But 'back in the day,' Mount Kimbie was one of the few comparisons—I think it's just a more organic take on dance music, where it's electronic and beat-based but it's not interested in 'the drop' as much. Even though our drops are pretty sick. It's more music you listen to by yourself," says Kjeultes. "We do translate it live and I feel like with the bass and the sub it's an overwhelming experience, but it's totally different than what's going on in dance music right now. It's a departure from the goals, the aims and the means of what most electronic producers are doing."
put 'R&B' with a winky face."
The band's sound is an enveloping, heavily-atmospheric one, sometimes trembling and meek and other times immersive and expansive. Trouble standout "Issues" features gasping R&B ciphers over a world of microscopic detail and implacable sounds. "We use Logic, and there's a lot of samples for ambient noise. All the synths are us, it's a combination of analog and soft synths. Most of the chord structures are what we write. We use drum samples, we piece the beats together, we don't really use drum loops."
The Trouble EP showed an embryonic group playing somewhat hesitantly with a certain set of ideas and tropes that would become ubiquitous over the course of the year that followed its release. Since then, the duo have been hard at work on Whispers in the Dark, a debut album that sees them expanding that universe into true widescreen, a confident realization of their vision stretched out over an hour. "The biggest difference from the EP to the LP was that the EP was just kind of a fluke, more or less. We were still trying to figure out what we were doing. I feel like with Whispers we have a clear vision of Supreme Cuts for what we're doing."
Whispers is suitelike, weaving in and out of ambient passages and bracketing longer epics between short bursts of experimentation and fidgeting (the otherwise gorgeous "Val Venus" almost approaches gabber speeds in its frantic tantrum of a climax). The duo credits that to a certain comfort with the album format, because they "could kind of pull back and chill out a little bit and let it have its ups and downs and incubate at points, whereas on the EP we were trying to fit in as much as possible."
It worked. Whispers feels like it was designed to be an album, from the elegiac "Lessons of Dark (Apologies)" through to the delicate mirage of "Ciroc Waterfalls" and into the meatier last third. "We're really proud of it, it's something we've been planning secretly for a few years now. What we would do, how we would go about it, what we loved about all the records from other genres. I actually googled what people like to hear length-wise. We probably could have gone on for two hours but everyone was like "45 minutes! 45 minutes!" So we did fifty. Hopefully we can prove ourselves and then do a double disc," says Perry.
But what to call this music that holds as much influence from the dark, brooding strains of '00s R&B as post rock and noise? The band's early tracks floated around with the pseudo-intellectual tag "future R&B," which the band admits was a joke, but their music does have an undeniable connection to R&B. "There's rhythm and there's hella blues!" says Kjeultes, laughing, with Perry adding "I wish there was a way we could put 'R&B' with a winky face. I feel that would portray the idea so much better. I'm hoping we get tagged with the EDM thing, so that we can get the money."
Of course, there's the aforementioned acts in the cloud-rap scene, a perhaps coincidental similarity that the duo don't deny. "I'm gonna just say we had no idea who Clams Casino was. We heard the little beats he did but we had no idea... my friend Tom showed me Clams Casino after our EP had come out and we were like, 'wow, thank God that there's other people on the same page!' I like what they're doing. I mean, Clams Casino sampled a Slowdive song one time, and that was pretty sick as far as hip-hop goes. I don't think the way we approach rhythms is the same... there's little differences. There's definitely more rhythm, percussion, bass, and it's way more minimal. I think reverb's really relevant to our times so there's more reverb on it—at this point I'm more interested in reverbed drums in empty rooms and the funky, groovy, bassy elements of hip-hop."
So what's next after the release of Whispers this July? "We're working on a rap mixtape that's gonna come out a few months after the album. It'll be us and this 15 year-old rapper from Barbados named Haleek Maul. And the next thing after that we're gonna start working on a record that's just full vocals. Singing mostly, I think." They apparently have some other, more ambitious plans as well. Given the memorable track title "Ciroc Waterfalls" and the "official Ciroc DJ" title that adorns their twitter account, I ask the duo what exactly their connection with the Diddy-endorsed vodka was.
"It's basically like this. I'm trying... I'm hoping at one point I can run into Sean Combs. I think if I meet Sean and I shake his hand instead of just saying, like, 'ooh, Last Train to Paris is one of the best rap and R&B records of all time,' no I'm just gonna be like... 'If you're drinking anything less than Ciroc, then you're drinking [something] equal to pee-pee, or whatever. I feel like that's one way to start being friends with him," Kjeultes says. "I've never really had it, but I'm hoping with 'Ciroc Waterfalls' that we'll look outside our window and there's a truck with crates of Coconut and Peach Ciroc, or whatever the regular one is, I'm cool with that too. It's just mostly so we can eventually get in business endeavours, then start driving the big SUVs down the street. That's the plan."
Perry admits they aren't official Ciroc DJs, to this writer's disappointment. "But hey, if Sean chose me, I'd take it. I mean, I'd be an official Ciroc DJ and play all that Ibiza shit all day if I could. Think about how cool that it is. When you're rocking the white Under Armour, cheersing an icy glass of clear liquid with your bros."