Green's early releases on Ninja Tune and Tru Thoughts were straight up head-nodding trip-hop. When he widened his purview with 2010's Black Sands, taking in jazz, house and quirky electronic sounds, he found both acclaim and a whole new audience. Recent records like 2013's North Borders favour original composition, but the love of the cut-and-paste aesthetic and dusty, oddball tracks has never left him. Following the release of Green's mix for the Late Night Tales series, Stephen Titmus sat down with the British artist in London to talk about some of his favorite beats.
Midnight In A Perfect World
Entroducing is one of those landmark records I think everyone has. Why this track?
I can't really have a list on influential music without referencing Entroducing. I think "Midnight In A Perfect World" epitomizes the vibe of the album. For me, at that age, I was just getting into the idea of constructing music. When I was listening to hip-hop it was never about the lyrics, I was always listening through the lyrics to the production. DJ Shadow took that idea of cut-and-paste sampling and took it much further than anyone else had done.
Is Shadow your favourite hip-hop producer?
Well, the thing with Shadow, he's not consistent. That was an era for Shadow, and those years were really influential. There's so many. I was going to say Dilla. There's Madlib, obviously, who's really consistent.
I guess Madlib is the king of cut and paste.
For that sort of style, Madlib is definitely up there.
Are you much of a digger?
I used to be. When I first started that's how I made music. I was looking for breaks and 2-bar loops to flip. That was the very traditional way to approach hip-hop production. I don't work like that any more or have done since the first couple of albums. I used to be a real break snob back in the day. I would dismiss a whole track if I recognized the snare drum.
4 Ton Mantis
I was around the construction of that record a lot. I gave him a couple of titles for the album. We used to both live in Brighton. We used to go round to each other's places all the time. I used to swap breaks, I gave Amon some stuff because I thought he would be able to do something better with them than I could. He would then trade me stuff, we would have a back and forth.
He was kind of a mentor to me. The stuff he was doing with a sampler used to blow my mind. He was creating sound design, using Akai samplers in ways that were mind bending. He would bounce audio through a Doppler, resampling tiny little parts of music, then do something different with that. Ten generations later you get something completely different. He was a massive inspiration to what you could do with samples.
Isn't there an art aesthetic that's similar to that?
Infinite regression. I did it at art school. You do a drawing of a drawing of a drawing; you then get this abstract thing that's loosely connected to the original. All the hip-hop guys were sampling rare grooves and jazz. Amon was sampling Brazilian music and prog rock.
Would this be the record you'd select in a Desert Island Discs scenario? It closes your Late Night Tales compilation.
It totally is. I've had a few moments with it over the years. It keeps recurring. There often seems to be a perfect time for this record. I remember once I was driving across Poland. It was the middle of winter, freezing. Icy tundra. The sun was coming down and I had my headphones on and was driving from one gig in Krakow to another in Katowice.
It has this amazing sense of beauty, but there's also something very sad about it.
As a pianist, the way he approached music was a lot looser than, say, someone like Gershwin, who's more of a Guildhall musician. Bill Evans is a lot freer in what he can do as a pianist. You can't tell where the improvisation starts and where the actual written piece ends.
It's a pretty complicated piece: it's modal and it's got some crazy chords in there. But you would never listen to it and think it's an avant-garde piece. It's just nice. Is that something you go for in your music?
Well, I like that idea of subconscious fluidity in music. It's not about the written piece. It's about following an idea and letting the music suggest what happens next. Not forcing a composition into something.
Essence Of Sapphire
When people think jazz harp—if they think of anything at all—they'll probably think Alice Coltrane, but Dorothy is great, too. How did you discover her?
I always thought of Dorothy Ashby as a funkier Alice Coltrane. I first heard her through the Afro-Harping record. That's a funky record, but it just so happened that her chosen medium was the harp. Alice Coltrane is much more of a jazz harpist. Dorothy is more in line with Afro beat and that kind of aesthetic. I was introduced to "Essence Of Sapphire" by Kieran Hebden. We went out and did this tour about ten years ago and we were just digging. Every spare hour that we weren't travelling or sound checking we were in record stores. We were just pulling tracks out for each other. He pulled this out for me. It's on a lesser known, hard to find Dorothy Ashby record. I just love the time signature. It's in 5s and 7s.
I didn't notice that, but it's just funky as hell.
There's a part when she stops playing the harp and starts strumming it like a guitar. You never really hear anyone going at it on a harp like that.
The harp's a really evocative instrument but is really under used in modern music. But you actually played one on Black Sands.
I've used harp a lot. I'm really interested in plucked strings, there's a really interesting tonal quality, especially when you start de-tuning them and messing around. I recorded a harpist on Black Sands. She was a classical harpist, a girl named Kirsten Agnesta, but the thing was she didn't really understand the idea of just jamming—unless it's there in front of them they just seize up. It's not something she had been trained to do. We got there in the end, though. I chopped it around a lot and sampled it and, in the end, I think she was very impressed with what could be done with recorded music these days [laughs]. She's actually on Erykah Badu's album. She's on the track I did with Erykah, but she's also on the track that Madlib produced for her, "Incense."
This is from the Rocky soundtrack. Are you a big Sly Stallone fan?
Not particularly, maybe in a kitsch kind of way. I haven't seen it for about 15 years. I remember Rek 1 dropping this back in the day in Brighton. I would hear him playing a lot. He would do things like dropping Vangelis into hip-hop, parts of "Chariots Of Fire." He would find all these really interesting tracks that were right underneath your nose. There's a beautiful track on the Chariots Of Fire soundtrack called "Abraham's Theme." It's really simple, a kind of synth pad with a Moog lead over the top. But like this Bill Conti track, it is a hidden treasure on this very mainstream soundtrack.
I guess that's the essence of being a great digger: not just going for the $1000 records but going for the $2 ones, too.
Absolutely. I pulled this out for Kieran Hebden on the US tour. A couple of weeks later he remixed it. We had this little reunion show on Solid Steel, the old Coldcut show on BBC London. We had this retrospective playing all the records we'd bought on this trip.
Bill Conti has obviously done a lot of film work. Is that something you'd like to turn your hand to? I know you're a fan of guys like Matthew Bourne.
Definitely. There's a different depth to soundtrack music as the film's already providing the narrative. You can be a lot more sparse and minimal. Or you can just hold two chords for five minutes and that's all it needs. I like the idea of working with themes, recurring themes whether they are faster or slower, major or minor. Something tying the whole piece together—even the main "Rocky Theme" is a motif that reappears throughout that soundtrack. I'd love to try something like that.
It's got the vocal manipulation thing going on that's been quite in vogue. You kind of used that on "Emkay."
I've been doing that vocal manipulation thing since day one. Pitched up, reversed vocals—I'm always into samples as a human element rather than their lyrical content. Using the voice as a texture. You can still get an emotive sound from a vocal even if the lyrics are inconsequential. People often ask me, "What's the lyrics to Emkay?" [laughs]. It doesn't matter.
I have an affinity to the way Lapalux works and the way he approaches sounds. It's almost like a stream of consciousness. Shlohmo does the same thing sometimes. Finding rhythm in seemingly abstract places. It's just held together loosely enough that it works. Any looser and it would all just fall apart. It just has this nicely disjointed way that everything flows, rhythmically everything's pulled in just the right amount.
I guess producers like Lapalux and Shlohmo have a similar story arc to your career. They have this connection to hip-hop but are now making electronic music.
For me, starting with hip-hop production was very straightforward. It seemed it was an easier way of working. I never used to use synths or drum machines. I was always just layering up found, sourced audio.
Why was that?
I just didn't have the gear. I didn't know enough about synth engines and LFOs and envelopes. I would listen to house records and the production methods of where to put kick drums against sub-bass was just way over my head. I just liked the idea of smashing loads of noise together until it sounded good. That was the hip-hop thing. If you go back to Public Enemy, those records were made by them making a cacophony together. Out of the two hours of racket there would be one bar which came together perfectly and that would be "Fight The Power." You could do a lot without knowing. It's a lo-fi way of working and you have to use your ear rather than any kind of production technique.
When I started there weren't laptops, Ableton or Logic. There was MIDI and there were floppy discs and it cost a lot of money. I spent my student loan on an Atari and a sampler. I had a tape deck and floppy disc and that's how I made the first album. You had to really want to do it.
I guess this is just an all-time classic. This was when Herbert was at his most productive. I've always been into tunes that have two parts in them, that have a twist. I've always done that with my stuff as well. This is the ultimate track that does that. It holds back that piano drop till two thirds of the way then unfolds into this anthemic tune.
Obviously his aesthetic of working is really interesting in that it's all found sounds. I like it when Matthew Herbert is being more fun. The records that came after that, like "Plat Du Jour" which comes with a long reading list—there's all this other stuff to consider. The snare drum was recorded in a hot air balloon or something was recorded at 200 miles per hour.
I know you play house as a DJ, but whenever you do it seems to be something with a twist, like Herbert. Is this the kind of thing you go for? Something that's a bit more unusual?
Yeah, I don't know, I've never gone for straight-up house. Not everything with a 4/4 kick is necessarily house. Years later I'm finally embracing four-on-the-floor music. All the music I've made since the last tour has been 120 BPM, 4/4 stuff. I'm having a little patch getting fully into house. I think there's a lot to be explored that I haven't done before, which is perhaps why I'm getting into it now. I'm into making house music that's not necessarily the sound of house music, something that goes in a different direction.
When you made the track for Erykah, I read that you wanted to make a loop that sounded human. Is that something you tend to go for: electronic music that has a natural feel?
That's a shared aesthetic with Herbert, I feel. It goes back to the idea of not using synthetic sounds. I've never worked "in the box," as people like to say these days. I've never used internal instruments. I like everything I use to come from an acoustic source. I like it to travel through air into a microphone before I program it and everything I've done has been like that. I think that's what makes it human.
I don't know how Madlib did it. It's the heaviest tune but everything is just feather light. From the click in it to the bell. It's the deepest tune.
The sample is mad. It's like a fake Japanese band?
Oh yeah, that weird little vocal that bounces around in the background.
"The Healer" is the holy grail. If I could make a beat that good, then I'm done.
Obviously you made the track with Erykah and you're a fan. Was that daunting?
I was trying to channel "The Healer" a little bit when I made it. When we met she wasn't as aware of me as I was with her. We met through Mark Ronson, strangely enough. I did a remix for a project he was doing in New Orleans with Erykah, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def and Zigaboo Modeliste from The Meters, who I recently played with in San Francisco. I only did the remix because I wanted to get Badu's attention, although it was a good track, too.
I went and met them when they came to New York and Mark introduced me to Erykah. I just had to hard-sell it to her. I met her again later in the year in Seattle. She listened to my stuff and was really into it. She said, "I really want to do a tune, but I want to hear the beat first." I sent her a few loops. She doesn't collaborate with many people. But when I had the raw bones of "Heaven For The Sinner" her manager played it to her when they were driving. She called me straight from the car, a car full of her and her kids and her manager, and she said, "Yeah, I'm into this. Let's do it!"
I also read you initially bonded over a shared interest of music. Do you remember what those tracks were?
Robert Glasper was one—they did that "Afro Blue" track together. Also Gilles Peterson: because she loves Peterson. There was a lot of crossovers with our aesthetic and our approach to music.
It must have been amazing to do a live show with her.
It was. She actually opened our show in San Francisco doing her DJ thing as DJ Low Down Loretta Brown. It was a very random set, it was like a party set. She played three trap tunes in a row, then played Sun Ra, then played "California Soul." But because it was Erykah Badu in a mad hat and crazy outfit she can get away with it. She then came out and did our tune together and she absolutely killed it. She has a real sense of drama. We started the tune and she was nowhere to be seen. We played it for two minutes and I could see my stage manager saying, "No, just keep it going." Her manager then went up and put these red heels on the stage, that she then stepped into—then she just killed. Then we did "Bag Lady." She smashed it. We jammed it for 10 minutes; we were just having fun with it. She had 2500 people in the palm of her hand where they were just singing back the chorus of that song.
That must have been a moment.
I was just grinning like an idiot.