But for now, the 26 year-old New Yorker is very much an electronic artist. Many will know Bannon through his role as a member of Big Apple rapper Joey Bada$$'s Pro Era crew. He produced some of their most compelling instrumentals—think Clams Casino but more soulful. But it's his solo work, particularly Alternate/Endings, which came out this week on Ninja Tune, that's really turning heads. Looking back to his roots in Sacramento, a drum & bass stronghold, the album dives head-first into an exploration of jungle. It's a percussive opus that's also steeped in the ambience of cloud-rap. Like the rest of his work, there are so many reference points it's dizzying.
"Hip-hop was the foundation from the beginning," he tells me. "I remember being 10 and knowing about Dr. Dre and The Chronic, or Wu-Tang Clan."
Starting with instrumental hip-hop producers like Blockhead, he rattles off names like Aphex Twin, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, whose music helped him get into the "weirder" stuff while growing up in Sacramento. Though California's capital city is often overshadowed by its larger neighbours to the south (San Francisco, LA), it has a music scene that runs deep. Its many mutant strains of hardcore are what originally caught Bannon's ear, particularly the eclectic work of Death Grips co-founder Zach Hill. "It's a weird scene," he says. "There's nothing that really thrives there, but there's just, like, a weird collective of musicians."
Bannon tried his hand at making his own music in his early teens through a new friend from Chicago. "Oh man, that music sucked," he says. "I mean, I just saw that movie Inside Llewyn Davis, and there's a scene in there where his sister brings in a box of his old stuff, and he tells her to throw it away 'cause it's not good to expose his early works because it ruins the mystique. I kind of agree with that scene a little bit."
Bannon's earliest "professional" work, as he calls it, was largely cut from the Madlib cloth, starting with 2009's collection of R&B flips Me & Marvin. "I met [Madlib's younger brother] Oh No when I was really young, and I was also around The Alchemist, I guess that was part of my training phase. I travelled, met different people, and learned different personalities and techniques. During that phase, I was just flexing the muscle that I gained from working with these people or watching them. I got into it because I like hip-hop, but I didn't want to rap or anything, so I just started making beats."
A chance meeting with rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien in a skate park helped to jump-start Bannon's career, giving him a real outlet for his craft. "They were basically the gateway to me having some sort of credibility," he says, "and bringing other rappers who were willing to work with me based on the fact that I knew them."
From there, he ended up with Joey Bada$$. "I got to a point where I was over a lot of hip-hop. I could never find anything I wanted to dive into," he explains. "At the time I heard his stuff, like 1999, and everything he was doing, I wanted to be a part of that—build something from scratch, not work with a rapper who's already made a name for himself. I wanted to come up with a new part of history, not recycle the past."
Though Bada$$ was far from an unknown name at the time, Bannon's beats paired well with the dynamic MC. Tracks like "Enter The Void" and "95 Til Infinity," from the rapper's 2013 hit mixtape Summer Knights, show off his dual impulses, balancing darkness and buoyancy with the hand of an expert beatmaker. A prime Bannon hip-hop track is both haunting and rousing, flooding clichéd R&B or soul with dark undertones and meticulous sonic manipulation.
Over time Bannon's solo work grew weirder, culminating in 2012's Fantastic Plastic on West Coast staple Plug Research, where Bannon twisted his early soulful work into jagged shapes. There were appearances from Del and other rappers. And though as Joey's tour DJ Bannon got his first taste of traveling the world, he started to lose interest in beatmaking. "I think it got corrupted over the years. Like, 'Oh, this artist would like this,' and I don't think I started getting any real personal success until I started making music for myself—music that doesn't involve anybody but myself. I don't need to make this snare sound this way for this person."
One of the first signs of this new individualism was last May's self-released Never/mind/the/darkness/of/it..., which offered up seven painstakingly sculpted ambient tracks, eerie and momentous in the vein of music on Tri Angle. "It got to a point in February where I knew my ultimate goal was to put out my own music as a stand alone and not pair it with someone," he says. "I didn't want to be dialled-in as Joey's producer. I was contemplating changing my name completely because of the hip-hop stigma. I'm not going to say it's like a stain, but people are more prone to expecting things. I just wanted to develop my career into something with a deeper future. You look at someone like Rick Rubin—he made beats for LL Cool J and acts that are borderline corny now, but he went on to doing Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash. I'm kind of at the same age, where it's like a shift—either I continue to do hip-hop, or I make a turn and develop myself. I want to be the type of producer where I can just work with artists and really do some Quincy Jones-style producing, you know?"
Work on Alternate/Endings started in early 2013. The album underwent four different revisions before Bannon settled on the final cut ("maybe a box set will come out with all of them," he jokes). He went in with a distinct aesthetic in mind, but the writing stage was a long and methodical process, resulting in 60 tracks by the end. "I'd do a track, do some research, do another track, do some more research, do a bassline on a 303, do some research. I was learning and developing on this album pretty much all the way through it."
Bannon's research underlines the careful consideration that goes into his work—Alternate/Endings isn't so much replication or revisionism as it is a respectful expansion on an established form. "I was googling and reading blogs and finding out how Goldie, or other producers who were helping him, chopped up the drums and which breaks," he says, "so that I'm both not doing what they already did and also knowing how to add my own element to it. I think Alternate/Endings has more downbeat stuff, or it might break down into halftime a lot."
As with so many other producers these days, jungle appealed to Bannon out of nostalgia. He credits the drum & bass scene in Sacramento and "inner city life" as equal players in why the sound resonates with him so much. He says that tracks like Outkast's 2000 classic "B.O.B." prove that uptempo music has long been in the public consciousness in some form or another.
"[Jungle] just reminds me of a lot of stuff like that Outkast song, and it just struck a chord again, I just fell in love with it again. It has a certain vibe to it, the pace of it all, the speed. It got to a point where everything was so slow, like you go to a show and listen to all this downtempo—I'm trying to avoid the T-word," he says with a laugh, referring to trap. "Going into 2014 I want to play off this energy—it's like a fight scene from Blade or something."
Bannon felt like jungle had been abandoned before it reached its prime, that its proponents didn't take it as far as they could have. In his mind, Alternate/Endings pushes the genre on the future-forward path that it should have continued going down. "Take somebody like Goldie: has a few real studio albums, then it stopped. He made a lot of money and got successful and he stopped. Technically he didn't need to keep pushing it, but I felt that it was a genre that still had a lot of room to be pushed to another level.
"I'm not saying that mine is on some crazy new level or whatever, but jungle had room where you could add to the story. I put myself in a position where I can take in and apply the style of rhythms or drum patterns. How I look at it is it's like, I'm not doing jungle, I just happen to be playing a track at 164 BPM and I happen to be chopping up a snare from an amen break or a James Brown break, you know?"
Though the most graspable element of Alternate/Endings is the flurry of explosive percussion at nearly every turn, there's also an emphasis on immersive atmospherics that's quickly becoming Bannon's trademark. It's not traditional ambient music—it's defined by individual sounds more than melodies or patterns. "I remember going to SXSW, and I remember listening on the plane to—it would be sounds of the woods, or the forest, you would hear water, you know? I don't know if you would call that ambient or whatever, but it has the same effect, just real peaceful," he says.
The album's title is an implicit challenge to genre expectations, a reclamation of his own career that's in tune with his irreverent spirit. "I called it Alternate/Endings because, for what people were expecting me to do, it's like a different ending. I think, especially a lot of people in the hip-hop world, they wanted me to exist in this Flying Lotus world where I just do that, you know? And that's my ending. So my alternative ending is me doing something more progressive, a little more complex and a little more niche."
The record will be released on Ninja Tune, the legendary label whose catch-all nature matches Bannon's own adventurous output. "I put out 'NW/WB,' which had a jungle vibe, and originally Sacred Bones expressed interest. R&S, Warp and Ninja also approached me. They're all great, but Ninja got what I was going for, what I was trying to build. I made a point not to send the album out, I made them come to my house to hear the rest, to hear it from the source, so they could see that it's organic. I didn't want people to think I was just sampling old jungle. I'm doing it from scratch on [Roland sampler] the SP-555, not just loading up a drum pattern and looping it."
Though he's still an emerging talent, Bannon speaks with the easy confidence of an industry veteran. He relays an anecdote about meeting Sting in the bathroom at the Jimmy Fallon show, where Bannon was performing with Joey Bada$$. They spoke about label-artist relationships, underlining that his utmost goal is to be in control of his own career. He likes to plan ahead. His next two albums are already fleshed out, he tells me, right down to the titles and concepts, but he won't say any more than that—other than that he's completely re-hauling his studio. He's also producing for a number of unknown artists, and he has a collaborative project with fellow American producer The Range on the way called Digital Sands, which he says is "totally crazy."
You get the feeling Bannon that is well aware of his talents. He's unafraid to casually weigh his decisions against those of The Beatles or Pink Floyd. This might seem like hubris, but his self-belief means he's not afraid to experiment and try new things. It would be no surprise if the follow-up to Alternate/Endings was a total departure from everything before it.
"I want 2014 to be a good year of touring and playing Alternate/Endings live," he says. "Eventually I would like to do bigger things than just making an album—I'd like to do an installation at the MoMA, or score a movie. Without sounding corny, I wanna be more progressive."