Matrixxman EPs jump from acid house to pounding European techno. They touch on classic Chicago and Detroit, and sometimes vintage electro. But Duff's specialty is no-nonsense drum tracks. If there's one thing that stands out across the Matrixxman oeuvre, it's his deft touch with percussion. Some of his best tunes are basically just drums—check out the 808 State Of Mind EP for a dose of percussive mayhem.
As valuable as Duff's hard work has been in getting him noticed, it's his upcoming debut album, Homesick, that makes a case for Matrixxman as something more than a club track assembly line. Looking back to early-'90s Detroit techno and electro while tapping into Duff's ongoing obsession with the future, Homesick is a concept LP that loosely weaves a tale of a not-so-far-off dystopian epoch through familiar dance music forms. The record tightens the sprawl of the Matrixxman sound with a thread of melancholy and a more disciplined and time-intensive approach to songwriting. On his earlier releases, he would finish tracks in as little as two hours.
"People ask these questions about productivity and output, and to me it just feels normal to be making music and releasing it constantly," Duff says. "It doesn't feel like anything out of the ordinary, but I suppose it's out of sheer boredom. I often joke about the term idiot savant, but jokes aside, I literally have nothing better to do with my life."
Duff's sense of humour is as important to his music as anything else. His Twitter account promises "some cold ass futuristic shit," and if you spend any amount of time talking to him, you'll find he's a boisterous, outsized character. His personality bleeds into his sometimes loose and playful musical style, which makes his tracks all the more infectious.
Despite having the irreverent outlook and eager work ethic of a fresh-faced 20-year-old, Duff is no youngster. He spent his formative years in the '90s in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac river from Washington, DC. Through his sister he started listening drum & bass, which stole Duff's attention away from the rap music he grew up on. He was taken by drum & bass's mechanistic repetition and the way it got so much out of a few synths and drum sounds.
"I was leaning towards the darker stuff like techstep. I was really into Rob Data and Kemal—AKA Konflict—and Ed Rush & Optical, Mampi Swift, all these guys who had strident, futuristic sound design," Duff says. "There was this alienating feeling that I was really drawn to. It was post-apocalyptic."
Duff lost interest in drum & bass's "frenetic runaway freight train vibe" around the turn of the millennium. A friend had introduced him to Juan Atkins' MM mix CD, which was his first taste of techno. He found the same sense of machine funk in techno as in drum & bass, but the mix also introduced him to the warmer strains of disco and house, broadening his horizons considerably. "It fucked me up," he says.
Hearing techno started Duff on the journey that would eventually lead to his current career as a dance music producer in San Francisco, although he took a roundabout path to get there. Duff lived in the Bay Area for three separate stints before deciding to make it home once and for all. His first move was for art school, which he quickly became disillusioned with. Stays in Japan and New York followed before his final return to San Francisco, where he would put down roots and try to figure out what he wanted from life. He traded his office job for bartending, which left him with less money but more time to focus on music.
"Deep down inside, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to music all along," Duff says. "The thing is, I just didn't have the first clue about how to go about any of this. It's not like there is a Guide To Earning A Living Making Futuristic Ass Music book out there that you can just go grab and have your game plan instantly laid out for you."
Though he had less money to throw around, Duff's relocation to SF fortuitously landed him a live-in studio space at Patrick Brown's Different Fur Complex. It was at Different Fur where "wild shit mysteriously started to occur" after years of false starts and quashed projects. His attempts at making music finally started to stick, which he attributes in part to his new setting.
"Seminal tunes have been recorded at Fur over the years, by artists like Sylvester, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads and many more," Duff tells me. "The whole place is just steeped in vibes."
Duff's first serious attempt at music reunited him with an old friend from Virginia: Paavo Steinkamp, AKA Earthman. The two worked together as 5kinandbone5, a project that took the obsession of Duff's drum & bass days and funneled it into a zeitgeisty mixture of hip-hop, bass music and UK garage. The duo's music also combined Duff's love for dance music and his original flame for rap. They called themselves "fearless pyschic shaman cyberwarriors who make mysterious yet hood as fuck music."
"Under the influence of copious amounts of ecstasy, we had forged a pact to make the most futuristic shit ever," he says, laughing. The 5kinandbone5 material showed glimpses of Duff's ability to nail whatever sound he tried his hand at, but their tracks lacked the personality that would be revealed in his solo work. After a handful of releases for Unknown To The Unknown, Discobelle and Soo Wavey—as well as producing "Wut," the anthem that would rocket rapper Le1f to alternative hip-hop stardom—the project fizzled out when Steinkamp had a child and moved to LA, leaving Duff on his own to figure things out.
Around the same time, Duff fell in with Vin Sol, an artist and producer who would have a profound impact on his music. The two met in New York while Duff was based there. Due to their musical common ground they became fast friends, later sharing a space at Different Fur. They initially did some remixes together as Amen Brother, before founding the Soo Wavey imprint in 2012, which has primarily released their own material. Sol's brand of percussive club music and his general guidance can't be understated when it comes to Duff's output—Sol even gave Duff his name.
"At the time I was joking around, calling myself Lord Of The Matrix on the internet—I spent too much time online," Duff says. "Obviously it started off as something tongue-in-cheek but at one point Vin was just like, 'You're Matrixxman,' and it just stuck. It has nothing to do with The Matrix. More in connection with the Max Headroom, '80s stuck-in-a-digital-network persona."
The earliest Matrixxman tracks were collaborations. He teamed up with Mykki Blanco on the elastic ballroom track "God Created The Beat," and went ghettotech with Nick Hook & Vin Sol on I Can Feel It. But it was the XX Files solo EP on Fifth Wall that would start to outline the Matrixxman sound: driving, straight-to-the-point techno that was skeletal but still packed a punch. The record also marked a shift towards straight-up dance floor music, after he had flirted with producing rap music on-and-off.
"I was raised on hip-hop, and it's born out of genuine sentiment, like, a real connection with it. But I just grew disillusioned with it over time. It didn't have the same magic. I had still been doing it for a number of years, so there was still some element of momentum, but at some point there was a fork in the road," Duff says. "Rather than trying to do everything half-assedly I would rather commit to that one thing, and put all my eggs in that basket. That coincided with when I met Vin Sol—we were both migrating away from rap."
In 2014 Duff began his hot streak, racking up a staggering number of records. On that year's standout Amulet EP alone, he covered pile-driving techno and drifting Chicago house, and then did a pitch-perfect electro homage a few months later on Nubian Metropolis, which came out on Dekmantel. Rather than trend-hopping, it felt more like a journey of self-discovery. Listening through those 13 EPs, you can hear Duff discovering what he's good at.
"It's definitely been a process of finding myself," Duff explains. "Obviously there are a lot of corners that can be explored in the confines of dance music, specifically house and techno. There's a lot of territory to be delved into. In my mind, how do you know if you like something until you fully venture off in that direction? It might seem slightly off-putting to be trying your hand at different things, but for me it's been a process of elimination."
That streamlining is in full effect on Homesick. Inspired by the likes of Jeff Mills and Robert Hood, it's a focused collection of techno and electro. And like some of those artist's best records, there's a future-facing sensibility—and anxiety—to Homesick. It looks towards a not-so-distant future where technology rules supreme. The future is a big preoccupation for Duff, an interest he shares with his peers in techno. But as one of the few electronic music artists remaining in San Francisco—the heart of the tech world and a city of tireless technological innovation—it feels especially relevant.
"I'm taking stock, observing where we lie in the trajectory of human evolution. It may seem like an innocuous preoccupation with science fiction, but don't get it twisted," Duff says. "This 'event horizon' is something we may very well experience within our lifetimes. I don't think many people quite grasp the notion of exponential growth in terms of technology and what that genuinely means for us in the grand scheme of things. The ability to merge consciousness with technology is just around the corner."
With titles like "Network Failure," "False Pattern Recognition" and "Earth Like Conditions," Homesick touches on classic techno themes of machinery, futurism and space exploration. There's rolling DJ Stingray electro, murky thumpers and even a cinematic tear-jerker in "Annika's Theme," one of the record's highlights, but it's all bathed in the gunmetal grey of classic techno. Pulling between peak-time material and more reflective moments, the LP tells a loosely defined story over its 12 tracks.
"Homesick is a film with a nebulous plot taking place in a dystopian, post-human future," Duff told me in an email following our call, "involving emergent AI, interplanetary travel, reckless pursuits through steamy metropolis alleys, neuroenhancement drugs, extreme polarization of social stratification, ethical issues of whether or not it's kosher to casually sleep with a robot that actually has feelings but perhaps most importantly: the evolutionary step of leaving physical form behind and existing solely as data—you know, the usual fun stuff to mull over on a Friday night. Each track correlates to a given moment in the timeline, more or less. I did my best to explore and capture the emotional components... and it was a breath of fresh air to be able to approach track-making in this fashion, where each piece was connected to a larger overarching narrative as opposed to the terse vocabulary of utilitarian, club-oriented approaches."
"I think what sets him apart and really makes him a good producer is his ability to tie his music to non-musical concepts," Vin Sol tells me over email. "Coupled with his technical/musical ability, that's what puts his music over the edge. What Charlie brings to the table is good vibes, musicality and a commitment to making some cold ass shit."
"There's something I find incredibly enamoring about the whole process of attempting to inject life into something cold and barren," Duff says of the idea. "If you think about it, the simple act of listening to any sort of loop over and over again should, in theory, be boring as fuck. Whereas indigenous cultures have always found ways to tap into a higher state of consciousness (drumming, dance, shamanic rituals and the like) our post-agrarian asses got totally sidetracked mass producing billions of cheeseburgers. As much as I would like to beat it up in the drum circles with my hippie brethren down in Haight-Ashbury, I reckon I can make a far more worthwhile contribution with my trusty TR-909."