Matt McDermott meets a precocious house producer who is helping put Atlanta on the map.
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Atlanta's Zone 6 is one of the most musically important locales of our time. The rappers Gucci Mane, Future and OJ Da Juiceman constantly namecheck the zone (which refers to a police district) in their songs, with mixtapes laying out a wild, criminal geography of an area that on the surface looks like a normal American suburb. It's also home to the promising young house producer Stefan Ringer, who has released nine solo records over the past couple years under his given name and the aliases REKchampa and Black Suede. On any given afternoon, you might see him hanging out in his driveway after work, manning the grille and listening to music.
Though he's laid out an alluring aesthetic that combines soulful house, dreamy boogie leads and his own ad-libbed vocals across 12-inches for NDATL, People's Potential Unlimited and Argot, Ringer started his musical journey exploring rap. He grew up in Stockbridge, about 25 minutes out of the city, and in high school he was obsessed with Dipset, the influential Harlem collective that ruled the radio for a brief period in the early '00s. "This one gangster dude, a Blood, he put me onto all the New York rappers and shit," Ringer says of a former classmate. "He knew everybody who was a Blood rapper," he says.
Though the beats Ringer makes are far more subdued than the huge sample-based rhythms Just Blaze made for Cam'ron, you can hear that influence in the exuberance of Ringer's house tracks. On cuts like "SDF," off the Untitled REKchampa mini-LP for PPU, he's essentially rapping. As with most questions concerning his music, Ringer talks about his ice-cold vocals matter-of-factly. "I just felt like that's the most original way, just go ahead and say some shit," he says. "I had been saying shit all throughout when I was making tracks, I just never recorded it." The chorus on "SDF" goes, "Girl you know you're so damn fine, that's why you're so bad." On the excellent broken beat house track "Fried Chicken Skin," off an accompanying EP for PPU, he says, "It's about the groove, it's about moving… Getting on the dance floor and shaking those tits, shaking that ass."
There's a libidinous quality to Ringer's productions, which again he addresses bluntly. "Put a little sexy shit in it, you know? Yeah man," he says, "I love women… That's one of the enticing things about the dance shit. Girls like to party, girls like to have fun so make some shit they can dance to." He goes on, "Why not make some shit that they can get freaky raunchy with?" In his DJ sets too, Ringer blends Chicago and Detroit house with Miami bass, Baltimore club and disco, showing a common ground between regional US dance genres. "That's where that Chicago shit, ghettotech, that Miami booty bass shit... Every urban center had that type of booty, just grimy music and I think they all go together seamlessly."
Ringer's sound feels raw, deeply rooted and distinctly American, placing him in a class alongside Motor City producers like Marcellus Pittman and Kyle Hall. It's no surprise, then, that he found an early champion in Atlanta's foremost house classicist, Kai Alce, the former Detroiter who first met the Belleville Three and Chez Damier while working at The Music Institute as a teenager. Ringer heard some music from Alce's label, NDATL, and hit him on Twitter looking to buy some records. "Then I went up to his crib," he says, "Asked him some questions. We started hanging out sometimes, just working on music first."
Ringer went on to release The Fix EP, his first record under his own name, on Alce's label. He also added the distinctive bassline to Sandman & Riverside's "Into Your Story," one of the best house cuts of recent years. Ringer looks up to the experienced producer. "Kai knows where to put things in the mix. He knows what's going to work and he's good at getting things down to the bare bones." Last year Alce booked Ringer to open for Juan Atkins at his annual Movement afterparty, Deep Detroit. He also took the young producer around the Motor City, visiting Omar-S's studio and meeting Hall. Ringer, who plans to start his own label soon, feels inspired by the DIY model of imprints like FXHE and Wild Oats. "Those motherfuckers did that themselves," he says. "They understand that supply and demand shit, too. Just come and get it from me, you know?"
Ringer spends most of his time with a brood of oddball younger producers in Atlanta, among them Ryan Parks, who runs the Harsh Riddims tape label. When Parks rolls over to Ringer's house, he's coming from the skatepark. He and Ringer joke about Birdman's viral "put some respeck" appearance on The Breakfast Show. A couple minutes later, Parks is talking to me about the LA-based avant-garde group Odwalla88. He channels his interests in rap, house, skateboarding and noise music into his cassette label and his solo project, Fit Of Body. Ringer describes the Harsh Riddims aesthetic as "freaky, grassroots and full of love."
In 2014, Parks released Ringer's All I Have cassette on the imprint (as REKchampa). "His tape sold out almost immediately," Parks says, before summing up the simple but elusive appeal of Ringer's productions. "His tracks just have a lot of flavor to them. They're kinda rubbery and bouncy and people want to move to them. And, when he decides to lay down vocals, they're always on point." The Wire magazine recently profiled Harsh Riddims and the bizarre Atlanta rap collective Awful Records. Ringer tells me Father, who scored a ridiculous YouTube rap hit in "Look At Wrist," designed the artwork for an early REKchampa CD-R release. Today's Atlanta is teeming with crews making weird music distributed in unconventional ways—the DIY-spirit Ringer observed in Detroit is present here in spades.
Another one of Ringer's close friends, Matt Weiner, has a spikier approach to music. He integrates minimal synth touches and EBM influences into his tracks as TWINS and, through his label CGI Records, releases EPs from acts like Prostitutes. Ringer sometimes plays Cabaret Voltaire and the modern darkwave duo Boy Harsher in his sets, a hat tip to Weiner's influence. He also made a record for CGI under the alias Black Suede, showing the darker flip-side to his usual infectious house grooves. The lyrics on the record's closer, "Purgatory," go, "What's wrong with me? Everything. What's wrong with you? Nothing." In person, Ringer's a happy-go-lucky character, but he speaks to the various moods expressed in his handful of aliases. "Black Suede is the more techno shit, just darker stuff," he says. "It's like the inner monologue. You get into a dark moment. That's what happened and Black Suede came out. Stefan Ringer shit, that's just me when I feel OK. I want the shine to be on my real name, I guess."
The attention Ringer's music gets from tastemakers like Mike Simonetti (who runs 2MR) and Andrew Morgan (of People's Potential Unlimited) is the result of his work for Harsh Riddims and CGI, labels run by friends he hangs out with on a daily basis. These outlets are pressing up music from artists they know and in the process drawing ears towards house, techno and experimental music emanating from a region typically known for other genres. "I think people are just doing it themselves because sometimes you can't get put onto that label," Ringer says. "If you do it yourself and make some noise where you're at people will catch on. I think that's what Ryan's been doing, I think that's what Matt's been doing and that's definitely what Kai's been doing.".
Still, Atlanta has some way to go before it has a viable club scene where Ringer and his more leftfield peers can test out tracks or even DJ to a full dance floor. Ringer, Parks and Weiner met at 529, a 100-capacity nightspot in East Atlanta Village that serves as a gathering place for the city's underground artists. It's one of the only venues in town willing take a chance on young, stranger acts. "There's huge potential for growth but a long way to go," says Weiner, who used to throw a night at 529 with the goal of giving oddball locals a chance to perform live, DJ and meet each other. "The venues are definitely supportive but they are not always reliable or even the ideal environment." Ringer says that DJing at most clubs in town often means working in rap or pop to keep the audience engaged.
The shows that go down outside of typical clubs, at 529 and small galleries, can be messy, vibrant affairs. Weiner tells me about the first Fit Of Body live performance, which had Parks arranging for topless backup dancers to invade the stage during his set. The first LP release from CGI will be from a local scene figure who calls herself Pamela_and her sons. Last year, Ringer scheduled a show at 529 and quickly wrote four tracks to perform at the gig. His MPC1000 was on the repair bench, so he borrowed a friend's. "He wasn't totally familiar with the way it worked," Weiner recalls. "He actually called me up on-stage to help him figure it out. He ended up talking over the set the whole time, being a comedian over the tracks. People were loving it."
Ringer's also willing to take risks as a DJ. He'll start out playing house, techno and acid, then drop in some ghetto house and post-punk. I've heard him seamlessly work in Morris Day And The Time, and, in a nod to his hometown, his own brutally effective edit of the A Town Players' "A Town Drop." Music heads and promoters outside the city are starting to take notice. The perennially hip Activities Board at Oberlin College recently booked him to spin alongside Dâm-Funk, and in March he played for RA in LA alongside Girl Unit.
While the records are beginning to act as calling cards for Ringer, the European clubs haven't come calling yet. Beyond the dance floor, he tells me he'd like to shop some beats to rappers. "It's a money game," he says. Ringer also wants to try his hand at the narcotic, slo-mo R&B that's become popular over the past few years. On long car rides around the city, he listens to R&B, rap, techno and house tracks he plans to DJ with. When he returns from work he sets off, heading out of Zone 6 towards the picturesque Piedmont Park, looping back the through the downtown of a city his sound is inextricably linked to, a city he's helping to push forwards.