Across the album's eight tracks, Aju imitates and recreates his favourite sub-genres. Broken beat, Chicago Jack Trax, Detroit techno, minimal techno, deep house; they're all here. But not quite as you have heard them before. As with earlier EP, The Tables Turn, a hip-hop seam underpins the majority of the music. Which isn't surprising, given that Pete Rock, KRS-One and The Pharcyde figure just as prominently as Cajmere and Moodymann amongst Aju's influences.
Music produced under a rigid set of rules often has to be endured rather than enjoyed. Hindsight hasn't been entirely favourable to house and hip-hop hybrids, either. But Dave Aju isn't one to shirk a challenge. And by prioritising content over concept, Open Wide delivers above and beyond expectations. It's one of the most accomplished and enjoyable debut albums of the year.
RA caught up with Aju in Paris—his European base for a series of live dates—to discuss his background, the San Francisco scene and using native instruments.
Have you always lived in San Francisco?
I was born and raised in the South Bay, which is about 30 minutes south of San Francisco. So I grew up in the SF area and I've lived there my whole life; I moved to the city proper about 8 years ago.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. My dad was a jazz musician: a trumpet player. He grew up in the Bay Area as well and was part of the East Bay jazz scene in the '50s and '60s. He didn't cut many records—only one with a fusion band in the late '70s—but he jammed with all the greats who came through the area to play in the clubs, people like Billy Higgins, Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson.
What about your brothers and sisters—are they musical?
Yes, absolutely. One of my brothers was a budding rock vocalist and a roadie for a lot of bands; so I discovered rock and metal through him. My sister was more into disco and new wave and was a dancer. And then my other brother, who is closer in age to me, was an original hip-hop DJ and inspired me to start breaking and DJing as well. So he was the closest to what I do. When I saw him mixing records—and especially later when he got a sampler—I was hooked right away.
Mainly as a DJ and then production. I was also promoting parties with friends to offer alternatives to what everyone else was doing; we've always leaned toward more odd and eclectic endeavours. We've been supporting the underdog music for the past 10 years.
Who was spearheading the San Francisco scene 10 years ago?
It was a real mixture as there were several different scenes. We had the mid-'90s house guys; people like Iz, Rasoul, the Panhandle guys. And a little earlier than that, when I first started going to underground parties, it was the guys that had come over from England, such as the Wicked collective, and Jon Williams.
Then, a little bit later, there was the original laptop techno scene: Kit Clayton, Sutekh, Twerk, Safety Scissors, etc. These guys were putting on the most mentally stimulating stuff, for sure. And they were the only guys, that I knew, making stuff just on their computers, which was fascinating at the time.
How different is the San Francisco scene now?
I'd say it's almost 180 degrees different. Because you probably have more people coming out to specific events but everyone's kinda heading in the same direction that many are calling techno, but I'd say that it's what's now called minimal: a minimal techno and tech-house fusion really. So you have that and the other thing that rivals that in popularity is the new rave, Ed Banger kind of stuff, the type of electronic music the rock kids will dance to.
Hip-hop's another love of yours…
For sure, I produced it for years; it was all I produced for a while, but I don't think it's a prevalent as it used to be in San Francisco scene-wise. The Bay Area had a great underground scene back in the '90s, you know, the whole backpacker thing and groups like Hieorglyphics, Hobo Junction, Living Legends but, when that started fading away and getting overshadowed by more commercial trends, a lot of the energy was lost and I started shifting more towards electronic stuff. Up until then I had been much more active in that scene with a little hip-hop crew called Arcane Mass in San Jose—in the South Bay—that was just me and a bunch of friends. I did maybe 80% of the beats and half of the lyrics and we made mixtapes and did freestyle battles and stuff like that.
Did you have any musical training growing up?
Yeah, I tried my hand at some instruments. I stuck with piano and drums the longest: five years on drums and three years on piano. I tried the trumpet for a year, the saxophone for a year. But what I found was that, whilst I loved playing, I couldn't commit to one instrument; I just loved sound in general too much. And then when I saw my brother with the sampler I thought, "Oh right, this is it; you can take any sound and manipulate it."
I love the idea of being a virtuoso at something. But not something that's sonically the same all the time. I mean there are great instrumentalists that can get certain squawks and tones out of instruments that nobody else can, but I just didn't have the patience to get to that level. I was way too fascinated with all the other sounds [I was hearing]. I would go, "Oh, that's a great sax sound but it's not on that other record I really like; what's that instrument that they are using?" Then I'd hear drum machines and they would sound great, but I could never make just drum machine music. Like with a 909 I'd just think, "It's a 909—that guy has one, that guy has one and so on." In the end, it just didn't appeal to me. I'd think, "Why don't we make our own kickdrum? Why don't we make our own ride cymbals?"
My top five MCs (and their best lines)
Rakim - Eric B is President
"Easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed, 'cause to me, MC means move the crowd..."
When I first heard Paid in Full, it really blew me away. I loved a lot of other albums and groups at the time, but Rakim for me was the one that gave a new definition to MCing.
Common - The Bizness
"Never been a player hater, I'm more like a coach—or an owner—"I Used to Love H.E.R.," but now I bone her..."
I especially like this because it shows Common's mastery through a seemingly surface subject, that actually has a ton of depth—to the point of referencing one of his own masterpieces while guest MCing on this timeless De La track.
Andre 3000 - Elevators (Me & You)
"...I replied that I'd been going through the same thing that he had, true I got more fans than average man, but not enough loot to last me, to the end of the week, I live by the beat, like you live check-to-check, if y'all don't move your feet, then I don't eat, so we like neck-and-neck..."
Kind of a long line, but a prime example of Andre's ability to playfully experiment with the rhyme flow while touching on relatively serious and down-to-earth topics.
Gift of Gab - Swan Lake
"Brothers wanna flex but I'm over their heads, got the funky-type of style to rip your vocals to shreds, I'm never running from the Feds wearing red Pro-Keds 'cause I ain't did nuttin to no-body!"
Gab has since evolved into a much more sophisticated and expressive MC, with infinite lines to choose from, but I really love his early work for more personal reasons—it always takes me back and makes me smile. And, for the record, I don't think I've seen anybody rip a mic at a show like this man. Ever.
Freestyle Fellowship – We Will Not Tolerate
"We are not your O-R, D-I-N-A-R, Y, R-A-P-P, E-R-N-I, G-G-E-R, S, On our chest..."
Sort of cheating here, but these guys are all ridiculously good MCs, and I've always been a fan of everything they've done, individually and collectively, which I feel is summed up perfectly by this fraternity-style a cappella piece that punctuated their first two albums and many of their shows. In a perfect world, they'd be the Bill Gates of hip-hop.
Again, this goes back to seeing my brother messing about with a sampler. And I also went to a community college—a sort-of sub-university thing—and I'd taken some music classes and some of the stuff they were teaching there I had never heard of: 20th century classical, minimalism like Steve Reich and John Cage, and all this more academic stuff. My family are blue collar so I'd never heard any of this shit before. But just hearing what they were doing and then going back to the sampler was really interesting.
Then I started making hip-hop tracks with other sounds instead of vinyl samples. The other guys would be like, "Where did you get those snaps; how are they so clean?" I'd say, "I just recorded them myself." Then they would be like, "What the hell's that?" And I'd say, "Oh, that's just me throwing an egg against the wall because it makes this crazy noise." And then, the more I thought about it, I realised we could progress further; we could make tones, we could make flutes that aren't flutes, and it's always just been like that—I've always loved the idea. I just fell in love with the idea that you can make new instruments, literally, every time you make a song.
You've just recorded an EP for Matthew Herbert, right?
Yeah, I just finished something for Accidental, which should be out pretty soon.
Does it have a specific concept, like your other records?
Yes. It's made with handmade instruments from Native Americans of the Ute and Sioux tribes. I have family in Colorado near the Ute Indian reservation. I used to go there in the summertime when I was younger—it's been several years since I last went so I'm definitely due a re-visit—and every time I'd leave there I'd come home with something kinda unique they'd made. I also have an aunt living in South Dakota who would send me things made by the Sioux Indians. A lot of them were these little weird drums and instruments. At one point I was thinking of doing a whole album with them. In fact, the album for Circus Company potentially, at one point, was going to have this concept, but then I put it on the backburner.
I wanted to make a record that wasn't pandering to a World music sound, so it's still my sound, but made entirely with these instruments. And I guess the tongue-in-cheek joke is that, "Everyone uses Native Instruments" so I wanted to make a record that uses native instruments!
How important are concepts to your music overall?
I think as I've become more interested in art in general, and I've considered moving in a more visual art direction several times, I'm likely to always include something that puts the music into a more mental, cerebral and artistic realm. But, again, without losing the dancefloor or the musical goodness of it. I think I'll include concepts forever, so they're pretty essential in that respect.
Have you got any concepts in mind for the future?
Actually, the next ones I'm working on are instrumentalist-based things. I'm gonna do one with my father. I have another friend who's a saxophonist. And another friend who plays guitar. So what we're doing is highlighting their skills and using just their instrument for all the sounds, all the drums and everything, every nuance, just from their instrument. And that should be a nice tribute to each instrument; all the ones I only practiced for six months before giving up on [laughs].
Let's talk about the album. For the benefit of the uninitiated, how do you produce an album solely with your mouth?
I have my closet, with my clothes, and that's the vocal booth [laughs]. I have a cleared out area with a microphone, where I'll record mouth and voice sounds, then go back to the computer and manipulate them to fit where needed, and that's pretty much the gist of it.
Does it take longer to produce a track in that way?
Absolutely. For me, anyway. That can be the downside, but the process seemed worth it.
How long are we talking?
It varies greatly. Some tracks on the album took up to three weeks, just to get to a point where I was satisfied with them; reworking them, re-recording parts. And some of them came together in a matter of hours. In total, the album took around 6 months to complete.
No, I did it track-by-track. And, to some degree, sub-genre by sub-genre. For example, I want to make a swingy, Chicago loopy house track. So I go into the vocal booth and just try to emulate a 909 for a while, just emulating shuffly rhythms as best I could. Then I'd go back and just pick out the sections where it's like, "Ah, that has the shuffle, that's it."
Are you listening to specific records in order to emulate them?
No, I'm just trying to do my take on it [from memory]. I mean I play these records a lot so they're kinda ingrained. For every style of music that's on the album, I have loads of records that are of the same ilk.
The album is very diverse but hangs together really well and the concept behind it is fairly subtle.
Sure. It's the same with all the concepts I've used, I think, like The Tables Turn EP, which was a tribute to the turntable, a dying piece of machinery [laughs]. Each of my records has a concept but I make sure that the concept doesn't outweigh the final product. People should be able to enjoy the music without knowing how it's been made. It just gives it another dimension so that, should you be into that sort of thing, it'll be an added bonus.
I've actually played some of the tracks to family members and friends, and they'll be like, "That's silly," or "You're crazy" when I explain the concept, but then say "I do love this song" or "That's a great track, period." And that's all I need to hear.
What about the future: do you have any aspirations to produce a band?
I've thought about it a lot. I'm a big fan of producers that have shaped sounds. In fact, I just learned from Ark last night at dinner that Norman Whitfield had passed. I didn't even know that. I took a moment of silence because that guy's amazing. And it started me thinking about all the records that guy did. And then others like David Axelrod, Quincy Jones, James Brown, George Clinton, Charles Stepney, The Mizell Brothers. Those guys walk in a room and shape an entire sound, which is like, here's my vision and there's the band. Their stamp is ever-present on everything they do.
I guess I'm predicting a future where I step out of a club [environment] and my realm is more people's headphones and home stereos and my aim is to do something a little more like that. I think I'd be seriously intimidated, just because music for me so far has been a solitary freakout of ideas. I'll usually just tap on some shit and work it out through my own imagination.
Will you continue to release on other people's labels or do you aspire to have your own?
Having my own label is my ultimate goal. Even if I end up being this old, grey Moondog-type guy giving away my own records on the street when I'm 90, so be it. It'll happen before I'm gone, that's for sure. I've guaranteed myself that much.