Photo by Tim Saccenti

The overlapping ideas of Prefuse 73

We caught up with the veteran beat composer ahead of his first Montreal set in some time.

Miami-born, Atlanta-raised and NYC-based beat composer Prefuse 73 has been an off-beat stalwart since back when the Fruity Loops kids were still eating Fruity Pebbles.

And now that we’re all getting a little longer in the tooth any way you cut it (and Prefuse cuts it fresh), I took the chance to ask the producer — who caught the Warp Records look back when it was first becoming the badge of honour it’s known to be today — about his life and times behind the dials by email, before his set at Bonobo’s Outlier tour, landing at an Off-Piknic event at Parc Jean Drapeau today. It’s his first Montreal set in some time. 

Darcy MacDonald: Did you begin playing music in any traditional way as a child – as in, piano lessons or getting a drum set or what have you – or did you go straight to sample-based production?

Prefuse 73: My mom threw me straight into “traditional’ music lessons from the time I was about six years old until I was a teenager. I played so many useless instruments throughout my childhood besides the drums.

I got into sampler based music when a friend brought an SP 1200 over during my last year of high school. I was introduced to sampling on that machine before anything else. We sampled my mom’s Weather Report record and I was hooked. 

DM: What was your first deep interest in terms of beat making? Were you drawn to drums, bass, melodies and hooks — what part made you want to get involved most? And which parts did you grow into as time went on?

P73: I was initially drawn towards “melody first. ” I figured if I was going to put myself “out there,” I needed to learn how to implement emotions via melodies before finding the right drums (and so on).

It also took me a long time before I could actually afford a sampler/sequencer of my own since everything was so expensive and I was still in school. Therefore, any sort of drum programming was out of the question.

I probably spent my first year or two of producing music without using any beats at all. I spent a long time just making tons of boring, semi ambient songs that I’d record to a four track cassette because I had zero technology. 

I used a regular dual cassette deck to make the loops and played along with a Crumar DS-2 synth (kind of an Italian version of Moog) to glue everything together.

Regardless, once I stepped up my production set up later on, I still went for the melodies and lead sounds first because it became such a familiar workflow for me. 

DM: I ask you these first two questions because of course, the artist we’ve come to know has always been appreciated by fans for being a-traditional. You’re certainly the first person I think of when I hear the term “glitch.” What do you make of that word?

P73: In terms of: “Prefuse 73” (equating to) the “glitch word” in itself is pretty misleading if you ever witness how I make my music firsthand. I take a very primitive approach to everything I produce. 

When I first heard the word “glitch” in the early aughts, I thought of people with a very sophisticated approach to making electronic music and manipulating sounds with a magic computer. 

I’ve always used outboard sequencers and miscellaneous outboard gear – non computer gear – to create the majority sounds that I use. I resample those sounds and I program them in a way that isn’t necessarily linear. 

Especially on my first few albums where I was working with lots of vinyl, I’d drop the needle down in the middle of a ‘targeted’ sample and keep every mistake intact. I think that’s where the “glitch word” caught on for me.

For example, when I sample sounds, I never sample a complete phrase from point A to point B. I sample all sounds at the wrong points and then I build up the rhythm and other sounds around those imperfections. That way my sequencer sounds like it’s running a 4/4, eight-bar loop, when it’s not at all. 
I end up with something that I can never predict. I never know — and don’t want to know- the start and end point of a song until it’s 30 minutes away from being complete. 

I guess challenging time and rhythm is “glitchy,” so if people need to use the word “glitch” to describe my music or a genre of music, that’s cool, but I just don’t want to be held responsible for the definition. 

DM: What informs your time signatures? Is it the collection of sounds you assemble and how they best interplay once you’re in the studio by your own arrangements, or is it perhaps the sounds that move you, to move them, so to speak?

P73: It’s probably in the collection of sounds I assemble in the beginning of a song that informs the arrangement. I really love when an extra beat, measure or literally (one) off timed sound makes you think twice about what you’re listening to. I love to organize songs out of a mess of different time signatures and overlapping ideas. I strive for sounds to struggle against each other but the “pop” sensibility in me wants everything to make some kind of sense… At least on the third listen.(ha)

DM: What influences to create that isn’t born of music?

Mid-century architecture, loneliness, nature, sexuality, paint, style, film, fear, shadows, memories, family, Cuba, Catalunya, love.  

DM:  How do you hope to convey themes through sound only?

P73: By channeling the first time you were ever in love with another human. It’s subjective but that’s my theme.

DM: What’s the dumbest way anyone has ever attempted to describe your music? What was the coolest, or your favourite?

I think there were a lot of uninformed descriptions of what I was doing when I first started out. 

The dumbest description that I ever saw was: “This is DJ Shadow when he knew what he was doing” (which is total bullshit). He will always be an innovator to me. My own label, WARP, smacked that quote on a sticker placed on the front of my first album. I’ll just say that it was very humiliating but I thought that was just “how it was” at the time. 

I don’t know about the “coolest” but I recently came across an old message board where Ta-Nehesi Coates was writing the most flattering things about my music and defending Prefuse 73 to other journalists that were more concerned with “how it was made” or “how I fit in” to the hip hop landscape at that time.

It’s just crazy to read in hindsight considering how crowded the ‘beat making’ field is now and also all (Coates) has achieved as an author and activist in the present tense. 

DM: When you hear the post-Dilla, app-based generation tweaking and retweaking old formulas to make them new again, are you ever envious of these cats born into the accessibility of all this musical input and potential knowledge, or are you glad you had to get it your way?

P73: Yes, I’m very cool with the way I learned production in such ‘ancient’ ways but I don’t even have a place to speak on a new generation that grew up with new avenues in front of them to learn from. 
As long as the music comes from a sincere place, It all falls on the ability to be creative instead of replicating formulas. – as always

DM: And where does the history of what you’ve done intersect with the present and how you do things now?

P73: I’m not sure but a big part of it comes from welcoming new music, respecting old music and using that to inspire the continuation for myself to make new music.

DM: With that in mind, Fudge Beats is fucking awesome. In what ways does it reflect your evolution as an artist? It seems to me your music almost hits in chapters, or volumes – there is a continuous feel to your work. Where did this pick up and where do you think it leaves off?

P73: Thank you! Fudge Beats is actually just an instrumental version of a record I did with Michael Christmas in 2015(m under the name “Fudge”. 
I wasn’t really aware that the label was going to release the instrumentals as a singular album until this year, so I’m way behind the curve on this album. I think this one record sits in it’s own respective “space”. I say that because those songs were built for an MC to rap over versus standing alone as “songs.”

All I can really say is that my new album that I’ve been working on is one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on and it picks up in a new place that I’ve never really been in. 

DM: What can we expect from your set here Saturday? Is it a DJ set, a live set, a mix? What can you reveal?

P73: When I play solo, it’s a mix between a DJ and live set, but I’m only manipulating my own material. 

Saturday should be nothing but fun. I haven’t been to Montreal in a long time but it’s so close to NYC. I wish I could live/work there for a year or so. Adios! ■

Piknic Electronik & Osheaga present “BONOBO PRESENTS OUTLIER” with Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, J-E-T-S, Prefuse 73 and Durante at Plaine des Jeux (Parc Jean-Drapeau) on Saturday, June 22, 3 p.m., $37.50-$43