As a beatmaker, Scott Matelic's work in the early 2000s set a standard of quality for hip-hop production in Indianapolis that has yet to be surpassed. As a DJ, Matelic is equally impressive. His creative open format turntable work at parties like Multiform and Let Go! opened up space for a variety of alternative sounds on Indianapolis dancefloors and influenced a multitude of local DJs – myself included. Matelic currently resides in New York City, but he maintains a close connection with the Indy scene, in part because his family — including father, musician Ron Matelic who I profiled in a cover story last year – still lives here. I caught up with Matelic at the WFYI studios while he was back home in Indiana visiting family.
NUVO: Your father Ron Matelic is a major figure in underground rock music. He was a part of legendary Indiana bands like Anonymous and Sir Winston and The Commons. I would imagine that you grew up around a lot of music.
Scott Matelic: My whole family was interested in music growing up. I always remember music being around, listening to Led Zeppelin while we played basketball in the basement, lots of Beatles, lots of Fleetwood Mac, The Byrds, and The Beach Boys. Music was a constant.
NUVO: Were there drums and guitars around the house for you to experiment with as a kid?
Matelic: Not really, it was kind of like don't touch anything. Growing up my dad's other band members kept their equipment in our basement. I was always very interested in the drums. Johnny Medvescek who played in Sir Winston and The Commons, Anonymous and J. Rider with my dad, he kept his drums in our basement. It was very enticing to try to set them up. But I didn't know what I was doing anyway. I think I may have tried to once but I got too scared. (laughs) I had access to drumsticks though, so I would beat on chairs or whatever.
NUVO: Do you remember if there was a particular record or song that got you interested in the idea of hip-hop production?
Matelic: It didn't get me interested in production per se, but I remember hearing Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill in my cousin's car. From there L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" came out and that was pretty much the beginning for me. I was obsessed with it. That was also around the time Yo! MTV Raps came on and I watched that religiously. It just grew from there.
NUVO: Your dad is a huge classic rock fan, I remember the '90s as a time where classic rock fans were very vocal in their dislike of hip-hop music. How was your interest in hip-hop received by your parents at that time?
Matelic: I don't think they understood, which is only natural. It was music for young people. But I wasn't super hip-hop-ed out, I guess you could say. If you didn't really know me, you wouldn't have suspected I was into it like that. I really didn't have any friends that were interested in it like me. I kind of felt like a loner from that angle. So I guess it wasn't in their face.
NUVO: Being isolated from other hip-hop fans I can't imagine it was easy for you to acquire samplers, drum machines and other hip-hop production equipment. How were you able to get started as a producer?
Matelic: I was interested in DJing before production. It was just a matter of acquiring turntables and a mixer, which I had no idea of how to go about getting. If I saw a wedding DJ using turntables I was just fascinated because I thought they looked cool. So I bought turntables when I got my first job in high school. But I didn't get a sampler until 1997. At that point I'd met DJ Topspeed and he basically had the key to the city as far as hip-hop is concerned. He showed me the way. He showed me the samplers everyone was using at that time which were the IKE made by Baldwin and the Emax made by E-mu.
I acquired a sampler from a guy who had used one here in the city. It was basically the staple sampler in Indianapolis. There was probably fifteen producers at the time who were using that. Tyler from the Mudkids, Topspeed and a slew of others. It was easy to learn how to use because there were all these people around me who were comfortable with it.
From there I bought an MPC 2000XL which is the main piece of gear that I still use currently.
NUVO: Did you have an immediate feel for using this equipment to make beats?
Matelic: Once I turned it on I was just so excited to use it that I would've stopped at nothing to figure it out. I was so hungry to learn that nothing was going to stop me. My good friend Jay McElfresh was key in that. Topspeed was the first person I saw using the sampler, but I spent more time with Jay and seeing how to put samples together, chopping up drums and learning how to replay them.
NUVO: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like your early beats had a noticeable '60s psych or '70s prog sound. I wonder if you were subconsciously or intentionally tapping into the music you heard at home growing up? What was guiding your taste when sampling at that time?
Matelic: I liked that stuff. I always wondered if my ear for melody comes from my dad, I'm always drawn to melodies. I was interested in things outside of rock too, R&B, funk, jazz and soul. Maybe initially it came from the music I grew up around. I don't know, maybe you're on to something. [laughs]
NUVO: Do you remember at what point you were satisfied with the quality of your craft and you wanted to start sharing the music you were making?
Matelic: I'm still trying to improve my craft. I was surrounded by all those guys making beats and I wanted them to hear my stuff. I guess I was nervous at first, but once you get a nod of approval from somebody you respect it gives you confidence to keep pushing.
NUVO: I want to jump ahead a couple years to the point when your music was getting released. Around 2000, in the early days of the internet, I used to listen to an online underground hip-hop show out of Denver, Colorado called Basementalism. I remember they used to constantly play a track called "Year of the Sex Symbol" by an MC named Sole. I didn't realize it at the time, but you produced that beat. "Year of the Sex Symbol" became a sort of anthem in underground hip-hop at that time and it helped establish the California-based Anticon label as a major force in underground music. You also produced beats for beats Sage Francis' work on Anticon. How did you get connected with Anticon?
Matelic: It was all internet-based. In the late '90s I was very much into the record culture. I remember there was an online email list of hip-hop samples that existed before sites like Who Sampled or Rap Sample FAQ. Through that email list I connected with a guy named Moodswing9 who used to work with Sole. I sent him a tape of beats and he passed it along to Sole. Sole called me and selected a few different things.
It was exciting. That was when and Anticon was on the come up and people were checking for them. I was just excited that people would hear my beats. I was super thankful.
NUVO: You mentioned that email list cataloguing hip-hop samples and drum breaks. I remember seeing you in the late '90s at record swap meets on the East Side digging for records with a massively thick printout of that list in your hands. But at that time I had no idea you were making beats for Anticon. Did it take a while for people to start connecting you with the work you'd done for Anticon?
Matelic: Though those early releases people were reaching out to me. I don't know, I feel like I squandered some of those opportunities. I was trying to work on solo stuff back then as opposed to collaborations. But it exposed me to a lot of people and I'm very thankful of the opportunity those guys gave me.
NUVO: I believe it was in 2004 a full instrumental LP of your beats titled Primitive Pessimist was released in Japan. How did that release come about?
Matelic: Sage Francis had a show in Bloomington in early 2002. I opened up for him and I wanted to have something to sell. So I put some instrumentals together that I'd been working on. Most of them were made with the intention of having someone rap on them. So initially I didn't want it to be perceived as an album. It was just a collection of beats I was making for people at that time.
I produced the CD myself, I burned them. Then there was a website in Michigan that latched onto it, I can't even remember the name. From there somebody in Japan got ahold of it and they approached me about rereleasing it in 2004. I took some things off and added some new material. So that's how it came about.
NUVO: How did you feel about that release and having your music issued internationally?
Matelic: It was exciting, but I wanted to release it domestically too. It just never worked out that way. The release as a whole? It is what it is. There are some things I like about it, and some things I don't.
NUVO: The Primitive Pessimist album took root in Japan and developed an enthusiastic audience there. In 2008 the internationally beloved Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes used a cut from the LP titled "To Impress The Empress" as the lead-off track on a compilation he curated titled Modal Soul Classics. How did you get connected with Nujabes?
Matelic: He reached out via email. I'm assuming he got my contact information from the people in Japan who put out Primitive Pessimist. He just said "hey, I want to use this song for a compilation if you're cool with it." I didn't really know who he was or the calibre of stardom he'd attained at that point. But he was a super-nice dude and I'm just thankful I was presented with the opportunity. The exposure I got from that was pretty nice.
NUVO: Around the mid '00s you started DJing more often in Indianapolis. I remember you started a weekly party at the Casba called Mulitform with Paren. What prompted you to begin focusing more of your energy on DJing?
Matelic: It stemmed from a trip I took to Philadelphia with some friends in 2003. We went to New York City initially and I ended up leaving the records I'd brought in a taxi cab. [laughs] It was heartbreaking. I lost a copy of Billy Wooten's In This World. So I was super bummed and my friend who I was with was from Philadelphia said let's go back to Philly and go to this party on Saturday night. We did and it was one of the Hollertronix parties with Diplo and Lowbudget. It was insane to me, those guys were playing all different genres and people were very receptive to it. They were playing crunk, which was big at the time, with Nu Shooz and dancehall. So from there I was like I want to do something similar to that. I'd been hanging out with Paren and he and I decided to try to do a party at the Casba with a similar vibe which became Multiform.
NUVO: You mentioned Diplo who has become one of the most influential forces in contemporary pop culture, I remember Diplo played at your Mulitform party at the Casba. I believe he was on tour with RJD2 at the time. How did you wind up getting Diplo to play the Casba?
Matelic: I'd known Diplo through the email list I referenced before. He liked the "Year of the Sex Symbol" record a lot. I'd met him a couple of times and he was always very cool with me. He happened to be touring and I was like, "Yo, you should come though and play after the RJD2 show" which was across the street at the Patio. So he came through and played some records. It was a lot of fun.
NUVO: As a producer you developed a reputation for creating downtempo hip-hop instrumentals with a very expansive sound. Around 2009 you switched gears and released an EP of uptempo dance music for Crossfaded Bacon titled Party People. The music on that EP referenced Baltimore club music and other high energy club styles. Can you talk about your transition as a producer from creating downtempo hip-hop to making high energy club beats?
Matelic: At the end of 2005 I moved to the Philadelphia area for five months with a DJ friend of mine named Emynd who is the head of Crossfaded Bacon. I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia on the weekends going to clubs. That's where I was really exposed to Baltimore club music which at that time was really starting to jump off. During the peak hours at parties you would hear twenty minutes of Baltimore club music and it was just insane. I really latched onto it. It was fun. It was dance music, but still rugged and hip-hop in a way.
NUVO: You've spent the last few years living in New York. What prompted the move?
Matelic: I felt a need for a change. The opportunity to go kind of fell into my lap. There was a living situation for me there that I really didn't have to work for.
NUVO: I assume you moved to NYC to further your music career?
Matelic: That was the goal, to gain exposure through production or DJing.
NUVO: The last major work you released was a project called Gold Metal with Jay McElfresh. Gold Metal issued an LP titled Drop Out City on Rad Summer in 2013. That work is unique in your catalog as it's not strictly a sample-based production. Am I correct that the Drop Out City album featured all live instrumentation?
Matelic: It's a mixture. A lot of the drums are sampled. It was a chance to do something I don't normally get to do, incorporating live instruments. Jay had just moved back to Indiana from Austin, Texas where he was in an indie rock band. So he had access to guitars, he also had a Kimball organ, and he had a Crumar synthesizer from his neighbor in Seymour, Indiana that's featured prominently on the album. So we had all these toys and we'd just noodle around and figure out stuff that sounded cool. That was a lot of fun. It took us awhile to finish it because Jay moved to Brooklyn in the middle of it. We started it in 2006 and Jay moved to New York in 2008. We didn't finish the album until I moved out there in 2010.
NUVO: You haven't released much music in the last few years, but you did have a beat on the new Comdot LP titled "Aqua." It's an amazing beat, it sounds like a lost hip-hop classic from the 90s. I know you're playing lots of weekly DJ gigs in New York, does that leave you much time to make new beats? Any chance we'll see a new Scott Matelic release in 2016?
Matelic: Yeah, right now I am focused on making hip-hop beats. I'm trying to make as many beats as I can. There are a few MCs on the East Cost that are interested, but I like the hometown guys too.
I have some old material I started working on while I was living in the Philadelphia area around 2005 that I want to release. I've been saying I'm going to release these tracks for a few years, but hopefully it comes to light soon.