With the splintering of dance music into so many esoteric genres, it’s hard to believe that at one time, hip hop and house music were brethren sounds in a developing underground urban music scene. New York and Chicago artists in the early 90s found common ground, fusing elements of hip hop and house music to broaden the horizon of both art forms. Of the many artists that experimented with both sounds, Philadelphia native King Britt has an enviable pedigree in both. The son of musical parents, King has won a Grammy award with Digable Planets, founded seminal underground dance label Ovum Recordings with Josh Wink, and released a ton of remixes and original material under his Sylk 130 and Scuba aliases. His latest release on Nervous Records, The Intricate Beauty, is a lovely 11-track excursion into jazz-house fusion. King is currently touring behind the album, billed as his last conventional dance album, and will make a stop in Indianapolis this Thursday at BLU Lounge’s “Keepin’ It Deep” party. What follows is an unabridged, broad-range discussion with an artist at the foundations of both hip hop and house music, covering the past, present and future of his illustrious career.
RK: You were the DJ for Digable Planets, you and Josh Wink founded Ovum Records; you've done remix work for tons of artists including Tori Amos, Donna Lewis;collaborations on your latest album, The Intricate Beauty, include Kim English and Byron Stingily. It's been quite a ride for you, hasn't it?
KB: Yeah, it has, man. It's funny because I grew up in Philadelphia, and I still live here. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. So, Philadelphia was such an amazing place due to Gamble and Huff and the whole disco sound. Just incredible songwriting, great radio... And then moving into the 80s we had a lot of amazing 80s new wave groups come out of here like Pretty Poison, the Hooters, and more of the alternative rock scene. We had the best of both worlds growing up, as far as listening to music.
It wasn't until the late 80s when I was working at Tower Records - I made all these connections in the music business with a lot of house labels that were just coming into inception. Nervous Records which, ironically, the new album is on, now, but I've been friends with all of those guys since the beginning, which was in '89, and Strictly Rhythm, so I quickly got a deal with Strictly Rhythm in 1990 for a demo I sent. At the same time I met Josh Wink, so I was like "Josh, I got this deal - Strictly Rhythm, let's do it together - you can do the beats or whatever. We did it, and had a really tight bond as far as DJing, producing, that sort of thing. In '94 we started a label after I got off tour with Digable Planets, which is a whole 'nother story...
RK: A little label you may have heard of, Ovum Recordings…
KB: (laughs) Yeah!
RK: It's been an amazing ride and it leads me into this: both of us are in that same age ballpark. You have your roots in jazz, obviously, and that big Philly sound. You were coming into the industry when hip hop and house music were side-by-side as urban art forms...
KB: Yeah, it was great!
RK: It was an amazing time. Hip hop records and house music records were being played in the same sets at some of the big warehouse parties in Chicago where I cut my teeth…
KB: Oh yeah, man! You were there.
RK: How has that background - the whole amalgam of hip-hop and house music - how has that affected your creative process and the way you approach making music?
KB: You know, it's funny. In high school, which was '82-86, I was collecting keyboards, drum machines - that sort of thing - because of my love for Trevor Horn and the Art of Noise, Kraftwerk and Mantronix. Getting into production at that time, when hip hop was in it's infancy, people were experimenting with the new samplers that were coming out, like the SK-1 which was a really cheap sampler that everyone could afford, but then moving up to the Emulator. So technology has always played an interesting role in production, but the whole rebellious attitude that went along with hip hop and house music was definitely non-mainstream. That also goes into the way you produce. You have a different energy when you go into the studio and you're working on that, or you're DJing. The rave scene - a lot of those things were just illegal spaces and there's a certain excitement that goes along with that that really comes out in the music, and the process of making that sound. You know you're making something that's going to change history, and that's what went into it. (pauses) Same with Digable Planets - taking the jazz elements and then taking it into each one (hip hop and house music).
RK: (Digable Planets was) one of the first groups to really embrace that. You think Digable Planets, Gang Starr, and then everybody else.
KB: Yeah - Guru rest in peace.
RK: That news hurt my heart…
RK: But on a lighter note - you mentioned technology, and the latest album, The Intricate Beauty, out right now on Nervous, and it's been described as a jigsaw affair with all of these individual pieces and parts of music that you stitched together in different ways using different forms and methods to put the tracks together.
KB: That's correct.
RK: There's a rumor that you're going to release the album stems as a producer pack.
KB: Yes - it may happen. If it does happen, it'll be in the early part of next year, because we have remixes coming out and I don't want the pieces out yet.
RK: You don't want to fight with yourself.
KB: Yeah - exactly! (laughs) Because once they're out, you have NO control over what happens.
RK: Getting back to the history, you seem to be a real student of the history of music, particularly of the Philadelphia sound. Listening to the new album, you definitely hear Philadelphia coming through the speakers. As a youngster growing up in Philadelphia, what kind of music were you exposed to, and what specific tracks became special to you or hold a special place in your heart?
KB: Wow, that's really a kind of difficult because there were so many amazing sounds that I was exposed to. I will say that growing up in a household where my mom was strictly jazz, and my dad was strictly funk - that was my foundation, so Sun-Ra was number one in our household. Growing up listening to Sun-Ra and my mom taking me to shows and going to his house really influenced what I do now. I'm doing a project with my fiancé called "Saturn Never Sleeps" which is paying homage to the free jazz movement but bringing it into an electronic atmosphere. So Sun-Ra "Space is the Place" of course. The Philadelphia sound which Gamble and Huff - who I've had the honor of working with, remixing "For The Love Of Money" a few years back and should be coming out soon. Anything by Phyllis Hyman. Lou Rawls "You'll Never Find". These are songs that will be with me forever. Each song has a memory, you know? Like, "oh wow - where were we when THIS was on the radio?"
RK: Certainly. They capture those perfect moments in time and every time you hear that song, at least a little bit of that memory comes flooding back, and that's one of the wonderful things about music.
KB: Oh yeah.
RK: And for you it has to be really special, to have all of those memories, and then to be able to take those tracks that are so near and dear to you and to work your own magic on them and put your fingerprints on them a little bit.
KB: oh, man… it's incredible. and then all of that history, growing up and listening to all of that stuff subconsciously goes into the music you produce. It can even be a techno record but it's still going to have soul.
RK: The history you have with music - it's funny because we both come from that same time period and when you try to explain it to the younger guys that there was no such thing as a hip hop club or a house club - it was just the dance club that you went to - people seem to have a hard time getting their heads around that.
KB: I think that if you look at what the Clash was doing - they went to New York and did Magnificent Dance, Magnificent Seven. There was this cross-pollinization: Blondie doing her stuff with Fab Five Freddy…
RK: All of the punk stuff at CBGB's and the hip hop and dance scenes cross-pollinating there…
KB: …and then house and hip hop - Jungle Brothers "I'll House You", Queen Latifah, Monie Love… The BPMs were higher in hip-hop and it went hand-in-hand. Things have really been separated now and it's kind of a shame. Hopefully that'll come back.
RK: You've billed "The Intricate Beauty" as the last conventional dance album you're ever going to release…
KB: Well, when I say "conventional" I mean in the sense of four-on-the-floor. I just need to push boundaries and move forward.
RK: A lot of the stuff on the new album takes me back to my youth and those great Strictly Rhythm records and the energy that drew me into dance music and house music in particular. What's the next evolution for King Britt? Where is this going to take you?
KB: Well, as I said, I'm doing this project "Saturn Never Sleeps" with my fiancé, and we're really experimenting with sounds and pushing, not just dance music, but music in general into the future. If you go to saturnneversleeps.com, there are podcasts, live shows that we've just done in Berlin, it'll give you a blueprint of what is to come.
RK: You're performing in Indianapolis on April 29th at BLU lounge downtown. Have you been out touring behind "The Intricate Beauty"?
KB: Yeah, I just got back from Dallas. Houston, which was amazing. Next week, I'm playing with Francois Kervorkian at CIELO in New York - we're doing a special party on Thursday with all the singers on the album. Philadelphia is Friday, and Saturday is North Carolina - Charlotte, which is interesting. I'm hitting everywhere - I'm actually going everywhere and then overseas.
RK: What can we expect from a King Britt show?
KB: The music that I'm playing, relating to this record, is really intimate and seductive. This isn't the live show, it's a DJ performance, but you're going to hear some AMAZING things, man. (laughs) Things that aren't out yet…
RK: I'm sure you've got a few secret weapons tucked away in your record bag…
KB: Yeah, for sure.
RK: Have you ever played Indy?
KB: Oh, yeah! I've had many "rave memories" from the rave days, man - some really amazing parties.
King Britt will be creating more rave memories at BLU lounge on Thursday, April 29, along with Slater Hogan, Kyle Hodges, Dave Owen and Tyler Stewart. Pre-sale tickets are still available for $5 at http://keepinitdeep.myevent.com.
Rudy Kizer is the host and producer of "Hit The Decks" on X103.