Illbient, tension and the Brooklyn Immersionist movement: DJ Olive in conversation
Over the course of two months this past spring I interviewed a cast of characters who during the 1990s were involved in a short-lived, yet still resonating, musical movement called illbient. Originally I had pitched a story about one individual, Raz Mesinai aka Badawi, to the editor at the Red Bull Music Academy magazine. That idea ended up morphing into attempting to tell the story of illbient, a scene that Raz had been a part of and that both the editor and I felt was one of those moments in time that deserved to be looked back upon. The drive in part was to see if we could piece together the story of what had happened and why illbient seemingly fell through the cracks of history, despite having had some long lasting repercussions — for example when I first interviewed Japanese dubstep producer Goth Trad in 2007 he told me how the Crooklyn Dub Consortium compilation, released by Wordsound and attached to the illbient movement, had been a revelatory moment for him that pushed him forward in his career.
I started the series of interviews with Gregor Asch, aka DJ Olive. The reason was that of the little information available online about illbient one of the few solid pieces seems to be that Asch and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) were responsible for coining the term. It stood to logic that either of them would therefore be the best place to start. Following my conversation with Asch I went on to interview another ten or so people involved in the scene: Spooky, Raz, Lloop (who worked with Asch as WeTM), Matt E. Silver (NYC promoter), Akin Adams, Manny Oquendo and Karthik Swaminathan from Byzar, Beth Coleman from Soundlab, Carlos Slinger aka DJ Soul Slinger, Sheldon Drake, Skiz Fernando Jr from Wordsound and Tim Sweet from The RV. Two months and hours of interviews later I had enough (or is that too much?) to piece together an oral history of illbient.
RBMA magazine published the oral history in early August after we spent some more time trying to fine tune the narrative and questions that arise when you ask ten different people what they remember about something that happened twenty years ago. You can read the full piece here — I recommend you do so, whether before or after this, as it will help make sense of a lot of what is discussed here. In addition to the oral history, RBMA published an edited extract of my conversation with Lloop, which you can find here, as well as extracts from my conversation with Matt E. Silver, which you can find here. Again both of these also help to fill in some of the gaps and flesh out some of the stories in this particular conversation.
We originally discussed publishing extracts from the DJ Olive interview but it never happened. So I’ve decided to self-publish it as I feel it has a lot of great moments especially with regards to the Brooklyn scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that is now being referred to as the Immersionist scene. In fact I went back to Asch as I was finishing the oral history and asked him to fill in some of the blanks and give me more information about this particular time: collectives like Lalalandia, the Omnisensorialists and others who were active in Brooklyn in the early ‘90s. Some of that information made it onto the final oral history. And if you read that and the extracts of Lloop and Matt’s conversations you’ll get a fuller picture. If you want more on that particular world I suggest a few deft Google searches — that’s how I managed to piece in a lot of the information that was missing with regards Brooklyn pre-gentrification. There’s still relatively little in terms of documentation about that particular time despite the fact that, in hindsight, it was clearly a proto movement to what became the hipster takeover of Brooklyn, and ultimately the western world.
Anyways, if you’re still reading there’s another 8,000 words to get through so I better shut up. Here is a fairly unabridged, but edited for reading logic, transcript of my conversation with DJ Olive. May I recommend firing up one of his mixes or one of the WeTM albums to accompany it.
What would you define as the roots of illbient?
The word or…
On one side the word, and one side what it means to you as the music you made and movement you were a part of?
Initially it was a joke I said to a reporter. He asked me at a party ‘is this ambient?’ and I replied ‘no man this is fucking illbient’. But it was a joke. Me and Rich Panciera aka Lloop both thought it was very funny but kinda cool too so we started a little label, really a mixtape label, called Illbient Recordings. That was 20 years ago. We put out what later became the first release on The Agriculture, a continuous mix of Lloop’s tracks he called Bulbbs. It was a continuous mix of his own material. We put that out on cassette(actually Rich did, i didn’t do shit) and it was the only release on Illbient Recordings because the word then kinda took legs in the downtown scene at that point. That’s kinda why we stopped the label, we felt like illbient wasn’t a joke anymore.… it was turning into something else and we didn’t like being defined by it, by a joke, so good riddance kinda thing.
Initially in ’90 -’95 it was like… you had a Brian Eno new age ambient on the one hand and a sort of dance music electronic ambient on the other… a lot of 12”s had a b-side track that was beatless. Even people who were putting out banging dance floor stuff were making ambient tracks and a lot of that was kind of a bit prettier than what we felt the downtown New York scene was about. So illbient was something a little more gritty… we didn’t want to just use the word ambient which we were a bit allergic to because of the new age pre-set association. Much as I love Brian Eno, I think he’s great, there was a muzak element to ambient at that time. It’s been redefined a hundred times since then but round ’93 “ambient” was a little bit on the muzak tip and we wanted to do something more rugged and ill.
Ill in the hip hop lexicon of the time meant to take two things that normally shouldn’t go together, whether that’s tempo or tuning. Often it has to do with using samples where the tempo is matching but pitch isn’t “correct” but feels right… so if you match the tempo the tuning would be out a bit but there is a tension in that outness that we felt was true to life in a way. Life has tension, life is fucked up, things don’t always work out perfectly and so a reflection of that in the music was to try to put in that ill quality. That was what we were trying to do with samples, myself and Rich and Nacho Platas aka Once11, the other guys in We™. We were trying to find samples that shouldn’t work together but somehow they did. Kinda like… you have something that’s really cool, one sample or a combination of a few samples, and then you have another thing that’s really cool and when you put them together the sum is kinda greater than the parts thing. So you end up with something else that’s neither… the cool qualities of each thing are buried in there but there’s a synergy that happens, something else happens. A magical new sound made from the combination of two seemingly incongruent samples. That to me was the roots of illbient. On the good side. The bad side is that it was just a joke to a reporter to take the piss out of him, you know?
Rich and I were saying that infusing that hip hop idea into ambient music was something that for us as downtown beat writers was kinda interesting.
“Life has tension, life is fucked up, things don’t always work out perfectly and so a reflection of that in the music was to try to put in that ill quality.”
The way you describe the two things being greater than the sum of their parts reminds me of something a friend of mine said about how you get that with mixing two records, how a blend can create a third track that’s better than the two separately or added together. Blends can be superior than the two tracks on their own.
Yes. And often you can’t understand why. As much as you’re an engineer, you know all about music production and still you’re like “‘what the fuck is it about this? It’s itching my mind.” I think that’s what was really fresh and interesting at that time.
Did that joke go into print?
I don’t know. I didn’t know the journalist. English guy, he was at an underground party, we were listening to the bass player and beat writer of Byzar, Akin Adams, who’s the guy on the cover of The Wire feature on illbient with DJ Lucy on his lap, also from Byzar. Anyway he was playing bass out of two amps on a chair in a puddle of water, which Akin told me later had been blocks of ice. This was deep inside an old, wrecked and beloved gas station that used to be across the street from Save The Robots. Avenue B and 2nd St. It’s no longer there, it’s a high rise now. Back then it had been a Rivington School landmark since ’85, when those Rivington school artists squatted it and welded a wall of metal waste around it. Karen Levit and her posse had a monthly party there called Molecular. We™ used to play there as did lots of other people. Akin had his bass going into some effects and split them back to two amps, that were also in this puddle of melted ice. He was basically just playing bass to the surrounding bleeding sound from the other people playing. It was pretty ill, you know?
So when this guy said “is this ambient?” it was such a ridiculous thing to say. It was ambient in the sense that it was sound sculpture or something but not the new age syrup being called “ambient” at the time… so that response kinda blurted out of my mouth.
By the time that The Wire cover feature and the Asphodel compilation were out, in 1995/96, were you already over the illbient “joke”?
We were so allergic to the whole thing at that point. We felt it was really trying to shut people out. it was no longer about an attitude towards sound, it was about certain bands and DJs, and we felt that was a total dead end sonically. House music isn’t about certain DJs and producers, it’s about style, its open. Open to anybody who can produce in that style. You can be from Madagascar and make house music. But if you define it as being certain bands, then it’s already history. You’ve already defined it, it’s gone, anyone young can’t be part of that. It’s locking people out. And that to us, around late ‘94, was totally disgusting. It was everything about Manhattan that we disliked. You know, that horrible ghoul you’d always meet at Manhattan parties back then talking about their “entrepreneurial self.” We™ were from Brooklyn, and the warehouse scene. Brooklyn was not popular back then, as it is now. The Brooklyn vibe was decidedly not self entrepreneurial in the early ’90’s. Believe it or not it was considered uncool to just sit and talk about your self and your projects all night long.
What do you consider as the first illbient release?
I’d say Crooklyn Dub Consortium’s Certified Dope Vol.1 was the first illbient recording. After that Liminal’s Nosferatu. We had our mixtape label called Illbient Recordings but no one really had heard the word or anything. But there were a lot of bands, a lot of groups, you know, bedroom producers, in the kind of Crooklyn scene that were involved with Bill Laswell’s studio, which was in Greenpoint at that time. Bill was the one to turn me onto Skiz from Wordsound, and Skiz was the first person to ask me to produce a track, for Certified Dope Vol.1. Lloop was an engineer at Bass Mind studio, Dr. Israel’s studio, at the time. I asked Lloop if he would engineer the track and Doc let us have a graveyard shift for $70. I really didn’t know at that time much more than what a sampler was, I could barely turn it on. I’d been using a stack of cassette players with answering machine loop cassettes. It was a big step up for me. Lloop had been working in studios since he was 16 in Philadelphia, so he knew the gear and he was engineering there. He agreed and about halfway through the session I was like “we have to start a band because you’re making half this track”. I couldn’t really see how it was mine anymore… We were working on this track, you know, together. And towards about 3 in the morning, my buddy Once11 was outside throwing rocks at the window, he had a six pack of beer. He came in and he was like “this fucking sucks! Why don’t you take a sample of that voice and…” or something like that. So after a few beers I was like “ok you’re all in the band, let’s start a band” and that’s how We™ got started, with that first track on Certified Dope vol 1.
I think a lot of the coorklyn guys felt passed over when the illbient scene got defined as a downtown thing in Manhattan and a lot of those producers felt shut out by the term. There was a schism already there that we didn’t notice till later.
I was discussing with someone yesterday that once something becomes codified it invites people in. So I thought it was interesting that you said once it got codified you felt shut out. The reaction I’ve seen over the last 10/15 years is that once something gets codified it invites a rush of people from the outside who have no reference points and perhaps just know ‘oh you’re supposed to do it like this.’
I think that’s true if it’s codified in terms of sound. But illbient wasn’t really codified like that, it was codified in terms of personality.
Personalities and location?
Yeah, it was never really defined as a really specific sound.
That certainly makes sense as there isn’t really that much detail about it online 20 years on, whereas something like trip hop is perhaps more clearly codified sonically as what it should sound like.
I think there was a kind of overproduction to a lot of trip hop, Giant Step sort of trip hop, using really high quality engineers and gear, mostly in the UK, and they kinda overproduced. It got a syrupy sound that was… I don’t know it didn’t really scratch your soul. It was pop hop. Illbient was sort of trying to be a bit more rugged, less produced and more about feeling I guess. But there was heaps of trip hop like that already out there. Some of the more rugged trip hop, what’s the difference between that and illbient? There isn’t any.
It’s the same sort of criticism people level at most of the Mo’ Wax back catalogue. There’s about two years’ worth of catalogue that remains outstanding but they got a ten year run out of the idea. A lot of their output was non-threatening.
The disturbing element was something that we were trying to put back in the music.
Is that because of your location? Because of what Brooklyn and Manhattan were at the time? NYC has always had a claustrophobic quality.
There is that element for sure. But I think there was a big impact from the first Gulf War on a lot of us that was messed up… It was really fucked up, hey? A lot of us were affected by the politics at the time and how that infected the arts scene. There was a sort of Manhattan attitude, a late ‘80s self-entrepreneurial savy, you know… Basically you’d go to a party in Manhattan and everyone you’d meet would be like “yeah I’m working on my opera, I’m doing this, I’m doing that…” No one would just say “hey, how’s it going?” Everyone was trying to sell you something about themselves. Kinda like Facebook now.
“Some of the more rugged trip hop, what’s the difference between that and illbient? There isn’t any.”
Brooklyn at that time was really reactive to that. Between ’90 and ’93 there were a lot of underground warehouse parties that completely shunned any kind of press or notoriety. Because we were all a bit allergic to this self-promotional narcissism. Rather there was a lot of experiments in collectives, how to work together, how to share ideas, how to work on each other’s ideas without co-opting each other’s ideas. So I would help you one day a week if you would help me on my thing. You know, that kinda shit. A lot of experimenting. That was one of the reasons why by the end of that first We™ session I was like “‘man we’re a band!” Because it was part of this atmosphere of not stepping on the other person to get to the top of the heap, not pushing people out of the way to get out the door first, you know? That’s why I wouldn’t let The Wire mag photograph me without Lloop and Once11 when the photographer whispered in my ear with a sly knowing smile that it might be for the cover. Fuck off, just put our band on the cover then. What a dick.
The late ‘80s had shown us that fucking your friends was short sighted… You might get some success, surely you’ll get success that way but you’re kinda selling your soul, you’re bankrupting your soul. You’re fucking your friends over to get to the top of the heap. For us at that time that was not the way to go. How do we do this another way? I know! Let’s make warehouse parties! We held a lot of crazy raves during the rave scene. There was a lot of big raves that would happen in our warehouse parties and that’s really how I got into DJing. I think that time was messed up, it’s hard to see now, but there was a sort of post-Reagan trauma to the first Bush presidency. The attack on Iraq kinda set the stage for people to say “this is really fucked”, what’s being fed to us is not edible. Both how we should behave as artists and how we should behave as human beings was smelling ethically bankrupt. To make ambient music was to support that. It’s like you’re making elevator music to pacify people? Fuck that, we want to rip people a new asshole with something unprecedented. The combining of two things to make something ill that keeps itching your head. You ask yourself “Why is this so fucked up that I can’t stop listening?” That was a lot to do with that time and place. It’s kinda interesting.
Taking ambient and this philosophy of the ‘ill’, born of hip hop which is itself born of the ills of society a decade and a half before, do you think that perhaps it was also about hip hop being a great tool for you guys at the time to do that because it was such freeform? It was accessible as long as you did it with the tools at hand. That was the great thing about hip hop in the early decades, it was… open. You didn’t need specific knowledge or education, you could grab a sampler and do it, as you describe from the early sessions.
I think that’s totally true. It’s not an academic world. And hip hop instrumentals weren’t hard to come by. Every weekend there’d be some crackhead… Well, yeah I guess crack, some drug head on the streets selling a couple crates of records and most of them would be hip hop “12s…
With the instrumentals on the flip?
Right. So I would buy the crate for 20 bucks. And then I’d take the crate home, go through them and there’d be maybe, 10 records, if I was lucky, with instrumentals that were cool. After a while you’d have multiple copies of some instrumentals so you could rock them. And then, you’d have a King Tubby record that you could play on 45, match it with a hip hop instrumental and then mix in Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique you know? That to us was ambient. The ambient part of illbient was musique concrete, not necessarily Eno and all that stuff. Though we did really like beatless ambient. There was a lot of records by people like Kahn or Walker and Jamming Unit’s Air Liquide. They were producing these acid/techno 12”s but they’d have one just beautiful, total wash track on the flip side and it was ill too because they were using a lot of weird electronics. So basically we’d take that and take a concrete record, couple hip hop instrumentals and mix it all together and you’d get this weird feeling inside. Some people would get a kind of vertigo, like “this is making me sick, I don’t know where… my ears can’t…”
“The ambient part of the illbient was musique concrete, not necessarily Eno and all that stuff.”
You mentioned loops, and this idea of looping, of building loops on top of each other seems kinda central to what became illbient and the work you did. Where and when did you understand you could loop things on top of each other like that? The only other places I can think of at the time that also did that heavily were the beginnings of the turntablist scene, and there’s a crossover to a degree with people like Marclay.
That’s really how it started for me, using multiple turntables. A collective I founded in ’91 with five others called Lalalandia Entertainment Research Corporation had opened a club called El Sensorium. It was a pretty experimental club. We would do after-hour parties for some of the big rave clubs in the city. They would bring their own DJs. DJ Dimitri, Soul Slinger, Adam X, they would come and play. But on the nights we ran our own thing it would be experimental. We had a stack of nine cassette players, and in those cassette players we had loop cassettes for answering machines. Answering machines at the time took a cassette, and you could buy them at Radio Shack, all these different lengths. 10, 15, 20 seconds all the way up to three minutes. So we’d make these loops on the fly from the records and then mix them together and they’d loop at different lengths. You could just put on, say a 15 second cassette with all silence expect for one snare hit. But that snare hit would play somewhere different against a tape that’s 90 seconds. So when you get six of these going it would be pretty crazy, it was really experimental and kind of insane.
Lloop was working with an Akai, he had a S612 and a S950. He loaded his 950 with techno and acid and breaks and triggered them from a keyboard. if you held down a key, a sample would loop. If you played two keys at once, two samples would trigger, and so on. He would let the crowd play. He had a huge overcoat and a beard that was so long it would hide his beer. He’d just hang out facilitating.
When We™ first went in the Bass Mind studio, Rich was using an Atari, Cubase, and Doc Isreal’s s1000, along with a few ADATs, and that’s how we built our tracks. Later both Lloop and I got XL 3000’s, and basically We™ would play live just the way Lloop had set up years earlier at Lalalandia’s El Sensorium. Lloop’s technique went like this: we would build the loops ourselves out of sequencing and then re-record them and put them on different keys on the controller and you could play them live. As long as you triggered the keys at the same time they would be in synch. We each used a 16 channel mixer and outboard FX. A freakin’ sea of cables. We had two set ups and we’d work back and forth. So Lloop would say “I’m coming in with a bass, take your bass out on the 1, now!” and then I’d take my bass out. He could load while I was playing and then he’d mix in the next tune and then I’d fade out and I would load. We’d go back and forth like that for hours if we weren’t kicked off the stage.
In terms of putting loops on top of each other I think that the ragga scene at the time was also doing quite a bit of that. And we were quite influenced by that early ragga scene. So… It was a lot of different things. It was about finding unheard of breakbeats and how we could dice them up and line them with another breakbeat, stuff like that.
Looping seemed to be in the air at the time for a lot of people because of the technology becoming more accessible and being coopted by different people in different situations. Different needs and purposes.
I also think that samplers had really come into their own around that time. So that’s there. That’s where trip hop could get really get boring and suddenly end up being acid jazz, because the engineers could really dice up those break, whereas before that it was pretty tough to do. So it was easier to just loop the break the way it was. A lot of hip hop instrumentals in the ‘80s were pretty much beats looped, maybe starting again on the snare so you’d have a little juggle. But by the time you get into ’92 things were getting really diced up, hey? The EMU came out and that really revolutionized the sound.
So we touched on the sensation of two things coming together and the third thing being really appealing, are there any other aspects to illbient that are important for you? Any other defining characteristics to the music and what the scene was about?
I think there was a sort of global approach to it. We were trying to infuse samples from odd sources rather than using a r’n’b vocal sample we would take a Thai pop singer and sample that. So we were trying to make references that touched down around the world. When we were sampling, we would say “let’s not sample a tabla, but let’s sample a… a fucking one-string gourd from West Africa.” You know what I mean? We were looking for stuff to sample but we were trying to stay away from the ones that were getting a bit played in the trip hop scene. But to have that global feeling is tricky… It can get kinda cliché really quick, especially now. At that time it was a little fresher, it was a little easier to do that without sounding like you were trying to make world music or something. Like you’re trying too hard to show this global element in your music. It didn’t really have the same context then. We were trying to infuse other types of rhythms in there. We were trying to get a kind of global feeling in the sound, forward looking feeling. Again this had to do with what was happening politically at the time.
And I’m assuming being in New York and it being a global city?
Yeah, totally. And we just felt like… We wanted to be a part of dance music but not with an 808, four on the floor…
On your own terms?
Yeah we had to find our own terms which meant really moving away from just embracing the Roland drum machine and that kind of sequencing. Instead taking an African rhythm and stripping it down and figuring out where the kick could go on that. Doing things off the grid. Putting notes in the wrong place. Like Dizzie Gillespie said “‘making all the right mistakes.” We were trying for fresh mistakes. It’s part of that ill-ness and also part of trying to get away from this over production that we felt was coming out of the trip hop scene in the UK. Not so much the early Mo’ Wax but the more Giant Step kind of trip hop stuff.
“Doing things off the grid. Putting notes in the wrong place. Like Dizzie Gillespie said ‘making all the right mistakes.’”
What would you say were the parties and locale that were key to this whole story and scene?
Well in the early ‘90s there was, like I was saying before, a lot of really interesting, strange parties in Brooklyn that didn’t want any hype. And there wasn’t a lot of cameras back then so these parties have disappeared from the collective consciousness. A lot of them were on the roof because in Brooklyn that’s one space you can party… That kinda dried up around 2000 because Brooklyn became hugely popular and expensive, the cops became much more into your shit and it was harder to throw parties and harder to throw them on the roof. In the early ‘90s cops paid no attention to Brooklyn at all so you could do parties in a warehouse, parties on a rooftop. These were all coming and going, rotating… There was a really great party called the Human Fest, in Brooklyn on the south side. I put it together with Dr Israel and a friend of his whose name eludes me just now. This was ’91 I think. It was just a block party. We’d invite as many different types of bands as we could. It was just a marathon of bands and we’d get into the electronic music later in the evening. We had stuff like traditional Korean bands in their full regalia. Hip hop groups, rock groups. It was a really exciting party. Just happened twice. Once a year for two years I think.
The Abstrakt Wave party was actually a party I started because I couldn’t get hold of any 1200s. I was playing in the back room of El Sensorium with seven turntables and a stack of cassettes. We used fountains of water and fire and all kinds of smell machines. We called ourselves Omnisensorialists, it was really a whole crazy situation. So, some of the rave guys would come and do after-hour parties there and we would let them take the main floor and do the dance thing but we would keep the back room for ourselves. We usually had a couple of street musicians we’d find in the subway. We’d bury them inside installations, let them play. You’d find a really cool latin drummer in the subway and give him 50 bucks to come play at the party for the night. He’d be like “fuck yeah!” So you’d set him in the corner underneath this kinda weird shit and there’d be this incredible drum beat just pulsing out of this corner. Jimmy Tanner used to come with Kahn and some other people, they’d play 303s in Dennis Delzotto’s inflatables in our back room.
I was DJing at the time, and I would also make grilled cheese sandwiches with a toaster, which was great when it was 4 in the morning, you know? So I was DJing and making grilled cheese sandwiches and my DJ set up was really fucked up. I had these old granny turntables with speakers on the side. A whole bunch of those on the wall and all their speakers strung together in a big array and I’d use microphones on those speakers. The two mics went into guitar pedals and amps. I’d use wire or tape to ‘leash’ the tone arm of the turntables, make them like a sampler. If you tape down the tone arm it can’t advance. It will skip, so if you take an acid house record and play it at 16RPM, which those old turntables can do, and then you skip it, all you got is ‘wramm’ once a rotation. right? And then on another turntable you skip something else, another beat, ‘wramm’, ‘yunnr’. They’d kinda be in synch but those turntables are not exact, they’d slip out of synch and when you’d get five of them skipping it was pretty psychedelic.
One day DJ Soul Slinger showed up in our room while he was doing the dance room at one of these after parties. He heard me skipping a Sesame Street track “ma nam ma na.” I had two copies skipping and he was like “what the fuck are you doing?” He came back the next time we did the party, with some records. And he jumped over the sort of barrier I had into the little DJ booth area and kinda pushed me aside… He’s a Brazilian guy so… We didn’t speak or anything, he just pulled out another Sesame Street record and he started skipping it. We became friends and he invited me to play at his party called Egg in Manhattan. They had a chill out room upstairs. He picked me up in a taxi and on the way asked “you got your headphones right?” and I said “headphones? What do you use headphones for?” And he was like “Ahhh jeezuus Olive man!” “What?” “You use headphones so you can cue!” “cue? what?” So that was the first night I got to play on 1200s and a real DJ mixer. This was ‘93. I was completely hooked by the end of the night. I couldn’t believe you could actually cue something, that was un-fucking-real. And then there was a pitch control on it!?! What the hell, you can pitch it?! Good bye granny turntables.
I wanted to get hold of these SL1200 turntables so I could practice. At the end of that night there was a guy sitting there who I‘d become good friends with at Translounge, a Lalalandia after hours club on North 6th, which at the time was a wasteland of rotting meat dumpsters. Probably a Prada shop now. Anyway, Josh Lorr, that was his name, was the guy who designed the early Yack Packs. Yack Pack was like a backpack a lot of ravers used, the first backpack designed for DJs. Josh told me there was a little bar in the Village with 1200s. So we grabbed a cab with my records. Sure enough they had some decks. The owner said I could do Sundays. I just wanted to work with 1200s so great. That’s how Abstrakt Wave started.
Josh would make the flyers. I invited the bands. It got so big the owner kicked us out. He told me “I didn’t want a party here, this is Sunday night and it’s for me and my locals to just hang out.” It was so packed you couldn’t get in. Cibo Matto played and kicked ass. This was before they got big. I had been in a band with Yuka called Asshole Savant that Danny Blume started, which was really fun. Cibo Matto started taking off and she left the group to focus on that. Rich joined and Danny changed the name to Liminal and that was an amazing group. I knew Cibo Matto were going to get big so I asked them to play the party before they went touring. It was jammed. At the end of that night I didn’t know what to do ‘cause the owner kicked us out. A guy who lived around the corner, Tim Sweet aka Doctor Decent, had a store front called the RV and told us we could move it there. So we did and it ran for a few more years with a solid vibe.
We did a few nights that were marathons. The 24 Hour Sound featured DJs playing hour and a half sets non stop from noon till noon. We did a 48 Hour Sound. I think we did a 36 Hour Sound in between. These were really cool parties because you could leave and go shower and maybe even go to work and come back! It’d still be going. Because the DJs and live performers were changing, the crowds would change too. Some people would chill one night, some another depending on who was playing. It was also a place where if you got booked at 4 in the morning you could really play an ambient set. There wasn’t a lot of places where you could get away with that. There’s this great quote from one of those nights, someone came up and said “man your set was so good I didn’t wake up once!”
It was really a kind of meeting ground for all these people that were doing weird shit and playing… Some of them had instruments, some of them had electronics, it was always electronic heavy but there was sometimes a double bass player stuffed in there.
You keep referencing chill out rooms and secondary rooms which is another thing I’ve come across a lot in my research. It seems that a lot of trip hop, instrumental, alternative stuff, ambient, all sorts of ‘90s sounds were relegated to those places during the first wave of rave music in Europe and America. And those rooms acted as an incubator almost because you’re out the way, so people let you do your thing .
Totally. It’s kinda hard to remember that context now.
I think in NYC that idea of the chill out rooms started dying about ‘97… It was when Chemical Brothers and Moby were pushed really hard. The majors were trying to capitalize and make money off the dance scene and were repackaging dance music as rock n roll. Basically the same formula as rock. Before then the party was the people. No one gave a shit about who was playing or… You might get a mixtape, you might wanna get Frankie Knuckles’ mixtape but you didn’t really know the artists you were dancing to. Unless you DJed. Most people, they liked the DJs but they didn’t look at the DJs when they were dancing or when they were at parties. And then something happened around ‘97. They’d have one stage and everyone would come in and just stare at the band and be like “‘whoa so this is The Orb!?” And the parties just sucked after that. They stopped being parties because they were shows. When they put the lights and the focus on the electronic artist on stage, it’s totally uninteresting. Someone behind a bunch of gear is not interesting. That’s not the interesting part, the interesting part is you and your buddies dancing together. The rave scene was all about the dance-floor. The party is the people. So when they repackaged it, the parties not the people, the party is this persona on stage, there was a kinda crisis of representation we had to deal with and that was also combined with the laptop coming into prominence compounding the problem with “what the fuck are they doing!? Checking their email?!” If you weren’t so busy looking at the DJ you might not care if they did.
“Someone behind a bunch of gear is not interesting. That’s not the interesting part, the interesting part is you and your buddies dancing together.”
I interviewed Coldcut who mentioned people throwing shit at them in ’99 because they didn’t know what they were doing behind their laptops.
Yeah. And the problem was not with the music, it was with the context. Promoters decided to axe multiple rooms which had freed people up from being a prisoner of the stage. If you have lots of room you’re like “I’m not really into this I’m going to get lost and go into another room, I’ll catch you later.” So when you and your friends got home later you didn’t say “oh I thought so and so’s set was this and that. Did you see his vintage keyboard wasn’t plugged in?” and start judging the individual artist on minute points, you were more like “that was a great party” or the opposite, but see, you were talking about the whole thing because not everyone saw the same stuff. You got lost. You couldn’t see it all. If there were six different rooms you’re going to miss five acts at any one time. I think that was what was given up to try and bank on these certain big acts and it pulled the plug out of the whole scene overnight. You were left with these shows where you’d come in, all the lights would be on the stage, there’d be nowhere else to go and so you’d have to suffer it, if you didn’t like it. And if you liked it you didn’t dance any more because your energy was focused towards looking at the show. When that happens, you judge it. Because of the context you no longer dance with your friends but bob up and down while looking at a dude on stage behind a laptop. It’s like we passed through a worm hole and got all inverted. You weren’t having a good time, getting your dance on. You were thinking about the performance. Which is more like art in a gallery. And that was everything we were trying to get away from in ’89 in Brooklyn, trying to do these crazy warehouse parties. We were saying “fuck the gallery, let’s get the art out of the gallery where it looks like a stuffed moose head trophy and put it into a kind of living context, let’s make these environments, these raves, these multiple rooms with music and art.” You’re not standing there thinking “what do I think of this?” like you do when you walk into an upscale gallery and behind the desk is a cold robot wearing a 5K Armani suit. You can hear every one of your footsteps squeak. It’s not the art that has a problem, it’s the context. You don’t go in a Japanese garden and judge the tree and rocks. You fucking relax. It was when I realized that around ’89, just out of art school, that I started to think about ambience. The gallery was co-opting the art. The context was the controlling factor. The container was the definer. In ’90 I stopped being a painter and became an Omnisensorialist working with all the senses. Myself and five others including Nacho Platas aka Once11, started an Omnisensorial Technorganic futuristic circus called Lalalandia Entertainment Research Corporation. We made environments in old warehouses where the party and people were the art. We later called it Decentertainment a term coined by Lloop. After Lalalandia, Once11 and I started Multipolyomni.
It’s ironic that you mention trying to wrestle that back in the late ‘80s only for it to end up again in that stuffy scene in the late ‘90s. A sort of push and pull.
Exactly. It’s also about money. In the early ‘90s, Lalalandia’s warehouse, where we did El Sensorium, was 8000 sqft for 800 bucks a month. That’s totally unheard of now. So you could actually do something, build something, and take your time. During the rave scene, the promoters could make multiple rooms and know they were going to make some money. But later it became like “we could make more money if we just booked Orbital and nobody else. We won’t have to then pay for such and such a crew to come in and put their inflatables and that other crew to do projections and then we’ll axe the drum n bass room and that’s six DJs there we don’t need to pay for.”
There was a real economic force at play. A sort of Darwinian economic force that was forcing these parties back into a kind of generic rock n roll environment. There was also the problem of coming into a club… We did a lot of environments at the time… So we’d come in and do our thing. Say we wanted to do a rave type party in a downtown club. I’d say “ok we’ll take all the lights down, I got a smashed disco ball I’m going to put in the corner with some dry ice and just put the lights down around it in a big pile, like they all just fell down. And we’re going to put the audience on the stage and we’re going to set the act next to the sound man’s booth, where the sound guy is. ok?” At a certain point club owners started saying “you are not fucking doing that. You’re leaving everything the way it is and when the party is over at 4am you gotta get out of the club in 20 mins.” So you’re really fighting everything on every level to step outside that more generic way of presenting the music. When you take away the Brooklyn scene where you could do stuff cheaply in warehouses and then you have club owners not really willing to let you change their environment you’re left with not many options. You can say I’m not going to play, it was fun while it lasted. Or you can compromise.
Would it be fair to say that there wasn’t necessarily a central party or locale or place that defined what was happening in Brooklyn in the early to mid/late ‘90s? Sometimes when you think of scenes there’s a defining club or place where people tend to interact, but it sounds to me like perhaps it was more fragmented.
Umm… if you’re talking about the bands that were known as the illbient bands and got reviewed, Abstrakt Wave was definitely the party where everybody played, came and hung out. But… There was still a lot happening in the Brooklyn underground that’s completely unheard of. And I think a lot of producers didn’t play at all. They would come out, maybe they’d DJ, but… A lot of people that were producing on Skiz’ label didn’t play. They produced. And the DJs played their records, they’d come hang out. “Here’s my new album” and I would drop it for sure.
There’s another element running through this whole thing: the dynamic between dance music and the experimental musician scene, which they call the downtown scene in New York. There was a real segregation. This was true globally. People who produced dance music hated musicians, musicians hated dance music. They said it was cheap and stealing all their work. Dance musicians said that musicians played too many fills and that solos were a form of jacking off. Or whatever. There was a schism there. And we were trying to bridge that. We didn’t feel like there was a difference. We felt a record like On The Corner, the Miles Davis record, was total electronic music. And that was done by musicians. We didn’t have that segregation. We were trying to work with musicians to sample them and have them play live. To have them play with us.
So we’re trying to breakdown the prejudices on both sides. And I think this was one of the reasons that actually made the scene a success. We were for a while shunned by dance music because dance music thought that we were traitors by accepting musicians into our fold, that we were just making production chaos. We were also not jumping on the Giant Step thing which was to rock two copies of a hip hop instrumental and have a saxophone player blow on top. There was a lot of that happening at the time. A ton of it, and we felt that that was more like a jam along. The DJ was not inside the music of the band but rather alongside.
One of the problems with electronic music is that it doesn’t have any stage presence. It just comes out of the speakers, up over here. If you have a drummer, he’s playing over there and then the hip hop breakbeat comes in over this side so it’s kinda separated. The musicians are jamming along with the DJs and it gets kinda corny pretty quickly. So we were trying to find a way to be inside the band, or have the band, the musicians be inside the electronics. So they’re all together and you can’t really separate them. And that required a certain type of aesthetic and ability on the part of the musicians to play less noodley solos and fills and more repetitive or weird sounds using effects, using electronics themselves. And in turn for us to strip it down enough to make room for them to come in so it’s not total chaos. So there was a kind of… communal research going on between those two strains and a lot of the parties would weave back and forth. Some parties were heavily into bands and instruments and they would book a few crossover bands. And the parties that just involved DJs and electronics started booking bands earlier in the night. Some of the best parties started out with more band stuff, weird electronics and by midnight move into something that was more just DJ dance sets. So you got a bit of both, something in between, in the middle. I think that was really the reason why illbient got onto the map. It was because of that. That crossover. It allowed these really great, incredible downtown improvisers to enter into the music as well. And I think that really appealed to a lot of people who were feeling and listening to it. Especially in Europe. It’s got a great beat and Marc Ribot on it too! You know what I mean?
“We were trying to work with musicians to sample them and have them play live. To have them play with us.”
I think that still happens today. Almost like it validates the experimental, electronic stuff. One recurring reference when talking about illbient is dub. To borrow from Raz Mesinai, who’s passionate on the subject, I see illbient’s use of dub as fitting his idea of dub as an aesthetic. Not dub like “let me make this as if I’m Tubby in Jamaica” but using dub as an aesthetic, something that’s about space, that’s about constructing. Would you say that’s fair? Perhaps it was one part ambient, one part hip hop and a third part dub?
I would say dub was almost more important than hip hop. A lot of it grew out of this Crooklyn scene, Bill Laswell’s studio was such a big part of it and he was so heavily dub influenced that I think it was a major component. There’s also this idea that dub music was sound system music. You had musique concrete being this kind of academic approach to sound and engineering. And then in the ‘60s the Jamaican engineers did the same thing but for sound system battles. They were developing this kind of electronic sound which would sound phat on a huge sound systems. This was the beginning of dance music really. It wasn’t about having a band sound good on stage anymore. Before that you were trying to record a band and make it sound like it does when you see them, just louder and more present. You’re trying to duplicate that. Dub engineers were not trying to do that. It was something completely new that sounded phat as hell out of a sound system. They were building amps and speakers to advance this. And cutting the tape, taking 2" tape, cutting it lengthwise, looping it so you could have a looping bass phrase. I mean crazy stuff no one had thought of. None of the Parisian concrete guys were doing that, you know?
That tradition I think was really key to us. It was saying… like Jimmy Hendrix said “fuck this I’m going to play the guitar the other way and turn this shit uppppp!!” It was validating to us to say you can take a mic and put it in a PVC pipe and put it at the end of the hall and then go back in the room and hit the snare and record that. There was also an outer space, dark side of the moon element to dub that was really appealing. It was futuristic. A kind of sound where we were all foreigners but it made us all together. And the Roland machines did the same thing. They had a very futuristic feeling. Acid techno at the time had a very futuristic vibe which made us feel united, like we’ve shed our cultural shit and now we can be together with this new sound, our sound, this is a sound for our generation, the dance generation. And I think dub for us was like… “well everyone’s figured out that those Roland machines are doing that but listen to dub man! It’s doing the same shit and it was back in the late ‘60s!” So we were really influenced by the production values. And the other major element was that dub and hip hop instrumentals were not doing the four on the floor, which was huge for us. We were trying to find ways to write funky that wasn’t just… you know? [simulates 4/4 with his fist] Though there’s nothing wrong with that…
It’s the magic of syncopation. Just like bass gives you that physicality, syncopation makes a beat greater. My friend put it that as long as the one’s on the one, everything else can be loose and out of place. When the one comes back when you expect it to come back everything else can be thoroughly fucked with. And a lot of great hip hop and dub taps into that, there’s a 4/4 rhythm but it’s not quite right.
A classic element of reggae or dub is that the bass and drum are doing this elastic thing [mimics with hands]…
Yeah and it’s very subtle and super effective. But it’s not in effect so much in the mind, it’s in effect in your ass. Like your ass is somehow saying “this is what gets me moving”. It excites you until you can put your finger on it, so the longer you can’t put your finger on it the better.
Do you think perhaps there was an element of that to what you guys were doing and which became the illbient scene? You were trying to put a finger on it, it kept evading you until it got codified and boxed. So fuck it let’s move on.
Kinda… having a formula, how you were going to write your beats was like ‘uh’. That was the doorway to overproduction, getting a formula too tight. We would always try to sabotage each other’s formula. We’d come over and tell each other the hard truth. There’s an element of magic to it and once you expose your magic it’s no longer magic it’s a trick, hey? So the problems with the limitations of your gear became keeping your magic elusive. Every year you have to update. If you want to keep that magic alive you have to switch it up. People are getting acclimated to last year’s magic. The gear, and the talk, and all the networking that goes on make it harder and harder to not get formulaically minded. I try to resist.
So to kinda close it, what would you say… what do you think the legacy is for you?
It’s hard for me to separate what happened in Williamsburg with the rest. Williamsburg to me was the real time. This was about 1990 to 1994. ’95 was when illbient started to get codified. But before then, especially in Williamsburg, it was just the most amazing moment in my entire life. It was just incredible what was happening in these warehouses. Not just musically, artistically. It was a mentality. The people involved were so much more pure than this kind of… How do I build a career and how do I sell my music and trendy stuff like that.
“I felt like we were very much part of this dance culture movement, electronic music movement, we were just trying to make our own little sub voice.”
That sort of New York rave moment in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, was just so insanely positive really. There was very little alcohol involved, not much drugs at the time, basically people were really friendly and positive. And refreshingly not trying to sell themselves. They weren’t friendly cause they wanted to get one over on you, you know? They were just reacting to the ‘80s. The underground scene then was kinda punk and rock n roll, there was a lot of beer drinking going on so when you went to shows in ‘88, a punk show, everyone was stinking drunk on Budweiser and bumping into you and elbowing each other, trampling each other, swearing. The early rave scene was completely the opposite. No alcohol, everyone was polite, it was a reaction to that ‘80s vapidness. There was also hope for the future. The wall in Berlin was coming down, there was this hopeful feeling in the early days of the scene. The drugs took over around ‘93, there was a lot of heroin, coke came into the scene. I saw a lot of young ravers go down the tube at that time. The rave scene died overnight in early ‘95. But initially, especially in Brooklyn, there was very little drugs. It was about creativity and building crazy environments ‘cause you didn’t have to pay much for the space. You finally got the environment the way you wanted it and you had a party. It wasn’t like you had to come in and build the whole environment during soundcheck, you could build it for months. There were amazing things going on. Also sound systems. A lot like what was happening in Berlin at that time. There were a lot of cool parties in Berlin that were doing amazing shit with technology.
It certainly seems to echo the stories you hear of the early days of the British rave scene. A reaction to society’s ills.
There was a feeling of action. Compared to reaction. People were saying without really knowing it, without being too academic about it, they were saying post modernism’s cool but we’ve had enough of it. Everybody’s complaining about the construct, everyone’s tearing the constructs down, enough of that, let’s put something together. Something positive that doesn’t have all those sick bits that are involved in older constructs. Let’s build something that’s just pure and together and forward looking. A positive note. I think that was so refreshing for me. I went to college in the ‘80s and I got so depressed by how cynical all my friends had become. You couldn’t be sincere, there was no way to be sincere, everyone would take the piss out of you immediately. No way to talk about any solutions or anything without sounding like some idiot. And then somehow in the rave scene it wasn’t like you sat and talked a lot about what was going to be great, it was just a feeling. It was a kind of contagious feeling, making a positive vibe. You know? You got really positive after going out and dancing with a few thousand people. It was like whoa! Without being overly political it was actually so damn political. And good for the lymph glands!
I think that to me it was just so beautiful and we were trying to make a sub part of that, a sub genre. It was part of it, but in the chill out room we could do some weird shit with dub and old concrete records and a musician or two. We felt like we were part of that. And somehow illbient, when it got defined, was defined as a reaction to dance culture. “Oh we don’t like the four on the floor, we don’t like techno, we like to jam with musicians.” And I don’t really think that that was true. In fact, utter bullshit. I felt like we were very much part of this dance culture movement, electronic music movement, we were just trying to make our own little sub voice. No greater or less than any of the other sub genres that were being defined every week at that time. Drum n bass had a new genre every fucking week at that time!
Thanks to DJ Olive for his time, and to RBMA for giving me the chance to amass all these stories. You can find DJ Olive’s Sleeping Pill series on his Bandcamp.