When you think of a producer sampling a sound, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Someone digging through crates to find the right piece of dusty vinyl? Well, not New York City’s Nick Koenig, aka Hot Sugar. He’d rather crack a human skull or record the thump of a rat’s heartbeat—no joke—to flesh out the melody of his new recording.
While that might lead you to believe his music is difficult to digest, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because Koenig favors a more inventive recording technique doesn’t mean his art suffers from being too “abstract” or left-field. It’s actually quite the opposite.
This is particularly evident on Big Baby Gandhi’s No1 2 Look Up 2, which features four diverse, thick-as-molasses, and boom-bap-indebted beats from Koenig. All of the productions knock, especially the synthesizer-laden “Get $$$” and warbling “Lurkin’,” and further showcase that he’s not just pushing the boundaries of music for the sake of being different.
The best example of that notion came last year, when Koenig and frequent collaborator/gifted vocalist Aaron Earl Livingston’s Young Vipers demo, “Sleep,” hit the most opportune of ears. The Roots heard the track, which Koenig actually recorded as a requiem for his own funeral, and decided that they just had to have it. Fast-forward several months and it appears as the second track on the Philly group’s dark 2011 concept album, Undun.
Amidst all this, Koenig has worked meticulously on building his solo career. This includes last year’s buzzing Muscle Milk EP and the new Moon Money EP, which drops tomorrow. The latter is being released through a newly inked deal with indie electronic music giant Ninja Tune. They, like many of us, were introduced to Koenig’s work through an incredible visual demonstration of his talents that you can watch below.
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Tell me about your production technique and associative music.
Associative Music is the process of manipulating sounds from an environment and using them in sampler patches or as drums/percussion during music production. Basically it is like sampling, but instead of taking someone else’s recorded music, you’re taking sounds from a location and chopping them up to make an original melody or beat.
What’s the weirdest thing you have sampled? How’d you pull it off?
I don’t really know anymore. The human skulls and bones from the cemetery were probably the most risky but I’m more proud of some of the subtler sounds/results. It’s almost as if we’re born knowing what a human skull cracking open sounds like, so I’m always most satisfied when I manage to sample something that can’t be heard with with the human ear, and instead have to amplify or pitch it to our audible range.
I’ve been recording the silence of a bunch of different rooms (churches, airplanes, ideally a jail cell in the future) and cranking the volume in post. The amount of texture and uniqueness each room has is crazy and believe it or not, each room (based on its size and materials) has a different pitch or note to it. I like to find that note, pull it out of the silence by amplifying that specific frequency, then throw it onto my sampler keyboard. I’ve been making a bunch of creepy keyboard patches and playing melodies out of what we would originally have perceived as dead silence. You can hear a couple on Moon Money.
My favorite thing about your approach is how you don’t make inaccessible music even though you’re creating music through such a different means. Was there ever a time you wanted to do more “artsy”/experimental stuff?
That’s a weird question. When people refer to a composition as artsy/experimental it’s usually because the composition is atonal, or drony, etc. In truth, those tendencies have existed for generations and aren’t necessarily “avant-garde” anymore. Atonal music’s already 100 years old, so playing discordant notes might shock your audience but that doesn’t make it something new and I’m not into things that have already been done. How is something experimental if its already been done?
Musical composition has existed for centuries and composers have tried a lot of different things, but considering our modern day’s technology, the concept of a producer as an auteur has only existed for a couple decades (if that).
I try not to approach compositions from a traditional angle. If I did I wouldn’t get far. When my crappy air conditioner turns on, for example, first it rattles, then delivers a burst of air and eventually raises an unpredictable whistle. How would you write down that type of music using staff notation? If anything, the fact that I can turn an audible circumstance like that into an accessible piece of music should make it more “artsy” and experimental than anything else I could think of doing.
Why did you decide to take this approach instead of sampling records and stuff like that? Did you ever do more traditional sample-based production?
When I was in middle school, I’d listen to all these beat makers but I didn’t know about what sampling was. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I used to listen to beats by Madlib, Dan the Automator, RJD2, Prince Paul, etc. and marvel at their versatility in sound. Since only one person’s name was attributed to the production, I thought that person played and recorded every single thing. I really wanted to be like that too, so like an idiot, I started trying to learn every instrument.
When I discovered that my favorite producers were blending other people’s songs together I was heartbroken and really disillusioned. It all felt like a big lie, so I started doing my own thing. I was still really into the producer culture and listened to rap all the time, but instead of passively appreciating the producers, I’d also figure out who the producer was sampling and inspire myself from those people just as much.
How did everything with Ninja Tune come together?
I guess Jamie Collinson (head of international operations at Ninja Tune and head of Big Dada) saw that video of me making music at home and got interested. My manager set things up and he came over from London to visit me in NYC.
The night before we met, I accidentally drank too much 4Loko because me and my friends were at our favorite deli that still had the original formula (more than a year after it was made illegal). It was really warm, watermelon 4Loko that smelled like gasoline and cherry cough drops. I woke up with random people sleeping in my apartment (one of whom stole a drum machine) then threw up all day until my meeting with the label head. When we met I could barely talk or keep my eyes open.
I thought I’d ruined it but despite that pathetic introduction, they welcomed me to their family and haven’t judged any decision I’ve made (including the release of the #MindControl video).
What’s it like working with singers and rappers versus working solo?
If the singer or rapper is supposed to be the focus of the song, you have to put your ego to the side and make sure every decision in your production is only there to support the vocals. There are no rules to working solo though. I just try to make sure every instrumental track I make can stand alone and maintain the audience’s interest.
Can you speak more about your Young Vipers project with Aaron Earl Livingston?
Aaron might be my longest running collaborator at this point. We’ve been making music for years and have accumulated a wealth of songs that transcend genres and trends. We’ve been taking our time and waiting to release the project in an appropriate fashion, but some of our demos have been floating around the industry for years now.
And then someone in the Roots heard one of your demos, right? And that’s how you guys ended up on undun?
Yea. Dan Petruzzi of Okayplayer has been a vocal supporter of both me and Aaron’s solo stuff, so when he heard the demos he shared it with some big people. One day my friend called me and said he saw my name on the artwork for the Roots’ Picnic. Me and Aaron figured out a live set, then The Roots’ manager Rich told me that our demo “Sleep” (a song I had originally written as a requiem to be played at my funeral) would set the tone for the Roots’ new album. I didn’t really believe him until I was on stage playing along to my own song with one of my favorite bands ever.
What else are you working on?
I’m always working on stuff but I don’t know how specific I can get. Moon Money is part two of my “MM” pentalogy, so I have three more albums intended, though I don’t know how long that’ll take.
What’s next after the Moon Money EP?
Since Moon Money was entirely instrumental, my next project will probably feature MCs and singers on every track. I’ve already recorded some really cool posse cuts that I’m excited about and the production techniques on those tracks keep getting wilder. One of the new songs’ melodies is literally performed by a rat.
Right now I’m sticking with the certified homies: Big Baby Gandhi, Lakutis, Antwon, Open Mike Eagle, Weekend Money. But I have a lot of other special people im talking to that might end up on this next album, or I might end up on theirs.