Monday 9 January 2017

ZULUZULUU: 'The AstralBeat Sound' [interview]

Roy Ayers once said “The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.”  Good music touches people; great music can inspire them, but sometimes it’s message can travel that much further and resonate with a generation.

Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was adopted as a popular slogan among the Black Power Movements; Curtis Mayfield’s music became a source of hope and courage in the civil rights era; Marvin Gaye’s 1971 socially conscious and anti-war anthem, ‘What’s Going On’, is still heralded as one of the greatest songs of its era; Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ in the late-80s discussed civil rights issues and black pride.  In 2016 – a year where the US general election resulted in the victory of what many believe to be a racist and misogynistic President Elect, and a year where the activist movement of Black Lives Matter grew in response to police killings of black people, racial profiling and police brutality – ZULUZULUU continue in that legacy of socially conscious and inspiring music that speaks to an America struggling to come to terms with its identity.

Comprised of six musicians and producers (each artists in their own right), MMYYKK, Proper T, Greg Grease, DJ Just Nine, ∆RT P∆RTÉ & Trelly Mo, the band proficiently carry the torch for the much-revered funk rock and synth-pop aesthetic of the Minneapolis Sound pioneered by Prince and his close affiliates, The Time and Sheila E, amongst others.

Spearheaded by the brilliant single ‘Fades’, the seven-track release, ‘What’s The Price’, bursts with unrestricted creativity.  Released in the middle of last year, the digital-only project introduced the band’s blend of futuristic R&B-infused funk and soul – a sound they have come to label themselves as AstralBeat – to cover a range of topics including police brutality (‘What’s The Price’) and old-fashioned romance (‘On Our Way’ and ‘Bicycle Seat’).  The project’s wave of high praise and rave reviews established ZULUZULUU as one of the year’s most exciting acts.  Not content to rest on their laurels however, the band capped off an already successful year with ‘The Cover Up’ mixtape, available on Bandcamp, which feature a series of cover versions from heroes including Bobby Byrd Congress, Bootsy Collins, The O’Jays and De La Soul – songs that continue along the themes established by ‘What’s The Price’ but re-imagined within their own AstralBeat style.

Like Renaldo Benson, writer of ‘What’s Going On’, professed at the time, this isn’t protest music – it’s an album with love and an incredible sense of pride at its core but still free to ask difficult questions.  But like ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and ‘Fight The Power’, ‘What’s The Price?’ isn’t a question... it’s a statement!

We would have been thrilled to have secured time with just one of the members of ZULUZULUU so you can imagine how overjoyed we are to present to three – Proper-T, MMYYKK and ∆RT – in our exclusive feature.

How did you all initially meet and come together to form the band?
MMYYKK: Personally, I moved to Minneapolis from southern California in 2009. I met Greg Grease around 2012 and we began collaborating on music and visual projects around 2013. I met the other members of the band through Greg. The formulation of the band was kind of a natural organic result of musical collaborations between members. Greg Grease, Proper-T and Trelly Mo are cousins so they have been making music together for years. Technically the first ZULUZULUU show was a Clash Tribute in like 2013 I believe. I wasn’t involved at that time, but I would say the band in its current form officially became ZULUZUZLUU in, like, the end of 2014, going into 2015.
∆RT: I guess initially, we were all doing music together and separately. You have to remember, there is a ton of cross-pollination in the Minneapolis music scene. Pretty much everyone knows each other, so it was really only a matter of time before we all met up. Once we got in the same room there was an extremely powerful energy and we just instinctively started vibing and making music. So basically, it fell out of a jam session in a small studio on the North Side of Downtown Minneapolis.

Congratulations on the release of 'What's The Price?': are you happy with how the album has been received?
Proper-T: ‘What's The Price’ was the first recorded collection of our songs, which in itself was a special day when we completed it. For it to be so well received, analyzed, and appreciated, is beyond beautiful. We are grateful.
MMYYKK: Absolutely! It’s been pretty mind-boggling honestly. It feels great to be able to freely create the music that we want to create and have it be so well received. I think it speaks volumes about a lot of the assumptions of the industry in terms of what listeners want. I think people are getting tired of super saturated insincere music. It’s great to know that people are with us and down with the AstralBeat.
∆RT: It has been very humbling to be part of something new and positive with such amazing talent. I am really excited for all there is to come.

Did you all have a clear idea of what you wanted the music to sound like at the outset of the project?
Proper-T: Our individual styles and careers have grown immensely over the years, and our sound is a culmination of all of our talents. In that respect, when we started, we trusted each other's creative processes and let our sound come naturally. The end result let us know that this approach works.
MMYYKK: Not really. We kind of just got together and started making music. There wasn’t ever a point when we stopped to think about what our genre was or what we wanted to sound like. We just made music. And that’s really still how it is. It’s other people like press and critics who are labeling us and trying to contain our music into a genre, and I get it, I’m not mad at it. You need to be able to categorize things to an extent so that people can find it. But I mean, our sound is the culmination of experimentation in a lot of different genres of music from funk, jazz, and hip-hop to soul, reggae, and afrobeat. We just call it AstralBeat.

With all of ZULUZULUU being producers in your own right, how would you say the creative process of writing, producing and recording new music usually works for the band?
Proper-T: We approach each piece with trust. When we start a session, we'll start with a stem from Greg Grease, for example. From there, Trelly will start building and the other members join in and let the piece grow. That's how we have created for a while, cutting what doesn't work, and embracing what does in the moment. From there, we mould the piece and get it ready to mix.
MMYYKK: The writing process is ever changing. It sometimes starts with a jam that then turns into a loop, which then becomes an arrangement that we write to. Other times it starts with a stem or a sketch that one of the members has that we then build on and arrange. It’s pretty organic. Sometimes it even starts with a joke. For example, Greg’s dad was the one who gave us the concept for ‘Bicycle Seat’. The writing process is sometimes a group effort and other times it gets more personal. ‘Fades’, for example, I think damn near each one of us wrote a line for that song; Where as ‘On Our Way’ was written entirely by Proper-T. It all varies; it’s whatever we want it to be or rather whatever the universe allows it to be.
∆RT: I think that each of us brings our own palate both in terms of voice, musicianship, and technological acumen. The sonics of a particular era are generally a direct translation of the access to instruments, equipment, and techniques. So really finding a way to leverage all of our talents while tapping into a music that has been a healing and sustaining force for hundreds of years.

Have you ever feared that creating such a diverse, genre-blending sound would work against you?
Proper-T: Never. The world is ready for this.
MMYYKK: Nope, we don’t think about it. We just create, and try not to concern ourselves with what people are ready for. I think if you look back on music history, most of the greatest musicians were the forward thinkers, the people who followed their heart and their truth. That’s what we do.
∆RT: That is a really great question, I think unless an artist is striving to do something that really feels like a departure from recognisable music (which certainly has its place) genre-blending the forte of futuristic genres. Often finding something that is new is simply a combination of older techniques, sounds and theory that can then be re-imagined.

Congratulations also on 'The Cover Up' Mixtape: how did you go about selecting the songs to cover? And, are there any others you'd like to tackle?
Proper-T: There is a whole breadth of songs that we want to cover, because there are so many songs that have influenced us. DJ Just Nine has a collection of records that is beyond belief, and he's just a great example of how much the great music that has been created in the past has influenced us. 'The Cover Up' is a collection of songs that have guided us to where we are.
MMYYKK: When we decided to do the mixtape we just sat down and talked about some of our favourite songs and our influences. We definitely reduced the list quite a bit. It was pretty extensive at first, but we had put ourselves on a timeline to complete the project so we couldn’t do 20 songs.  There are definitely a lot more covers we would like to do but we also don’t want to impede the creation of original music. We’ll probably focus on original material for the time but I would think a Cover Up part 2 might reveal itself in the future.

How does your music transfer to the live stage?
Proper-T: We got our start on the stage and performed for years before being ready to release a record. So in that sense, the question would be how would our live energy influence our recorded work. But really, both influence each other, and our music transfers to the stage in the exact way we record: naturally.
MMYYKK: You definitely are going to get the same vibe and energy as the record. We also try to mix it up and reinterpret songs in different ways, just to give people something special.
∆RT: Sonically, the live performance is pretty exhilarating. I would say there are actually aspects of the live performance that have thus far been pretty difficult to capture in the studio. We get a lot of love and positive energy from the people and the idea is to absorb that, distil it and reflect it back through a musical filter. When you are able to do that, things really take on a new dimension. I think that is why albums like ‘Band of Gypsies’, ‘Purple Rain’, the Funkadelic albums, etc. have a certain depth to them that is really absent in much of contemporary music. Also, Minneapolis has this incredible theatre/performance scene and that definitely has an impact on designing and curating a multi-sensory experience.

Who would be a dream musical collaborator for the band to either record or perform with?
MMYYKK: For me personally, I would love to do something with Cory Henry.  I would also love to work with Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Herbie Hancock, Dam Funk, Terrace Martin, KING... it’s really a pretty long list of musicians I would love to work with.
∆RT: It is such an exciting prospect to think about all the possible collaborations. It would be incredible to build with and learn from other amazing songwriters, musicians and producers [like] Amp Fiddler, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Dam Funk, Esperanza Spalding, IAMNOBODI, J*Davey, The Internet, anyone out of Brainfeeder, Blood Orange, and many more...

‘What’s The Price?’ and ‘The Cover Up Mixtape’ can both be purchased from Bandcamp:

Photos by Sarah White
Huge thanks to Jon Jon Scott

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