“I find a lot of freedom in computer music,” says Detroit’s electronic wunderkind Tadd Mullinix. And he means it. For the past five years, this multi-talented, multi-tasking producer has stubbornly refused to be confined to any single niche. But although he’s equally at home making jacked-up house and techno dancefloor weapons as James T Cotton, widescreen, delicate electronica under his birth name, and even tearing ragga-fied jungle as SK-1, it’s his experiments with electronic hip-hop as Dabrye which have earned him the most attention. With his latest album ‘Two/Three’, featuring a hefty selection of guest MCs, being hailed as major new stepping-stone in the evolution of his sound, I caught up with the workaholic 27-year-old to find out more.
Born in Rochester, Michigan, and growing up in the metro Detroit area, it was hip-hop that first captured Mullinix’s attention as a schoolkid. He says: “I was big on skateboarding in high school, and still am. So when I first started buying music it was stuff like the DOC, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. But we were also listening to stuff we heard via the rave scene, like Plastikman, Aphex Twin, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. Jeff had been DJing on the radio in Detroit, as The Wizard, and I was listening to that while I was growing up.”
After experimenting with bands in high school, Mullinix quickly graduated to solo computer-based production. And a move to Ann Arbor in 2000 led to the start of long collaborations with both Todd Osborne and the Ghostly International label. He explains: “I moved to Ann Arbor from the metro Detroit area to get a job with Todd Osborne at his record store, called Dubplate Pressure. We traded ideas and software, and started the Rewind label for our Soundmurderer and SK-1 jungle material. And it was at Todd’s store that I met Sam Valenti of Ghostly, who said he was interested in some of my music. I gave him a cassette, which had some house on, which became the James T Cotton project. But the stuff on the flipside caught his attention too. It was kind of a hodgepodge – it had stuff that would be on the Tadd Mullinix album ‘Winking Makes A Face’, and things that would be on the first Dabrye album. So the first James T Cotton, Tadd Mullinix and Dabrye material all actually came from the same demo. New things are coming out for the other pseudonyms this year too - I’m always working on stuff simultaneously.”
The debut Dabrye album, ‘One/Three’, made quiet ripples when Ghostly unveiled it as one of their earliest releases in 2001. A second album, ‘Instrmntl’, dropped on Scott ‘Prefuse 73’ Herren’s Eastern Developments label a year later, and the ripples of interest built to a tsunami of hype by the time Motorola began using ‘Hyped-Up Plus Tax’ from ‘One/Three’ in their ‘Hello Moto’ ad campaign. With its unique beats, seemingly hewn from little more than buzzes, sine waves and white noise, sounding like hip-hop reinterpreted by aliens and beamed back from the future, for many this is the quintessential Dabrye track.
What sets Dabrye apart from the legions of other whiteboy electronica-meets-hip-hop wannabes is a natural ear for the nuances of a beat, the subtle shifts of timing and quantisation that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. His rhythms have the neck-popping late snares, shifted hi hats and deep off-beat kicks of the very best modern hip-hop. What’s all the more impressive is that he crafts these beats using not the hip-hop producers’ usual tools of choice – the Akai MPC series or Emu SP-1200 sampling drum machines – but AST, an obsolete piece of tracker software. He explains: “AST was shareware for the Soundblaster AWE64 Gold card – a really popular card, nothing really specialised – and I still use it now. I have a lot of outboard gear now too, but I still fall back on AST for the Dabrye stuff.”
Dabrye’s heavily electronic take on hip-hop production didn’t go unnoticed by Detroit’s most revered producer, James Yancey, AKA Jay Dee and J Dilla, who tragically died earlier this year, aged just 32, after a long battle with lupus. But in 2003 Dabrye fulfilled one of his greatest ambitions by collaborating with his hero on ‘Game Over’, the closing track on ‘Two/Three’. He says: “Jay definitely gave me a lot of confidence about having vocalists on the album. I wasn’t sure how I would break into the hip-hop realm, but he was very supportive of what I was trying to do. Working with him on ‘Game Over’ was the best endorsement I could ever ask for. He’s definitely my favourite producer of all time, and it was so tragic when he passed.”
I find a lot of freedom in computer music.
Featuring a stellar list of indie hip-hop MCs including MF Doom, Waajeed, Beans, Wildchild and Kadence, ‘Two/Three’ is a major step forward in the Dabrye sound. The raw electronic edge is still there, but there is a breathtaking range of sounds on display, from treated jazz samples, to overloaded analogue squeals, to sweet string pads. And it’s clear Dabrye has taken to recording vocals like a duck to water. He explains: “I felt like it was just intuitive to take the next step and work with MCs. It’s something I always wanted to do.”
So what does the future hold for the Dabrye project? “I’d love to be able to produce for anyone I like, whether that’s underground acts to more mainstream acts like Busta Rhymes or something! ‘One/Three’ and ‘Instrmntl’ served as a resume for the MCs of the world – because back then I wasn’t in touch with any MCs at all. So maybe ‘Two/Three’ will serve as a resume to attract some of the other MCs I’d like to work with in the future.”