IN FLAGRANTI + ORGANIC GROOVES + CODEK RECORDS SASHA CRNOBMJA
BY JOHN C. TRIPP
As a founding member of New York’s Organic Grooves, a stalwart of the city’s dance underground, and as a prolific producer, Sasha Crnobmja has explored the outer galaxy of dance and groove music since the ’80s. Growing up in Switzerland, Crnobmja’s globally attuned ear led him to drumming and DJ’ing. Studying drumming with master percussionist Cosimo Lampis of Brainticket, Crnobmja began a rhythmic quest which continues to this day. In 1993 he moved to New York, initially working in fashion. Then in 1995 he started Organic Grooves with partner Erica Lively. The travelling event started in an apartment building basement on the Lower East Side, where four musicians came together to create music beyond the usual confines of rhythmic music. The early events attracted a small but receptive group which steadily grew through word of mouth. From the start Organic Groove’s was a fluid event, landing in settings ranging from Tribeca rooftops to Brooklyn warehouses, always putting the music first. The band’s lineup evolves as people come and go and includes musicians playing turntables, trumpet, keyboard, melodica, kora and multitude of percussion instruments.The music is a melting pot of styles reflecting Crnobmja’s eclectic tastes, as well as the revolving crew of musicians.Various types of world music, deep house and Afrobeat all meld together to create a sound with its own distinct character. The fact that Organic Grooves is still going strong after seven years is testament of the collective’s dedication to its rhythmic roots. While other scenes have come and gone, Organic Grooves still packs in a dedicated group of dancers who feed off and give energy to the music.
In addition to Organic Grooves, Crnobmja runs the Codek record label, which he co-founded with Alex Gloor in 1996. Codek is a homespun operation with an inspiring D.I.Y. approach. Codek releases all of the Organic Grooves recordings, as well as Crnobmja’s projects his alias “Cosmic Rocker”, which are often in colloboration with Zeb or Alex Gloor. The label’s most recent projects include “Care of the Community: the Discerning Dancefloor”, a compilation of outer rhythms, Track and Field’s (Mike Kohler) “In Search of” and “Organic Grooves 4”, twelve tracks recorded live in New York.
MundoVibes caught up with the extra-prolific Crnobmja via telephone after just returning from a very long weekend of DJing in Puerto Rico at an underground hangout.
MV: Do you travel much to the Caribbean?
SC: Well, in the Caribbean I’ve only been to Puerto Rico so far.
MV: Well, a lot of it comes to New York. New York is such a microcosm, such a musical melting pot.
SC: It is and it isn’t. It’s always in certain kind of neighborhoods or in certain ethnic places. It kind of stays there. There’s just a few places where people venture out and try to connect with other people. For example, in Puerto Rico, people probably think J Lo or salsa music, but in the field I’m in there’s really a lot more in Puerto Rico, which I was surprised by when I went the first time. They’re really into music there, anything popular and underground, from dance music to ambient to rock. They’re really into it.
MV: Do you try to be universal with your music?
SC: Yeah, absolutely. We don’t really have a name for our music style but we kind of have that sort of cosmic thing which can by anything really as long as you like it. I’m basically all about grooves and then when you get down to the roots you ultimately end up Caribbean, Africa, Brazil cause that’s where all the dance music really comes from. Even with house music, if you trace it all the way back you end up with reggae and dub, cause they were the first ones putting out 12-inches.
MV: It’s really incredible when you consider how much influence Jamaica has had.
SC: And Puerto Rico has had a big influence, especially here in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. And not just the music, but art, the whole graffiti scene, break dancing, was really big in the Puerto Rican community. And there are certain dances there where you can see where the whole breakdance inspiration comes from.
MV: I guess Puerto Rico is the place to go. Now, you grew up in Switzerland, right?
SC: Yeah. I grew up in Yugoslavia actually, in Belgrade until I was ten and then we moved to Switzerland. My teenage years were in Switzerland.
MV: There’s a lot of music coming from Switzerland now that has many influences.
SC: Switzerland doesn’t really have it’s own music, really. And the young people are definitely not into Swiss forkloric music, so you look anywhere you can for good music.
MV: Did you find it pretty much an open environment where you were exposed to a lot of music?
SC: Totally. It’s pretty much the same as everywhere.It’s more when you start getting deep into it, you realize it’s very limited to what you can do in Switzerland itself, because there’s no music industry. It’s a very small country, very conservative so you get to the edge really quick and you kind of have to make a decision if you want to keep doing it and you know you have to leave the country. And that’s what happened to me. I always wanted to leave the country just because I wanted to live somewhere else, I wanted to live in a bigger city. Not necessarily New York but that kind of happened.
MV: And how long have you been in New York?
SC: Ten years now.
MV: Did you have a vision or did things just fall into place?
SC: I wouldn’t say I had a vision, it’s just the things I was already doing in Switzerland and the
things that inspired me in the first place, I just kept on doing. Like with Organic Grooves, I did something very similar already in Switzerland.
MV: Was that “Go Global”?
SC: Yeah, we did “Go Global” soundsystem but we soon started playing drums. I wanted to incorporate live music with Djing from the beginning I got into it because to me it made so much sense. And it was good, but as I said, you kind of reach a certain level where it’s just not going anywhere. And I came here, not even for music. I came here to do fashion because I’m a trained tailor. So this guy kind of convinced me to come to New York – “hey, you should come, blah blah blah” – and I came and I was making clothes for a little bit. And, I don’t know if you remember the shop Liquid Sky? I was designing for them when they first opened on Lafayette. But, fashion is such a weird thing. You do stuff for other people and you never get credit. I really got tired of it, so I started my own thing. I started ‘Go Global’ with Erica. Even after we opened the shop I really had enough of fasion, because I’m just not a fashion person. I like the making of it, the working with fabric; making a bag or making a pair of pants was good but I couldn’t deal with fashion people so I decided ‘fuck it’ I’m going to do music and do what I love.
MV: And you found like-minded people.
SC: Yeah, Erica and I already were doing the whole clothing thing, we’d done a few parties just for fun, you know. She knew a lot of people and I was Djing. Then we met Zeb at (Club) XVI and he had a similar background. He was born in Italy and grew up in London, but we had similar music backgrounds. It all fell into place.
MV: And now you’ve almost got a mini empire going on here with a party, a label and the like.
SC: You know, it looks from the outside maybe but Erica does some things and I do the label but it all together looks like this bigger thing. But for me, I don’t look at it as “an empire”. Because there’s a few things happening, and yes maybe Erica and I are overseeing the things but only because we’re probably the most responsible out of the whole bunch. And then everyone kind of relies on us being the ones pushing it. Everyone kind of has their own thing, really. AndOrganic Grooves is the same way; all the musicians involved have their own projects going, but that’s just a way for us to get together and do what we like.
MV: So, in terms of how Organic Grooves operates, it really is a loose collabortation of musicians.
SC: Yeah, each of us are very strong individuals basically. And we all have experience in music, have played in bands, etc. We all got tired of that formula of, you know, you have a band and you rehearse these songs, blah blah blah. It was more like we just got together and we just played all night. But with time it developed to where each musician really knows when to play, what to play, and feeding off the crowd. If we play in a setting where you would sit down and watch us play – we did this one time and it was the worst gig because nothing comes out then. It’s really important for us to have the people dance and react to what we do and then you keep going and you kind of push higher and higher until you have this energy going. It’s a different type of band really and it’s hard to describe it. You know in jazz music, where you have a theme, everyone knows the theme and then you have the guys do their solo or they express the song in a way. And if you change the musicians, the song may sound totally different but you recognize the main theme. So, with us the DJ plays the theme and the musicians do their improvisation, they add to the whole vibe. That’s how it works.
MV: I always wondered how that can work. I’ve been to Organic Grooves events and I’ve always been amazed at how seamless it is.
SC: Yeah, you have to listen and be aware of what’s going on. You can’t just be there and look at your guitar and play. You always have to be aware: where is it and at what point are we here with the whole thing so you play the right thing. Otherwise it can be really disturbing if you’re totally out of tune with everyone in terms of just vibing. Like playing heavy metal or doing some crazy solos (laughter) and everyone’s just looking at you. It has a lot to do with really feeling it out.
MV: Does it take time for musicians to grab that vibe?
SC: No. I think it’s more a mental thing. You have to understand what this is all about. It’s not about how good you play or showing off your skills. It’s not about that. You have to understand the whole concept and the fact that you’re playing for the people and you want to keep the vibe. Right now the crew is really tight and we never have to talk about it, it’s just something where you look at each other and you know what’s going on. And that’s kind of cool.
MV: You’ve been in New York for this long and it’s incredible considering so many scenes have come and gone. What do you attribute that to? Just staying true to your roots?
SC: I think so. You know, you see a scene and it can be maybe for a year and then something new comes. But because no one can really pigeon-hole us so in a sense it’s never over, you know? For example, if you take any music genre like drum-n-bass, you know they reached a peak and it was defined years ago what it is and what it sounds like. So, there’s nothing you can change about that. In order to move on you have to change completely. There’s a lot of artists that have been doing drum-n-bass and now they kind of work in different scenes, and you have to reinvent. You change your whole alias and you start almost from zero again in a different scene. Where we are more like in between all these little scenes and the formula we have is the same but of course the sound changes over time. The sound now is very different than from five or six years ago. We kind of managed to stay with the new sounds, we progress but the formula we found is so basic and that you don’t have to change. It’s the sounds, the sounds change. Maybe the drum patterns change but that’s just music and if you stay on top we can progress along with the progression of different genres.
MV: In a sense your creating your own music. You’re outside labels.
SC: Yeah, totally. See, with dance music there’s not much you can change about it. I’m talking about dance music in general: music that makes a body move is always the same in a a sense. I mean, you can play rhythms that are hundreds of years old and you’re still going to feel it and it’s going to make you move your hips or tap your foot. That is never going to change. You know, even with all of these African rhythms or Latin stuff, the basic things are always the same. You may change some of the sounds or how you bring it, but in the end you go back to the main groove and there’s not much you can do different.
MV: I always consider it to be the bassline that gets me moving, which is the simplest form.
SC: Drum’n’bass really is the essential. We all recognize that fact that if you stick to the roots you’re going to stay the longest, basically.
MV: How do you transform this into a studio project? Do you record live?
SC: We do record live. We do both. We sample, we program things, we record live, we combine many different ways of making it sound the way we want to make it sound. There’s different ways to do it, but in the end because of the mindset, it’s always going to come out the way we sound. Maybe it could be more electronic, or whatever, but we’re always going to end up having that kind of organic sound. It’s always going to be about the rhythms.
Zeb, Sasha’s musical
MV: Are you deliberately going low-fi?
SC: Well, low-fi has to do with gear and expenses and money and that’s the thing we don’t have. So, we have to do the best thing out of what we have. I know what is possible if you have a big budget. But, we’re so flexible and there’s no studio costs and that’s how we’re able to do it because we’re really self-sufficient. And that’s how we want to keep it. And every CDs going to sound different from the one before and no-one’s going to tell us it’s no good. All of the tracks that we produce I play at the parties and that’s the best test. If I play a track and people go crazy then I know there’ssomething. I have usually the basic tracks and then we work from there, we record the instruments. You have to have the basic groove and it has to be good.
MV: And are you the person at the board?
SC: I’m the one that spends most time with it. So, I do the production with Zeb. And if Zeb is busy doing other stuff then it stays up to me doing it. So that’s the whole thing with being responsible, so if we decide to make an album I kind of take charge and then just do it.
MV: Well, I spent a lot of time this summer with the D’Afro Disco CD and liked it very much. Your moniker, the Cosmic Rocker, is a defining word because the music does go into that realm. I sort of think of you guys on the same plane as, say, Don Cherry or Sun Ra, in terms of your influences.
SC: Don Cherry, definitely. I have to say, Sun Ra, I actually discovered when I moved to America. I never came across Sun Ra in Europe but Don Cherry had some tracks that I used to play. So, there’s something that definitely stuck in my head. But Sun Ra, I would say that goes even further. He’s on a higher level, you have to go even deeper. In the same way, you have musicians like William Parker that’s like dealing with people who are so deep. And we actually did this kind of remix, it’s called ‘Black Cherry’. A guy from Aum Fidelity gave me a CD of William Parker and the drummer Hamid Drake and it was just the two of them. It’s improv jazz and they’re kind of the top notch in that scene. So, we did a remix album but it’s not called a remix, it’s called ‘Black Cherry’ via the sound science of William Parker and Hamid Drake because I used a lot of their sounds and samples. But when you listen to their stuff you really have to be on a different level. It’s not something you just put in and listen to. So, Sun Ra, I think the planet is even further away that he lives on. But definitely-Takuya, who’s plays keyboards and trumpets – he actually was more into that. And I think he even performed with some of the people that performed with Sun Ra.
MV: Graphics seems to play a big part of Organic Grooves identity.
SC: Yeah, definitely, it was always important. That’s Alex Gloor, who’s created the graphics from the beginning. The flyers, the images, the covers, everything. You know, today I still listen to music by the look of it. Sometimes you can almost see the music. I remember the early ’90s with house music there was no visual aspect and it seemed faceless. Our art reflects what we do. It’s a visual look that is not about styling, that’s for commercial stuff.
MV: Speaking of commercial, do you ever feel like others are appropriating what Orgnanic Grooves has developed. Or on the other hand, have you been given huge cash offers.
SC: No, it’s hard because what we do is very unpredictable.