By J.C. Tripp
Any serious underground beat junkie of the past decade has heard Moonstarr’s now-classic “Dupont” as well as his long list of remixes for such labels as Compost, Sonar Kollektiv, Jazzanova, Do Right! Music. The fact is, even though his demeanor is completely low-key, Moonstarr is one busy and prolific cat. While maintaining a full-time job as a technician, he’s holding things down on the business end for his Public Transit Recordings (PTR) record label, breaking beats live on the P.A. and hunkering down with synths, drum machines, and samplers to bang out mind-melding beats for his appreciative global audience.
Moonstarr’s musical history encompasses the entire recent history of modern urban music, stretching from hip hop to drum’n’bass to broken beat and also including some goofball humor. Citing musical influences as diverse as Underground Resistance, DJ Premier, Baden Powell, Zakhir Hussein and Sun Ra, Moonstarr’s sound has continuously evolved as he’s journeyed both literally and figuratively. His collaborations reflect his diverse influences: projects for indie soul, electronic, and jazz heavyweights such as Jazzanova, Recloose, and 4Hero. In the process, Moonstarr has gained worldwide acclaim for his music.
Besides running Public Transit Recordings, the label he co-founded with Dialect (Mano Narayanan) in 1998, Moonstarr is busy playing shows and rocking dancefloors in Berlin to Tokyo to Puerto Rico to all points in between. His trademark live performances have graced London UK’s legendary CO-OP club night, Montreal’s MUTEK Fest, San Francisco’s BetaLounge, and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
In 2010 Moonstarr is back with a vengeance. After a long minute making beats for other peeps like Voice, LAL, Daedelus, DJ Kentaro, Zero DB and scoring music for film (cult hit film Next: A Primer On Urban Painting), our man heeded the calls and poured energies into his latest album, Instrumentals Forever, his second full-length release on Public Transit Recordings. To say this is a highly anticipated record is an understatement, given the worldwide rounds and critical acclaim that followed his bossabreakbeat and synth-infused debut album Dupont earlier this century. On this latest outing, Moonstarr effortlessly melds the sonic spaces between hiphop, techno and bossa-jazz with that classic Moonstarr drumbreak swing programming. Not one to shy away from being a bit cheeky, Instrumentals Forever is a slight play on words with tracks featuring vocal collaborations with bossa soul crooner Sarah Linhares, political dub soul collective LAL, Montreal hip hop luminary Lotus Jai Nitai and jazz-inflected Toronto hip hop fams Fineprint. In addition to this full length, Moonstarr release a 7″ called Farfisa 45, featuring Tony Ezzy on the Farfisa Organ. The songs pay homage to great Brazilian organists like Walter Wanderley and Ed Lincon. Featuring dirty drum breaks and samples played by Moonstarr and jazzy Farfisa Organ work by Tony Ezzy. So, if you’ve been sleeping on Moonstarr it’s time to time to tune back in: he may take his time but at 33 this cat has a few years ahead of him.
Mundovibe spoke with Moonstarr on his past, present and future:
MV: I’ve been listening to your music and your remixes for a number of years and you’re clearly somebody who I respect and I enjoy following. Let’s go back to the beginnings: what scene did you tap into or come out of? Give me some history on the Toronto scene.
KM: When I was growing up I was hugely influenced by college radio. Stations like CKLN, CIUT in Toronto, even commercial radio back then was really great to listen to as a kid growing up. There was a lot of stuff going on at that time on the radio. I’m 33 so my golden years were early 90s: early hip hop but also going to raves at the same time and a really solid house scene in Toronto was going on back then. So, I was just influenced by all of these angles. Radio in particular had a huge force in determining my future, in shaping my future. Because not only the music, I was also getting into news, politics and just hearing really far out ideas and radio art, radio news and all different types of musical genres too.
“It was really amazing to follow those guys into a whole new musical genre. They were taking all of the elements of house and techno and all of the drum programming from drum & bass and bringing that into broken beat.”
So, it was natural for me when I started to DJ to be interested in trying to find all different types. But I kind of was limiting myself to drum’n’bass and hip hop and also techno. Those are the three main genres that I kept sticking to but there’s so many sub-genres in those musical cultures that kicked off. I was really into the drum’n’bass community in the early ‘90s: Reinforced records had a huge influence on me and then later on to follow all those producers as they started making broken beat, people like Dego and Marc Mac (4 Hero), Somatic. It was really amazing to follow those guys into a whole new musical genre. They were taking all of the elements of house and techno and all of the drum programming from drum & bass and bringing that into broken beat.
So, in the late ‘90s my sound started to mature more and I had circulated enough demo tapes to my friends to build the confidence to release my own stuff I started a label called Public Transit Recordings. That was in 1998 and at that time too we were living in an area of Toronto that was close to the University of Toronto and I was rooming with some friends that were going to university and we were throwing parties at our house and we got tired of cleaning up after, so we decided to throw a party at a venue and we invited all our friends and all our DJ friends. It was a huge mix of genres: we had house DJs on the top floor and MC performances in the basement and we called our friends up, from the Elemental crew in Columbus (Ohio): Charles Monochrome, Arktyp and they brought this mid-Western American thing into the mix. We also started the label with that first party and we released a compilation called “Code 416” that featured some of the artists that were performing. After that we started to grow outside of Toronto by promoting ourselves through the DJs that were coming into the city. And also connecting with old friends like people are Reinforced. We would send promos and they would help distribute them around.
MV: The community from that era was so tight and so into helping each other.
KM: You really had to rely on other people because the internet was just coming up. In the ‘90s it was all about passing tapes and CDs around. I remember the first CD burner I bought was 400 bucks and it only burned at 8X so you’d have to start planning on Monday or Tuesday how many CDs you were going to get rid of on the weekend to all of the DJs that were coming in from out of town and start burning then. So, you really had to rely on people to help you out and it still happens today but it’s just in a different context. Today you can do a lot more yourself, in terms of online promotion. You still have to rely on other people to “retweet”, you know what I mean? But back then it was really physical, you had to hope that the five CDs that you gave to a friend in another country would be distributed to the five other people, you know? Where nowadays it’s easier to forward five retweets then five real CDs or tapes.
MV: You essentially got into music and production as a teenager?
KM: Yeah. I was the youngest of four so there was music in the house in the ‘80s for sure, like Billy Idol, Michael Jackson, there was always music there and I think that helped me when it came to wanting to get my own music. I remember my sisters driving to the mall to get records when I was eleven and twelve and I was buying INXS records and shit like that. So, when it came to the point where I was able to take the bus and go downtown in Toronto and go to the record stores, I was ready to start buying every single hip hop record that came out and we used to fight for records on Thursdays at this store called Play de Record in Toronto. It was the spot where everyone would get together and the newest releases would come out. There was DJs playing the music in the store and there was just a great atmosphere to grow up around and meet people. So, as a teenager I really got into it. I was driven to try and figure out how DJ Premiere chopped and sampled jazz records. I was really interested in what drum machines they were using. I’m an electronic technician, I was taking apart radios at the same time and electrocuting myself, so the technical side of the music really grabbed me. I was driven to try and figure out how they did that, and also to get my own gear as well.
“But it just built over time, over the next two years people just got into it and then other DJs started playing it and then big name DJs started playing it, people like Rainer Truby. And DJ Spinna called up my house like out of the blue and I was like ‘who is this?’ “
MV: Once you did those two things, figuring out how they did it and what their techniques were and got they gear, where did your signature sound come out of that, your sound?
KM: Shit, I still try and define it today like ‘what is my sound’ but people tend to hear it in music I put out and I think it has to do with a really lo-fi aesthetic and also a DIY aesthetic, just making do with the gear that you have, whether it’s a lot of the early stuff that we did on tape so if there’s hiss or if your sampler only had 5 seconds of memory and you’re stretching it by sampling at 45 and doing all sorts of crazy shit, I think that really defines my sound and what I’m about. But also pushing the limits with that technology, I think that plays a big part in defining who I am.
MV: It’s pretty much beat driven music wouldn’t you say? Is that the core of it?
KM: I think so, I make a lot of other types of music too, ambient music and weird fucked up electronic music but I don’t think I’m at a point yet where I can put that stuff out on a commercial level. I might start leaking a bit more of that stuff out on a commercial scale. I might start leaking a bit more of that stuff through the new communication channels we have now like Facebook and Soundcloud. And in the past I’ve actually put those weirder tracks on demos I’ve passed around to people.Mainly,when it comes down to it, when I’m in the studio the majority of what I do is beat driven and it’s for the dancefloor, it’s for people. Because I’m a DJ at heart, I grew up DJing and I love to see my tracks in the club and being played and seeing the reactions on the dancefloor. I just enjoy that music, it’s part of who I am so it’s really easy for me to make that shit in the studio.
MV: Nice. Tell me about your first full-length, “Dupont”. What went into that?
KM: That was around 2000-2001 but there’s some songs on there that go back to 1996 I think. Tracks like ‘Dust’, very older tracks.I had gotten to a point where when we started the label it wasn’t about me, it was about the community that was happening at that time and it was about my friends. It was about me, I put four of my tracks on the first compilation and it’s a bit self-centered but I paid for the whole thing (laughs). But I waited a while before I actually focused on my own material and really pushed myself. So, “Dupont” was really the first big push where I could showcase my sound. It was a mix of musical genres, I wanted to highlight all the things I was into not just the one sound, the ‘dust’ sound. I was into the broken (beat) scene that was going on at the time but mixed with a bit of the techo elements. I connected with these guys in Colombus, Ohio – the Elemental Crew that I mentioned before – and there’s Dave Cooper in Toronto who introduced me to Detroit.
And we would go to Detroit a lot and I went to Submerge and I met Mike Banks and a lot of people down there and was hugely influenced by that sound. So, it came through on “Dupont” – I wanted to showcase that. But I also wanted to keep it light hearted hence all of the funny messages I was getting on my phone. And I wanted to put Toronto on the map too. I really wanted to showcase the Toronto transit system in particular like Dupont Station and the forward thinking architecture that went behind the actual building of that station. It was a mix of ideas but I think it came together pretty well. Originally we just put it out on 12”, it was a double vinyl and the initial sales were really low, like 100 copies. But it just built over time, over the next two years people just got into it and then other DJs started playing it and then big name DJs started playing it, people like Rainer Truby. And DJ Spinna called up my house like out of the blue and I was like ‘who is this?’ you know? Weird shit started happening like that – Gilles Peterson started playing it. So, it was fun man. That record, you just made it with an idea, a concept, and hoped that it would go somewhere and it did, it helped me out a lot.
MV: So that put you on the international map?
KM: Yeah, at that time I was working with Dave Cooper in Toronto, who started a community-based distribution company and the idea was he was going to get all of the hottest labels in Toronto. And there were a couple other labels outside of Toronto involved too. And he was going to distribute them to other distributors. And one of the distributors that picked up on our stuff was Goya in the UK and they took a couple boxes and that helped out a lot because Goya at that time was really hot. A lot of people were checking out Goya for all the broken shit that was coming out and some people picked up on our stuff and we ended up re-pressing that record twice. I think we did probably 3,500 copies of that 12”. And it was a double 12”, there’s no way in hell we could do that these days. Nobody’s buying vinyl like that anymore. It was a lot of fun, it still is. We just cut my first 45 and I don’t know why it’s taken so long to do this but to put it on the turntable and watch it spin is an unbelievable feeling.
MV: Vinyl’s back or what?
KM: It’s always going to be there. It is dieing off for sure. If it’s coming back, I don’t know if there’s a big regurgence, I think it’s just people are realizing – for instance Kevin Beedle, a UK DJ does a show called Mind Fluid – I’ve been listening to his show for a while and he’s started playing more and more vinyl and he talks about ‘man, I totally forgot about how this feels’. It’s a different experience when you dig through a crate and you look at the covers and stuff. I think people in the next couple of years are going to get reacquainted with that nostalgia of vinyl.
Moonstarr collaborator Sarah Linhares
MV: Who do you regularly collaborate with?
KM: I’ve been working a lot with a vocalist named Sarah Linhares in Montreal, we’re working on her full length album that’s coming out on PTR, it’s called “Messages From the Future”. I tend to collaborate with people close to me, I’m working on stuff with my girlfriend here in the studio. Stuff with friends around town , people like Tony Ezzy, he collaborated with me on my 45. So it’s pretty tightknit. I do collaborate and reach out to people over long distances, for instance Voice. I linked up with Voice, who’s from New Orleans and we ended up doing a whole record together. I didn’t produce all of the beats on her record but I kind of executive produced it and arranged other producers – people like Charles Noel who’s in New York now but whenever we can we’ll collaborate on something if we’re visiting eachother or over the net. We did called ‘Poppa Large’ that’s kind of floating around the internet. It’s a mashup of Two Man Sound, a Brazilian track that we sampled and we used Kool Keith’s ‘Poppa Large’ and put the vocals over top. So, I tend to collaborate with people close but the remixing is funny because I remember when I put out “Dupont” and maybe even earlier I called up Reinforced Records a lot in the early ‘90s and spoke to Marc Mac and Dego. I was constantly quizzing them on the gear they had and how they were chopping breaks and they gave me some crazy advice in terms of the remixing because they were doing a lot of remixes in the ‘90s and I asked them how did they get there to that point. Because remixes are a great way to generate cash to keep you going, you know? And they said ‘it just happens. People just call you up.’ It’s simply that easy, once you have your music out there people that are into your sound are going to want to feature your productions on their releases. And the remixes, you never choose to do a remix, they always ask you right? In some situations you can remix and hopefully they’ll enjoy it but the really good relationships are when people approach you and ask you to work for them. And that’s kind of how the remix thing happened for me, a lot of people just started asking me. It has slowed down a lot in the past couple of years but 2003-05 Iwas really busy.
MV: A lot with Compost records and Do Right!, right?
KM: Yeah, well John Kong, the guy that’s behind Do Right! Was based in Toronto and we were actually working together in the studio on some collaborative projects. I did a track called ‘Future Visions’ with him and a keyboardist, Jason Kenemy so when it came time for remixes for his label he asked me for somehelp and I hooked him up for a remix. But, yeah, I did a release on Compost, it was a 12” called ‘The Greed Remixes’ andit was a remix I did of one of my own tracks. But that really helped me out a lot, it was a really big 12” for me back then. And because they’re in Europe a lot of the DJs picked up on that in Europe. And then I got calls from Rush Hour to do a remix, Raw Fusion, Sonar Kollektiv. I did a release on Sonar Kollektiv as a result of the 12” on Compost.One thing led to the next. And by putting our names and contact info on the records it allowed a lot of people to get in touch with us – small record labels. There’s a lot of remixes that I’ve done that I need to put in a volume two because they never made it on volume one. Ianeq (‘The Light’) for instance is a remix I did for a small label in Switzerland (Mental Groove) and I did some work for Groovement in Portugal. They’re all in my discography but people might not hav heard of them or there’s only a limited release originally.
MV: In naming some of the projects that you were involved with, it’s really international: Portugal, Berlin, Detroit, Switzerland, Montreal. What’s next?
KM: I haven’t cracked into South America yet and the only Asian country I’ve gone into is Japan and maybe Korea, but there’s a whole other world out there that I would love to tap into and get involved with. But, in time, I’m not in a rush.
MV: Are you solidly based in Toronto, would you ever pick up like Quantic did and go down to Colombia if you had the opportunity?
KM: You know, when I was on the road in Japan and also in Europe I did some production work on the road but, I mean, Quantic’s ability to just pick up and move to Colombia and do a collaboration like that – it’s amazing. I have a bit of that bug in me but I actually haven’t been as financially rewarded as much as people may think, in terms of this. I still work, I still have a 9-to-5 and that’s a big chunk of my income you know? Being in North America I think a of of Europeans not have it easier but especially in England there’s so many more people per capita, there’s so many more people you can play to and there’s so many more people buying your stuff. I think it’s easier to be an underground musician in more condensed cities obviously. So, it’s kind of worked against me a bit but I’m not complaining at all it’s just the reality: I haven’t been afforded the luxury to take three months off and record in the jungle. (laughter). So, I guess my priorities are working with artists that are closer to me that need assistance. I really don’t mind helping people like Sarah, for example, get her full length together or Voice – she really needed to get put on the map and we wanted to get behind her album. So, it’s a very little effort that I can put to helping these people get up to where they should be, you know? And that’s kind of where my priorities are at.
New Orlean’s based hiphop artist Voice
MV: You’ve got another full-length that came out in 2009, which is “Instrumentals Forever”.
KM: That’s again another something that maybe should have come out a couple of years earlier but I got it out nonetheless and a lot of people were really happy with it. We didn’t get to distribute it as much in North America as we would have like to but we did do some vinyl and we did a lot of CDs in Japan and Europe, so hopefully people will be able to pick it up. It’s available on iTunes too and digitally at dancetracks and juno. It’s kind of an extension of “Dupont”, it was an idea I had in my mind for a while of songs in partiulcar like ‘Broken Bossa’ and ‘Clappy’ and there’s some songs I just wanted to get out. And there were other songs that just kind of fit with the mold of the record and I wanted to give something really good for out Japanese distributor to sell becaue they did a lot of great work for us in the past. I have a new record I’m working on called “Ill Harmonics” and it features more of the techier sounds thatI’m into. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that out by the summer of this year. I also just released a mix tape of more unreleased stuff called ‘Beats From the Vaults’, I wanted to do something just to show that I’m still busy in the studio and I’m trying not to covet my beats—I’m up for sharing.
Moonstarr’s “Instrumentals Forever”
MV: Do you find that your base has shifted?We’ve all aged, our tastes evolve. How do you evolve and how do you relate to your people that appreciate your music?
KM: I can definitely hear a change just in terms of my sound because of my age. I used to make beats ona Mac Plus and a Korg DSS1 – it’s like pulling teeth you know? Now I’m doing a lot of stuff with Ableton Live soothe process is completely different I’m not spending three or four hours a day on beats. I’ll do half or one hour at least. So, a lot of the kids coming up today – I don’t know if you heard about Domu but he recently quit and he talks about the fight because when you grow up listening to really forward thinking music and you feel like you’re slipping or you’re losing your edge or something it can be really hard. I’m not saying that’s why he quit but he did mention it in his blog, talking about giving up the fight. But I’m realy comfortable with what I do and if I’m not doing the crazy shit I was doing in 1996 that’s alright because Idid it and I don’t need to do it again, right? So I don’t feel really pressured to recreate things I’ve done. I really feel like I’ve set up myself for the next 10 years to do what I want to do. I think I’ve played my cards right and I feel like I’m in a new phase you know? With my next record I really want to showcase that and I’m really curious to see how people react. Once we got our comments up on the web page then I’ll be happy.
MV: Will you be sneaking out some early tracks?
KM: We’ll be doing some stuff in lead up to that through the regular channels. The “Beats From the Vault” is three-part series so the next mix is going to feature a lot of those tracks. We’re talking about doing an early 12” release for that album as well as some digital releases. We’re going to be giving lots of stuff away for free this year – it’s the nature of the business now. People are giving back to us so it’s working out lovely.
MV: I’m sure that ties into getting out there and DJing. You seem to be pretty busy.
KM: I tend to hit the road once or twice a year. I missed out on a tour that voice did in November of last year to Europe. So, I’m due for a trip back to Europe. I did a trip to the Midwest in the U.S. in 2004 and I really want to do that trip again, I want to hit Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philly, New York. I’m trying to get on the road again, that’s my modus operandi for the new year.
MV: I had noticed that you’d done a podcast with Resident Advisor which seemed to get quite a number of responses.
KM: Wow, I really didn’t think that it was going to be like that and in hindsight I think maybe I should have put a bit more effort into it? Not to say I didn’t put effort into it but maybe it was better that I didn’t get myself freaked out about it but that was amazing. It was really a highlight for me last year – all the feedback I got and there were some solid critiques of my mix and I really appreciated that too. It was a nice surprise for me because the tracks that I put on there are not stuff you hear every day, you know? When you play that stuff out and to have people appreciate it, that really hard broken stuff or really weird hip hop it’ always a great feeling – that the heads are still out there. The people are there and I’m always looking forward to reconnect with the heads.
ILL Harmonics Vol.1 by Moonstarr
ILL Harmonics Vol.1
On this latest release, Moonstarr embarked on a series of late-night studio missions to explore the deep, moody regions of sound. Chopped breaks and dirty jazz loops are eschewed for synthesizers and drum machines to program the exploration into dark emotion and dissonance. Built upon the foundation created by steadfast pioneers like Mike Banks, Larry Heard, Shawn Rudiman, Purpose Maker and Drexcyia, and inspired by a conversation between Abacus and Marc Mac years earlier in which they discussed the need for vocals to permeate more techno music. Moonstarr continues the tradition and searches for the elusive ‘C-Minus Particles’ that disperse as quickly as they are created. On ‘Monopoly’, guest vocalist Tash sounds out a determined call for working-class justice overtop soaring synth lines, warm bass pulses and insistent rhythms. ILL Harmonics is part one in a series that will continue to travel the soundways in a complementary style to this release.
Public Transit Recordings
FREE MOONSTARR TRACKS
from “Instrumentals Forever”
(Public Transit Recordings)
“Tiger Funk (feat. LAL and Guests)”
“Planets Collide (feat. Lotus Jai Nitai)”
FREE MOONSTARR MIX
Moonstarr Beats from the Vault Vol 1
All you beat heads will enjoy this one. Featuring a mashup of Moonstar’s beats from the past, present and future. Featuring tracks from Instrumentals Forever, Mathology, Montreal ILL Harmonics, guests, unreleased remixes and works in progress.