"I want to make music that lifts your arm hairs" – Hudson Mohawke’s exhilarating crusade
The LuckyMe, Warp, and GOOD music linchpin has a prolific work rate, but Hudson Mohawke is only just getting round to releasing his own second album. He talks trap, spreading his wings and giving up childhood vices
Much has changed since Ross Birchard graced the cover of The Skinny back in 2009. Having signed to Warp with only a few 12-inches under his belt, he released a debut album, Butter, whose dayglo palette was well-received in some circles, but still seen by many as a niche concern. His ascent since then has been so rapid that it reads almost like an internet fairy tale.
Much has been made of HudMo's sudden encounter with Kanye, the extensive contributions to Yeezus and his signing to the production arm of the GOOD music imprint. Yet while the Louis Vuitton Don has plucked many a producer out of obscurity (Paul McCartney, anyone?), few can claim responsibility for a sound that has been so fundamental to the pop agenda in recent years. Birchard’s supergroup with Canadian producer Lunice under the TNGHT moniker has been the blueprint for club ready, maximalist hip-hop ever since Higher Ground’s demented horns burrowed their way into our ears back in 2012.
The endless string of collaborations which followed in this period may have prevented HudMo from working on a follow-up in his own right until recently, but the eventual release of Lantern, his second album, could not be more perfectly timed. With a captive audience which ranges from serious musos to EDM bros, the producer now has a golden opportunity to showcase his own uncompromising ideas. It's an enviable position, he agrees over the phone before he jets off for another mini-tour of America: "I feel quite lucky to be in these circumstances. To be able to combine working with people like Antony [Hegarty] alongside R'n'B people and completely unknown people… it's that sort of blend of genres and aesthetics that I always wanted to bring together."
Inevitably, the success that HudMo has achieved in the intervening years since Butter means that some will have fairly rigid expectations of how they'd like this album to sound. Not that he cares. Daringly, the tracklist of Lantern doesn’t feature any rappers at all, instead comprising a number of vocal cuts which hark back to Birchard’s beginnings making R'n'B bootlegs: "This project last year was working with 40 rappers. Everyone expected me to make a rap album or something like that. But I’ve been wanting to make a song-based record."
"The UK underground electronic scene is kind of po-faced. That's not something I've ever been into" – Ross Birchard
Equally bold is Birchard’s determination to collaborate with friends, many of whom are relative unknowns. The advantages of this decision are evident in the brilliant, controlled performances he coaxes out of his guests, whose gameness ensures that they aren’t drowned out by his production style: "People like Miguel, he’s someone who I’ve been in touch with for years, since before he was an established artist. He’s one of those few people who gets himself into that position but is still in touch with his roots as well."
One thing Birchard has borrowed from Kanye’s playbook is his collaborative method of production. For the purists, this approach might seem like sacrilege. Birchard argues that it makes the process more spontaneous, more musical and more refined: "I feel like it gives more energy to the project to have a bunch of people working on it rather than to have one guy sitting in the studio at like five in the morning, alone. That’s not vibey, its more methodical. This way opens you up to new approaches. And when you’re working with a bunch of people, less is more."
Thanks to Birchard’s more mature style of songwriting, direct influences are harder than ever to spot on the album, though he cites Dilla and Madlib as two major touchstones: "I had the pleasure of meeting J Dee in Glasgow before he died, back in 2002. To have the chance to have a little conversation and shake hands was something. As far as Madlib… we’re not like super tight or anything. But these are the people who were my idols when I was growing up. I just love their approach to production, it was so nonchalant."
It's easy to draw comparisons between HudMo and his heroes on a track like Ryderz, where a manipulated D.J. Rogers sample is played for a full minute and then pitched in every possible direction with gleeful dexterity. But there’s another common tendency among these producers to go far beyond what anyone might expect from someone who primarily deals in samples. Arguably the strangest track on the album isn’t electronic at all: the mini-overture of Kettles. Building from passages of whirling woodwind to fanfares of triumphant, densely orchestrated brass, it could pass as an excerpt from a Mahler symphony. It's a track Birchard is especially proud of, though he’s a bit worried about how it's going to be received: "I’m still not sure whether people are gonna be like, 'What the fuck is this?’" he laughs. "It was something that I definitely wanted to include. It was an experiment for me; rather than beat-making I was writing a piece of classical music." He intends to perform it live with a full orchestra at some point, so expect to see him towering over the conductor’s podium, Goldie style, in the near future.
For many who will listen to Lantern, it will be hard not to notice how far Birchard has departed from the sound that brought him an international audience. When compared to the swaggering hooks on the TNGHT record and the glut of watered down ‘trap’ music which came in its wake, the sophisticated arrangements on Lantern provide a more refined thrill. Is this a conscious effort on his part, given the dubstep style backlash which that sound has since received? Far from washing his hands of the TNGHT sound, Birchard is still bowled over by its game-changing success: "I thought it was really fun when that record came out because that whole EDM thing hadn’t happened yet. You had DJs from all sorts of genres playing this record, from Richie Hawtin to Calvin Harris; it was a universal thing. It kind of reminded me of what I hear about the so-called ‘hip hop’ DJs of the 70s and 80s who weren’t really about playing one specific genre; they’d also be playing disco or breakbeat. That project exposed me to a wider audience, a lot of people who listened to TNGHT weren’t aware of my earlier music. I’m curious to see how they all react to this project."
One of the unexpected consequences of HudMo’s hit-making phase is that it has led people back to his earlier music: "Some of the stuff that I play when I DJ are old songs of mine, from four or five years ago, and people are like, 'What's that?' When the first album came out, people were a bit confused by it. It's almost like people talk about that record more now." Though always careful to avoid a humblebrag, he cannot disguise his satisfaction with the fact that the world has finally caught up: "Its flattering to see the kind of nods here and there within a lot modern pop stuff to stuff that myself and Rustie and a lot of Numbers crew in Glasgow were doing five or six years ago."
Perhaps, The Skinny suggests, one of the reasons people didn’t know what to make of his music at first was because so much of it is overwhelmingly happy. Birchard is animated on this point: "I want to make music that lifts your arm hairs, rather than falling into line with some purist underground attitude. This is no disrespect to anyone, but the UK underground electronic scene is kind of po-faced. That's a kind of British attitude I guess. It's not something that I have ever been into. It's probably because I grew up listening to a lot of hardcore and stuff that's very high energy and euphoric." As anyone who reads HudMo’s Twitter account will know, the Glaswegian has a refreshingly juvenile sense of humour for a producer who works with Kanye West, the man who never smiles. After our early morning call about the serious business of his imminent return, his response to the question of what he would advise the HudMo of old brings some levity. "Probably eat less pizza."