thatmanmonkz on new album Columbusing

Feature by Daniel Jones | 01 Mar 2016
  • Thatmanmonkz

Following two strong EPs for the label, Scott 'Monkz' Moncrieff has just dropped his debut album, Columbusing, on Delusions of Grandeur – read all about it

It only takes a few blinks to realise how heavily indebted modern dance music is to American music of black origin. We’re not just talking house and techno coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York in the mid-80s; this is a much bigger picture that spans half of the 20th century.

Nine times out of ten, when a white producer cuts a sample from an American jazz, funk or soul record for their own work, this is what academics call a ‘reappropriation of black culture.’ If you view music as love then this is all good... but internal conflict arises when that same producer leads their audience to believe they have developed or ‘discovered’ an original sound that has actually existed for years – also known as ‘columbusing’ (as in Christopher).

Scott ‘thatmanmonkz’ Moncrieff, boss of Shadeleaf Music, is in the minority of modern producers in that he wears the history of black music on his sleeve for all to see. A resident of Sheffield since the 90s, it’s not hard to hear that Monkz’s major inspiration comes from slightly further afield than South Yorkshire; more specifically, from smooth jazz organs, off-kilter hip-hop and lo-fi house à la Moodymann. That’s why he’s titled his debut album accordingly…

“This record is basically a love letter to the American music that’s influenced me for my whole life – most of which happens to be black music,” Moncrieff explains. “That theme had already emerged by the time I came across the term ‘columbusing’ – so it seemed appropriate to go with that as the title. It’s also a way for me to hold my hands up and tell people that I’m well aware of what I’m doing. I’m not trying to hide my method, or the sources of my inspiration, and I feel it would be kind of disrespectful to do otherwise.

“My dad was a socialist, so I was always raised to be very aware of social, race and gender issues from an early age. I soon realised when putting this album together that I wasn’t comfortable making a deliberate homage to black music without referencing the dominant forces behind it. It’s easy for me to enjoy the wonderful art borne out of those issues, and I’m really conflicted by that, which plays into the thinking behind Columbusing.”

The importance of collaboration

While the cultural context of this album lays a solid foundation, it’s equally vital to shine a light on the sheer quality of the music itself. Way more than a trite throwback, this feels like a pivotal release for thatmanmonkz and sees him setting foot on ground that hasn’t been covered in his 12"s so far.

Moncrieff’s approach has always been to combine his ability with the strengths of others. This record is a prime example of that, bringing together a batch of instrumental and vocal talent from all walks of life – Khalil Anthony, Erik Rico, Dave Aju and Malik Ameer (to name a small handful).

“I’ve worked with a lot of these guys before,” says Moncrieff. “It just so happens that this time it’s under my banner. Khalil Anthony had an EP out on Shadeleaf recently, and my next project is to produce an album with Malik Ameer. As for Columbusing, all of the vocal content was sent to me by those guys with very little direction on my part. The last thing I want is to stifle other people’s talent, which is why I don’t spend my energy telling people exactly what to do.

“It actually boils down to little semantic nuances, like clearly listing ‘with’ each vocalist on the tracklisting, rather than ‘featuring’. We’re a group of mates, at the end of the day, and I’m the beat programmer. I often rely on other people to add an extra dimension to my work. And I can’t believe I just said ‘semantic nuance,’” he laughs.

There’s also the coup of getting Detroit rapper Ta’raach on board for A Fly New Tune. This guy has been running in the same circles as Erykah Badu and Slum Village for quite some time, and definitely adds weight to proceedings. Moncrieff thanks mutual friend Recloose for hooking him up with the Detroit connection.

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The vocal contributions work tremendously well here, true, but Moncrieff’s beat-making ability is high class all on its own. The MPC2000 forms the bedrock for nearly all thatmanmonkz productions, and was in fact the first bit of kit Moncrieff laid hands on when he started producing around 2004, inspired by the methodology of A Tribe Called Quest and Masters at Work.

“Kenny Dope was a big figure who shed so much light on the fact that hip-hop and house are cut from the same cloth. You soon realise that there’s this unending thread in American black music, and so many dots to connect. Every time I find something new along that thread, it tends to inspire ideas for my own productions.

“I still use that same MPC,” he continues. “The beauty with the older models is that the technology inside is the thing that adds the unique feel and sound to the samples. I’m a big Rhodes fan, as you can probably tell, and love cutting bits from old records. I’m also lucky enough to know mates who own keyboards, and record stuff for me to use. I’m not saying the entire album is live, but it’s barely computerised. I usually end up keeping the imperfect stuff that might be a touch out of time. That’s the groove.”

Early days in Sheffield

It’s worth noting at this point that Moncrieff wasn’t always making this sort of thing. Back in the mid-00s, he was teaming up with Steel City native Tom Bell – now known as Toddla T – under the alias Small Arms Fiya.

“God, I’ve known Tom for years,” he remembers. “He actually used to work for me in a skate shop when he was about 14, which is how we met. I was DJing a lot at that point but he was always nudging me to try the production side of things. At the same time I was living with a guy called Ross Orton, who went on to produce the last Arctic Monkeys record, AM. Sheffield’s music scene is really close-knit that way. I learned a lot of chops from those guys in the early days.”

By the time Small Arms Fiya fizzled out, making music took a back seat for a few years. “I wanted to try my hand at business for a while, so I started running a bar-club type venue in Sheffield with my best mate from uni, Okie. It was my attempt to become normal for a few years; and I failed miserably. The recession was just kicking in and it ate into my time making music.

“Not long after we closed the place down, Okie sadly passed away. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, but it was also a massive kick up the backside. It was such a tragic situation that it’s weird to say it ‘inspired’ me; but it’s definitely true. He’s actually the logo for the Shadeleaf label, a small tribute to his spirit.”

Moncrieff returned to making music a year or two after that, and was eventually persuaded by close friend and distributor Chris Duckenfield to push the button on his own label. “I guess I would’ve put this album out on Shadeleaf if Jamie [Odell, aka Jimpster] hadn’t mentioned it, but I always intended the label to showcase other artists and their talent.

“Jamie’s great to work with though, and so trusting when he A&Rs you. I love to learn as much as possible so it’s also a major benefit to get quality feedback on stuff, and you can’t really ever go wrong with his level of experience.”

Here we have yet another instance that goes to show how important collaboration is to Moncrieff. He’s got an easygoing way about him that you can see plays naturally into a group dynamic. And, usually when discussing an artist’s debut album, it’s strange to find somebody with a lens that always seems to be pointing outwards.

“The people I’ve worked with on this record are not an afterthought,” Moncrieff says decisively, pressing home the message. “They add shape and colour to my work, and feed me with ideas. In so many ways, this isn’t just my album.”

Columbusing is out now via Delusions of Grandeur