Thavius Beck – Hip-Hop: Louder, Faster

You might recognise <b>Thavius Beck</b> as Saul Williams' right hand man of recent years. This month he prepares to strike out on his own with a masterclass in rhyme and rhythm.

Feature by Bram Gieben | 02 Oct 2009
  • Thavius Beck

Thavius Beck’s speech is compact and concise. Dense info-bytes of personal opinion and thought are delivered in a calm, clear staccato baritone, just like the tracks on his first entirely solo hip-hop album, Dialogue. Many of his micro-fables thunder, judder and rumble their bass-heavy weight across the finish line in under three minutes - punk-rap hybrids powered by the machinery of glitched-out hip-hop, grime and filthy breakcore.

In the spirit of his compressed attack, quickly review the facts about Thavius Beck’s career so far. A profligate producer, he was part of LA-based supergroup Global Phlowtations, and still part of the deeply experimental Labwaste, with partner-in-crime Subtitle. Beck co-produced Saul Williams’ Trent Reznor-assisted Niggy Tardust, and has also released two solo LPs; plus he masterminded the recent album by k-the-i???. A prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist, Beck is an ambassador for the music software company Ableton, conducting workshops for new users as he tours. For years a prolific collaborator and enabler, with Dialogue he has produced a deeply personal squall of beats and rhymes with no outside assistance.

Beck is a producer first and foremost, but it’s the writing that was in his blood, nagging at him to produce a personal document like this latest work. “Honestly,” he starts, “I think what is most important is writing. You’re able to express yourself in a much more direct way. You can stir up different emotions and create different visuals, which you can’t really do with just music. Doing beats, you can be very vague; very round-about. It can be whatever you want it to – you can name it Pretty Rainbows, even though the inspiration was that you were depressed. It’s easier to throw people off with music. With words, it’s like a purging thing.”

Drawn on the subject of compression in his work, Beck admits to a nasty critical moment: “I read a review of Decomposition, which was the first record I did on Mush. One of the main complaints was that the songs were too long. So I really thought about it: 'Am I engaging the listener enough to justify making a five minute song?' I decided I would rather have someone buy an album that’s thirty-five minutes long, and when it’s over, they would be like, ‘Damn, I wanna hear this again,’ rather than have them be bored with it forty minutes in and there’s still twenty minutes left. I want people to want more.”

Beck’s tastes have always been diverse, but he admits to being schooled on electronica by Subtitle: “He was always saying to me, ‘You’ve gotta hear this, you’ve gotta check this out.’” A trip to the UK during the glory days of underground grime was a turning point: “We heard some grime on pirate radio and were just blown away. I think it was some really old Wiley stuff. That sealed the whole deal for me.” Hearing rap that was not dominated by US hip-hop was a revelation: “There were influences from electronica, four-four stuff… plus, these people were from different parts of Africa and the Caribbean islands… just hearing how all that fused together was really inspiring for me.”

Beck is just as influenced by prog rock and jazz: Labwaste toured and were good friends with The Mars Volta. He is an advocate and practitioner of fusion: “I just love the dark sound – the melding of different genres. I think that’s the main thing with the fusion stuff that’s always been inspiring to me: mixing rock elements with jazz elements, different percussion from other parts of the world, and fusing that all together to create something new.”

Using Ableton as a basis for his productions, Beck has reached new levels of innovation: “It’s opened up a lot of possibilities, because there are things that I can do now that I never would have even thought to do, let alone attempt. It’s freed me up a lot – it’s allowed me to be more creative, because I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘How can I timestretch this and make it into a loop so it repeats on beat?’ It means I can be less of a technician, and focus on being an artist.” Speaking of which, Beck already has plans for his next album – “It’s kind of a pipe dream, but if I could make it happen I would love to work with Beth Orton; artists of that calibre… It would take a little bit to make that happen, but I don’t think it’s that far-fetched. I would love to go in that direction.”

The sonic architecture of his new album is complex and bass heavy, with the vocals often riding in amongst the beats. Beck explains: “I wanted Dialogue to be loud, and for the music to be in-your-face. If the beats don’t hit like they should, I feel like something’s missing.” In contrast, his recent work with k-the-i??? sounds different: “His delivery, the stuff that he says… I think for an artist like him you need to have the vocals stand out. With Dialogue I feel like my lyrics really complement the beats, and I think they are kind of melded together. They have to be even and level. Just make it loud!”

The album may baffle those listeners previously unacquainted with the loop-madness of Ableton-produced beats, or those more familiar with the lazy eight-bars of most US emcees. For those of us with the taste for it, Beck’s new LP is a vibrant soundclash that manages to meld complex double-time rap, extreme breakbeats and complex philosophy in Burst Culture-style digestible chunks. So Mr Beck – you play it louder, we’ll listen faster.

Dialogue is released via Big Dada on 5 Oct.

Thavius Beck will be touring the UK with Anti-Pop Consortium in December – dates TBA.

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