SAMMUS • RAPPER/PRODUCER
Cleverness is cool, but is my voice and message loud and clear?
June 17, 2017
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete
We’ve talked briefly about the meaning behind your stage name, a reference to the protagonist of Metroid, Samus Aran. For those who aren’t familiar, what does she represent to you? What role have video games played in your life?
One of the many interesting aspects of Metroid is that players don’t discover what Samus looks like until they beat the game because she’s wearing cybernetic armor throughout. I remember getting to the end of the game as a kid and realizing that this character was a woman. I was shocked, a response that forced me to question my developing assumptions about gender. I was also pretty excited to discover Samus’ identity because at that time there were very few playable women characters in most video games. It made me feel a little less weird for being a gamer. When I got older and starting producing beats I recall a few men asking me who made my beats for me and even pushing back when I told them it was me. I felt like there was an element of surprise when they learned that I am a producer - in the same way that people who played Metroid had to deal with their own gendered assumptions about women and technical prowess when they discover Samus’ identity. That’s why I picked this name.
As far as the role that videogames play in my life, they are a big part of the reason why I make music. As a kid I fell in love with video-game music so much so that I started making music on the computer partially in the hopes of eventually scoring a video game soundtrack. Lately they have served a more therapeutic purpose. When I’m feeling very overwhelmed, I will often play a videogame that I know pretty well in order to reestablish some kind of control in my life.
You're a “rapper, producer and PhD candidate in that order.” How have these practices informed or affected each other over the last few years as you’ve progressed in both areas?
It took a while for me to be able to organize these parts of my life in that order mostly because for a long time I felt very reluctant to claim my identity as a rapper. Many of the rappers I meet are people who have lived and breathed hip-hop since they were kids whereas I found my voice in hip-hop much later in life. I suffered deeply from imposter syndrome as far as being a “proper” MC. However as I’ve matured and I’ve seen more people referring to me as a “lyricist” the more I’ve been able to own that this is a thing that I can do as well as I can do the other things. It’s made me much more confident, which has led to me talking more openly about my life, my experiences as a Black woman and a geek and a feminist and a PhD student.
My personal interest in music has definitely informed my PhD work. For my dissertation research I am studying the politics of community-based music studios, a project that I began pursuing because of my personal relationship with a local music studio in Ithaca. More broadly I’ve taught classes and presented papers on topics within sound studies, a relatively young field that stands at the intersection of a variety of different disciplines to make sense of how we understand sound in society materially and metaphorically. I only became aware of sound studies because of my personal interests in music, which in turn informed my academic interests, and I have since connected with other scholars and artists who are engaged in work within the field.
On the flipside, it’s been really interesting seeing the ways that my status as a producer/rapper has opened up new spaces for me in the academic world. For example, I’ve had the opportunity to give talks as a musician and scholar at a few different universities over the past year as well as visit classes at Cornell on songwriting and hip-hop controversies. It’s neat being viewed as an expert in something that I came to outside of any academic interest because I’m not invested in doing the things that would be required for me to be viewed as an expert in the academic world--namely going to conferences, and publishing papers. It feels great to know that this body of musical work I’ve been producing can in some case hold the same weight as a published paper or a book. It’s made me think differently about how I might remain attached to the academy even after I finish my PhD and pursue music more fully.
Finally it’s been neat hearing from a few professors that they’ve used my songs to teach critical theory in their classes. This has informed the way that I write and think about my music. Whereas before I really focused on the technical aspects of songwriting like how many words I could rhyme within a particular stanza or how clever I could be with my lyrical references, I think I’m now more invested in making sure my point is understood. Cleverness is cool, but is my voice and message loud and clear?
How did you start producing? What tools are you using to make your tracks?
When I was a kid, my older brother taught me some basic music theory based on what he learned from piano practice, namely what scales are and how chords work. He later taught me how to play a few chords on the guitar, which helped me to recognize that the same principles apply from one instrument to the next. My parents bought us a keyboard so I used some of the pre-recorded drum loops and my nascent knowledge about music to compose a few songs (really hoping I can find those tapes someday). They weren’t particularly complex songs, but it was an important experience for me in terms of exploring the songwriting process, with all of its ups and downs. When I was in high school my older brother got a laptop and showed me how to use the digital audio workstation (music production software) Reason. Unfortunately I don’t remember too much about the software itself because the last time I used Reason was about 10 years ago, but I do remember that I composed tracks in a way that’s similar to many other production software programs. Reason is set up with a keyboard along the side of the screen, and space to lay multiple tracks so that when you hit play or record, the player moves from left to right. At the time I didn’t have a midi keyboard, so I usually pointed and clicked my songs out using the mouse. I would often hum out a melody that I’d thought of and then replicate it in Reason, building a song around it by layering different tracks. For the drums I recall using the “Redrum” sampler, which is just an in-program drum machine that allows the user to try out different drum loops.
In high school I also played the Playstation video game MTV Music Generator,which functioned largely like Reason or other daws although it didn’t allow me to export any of the tracks I made. By the time I got to college, I was interested in making sample-based hip hop beats because I heard Kanye West for the first time. I switched gears to using GarageBand because it was free and it's a program that allows for easy sampling of tracks. Now I'm using the program Logic paired with a midi-keyboard.
Could you describe your workflow for someone who wants to start making beats/tracks but isn’t sure where to start?
If the song is sample based, I generally start with the sample. With Logic, you can drag, drop, and manipulate any WAV file that’s on your computer. So if there’s a part of a song I really want to sample, I will convert it into WAV form or if I already have the WAV, drop it in Logic. This creates a new track for the sample. Then I’ll isolate the part that I’m interested in sampling using the cutting function, discard the rest of the track, copy the sample snippet, paste it back-to-back, and loop the sample. Based on the sample I’ll then set the BPM of the track (the pace of the track). Or I might experiment and change the pitch of the sample.
Working with a sample is nice sometimes because it already has its own structure that you can use to build the rest of the song. Once I have the BPM down, and the sample looped in a way that feels good to me, I move on to drums, followed by bass, melodic embellishments. Most daws contain their own libraries of sounds, but I have a number of different drum kits and sounds that have been given to me over the years by friends and other musicians. Over the years I’ve found some go-to sounds that I keep in a special folder. I have a small USB-based midi keyboard that I use in order to try out different drum-beats while the sample is playing before I settle on one. Then once I have it down, I will record myself playing the drum beat. I may or may not go back and edit the drums that I record -- the amount of editing depends on the aesthetic I want. Sometimes I want it to sound more “human” so I’ll leave in little idiosyncrasies in timing. Other times I’ll go back and line up the drum and snare exactly to fall on each measure more precisely. And if I’m in transit I’ll kind of point and click my way through an entire piece of production rather than using a midi keyboard--creating a separate track for drums, kicks, snares, and hats and then dragging and dropping and copying and pasting drum sounds where I want them to go.
I use pretty much the same process for the other parts of the song, like the bassline and melodic embellishments. I’ll play something out on the midi keyboard, record it, and more often than not will have to go back and edit what I played in the program. I should also note that while I love working with Logic, it’s my understanding that Ableton Live is probably a better choice for those who are seeking to manipulate samples. At this point I use Logic because I understand it so well, but I’m hoping to learn more about Ableton this summer.
My best advice for someone just starting out with production is that you shouldn’t be afraid to emulate the people who inspire you. We often learn through imitation -- I “tried on” a number of different styles before I found myself. Only after years and years of making songs do I finally feel like I have something that resembles a coherent and distinct sound. It takes time to get there.
Who are your favorite artists and producers?
I’m really into the artist Moor Mother who is also on Don Giovanni Records. I love the way she’s able to bend and cross so many genres with her work. I love her incorporation of field recordings into her music, it’s made me think about capturing and using sound differently in my own work. She’s truly a genius. I love her passionate performances and I’m inspired by the important community work she does with organizations like Black Quantum Futurism collective and Girls Rock Philly.
Your most recent LP Pieces in Space was released on one of my favorite labels, Don Giovanni. Do you have any wisdom for independent artists seeking label support or considering a label partnership for the first time?
Oh boy, I have lots to share! I would say that you if you’re interested in working with a label, it’s a good idea to have conversations and perform quite a bit with other artists on that label. That will give you a sense of what the label is about beyond what a website says or what you perceive of an artist’s success. Additionally it will be an opportunity for whoever is running the label you’re interested in to see you perform. As far as Don Giovanni goes, I’m fairly certain that none of the artists have partnered with the label just based off a demo being sent in-- so really get out there, make connections and start performing. My partnership with Don Giovanni Records happened fairly organically largely because I was already supporting/supported by many of the bands on the roster.
I would also say it’s really important to ask yourself what a label can do for you that you can’t or don’t want to do yourself. Before working with Don Giovanni, I knew I wanted to reach new audiences that still shared my politics. I was also tired of taking on the entire cost and labor of shooting music videos, promoting, ordering merch, and everything else that goes into being a working musician. Finally, I knew that if I worked with a label I wanted to have the flexibility to work with other artists or labels without a whole bunch of legal entanglements. When I considered all these things, it was clear that DG was the best home for me.
If you do end up working with a label, I would say that it’s really important for you to have a plan about what you want the label to do for you and once you’re on one to be unafraid to ask for the moon. The worst that can happen is that there aren’t enough resources to support your idea, but you won’t know until you ask. I’ve always had a difficult time asking, so this is something I’m trying to get myself to do more.
When you came through Pittsburgh on tour, you mentioned that your jam-packed tour extending from New York to SXSW and back was all taking place within the span of your spring break week. How do you practice self-care and self-preservation on tour considering your rigorous schedule?
One thing that I learned on my very first tour was to schedule in rest-days. At this stage I don’t have to tour in order to sustain myself, and because of that I think I have some flexibility around how much I'm on the road. I know myself, and I know that I probably couldn't handle a 6 or 7 week tour because of how much I value being at home. This year I really only toured one time and I was away from home for 2-3 weeks at the most. And sometimes I’ll use bigger shows or festivals as an opportunity to take a little vacation. For example, for the past two years at SXSW my boyfriend has come down to Austin join me - that allows me to get out of the mindset that touring is work.
Your lyrics often discuss embodying multiple realities- one example being the chorus of “Mighty Morphing." How do you feel about the genres labels often associated with your work?
In principle I’m pretty resistant to the idea of genre labels but I also recognize how they can be used strategically. When I first started releasing music as Sammus I remember people kept referring to my work as “nerdcore,” a subgenre of hip hop that engages with “geek culture” (which, to this day, I’m not entirely certain what geek culture really is). I was really annoyed that I was suddenly being lumped in with other artists who didn’t reflect my unique sound or my politics, and I saw it as a major reduction of all of the things I’m trying to do in my music. I also know that the designation of my music as nerdcore has opened many doors for me and allowed me to connect with people I might not have been able to if my music were simply seen as indie hip-hop. For example, I have been invited to perform at a number of different videogame conventions and before I was working with Don Giovanni Records I performed at SXSW as part of the official nerdcore showcase. Redbull recently featured me in a new series that explores video games and culture -- an opportunity I never would have had if I were framed as an indie rapper.
Still, it is something I try to challenge knowing that labels are inevitable. Most recently I’ve tried labeling myself and shifting people’s perception from viewing my video-game inspired tracks as nerdcore to being afrofuturistic because I think there is a relationship to my Blackness that is lost when it’s simply framed as nerdcore. So far, I think a few folks are catching on.
What’s coming up for you in the second half of 2017?
This summer I’m moving to Philadelphia with my boyfriend and working on new music! Now that the semester is over I’ve decided to spend the next few months completely committing myself to music and sustaining myself on my art, which is something I’ve never had the opportunity or confidence to try before. When fall comes back around I will also be working on my dissertation and hopefully wrapping that up by year’s end. Maybe somewhere in there I'll sprinkle in some touring too.