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Sango Is The New Prince of Alt-R&B

Sango joins artists like Kelela, Shlohmo, and Ryan Hemsworth in tearing down the walls between dance music and R&B.

"There's two motives to remixing," explains Sango. "You're remixing to pay homage or you're doing it to gain attention." And as an artist who gained a name for himself by releasing an album's worth of Weeknd remixes, he seems to be coming from both directions.

His More Balloons collection of remixes may have been a clever attention-grab for his new R&B album, North, but referencing the sounds that shaped him is at the root of his practice. Whether that be sampling the music of his youth, repurposing more recent influences, or re-envisioning entire genres through a new lens, his output has been a direct conversation with different eras, styles, and artists. He's produced EPs that placed his stamp on Latin music, introduced trap to baile funk, and made beat tapes based on aural memories of his childhood. Even North is a back-and-forth with the vocalists featured on it.


As the 21-year-old producer developed a sound for himself, he did so with the flat, forested backdrop of Western Michigan outside his window. "They don't force you to change here, which is good, but it's also pretty dry and doesn't offer much." The Ghostly camp was nearby in Anne Arbor, Toronto is a short drive away, and Detroit looms over all. But none of these can claim influence to Sango's output.

It was the Internet and his family ties that made Sango the producer he's become. He lived in Seattle until he was ten, so West Coast rap has always appealed to him. And his parents spent time in the South and listened to a lot of East Coast rap, which was how he was exposed to music from those regions. His grandfather also played in an Afro Cubano band, Sango tells me. "He was the only African American in the band. He passed the taste for Latin music down to the family." More contemporary inspirations range from Toro y Moi to Buraka Som Sistema and on to UK garage.

Despite this wide path, he's managed to circle around to a sound akin to many of his contemporaries in nearby Canada like Ryan Hemsworth, Kaytranada, and CFCF, who all combine R&B with sleek, forward-thinking electronic sounds. Another Canuck with similar tastes is Zodiac, an artist from the cornfields of Central Ontario who claims to have essentially conceptualized the Weeknd's dark R&B sound (without seeing a cent for it). His first solo EP dropped on the like-minded label Vase, which is based in Montreal.


Of course artists working in this field aren't limited to Canada, and a similar approach is taken by producers from the around the world. There's the UK's Lapalux and Holy Other, as well as France's Stwo.

A lot of these producers have been lumped into the alt-R&B category since they came up through the internet and appealed to different audiences from traditional R&B fans. Singers like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Miguel also get tied to the hashtag.

Although Sango sees it all as simply R&B, he takes no issues with the name and isn't offended if someone associates him with it: "R&B has always been alternative since Missy and Aaliyah, but now it's becoming darker and grungier with people talking about drugs. But I think it'll go through phases like R&B generally. I'm feeling it, but I'm not down with the dark stuff. I miss the stuff about relationships and how good they can be."

He does identify as something of an underground producer, however. "I'd love to break into the pop world," he says. "But I'd want it to sound like our music. Pop music is really just what is popular. But it's hard to get into that world without being told what to sound like. "

R&B and underground dance music have overlapped since Giovanni Moroder's prime. Whether it be 70s disco or 80s diva house, talented singers have been gracing big four-to-the-floor rhythms and analog synths since their early days of popularity. Juke and Jersey club remixes of R&B tunes have been a staple of the genres for a while now as well, since at least the early aughts, and still today. The only juke track to ever see a major label release was a Gant Man remix of Beyonce's "Check On It." Burial's 2007 single "Archangel" relied on a sample from Ray J's "One Wish."


By 2010, a strain of R&B-oriented "bass music" became prevalent. James Blake's "CMYK" sampled Kelis' "Caught Out There" and Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody." There were remixes of Ciara's "Deuces" by the likes of Nguzunguzu, Jacques Greene, and Dubbel Dutch that became staples at hipster hangouts, and Brenmar was busy remixing Cassie's "Me & You," as well as Groove Theory and Rihanna.

This group of R&B-worshipping underground dance music producers soon took the obvious next step and began working directly with vocalists. Rather than remixing R&B jams for dance floors within their particular scenes and subgenres, many of them set to writing songs that might sound more at home on daytime radio than at a warehouse rave. This year Shlohmo got up with Jeremih and How To Dress Well, Kingdom put Kelela on, and Katy B reached out to Greene.

Fade To Mind singer and Kingdom collaborator Kelela.

This is where Sango's North comes into play. The beats are less experimental—there's only a couple instrumentals—and vocal manipulation is at a minimum. But that was the point. "I wanted it to be more traditional. With a song that has vocals, I want to make sure that those vocals are heard. I want to be the producer and kind of fall back. But make up for my creativeness in different areas, like by adding a second part to a song where I chop it up. But the singer or rapper deserves the spotlight."

Producing for vocalists is nothing new to him. He was roped into production at 12 years old by his brother and his friends who were rappers and needed help with production. After that, his closest collaborator was the rapper Waldo. "I started with that mentality of working with artists," he says.


When Waldo was kicked out of high school and moved to New Mexico, Sango's direction dovetailed towards the instrumental side of things: "At that point I was like, 'I've got to do this on my own now.' That's when I decided I needed to come out with a beat tape. I was put on to FlyLo and these guys. Unfinished was my first one. I was also thinking about how these techno artists do that. They get paid and sell their albums without any vocals. So I wanted to do that." And his first few solo releases were just that: beat tapes. They sounded like instrumentals meant for vocalists. But a listener could definitely hear a foreshadowing of the current Sango. There were tracks that looked abroad to Africa and Brazil, an increasingly prominent use of bass and electronic aesthetics, and a writerly development.

But it wasn't until his first official EP, Trust Me, that he really came into his own. Although his samples still drew heavily from his forebears, his sound painted a vision of the future and found a place in today's world. He began zeroing in on a mood and atmosphere, while paying attention to songwriting concepts, sound quality, and the use of unique instrumentation. He cites being signed to the label Soulection as the spark for his progress. It was the motivation of being surrounded by like-minded artists, the direct input of label head Joe Kay (who still helps executive produce all his releases), and the introduction to a new world of artists that ignited the fire.

"Before then I was like hiding under a rock. I was always listening to more traditional stuff. I was listening to what was on the radio. Soulection really helped me tie down my and make sure it was heard as conceptual rather than just beats."

North may have been a singular achievement for him, since it was his first full-length release of all original material. But you can expect more experimentation and dialogue with different worlds in the future: "With a remix, it's not really your song to begin with, but you want to try and make it your own. Do I want to keep the same style using the stems, or do I want to treat it like a sample and make my own thing? When you're working with an artist and your own beats though, it's much more organic."

To put it in simpler terms, he says, "Remixing is much harder."

Mike Steyels developed a new organ that translates music into oxygen. - @iswayski