Photos by Kenny Rodriguez.
Eli Escobar's tracks reek of New York City. Not like the foul smell of rotting garbage or anything like that, but the ever-moving grind of the city that never sleeps—and a guy who's been there, awake the whole damn time. His debut album, aptly titled Up All Night, dropped in 2014 on the Night People label he runs with Blu Jemz, felt like a night on the town in the city he calls home—every kick and snare whisked like a zooming train car; sirens took you inside crowded city blocks, nostalgic samples brought you back in time to the classic clubs he came up in as a kid.
Now two years later, Escobar is dropping his long awaited follow up, Happiness, released on Defected and Classic, and the love for his city is still there—there's even samples recording on his iPhone while strolling through the East Village on a Spring afternoon. "It's always an influence somehow," Escobar says about the Big Apple's role in his music. Though, he's not entirely sure about the Mood II Swing references he's seen in reviews thus far, who could possibly hate that? "I guess to the outside ear, it sounds distinctively New York. I am totally ok with that by the way!" he admits.
A little more polished than the loose and retro vibe of his previous full-length, his new LP comes after two years in which the artist has been touring the world (most of the album were recorded on the road), remixing, and of course, still playing almost nightly in his hometown. The legacy of his heroes like Chaka Khan, who has a track named in her honor on the album, as well as a life obsessing over disco records, can be felt throughout, and it's a complete and exciting listen from front to back. Along with graciously allowing us to stream the entire album before its digital release tomorrow, we caught up with Eli for a chat below.
THUMP: Did you start working on the album directly following the release of Up All Night?
Eli Escobar: I think I started it right away. Or maybe a month after the first album came out. I was feeling really excited that I had managed to actually complete something more than an EP and was also feeling pretty satisfied with the sound of that record. I figured I should just keep going. The first three tracks I made are the first three you hear on the album, and made in that order actually. I think I may have made all three of them in the same weekend and they definitely have the most in common with the last album sonically. After that I started to try some different things out and ended up with about 24 songs after a year of work. The Defected guys and myself narrowed it down to 11 or 12.
Where did you record the LP and what's your studio method like. Are you a "lock yourself in a room for 3 days type of guy"?
I made it almost entirely on the road on planes, in hotel rooms and even on Amtrak ("Winter's Anthem" coming home from DC). My formula was basically to sample a ton of records at home and dump everything on to a drive and mess with it while I traveled. Once I had a song done or almost done, I'd bring it up at home and finish the mix down and sequencing.
Ten years ago, I scoffed at the idea of doing music on a computer. I still had my sampler, synths, and a big Roland mixing board. But I've learned to really get into keeping it simple. My record collection has taken up so much space that I've basically gotten rid of everything else or put it in storage. I kinda like being able to do everything I need to do with this tiny little laptop!
What did you learn from the release of your debut, and how exactly have your experiences since then shaped what we have now on Happiness?
Doing that album was very liberating. I think with dance music, we tend to think of each single we release in terms of "Is this gonna hit in the club?" or "Are DJ's gonna like this?" or "Should I put a break in this song?." Things like that. The answer to the last question, by the way, is always, "NO." For the album, I didn't consider any of these things. And of course everyone liked it better than anything else I've done. Perhaps the LP format was what I needed all along. And then you release singles from the album with remixes and whatever, but that's all an afterthought. Jeremy from A-1 told me one day, "Every time I play 'Seein' U' in the store, people come up to me and ask what it is." So boom, we decided to release that as a single. So it was way more of an organic thing. I didn't try to make a single, the single sort of showed up like "Hey, release me!"
When you were coming up in NYC going to clubs, buying records, what role did the album format play in your dancefloor education?
To be honest dance music albums were really not on my radar. The albums I really devoured were like the first two Jungle Brothers albums, the first Tribe album. All the late 80s and early 90s Hip Hop classics. Then I discovered stuff like Brass Construction and B.T. Express and Cymande. Fela and Gil Scott Heron. Those were the albums I was really all about. When it came to house music, it was 12 inches all the way. I remember when Daft Punk came out but only because my girlfriend at the time told me about them. I was like way more into Nuyorican Soul haha. So I think when it came time to make an album, I was really going for a collage vibe in the tradition of Paul's Boutique or whatever. Because that's my main reference.
How much NYC influence is in the new LP, and how so?
It's always an influence somehow. The interlude on the album has sounds I recorded with my iPhone one day walking by the schoolyard on 12th Street in the East Village. It was one of those perfect late Spring days and the kids sounded so happy, so I really wanted to capture that feeling.
Some reviews I've seen say the album sounds like Mood II Swing but I don't hear that at all. But that's the thing, a lot of times you're not aware that your environment or your influences are showing up in your art. Someone will write "Eli Escobar uses that classic New York percussion in all his beats" and I think to myself, "Wait doesn't everyone use percussion in their beats?"
Coming off the previous question, what's your take on the scene in New York right now? You've certainly seen it evolve over the years. Is it still a good (or even the best perhaps) place on earth to be a DJ, producer, clubber?
Man, I am feeling New York right now. There's Battle Hymn and House Of Yes and so much more. Every party I do here is so fun and you still get that vibe that's really hard to get anywhere else in the world. Last night I played Susanne Bartsch's party at Le Bain and at 4:15AM I was playing "Free Man" by South Shore Commission and people were just so in to it. I was thinking "Does it get better than this?" Despite what anyone might tell you, things are perfectly fine and healthy right now. Those of us who suffered through the 00s know dark times, let me tell you! Now I wouldn't take it on myself to tell anyone it's the best place on Earth to be because everyone is looking for something and they might not find it here. But I'd be hard pressed to imagine where that place would be.
This definitely feels like a house-focused album to me but I know you have a big heart for disco. The sound is certainly having a resurgence as of late. What's your take on that, and this crop of "crate diggers" that are getting a lot of attention.
I actually found house music through disco which I know is a little rare for someone my age. When I first started DJing I was pretty obsessed with buying every disco 12" that mattered. I even kept lists with me and a highlighter so whenever I found a record on one of my lists, I could scratch it off. I would go to Dance Tracks and Vinyl Mania every week and soon I realized house was just disco made with machines. And it all just became one thing to me. I guess you can hear that in my music. It seems like there's been a resurgence in the sound for a long time now so maybe it's just a here to stay thing at this point. The only thing that irritates me slightly, is the whole "out obscure the next DJ" way of playing. Nope, give me a classic Patti Labelle song any day and I'm good! I'm not too easily enchanted by some half assed disco record that I figure went by unnoticed for a reason.
What is it that you want people to take away from Happiness?
I would leave that up to them. I would hope it makes them feel something though. Doesn't have to be happy. Just something! Otherwise it's worthless, isn't it?
Happiness is released tomorrow on Defected. Grab your copy here.