Out of a generation savvy in the ways of digital music production and sampling comes Hot Sugar, a producer who has the ability to spot music in every sound he hears. His songs, composed of dense and unpredictable sequences of intricate melodies laid over hard hip-hop beats, have an indescribable organic quality that arise from his sound sources—instruments, toys, antiques, broken electronics, skulls and bones, Hurricane Irene, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In Hot Sugar’s world, everything that creates sound, intentionally or inadvertently, is fair game.
Late in 2011, Hot Sugar was picked up by Ninja Tune records, which will soon release his EP Moon Money, the follow up to his previous independent release Muscle Milk. His meticulous craft, the ideals behind his process, and his unusual interpretations of contemporary musical styles fit in perfectly with the Ninja roster, alongside innovators like Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, and Daedelus.
On top of that, Hot Sugar continues to work on his personal projects producing for up-and-coming MCs, working with film, and collaborating with creative types that fit his ilk. We caught up with him to find out more about his approach to sampling, his upcoming collaborations, and the intrinsic value of musical playthings.
The Creators Project: Can you describe your approach to sampling audio, specifically the technique you describe as Associative Music?
Hot Sugar: Associative Music is a play on Pavlov’s studies in Associative Learning. As he proved in his famous experiment, we not only develop psychological responses to recurring sounds, but ultimately physical ones—When Pavlov rang his bell to signal dinner for his dog, the dog not only responded psychologically (predicting that the bell implied food) but also physically, since the dog would start to drool.
We come across countless sounds in our daily routines or lives that our minds either consciously or subconsciously acknowledge. For example, if you live in a city and take the bus to work every morning, the sounds of that bus may come to evoke a reoccurring mood you experience every morning when preparing for work. If you live in the suburbs and your neighbors only get their lawns cut during the weekend, the distant sound of lawnmowers might trigger the meditative peace of the weekend.
The aim of Associative Music is to sample these environmental sounds, but disguise them in melodies and rhythms (so as not to attract attention to their origins) in hopes of provoking a visceral reaction from the audience.
At the same time, it’s important for the sounds to be disguised because we’re slightly more developed than dogs and as soon as the audience is focusing on the environmental sound being used, they can confront their feelings towards it and ultimately affect an otherwise primal response to it. As a result, I advocate that the best way to use those sounds is in the context of a musical composition.
Any sound can be mapped out to a sampler keyboard and performed like any other synthesizer (as in transposed to every key with different pitches). I’ve recorded hundreds of sounds from around the world that I’ve transformed into keyboard patches. The same goes for drum and percussion sounds. I try to make sure that my audience can focus primarily on the compositions I play rather than the origin of the sounds used to make them. Once they’re distracted by my melodies, the sounds should sink in and provoke them (maybe even make them drool…).
You’re known to use a lot of unusual sample sources. Can you tell us some of the weirdest things you’ve sampled to use as drums? Melody?
I think people have responded most strongly to the human skulls (and other miscellaneous bones) I recorded last year. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say about that, considering it was both illegal and arguably in poor taste. I recorded a list of combinations (femurs tapping on skulls, ribs and tibias on hip bones, etc) and used them all on Moon Money. If you hear what may sound like a clap, rimshot, or woodblock in any of my songs, it’s actually the sound of bones smacking together, and sometimes cracking open, in a subterranean cemetery.
Other than that, I made huge kick drums out of a rat’s heartbeat, a snare drum out of the sound of me being painfully electrocuted, and an 808 type sub-bass from the guttural humming of an 86-yr old, fully tattooed man with emphysema.
Do you ever use stock sounds? Patches or breaks? Or was there a time that you did?
I don’t use stock computer synths. I sometimes use the stock patches on cheap and neglected toy keyboards (for a deliberately lo-fi sound), but I’m not really interested in computer VSTs. There’s just no point anymore. I can make drums or a keyboard patch out of literally any sound in the world so I don’t feel right limiting myself to stock synths or VSTs. Using stock synths/breaks is like painting by the numbers—you’ll end up with a colorful painting, but your painting will look a lot like everyone else’s that used the same kit. That will never be the case with my music. If you weren’t there on 14th St. & Avenue C at 4 AM, throwing bottles against the Con Edison power plant last week, how’s your snare ever going to sound like mine?
Your studio is littered with toys. Which ones are your favorite? Any new ones you’re excited about?
I love all of them. Weirdly enough, my new favorite is my upright piano someone gave me last year. Before that, I used to go on craigslist or antique piano websites and search for the most expensive pianos in NYC. I’d find some historic, museum quality Steinways & Pleyels, etc, from the 1800s that were upwards of $100,000 and go visit them with my portable tape recorder. The vendors were always aggressive and suspicious since I didn’t look like I had a hundred grand in my pocket, so I’d lie to them and tell them that a new recording studio was opening up downtown and looking for a centerpiece piano. I’d pretend that said imaginary studio was interested in the piano and had sent me to record each note individually with my recorder so the bosses could "hear how it would sound in a studio environment." At that point, they’d let me sit there and record their amazing pianos as I pleased (since they never anticipated those recordings would go anywhere). It was fun because I was basically hustling free studio time in museums playing antique pianos (heard on Muscle Milk), but that also got pretty stressful.
You’ve got a pretty unusual method of amplification when recording electronic instruments. Could you describe what you use and how you use it?
I used to have a guitar amp but it blew up. I didn’t even like it though. I run a lot of my equipment through cheap boomboxes instead of amps since they were never really meant for that, and I like hearing equipment struggle.
You’re currently working on a project with Aaron Livingston. You guys just did a song with The Roots. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Aaron and I have been working on this duo project called Young Vipers for a couple of years now and we’re getting ready to release some stuff very soon. We made a couple of demos last year and they leaked around the industry. The Roots got a hold of them and used one of the demos as the opening track on their album Undun. It was easily the most flattering moment of my career so far. I made that beat on an old Casio at four AM on my bed, with no intent of it going anywhere beyond my Soundcloud. Then a few months later, it was a single off the number one rap album in the country. I can’t wait to put out our whole record.
You’ve produced for some great and unusual MCs like Paul Barman, Louis Logic, and J-Zone. What’s your next MC collaboration? What MCs would you love to produce for?
I’ve been working with Big Baby Gandhi (of Das Racist affiliation). He’s one of the most unique characters I’ve encountered in rap. I’m a big fan of his. I also gave one of my favorite beats to Open Mike Eagle, and he’s perfect on it. There are lots of people I’d want to work with, but my number one might have to be Slick Rick.
You’re newest release Moon Money is due out on Ninja Tune soon. Has your sound changed since Muscle Milk? Your process?
Since Muscle Milk was my first release, I was more nervous and wanted to showcase my versatility. I used a lot of bizarre equipment and recording procedures (like microwaving cassette tapes after recording stuff to them), but each track was a separate entity. Moon Money maintains a semblance of narrative and unity in mood throughout it. I’ve also been a lot more focused on Associative Music lately, so the sounds I sourced have a lot more context behind them.
An interesting aspect of your persona is that you’re dating Tumblr sensation Molly Soda, and you recently did a track and a video with her called “Last X-mas” (above) that got a ton of views. How did “Last X-mas” come about? Any future musical collaborations planned with her?
I stumbled upon a keytar that plays “Last Christmas” as its official demo, and I’m really into the demos and accompaniments on cheap keyboards. Since demos are designed to showcase the capabilities of the keyboard, they generally cycle through all the tones and rhythms mid-song with no sense of nuance or tact. “Last Christmas” is one of Molly’s favorite songs, and given that the demo version of “Last Christmas” was an obnoxious assault of synthetic tones, I thought it would be funny to reflect it visually with a tornado of kawaii 8-bit GIFs (evoking those certain facets of the internet, specifically tumblr, that Molly is known in). We recorded Molly’s vocals on her laptop’s webcam microphone too. Video artist Matt Kliegman edited the GIFs together and made it a disorienting visual epic that half of the youtube viewers are still somewhat confused about. Matt and Molly also helped make the upcoming music video for the first single off of Moon Money.
In terms of future musical projects with Molly though, I’m not sure yet, but we collaborate on all types of things literally everyday, (computer art, zines, photos, etc) so if something pops up and we get inspired, then we’ll probably do it.