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"City of God's Son" - Hip Hop History Gets Remixed [Interview]

<p>A feature-length gangster &#8220;sound film&#8221; composed out of iconic &#8217;90s rap song samples.</p>

by Julia Kaganskiy
Nov 10 2010, 9:21pm

City of God’s Son is a narrative musical concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard and, accordingly, it’s hard to describe. It’s a feature-length movie with no visuals. It’s part mixtape, part hip hop opera, part ganster flick, part tribute album. At it's core, it’s a combination of sounds, scenes, characters, dialogue and music, co-mingling to create a rich and textured soundscape that fills the dark spacious caverns of the mind with vibrant visuals of the "viewer's" own making.

The gripping “sound flim” from Kenzo Digital is what would happen if Girl Talk directed Scarface. Compiled from rap songs, film soundtracks, interviews and other stray bits of audio footage, the film weaves an intricate story line featuring seminal NYC rap stars and actors from the ’90s: Nas, Jay Z, Ghostface, Notorious B.I.G., Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson and narrated by R&B legend Joe Bataan.

It seems only fitting that hip hop’s sampling culture should be turned on its head in this way, yielding a feature-length remix of the genre’s history and the history of some of it’s biggest stars. Kenzo Digital describes the film as a “beat cinematic”—a Greek tragedy told through the lens of '90s NY hip hop. The film is both a love letter to the genre—capturing the greatness of what hip hop used to be—and a critique of the hubris-inflated gangsta cliche it has become. But more than anything, it’s an entertaining and enthralling hour-long listening experience.

Alright, alright. Enough with the hype. You can download the film for free here (Kenzo released it under Creative Commons licensing, which seems only fair given all those samples he’s using!).

We sat down with Kenzo Digital to find out a bit more about this new experimental storytelling format and what went into the making of City of God’s Son:

How did you come up with the idea for City Of God's Son [COGS]?
Kenzo Digital: I was a DJ in high school, but I never really got into music production. I used to do mixtapes and in the intros I’d use a simpler version of this process to tell little stories and have little skits. This is a movie I wanted to make in high school, but I wanted it to be a serious movie and I was just a kid. So when I got older, I revisited the idea, but by that time all the imagery around hip hop culture was corny, gangsta, whack shit. That kinda turned me off to the visuals of it. I came to the idea that it was actually better to do it without [visuals] because that would be more of a commentary. The imagery associated with this music is so played out that it’s a cliche. It’s better for you to visualize these things on your own to get the perfect image.

How did you go about creating the sound film? Where did all the samples come from?
I had a bunch of a capella records from when I was a DJ, so I produced a bunch of music and used the a capella records to put verses to tell the story and kind of just did this intricate weaving of story and music and story through music. A lot of the process for this sample-wise was combining real with fake. So there’s a lot of sampled ambient sound combined with real shit, recorded in the streets or in different rooms. Sometimes I would have the speakers of the dialogues recorded in real space to kind of capture it, so it’s almost like using the microphone as a camera in an attempt to maintain that physical space. It’s recorded in bi-normal audio so it’s in 3D, it records audio exactly how the human ear would pick it up, so it's very immersive.

Since you’re using pretty iconic characters (Nas, Jay-Z, Ghostface), how do the film’s story line and the actual history of these people intersect?
The way I look at it is you have three parallel timelines or stories. You have actual hip hop history, what actually happened to these people, you have the musical history, and then you have the story [of the film]. At different points they kind of intertwine. Even down to kind of a molecular level, like the samples I picked for certain songs, those are all from film scores where in that specific scene, the character is a parallel to the rapper who’s playing a character in COGS. It’s all kind of threaded in that way. All of the samples mean something and some of them have a multi-level meaning in terms of reference and context.

What are your plans for COGS?
This is part one of a trilogy. The way I’m looking at it, this is kind of building a different kind of storytelling style. As the story progresses, I’m going to switch to different characters' point of views. So there’s one that’s from Nas’s point of view, then someone else’s. It’ll kind of expand upon that basic language of an audio story in audio space and further abstract the music. And each one will have different sensory deprivation. I’d some funding for the second two projects so I can set aside some time to work on them, but I don’t really even want to start part two until one of the artists from part one hears this thing.

Why is sensory deprivation a key component to this work?
I think there’s a lot of distractions. To get to a pure story in something that’s kind of experimental and different, I think you need tremendous focus on one thing. If you get too many things, people are going to kind of get lost in what they naturally gravitate towards, so this is a way to drag that to one focal point that I can more clearly define if I strip everything else out. That’s why I like it. In darkness you get less aware of your body and then it’s purely cerebral.

Watch the trailer above to get a taste and then DOWNLOAD THE FILM FOR FREE HERE. For the best listening experience, get yourself some nice headphones (not those cheap iPod earbuds) and a blindfold, sit back and relax for an hour.