"I Pretty Much Grew Up Going To Sun Ra's House": an Interview With Fhloston Paradigm
How Hyperdub's latest LP takes in Afrofuturism and 'The Fifth Element' to create something out of this world.
This article was originally published in THUMP UK
As cult UK label Hyperdub celebrates its 10th birthday this summer, even a cursory look back through the years shows up some of the most forward-thinking electronic music of recent times. No hyperbole, honest. In a year where techno provocateur Laurel Halo, the now late footwork legend DJ Rashad, Canadian R&B newcomer Jessy Lanza and conceptual artist Fatima Al Qadiri (to name only a few) have released stellar full lengths, Hyperdub's pedigree of experimentation is Rottweiler-strong. No pressure then for the man behind the next LP from the camp, Fhloston Paradigm.
Though his first release with Hyperdub was his debut EP in 2012, Fhloston Paradigm is only one moniker of King Britt, and you'd need more than a cursory glance to take him in. From DJing in early 90s Philadelphia, King Britt joined legendary jazz and hip hop outfit Digable Planets and then spent the next 20 years releasing ambitious slabs of funk, jazz and hip hop - until finding a new home at Hyperdub with The Phoenix. Inspired by science fiction and Afrofuturism, it's a fascinating, often disorientating journey through the mind of a man who, like his hero Sun Ra, may just be from another space and time.
Read our interview below, and check this exclusive insight into The Phoenix in the form of a visual album mini-mix.
THUMP: I'd like to start with the concept of Afrofuturism, which is pervasive in your work. I think new listeners to you may not be familiar with the term and its concepts. Afrofuturism encompasses so many topics - global capitalism, racial identity, technoculture, the black experience, its relationship with science fiction - that its scope and language can be quite daunting. That, and it's still relatively young, in academic terms. How would you describe Afrofuturism?
Fhloston Paradigm: Well, I recently helped to curate a whole day centred around Afrofuturism in todays context, at NYC's MoMA PS1. I had Natasha Womack, Dr Alondra Nelson, Hank Shocklee and Ursula Rucker as part of a panel discussion, and then we had performances from Ras G, High Priest from Anti Pop Consortium and Shabazz Palaces.
The whole idea was to answer that question. Everyone keeps asking me what Afrofuturism is, and why is it just coming out, but Afrofuturism as an idea has been around for far longer than the academic study of it. I mean, I pretty much grew up in Sun Ra's house.
You knew Sun Ra? You're kidding.
Fhloston Paradigm: Yeah, for real. We used to live in Philly and my mom was friends with him.
That's insane. For the sake of a timeline here, how old were you?
Fhloston Paradigm: I was about 5 years old. I'm 45 now. We used to go to his rehearsals and I'd see these guys in costumes, hear weird sounds – I really thought they were super heroes.
That must have left such an imprint on your mind.
Fhloston Paradigm: Exactly. I didn't really understand it as a kid, but as I got older - embraced Funkadelic, dived into Detroit techno, krautrock from Germany – it really opened my mind to sound. The first time I ever saw and heard a Moog synthesiser was at Sun Ra's house. The first time I touched one, too. Owen Brown, who used to play with Sun Ra, had a Memory Moog. I touched it and I thought, "Wow, you can make any sound with this?" I've always gravitated to music that exemplified that sort of sound.
So what of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism do you keep with you today?
Fhloston Paradigm: Sun Ra said that he was from outer space, and I really believe that. He was the first one that took the context of science fiction, and apply it to black people in America. He spoke of alienation within our own country, and trying to get out of this hypnotic funk that programmed us to act a certain way. "You're black, so you must like this". Afrofuturism is a hope, a hope for an alternative to how life is here on earth. You can still apply it to the now – you just have to change your trajectory.
How do you think these ideas can and do speak to young black people now, and the lives they lead?
Fhloston Paradigm: Well - let's use Janelle Monae and Beyoncé as examples. You have Beyoncé, who I love and who's great, but she has a mainstream aesthetic that most young black girls look to as a role model. She's a business machine. She's taken over by the capitalist ideals of achievement and stardom.
Janelle Monae on the other hand is, yes, in the mainstream, but her background is a lot different. Her mind set is the perfect example of someone who's been tapped by Afrofuturism - maybe without even knowing it. She says that growing up in Atlanta - with Funkadelic and Outkast, reading Octavia Butler, embracing Basquiat - influenced the way she carries herself. That's someone affected by what was going on in the alternate black universe, bringing it into todays context, and then into the mainstream.
Well, Janelle envelopes ideas of Afrofuturism and re-packages them as pop - which, in her own way, cements the idea that the pop star begins with concept rather than personality. A possible point of difference here could be that an artist like Beyoncé as a pop brand is personality-led, and Janelle is concept-led. Not to say that one identity is inherently more intelligent or worthwhile than the other, but Janelle (in your mind) has this sense of conviction?
Fhloston Paradigm: Exactly, that's exactly it. When we talk about Funkadelic, Parliament and Sun Ra, the whole concept of being from outer space - I don't even want to say "package". It was just the way they saw the world. It has been packaged since, of course, but there are thought patterns within that transcend all of that. It really penetrates young peoples minds, especially visually.
Many have been abducted by the sensationalism of being a superstar. Not just young blacks, either. Young people have been abducted by false ideas. It's more of a classist thing that a race thing for me now; selling drugs, going with the formula of acting a fool on YouTube to get on TV, becoming famous for a hot minute. That is symbolic of mind abduction. Some say that social networks have closed peoples minds, but I think that, when used in the right way, you can find different worlds. Alternatives.
Where are these models of the alternative for us now?
Fhloston Paradigm: Kanye is the man. I don't think hes that great a rapper – he's definitely a great producer – but he works with concepts that are re-fashioned from the underground in such a way that hes really changing the way young people think.
I saw the 'New Slaves' projection in Glasgow last year. It was fascinating, seeing this monolithic face booming words that I hear nearly every day on rap records, but never in such a stark context. It was really confrontational.
Fhloston Paradigm: Well, Saul Williams is definitely the direct influence on that song. His work with Trent Reznor opened up a lot of minds musically. Kanye took that aesthetic and ran it into the mainstream. For someone that mainstream to make a record like Yeezus is very powerful.
Okay, so I need to diverge and ask you about one track in particular, 'Tension Remains'. When I first heard it, I immediately thought of the scene in The Fifth Element, where the opera singer performs and dies. Then, on digging, I realised that your name is a twist on the same of the spaceship in The Fifth Element. What's your interest in that film? There's plenty of examples of science fiction cinema influencing electronic music, but The Fifth Element is pretty kitsch.
Fhloston Paradigm: I love science fiction, especially Blade Runner and Dune, but The Fifth Element - yeah, it's kitsch, but it's really clever. The scene where Leeloo downloads the images of how our corrupt and awful our world is.... it was an amazing movie. Powerful, but in a digestable form.
Musically though, it was that scene. It's so powerful. I had this yearning to work with an opera singer after I saw it, and it turns out a woman that I'm friends with, who lives just down the street from me, happened to be an opera singer. But she never pursued it. She went to Julliard but didn't finish. She hated the restrictions of classical music, and became a DJ instead. We never knew she sang until a friend told me in passing. She said she'd wanted to sing operatic vocals over electonic music like that for years, but had never found anyone who wanted to work with her. It was pretty perfect, really.
I've been trying to figure out the album and, maybe ironically, I figured out that there's no point trying to figure it out. It feels as if it's working on a tandem of uncertainty, and being assured of that uncertainty. The rhythms, the melodies, the way that speech and language is used - it's like, "I don't know what the sound is doing, but I know that I have to trust that you know what you're doing".
Fhloston Paradigm: Exactly! Exactly. You just hit it on the nose. When doing this record, I went back in time. The process of using old synthesisers in a way that's not like todays midi. I used it in the 80s way, live sequencing like Depeche Mode and bringing it into todays software.
Old technology was never perfect, so the rhythms and timing are off. Everything now is so "on", so "perfect", that the Top 10 is just algorithms. To use a process of "primitive" means is compartively futuristic. I went back to the future. So there's a confidence there, because I know what im doing with the uncertainty. I feel you though. It's so hard not to pick music apart.
It's like admitting defeat, right.
Fhloston Paradigm: I can't listen to music without taking it apart. I'm starting to limit that but as a DJ, it's hard not to do it. I'm glad you let go. The album is about letting go.
Okay, so back to science fiction. What's the music appeal of sci fi cinema for you?
Fhloston Paradigm: It's the thing for me. It's the communication of atmosphere. The possibility of the impossible.
The music's a character, too.
Fhloston Paradigm: When I was writing the album, I would take a lot of my favourite movie scenes and re-score them. The basics of The Pheonix are re-scores of my favourite sci fi scenes. The rain scene in Blade Runner? That's what inspired 'Tension Remains', as well as The Fifth Element. It was the drone, the synth rhythm... it's like a clock, because his time was running out. I needed a visual grasp, so that's what I used to get the process going.
So the opera scene in The Fifth Element, that influenced the same track right? Did you re-score that too....?
Fhloston Paradigm: No no, that scene was more of an idea in my head for the vocals.
So this re-scoring is more about finding influences, that going through an exercise?
Fhloston Paradigm: Yeah. That's the beauty of analogue synths, though. It takes no time to make your own sound.
Finally - your first release as Fhloston Paradigm was in 2012, again on Hyperdub. Why did you return to the label for the LP?
Fhloston Paradigm: Hyperdub is the be all and end all of labels for me. They take chances, they're not afraid and all the music is very forward-thinking. The way Kode9's mind works is amazing. It's a cult label, like when Warp started. Hyperdub allows you the freedom to do whatever you want, because Steve trusts your ability to take sound to another place.
Fhlotson Paradigm - The Pheonix is released on Hyperdub on June 7th.