Seasoned hip hop producers Gone Beyond and Mumbles have issued an album for their ten-years-in-the-making project, Notes From The Underground. Borne out of their participation in a 2007 concert series titled The Pravda, the project saw the producers incorporating the works of Stalin-era Russian composers into their beats. An artistic commentary on the ability of the human spirit to overcome oppression, the album was recently released by Los Angeles imprint The Content Label, with listeners entranced — and made introspective — by the seamless fusion of old and new.
Curious about the process and inspirations behind this release, we sent some questions to Gone Beyond and he graciously provided us with much detail on the project. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Had you heard any of this Russian music before this project? What were your first impressions?
Gone Beyond: My first encounter with Russian classical music as an artist began in the ‘90s when I sampled Charles Mingus’s “All the Things You C#” for a record I produced in 1998 called Dabadawikidumdum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it had borrowed the main theme of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C#”. But the real education came through the research we embarked upon for Notes From The Underground. We spent an extensive period seeking out and sifting through the majority of works from Stalin-era Russian composers, including the lesser-known pieces and variations. During this process, I feel I was a bit more musically capable of understanding and appreciating the brilliance, deep emotive expression, and general musical genius that went into each of these expressive compositions, not to mention a better appreciation for the conductors and musicians playing these complex, heart wrenching, and fluid compositions.
Was the idea of the project — working with these classical pieces — intimidating at all?
Gone Beyond: We embarked upon the project from an artistic and historical angle. Our goal was to take a snapshot of the emotional state, expressed in the music, which directly related to the social distress and political ruin of the Soviet Union under Stalin. We wanted to paint that picture in an accessible way for a modern audience, that may otherwise have little connection with Russian classical music, and weave samples and motifs together in a way that classical aficionados would also understand and appreciate the points of reference. There is an intensity to the majority of the original compositions, which if listened to on repeat for hours upon hours, for months and years, seats you vicariously in the emotional state the composers were experiencing. In that respect, it was very challenging being a medium to that channel this.
What I do find intimidating is the potential for history to repeat itself. The life circumstances of these composers, ruled by an authoritarian dictator who called dissenting press “the enemy of the people,” who controlled the unchecked propaganda of The Pravda, and the genocide that took place didn’t happen overnight. It was never our intention for this music to have any current socio-political relevance, and the fact that it does is intimidating and alarming to me. The heartbreaking sense of turmoil, disparity, and the strength it takes to overcome such social hardships through endurance, art, and expression was a major impetus for the composers who lived under the shadow of Stalin, and that fortitude is seemingly becoming more relevant.
Working so intimately with the compositions stirred up an internal process, similar to how an actor may become affected by a particular role they play off-screen. I connected with the composers and the music in a way I would have likely never connected with if we hadn’t approached this project the way we did. Overall, the foreboding and ominous grit with subtle hints towards hope and resolve feels more relevant now than it did ten years ago.
Did you approach Notes From The Underground differently from your previous joint releases?
Gone Beyond: Yes. Originally, the majority of the music was created specifically for a live performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a week-long event titled The Pravda: The Shadow Of Stalin in 2007. The theme was centered around the music Of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and the impact Stalin had on the composers' lives and music. We included Rachmaninov on the album because although he had left the Soviet Union for America, he was never able to return to Russia due to war and chaos. There was a limited time frame to create tracks for the performance, and the theme was clearly defined. We tailored the music for the performance, to be accompanied by visuals, imagery and political references pointing towards events endured under The Shadow Of Stalin. The process was a little different than a traditional collaboration where you lock down in the studio and create a record.
The other unique and unusual aspect to Notes from the Underground was that most of the music was revisited and finished ten years after we had started it. When we finalized the concept for a commercial release with Dday One and The Content Label we picked up on where we left off. We spent much of 2017 completing the album, creating several new tracks and breathing new life into older mixes. It was a fun challenge keeping everything consistent while trying to incorporate a more modern mixing and mastering palette.
It’s been an educational, gratifying and healthy challenge bringing this project to light, and we feel it is a valuable release for our times.
What is the meaning behind the title Notes From The Underground?
Gone Beyond: The project was named after the famous Russian existential novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky — considered to be one of the first existential novels and a famous piece of Russian literature. It marked the beginning of the modernist movement, up there with Nietzsche, Freud’s Three Theories of Neurosis, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The entire novel revolves around a narcissistic, self-inflated and self-loathing bereft man, struggling with his toxic past as a bureaucrat, unable to stop humiliating himself and embarrassing others. He realizes he’s trapped in a prison of his own design.
Did you learn any new or unexpected methods or techniques by working with classical compositions? Is there anything from the experience you now apply to your work?
Gone Beyond: Any project with this approach takes an unusual amount of groundwork, finding passages and motifs that are naturally in the same key, scale, and tempo. For Notes from the Underground, we worked loosely in slip mode while editing the breaks, rather than having the timing rigidly quantized within a grid. A lot of the drum patterns were edited manually with subtle changes in timing over a 16-32 bar sequence, to keep them feeling more lively and less static. I also used trigger software on the drum breaks to layer subharmonics and transient accents. Most notably, we started a PDF word file with samples and compositions that were in the same key. Our approach has always been to find samples that fit together naturally with little alterations to the original musical expression and layer them to create a new tapestry/composition. Notes from the Underground has many many samples from various compositions and records woven together on each song, and we hope that beat diggers and classical aficionados alike will be able to appreciate and recognize when a particular motif appears. I feel this is the hidden alchemy on the album. We also had a friend, classically trained violinist Ben Beames, overdub subtle layers as well towards the end of the arrangements.
Beyond techniques, I feel every genre continues to enrich my understanding of music and composition. As artists we inherently emulate and integrate that which touches us, to some degree. I have found a deeper understanding of harmonic structure, dynamics, and tempo through observing classical form, working with it in a hands-on way. Rachmaninov was a master at delicately utilizing deceptive cadence, balanced with refrain in his harmonic progressions, particularly in his piano and cello sonatas. Shostakovich was unapologetically raw and visceral. There aren’t many composers who can hold a bold state of tension like he could and still keep a symphonic piece tangible. Prokofiev was a master of motifs and was able to convey storytelling through his compositions as on Romeo and Juliet, Alexander Nevsky, and his beautiful sonatas. I believe I will always be influenced to some degree by the honest and unveiled expression exemplified by these composers.
What was the audience like at the performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall? Were there beat-heads, or classical music enthusiasts, or an even mix of both? If both, how did each react to the music? Did they have different attitudes to it?
Gone Beyond: The audience, as I recall, was a mixture of both groups but felt more like an audience one might expect at a world-class concert hall than a dance party. The L.A. Philharmonic hosted the event, so I think a lot of classical aficionados were present out of both support and curiosity. Most people were wearing dress attire, but the stage lights were so bright I honestly could n’t see how people were reacting. It was a bit intimidating knowing some very prolific musicians and artists were present. The Walt Disney Concert hall is a premier classical music venue, so I am thankful that Cut Chemist gave us the opportunity to be there. We didn’t get hit with any tomatoes and received extended applause after our performance, so I’m assuming the music was well received well enough by many. I was able to catch the other performers Cut Chemist, Amon Tobin, DJ Spooky, J-Rocc, and Peanut Butter Wolf from the audience perspective, and it was good vibes. I’ve played a lot of shows in the past, and It undoubtedly remains one of the most surreal.
Has this project made you want to tackle any other composers or styles of music that you might not have considered before? In light of this project, what ‘out of left field’ style of music, artist, or composer would you love to remix?
Gone Beyond: Having been a record collector for several decades, my musical taste is always morphing, growing and changing. Often one obscure style of music leads me into another exploration, carried forward by some common narrative.
The last 12 years or so, during the inception of Notes from the Underground, we were digging for jazz-fusion/psych and prog rock. Most of the drum breaks and additional samples on Notes from the Underground came from '70s fusion/ rock records, which give the album its rhythmic character. Russian classical music opened my ears up to dynamics, space, and subtlety, which eventually drew me towards more minimal psychedelic space music. Groups like Popol Vuh, Imaginations of Light, The Cosmic Jokers, and Sensations Fix come to mind while reflecting on the early discoveries. These groups led me to explore even more exotic experimental electronic tape obscurities from the '70s and '80s New Age era.
I’ve now been exploring both tapes and vinyl in this loosely defined genre for the past eight years or so. Much of what I find is previously undiscovered, so that is always exciting! I do feel that each in-depth musical exploration, whether it's Russian classical, the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane, or Strata East releases, or dense, heady progressive rock like Dun-Eros, all leave an imprint that becomes a part of my compositional grab bag.
For the last 11 years I have continued to digitize and organize my entire vinyl and tape collection as a loop library, a process that started with Notes From The Underground In 2006. I now have 6000 records broken down into potential loops, organizing the loops within folders on drives arranged by tonic key and relative BPM. The source material is now so vast, and readily accessible that the sky is the limit as to what sounds can be explored.
Russian Classical compositions opened my ears up to the potential and power in classical music as a form, and also, how the space between notes and their delivery can be as meaningful and profound as the note itself, similar to how a painter or photographer uses negative space. Western classical music is a powerful tool for self-inquiry and poignant, emotive expression. While I can’t define or pinpoint what exact fusion I will deliver in the future, I can say for sure there will be a subtle imprint of every artist/genre that has made an impression on me along the way. Or, perhaps I will end up remixing John Cage's "4′33"" for my next project, that would also be a logical progression after these past years of exploring minimal music (hahaha). Time will tell.
Notes From The Underground is out now on The Content Label.