Exclusive Interview | Limited Time Free Download
We are proud to present this exclusive interview with one of the best underground hip-hop producers who caught our attention while browsing for new artists.
Phoniks is a hip-hop producer from Portland, Maine known for his vintage-90’s boom bap production style and melodic jazz and soul samples. The 23-year old producer released the critically acclaimed “Return to the Golden Era” album with emcee Awon on 7/30/2013 as well as a series of 5 remix tapes between 2011-2014. He has been featured in publications such as Earmilk, Respect Magazine, The Find Mag, The Word Is Bond, 2DopeBoyz, DJBooth.net, and The Source. He also had mixtape hit #1 selling hip-hop album on Bandcamp last week.
Phoniks recently spoke with Andrew McConnell on a variety of topics including his approach to his technical & philosophical approach to production, Biggie Smalls, the success of his recent releases, collaborating with Awkon and Dephlow, and much more.
You give an emphasis to organic samplings rather than heavy electronic samples. You keep it back to tight breaks, smooth piano lines, and soulful/jazzy samples. Do you feel that this stripped down; more simplistic approach somehow makes the beats more honest or genuine?
That just comes from the fact that I’m so influenced by the early 90s east coast producers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, so yeah a lot of my style is like that. Keeping it simplistic. For me it is mostly about the samples being carefully chosen. I take a lot of time listening to jazz and soul music and I’m very delicate about what samples I pick to make sure that the beats are always correct.
What artists have influenced you as a producer, both those whose sound can heard in what you do and those that may have influenced you other than some of the great old school hip-hop producers?
Of course, besides Pete and Preem there’s guys like J-Dilla, Buckwild, Diamond D, but I’m also heavily influenced by great jazz artists… Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, Oscar Peterson, Cal Tjader… That is where the sound came from before people started sampling it and turning it into hip-hop, so that’s probably my biggest influence.
You draw on a lot of 90s hip hop what draws you to this era over more contemporary hip-hop artists, what specifically draws you to this era of hip-hop?
I feel like with hip-hop back then the artists were just more talented overall. I think a lot of artists today do not have substance in their lyrics. And a lot of the beats today are kind of soul-less keyboard beats. So I draw my influence of the past because the music was more soulful, more authentic, more skillful.
In terms of remixing you tend to take a very hands on approach by reworking some of the most well hip-hop classics and in doing so redo them in a way that makes the final work a truly new perspective on a track, could you walk us through the process?
I would never try to say I improved a track like Biggie Smalls “Kick In the Door” or “Cream” by the Wu-Tang Clan. I go out and remix the most classic hip-hop songs because I just want to put a new take on a song people may have heard a million times. Like putting Biggie over a jazzy piano loop or Wu-Tang on this funky guitar lick. It makes the lyrics sound different and can give a completely different vibe to the song. Originally I made remixes just so I could hear emcees on my beats because I didn’t know people would want to rap on them.
The intro track contains samples of people speaking music in general and about remixing. Specifically one sample describes the process of putting a”puzzle” together. At what point did you realize the beats you were producing and the songs you were remixing for your personal listening pleasure may be enjoyed by a wider audience?
The funny thing is I was making music for 7 years before I ever even put my stuff online, before I thought people would want to listen to it. Eventually I put some tracks online for some of my friends to hear and one day I noticed that the mix tape I posted as my Facebook status (2011’s “The Tape”) was given coverage on a couple of blogs. I’m still not even sure how they found it.
The second mix tape I put out (2013’s “Basement Vibes”), I had it up on my website and this time I e-mailed the link out to some blogs. I put it up on Bandcamp for free and one weekend I unknowingly ran out of free download credits, which means that Bandcamp starts charging $7 a pop for your album until you buy more credits. I checked my PayPal account and had made almost $200 in one weekend. That’s when everything clicked for me and I realized that people actually really liked my music, to the point that they were willing to pay for it. That wasn’t even a year ago, that was like 10 months ago…
I think the fact that I made music for so long (7 years) before I started putting out music or trying to make any kind of music career is what has allowed me to become so successful in this short period of time. So many kids want to be a rapper or want to be a DJ, but they aren’t willing to put in the work. With me, it was just like, I just enjoyed putting in the work. I wasn’t trying to become anything. I just had fun making beats in my bedroom and listening to the music myself in the car or showing a few friends or whatever. I wasn’t thinking about trying to make a crunk beat that would get radio airplay or trying to build a library of different types of beats (dirty south, east coast, west coast, “trap”, etc) so that I could sell as many beats as possible. I just focused on developing a specific sound and refining it and that has allowed me to carve out my own niche in the music community.
The digital era of music allow you to reach an audience you otherwise would not. What are the clear benefits of this and what are the fallbacks of these new technologies?
It gives artists who don’t have record deals or who don’t live in major metropolitan areas a chance to get exposure. At the same time that is a detriment… for example… I know if I send my music off to a blog that the blogger probably has to filter through hundreds of terrible submissions just to get to it. Everyone wants to be a rapper; everyone wants to be a hip-hop artist. Because of the Internet everyone kind of has that avenue to do so. For me personally, it’s like, I live in Portland, Maine. So it helps me get my music out there without being in LA or New York. It allows a beat maker like Gramatik who’s out in Slovenia making the craziest beats to be known on an international scale, so in that way it’s really cool.
You have remixed Notorious B.I.G a lot, is he perhaps one of your biggest influences?
Yeah, as far as what I look for in an MC. He’s had the biggest influence in how I measure every other rapper, he’s the measuring stick.
What did you do with the intro on “Autumn in New York” to set the tone for the album?
I was looking for a sample that had a dark, kind of cinematic mood to it, so I flipped that awesome piano and then layered it with that ominous sounding bassline sample. For the vocal cuts I spent close to 5 hours searching through movie scripts, interviews, YouTube videos, just trying to find the right pieces to the puzzle to say what I wanted in that intro. That final clip of the girl saying “By the way, the remix is way better…” is actually a clip from Save The Last Dance 2. [laughs] I love the way it all came together though.
What distinguishes this album from any others you have done in the past?
I think with this one my approach was really jazzy, usually my stuff is a blend of jazz and soul and funk and you can hear that on “Return to the Golden Era”. This new release is just straight jazz-hop basically. I went this route because I wanted to produce a remix album that had a really cohesive feel, even with the large variety of emcees that were featured.
You have done some exceptional collaborative work with MC’s Awon & Dephlow on your recent albums? What specifically drew you to Awon and Dephlow and more generally how did you initially come into contact with them?
Awon was a rapper I was listening to all the time, so I e-mailed him and linked up with him that way. Dephlow was actually the guy who had been directing Awon’s video and doing rap a little bit on the side. We’ve convinced him to take start taking it more seriously, which is a good thing because he is one of the craziest emcees on the planet and people are about to find that out when we drop this new album in a few months.
You have upcoming collaborative LP with Houston emcee Anti-Lilly titled “Stories from the Brass Section” to be released later this month, could you tell us a bit more about what to expect from this new release….
Yeah I’m really excited about this release. Me and Anti linked up through an article in Respect Mag that talked about young artists who are bringing back the old-school sound. Anti released his mixtape “Memoirs & The 90’s” right around the same time me and Awon dropped “Return to the Golden Era”. I hit him up to do a track together and we were so like-minded musically that doing a full album was a no-brainer. This album is probably my best production work so far and the word-play and storytelling from Anti-Lilly is fxcking crazy, especially for such a young emcee. The whole album has this like, J-Dilla, MF Doom, Black Star, kind of sound to it that I think people are really going to feel. The album should be released before the end of the month, so keep an eye out for that.