Several years ago, an employee of Mille Plateaux Records mentioned to me, in passing, that one of the most played songs in the label’s office was, of all things, a remix of a track by r&b singer Aaliyah.
In other words, a record label named for a dense theoretical literary-philosophical tome by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari was pulsing to a song by the teen bride of contemporary-soul man R. Kelly.
The Aaliyah track in question was constructed by Timbaland, the Virginia-born producer known for his work with vocalists Missy Elliott (his longtime collaborator and business partner), Tweet (notably on the single “Oops [Oh My]”), Beck (a cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” as heard on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack), Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, and others.
Mille Plateaux is one of the most esteemed electronic-music labels, perhaps best known for its Clicks & Cuts series, the third of which saw release at the end of 2002, featuring music by SND, Geez’N’Gosh, DAT Politics (aka Kid 606), Luomo (aka Vladislav Delay), Ekkehard Ehlers and many others. The series helped promote the glitchy brand of experimental music that, for all its antiseptic and serrated sonics, takes as much inspiration from contemporary hip-hop as it does from cutting-edge digital composition.
The overlap between avant-garde electronica and mainstream r&b is more apparent on this third Clicks & Cuts collection than on previous releases in the series. On the album, Frank Bretschneider’s “Risk” features a house diva repeating the word “responsibility.” Lumo’s “Melt (agf/dlay edit)” cuts up the falsetto vocal until it’s only partially comprehensible, but for all the edits, the voice’s emotion (plaintive, remorseful) is thoroughly retained. And the association between Clicks & Cuts and today’s hip-hop-influenced soul music is not restricted to the inclusion of vocals. Various tracks on the album, from downtempo rhythm of bizz.circuits’ “Grace Under Fire” to the bubbly after-hours romance of Robin Judge’s “Rhizome,” echo the minimalist beats that have been a hallmark of late of such acts as Destiny’s Child and Mystikal.
Contemporary r&b seems more than happy to meet Mille Plateaux halfway. Coincident with the release of the new Clicks & Cuts CD was “Work It,” the Timbaland-produced lead single from Elliott’s album Under Construction (Gold Mind/Elektra). Heard in its instrumental version (which is available as a track included on the song’s CD single), “Work It” has much in common with today’s electronic cutting edge, especially when one listens past the purposefully old-school hip-hop sounds. There are, for example, the rudimentary, dropped in samples (a keyboard tinkle here, an elephant bark there), the persistent use of empty space, and the retro synth flavors, not to mention Timbaland’s emphasis on pointillist percussion and droney repetition.
On the occasion of the new Clicks & Cuts compilation, I corresponded with one of the series’ contributors, Swedish musician Andreas Tilliander, who also appeared on the second volume. His track on the third collection, “Nerdy South,” takes its title from a rudimentary vocal, which sounds like a computer struggling to enunciate over a gentle pulse of an electronic track.
Taking the anecdote about Aaliyah, who passed away in the fall of 2001, as a starting point, Tilliander discussed his youthful interest in breakdancing and his own top-40 aspirations. The transcript of the correspondence appears, lightly edited, below.
Marc Weidenbaum: Are there specific Timbaland productions that have stuck in your head?
Andreas Tilliander: I like the track “Love Me” by Timbaland and Magoo, because of the Vocoders, and of course “Try Again” and “We Need a Revolution” by Aaliyah. It’s not only the production that is amazing. It’s really good pop music, too.
Weidenbaum: Are there other contemporary hip-hop/r&b producers whose work you particularly appreciate?
Tilliander: Yes, the music and production of Dead Prez is really good. And like everyone else I also enjoy the stuff by NERD and the Neptunes. I think that the reason why I enjoy it is because they are trying to do something new, and maybe even experimental in some ways. There are a lot of “Experimental Hip-hop” [acts] although most of them are experimental just for the sake of it.
Weidenbaum: Part of what I love about the music exemplified on Clicks & Cuts is how it insinuates funk, suggesting rhythmic activity with the sparest materials — can you talk about that approach to funk?
Tilliander: I really don’t think of funk when I make my music, and I hardly never listen to it either. There was a period in my life where I listened to stuff like James Brown, Parliament and others, but not that much anymore. I want my music to be “groovy” — maybe that’s where the funk can be heard. Since I’m influenced by hip-hop and hip-hop is influenced by funk, it’s kind of natural that there’s a funk vibe in there somewhere.
Weidenbaum: Electronic musicians have been, with a few notable exceptions, hesitant to include words. Some of the best electronic music that does involve words cuts them up. Does cutting up vocals make words easier to use, because the act of cutting up the vocals makes the words less representative?
Tilliander: I’ve used cut up vocals, especially on an album I recorded in 1999, but I’ve also used clean, unprocessed singing. I guess that the artists who are cutting up vocal samples do so because that’s their way to approach music, and the sounds they are using are often cut up, not only the vocals.
Weidenbaum: As electronic music has developed its own devoted listening audience, is it surprising to you that there are people who might love your music, yet would be shocked at your interest in so-called pop music? Do you find such a scenario frustrating, or an opportunity to open listeners’ minds — and ears?
Tilliander: Every time I get the chance, I’m trying to point out that most of my productions are pop, in my opinion. There are lush chords, grooves and nice harmonies. I often arrange a song in a regular way, with parts that could be considered as “chorus,” “verse,” “break,” etc. Music doesn’t have to get simple and silly to be pop, right?
Weidenbaum: Have you always been comfortable listening to popular r&b and hip-hop, or is it something you ignored for some time and were then drawn to (or drawn back to)?
Tilliander: As a kid I was into breakdance, like everyone else. That got me into Kraftwerk and electronic music, where I was stuck for many years. The main reason why I didn’t like r&b and even some hip-hop was because it’s often sexist. It’s almost embarrassing to buy an r&b album because the covers are always focusing on ass and tits. And a lot of hip-hop is just about showing your nice car and jewelry and that doesn’t interest me.
Weidenbaum: I think that below the vocals of many an r&b and hip-hop hit beats an avant-garde heart, from the weird cartoon-jazz loop in Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)” to the veritable click-hop of the Neptunes’ production for Mystikal (“Shake That Ass,” “Danger”). Is there a top 40 musician beating inside of you?
Tilliander: I would love to produce one of the big artists, of course. I think that a lot of the productions are interesting but I could make it even more interesting and fascinating.
Weidenbaum: Is there specific work you’ve done with top 40 musicians — remixes, production dut)?
Tilliander: Maybe you’d consider JJ Johnson a top 40 musician? At least in some countries — France, etc. I’ve remixed one of his singles and he’s singing on a track for my new album, Elit. Somebody described the track as r&b, actually.
Weidenbaum: The way the beat gets going at the start of “Nerdy South,” your track on the new Clicks & Cuts album, particularly reminds me of how Timbaland — and a few producers like him — take pleasure in positing these beats that are funky and hesitant at the same time. Is that part of what you’re after? Is the title “Nerdy South” meant to reference so-called Dirty South hip-hop?
Tilliander: I didn’t have anyone or anything in mind when I did that track. The song is a remake of the song “DupliCity,” taken from my new album. On the original version I used Fu Dogg, who’s a great rapper. The title “Nerdy South” came up when I was performing in Chapel Hill this summer and I was playing the track for some friends there, who thought that Chapel Hill is more of the Nerdy South than Dirty South. I guess that a lot of the electronica producers and listeners are geeks, including me, so that was a perfect title.
Related links: Andreas Tilliander’s myspace.com page.