Alan "The Alchemist" Maman's discography is one of the most prolific in hip-hop history. What's the story of the man behind the beats?
Due to length, contributions are indexed as follows:
One of the world’s leading jazz preservationists, and legendary UK MC Funky DL sat down and had a chat with me about how Jun found him, some insight into their come up, and what it was like in an era where artists had to leave their phone numbers on releases to network.
He is among the most genuine and passionate musicians I’ve come across. DL went above and beyond to dedicate his valuable time for this interview.
How did Nujabes find you? You mentioned that he found you through your label’s contact information, which ended up in him flying you out to Tokyo, correct?
That’s right. I was releasing records independently since ’97, and I was selling them to UK exporters, vinyl exporters. He owned a record shop called Guiness Records, importing things that he liked. He was buying my stuff for about a year and a half, and it just so happened that I decided to include my cell number on one of my releases.
He called me, this was in ’99, he called me and explained who he was, what his idea was, and how he just started producing and really liked my style. He actually had just been trying to reach out to me way before that, he said.
I was doing releases with Utmost Records, and every time that he would get a hold of someone, apparently they said they would forward the information to me, the detail and whatnot, but they never did, so it took a while to connect the two of us. He called me in ’99 as I mentioned, and we contacted each other just like that, on my cell phone.
It was a bit difficult to understand him between both of our accents. However, we stuck with it and were able to converse back and forth alright.
Nujabes has a remix of your song Unstoppable, you mentioned that you don’t own this record? Could you go into what the story is behind that song and the remix?
Hmm, I own Unstoppable. Perhaps a different record?
Ah, was it Loud Noise of Silence?
There was a record I did with him called Slow Down that I don’t have on vinyl, I think that’s the one. Yeah, Unstoppable was a song that I recorded with Nujabes. Produced by him, me rhyming on it. Same with Slow Down, Don’t Even Try It.
When I went out in ’99 to visit him, we recorded 5 songs together. Don’t Even Try It, Unstoppable, Not Yet Known, Peoples Don’t Stray, and Slow Down.
Actually, we did more than 5 songs, we did quite a lot of songs. There were two visits though, one in ’99 and one in ’00 I believe. We did a total of 10 songs, but not all were released. I did a song with Nujabes called Tuesday Evening and with Nujabes and Verbal and I can’t remember the name of the song, but it was never released.
The last time I heard that song, it was played by Verbal at a Nujabes tribute show in a club. The thing about Nujabes was that he was very selective in what would be released, even though he’d record a lot of songs. Just about how he felt about the recording at the time, that’s what dictated the recordings being released, or shelved.
Not Yet Known was a 2002 release, is that correct?
It’s been a while and I’m not quite sure, and the reason I say that is the way that the songs were released.
We would record a few songs, but Nujabes would have full control over when the song would be released, and how it would be released. So, the way things went was, we’d record a song, and he’d be distributing the records at his shop separately, and after some time, the song me and him recorded would come out.
Not to imply that it was intentional, but just the way things were, was that a song would be released and he’d forget to even send me a copy of the vinyl or record, perhaps due to a busy schedule.
So yeah, I’m a bit sketchy on the dates of when a lot of that stuff came out.
You mentioned that the most important thing that he taught you was the way Japanese music businesses operate, and how to appeal to the Japanese market when presenting a product, in your case, music. Any further thoughts on that?
He taught me more about presentation, and food for thought about album aesthetics. Such as, album art or titling. For example, we did an album called the Latin Love Story. They’re old Funky DL songs, which I’ve re-recorded my voice over new beats. The new beats were done with a Latin style or vibe in mind. So, I did that album, and followed it up with Latin Love Story: Volume 2.
Jun said something like:
“DL, it’s not the best idea to name things in succession, such as Volume 1, Volume 2, or Remix. These are songs you’ve already recorded, so put a new spin onto it. Instead of calling it Latin Love Story: Volume 2, why not call it Music from Naphta?”
Naphta is my first name. He mentioned this would intrigue the Japanese market, as they would be unaware of what “Naphta” was. A place, a person, a thing? It would spark interest. Those were kinds of things he would give me advice and insight on.
Speaking with Jun and his manager Takumi, I recall a time where we were talking about Slick Rick’s album, Children Story. He said DL, the audience in Japan may not know what you’re rhyming about, but they may enjoy the sound. On the contrary to Music from Naphta, perhaps select words that people from anywhere will know, or at least have a higher chance of knowing or understanding.
Even someone in Japan who doesn’t speak English would probably know the word “children” or “child” and know the word “story” and have a sort of idea for what the album would be speaking on or talking about.
Another example in regards to being lost in translation would be the basic word “hard” — say I take an exam here in the UK and it was hard. Well, in Japan, “hard” just means hard. To make it easier to translate or understand, you would have to say “difficult” instead.
The adjectives used make a big difference. That makes sense.
Right, and it was just stuff like that which made it easier to navigate the language barrier, so on and so forth.
In regards to the album art, Japan at the time was big on pastel-color album covers, floral sort of covers, and over the years it had become so overdone and generic for me. On this side of the world, I grew up looking at covers that were very, for lack of a better term, “hip-hop” to me.
I know what you mean. Like Illmatic for instance.
Do you know what I’m saying? [agreeing]
Even Stillmatic, that one is a dope cover for me. The orange sweatsuit and the sneakers, that kind of theme was never massive in Japan, but I was kind of against doing what everyone else was doing, so we’d bump thoughts, me and Jun, and we’d learn from each other and connect that way.
Understandable, sure. I wanted to ask you about how you think hip-hop presents itself on the surface level in Japan, compared to where you are, or stateside. Here in Seoul, it’s a lot more obvious who is into hip-hop, just going off of the streetwear and the way someone speaks about it openly. Perhaps more binary than stateside, from my experience. What say you?
I think there’s purists everywhere, within the hip-hop culture. I think that there are certain parts of the world where hip-hop is more sacred. You look at New York, the Mecca of hip-hop; time has done it’s work there. The 80’s, 90’s, sort of during the Golden Age of hip-hop, the passion which people had was uncomparable. Now, I believe the passion is still there, but it’s of a different type. Back then, everyone wanted to be the illest. Now, they want to be the biggest, the wealthiest. Do you know what I’m saying?
It’s more about the money than the message, for some.
Growing up, I’d listen to Tribe Called Quest, specifically Midnight Marauders. A group of kids, making hip-hop, in their early 20’s. To be that young and to make an album like that, it just is my opinion that music at that time, it just… it was a different time for hip-hop. Some parts of the world are able to hold onto pieces of hip-hop from that time a bit more, and I think Japan is one of those parts. Different cultures may have different ways of expressing things.
Nujabes and Dilla are often compared, despite being completely different. Could you give some thoughts on why you think that is, and how similar you view their music to be? Is Nujabes to the East what Dilla is to the West?
That’s hard for me to say… as you know, I’m neither American nor Japanese, so me, in my mind what Dilla is to the West and what Nujabes is to the East, I couldn’t say. I suppose in some ways; their style and sounds are very different, but there are some things within their techniques which you could say are very similar. An example would be their music, where they both used a hell of a lot of melody. A lot of obscure samples. The fact that they both were born in February, then unfortunately passed away in February, that also adds to the parallel discussion.
In my opinion, Dilla had more range. He’d do stuff that’d be very raw and hardcore. Nujabes would do stuff that was very laid back and chilled sounding. As Nujabes came into his own sort of lane of production, he grew into a laid back sound and I think that’s the reasoning behind it. As he progressed, he got more into live instrumentation, opposed to say Dilla’s progression, where he’s known worldwide for his drums.
Even in Dilla’s drums, they sound a lot more harsh and just bang a bit more. Nujabes liked to keep it subtle.
The range of artist that Dilla worked with also adds to the aforementioned range. D’Angelo, The Roots, Jennifer Lopez, Busta Rhymes.
Nujabes had some great work with rappers, but his range was a bit less, and he worked with the same people very often. They’re both highly revered in their art forms and respective parts of the world and crossing over to the opposite parts of the world.
There is a massive appreciation for Nujabes in the West and in the United States, and likewise for Dilla on the other side in the East, and even in Japan.
It’s a shame neither lived on to continue to do what they do, because if they were able to, we’d see a lot more of their music.
Jumping back to when you guys were in the studio, just speak on that a bit and tell us just the vibe you felt, how things were happening, and who else you worked with in Hydeout. Fascinating stuff.
When I went to do the second batch of recordings, Nujabes started to enlist other producers into his crew. One of them DJ Hyori, the other DJ Monorisick, who later changed his name to DJ Deckstream.
Monorisick, I think I did a track over one of his productions. Never released.
I also did one with DJ Hyori, can’t remember the name but I absolutely loved it, again never released. After a subsequent visit to Japan, he had stopped working with them. He must have had a falling out with those guys.
So yeah, I did work with both of those guys, but none of the music ever came to fruition.
Any things to wrap it up?
In regards to the posthumous project Spiritual State, as you may know, as a producer it’s very difficult to infer or assume things that another musician intended to do with the music. Matching sounds and instrumentation up was incredibly hard to do for that album. Takumi was telling me it’d be released soon and I was loving it, it was just the sounds that were being matched up were very difficult to make sound correct.
You may have different versions of the song. Perhaps you used this MIDI sound, or that one, or when the song is loaded up you want a different version, or you may know what sounds to record that no one else does.
When Nujabes passed away, no one knew what sounds he was using or what his final intentions were regarding that album’s overall sound. It took a really long time to figure everything out. Even something as simple as what you hear as a piano, it would have to be matched. Music programs these days, you can open a window and there’s 50 piano sounds, so which one is it? A hard sound, soft sound, a more sustained or subtle sound.
That’s something which I think is interesting about his last project.