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:
Meeting Jun at an obscure Max/MSP workshop, Nao is credited as one of the individuals who helped shaped Jun’s sound throughout his career, adding confidence and an experimental touch.
I reached out to Nao after recognizing his work on a rare track called Rotary Park, a joint that sounds nothing like any other Nujabes song in his entire discography. Curious, the need to dig deeper was satiated as Nao agreed to set aside valuable time from his AI research. I couldn’t pass this opportunity up.
Picture courtesy of Rakutaro Ogiwara.
How did working with Jun Seba (Nujabes) come about initially?
I met Jun in 2001 at “DSP Summer School,” a 5-day-long workshop on Max/MSP. Max/MSP(now known as “Max”) is a programming environment for algorithmic composition and sound processing.
It became popular after Autechre, and other electronic musicians openly started using it in their productions. The workshop was held in a remote mountainous town, far from Tokyo and other big cities, so during the workshop, the friendship between participants naturally grew. Some people I met there are still my closest friends on this day.
If I remember correctly, it was the last lecture session in the morning of the first day of the workshop. I knew very few people then, so I took a random empty seat. Right next to me, there was a quiet/self-possessed guy, who looked like a few years older than me. After the lecture, we started chatting somehow and introducing ourselves to each other. He said, “I make hip-hop tracks.” It was a big surprise! He didn’t look like a hip-hop producer at all. He looked more like an owner of a small bookstore or a cozy cafe.
Also, the workshop meant to be for musicians making contemporary classical music (Iannis Xenakis) or experimental electronic music (Autechre, Aphex Twin), so I never imagined to meet any hip-hop producers there. I got very curious about the guy because I was also trying to make dance music(techno/house) using techniques developed in the field of experimental music. So we went out for lunch together to a Miso-Katsu (local cuisine) restaurant nearby.
On the way to the restaurant, he said, “Let me play the latest track I’ve been working on.” and played a cassette tape in his car. It was the original “luv(sic)” track. It blew me away! I grew up in the 90’s, the golden age of hip-hop, listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Mobb Deep, etc.
Since I started DJ-ing in around 1999, I got more interested in techno and house music, but still, I was (and am) a big hip-hop fan.
I had been closely following what’s going on in hip-hop in the US, but I didn’t pay much attention to the Japanese hip-hop scene. That’s why I had never heard of his name. At the first listening, I realized that he is different. He is different from other Japanese hip-hop artists/producers, who tend to be very domestically oriented.
Back then, I was also working on my first album “Mind the Gap,” which came out in the following year. I played a couple of tracks from the album in the car, and he seemed to be interested in what I was trying. We started discussing ideas on new sampling/sequencing techniques using Max/MSP and then possible collaboration plans.
This is how I met Seba Jun aka Nujabes. After the workshop, we went back to Tokyo and started working together.
You can see why I was surprised to see a hip-hop producer at the workshop. [referring to this video; DPS Workshop 2001, the very class where Nao met Jun]
Could you speak on some of the projects you and Jun worked on, as well as the exploration of music with him?
Our collaborations lasted for about three years (2001 – 2004).
In 2001 and 2002, we spent one day per week (typically Wednesday) in his studio, testing various ideas and techniques with Max/MSP, Akai MPC, and Cubase.
We also spent long hours listening to new music and watching sports together (Jun was very competitive, especially regarding soccer).
Gradually, I got busy with my research (I was writing my PhD thesis on a sub-branch of AI) and our weekly studio time became bi-weekly and once a month and so on. Our collaboration came to an end when I finished my PhD and moved to Paris in the summer of 2004.
During our studio time, we tested many different ideas on mainly sampling, sequencing and complex sound effects using granular synthesis and such. Those snippets of ideas/half-made drum patterns/sound effects must be somewhere in his hard drives, but I believe Rotary Park was the only track we managed to finish.
I think we spent too much time on the exploration of new ideas, rather than composing actual music, which I sincerely regret…
Rotary Park seems to be the most experimental sounding track in Nujabes’ discography; could you go into detail about how the production of this song went?
Our studio session usually went like this: Jun played a few tracks from the latest CD he found interesting and said something to the effect of “I like this drum pattern/sound. How can we make something like this?”
Then, I was the one who wrote Max/MSP patches (i.e., simple software) to reproduce the sound effect /synthesis/sequencing technique. I also brought new techniques I discovered/made in my own music making process to the table and discussed how to use them in our production.When I first visited his studio, I was prepared to see piles of old precious jazz/funk/obscure world music records.
As you know, he ran two record stores, and he was also famous as an avid vinyl collector. I didn’t expect to find many CDs of the latest experimental music in his studio. Besides likes of Prefuse 73 and Dabrye, I found CDs of Greg Davis, Fennez, To rococo rot, Telefon Tel Aviv, Gel, Arovane, and Jan Jelinek, to name a few. Back then he was very interested in the sound of “electronica” and “folktronica.”
Perhaps the word “electronica” in the US and other countries has different connotations from the one in Japan. Electronica in Japan refers to complex and somewhat experimental electronic music, which you may refer as EDM, with heavily computer-processed sound, noises, and glitches.I was pretty much into the genre and had some knowledge regarding electronica musicians, but sometimes he played CDs of electronica artists even I had never heard of.I believe he wanted to have those experimental aspects of electronica music in his own music production.
That’s why he participated in the Max/MSP workshop even though he had never written Max/MSP patches by himself. However, it turned out that, it’s way more complicated and difficult to master Max/MSP than Jun initially thought. So, he brought me in his production as a collaborator/manipulator of Max/MSP.As for Rotary Park, I wrote a MIDI effect, similar to the “Beat Repeat” effect in Ableton Live. I also provided a granular effect patch I had written for my own production. Jun did actual sequencing including drum patterns and piano samples. I did voice cutups using my own simple sampler patch.In retrospective, I can think of a couple of reasons why our collaboration didn’t work out very well (at least, in terms of the number of releases).
First and foremost, after finishing my first album, my focus shifted to my research and thesis. Music production slipped to the third in my priority list. The second priority was occupied by my married life, which didn’t last long. I had lots of different things to do and couldn’t find time to work on the Max patches for Jun.
Second, there is a big difference between his attitude towards music and mine. For me, music is one of my passions including computer science, programming, and digital art. For Jun, music is THE thing, music is everything. I had never asked him directly, but it’s easy to understand if he got gradually frustrated with the lack of progress on my side.
At the same time he started tinkering with Max/MSP, he also started practicing musical instruments, namely flute and saxophone. It is interesting to see that he took the almost opposite direction towards more organic approach with live music instruments. Especially numerous productions with Hiroto Uyama, after our collaboration ended in 2004.
Did he get bored with glitch sound and granular synthesis? Fed up with the slow and tiresome process of making music by programming? Nobody knows.
Were you able to contribute to Lady Brown’s production at all?
I was fortunate to see him working on Lady Brown, but I didn’t have any concrete contribution to the track.
One day, on the way to a futsal [a variation of football] match in his car (Jun and I sometimes played futsal together with his friends’ team), he played the track he had finished a few days before.
That was the first time for me to listen to the finished Lady Brown track and immediately I realized that he made another masterpiece.
What are your thoughts regarding Jun and the hip-hop community?
I’m not the best person to talk about the Japanese hip-hop scene, but one thing I’m sure is that he was and still is a mystical outsider in the community.
He seemed to prefer hanging with people from outside of the hip-hop community (including me) and didn’t care about typical hip-hop outlooks.
During his lifetime, he tried to avoid media appearances as much as possible. He always said, “Once you get over-hyped, you’ll be consumed and forgotten.”
He managed to keep his own secretive, mystical image. It might have contributed to the fact that he got a very enthusiastic fan base worldwide, but at the same time, there was very few texts, interviews describing his own thoughts and personality.I believe that I have an obligation to tell his story to the world and keep his legacy alive as a person who was fortunate enough to spend some time with him.
That’s why I took this opportunity to talk about him.
Any anecdotes you’d like to share about Jun?
If I have to pick one word to describe his personality, it would be “meticulous.” He liked to plan everything meticulously in advance. If things didn’t go along with his initial plan, he wanted to know the reason.During our studio time, he always kept asking “why,” because I prefer the more spontaneous way of doing things.
“Why didn’t you use this sample as we discussed before?”
“Why did you use this Max object ‘A’ instead of ‘B’?”
“Why does this effect sound like this and not like that?”
“Why is this algorithm A more processor intensive than algorithm B?”
“Why did you choose pizza for lunch, instead of a sandwich?”
When we went out for dinner to local restaurants, he sometimes called chefs and started asking questions, what kind of spices are used, where this ingredient came from…
He was like a kid, filled with curiosity and wonder.For me, he seemed to have two personalities: a self-possessed mature adult, who always plans everything meticulously and a kid, who sees the world with curious eyes and keeps asking questions.
I saw these personality traits strongly in the way how he treated money. Financially he was very successful, running two record stores and his own label. However, he was always very frugal and cared about the last 1-yen (similar to a single cent). At the same time, he was generous and paid everything when we went out for lunch or dinner.
When I got married, he gave me 100,000 yen (about $1,000), which is more than three times of the average. In Japan, it’s very common to give money to newly‐married couple as a gift. Later I told him my marriage didn’t work out and I got divorced, the first thing he said to me was “Give my 100,000-yen back!”. Of course, it was his way of joking, but this feels like a perfect story to explain his wonderful personality.
Again, I regret that I could have released more music with Jun. On the other hand, I’m proud of my contribution to his music.One particular example is software I wrote exclusively for him. He had a favorite VST plugin called NorthPole. It is a simple low-pass filter, but he adored its warm sound and used in almost all productions for the bass line.
Back in 2007, everybody around him had already switched to new Mac with Intel-processor, but he had to stick to old one with PowerPC because NorthPole VST was available only on PPC [PowerPC] and there was no Intel-compatible version.I heard him talking about the issue, so I wrote a small software hosting VST plugins for PPC. When I gave the software to him, he was overjoyed and called me a genius. By the way, he always introduced me to his friends, like “This is Nao. He looks like a genius rocket scientist working at McDonald’s, doesn’t he?” [laughs]
I believe he kept using the software for quite some time for his numerous releases until NorthPole VST eventually became available on Intel Mac.
What have your adventures consisted of since?
I spent a few years working in Paris and came back to Japan and founded a company called Qosmo with my friends. It took me a while to establish a team, with which I can explore various ideas on music, digital art, and computer science, especially AI.
In the last few years, almost 10 years after the inception of the company, finally I found time and financial freedom to restart music production. Since then, I’ve been testing various deep learning based techniques:
From time to time, I still think what Jun might say on my prototypes and how he uses the latest technology in his production. If I could meet him now, I can imagine him saying:
“Nao, don’t waste your time by just testing new ideas. Make music!”