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Backstage With TNGHT: Grilling Hip-Hop's Favorite Underground DJs

Lunice Pierre and Hudson Mohawke open up about writing for Kanye, avoiding the "trap"

Lunice Pierre and Hudson Mohawke of TNGHT perform in Chicago.
Daniel Boczarski/Redferns via Getty Image
August 16, 2013 1:50 PM ET

"Let's get it, let's keep it sexy," shouts TNGHT's Lunice Pierre as he exaggeratedly saunters across his backstage trailer towards his manager, trying to keep a straight face. The two are still practicing their new adaptation of a secret handshake, often breaking into fits of giggles, when Pierre's DJ partner Hudson Mohawke (Ross Birchard) peers into the door looking for some lemonade to mix into the whiskey at the bottom of his red solo cup.

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He's been hard to get a hold of for the few hours before the pair take Central Park's Summerstage. They've just come off of individual tours as well as performances at Mad Decent Block Party and HardFest. And as we sit down, Birchard shows me another major obstacle to communication: his iPhone screen, which glares red with a ticker counting down from 22 million minutes before he can re-enter his password to unlock the phone. "I lost my phone at Coachella and somehow it just got back to me," he explains with a sigh. "I've been trying to figure out how to use it without waiting for 22 million minutes. In 22 million minutes, I'll be long dead."

The contacts in that iPhone are quite valuable. Kanye West, Rick Rubin, Björk, and Jay Z have turned to Birchard for his production flair over the past few years. But Lunice's address book would provide an adequate back-up. Six years ago, the pair met when Lunice (now 24) booked Hudson Mohwake's (26) LuckyMe collective to play at his Montreal DJ night. "We originally found each other because we did that whole MySpace game in 2007 where you click through someone's Top 8 and then do the same thing for whoever you land on," says Birchard. "And then two years ago I heard the remix he did for Gucci Mane's 'Party Animal' and I hit him up," says Pierre. "I wanted us to get music to rappers in the States. Then one day I caught up with him when he was in the studio with London. I remember he was working on his Björk track and just finished and turned around and was like, 'Okay, I'm ready to make some rap.'"

What came out of the collaboration wasn't just a set of hip-hop instrumentals, though. The producers' shared love of their local experimental dance scenes and deep knowledge of hip-hop culture resulted in hard, booming, aggressive beats; the kind indicative of both U.K. bass and Southern rap; and the sound quickly caught on after the release of their TNGHT EP in 2012, bolstering a wave of producers sold on the idea of combining electronic dance music with rap aesthetics and culture.

The sound is often called "trap," but the duo are quick to distance themselves from the term. "Trap crowds in EDM seem to be emulating a culture they don't understand," explains Pierre. "That's not trap music!" exclaims Birchard in reply. "Trap music is about cutting bricks," says Pierre. "It's not about twerking, either! That's a whole different culture. It's a hood culture that's not the same. Everyone is so confused and it's a little annoying at times."

But, knowingly or otherwise, TNGHT's production strength lies in bridging these two worlds; the new-age festival set with heralded hip-hop legends. "We try to produce with elements of both of our individual styles," says Birchard. "We aim to be danceable and want crowd-focused music but we want to keep the creativity and integrity there. We want to be progressive and not safe. But TNGHT works because Lunice does his thing and I do mine."

The pair go on to explain that the first track they ever made together ended up becoming one of Kanye West's most critically acclaimed new singles. "The beat for ‘Blood on the Leaves' was actually our first go together years ago," laughs Pierre, referencing the Yeezus single whose marching horns (similar to those on C-Murder's "Down For My N's")  flip 'Ye's signature soliloquys into a powerful, anthemic stomp. "We didn't even think about it until it came out and we realized we had been sitting on the beat for two years. Showing it to 'Ye was definitely the right move."

Working with rap's elite is now commonplace for the pair, individually and together. Though neither are officially signed to major labels, citing individual projects as the reason they've refused offers this far, Lunice is working with Rick Ross and his Maybach Music Group on upcoming collabs with the likes of 2 Chainz. Hudson Mohawke has production credits on various G.O.O.D. music tracks including "Mercy" and John Legend's "Bliss." Both producers are credited on Yeezus.

"I try not to get overwhelmed though it's totally surreal," says Pierre. "When I met 2 Chainz I needed to take a second but then it was go-time. If you don't immediately go all-in, you doubt yourself and can set yourself up to fail. I'm not about to do that."

"The surrealist shit for me is working with Rubin," adds Birchard. "I went to his compound in Malibu where he works. He's in what used to be Bob Dylan's place. He has Bob Dylan's tour bus set up as a secondary studio. Just seeing him walking around barefoot one morning and then having a casual chat. He'll be wearing these old ass shorts and a tattered T-shirt and is barefoot and doesn't give a fuck and is just sun-bathin' or something. Then he comes in and has this acute ear and knows what to do with a song. He just figures it out purely from an aural perspective. It is ridiculous! And impressive.

But for all of their star-power, the pair is still about having fun. Pierre bounds around stage during their live shows, dancing and egging on the crowd to do the same. Birchard's fun comes from behind the tables. "You know that new Mr. Oizo track with Marilyn Manson? I made an edit of it so you just hear Manson say, ‘You look like shit' and play it on loop over and over again," he says laughing. "That's honestly my favorite shit right now. ‘You look like shit!' I mean, really?! How would that not be my favorite?"

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