Pale, sheepish, boyishly profane Scottish bloke Ross Birchard, a.k.a. Hudson Mohawke is the rare producer to bridge the hip-hop elite (he’s on retainer with Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music) and the DJ jet set (as one-half of EDM boom-bap, er, “trap” duo TNGHT), while still maintaining his own artistic vision. For the past year, Birchard, 29, has eased back on outside gigs to finish up his second album, Lantern — though he and West did knock out the single “All Day” at London’s Healthfarm Studio, a.k.a. HudMo Heights, to which the G.O.O.D. guys reportedly laid waste. It’s an album that should put Hudson Mohawke next to the names of other electronic producers — Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Flying Lotus — who have evolved into paradigm-wrecking eclectic auteurs.
A quick study who’s immersed himself in various types of music going back to his pre-teens in mid-Nineties Glasgow, Birchard imagined Lantern, at least in part, as an homage to the emotions stirred up in his youth. “The core feeling I wanted to create with this album was how I felt when I was 9 or 10 years old,” he says earnestly, “something uplifting, something that took euphoria as far as it could go, without turning into total cheesiness. Obviously, it’s a fine line, but I wanted the core of the record to be songs that pick you up when you’re down or when you’re lost, like certain songs did when I was a kid first getting into music.”
Early on, Birchard was encouraged by his father, Los Angeles-born stage actor/raconteur Paul Birchard, who actually recorded a rap track before his son, rhyming on the 1986 novelty “Diamonds Rap (We Are the Diamonds),” which promoted the Glasgow Diamonds football team. Dad bought him two turntables, and hip-hop was always in the mix. But Glasgow was a techno town, and the rage of young Scotland in the Nineties was the boundlessly bouncy genre of “happy hardcore,” a warp-speed bliss-burst that was a reaction to hardcore jungle’s shift toward a bleak, stoned drone. Birchard craved happier stuff and churned out mixtapes, got a “Z” shaved into the back of his hair to rep Edinburgh mega-rave Rezerection and exulted in boing-ing breakbeat flurries like DJ Vibes & Wishdokta’s “Feel Good” and Force and Styles’ “Simply Electric.” Amid happy hardcore’s sunny frenzy, “cheesy” was no slur. It signified a willingness to go for it, to risk a gooey mess.
By 13, Birchard was doing a radio show at a local university, diggin’ in the crates, and intensively honing his turntablist skills under the name DJ Itchy. At age 17, he’d become a beat-juggling fiend and reached the finals of the DMC U.K. DJ Championships, finishing second with a witty, surprisingly nuanced routine. But the scene’s technical swordfighting became tiresome, so he moved on. From 2006’s delirious mixtape Hudson’s Heeters Vol. 1 to his slaphappy debut album, 2009’s Butter, Birchard furiously unraveled his tangled roots, “trying to cram in 800 ideas at once,” as he puts it now. In addition to his studio grind, Birchard was part of an emerging hothouse crew of Scottish DJs, producers, label owners and promoters — Rustie, Koreless, Jackmaster and the Numbers collective, et al. — who were turning the path from Glasgow to London into the most exhilarating pipeline of talent in dance.
Along with Rustie, Birchard moved to London around the release of Butter (on venerable electronic label Warp), and with the success of Rustie’s 2011 full-length Glass Swords, the two were soon the avatars of a new subgenre, “maximalism.” Birchard amped up his sonic assault another level with 2012’s TNGHT EP, a brash, burly, almost scientifically seamless hybrid of Atlanta trap-rap thud and synth frippery. Cranked out with co-creator Lunice over a bottle of cheap whiskey, the EP’s six tracks (covering less than 16 minutes) have reverberated ever since, blessed in DJ sets by names as far-flung as Richie Hawtin, David Guetta and Thom Yorke, in addition to earning the duo EDM festival status.
The aftermath presented a stupendous contradiction: Rappers were covetous of TNGHT’s bang-pow (Birchard has now worked with Drake, Lil Wayne, Pusha T and Azealia Banks), but the R&B artists Birchard contacted just shrugged. TNGHT’s minute as EDM darlings was a lucrative frolic, but imitators abounded (mummifying a wait-for-the-drrrrop, neo-“trap” shtick), and their audience became a bros-before-woes mosh pit grunting for beats that hit them in the funny bone.
When I ask Birchard if he’s really as bummed by the EDM circuit as he’s implied during other interviews, he quickly cuts me off. “OK, I want to say this,” he replies firmly, “the very last thing I want to do is shit all over EDM. That’s the last thing that’s true. It’s been good to me, and besides, I don’t think you can spend the your childhood banging 170-180 bpm breakbeats into your fuckin’ skull and not love loud, fast, crazy dance music. I can’t deny it. It’s just the corporate money and energy driving the whole thing that bothers me. I have great friends from the EDM world — Calvin Harris, who’s from Scotland, Afrojack, these are great guys and songwriters and producers who really make their own music.”
This last reference — to artists making their own music — nods to a Twitter-bombing run launched this past May by dance producer Matt Zo, accusing Tiësto, Armin Van Buuren and many others for employing uncredited “ghost producers” behind the scenes. Regardless of Zo’s motivations or personal beefs, it was an airing of a real issue within the genre, and one that bothers Birchard.
But the fact remains, without the EDM push, it’s unlikely Birchard would’ve snagged his life-changing career break, collaborating on Kanye West’s Yeezus. Along with dynamic Houston rapper-producer Travis $cott, Birchard helped Kanye discover a radically fresh direction, fraying and punking up the DNA of his sound and instigating a feint-and-jab synth-glitch assault, most obviously on riskier, darker tracks “I Am a God” and “Blood on the Leaves,” the latter of which sampled TNGHT’s “R U Ready?” In return, Birchard not only got credibility, recognition and cash, but a new studio approach. Watching Kanye and Yeezus adviser Rick Rubin operate like executive producers, sifting disparate song ideas and beats, had a tremendous impact as he plotted his solo moves.
“The last album was me, alone, doing this big collage or pastiche,” he says. “And I’ve often been frustrated when I’ve done collaborations. So this time, I wanted to step back and work with the right people and be able to execute a more complete idea.” He was also reacting to major labels’ thirst to reshape TNGHT into hip electronic-pop hitmakers, with the inevitable mixed-bag Dropbox crew of guest rappers, vocalists, hook writers, song doctors and Swiss fixers.
Lantern‘s thematic conceit is a day in the life of, say, a Hudson Mohawke friend or fan, a devoted twentysomething clubber who is simultaneously all up in his or her feelings. Atmospheric soundtrack interludes connect the day’s ebb and flow, as on early-afternoon daydream “Kettles,” which majestically twinkles in the shadow of John Williams-via-Hans Zimmer, ensuring Hudson Mohawke’s name in film credits for years to come. The early-mid-evening tracks — Jhene Aiko’s sensual R&B selfie “Resistance” and Miguel’s trippy plea to the firmament “Deepspace” — steam up the house, while shimmery, zonked banger “System” and towering tingler “Brand New World” torch it with an EDM fireworks firestorm.
But on the album’s first half, Birchard delivers the soulfully defiant frisson and savvy songwriting that he’s made his mission. From “Very First Breath” (co-written by French vocalist and Ed Banger affiliate Christopher Irfane), a lustrous slab of rhythmic-pop swoon with 808 mule-kicks; to the brass bellows and squelchy synths of live staple “Scud Books”; to “Ryderz,” the radiant centerpiece of Lantern, an invocation of early-Seventies ooh-child soul with a sample and pitched-up-and-down vocal that recalls the kinetic chipmunk swoon of Kanye West’s early years. Co-written by old turntablist pal and vocalist-producer Ricci “Ruckazoid” Rucker, “Warriors” nails the HudMo vision with a middle-finger rave-pop fanfare that’s reminiscent of a subdued Rudimental, down to the multi-track choir intoning, “We might lose the battle but we’ll win the war/And we don’t care ’cause love is what we’re fighting for.”
So, what’s next? On Lantern‘s muted, tenderly constructed “Indian Steps,” Birchard gives Antony Hegarty a ghostly ambience as he queries a sleeping lover, but it feels like more of a teaser for Antony’s next album, co-produced by a geeked Birchard, who tweeted recently: “Antony’s voice is perfect. Best vocalist I’ve ever worked with.” Then there’s his first major solo tour, featuring keyboardist and Glasgow bud Redinho and Two Door Cinema Club drummer Ben Thompson, plus stage design from Tobias Rylander, fresh off FKA Twigs’ ‘Congregata’ and Balenciaga’s runway show at Paris Fashion Week.
And, of course, Kanye West. Asked about his contributions to SWISH, he blurts, “You know I can’t talk about any of that shit.” I prod again later, and he replies, as if robotically, “Due to contractual obligations, I am unable to discuss a certain project.” Fortunately for him, he’s got plenty of his own projects to talk about in the meantime.