“Self fulfillment will come when you do something for others. I want to be in that scope, doing something I feel is truly beautiful so that others can enjoy it.” – Siobhán Kane talks with Edan ahead of his show at The Sugar Club this Friday.
New York-based, Maryland native Edan Portnoy, or “The Humble Magnificent” is a beacon, lighting the way to more interesting plains in hip-hop’s landscape, but he is so much more than that. When I first heard his music, over ten years ago, he seemed like the lost Beastie Boy, somehow. Perhaps it’s in the way he filters his eclectic tastes, which range from doo-wop to space-rock, and The Beatles to NWA, bringing them to bear on work such as 2001 mixtape Fast Rap, which placed less-obvious samples and MC’s such as Rock and Ron, alongside more gilded alumni such as Kool G Rap; expanding that thesis later on with records like Primitive Plus, and Beauty and the Beat, providing a kaleidoscope of sounds and stories that surveyed psychedelia and classic rock, wryly brilliant lyrics, and rapping that contains the verve and vibrancy that he has become synonymous with.
He found himself experimenting early on at the Berklee School of Music, a journey that was perhaps begun through hearing Jimi Hendrix and “Beatle music and doo wop rocking robin”, after which he started to play guitar and found himself drawn to something more rebellious- “Edan like in N.W.A. bad words”, which then inspired “Edan making rhyme-it” on his four-track and turntables; after which he found himself “a lot in rap”. He went on to study music at Columbia University, and after putting out a 12” and mixtapes (including Sound of the Funky Drummer), entered rap battles and DJ competitions – “Edan rapp n’ scratch and keep ze beat”, which drew some attention – “critic in magazine say Edan old school and glasses”.
He sees himself as something of a rap historian, with an early calling card as the 12” ‘Sing it Shitface’, but is more interested in building bridges as his first album Architecture illustrated. His second, Primitive Plus, provided an irreverent, clever take on the old world order in hip-hop, with Beauty and the Beat (“perhaps the greatest U.S. hip-hop album you’ll hear in 2005”) filtering it all through a ‘60’s psychedelic haze.
Yet his impulse is full of clarity; he is constantly punching the limits – sometimes with live instruments, sometimes with words. Some of his earliest work includes the unreleased album The End is Forever, which he recorded on an 8-track digital cassette recorder in his college room. One of these tracks was included on his debut 12” in 1998 which included ‘The Es Have It featuring Eric Ferguson’ and ‘Migraine’, introducing Edan’s bizarre, wry humour – ‘The principal got nervous/When I ran into his office shirtless’, and academic yet joyful production style.
When Primitive Plus came out, the world was ready for something new. The single ‘Godlove’ (featuring Mr. Lif), caught the interest of Lewis Recordings, which released the single ‘Mic Manipulator’, and has continued to be a supportive presence. In this period, Edan became part of the group Fiber 2001 who were a composite group of mainly Boston musicians that performed Edan’s songs around long jazz improvisations during which, Edan would scratch records. However Primitive Plus started gaining real acclaim and his innovations in rhyming and scratching won many fans that pushed him into a different way of creating, perhaps, although Edan has since said – “I was just goofing off, making songs as fast as I could and trying to make myself laugh.
He started up his own Humble Mag label and in 2002 released the EP Sprain Your Tape Deck, which had been recorded live in his home studio onto his cassette deck after his 8-track finally broke; impressively all of the scratching, mixing and effects were done live as Edan rapped to a sequencer and drum machine. He began producing and remixing for other artists including Souls of Mischief and working on his own live show, through a collaboration with fellow Bostonian Insight in 2003. This heralded a new era for Edan where ghosts of acts like the Cold Crush Brothers added to his own live experience. Little wonder that he started experimenting with a more psychedelic style which can be almost felt on the next single he released – ‘I See Colours’ with lyrics full of strange visions that can be attained without the use of drugs.
Throughout Edan’s career so far, he has released mixtapes as little indicators of where he might be heading. 2004’s Sound of the Funky Drummer did just that, looking back at that most sampled sound on James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’, with Edan trying to make sense of the acts that have sampled it, providing a history and a critique and exhibiting Edan’s supreme talents as a DJ. It made 2005’s Beauty and the Beat both necessary and timely, and is deservedly regarded as one of the best independent hip-hop albums ever released. It sees Edan wishing he could “put Syd Barrett’s face on Biz Markie’s body and Kool G Rap’s brain” and somehow succeeding. Guests include Mr. Lif, Insight, Percee-P and Dagha exploring the fact that in that psychedelic rock period, “people were really going for it as far as the creative process is concerned”. Edan wanted to show that these seemingly incompatible musical strands could co-exist – “like Cold Crush or Rakim or G Rap could sit on top of something that sounded like early Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath or Hendrix.”
Over the last few years he has been working on various projects, producing other people, and swelling anticipation for his next full-length, but he did release the mixtape Echo Party in 2009, which was an interesting piece of work, where Traffic Entertainment Group gave him access to their “old school hip-hop archives”, which he used to produce something off-kilter and wonderful, rattling the archive and splicing it to create a challenging, brilliant confection that takes many classic hip-hop tracks setting them within a little hallucinogenic bubble. To accompany all of this, he collaborated with filmmaker Tom Fitzgerald (a longtime visual collaborator of Cut Chemist) to make Edan’s Echo Party Movie – “a fast-paced, retro conglomeration of unrelated and interesting video clips from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that prove to be like a Sour Patch Kid for the eye.”
Siobhán Kane talks to the original Sour Patch Kid – “schizophrenic genius” Edan.
You recently visited Bahrain with Paten Locke, who said he was so “satisfied” with the whole thing, and that the young people there were interested and engaged, how did it go?
That was part of it, we went over there to perform, do a workshop and DJ, and I also screened the Echo Party film I had done. It’s always satisfying to teach anyone something, and that part of the world – Bahrain – is somewhat of a safe starting point for anyone wanting to start checking out the Middle East flavour. I say that because it is fairly middle-class, there are some Western influences as far as shopping malls, what have you – it’s not as much as a culture shock as one might experience in India, or Afghanistan. I only say that because with places like India there is more poverty and desperation, but in Bahrain its true there are protests and demonstrations regularly, but for the most part they are non-violent, though I am sure that is not always the case, but there is a routine that plays out between the kids and the cops, and some of the villages, kids will throw rocks and Molotov Cocktails, the cops will throw tear gas, that plays out on a regular basis. We saw a bit of that, just off in the distance, we saw flames emerging from a neighbourhood, but aside from all of that it was a pleasant experience. In a place like Bahrain, it’s about 50/50 with natives and non-natives. Half of the women are veiled, half are not, half the men are wearing the traditional clothing, half are not – everyone was really pleasant. It was rewarding.
I sometimes think of you in that vein of teacher, especially when you are performing live, you are disseminating a culture.
Hopefully not yet [laughs], that might be what happens if I can’t cut it in the music world, no disrespect to the teaching profession. It’s all teaching in a way though, and I am still learning, it’s all a student-teacher cycle. Another thing about Bahrain, just to go back to that, it’s like you said – the “disseminating of culture”, that’s why we were there. We were there at the behest of the US Embassy, the government is doing what it can to smooth out perceptions of the West there. I didn’t feel like a guinea pig, I wasn’t waving a flag or anything, I just did what I did, and it was somewhat subversive considering what they are used to. It is important in a place like that, if you are doing something cultural, and maybe more “modern”, there is a chance you might be the first to help do that, the youth want something to create a stimulus, they have the internet, they know what’s going on. From what I understood there is a big heavy metal scene there, but it felt good to show an 8 year old kid to scratch, and to show a 30 year old woman that stuff too felt good. It is interesting to see there are still parts of the world in terms of culture and the creative arts that haven’t seen all that much, so it is a place where you can plant these new seeds that haven’t already been planted, it feels like uncharted territory in some ways.
The perceptions of the West in the East, and vice-versa are quite politicised, but the creative arts help to bridge political perceptions, when done well, or in a loving way.
In one respect, music should allow us to transcend all of that. I never really gave a shit about politics or wanted to think about anything that related to that, I was always burying my head in something else, on the imaginative side, because it is more interesting to me, politics always had the connotation of men in suits arguing – I have no interest in that, really. Some people might feel sophisticated by being up to date on current affairs, I never felt that way, I felt people who ignored that shit were the most sophisticated. But having said that the aim is to strike a balance of creative expression of the individual and then the collective, what’s good for people.
You had so many influences growing up, but what was it about NWA’s Straight Outta Compton that stopped you in your tracks?
It was the profanity, the curse words – it wasn’t really a deep thing, it was more like “yo these people make bad language sound really good” and the beats were good, there was a rebellious attitude to that stuff, the same as punk rock – it had that feeling, but then on top of it had the profanity, and the vulgarity in there, and when you are young it can be the first time you are hearing stuff like that. You listen to it with one of your homeboys and feel like you are getting away with something. It had an effect on me, but as I got into hip-hop on a deeper level, I went away from sensationalist gangsta-rap and got into the craft, the musical things that people were doing.
It makes sense then, that over ten years ago you started working with Mr Lif, who I view in the lineage of someone like KRS-One.
Yeah, definitely. Years ago after a show, I gave Lif some music, something very typical that could have resulted in nothing, but Lif is very open-minded, very friendly and social – and he embraces human energy and people, and I learned from that as well, how easy it is to be available – the whole celebrity thing is bullshit insofar as how someone presents themselves. So Lif was good enough to check out the music I gave him, and I reached out to him again to guest on the single ‘Rap Perfection’, and we have been friends since then. He keeps nagging me to get stuff together so he can guest on it, and I have to explain to him that it just takes me a really long time. I have somehow been able to make a living off music, even though the fact is I haven’t put out a true record since 2005, it’s a weird thing.
Why do you think it takes you so long now?
I wasn’t always like this, I used to be very prolific. It’s because I was a little more excited, through and through, it’s a youthful thing – the initial joy and purpose you feel that can come from that, a new power, I really went at it. I get moments now where I go at it and get deep into what I am doing, but I also want to stop and enjoy life and experience things without an agenda. Now I am fortunate to be in a position where I can make some money DJ’ing or what not. I have times where I am just scraping by, then get a call to do a DJ gig which will save my ass [laughs], like not too long ago, I wasn’t racking up the dough, and I was on the other line with a friend and I kept getting this call on the cellphone that looked like a solicitor – a number ending in 2000, and in the US you get calls like that from solicitors or insurance companies, an automated robot voice trying to sell you something, so I assumed it was that, and started complaining to my friend about solicitors, then the call persisted, and I finally picked up the phone after hanging up on them three times, and it was Warner Music Group asking me to DJ a private party for The Black Keys – weird shit bails me out at the strangest times. Shows are a good way of doing that, but tours are not glamorous, I don’t have ten people with us to handle everything, I’m carrying the bags, doing the soundcheck as soon as we get in, no time to sleep, your throat gets sore, I am not complaining, I do it because I love it, but it isn’t glamorous.
You are based in New York now, what are some of your favourite record shops there?
The East Village is still where most of the record shops are in New York, there’s Good Records, a spot on 5th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, and a block over, there is a Brazilian Record shop I like called Tropicalia in Furs which is run by a guy called Joel, who is born and raised in Brazil and goes back and forth bringing records back. There is also Big City, Academy, A1 – and then aside from that there are private dealers around the area, a friend of mine lives a few blocks away and is a dealer and I go over to his house and we go through stuff. The other day I went to a psych dealer in Queens, often it’s nice to go off the beaten tracks and deal with them directly.
Sometimes the idea that there are all these undiscovered gems is overwhelming.
Right, but after a while there is only time for so much, and you can only listen to one record at a time, so I just take what’s in front of me. I haven’t even really listened to much music on this tour, I don’t even know if I am even gonna buy records, I might just sleep [laughs].
Are there any recent records you have found that make you stop in wonder?
Huh, good question, let me think….
While you are thinking about that, I believe you fairly recently met one of your heroes, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, how was that?
I went to a screening of Holy Mountain, and Debbie Harry introduced the film [laughs]…anyway, I had a record from a play he done before El Topo, a theatre production captured on record, I brought it to him to get a little autograph, I told him my name, but he wrote it like ‘Idan’ or some shit, and I was trying to tell him how to spell it correctly, but ‘e’ is ‘i’ in Spanish, then he changed the wording when he was writing it, so it was ‘Idean’ -and with him you can’t tell if he was doing it on purpose to put a clever twist on it, because he is so well versed in a lot of things, language being one of them, so I was pleased with it when all is said and done. He seemed cool, there was a good energy. I have a lot of respect for him, a tremendous amount.
I can imagine you doing an alternative soundtrack – a live score to one of his films.
[Laughs] It would be cool to make a score to an original film in that vein. It would be great, but in that instance I would prefer to be in a band of several musicians. You know, going back to what we were saying before about work ethic, I do struggle with it, because I want to work every day, and make songs every day. I think just doing it is it – I think to look around for help is an excuse, if you are dedicated, you do it, and if you want to make a difference and be the best you can, you just do it, and stop pampering yourself, and stop looking for that mystical magical moment when the stars are aligned. For me I am tired of that. One of my heroes, and someone I look to is Alexander Calder [sculptor and artist]- I don’t know what his struggles were like, but he seems to be this jolly fellow in his workshop every day, creating something nice, with this simplistic attitude behind it, a simple loving quality – and I hope to hit that stride one day, just making something nice on a daily basis, whatever that means to me, and for others to benefit from. Self fulfillment will come when you do something for others. I want to be in that scope, doing something I feel is truly beautiful so that others can enjoy it.
Does touring renew you in that sense, to the point where you cannot wait to get back home and create?
Sometimes you get that. I have a guitar here that I use for the shows, and I could create some new stuff, and I have actually been writing and singing some songs on a nylon string guitar, I have been recording some of that stuff and want to see where that goes, I’d like to put some of that stuff out.
You love reading, who are you reading at the moment?
Lord Dunsany [Irish writer], he’s like my favourite writer. A friend of mine recommended him to me, he liked H.P Lovecraft and people like that, and he put me onto that stuff, but the short stories of Dunsany, the early twentieth century – that stuff hits me the hardest. Out of the triumvirate of those fantasy writers, he’s my favourite.
I also want to shout out my homeboy Tim Presley who is in a band White Fence, he puts out rock records and there is a bit of sixties psychedelia in there, and punk. It’s derivative but in the way all great artists need to be, they need to walk in the shoes of their heroes, and discover who they truly are. He makes good records at a very fast pace, more than one record a year. He just put out a new record….again. And I’ll think on about those records, and get back to you.
Edan plays the Sugar Club with Mr. Lif, Patten Locke & Willy Evans Jr this Friday, 11th May on their Trap Door Rapp Tour. More details from Choice Cuts.