Brand-New World: Hudson Mohawke Takes a Break From Rap on His Latest Album

The Scottish producer talks about working with Kanye and Miguel, his controversial quotes, and why he’s walking away from hip-hop (for now).

Hudson Mohawke is nervous. Despite a welcoming smile and handshake, the producer from Glasgow, Scotland, carries an air of discomfort. His unease is understandable. It’s a little past 10 a.m., way earlier than most musicians would willingly agree to meet for an interview. But here we are in the lobby of New York City’s Tribeca Grand Hotel. He apologizes for being more than 30 minutes late, explaining that he had to handle some last-minute negotiations for an upcoming show. He orders a cup of tea and settles into one of the hotel’s plush leather couches. People come and go without the slightest idea that one of the best producers working today is chilling in their midsts. But that’s how Mohawke prefers it.

Born Ross Birchard to an acting teacher and a BBC radio host, Mohawke, 29, has had one of the most unlikely rises in recent memory. He started out as a kid experimenting with Fruity Loops in his parents’ basement, and after winning a number of DJ competitions, he has risen to become one of the most in-demand producers working today, in multiple genres. He and Canadian producer Lunice, whom he met in 2008, formed a duo called TNGHT, and together, they are responsible for popularizing a form of electronic music that we now refer to as “trap”—a bass-y mix of fluttering high-hats and thunderous drops that has become the go-to sound for music festivals the world over. He’s dropped his own albums full of productions that bridge the gap between classic soul-based hip-hop production (he’s gone on record to say his favorite producer is Just Blaze). And he’s produced for Drake (“Connect“), Pusha T (“Hold On”), and, most famously, Kanye West.

Mohawke has arguably made his biggest impact on popular music with West. Recruited in 2013 to join West’s Very G.O.O.D. Beats production company, after working on “Mercy” for the Good Music compilation album, Cruel Summer, Mohawke helped craft the sound for West’s industrial, minimalist, sixth album, Yeezus. He also put in work—along with about 30 other people—on “All Day,” the single for Ye’s upcoming album, SWISH. All of that is a lot for anyone to accomplish, let alone a man who has difficulty speaking above library tones. You would think that by now, little would phase the guy who splits his time between London and Los Angeles. So, what is making Hudson Mohawke so nervous? “Doing shows like tonight, because it’s the first time we’re doing a band show,” he says. His performance tonight at Irving Plaza will be the first time he plays with a live band, and he’s been working painstakingly to make sure everything, including a custom-made neon sign that spells out his name, is perfect.

However, talk to him long enough and you get the sense that what actually makes Hudson Mohawke nervous is this—interviews. For a guy with such a low profile, his words have caused quite an uproar. For that reason he keeps mum on a number of topics. For example, during a recent interview with the Guardian, when asked about his work on West’s upcoming album, Mohawke said: “I just don’t say anything. I’ve learned the hard way. The amount of times I’ve said to the interviewer, ‘That’s not recording, make sure that’s not recording,’ then all of a sudden the headline is whatever I’ve said, ‘Under no circumstances can you say this.’ So, now I say as little as possible.”

Photo by Liz Barclay

Certain questions, usually about his contemporaries or the influence his work has had on the industry, make him writhe in his seat and shake his head. This is all very understandable when you consider that back in 2013, when Jay Z released his Samsung-endorsed Magna Carter Holy Grail, Mohawke voiced his displeasure with Hov’s 12th solo album on Twitter, saying, “hove [sic] is not quite ready, had a gang of my stuff to choose from n passed up on it for his record. Ye on th other hand unafraid to take risks.” He assured disgruntled Jigga fans that despite his critique, he was a big Jay Z fan; he just felt that “this record could’ve come out 10 yrs ago n no one would’ve batted an eyelid.” Mike Dean, one the producers in West’s camp, took to Twitter to tell the young upstart to be mindful of his words and not to “burn your bridge for WTT 2!”

Mohawke is more media trained now, less quick on the draw to talk about anything that doesn’t directly relate to him. He’d much rather talk about himself and the goal of his new album, Lantern, which is set to be released June 16 via Warp Records. After a recent run producing for some of the biggest names in rap, many thought this project would feature a who’s who of rap stars (especially considering how ill last year’s “Chimes (Remix),” which featured Pusha T, Future, Travi$ Scott, and French Montana, was). Then there was the gem he let loose on LuckyMe’s Rinse FM show, “Ryderz,” a beat that would sound right at home on a 2015 Dipset project.

The only guests on Lantern are singers. It’s surprising because when asked why he hasn’t done more R&B work, he claims it’s because people think his stuff is too weird. Obviously, Miguel didn’t feel that way, as he shows up on the beautiful lo-fi ballad “Deepspace.” Jhené Aiko also makes an appearance, on “Resistance,” which sounds like a radio-ready hit. In a way, Lantern doesn’t feel as experimental as his previous album, 2009’s Butter, which at times felt purposefully messy. In an interview with Thump, he explained that “this is me as a producer, not a beatmaker. It’s expanding on a lot of things I’ve wanted to do for years. Trying to make actual songs rather than a beat.”

Hence tonight’s show. As part of his mission to show people that he’​s capable of more than “tweaking the fucking knob on a keyboard,” Hudson Mohawke takes the stage at Irving Plaza and positions himself between a keyboardist and a drummer. As Mohawke runs through his string of hits and new tracks, the crowd seems mostly indifferent to the musicians, who dutifully and ably assist with each song. You get the feeling they would respond the same if Mohawke were up there by himself twisting knobs. But it’s a valiant effort, one that he seems to enjoy, as evidenced by an ear-to-ear smile that appears toward the end of the set. If you didn’t know any better you would think he wasn’t nervous at all.

Photo by Liz Barclay

Can you clarify all of the deals that you are currently signed to?
I’m signed to a label in the U.K. called Warp. It’s revered as one of the original electronic labels. To be involved with them was a huge shock for me in the first place because they’ve done some hip-hop stuff before—they had Beans and they obviously had Prefuse 73 and stuff like that—but it’s been…. The type of hip-hop stuff that they’ve gone for in the past has been quite left-field, so I was shocked for them to approach me. I see my own production as more straight-up rap production. I know I have done a lot more weirdo electronic stuff at the same time.

Most people I’ve spoken to in America consider your work to be left.
It’s left, but it’s maybe not as left as what a lot of material that is released on Warp is. It’s the quintessential “left” label. So, I’m signed with them, and I’m signed with Very G.O.O.D. Beats, which is the production company. As far as G.O.O.D. Music and beyond that, I’m a free agent.

“My honest opinion is that things are a little bit safe at the moment.”

What are your thoughts on the current rap landscape?
I hate mentioning names in interviews because it’s always misconstrued and misquoted and I’ll be getting angry DMs from people. As far as the more A-list records, a lot of people are looking to the more European side, and that’s within pop as well. They’re exploring out with the kind of traditional rap production as it were. Not mentioning any names.

You famously mentioned that Magna Carta was not adventurous enough.
This is the type of shit that gets me in trouble.

Do you feel as a whole that…
—my honest opinion is that things are a little bit safe at the moment. I feel like the artists know that themselves. It’s a similar thing as the TNGHT project. We can continue doing this and keep doing it, and it’s probably going to be rewarding financially, and it’s probably going to lead to bigger and bigger shows, but creatively it just wasn’t scratching my creative itch at that moment. That’s why we decided to put it on hiatus for a little while until we both have released our solo records. I feel that that’s the same thing as is happening with a lot of rappers now. You can have a record that comes out with like 20 songs on it and every beat is just the same drum sounds.

Photo by Andy Hur

How do you feel your sound has been utilized?
I was having this discussion with someone yesterday because I know you kind of have to, but I’ve never been one to fight for the full credits on shit. There are a lot of people who don’t know that I worked on “Mercy” in the first place, and there are a bunch of songs which maybe I’ve spent a month working on and someone else has written like two words on it and they have an equal credit. Once you get lawyers and shit involved it’s just too tiring.

How much control are you given in that creative process?
It’s become a much better situation now. When you find yourself in a situation working with those sort of artists, it’s regardless of what your background is; as far as your solo releases, as far as anything else, that’s all out the window. You start at the bottom rung of the ladder and you have to work your way up. You have to earn your stripes, and that takes time, and it’s been something that I’ve been gradually building over the last couple of years since starting to work with them. When I first started to work with them it was very much, you know, you’re given an idea to work on. Whereas I feel like now it’s more of a situation of like, “What’s your take on this? What’s your approach to this? What would you do with this?” That’s obviously a far better situation to be in, but you have to cut your teeth within that world to get to that situation. I’m still not fully there. It’s an ongoing process. It’s definitely better. I definitely have more creative freedom now, as far as working on other people’s music, than I did when I first started back in 2011.

When Yeezus came out, because of the way Kanye works and his ability to orchestrate people’s influences to create a very focused and singular product, a lot of people thought that Travi$ Scott was the primary influence on the album. It seems now that you were a harder influence than anybody to that album. Is that fair to say?
Again, this is the kind of shit that gets me into trouble. I’m a huge Travi$ fan. Me and Travi$ have done a bunch of shit together and a bunch of shows in Europe together, and we quite often find one another on the same lineups at European festivals and stuff, so he’ll jump up if I’m playing and shit like that. We’ve ended up doing a bunch of shit together. As far as the harder electronic influences on the record, [that] was more Daft Punk’s influence, Arca’s influence, [my] influence, even Rick Rubin’s as well. Also, Travi$ is a fucking incredible electronic producer. I would not class Travi$ as just being a hip-hop rap producer. He has some crazy ideas. It was very much a joint project. I enjoyed that project probably more so than working on Cruel Summer. The Cruel Summer project, there were 40 people involved or something like that. When we were doing Yeezus there were maybe six or seven people involved in it. So it’s much more of a teamwork process. It’s a more exciting approach.

“I will still always love the rap stuff, and it’s still something that I want to be involved in, but I just didn’t want to make an actual rap record.”

What about “All Day”?
I don’t want to put this in an interview, either, to be honest. All I’m saying about that song is that we finished that song in my studio in London and as a result of that [I was] subsequently asked to leave the studio.

You were asked to leave your studio?
The owner guy was like, “What the fuck has happened here over the last weekend?” This is my own studio in London, but it’s sort of a compound of studios and there’s one manager. We were there for like four or five days finishing that song, but that’s all I have to say about that song.

What is it that you can learn from Kanye?
For me, it’s just the actual working process rather than…. Obviously there’s a lot of musical influence, but as you were saying earlier, the actual process of doing a record together, directing a whole bunch of people, it is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my own new record. I bring in a musician for this part, call someone up if I need an extra backing vocal here, I need the guitar bit here. So having that sort of approach to production, as opposed to what I used to do, which was just be sat in the middle of the night with headphones on in my mom’s basement hunched over a laptop. Putting together a record in the more traditional sense is what an actual producer does instead of just [being] a beatmaker.

Photo by Liz Barclay

Is there a story behind Lantern?
Basically the idea of it and the title of it came from the intro track. The intro track was already called “Lantern,” and it’s like a noise drone intro thing. We had the idea that going from there would be the lantern flowing through a 24-hour period, going through the day so that the first couple of tracks are the more daytime radio tracks, which builds into the more orchestral stuff, which goes into the Miguel and Jhené songs, which are the evening songs, and then finishes on the tracks which would be like the end of the day, going out to the club. I basically just tell the story of 24 hours.

My favorite track besides “Ryderz” is the Miguel song.
Miguel is fucking incredible. One of my favorite things about Miguel is that we’ve been in touch for a number of years, since before he blew up, and we’d always talked about doing something, and I thought, “Shit, he’s blowing up. There’s going to be no chance.” But the fact that he’s carved out his own entire niche but is still super down-to-earth and is like, “Yep, let’s do something,” is refreshing, because I know a lot of people who are far less successful than him who would just be like, “Yeah, a little taste of success, fuck you.”

“I don’t necessarily want to be known as just a rap producer. So that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with this record.”

Reading your interviews it seems you want to distance yourself from everybody to work on your own stuff.
It’s not so much wanting to distance myself, it’s more so that I’ve noticed, and some people have pointed out to me, that thereve been a couple of articles that refer to this record as being my debut solo record. I’m like, “I had records out 10 years ago,” I guess to reiterate my whole range of influences for the people who have maybe only become aware of me since the TNGHT project. That project took off, and people maybe weren’t aware of me before that and probably are in the sort of mindset of that’s the only kind of music that I make, that’s my only thing. So, I wanted to do something new, which was a challenge to myself, and something that wasn’t just a straight rap record as well. I did the rap shit last year. I did the Rap Monument thing, that Hennessy project that was like 45 minutes of straight rap. I will still always love the rap stuff, and it’s still something that I want to be involved in, but I just didn’t want to make an actual rap record. There’s a little bit of limited longevity. To put out a rap record, it might be hot for like six months or a year or so. I wanted to make something that I personally would listen to in 10 years’ time.

So you’re not bored with rap yet?
Nah, I’m not bored with rap, I just think that it’s not something that I…. I mean, I’m working on a bunch of people’s records and all, but I don’t necessarily want to be known as just a rap producer. So that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with this record.

Photo by Liz Barclay

What about R&B?
The funny thing is that the first record that I put out was like a bunch of R&B but with my own production, and luckily we didn’t get sued for it. We only made, like, a thousand copies. We made a point of using the same font, the same typeface on the cover of the new record as was on that record, and that was my first piece of vinyl. That was my first solo Hudson Mohawke record, and so as far as the R&B stuff it’s always been something I’ve been interested in. That’s why I wanted to have the Jhené track on here. But at this stage, after that original little bootleg record, I didn’t imagine myself being in a position to actually work alongside any of these people, so I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll sing a bunch of a cappellas.” If you’re a kid from Scotland, there’s no fucking R&B singer or rap singer, so you download some shit from LimeWire or whatever it was then and make a bunch of instrumentals.

“If you’re a kid from Scotland, there’s no f***ing R&B singer or rap singer, so you download some s**t from LimeWire or whatever it was then and make a bunch of instrumentals.”

You came into rap on a mainstream level with an extremely fresh sound. What would you do if you lent your talents to R&B?
It’s still something that could take a little while. I spent quite a few years submitting for a lot of R&B projects, and this was before I was working with Very G.O.O.D. Beats, but the majority of the feedback that I got was that it was just too weird. “No one can sing on this because people aren’t going to get it.” Whereas now there are these crazy fucking productions and they’ve become huge songs. It could still take a little while before the doors are fully open, but it’s definitely something I’m pursuing.

Do you want to move away from the sound you’ve made with Very G.O.O.D. Beats and Kanye and reinvent yourself in any way?
No, it’s not about reinventing it. It’s more about letting people know that I have been releasing a bunch of records before I started doing that shit. That exposed me to a whole new audience, but it’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily know that I have a bunch of previous releases, so that’s something that I’m revisiting with this record.

Photo by Liz Barclay

What makes you nervous?
Doing shows like tonight, because it’s the first time we’re doing a band show. Pretty much all live. It’s a totally new experience, but it’s exciting as well. As much as I fucking love DJing and everything it’s so easy to just walk up to a club with a USB stick. Considering it’s a new record, I want to do something a bit more challenging with the live format and how I present the music.

I’m interested in hearing your take on certain new projects.
There are numerous occasions where I’ve been misquoted, and there are also people who have made fake Twitter accounts, fake Snapchat, and posted up, leaking certain material and shit like this. I end up having to phone the artist and be like, “This is not me, this is someone who has made a fake account.” I tend to keep my mouth shut.

That went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I was going to ask about the Kendrick album.
[Laughs.] The Kendrick album is excellent. I’m a superfan. A lot of people have had mixed feelings toward that record because it’s obviously not just a straight rap record, but that’s more of a symptom of narrow-minded listeners rather than it not being a good record. It’s an excellent record, especially having people like Thundercat involved in it. It’s a much more expansive musical endeavor than just, “Right, I’m gonna get a bunch of beats and do a bunch of verses.” It’s trying to make a full project, which I admire.

I like the direction that artists seem to be going in. For example, Rocky was holed up in Europe with Danger Mouse and other people instead of just buying beats.
Exactly. I feel like that’s why things became a little bit stagnant with the straight-up rap stuff because people weren’t even in the studio with one another. It was like, “I’ll fucking buy this beat off you, you can just email it over.” There’s no actual chemistry or atmosphere or vibe in the studio. It’s like, “Send us the files for that.” That’s not a fun approach to making music. It should be fun at the end of the day. Involving a bunch of people and making it more of a vibe is crucial.

Photo by Liz Barclay

There’s a quote from you saying that this is you as a producer, not a beatmaker.
As far as my first record, it was a fun record to make, but I had this idea in my head that it had to be technical and full-on. Whereas I feel like with this I’ve intentionally stripped things down and involved a lot more actual live musicians instead of me tweaking the fucking knob on a keyboard. It was just a more interesting approach. It’s something that I wanted to try and do rather than just be sitting alone creating a record again.

You and Lunice are just taking a break from TNGHT, right?
Yeah, a lot of people would say that it was a stupid move, but we found ourselves in a situation where a number of major U.S. labels were coming to us, essentially like, “We can get you whoever you want on a track, make us an album. Just make us a fucking rap record, and here’s a blank check.” I can’t say that we didn’t consider it, because we absolutely did, but we both felt like it could be hugely successful for like two years or something and then nobody knows the sort of graft that we cut into our solo careers before that, and then we’d have to have brackets around our name on every flyer for the rest of our lives.

Did Lunice help you at all with this album?
Yeah, we see each other every so often, and I certainly played him a bunch of stuff. He has his own solo record. I’m not sure exactly when it’s coming out, but it’s coming within the next couple of months, and that’s something he’s been working on for the last couple of years as well. But again, because of both of our commitments to other projects it’s taken him an extra couple years as well to get his project together. There will definitely still be more TNGHT music, but it doesn’t feel right at the moment. Even though there’s a lot of money in this quote-unquote EDM trap music shit, I feel like it’s a bit of a parody. It’s a bit of a joke.

Photo by Liz Barclay

What do you mean by that?
When we first put the TNGHT record out it caused that genre of instrumental beats that you could play in the club, and because that wasn’t a huge thing you had a wide variety of people playing it, from the most technical underground DJs to the biggest worldwide massive EDM DJs. I feel like now that sound has become pigeonholed. It’s become a fist-pumping type of thing. That wasn’t what we were trying to do. We just wanted to put that record out and thought it would be a cool record to put out. We had no expectations for it. There will be another TNGHT record, but it’s not going to sound like the first TNGHT record.

What can you say about the album with Antony?
When we were first in touch it was good timing because he wanted to make a record but wanted it to have a more electronic approach, which is something he’s not well known for. He’s been more orchestral and more piano focused. I wanted to work with him for years because I started hearing his incredible voice. So we met up, and we must have made an album worth of songs within a couple of weeks. The song for my record was done first, and there was a bunch of other songs. There’s talk of it being maybe one or two tracks come out every month for the rest of the year. I’m not fully certain on the plans for it. Rough Trade picked it up, and it’s definitely a departure from his other material, and it’s a departure from my material as well. It’s exciting for me to be involved in a project like that and to have someone who you admire approach you and say, “Would you like to do an actual full record?” OPN is involved in the project as well. I’m excited.

How famous do you want to be?
It’s not something that I think about. We did the Red Bull Festival here last year and they had big murals painted of my face, and every time I saw them, I would go, “Oh, Christ.”

Show Comments