Interview Kevin Ho + JUICE Malaysia
Bot might have left Crookers for nearly three years now, but Francesco ‘Phra’ Barbaglia still carries on the torch as a single individual. And as much of a fan we are of Bot, Phra is indubitably the funnier, more personable of the two with a larger than life personality that borders on the boisterous Italian stereotype (he is after all an Italian chef as well) sans the religious fervour (he wants no part in Christianity, nor any religion for that matter). Continuing where he and Bot left off with their seminal Mad Decent release Dr. Gonzo LP, Crookers’ latest album, Sixteen Chapel (2014, Ciao Recs), is similar in its conflation of electro house, hip hop, and a wide array of genres Phra best described as “bonkers”. Bonkers, as it turns out, is exactly the right terminology to describe our interview with Phra – going anywhere from Italo disco ignorance to incest jokes.
Something we like to ask Italian artistes, have you been influenced or wanted to go into the same direction as Italo disco?
Italo disco, huh? To be totally [honest], I cannot be super hipster [by] saying that I am into Italo disco since forever and [knew] all the artistes and followed them [since before]. No. I don’t even know what it is – Italo disco. I’m more into US hip hop, and not into disco, for real. I saw people jumping into that scene to get the most out of it – I respect them. I’m alright with everything, but I don’t know anything about the [Italo disco scene].
Exactly, we’ve spoken to other Italian acts and they’ve mentioned that Italians don’t even know what Italo is…
… No, no, no, no! No, we know but… Italians probably know what Italo disco is, I don’t know, but if I compare to how much I know of other stuff – I know 1% of Italo disco. If we are talking about like the early stage of house in Italy, I know a little bit more because I was interested in that: Riviera Sound, Massimino Lippoli, Ricky Montanari, DJ Ralf. All those people were where it started out for house music in Italy for me – they’re the real deal. That was the first thing that I was interested in in Italy. Italo disco, I know that a lot of people love Daniele Baldelli, they say that he’s probably the grandfather of Italo disco. I met him at Soul Works Radio. He was travelling from Italy because he doesn’t take planes. [The people at Soul Works] were fucking idolising him because he was like the grandfather of Italo disco – I didn’t know him and I felt so stupid that night. But he is a nice guy, nice Italian guy.
So that was the scene you were initially into, how did hip hop come into the equation later on?
Actually it was the reverse. When I was 11, I got into hip hop and rap. When I was 11, it was like ’91, so I got into the rap scene… there was no scene actually. It was not a scene; everything was Italian, so everything was super fresh. We were just trying to understand what was going on outside of Italy and try to make it our own. It’s really difficult when it’s not something that grew or started in your own country – so it was like some people were faking it to be American and some other people were making it in a proper Italian way, which were the guys I loved the most. When I just started doing music, I was a DJ doing turntablism – it was easier for me because there was nothing to fake; just take the right music and practise your ass off. It’s not like trying to rap or dress in a way or do some stuff, it was just practising the whole day. And then I started to see the real scene from ’93 to ’97, ’98; it was a proper hip hop scene in Italy. Then it quitted completely, finished forever, and it started again last year – big time. Like in the mainstream way. Like all the #1s in Italy right now are hip hop and rap. Now, all the real hits in Italy, it’s all from the rap people. Before it was people singing about love, like proper old school love songs. Pop, or I don’t know if there’s a way to say [the genre] in Italian but whatever, now it’s all rap. Good or bad or whatever, it’s really all hype at the moment. All the kids, they were just like (makes a sound of being in awe). They know nothing about the past. They are just into this super new rap thing.
Are they good though?
There are a few that I really like because they are still the same guys that used to be in the past and ended up being actually number one now. These people have been there for fucking twenty years and they are really, really good, and they are real people doing their thing since forever. They changed [their music] to do it better in the mainstream but it’s still really good, so it’s really nice.
You’re someone who’s into turntablism and you perform at sort of EDM-oriented festivals. Do you feel like playing in the traditional hip hop sense of ‘DJing’ is in danger of becoming extinct when people think you’re just DJing to this kind of crowd?
Kinda like extinguished? I don’t know. We can open a super big discussion and be rude on some stuff and not be rude on some other stuff. I think it goes with technology, right? Like turntablists at that time were using what was the technology possibilities at that time [that were the best]. It was the same with the production, like we used to produce music in 1992, 1993 with a sampler that can sample three seconds of pieces of music and you’d find a way – if you are clever – to sample more or use it in a better way to make the best beat out of a shitty machine. Now with [new] technology, you can do whatever you want, you don’t even have all the problems that we used to have before. The stuff is now all in your laptop and also with DJing, you cannot play to any one if there is no more skill of doing something, because it’s too easy. There is probably a different way to show if you are okay at doing what you are doing, there is no more of, like a technical way [of showing it]. I think it’s always gonna pay though if you are a good DJ and you know what you are doing and you can show that to people, because it’s pretty difficult to show it; because if you’re playing at a festival, you can show anything, like you’re so distant from people, you can do the best tricks and the crowd is gonna be like, okayyyyy (in an unimpressed tone). So it all depends on that, I always love people who know what they’re doing. You know when you see Craze plays, or A-Trak, all those people, you can see the difference of what’s the real deal [and what’s not].
The song ‘Heavy’, there is a very interesting sample in that song; It sounds like a girl having sex.
Yeah, it is.
It is a girl…
… it is my sister.
Wha– Could you tell us more about that?
(Laughs) I know it’s pretty cheesy, using sex noises is pretty cheesy – it’s not my sister by the way.
(Laughs) Off the record.
Yes, off the record, it’s not my sister (laughs). Uh, let’s say this, being into the music scene for lots of years, I remember lots of records that I used to love and a lot of cassettes that I used to love were inside B-movies, mostly sex movies.
Yes, soft porn. Not even like… it was a little line between soft porn and that vedo non vedo thing, as we call it, like you see it, you don’t see it. Yeah, and there were a lot of sex music, sexy stuff, and I think it was a pretty good idea for me, for what is my stupid brain. I thought it was a super good idea on the ‘Heavy’ song to put like a (laughs) deep, sexy orgasm as a break. I don’t think too much actually on this stuff. I was like “Okay, this sample sounds really good, it’s got a pretty good build-up. Let’s use it like it’s a riser. Okay.” That was the thing. I know it was a cheesy thing to do, that’s for sure.
Going back to the first question, when a lot of people think of Italian dance music, they think of Italo disco. But if we were to go Italy right now, what is the sound that we will find in the clubs?
I would say there’s more diversity right now. Depends on mostly which city you wanna go because it’s always like, if you go north of Italy, let’s say you went to Milan or Bologna, it can be a lineup – more acts, so you can find some cool stuff from UK, Germany, France, from Italy, whatever. If you go to Rome, you can find something that was cool two years ago. So, they are like a little bit behind (laughs). If you go down south, they are more into techno and deep house, minimal, all that stuff. And then West-South, it’s reggae, just reggae. Yeah, the reggae scene is huge, it’s like being in Jamaica.
Wow. Which region?
Lecce. Puglia. Salento. Salento is a part of Puglia. That part of Puglia, said by the people from Jamaica, is like being in Jamaica but in another country. It’s like the same thing. There’s reggae pretty everywhere, so I would say it depends on the city. You can find pretty much the same cool artiste travelling around Europe; they come to Italy too. And about the scene, for the kids, like the local kids, they all try to do rap.
Or DJ rap, or something in between electro or… yeah, 14, 13, 12 years old kids trying to do EDM, like big records, (yells), crazy, cheesy stuff, big room. All the little kids, big room, and all the big guys, little room.
You had an album called Sixteen Chapel, was it a reference to Sistine Chapel?
Yeah, it’s a reference of the error that Americans or foreign people [would] normally do when they come to Rome. Like the most common error is that they call the Sistine Chapel, the Sixteen Chapel. So, while I was in a studio with a rapper making some of the album, on the verse he rapped “Sixteen Chapel”, and then he came out of the booth and was like “Ah fuck! I did it wrong! Fuck! Fuck! I knew it! Fuck!” I was like, “No, no, it’s alright!”, “No, no, I’m gonna re-sing it!”, “No, no, it’s alright!”, “No, no, I’m gonna re-sing it, it’s too fucking stupid! I did it wrong! It’s not Sixteen Chapel, it’s Sistine Chapel!” I was like, “Dude, it’s perfect. It’s amazing and I’m gonna use it as the album name.” It’s actually a normal error that everyone can do – Sixteen Chapel.
Do you consider yourself a religious person?
Religious? O-kay. I didn’t expect something like this. I don’t want to be too rude against the church, but you know, being from Italy and having the Vatican inside your country is kinda weird. It’s like soccer, it’s either you love it or you hate it (laughs). I don’t love it. So, I’m not really interested. And I also had to do… you know when you don’t do the military and you join the other service? Social service? I did it on a religious [basis]… big thing. So, I had to experience a lot of bullshit because of the bullshit of that kind of people. After that, okay, cool, I’m not interested in any of this. Let’s just say I’m not a religious guy – not at all. Not even like trying to find another religion. Nah!