Onra isn’t Big on Southern Rap
Arnaud Bernard’s Chinoiseries – both parts – were masterful opuses that translated the French beatsmith’s fixation for Sino-centric records (of which he has over 400 copies) into potent sample-based hip hop instrumentals. Released in late ‘00s and early ‘10s, they were records out of time – sounding more like the peak of instrumental hip hop (i.e. Shadow, RJD2) and Stones Throw Records-style beat tapes from years back than today’s SoundCloud gen of trap-informed producers. This ethos is heard on his other releases as well; 1.0.8 and Long Distance were heavy on funk and old school r’n’b. With last year’s Fundamentals, this style trajectory led to its logical destination; a G-funk-indebted modern record that pays homage to ‘90s hip hop – this time scrapping the beat tape aesthetic for a fuller, more complete record that features the best Golden Age-appropriating MCs (and a few from that actual era). It helps that the man had remained loyal to the MPC throughout the makings of these albums, only deciding to move to newer production methods recently. Ahead of his Red Bull Music Academy lecture and performance at Raising the Bar Festival ’16, JUICE spoke to him about DJing via only the laptop, the hierarchy of beats and lyrics in hip hop, and the fundamentals of a good producer.
Image Red Bull Music Academy
You usually perform with a two MPC setup. Once you switch to more current gear to produce – as you’d stated you will – do you see your DJ/live setup changing too?
I guess so – I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m not too worried. A lot of producers just DJ off Ableton, not even play live, and the setup seems way easier than mine.
Speaking of which, what do you make of cats who DJ or play purely out of the softwares on their laptop?
It’s convenient. I understand why people are doing this; some of my DJ sets come out from a computer as well. I don’t think people really care that much actually – so many times [when] I was playing live with all hardware equipments and still people were thinking I was DJing…
Fundamentals isn’t a straight-up ‘90s-sounding record. But was it a conscious decision to make a ‘90s record that doesn’t necessarily sound ‘90s or use ‘90s method?
Yeah, it was more about the feel of what an album used to be in the ‘90s than a straight-up throwback album. I think there’s been some kind of miscommunication in the promotion of that album. But it definitely has that ‘90s method since everything comes out from the MPC.
New hip hop is considerably less dependent on samples – and maybe it doesn’t dig that deep into the past too – do you think sampling has become something of a lost art now?
I think sampling is still very much current, all big songs off Drake, The Weeknd, etc., contain samples… it is not a lost art! But people taking stuff off YouTube and not considering the audio quality that much is definitely something new.
Fundamentals is so funky. Were you more of a West Coast guy back then?
I was both West Coast and East Coast, but I guess I always loved the funk.
There was a bit of advice you gave to new producers, that they should learn piano and guitar. We thought this was interesting because we noticed that most producers who grew up with softwares might be able to produce great tunes, but they’re considerably less musical. Were you thinking of the same when giving out the advice?
Not really, I mean, these days, there are softwares that can do chord progressions automatically in a couple clicks, so I guess learning an instrument is not necessary at all, but obviously it’s always going to be a plus! I wish I learnt piano when I was young too.
We read that growing up, you weren’t fond of drum machines due your preference for live drums. What led to your love affair with the MPC then?
We’re talking about a different kind of drum machines and sounds here. When I was growing up, in the ‘90s, the ‘80s ‘sound’ sounded old and it just wasn’t in trend at all anymore. [So], the MPC is a sampler more than a drum machine, you can make it sound in any way you want, contrary to a TR-808 which is strictly a drum machine.
Recently, we’ve been seeing this meme image saying how hip hop died when beats become more important than lyrical content. As a producer, what do you make of this? Rappers today seem to think the quality of hip hop begins and ends with their rapping…
It’s a misinterpretation of the term hip hop; hip hop is a culture, movement, lifestyle, way of thinking, not just the music… and therefore, that will never die cause there are still plenty of people [who are] into this. But you can tell the spirit of authentic hip hop is becoming rarer and rarer over the years, it doesn’t really translate to our times right now. And I think the influence of Southern rap in hip hop killed it all.
What would you say are the fundamentals every producer needs to have?
Just being original, create your own sound, don’t bite other contemporary artistes, and be spontaneous and all about the feeling.
Onra is set to talk at the first RBMA Session in Malaysia of 2016 tomorrow at Raising the Bar Festival ’16, where he will later play at as well.