TEN QUESTIONS WITH: CYNE
Sometimes an EP establishes expectations that the full-length (for which it's designed as a lead-in) fails to match. Not in CYNE's case: the promise of its Growing and Running Water EPs is more than fully realized by the fantastic Evolution Fight, the group's full-length debut on the Berlin imprint City Centre Offices. On the eve of the album's release, Michael “Speck” Gersten, one of CYNE's two producers (the other members are fellow producer David “Enoch” Newell and MCs Clyde “Cise Star” Graham and Akin Yai), generously answered questions about the album, the group's history and production methods, and other topics.
1. You previously recorded for Botanica Del Jibaro, the hip-hop sub-label of Miami-based Beta Bodega (run by Rick Garrido and Steven Castro), which seemed a natural geographical fit given CYNE's Gainesville, Florida base. How did you hook up with City Centre Offices and what prompted the decision to join the Berlin-based label?
Our dialogue with CCO began sometime after Time Being came out. Thaddi (Thaddeus Herrmann, co-owner of City Centre Offices) wrote a review of the record for a Berlin-based magazine called De:Bug. I can't remember why he emailed us—maybe it was for promo photos, or for an address to send copies of the issue to—but I recognized the name from the Herrmann and Kleine releases on Morr Music that I had heard. I wrote him back to thank him and to let him know I was familiar with his work. We started an ongoing email conversation, pretty much just about music, and then we started trading records. I sent him some commercial rap, and then he sent me some Harold Budd, I sent him some Must!Delicious releases, and he sent me some Giardini Di Miro; it continued like this for a while. He was also really helpful with advice about business, distribution, and the European markets. Anyway, when time came for us to find a home for our new material it just seemed logical to join CCO; their quality control is high, and we had already established a relationship, and it was based on shared or exchanged musical views. That seemed like a solid platform to begin with. Eventually, I met with Shlom (the UK half of CCO) and I had a similar experience. These guys can listen to records and talk about music all day. We appreciate their enthusiasm and range.
2. The Botanica Del Jibaro release Collection (1999-2003) confirms that CYNE's members have been together for a number of years now. What's the group's take on its own evolution with respect to audience awareness? Do you see Evolution Fight as a critical step in exposing CYNE to a much broader audience? Has the release of two EPs (Growing and Running Water) during the past year worked as a strategy to build anticipation for the full-length?
Audience awareness is difficult to gauge. I mean, once we started getting contacted from people from different parts of the world, we realized the music was getting out there and settling well with a wide range of listeners. Our two tours (Europe and the US) also gave us some perspective on the crowds and how the music was received and perceived. The response to CYNE in Europe and Japan has always been strong, and the US has been our biggest challenge. But, we're at the point where all of the major online hip-hop stores are carrying our music. So the word is spreading and, like any other group, we would love to believe that there might even be some anticipation for the new record. But, this steam has been building for a while: we have ten releases under our belt, and the success of the last two singles has definitely brought attention to the older records; we just have a difficult time pinpointing where the interest starts, because for most hip hop fans in the states, learning about CCO or getting their hands on those releases is not so easy.
3. Though the CYNE site states that the group's origins lie in West Africa and Florida, can you be more specific about the members' backgrounds and how the four of you came together?
Dave and Clyde were both born and raised in the Gainesville area of Florida. I moved there from Miami Beach when I was 15. Akin moved from Benin (West Africa) to the States when he was younger and ended up in Gainesville when his folks got jobs with the University of Florida. Akin and Clyde met in high school and were in a number of hip-hop groups and projects over the years. I transferred to Dave's high school in 1996 and we started making beats with a pocket sampler, a turntable, and a 4-track for a friend of ours who was an emcee. So separately, in pairs, we were always working together. It wasn't until the summer of 2001 that the four of us were actually introduced; we met through mutual friends and the necessity for lyricists/beats. We began recording a demo in my living room that had the original 4-track version of “African Elephants” on it, which became our first single. That's where the group was formed—though we did cross paths years earlier at an open mic night that Dave and I were hosting. Akin and Clyde (and their crew at the time, “Phalanx”) sort of rushed and took over the stage for a while. I actually think I have cassette recording of that somewhere…
4. Lyrically, CYNE deliberately distances itself from the materialistic and ego-based fixations of much mainstream hip-hop by emphasizing social and political awareness. What is there in CYNE's development that accounts for that different focus?
Since I am not one of the lyricists, I can only explain this from what I believe to be the group's perspective: we are always attempting to express our observations and experiences in life through our music. I realize that that sounds trite or obvious, but a lot of top 40 rap is built on theatrics and bullshit. We rely on the diversity that exists within our group and we meet at a point of shared enthusiasm and concern: sonically, emotionally, politically, our immediate environment, our era, popular media, basic daily functions, et cetera. For the four of us, our strongest tool for displaying this is hip-hop. And, there is no room, desire, or time to waste in creating scenarios or messages that have no personal investment or significance. Not to say that we're stiff-assed, angry, conscious hip-hop nerds all the time—we know how to enjoy life and celebrate our freedoms—but, music—and especially music with words—carries the weight, ability, and, sometimes, the obligation to convey impacting messages or ideas. We attempt to put that to good use.
5. The kind of lyrical vulnerability shown in “Up Above” (Cise Star's affecting tribute to his deceased mother) is something not heard often in hip-hop; it also represents a shift in focus from the album's societal focus to a very personal one. Does the inclusion of the song evidence CYNE's desire to explore societal and personal issues or did the song simply emerge of its own accord without any thought as to how it might complement the other lyrical content?
Even on Time Being, there was a specific section of the record that focused on internal struggle or introspective thoughts (“Self Exam” and “First Person” are the most direct and obvious, but even “Samura's Optic” and “Out of Time” are answering personal questions out loud). That's what we're doing all of the time: questioning our ideals and points of view. They might not be right, but we'll share them to see if anyone out there is listening or relating or taking action. “Up Above” is a song that Clyde has been developing for a while, and it DID “emerge of its own accord without any thought as to how it might complement the other lyrical content.” But, for a song of this nature (or “Arrow of God,” for that matter), we were focused on completing and capturing these tracks as a form of catharsis, gratitude, and realization. Every song on this record was created as a single entity, without any notion of sequencing or sound or theme.
6. The song's instrumental backing bears mention too, specifically how well the a cappella sample fits the mood of the song. Do you lose any sleep over sampling legalities, give that astute listeners may recognize the sources for moments like these on Evolution Fight?
We try to avoid blatant thievery as much as possible. There are just some instances, like “Up Above,” where you can't do too much to the sample source; there's a reason why you gravitate towards it, and when looped properly, it's just the only way it works. Some of my favorite hip-hop tracks are just that basic. So, I wouldn't say we lose sleep… I just know that, personally, I'm quicker to throw away a beat I've made that is a simple loop versus one that is composed of a lot of sampled fragments/layers. And, what I really want to say is: “We don't give a fuck.” But, the truth of the matter is that one of the songs from the promo CD you reviewed (“Fallen Stars”) was dropped from the album due to sample-clearance issues. It's not like we sell enough records to make it really matter AND (more importantly) Dave and I work hard at detailed and selective sampling.
7. CYNE's music exudes a warm and inviting old-school instrumental vibe that similarly differentiates it from the competition. How did CYNE's distinctive instrumental sound develop? I've also got to ask about CYNE's habit of including beautiful instrumental 'tags' throughout the album, typically as postludes to songs. What's the reason for doing this?
I guess our “sound” has developed democratically. If there is any pattern or range to our “sound,” it is attributed to the sample sources and rhythm patterns as much as it is Clyde and Akin's taste and lyrical direction. I wouldn't say that Dave and I are prolific but when we hand beats over to Akin and Clyde, it's usually in large quantities. So the selection process is just as crucial. To begin with, we do not discriminate where/when we sample at all. Sometimes we do our best to challenge ourselves to pull from difficult records. Or we try to recreate a sound or movement that interests our ears; for example, “Fuck America ” started with the main chords which were pulled and detuned from the beginning of a late-‘70s disco track. The drum “kit” is pulled from any number of jazz/soul records (I believe there's a sampled 909 in there, too) but the main pattern is distinctively rooted in southern rap. The breakdown cymbal/drum stutter was cut and reconstructed from, I think, some German Prog record. That is the typical build-up of a CYNE instrumental: we like the range but attempt to pull together a cohesive warmth or consistency in the audio selection. I think there's also a sense of atmosphere to our music. But, in the end, we return to the reliable formula of hypnotic repetition.
With the interludes, I'd say they serve a few functions: 1) Dave and I are both fans of producers like DJ Muggs, Prince Paul, Madlib, and RZA; each has made a point to highlight albums with similarly placed instrumentals, and we're paying respect to them; 2) They help to emphasize a break in the movement or theme of that particular section of the album, acting like the period at the end of a musical sentence, or some shit like that; 3) It might be an ego thing, too… these are beats we really like, that never got developed into full songs, and we want to show them off.
8. Is there a typical developmental process CYNE goes through in creating a song? Does the instrumental backing get put together first and then the MCs write lyrics to go with it? Do you create material collectively, individually, in pairs,…?
For the most part, we all create everything separately. Very rarely do we pair off and make a single product. It usually begins as a lyrical or instrumental idea that everyone adds to over time. Dave and I will trade loops or drums or sample snippets when we can't seem to take it any further. Clyde and Akin may set up a concept for each other to write about simultaneously, and then they'll write the hook together in the studio or find ways to layer and trade lines. Even the songs that have live instrumentation on them (“Plight About Now” and “Growing”) started off as sampled skeletons that Dave created and they grew into something else while recording the musicians in my living room. In almost every situation, a song branches out with time. New discoveries and directions are made once we set up the microphone and transitions are usually created out of necessity. We try to limit our use of the computers as much as possible; Protools is really just used for vocal recording, fine edits, and a few effects. The basis for the beats start as looped sequences on the MPC, and Akin and Clyde usually have a vision for how segments breakdown before they even start to record.
9. Evolution Fight is a rare example of an album that starts strong yet, if anything, gets better as the album progresses. Did you give a lot of attention to the album's song sequencing? In your view, has CYNE's sound changed from the last album Time Being (Botanica Del Jibaro, 2003) to Evolution Fight and, if so, in what way?
At first, we all had separate ideas of how the album should flow; we sort of took a rough average of our projected track listing, and pieced it together. But, it really didn't work. So, there was a good chunk of time spent re-arranging each song into a new position. Some tracks were initially intended to run together and others just fell into place as we listened to them in random order on demo CDs. But I agree, for the most part, with your observation. The album feels book-ended to me; it has another round of build-up towards the end, which mirrors the first part of the record. There's some grouping in terms of sound or theme in sections of the album. In that way, it's a bit like Time Being. Our “sound” has definitely progressed but it's hard to determine how. I mean, it's better produced and sounds more confident, but the same “CYNE” elements are intact. We've changed since then, so the music sort of has to, right?
10. One more question: You recently worked with Daedelus and Four Tet. What was the experience like of working with Daedelus and Keiran Hebden to create “Drops” and “Automaton (Four Tet Remix)” for Exquisite Corpse and the Running Water EP, respectively?
In both cases, I have to say that working with these guys was incredibly easy. Which, seems impossible seeing how they are both all over the place all the time; both Kieran and Alfred are incredibly hard working and talented musicians, with projects and tours always in motion. So the fact that each of them made time for us meant a lot. With Alfred, it was a collaborative process that stretched over a few months. He had given us a Protools session of an instrumental that he started and told us to do whatever we wanted to with it. So we sort of chopped and rearranged the elements we were drawn to and built a new beat for Clyde and Akin to rhyme on. Alfred fused the two versions together in sections, and added some 'Daedelus details' to our beat and the result was “Drops.” We were really pleased with how it turned out, and to be involved on his star-studded record.
When we were on tour in Europe, we gave Kieran a copy of the newly mastered record and asked him if he would be interested in doing a remix. Without hesitation, he selected the track he wanted to work with and we got him all of the separate elements. Within a matter of days, I saw him DJing at a party and he played the completed version of the remix to a really receptive crowd. It seems that, at the time, he was productively working in mad creative spurts; that was how his last record came together. We were squeezed into the final stretch of that album, and it still came out beautifully and completely unrelated to Everything Ecstatic. Kieran and Alfred have both been kind to us over the last year or so; they have helped us with exposure to new listeners through shows, radio play, genuine support, and respect.