Photo Credit: Texas Isaiah
SassyBlack's Hologram Funk & Electro Psychedelic Soul Is 'Sumthin Special' [Interview + Stream]
Photo Credit: Texas Isaiah
Fresh from a trip to North Carolina for Moogfest 2018, SassyBlack blessed Okayplayer with “a heavy dose of hologram funk & electronic psychedelic soul.” The Facebook live stream of her performance at the Okay Space is an appetizer ahead of her Wednesday night set for LPR Presents at House of Yes, where she will be performing alongside OSHUN, LATASHA, Lawlyse, Shasta Geaux Pop and DJ Avg Jo for The HUM.
SassyBlack’s latest run of performances follows the release of her Sumthin Special EP. The five-track instrumental project, which landed on May 15, finds her signature vocals on the backburner as she articulates through original composition and deep sonic exploration. The project, which derived from a monthly beat challenge, is a synth-and-thump driven testament to her evolution behind the boards.
In our exclusive chat with SassyBlack, she breaks down what it truly takes to make Sumthin Special.
Okayplayer: You’ve always had a hand in the production of your music and you have been pretty self-contained, particularly as a solo artist. Where does the do-it-all approach to music come from for you?
SassyBlack: With studying music and everything, I just wanted to figure out how I could sing and share what I was thinking. I tend to do a lot of production on my own. That’s the thing — I get a lot of these thoughts and ideas that I can’t necessarily communicate to another human being all the time. It doesn’t really come in words yet. That’s something I’m still working on, so I’d prefer to be able to create it and show it as an example when I do work with other people or to be able to create it on my own. It just kind of comes from language barriers for me, in being able to explain my emotions or my thoughts sometimes. Sometimes I’m very good at explaining certain things, but when it comes to being creative it can be very difficult for me.
OKP: Where would you say you are at this point in your development as a producer?
SB: I’ve been producing for 10 years, so I think I’m just more at a place where I’m owning it. I think that’s where I’m coming from now after having released all of these projects. I have people asking me to produce stuff for them or compose things. People are really starting to appreciate my production. I never really owned it before but now this is the first layer of some sort of confidence around it.
OKP: What made you release Sumthin Special as an instrumental project, given that your stated intention to record over the tracks?
SB: I have this thing about wanting to release because music is something that helps me with my mental health. It helps me with anxiety. It helps me when I get depressed. It helps me when I can’t even say what I’m feeling. That is why sometimes I don’t rap or sing over anything. Sometimes I just want to let that emotion live. All of those tracks are from a couple of years ago. They’re actually from the point when I was beginning to feel more confident as a producer. They were a part of this beat per day project I was doing. I did it for about three years, but I did it in January. I would make a beat a day and put them up on SoundCloud. I had some friends that I brought into the mix of it, but it was mostly just me really trying to own being a producer and own my sound. To not be afraid of that and to explore my sound. I think that’s why the music sounds more confident. Since then my production has changed a lot. Mostly because I’m a person who is evolving. I wanted to play more with that. I’m very much known for my singing and my voice. I love that, but
I’m very strategic and I like to think things out ahead of time. I really want to be able to compose and produce and work with other artists. It’s kind of a give-and-take because I never want to give up beats. It’s very hard because I’m very particular, but I want people to be able to hear the different levels of what I do and be able to hear my voice in other formats, instead of just me singing. Every beat that I’ve put out as an instrumental, I already have something on it. I just haven’t recorded it or added the final touches to it. Sometimes I just want you to hear the production and hear my storytelling ability through my production.
OKP: People seem to recognize the healing benefits of music as music consumers. Can you talk about how that works for artists? What does the music mean to your health and well being?
SB: I think it’s incredibly important. Everyone is a consumer and we can be really judgmental – really critical of people and what they’re going through. 'I don’t like this new album. I don’t like this new beat. Why did they do this? Why did they do that?' Most people don’t ever take any of the steps necessary to make music, and most people, then, don’t know the pressure of what it is like to release music and put yourself out there like that. It is not required for everyone, but for me it is. I have to release it. If I don’t, it builds up and it doesn’t feel good to me as a person. I’m sharing as much as I do for my own personal growth. I think, as a practice, it makes people more human to other people to release. People are super critical, but artists are even more critical of themselves. More critical than anyone else could be. Outside opinions only amplify that. I don’t think people realize how difficult any of this is. Then add on the fact that it’s done in some cases for mental health purposes.
Consider how mental health can shape the kind of music that people are receiving and have access to. It’s a much bigger conversation. On one hand, it would be great if people could be more considerate of those things, but at the same time, it takes away the magic. People overvalue and undervalue artists. Overvalue them – like put them up on a pedestal but so high that when they fall down it could destroy them. They undervalue them like, 'You don’t deserve my money. I’m not gonna buy your CD and I’m not gonna go to a show, I’m going to get it for free.' So even though the music could be freeing for them, they don’t see any kind of value in terms of supporting the people making it and realizing that this is their livelihood. That this is what is keeping them alive. It’s a whole different conversation, but people feel like they should be gifted the things that others work really hard for.
OKP: Do you feel the value that people have attached to you as a vocal talent has begun to transfer to your work in the production space?
SB: I started premiering some new beats and stuff last year. After I did New Black Swing I had a lot of people compliment me on my production. I worked really hard to emulate a sound while incorporating my own sound, as well. A lot of people complimented the production over the lyricism. I had intentionally made the lyricism so chill because the theme of the music—channeling New Jack Swing—I wanted the vocal to be really simple and I really wanted the production to really shine through. I had a lot of people compliment the production and I feel like I’m starting to get to a place where that is beginning to match my vocals as a whole conversation. The difference is that I’ve been working on my vocals since I was 12.
Also, when I started coming into doing production, I already had a certain comfort level with doing vocals. Right now my comfort with vocals and production are starting to be at the same level and I think the biggest compliment is when people can see that. When they like what I’m doing with my vocal and what I’m doing with production. I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on my beats. That’s another reason I’ve been releasing all of these projects. I want people to listen to the production. I’m building up how I want my vocals to sound, which is also why I’m not doing a bunch right now. In the end, it can all be this balanced conversation.
OKP: Is the inclusion of experimental, futurist sounds and ideas in your music something that is second nature, or is it active exploration on your part?
SB: I have been working with different sounds and other stuff for my next album, but really I just kind of go with what feels good. More now than ever I am focusing on seeking out sounds that emulate what I am trying to express. So, I’m trying to collect them in advance. Everybody has their own way of working with production. A lot of people know what sounds they want. They have them, they’re all labeled, categorized, and in folders. I am not that type of person yet. Right now I’m trying to gather more sounds that work for me and have them prepared ahead of time. Right now I’m looking for lots of things.
Really, it just boils down to whatever feels good to me. For whatever sound I’m going with. That’s really what it is. I am kind of a space cadet or a spacey person. I grew up listening to Quincy Jones and Technotronic and all these other artists that had this sort of synthy, space vibe going on. All this stuff already exists. There’s Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder – I always think its funny how I ended up in hip-hop. I listen to hip-hop but I never thought I had anything that could be considered hip-hop in any fashion. I think it’s funny how hip-hop has become a large part of my career.
OKP: What is the significance of the Sumthin Special EP title?
SB: I called it Sumthin Special because that’s been one of my favorite beats on the project for a while. It always changes and now it’s not my favorite anymore, but I included it in a lot of performances and loved it so much. I used to call it the "fanny pack song" because in my live set I talk a lot and feed off the audience in conversation. It’s not just me presenting what I have, but also me asking myself, 'How do I feel in this space with you all and your energy?' It was that kind of conversation and I wore my fanny pack onstage a lot for a while. It was kind of my security blanket and I sang a song called “What’s In My Fanny Pack?” I would say, 'I’ve got something special for you,' and I’d take things out. So that was the origin of Sumthin Special.
But then Sumthin Special also encompasses what this project is because I’ve been dropping all of these sample-based projects this year and it’s very rare that I drop an instrumental EP of my own production without any samples. I’m not a sample-heavy person. I used that to build up my production skills and showcase where I am. I thought it was something special because the beats are very different. They travel and they have more of a spacey, psychedelic aspect that showcases my state of mind. One of the hardest things for me to do is that. It was also very vulnerable because I got the beats from the projects I did once a day. I didn’t come back and really tidy them up after I completed them. I just released them as this collection.
OKP: How much does the live show component figure into the sound of the EP at all?
SB: My live performing is interesting, it just fits into it. I can never say how many songs I’m performing out of a project because I could put something out and you won’t hear any of the songs from it for a while. I don’t perform anything from Personal Sunlight. I don’t perform anything from Me & Mines (Cute Chicks). I don’t perform from most of the projects. I have a lot of stuff under my belt to choose from, but then I’m also making a lot of music. So I perform stuff that you can only hear live because I haven’t recorded it or if you watch a live performance session you can hear it that way, but it is not released anywhere. I think it adds to the magic and the something special that I see in myself.
OKP: You traveled to North Carolina last week for Moogfest 2018. Can you talk about your participation?
SB: I’m someone who is trying to build up my presence as a producer, composer and solo artist. I’m still trying to find myself. I found Moogfest to be very inspirational and comforting. Everyone that was there – the whole team pretty much was very supportive of me and knew who I was. That was really special. Especially being a black, queer woman making beats and things like that. I found that they weren’t questioning me or my artistry, they were just super supportive. To be in that community of legends and legendary peers – people like Moses Sumney and Kelela. But then there’s Ali Shaheed-Muhammad, Waajeed and Pete Rock. Then there’s a lot of different experimental artists. It was really exciting. I was on a showcase with Amber Mark. I really like her music. It was a really nicely curated event. The panels were really nice, but most of all it just made me feel like I had a space in a festival for my artistry. That was really nice and uplifting, especially as I reflect on what I do and what kind of artist I am. Being in that space was very productive and positive for me.
OKP: Do you feel that other musicians and producers you crossed paths with during your time at Moogfest shared your sentiments?
SB: I did. It was interesting. Waajeed is a legendary producer and DJ. A Detroit legend first, but truly a legend. He tweeted after his performance how excited he was about it. A lot of people hold Moogfest in high regard. The people I look up to definitely know what it is and respect it. I’m really honored to have been able to play and be so involved in it. Hopefully, the goal is to stay involved.
OKP: How much does Moog’s legacy of innovative products play into your production and your ideals as a producer?
SB: I’ve been super scared of using any synthesizers. I started using my Roland, which has been a really nice introduction to it. While I was there, I did get on a lot of Moog products. It was really interesting to be there with people who were experts and able to show me little things. Not just people who work at Moog, but other artists. Being there around people who were creating things and making space for this was really exciting. I’m still learning. I’ve had some sounds morph into some of my production, but I’ve been really interested in using more. I see all these knobs and things that I know can morph the music.
I can morph with the music, but it’s getting back to that original idea that still creates a lot of nerves. It was really nice for me to watch people manipulate the instruments and having so many instances where I was able to see people use them in various ways. It was not just how I would do something. Everyone was working in a unique way. That was inspirational. I got to work with the Grandmother while I was there. I want to keep learning that. I’m excited to start using it more. As I prepare for my next album, it’s definitely going to be a part of the conversation.
Karas Lamb writes and digs for tunes you haven’t heard yet. She actually wants to listen to your mixtape. Follow her on Twitter @karaslamb or Instagram @blamblamkaraslamb.