“I’m not looking to be ‘retro’ or recreate the exact sound of 1983 or whatever. That nostalgia will get the plane off the ground but it won’t keep it in the air, you know?”
These wise words come from XL Middleton, a Pasadena-bred funk producer whose knack for blending sounds past and present is arriving right on time. Mid-tempo drum loops, wonky synth bass and G-funk melody lines are key elements of his sound, which, he stresses, is anything but a yearning for the past. In truth it’s a small revolution. At a time when all young artists (much less mid-tempo boogie revivalists) are being forced to up their sameness, Middleton has made a firm stand and has the sonic good to back himself up. Okayplayer spoke with the producer and secured the world premiere of not one but two brand-new cuts–the funky “Bumpin” and the extremely funky “You Know It’s True” off his upcoming LP Tap Water (which you can pre-order here) Read on, funky ones.
OKP: Who is XL Middleton? Please introduce yourself to the nice people. What’s your government name, hometown, zodiac sign, favorite ice cream, name of your first pet?
XL: XL Middleton, known to some as Matthew Middleton. I’m a funk artist/producer from the city of Pasadena, CA. Here to make my contribution towards this modern funk movement and do all I can do to open ears, eyes and minds to what I think is one of the most vibrant musical movements to take place in the last few decades. And, oh yeah, Baskin Robbins peanut butter and chocolate for life.
OKP: What’s the musical environment like in your hometown? Is there a community/collective that’s helped nurture these grooves? are you part of a scene or a renegade of boogie?
XL: Pasadena is a part of the world that is Los Angeles, both culturally and geographically, but we’ve got our own thing as a city. It’s a city that’s always been oriented towards the arts, so there’s been no shortage of musicians coming from Pasadena, from Van Halen to Shanice Wilson to Bootie Brown from The Pharcyde, all the way up to contemporary artists like Hodgy Beats and of course Dam. The thing was that it never coalesced into an actual music scene in Pasadena. You had a bunch of guys making music, but there was no cohesive sound, not too many people releasing physical copies of their stuff beyond dubbed tapes and burnt CD’s, there were hardly any venues where people could take their music and show it to the community, so it’s like, the only people from Pasadena who have been able to get heard beyond the city limits were the ones who weren’t scared to travel past them. We’re right next to the number one city in the world for entertainment! How are you not gonna go out to LA and do your thing? In some ways, I do feel like a renegade of the funk. I feel like my brand of funk sometimes scares people that are used to the smoother, two-step, disco strut kind of thing. But, that’s certainly not the intention. I’m just a California dude, raised on carne asada and Zapp & Roger and I guess what I do reflects that.
OKP: Do you consider yourself part of the post-millenial boogie brotherhood that includes the likes of Dam-Funk, Tuxedo and Chromeo, What’s your take on the phenomenon?
XL: Absolutely. I think modern funk is a thing that was bound to hit on a large scale because it feels so much like music you’re already familiar with, only with a twist. It’s reminiscent of the whole house thing because of the beats per minute, and the general concept of taking one riff, or ‘vamp,’ and just building on it. And then there’s also something in it that reminds you of hip hop, the way the drums are programmed, the way that it’s often slowed down to that sizzling midtempo, that’s the 90’s g-funk influence in there. Of course, modern funk reminds you of hip hop because hip hop reminds you of funk, if you really wanna expand on the full history of it. So I can definitely say, in terms of what I’m doing, I’m taking those blueprints that were laid out by 80’s funk artists and 90’s west coast rap, and turning it into something that’s new and progressive. It’s important to me to have that futuristic vision. I’m not looking to be ‘retro’ or recreate the exact sound of 1983 or whatever. That nostalgia will get the plane off the ground but it won’t keep it in the air, you know? And I think that idea, of constantly innovating, is something that all of us modern funksters share.
OKP: On that same note, are there some old school boogie cats that you love, that we should make sure we’re up on?
XL: Well, I just think it’s important to know the most seminal artists, that ones that released album after album of influential boogie music. If you know what’s up with Cameo, Con Funk Shun, Zapp, One Way, Bar Kays, The Whispers, Starpoint, groups like that, that’s all you really need to understand the roots. There’s a lot of record geeks touting these rare $300 records and a lot of them aren’t even that great. If you’re looking to scratch a little bit under the surface, I recommend getting both Ebonee Webb albums, and definitely look into all the lesser-known spinoff acts that Roger Troutman produced, such as New Horizons and The Human Body.
OKP: Let’s get specific: Cameo or D-train? Aurra or Slave?
XL: I love D-Train but I gotta go with Cameo. Their sound was so influential to the 90’s g-funk thing, and that was how I got my first in-depth taste of the funk. I learned about boogie by getting curious as to who these guys were sampling. Gosh, I don’t know if I can choose between Aurra or Slave. Aurra’s sound hit harder, in terms of those bass lines being so unrelenting, but Slave’s sound vibed more. “Just A Touch Of Love” is such an iconic groove. And the way they just hit you with a completely unexpected chord progression on the chorus of “I’ll Be Gone.” The jury’s gonna have to remain out on that one.
OKP: What kind of tunes did you hear around the house/block growing up? is your sound indicative of those early memories or a rebellion against them/current trends in funk?
XL: I wouldn’t say my sound is a rebellion against what I heard growing up, but my folks were definitely not listening to funk. My mom was listening to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, stuff like that. My dad was all about Cream and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. I’d argue there’s a funky sensibility in that music, in their sense of wanting to be free and just play whatever the fuck they wanted to play. Nobody can say the bass line of “Sunshine Of Your Love” isn’t funky as hell. As for me, the first music I gravitated towards, as a kid, was 50’s doowop music. Back then, in the 80’s, that’s what the oldies stations played. And at the same time, Michael Jackson and Rick James and Zapp and all that stuff was the soundtrack of the 80’s, so it’s like, you could be listening to it passively, like playing on the speakers at a shop in the mall or something, and it still got into you. Now, if you wanna talk about rebelling against current trends in funk, I feel like I’m going against the grain by taking it back to basics. I’m trying to write songs with words you can relate to. I’m looking to get away from the strictly-instrumental thing that you hear a lot of in modern funk. I like the instrumental thing, but I want it to feel more like a “Quik’s Groove,” where you just have those one or two tracks on the album with no words that you can just vibe to.
OKP: What’s an artist that you really draw from and are influenced by that we might not expect? Are you a closet Metallica fan? Do you have a lot of love for Kenny Rogers?
XL: Top of the list? Gotta be Wham! Though, I don’t know if that counts – “Everything She Wants” is basically a boogie song. Who else? James Taylor is one of the best that ever did it. Me and my dad were recently listening to some of his music and it brought back a lot of childhood memories. I’m also a Bad Religion fan. And, I’m heavy into a lot of new wave and 80’s synth pop. You can credit Moniquea for inspiring me to dig into that stuff deeply. Two of my favorite groups are Naked Eyes and Go West.
OKP: Who are some of your most coveted collaborations?
XL: Definitely DJ Quik. His music put an important idea into my head when I was a youngster – it’s not just all about hip hop. His music has an appeal that’s beyond just rap music, it’s like he’s a producer that makes soulful funk and he just so happens to put rapping on top of it. I’d love to find Mista Grimm one day and produce an entire album for him. It’s more than just nostalgia, he had one of the most unique voices and flows I’ve ever heard. And, to shift the conversation back to Cameo, if I could produce a track for Larry Blackmon, I think I could retire with the satisfaction of knowing I’ve achieved all that I really need to.
OKP: Lets talks synthesizers. What kind of gear are you using…do you lean on analog equipment, do you use software synths or plug-ins?
XL: Personally I love both. I’m not a purist by any means. People always tell me that my tunes sound like they’re fully analog, and quite often they’re fully not. Producing music digitally, there’s always gonna be a struggle for guys like me to make sure the music doesn’t sound ‘flat,’ make sure it doesn’t sound too much like ones and zeroes, so to speak. But that’s a matter of choosing the right plug-ins to give your instruments depth, and just knowing how to play everything in that way so your sounds really ‘sing.’ And if you are using virtual instruments, please, please, don’t over-quantize! Off notes are fresh, that’s how we know the music was played by a real live human being.
OKP: What’s your writing process–do you start with a beat or rhythm track and then improvise to build the groove? do you have a melody or song structure in mind when you switch on?…