Might 2006 be 'the summer of Dabrye'? With Two/Three dropping in June, there'll be ample opportunity to hear the disc's spellbinding material booming from speakers throughout the land. A radically innovative progression from One/Three, the new release—twenty gritty instrumentals and brain-addling MC tracks featuring MF Doom, Vast Aire, Beans, Jay Dee, Phat Kat, and others, plus two production collabs with Wajeed—throws down a serious gauntlet. As much as the album's long overdue (in the works since 2001), so too is an in-depth profile. After all, Ghostly idol Tadd Mullinix has been casually fomenting mini-revolutions in hip-hop and acid techno for awhile now with the new material, if anything, coming across like a veritable manifesto for visionary experimental hip-hop. Furthermore, the man's output is prodigious: in addition to Two/Three, there's new James T Cotton (JTC henceforth) material (12-inch releases Oochie Coo on Spectral Sound and Dance of Death on Udek Records) and an upcoming sophomore EP by 2 AM/FM, the outfit Mullinix partners with roommate D'Marc Cantu.
A little history first. Michigan-born Mullinix grew up in Florida (from two to nine years of age) and in and around the Troy area of Michigan . His mom's collection—Eno, Gary Numan, Talking Heads—had a huge impact on his “current musical syntax” and, in time, his listening appetite grew to include Public Enemy, Jeff Mills, Aphex Twin, Gangstarr, Plug, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, and others. Having acquired a classical background through private cello lessons, his interest in the instrument gradually waned, as did his desire to play in high school bands following experiences with punk and shoegazing outfits. Opting thereafter to work alone, he also decided against attending college, not only because of cost but because it would interfere with his ambition.
Moving to Ann Arbor, he found work at Dubplate Pressure, Todd Osborn's record store, the two eventually collaborating as Soundmurderer and SK-1 on roots-ragga 12-inch discs issued on their own Rewind! Records label. A serendipitous encounter with Ghostly head Sam Valenti IV at the store led to Mullinix's signing and the release of Ghostly's inaugural full-length Winking Makes a Face, a classical-beats fusion that he followed in 2002 with Panes. Selected by Carl Craig to perform at the second Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Mullinix introduced his Dabrye and JTC personae in 2001. Aside from One/Three, the Dabrye discography includes Instrmntl, the set issued on Scott Herren's (Prefuse 73) Eastern Developments imprint, while the JTC catalogue includes the acid-house EPs Mind Your Manners, Buck!, and Press Your Body and the mesmerizing full-length The Dancing Box. Of course, adding to Mullinix's burgeoning CV are Dabrye and JTC guest shots ( Spectral Sound Vol. 1, Ghostly's Idol Tryouts volumes, ~scape's Staedtizism 4, Fabric 15 and 26), remixes (Bus's “Keep Life Right,” Brian Aneurysm's “Das Element Des Menschen,” Some Water and Sun's “Snowbreaker”), and collabs (One Word Extinguisher's “Uprock & Invigorate,” Thomas Fehlmann's Lowflow).
The arrival of Two/Three once again shifts the spotlight to Dabrye. Asked about the lurching style that emerged fully-formed on One/Three, Mullinix says, “What people call my signature sound comes totally naturally and is a product of my influences and intuitive musical aspirations. In fact, One/Three represents nearly all of my first hip-hop tracks. I was heavily influenced by Jay Dee (James Yancey aka J Dilla), RZA, DJ Premier, and an instrumental hip-hop cassette mix called Fresh Produce by DJ PNS. J Dilla's techniques of metric modulation and combining time signatures left a huge impression.” Though the auspicious One/Three was rapturously received, Mullinix discovered he was being referred to as a 'click-hop' artist, a realization that only intensified his focus on hip-hop; in his own words, “I'd always wanted to take Dabrye into a full-on hip-hop context since I felt that the work wasn't being seen in the right light, plus I always wanted to work with MCs. I just didn't have the confidence and connections when I made One/Three.” Migrating from the latter's exclusive instrumental style to an MC-related project was a natural step.
Begun in 2003, Two/Three's sound doesn't come as a total shock, with some of it—“Game Over,” “Nite Eats Day,” the Beans cut featured (though in radically different form) on the recent Additional Productions Vol. 1, and “Air,” a shuddering joint featuring MF Doom's cryptic flow (e.g., “I'm as sick as the blood in your stool”)—having appeared already. Queried about its protracted production period, Mullinix replies, “Since I'm involved with a few other projects and because this is my (and Ghostly's) first experience with MCs, it took a little more time than I'd hoped. But I'm very happy with all of the MCing on this album. The guests had free reign on lyrical content because I wanted them to do what they do best and felt it would also produce the best results in terms of chemistry.” Clearly, the lengthy gestation paid off as the disc streams one dope cut after another, Kadence royally spitting over a whipcrack pulse in “Encoded Flow,” for instance, and AG (Andre Barnes) testifying over warm dub-funk in “My Life” (“I dropped out of twelfth grade / A dumb move, I hate that / It made me who I am though / A move I wouldn't take back”). Instrumentals likewise slay with masterstroke detail, like the lethal whiplash crack Dabrye wires into “In Water” and the buckshot snare paired with a prog synth line in “Machines Pt. I.”
An inarguable peak is “That's What's Up,” a jaw-dropper with Thomas Fehlmann and Vast Aire whose repeated refrain “Rip the mic” infests one's brain like a viral maggot. Asked to elaborate on its genesis, Mullinix replies, “The song's rhythm appears on Lowflow as an interlude and under a different title [“Intertwine”] but Thomas was kind enough to let me use the material as well (We collaborated when I was living in Berlin specifically for his album). I sent this beat among others to Vast after I heard he was interested in MCing on Two/Three and, after he laid down the vocals, I recomposed the beat and added elements to suit his delivery.”
Though “Game Over” deservedly blew up when it was released in 2003, it assumes extra gravitas in light of Jay Dee's recent passing. Mullinix first recounts how the session went down. “I met Jay Dee in his basement studio outside of Detroit ,” he recalls, “It was me, Sam, Phat Kat, Dank, Dilla and Young RJ. We smoked blunts and listened to each others' beats. I hadn't heard of Young RJ before but his talent was undeniable. Kat flowed on the “Game Over” beat real time and then Jay picked his beat, laid down the vocals, and scratched on his own time.” Musing further, Mullinix declares, “Jay Dee is the biggest influence on my work of all the hip-hop producers. His support gave me a lot of confidence in what I was doing and in my goals to finally make my mark in the hip-hop world. I was utterly devastated to hear about Jay's death. I heard he was sick but knew he was still working on music and touring so my outlook was positive until I heard the bad news—obviously a huge shock. I cried on the way home from work listening to Donuts in my car. It broke my heart.” Though “Game Over” was the first Two/Three cut to see the light of day, it now fittingly closes the album like an epitaph to the late producer. “Placing the song at the end worked compositionally,” Mullinix acknowledges, “but it is mostly a tribute to him.”
One final Dabrye-related question concerns the album titling which obviously presupposes a third installment. “I was contracted to produce three Dabrye albums for Ghostly and a trilogy sounded nice,” Mullinix explains. “Originally I wanted Three/Three to be another instrumental album—like an endcap—but, after the chemistry I experienced with MCs and seeing the growing momentum in the hip-hop community, I fancy the idea of having another MC album but one that's specialized in one way or another, perhaps featuring all Detroit MCs or maybe some bigger names (Busta, Kardinal Official, Rah Digga, or Ghostface would be sweet).”
While Dabrye is a major part of the Mullinix equation, so too is the whiplash delirium stoked by JTC and 2AM/FM. I ask whether he ever encountered any resistance from the 'acid' community in presenting such a radical re-invention with the JTC style. “I've never caught flack for my acid music and, in fact, I work proudly with some of the realest heads in Chicago,” he explains. “I advised Ghostly to sign Hieroglyphic Being who is an apprentice of Steve Poindexter among others (I consider Jamal Moss a musical genius). I collaborate with Traxx (we're called Saturn V) and the Dirty Criminals who have music released on International Deejay Gigolos and Chicago's Musique. We (Traxx, Deecoy, Jamal, D'Marc Cantu, Todd Osborn) will produce volumes against the contrived garbage that people try to pass off as 'acid' or 'jack' nowadays. I'm no purist but I do know what good acid is, and acid jack isn't exactly well understood.”
Asked to clarify for the record, then, what 'acid jack' means, he continues, “I don't have the greatest technical definition since the feeling has a lot to do with how it's named. 'Jack' comes from a kind of dance that people did in Chicago—like jacking your body up and down. So I assume this style is defined originally by early Chicago DJs and producers like Jackmaster Farley, Larry Heard, Steve Poindexter, Lil' Louis, and the late Ron Hardy. He used to mix beat records and early 'acid' tracks (experimental machine disco) that had a lot of 16th-note step programming so polyrhythms were taken to an experimental level. You can hear a lot of drum work in the snares, toms, and hi-hats that help carry the disco-style kick drum along. Often there is a varying counterpoint in the lead or bass line that creates a hypnotic set of morphing harmonies that preoccupies the listener.” It seems also the opportune time to discuss why Moss's Hieroglyphic Being material hasn't received more attention. “I do feel like Jamal's work is going over peoples' heads,” Mullinix says. “African music hasn't been widely embraced by the West and Jamal makes music of a stronger African lineage than most popular house and techno producers. He really needs to be getting more coverage and respect. It's a crime really.”
2005 witnessed the creation of 2 AM/FM, Mullinix's acid house union with D'Marc Cantu. Given that stylistic contrasts between JTC and 2 AM/FM are subtler than those between Dabrye and JTC, I ask Mullinix to clarify the differences. Put simply, he says, “There's no conceptual difference between the 2 AM/FM and JTC material going in, but in their results, 2 AM/FM sounds more industrial to me.” The outfit's second Spectral release is a sweet complement to the EP debut, with Pt. 2's major highlight its 13-minute closer “Acid Planes.” What prompted them to extend the track in such epic manner? “When D'Marc and I were working on it, we loved the drum workout segment when we turned the synth off so decided to just leave the song unedited. Doing so also offers the DJ a more interactive way of mixing.”