THAVIUS BECK: THAT WAS COMPLETELY ACCIDENTAL
Thavius Beck moved from Minneapolis to L.A. and went from first group Global Phlowtations to Lab Waste (with Subtitle) and piles of wild production work for Saul Williams, Nine Inch Nails, Nas and more. He speaks after sushi downtown.
Were you holding that Art Garfunkel record on your lap when you rode into L.A.?
Pretty close—when I came to L.A., I was sent out on the Greyhound. I was kind of kicked out of my old spot, and then I met a bunch of people and formed my old group Global Phlowtations, and when I first got in with those guys, we were vinyl diggers and collectors and that was one of the records that caught my eye early on. There’s a song called ’99 Miles From L.A.’ that’s a cover of an old Nancy Sinatra song, and at that time we were making trips from Santa Barbara and San Francisco, selling CDs and stuff. That song has special meaning for me.
How long have you lived here?
Eleven or twelve years—I’m basically an Angeleno.
What L.A. expectations remain unfulfilled?
When I first moved here, my only images were Boys In The Hood and Menace To Society. And my dad was living right off Crenshaw in a Crip neighborhood—I was freaked out! I didn’t know what would happen. I had dreads so I was never really messed with, but I got to see how different each block could be—one block to the next, poor people and gangbangers and then rich people, and it never intersects. In Minneapolis, where I’m from, there are big huge sprawls that are pretty concentrated—you don’t have the poor intersecting with people with money. That’s always been a huge mindfuck to me. As far as what hasn’t been fulfilled—I wasn’t expecting superstars all day and gold on the streets. But what I thought would happen has happened. I met tons of celebrities and Hollywood became very boring to me. L.A. kind of realized what I always thought L.A. would be.
Are you floating in a pool with a martini right now?
I wish I was. I’m leaning back with a Sapporo. Pretty close.
Who was more fulfilling to work with—Trent Reznor or Nas?
I’ve been a huge huge fan of Nine Inch Nails—what Trent does with Nine Inch Nails is what I wanna do as an artist. To kind of be a band by myself—he goes in the studio and lays the majority of shit down by himself. Nine Inch Nails is his baby. And it’s rock but it’s electronic and has very hip-hop elements in it too. For me to be able to meet him and go on tour with him—Trent was the most humble open guy. That was huge for me.
What was the most engaging question he asked you?
He asked me specifically what I was doing onstage. When me and Saul Williams played, it was a two man show—Saul did vocals and I had my MPC and another sampler. One of the shows we did, the guys who were filming his show filmed our show, and Trent checked out the footage, like, ‘What exactly are you doing there?’ It was a moment to do geek speak with someone I looked up to. Or in another instance where he heard some tracks playing—he was asking about how all my 808s were in tune with the melodies. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I do that on purpose.’ It was weird he picked up on it—most people don’t do that.
Is that your most constructive celebrity encounter?
I’d have to say so. The thing with Nas was really cool, too. Saul’s manager was also managing Nas so he hooked it up, and he asked me to come up with a beat for a remix, so I sat in the studio with Nas for six or seven hours kicking it. Nas wrote like three different verses in twenty minutes. And again—really super humble. It was around the time the whole Nas/Jay-Z beef just died, and he was telling us that stuff from a very personal and open standpoint. I feel like I wish I had that experience now, as opposed to when I did. I felt very starstruck.
How did you get over being starstruck?
Working at Amoeba. It was the best training ground and introduction to Hollywood for me. All the celebrities shop there—nobody trips because they see these fools all the time. Dr. Dre, Biz Markie, Afrika Bambaataa, Rick Rubin—you see these people all the time, and you’re helping them, and that music is going to be used on a record that sells a million-plus copies. It puts it in perspective for you.
What kind of perspective?
You realize these guys have a lot of impact on music, but it’s not just them—they don’t have time to go find hot shit. They need people to bring it to their attention, and that’s what I got from Amoeba. We were the people showing the people with money what the new hot shit was. And next year we’d hear them using the shit we told them.
How did working at Amoeba affect your own music?
It was good because I had access to so much stuff—sample material and what-not. But it was bad because I was working so much and selling music I didn’t necessarily care about, and by the time I’d get home, I was too tired to stay up working on my own stuff. It was kind of like being a video game tester—if you test them, it kind of kills it. It was a great experience but I’m glad I got out when I did.
How did your music end up in a Miller beer commercial?
That was completely accidental. In 1998, they had a series of commercials in black-and-white, at a club with a guy sitting at a table with a beer and no music. And my friends were at the table and they were playing one of my beat tapes in the background. And they couldn’t get the music out because it was on the same track as the voices, so they had to pay me.
Is that the most elegant way you ever made some money?
It’s definitely the most effortless.
What was the least effortless?
I’ve been pretty fortunate. The craziest thing I had to do to stay afloat—on the first tour I ever really went on with Subtitle, he was opening with Radio Vago for Mars Volta, and that shit was crazy. In the van with Radio Vago—eight of us in a little van with no place to sleep, and so in Paris, me and Subtitle got out of the van and went outside at 4 AM with our sleeping bags in the freezing cold. That was difficult—we weren’t really making money. We were living show to show. But it’s not that difficult—we were in Europe!
If you got to freeze, freeze in Paris.
Yeah, it can’t be that bad.
Who would be the easiest person for you to produce a track for?
I’d say Subtitle. Our chemistry is really really good. I don’t need to tell him a lot of shit. With somebody else, you have to tell them a couple pages of instructions. With Subtitle, I could just give him some shit and he’d do it. Me and Saul are pretty easy. Busdriver is really on point. Even Nocando—he’s up-and-coming, but he knows what he’s doing.
When he made that song ‘98’ with you, did you know what he was going to write about? That’s one of the most intensely personal songs I’ve heard in a long time.
The first time I heard it, I was fucking floored—I didn’t hear it until we started to record. I told him that the record was about personal stuff that you go through, but I had no idea he was going to be that personal and genuine. It came from a real place. And he’s someone who’s known as a battle MC—he just won Scribble Jam—and to hear him write a song like that made me really proud. I saw him mature before my eyes!
How do you decide to keep a song for yourself or give it to someone else?
I’m very picky. There’s just a specific style I like, and that I think I can do more justice to than most people. Right now I’m producing for k-the-i for Mush, for Busdriver, for the Bigg Jus record—with all that stuff, I make beats all the time, so I have a stockpile, and I might set aside stuff. But in times like this, I give everyone what I think fits them best.
What is that specific style?
The trademark characteristics of the stuff I really like—I love bass, so you’re gonna hear plenty of deep 808s, and a lot of syncopation from the high-hat, and I love to hear guitars juxtaposed with drums. I grew up really into prog rock—those kind of rhythms on a beat. That kind of syncopation and stutter-step rhythms. I like beats that are essentially what grime tracks are. I feel like I’ve been doing tracks like that for eight or nine years. The same bounce to it. I feel like I can be really creative with that shit.
Is this connected to why Can comes up in our producer interviews so much?
This is what I think—the Can stuff got reissued at a certain point, and before that the few who knew originally… you’d talk and hear a little shit and see some random footage, but at a certain point everybody knew about that shit. I think some Can stuff is really cool—the drummer on Tago Mago is on point—but the more I listen to it from a musical perspective, it’s very jam-bandy. Very Sound Tribe Sector 9—who are basically the Grateful Dead of now, a non-stop touring band, a jam band, and when I started listening to Can like that… it was like, ‘This shit is really cool, but I don’t know if it’s worth being jocked that tough.’ Shit comes up and people have no point of reference, so it blows their mind.
And the mind can only take so much blowing.
Once you have something else you can refer to that’s similar, it changes the way you think about it.
So what kind of music do you still respect as much as when you first heard it?
I have to start with prog and fusion—Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jean-Luc Ponty is one of my favorite artists, and Faust did really cool shit. Earlier Cream—Disraeli Gears is a huge blues rip-off, but the way they pulled it off was really good. Jimi Hendrix blows any guitarist today away, and that fool’s buried with worms and shit. And a lot of music in the ‘70s—I’m into dark rock shit. Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Megadeth—Rust In Peace, I listen to that shit now, and ‘Holy Wars,’ the first song, is pretty much talking about the Persian Gulf, and it sounds like they recorded that shit yesterday. And soul shit—Marvin Gaye is fucking timeless. That shit will never sound dated. It’s so genuine and true. Stuff like that—that’s the soul I like.
Were the ‘70s the peak of recorded music?
In a way I wanna say that…
You don’t have to be that absolute.
I think electronic music is still in its infancy. I think people don’t know how to use it to its full potential. That’s why music is shitty now. Everything is extremely loop-based. People sampled a lot in the ‘80s and started getting sued, so they started playing keyboards, and now things have a very synthy electronic kind of sound. For live music, a lot of rock bands are kind of recycling that ‘80s disco rock. There’s nothing new. No one is really bringing in new ideas. Drum and bass became a caricature of itself because there was no room to grow, and IDM got so pretentious it was pointless, and people rebelled against that with straight-up electro dance, which sounds like disco—and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems we’re recycling the same shit every twenty years. Until the cycle is broken, the ‘70s will be the pinnacle. That was the last point where new ideas and new shit was happening.
What would break the cycle?
Honestly, the whole music industry as it’s set up now would have to be totally restructured. Right now labels invest money in artists expecting a return, and they’re not gonna put money in an artist who’s too wild to guarantee a return. All the artists on the radio are put there because they’re expected to get a return—because it sounds like shit that got a return before. I read that article on Rick Rubin and his whole philosophy seems interesting, but it’s gonna take a complete dismantling of what the record industry is now. He said he’s in the business of selling art—music is a commodity, and selling a CD is like selling a t-shirt, and people don’t see the difference. You have to have people respect the shit as art, and to do that you have to create respectable art. And you can’t do that unless someone pays you to do that, and in order to do that, the cycle has to be completely broken. You have to take a chance—someone who has the budget to make a difference, like Sony or Jay-Z or Rick Rubin. Take a chance on someone who wouldn’t sell and market the shit out of them—make them the next cool thing. Market change—market creativity. You just gotta sell the idea of shit being cool again, and people will try and do that again.
What new things are you working on now?
I’m planting a lot of seeds for 2008. I’m working on a new solo record and I’m actually gonna be rhyming on the whole record. It’s only the third time I’ve done that. I’m hoping to make a bigger impact. And I produced two tracks on Saul’s new record, and Trent Reznor produced the majority of the other stuff. It’s a major-label thing. A much bigger step. And maybe I’ll do some commercials.
Go back to Miller?
Yeah—‘Gimme some more money, man!’ I’m constantly working—trying to not have any dead time. Not have any excuses. I feel like I’m at a point where I do it full-time or I don’t do it. So it’s time to make it happen.
THAVIUS BECK PLAYS WED., SEPT. 12, WITH BOOM BIP AND FREE THE ROBOTS PLUS KUTMAH, D-STYLES, DADDY KEV, NOCANDO AND MEAR ONE AT LOW END THEORY AT THE AIRLINER, 2419 N. BROADWAY, LOS ANGELES. 10 PM / $5 / 18+. MYSPACE.COM/LOWENDTHEORYCLUB. THAVIUS BECK ALSO PRESENTS THAVIUS BECK’S MASTERCLASS MPC WORKSHOP ON THURS., OCT. 11, AT J.U.I.C.E., 2936 W. 8TH ST., LOS ANGELES. 6:30 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. MYSPACE.COM/RAMPARTJUICE.