AHNNU: THE QUESTIONS ALWAYS CHANGE
photography by theo jemison
Your boy Leeland Jackson creates moving work, in both the figurative and the literal. As Ahnnu, he pushes electronic music toward its bare emotive essence, creating context in which listeners can immerse themselves. As Cakedog, however, he’s actually moving you. An avid admirer of the footwork movement from Chicago, Cakedog is Jackson’s contribution to the canon. On paper, his visual art pieces are portals to worlds where a three thousand year old edifice might be full of burners. Originally from Virginia via Japan, Jackson has found a home in Los Angeles with hubs like Leaving Records and peers like Knxwledge and Mndsgn. During our conversation, there are moments when he reminds me of Joe Morton’s character from The Brother From Another Planet. He’s earnestly curious about the bizarre social fabric we live in while many of us still wonder what is water? He speaks directly with unsentimental optimism. His off-center perspective is the link between his emotive electronic work as Ahnnu, the irresistible grooves of Cakedog’s footwork, and Jackson’s strikingly visceral visual art. Cakedog’s new O.T.K. EP releases June 16 on TAR. This interview by sweeney kovar.
I didn’t know you grew up in Japan.
My father was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Japan. By the time I moved to America in the late 90s, you guys were getting the stuff I was getting in the early 90s in Japan. I moved here in ‘95 or ‘96. When I was younger I remember the first huge cultural reference between my friends was Dragon Ball Z. While American kids were first getting to know the series with Dragon Ball, in Japan we had already known the GT series which didn’t air in the US until the mid 2000s. We also had the N64 before it came out here. My neighborhood friends were like, ‘What is this?!’ Everyone was only familiar with Super Nintendo. There were a lot of cultural things I had to get used to, but during my teenage years I adapted to the lifestyle pretty easily. My taste originated from my father. He’s always been really into a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. He’s a pretty nerdy dude. When I came here, I felt I had different taste than a lot of my peers because of my influence at home and having spent my earliest years on an overseas military base. A lot of the cultural tastes were separated by about a decade of time difference. By ‘95 in America, everyone was wearing baggy clothes. But in Japan, most people dressed like they were in the 80s. These subtle cultural differences had some kind of social effect on me and helped shaped the way I look at things today.
Were you exploring visual art before you stepped towards music?
I was into drawing as far back as I can remember. In kindergarten I was drawing all the time. I was trying to copy the cartoons I was watching. I wasn’t really into music until 8th grade. I joined a band through some kids I met in middle school. We actually toured a little bit. I like to think we were pretty successful for how old we were. It was weird. We were covering rock songs and listening to some heavy stuff but also various electronic artists and progressive rock bands. Around then is when I started to become interested with the creation of music—not just casual listening. One of the homies we started the band with—his pops had a full-fledged studio in his basement. He would let us play on his expensive basses and guitars, which really set the foundation for me as far as exploring my own instrumentation. The band started in 6th grade and when we all went to different high schools we broke apart—around 2001. My friend John who actually released a record on Leaving [Records] recently as Nerftoss was in that band. We had similar tastes that extended outside of rock and traditional songwriting. John and I would trade a lot of music we’d find and listen to it very intently on long drives. It was the beginning roots of my inclination towards electronic music and having a greater focus on my own musicianship.
How did you link up with the Chocolate Milk collective in Richmond, Virginia?
I moved to Richmond around 2007. It was a huge growing process, trying to live independently with artistic freedom at a young age. It didn’t go exactly as planned but I did meet a bunch of great artists. A friend of mine from Northern Virginia, Patrick, was one of my only friends at the time. We hung out a lot and eventually I was introduced to his friend Josh, who like me, was into the visual arts but had a huge appetite for making music. We became close friends as well, and through his associations we gathered a group of friends who would later become Chocolate Milk. He knew Brad [Ohbliv] already, too. I went to a rap show when Brad was in a Roots-type band. He was the MC and they had a singer, guitarist and all that. At the time I only knew Brad as an MC. A couple of days later, Josh showed me his beats. He was the only other person I felt was trying to reach for what I was reaching for. I was really into early instrumental hip-hop at the time—listening to DJ Shadow, DJ Cam, revisiting Tribe and Digable Planets and appreciating their production. A lot of early 90s hip-hop music was new to me because I missed out on that era when I was in Japan. When I met Brad, it was like I stumbled across a producer who was making what I listening to at the time. Over three years or so we played a lot of shows together as Chocolate Milk and grew slightly, but eventually time took its natural course—we all continue to grow very well independently. Richmond was where I met visionary artists who helped give me the confidence and support to follow my own vision. It had college town traditions just like anywhere else, but it was a healthy art community and people were excited about each other. I happened to be there at a special time. It’s changed, I’ve heard. At the time there was less regulation on parties and there was no noise ordinance.
What made you leave Richmond?
Josh again. I found Devonwho’s Myspace page around that time and I was blown away. I was listening to a lot of electronic and hip-hop music at the time but he had a crazy fusion. It was like he had already matured a sound that was really subtle, in my mind. He had hard-edge electronic elements with that feeling of hip-hop swing. Through him I found Ringo [Mndsgn] and Glen [Knxwledge] and at that time Klipmode in general was on some other shit. The whole Myspace charade was how I found Teebs and all the electronic musicians that I feel were making future music. They’re doing well right now—I guess it was meant to be. Moving out of Richmond was the next logical move. I felt I had lived in the area long enough. Even though Richmond had a great environment for creative thinking, I think it lacked the real infrastructure to have artistic careers based there at the time.
What’s your creative process like when making music?
It’s different with Ahnnu and Cakedog. The technical process is the same. I still use Fruity Loops but it’s a total shift in attitude between the two as far as creative aim. With Cakedog, there’s a lot more variables. Dance music in general to me is more of a social object. With Ahnnu I feel like I can do whatever I want. I can always retreat into my own ideology. With dance tracks, however, it grooves or it doesn’t. With Cakedog I try to be more mindful of whether a DJ has to use it—that extra gap between the break or being able to play it and have dancers respond to it. I have different intentions with Cakedog and Ahnnu.
What made you want to move into dance?
It wasn’t until I came to California. I’ve been listening to footwork before I came here. I think when I came here, footwork was still too close to trap music for a lot of audiences. To me, footwork was something different and coming over here and trying to play the tracks it almost felt like there needed to be … not a re-education because I didn’t start it, but more of a demonstration of how diverse footwork music can actually be.
Do you get more satisfaction out of Ahnnu or Cakedog?
They’re two sides of my brain. With Ahnnu, I don’t care as much. It’s more omnidirectional. I work with the intention of giving the listener more freedom and possibility. I want the listener to finish it. I don’t want to guide them too much. I want to create a situation where the listener finds something on their own and attaches it to the sound so they can have their own intimacy with the music, without the pressure of a standard or measurement. With Cakedog, I want people to do a certain thing. I want people to feel the tension and energy. It’s more rigid for me in that way, though I have to pay attention more. Right now I’m into that more because it brings new challenges as far as understanding my own production style. It’s been involving, but making dance music has shown me more possibilities.
How do you see the evolution of your music as Ahnnu?
I try not to think about that too much. The Ahnnu stuff is a representation of how I’m feeling at the time. It’s connected to my own process of self-education and experience, where music-making is only a part of a greater idea or attitude at the time. A lot of things I read or study can influence me deeply and musically in some way. Ahnnu is going to be a very very long learning process.
What questions drive the Ahnnu music?
I’m starting to realize that a lot of what makes me even want to create at all is the social environment. It’s very interesting. I draw a lot of my questions just through the social phenomena and the social behavior I perform and encounter day to day. As I grow older and I begin to mature myself as a human being—not even as an artist—I become more deeply aware. The questions always change. I look at Ahnnu as a social tool, as a way of helping other people think for themselves. That’s probably the one thing that is running a lot of the conflict—people not being comfortable with themselves. My aim for Ahnnu is to have people be like, ‘This is strange, but it grew on me somehow.’ As long as I can inspire the questions, that’s all that matters to me. Like in math, if you just tell someone ‘27’ they’re not going to know what you’re talking about. The questions have to come before the knowledge. I try to inspire the questions. After that, it’s out of my hands.
Ahnnu sounds like a lifelong documentation project. Does Cakedog have a finite lifespan?
Cakedog is my own personal attempt at trying to become more social. Not that I’m anti-social but to me we live in many different layers of social systems and I feel like … man, this is kinda deep, dude. A lot of the time, even within the subcultures, there is a cut off. There is prejudice everywhere. It’s natural, and to me it’s not about eliminating the pre -judgement but more about not rushing to a definitive judgement. It’s completely natural for people to say, ‘This is not my thing.’ But at the same time, you can’t remove the connection. Design, for me, has principles found in a lot of social systems. For example, negative space within a design. For someone who don’t understand the components, [they might say] ‘Of course you want to fill this space because it’s negative.’
It can be meant to add value to whatever else is there.
Totally. A lot of the time, we try to eliminate the opposition—someone who contradicts what you do. Maybe it’s a Western thing but Americans know that the best things comes from just putting shit together. It’s true in so many ways. If you let go of the character, and not put a hat on it, it can be whatever it is.
Do you see yourself ever putting Cakedog to rest?
I don’t think I do. It’s helping me in a personal way. Because it’s more of a social music, it helps me understand my environment around me, and challenge my own social traditions. Only I set up my own barriers. The thing with Cakedog is that it lets me see how the barriers can be cool sometimes. Ignorance is cool in art but being conscious is cool too. The fact that I have to think about the DJ that is going to play this or think about the dancers that are going to dance to it—that helps me think about making a functional social object. I feel like that’s the hardest thing to do—make something that is flexible enough to withstand someone else’s participation. Cakedog is being cool with certain limitations. It’s a contrast to Ahnnu, where can do whatever I want. I actually try to psyche myself out.
What do you mean by that?
It’s weird working with a computer program. That freaked me out for a while. If you listen to a singer or a ballad, you’re experiencing something. To me, that’s music. I’m trying to create that feeling without context. It’s a contradictory thing I’m trying to create. I want to create an organic experience but at the same time I’m working with a machine so I try to figure out ways to break Fruity Loops. I try to find exploits within programs to make weird stuff. It’s half me, half whatever the machine allows me to do through its own biases.
Something you said earlier about the social experience and all the ways it’s stratified made me think to ask you about background. Some people might not know you’re Black. As someone who is Black but can sometimes not be identified as Black because of how you look, I’m curious as to how that experience has shaped your art.
Totally. That’s really the pinnacle of everything for me. I know where I come from, you know what I mean? No one can tell me who I am. At the same time, I’m treated differently. That’s one of the things I noticed when I came to the states. Cats were like, ‘Yo, your last name is Jackson?’ I remember times when I had to show pictures. If I didn’t show pictures then I was not Black. It was a weird thing because in Japan the race thing wasn’t present like that. Coming into junior high in the states, cats were all about race. A lot of times that determines your social life. That was new to me. Some people feel like there is certain criteria to what an authentic Black experience is—something I think is even in the Black community. I had a very diverse background and I never really looked at my skin as different until I came to the States. Even though my brother and my dad look different than me, it wasn’t even a thing. To get to your question—I feel like that’s something I’m still coming to terms with now. A lot of the times I feel that principle to be true: people fall for the surface of things. Looking further has always been much more fruitful. You realize that whatever idea or image you had in your head is flipped because you decided to go a little deeper. I feel like my biracial life—and not looking like the rest of my family—has given me certain inspirations because I’m treated a certain way. I also recognize prejudices are even beyond the skin color thing. It can attach itself to any ideal and weaponize it as long as it focuses on the differences.
Do you ever see yourself going back to live instrumentation or analog equipment?
I want to change my performance set up. I feel like I’ll keep my studio stuff the same but as far as the performance, I’ve done too many shows where the studio and the stage are the same thing. I think in the coming years I’ll be revising how I’ll be presenting my music in a live setting and also how I perform in the studio. I’ll be trying to push myself. There’s a lot of confusion in the world. As artists we have a social responsibility to help the condition. At the end of the day, when people are done with their 9 to 5 and they come home and they turn on their TV and they’re ready to relax, the entertainer is the last bastion between that person becoming a psychopath and becoming ignorant. We’re kind of the dessert makers. We should take care of our role. It’s not our job to change political stuff—we have limited power in that respect. The power we do have is very precise. If we can demonstrate self-innovation maybe it can help inspire people to do the same thing—to question and evaluate.
The artist interacts with the audience at its most impressionable.
Totally. It’s really important. Artists now feel entitled to self-expression. Whatever they put out, it is what it is. I feel if you have the power of influence, you must possess compromise. That whole conversation actually evaporates when you pay attention to those things. It’s like making dinner. You have a bunch of people who are allergic to certain things. How can I make it so everyone can have a meal together instead of leaving certain people out?
… or making people sick?
Yeah! That’s a huge problem with popular music today. We’re in such a special time with hip-hop being popular music now. That puts a different umbrella under the condition of not just entertainment and culture but the condition of how people associate culture with the Black experience. You ever heard Epic Rap Battles of History on YouTube? When I look at that. I realize how far the music and culture has gone. And that a large number of people experience hip-hop and rap in that way.
Like it makes you question what they’re really fans of?
Yeah—what are you really focusing on? It’s hard because if you’re a hip-hop fan, you’re looking at that and feeling like they’re making fun of hip-hop. That’s the thing about appropriation. The line between honoring something and mocking a tradition is very thin if you haven’t done your research. The subtleties are important. Even within the culture there are people that are okay rappers that are labeled as completely wack. It’s not like he’s mocking rap or hip-hop, but that’s just the attitude of hip-hop. It’s historically fortified itself through strict critique. But even that dynamic can put a stranglehold on letting hip-hop expand into other cultures.
…or even expand within itself. That whole debacle about Nas having had some shit written for him made me think about how great artists in music write for each other all the time. Why does hip-hop have to be an exception? Why does it have to be limited like that?
Imagine being homies with someone for a long time. It’s just you and your best friend. Then a new friend of a friend comes in. You might be like, ‘Who is this guy though?’ But then that friend gets comfortable. He comes through your crib, warming up the oven nonchalantly. I feel like that’s the state of hip-hop right now. The purists are in that state of ‘Who do these people think they are coming into the house like that? They’re not even taking off their shoes.’ At the same time, you have to be able to deal with a world full of people who don’t take off their shoes. It’s funny with purists in art—sometimes those people end up by themselves. They’ve built so many walls in their own kingdom. They’re in their own perfect world. I feel like that’s definitely threatening the future. What are we really fighting against? Wack artists and wack art—destructive art—are always going to be around. It’s not about the elimination. You have to dig through that in order to find the gems.
CAKEDOG’S O.T.K. EP RELEASES TUE., JUNE 16, ON TAR. AHNNU’S PERCEPTION IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM LEAVING RECORDS. VISIT AHNNU AT DOGTROPIC.NET OR AT SOUNDCLOUD.COM/AHNNU. VISIT CAKEDOG AT CAKEDOG.BANDCAMP.COM.