Interview: Baltimore-Club Stalwart Blaqstarr On M.I.A., His New EP, And Cosmically Absorbing The Universe
"I usually do one take and beautify that one take."
Blaqstarr has a history with powerful women. When he was just 16, long before he came to the attention of M.I.A. (and the blogosphere), the producer piqued the interest of Baltimore Club Queen K-Swift, a radio personality and tastemaker known for breaking young artists via her Club Queen Jumpoff mixtapes. To no one's surprise, "Ryda Girl" -- one of Blaqstarr's earliest tracks, and a tribute to the beloved DJ -- immediately becoming a Baltimore anthem after its inclusion in the series; once under Swift's wing, his arsenal of gritty club tracks kept growing (including "Tote It," also made when he was 16), with his swoon-worthy hooks adding a romantic groove sorely lacking in the otherwise bluntly aggressive world of Baltimore club.
While he was already a local favorite, Blaqstarr's tracks found their way into mainstream dance crates when he produced Rye Rye's club banger "Shake It to the Ground" and "Hands Up Thumbs Down," though the latter eventually became M.I.A.'s "World Town." (Sigh.) Soon thereafter, he disappeared from the club scene entirely to produce in-house at M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. Recordings; after two years in hiding with the pop princess, he's finally returned to the masses with the Divine EP. To be honest, it's not what we expected. Addictive clap tracks and loud, raw drum programming are what Blaqstarr does best, and while the signature Baltimore bass and vocal loops remain here, they're muted to foot taps instead of sweaty dance-floor bangers. Even the familiar "Ryda Girl" has been tamed into a submissive "Rider Girl," replacing the claps with drum-kicks and his rapping with vaguely emo refrains about love. In fact, the six tracks are more of an experimental venture into r&b than anything. It's bizarre, beautiful, and sometimes just plain disconcerting for those still clinging to Blaqstarr's past. We spoke to Blaqstarr about his creative process, what's it's like to freestyle with M.I.A., and how to channel vibes from the universe.
This album is very different from the Baltimore Club production you're known for -- when did you find yourself embracing your inner singer/songwriter?
I've been open to everything in music. I'm not attached to one aspect. I'd say that I've always experimented with every field, from singing to building a beat from scratch. My whole career -- ever since I was, let's say, 16 -- I've always been experimenting with it. Now it's just at the forefront.
Tell us a little more about your creative process with the Divine EP.
For instance, with the intro track, "All the World," I was working on a drum track for the bass, that "dum-da-dum-dum" in the background. At the time, a drummer had stopped in the studio. He was a friend of the engineer. He just felt like getting on the drums with a freestyle or something, so he did a drum set that I played over this little spacey sound in the background that I was playing with on this turntable set that I had on. So I had that on loop, I had the drum set on loop on the MPC player, and then I was on the mic while the drummer was in the other room freestyling. One set was recorded for that song. It was just a freestyle. That's why the words are more in the background than anything. It was just, like, cosmically absorbed through the universe
Is that generally how you've been working?
Yeah, I usually do one take and beautify that one take. I dress up that one take, cause the one take is the rawest form or translation from the universe. And then I just work with what I pull out of the air and respect what the universe is giving me.
Where did you spend most of your time recording?
In Baltimore. Yeah, for the EP. And there's a bonus track for the EP that I recorded in L.A.
Are you usually in the studio with other people?
It was just that one track when the drummer came in. Other than that, everything else is just me transporting it from the universe through me.
Do you have anyone you go to to test-run your tracks and get feedback from? Who's your go-to quality-control person?
A lot of times it's my brother, he's in the studio with me. He's absorbing the elements with me and putting them on the scales and balancing what's coming through.
A lot of these tracks are more finely tuned -- let's say, "cleaner" -- than most of your previous tracks. How is recording something like this different from making, you know, "Shake It to the Ground" or any of your classic club tracks?
It's just a part of the evolutionary process. It's just an evolved version or an evolved sound. The evolution of my sound. They say that evolution happens every second of every day, and everything is moving onwards and upwards. So I stay on my path, and that's what it is now.
Do you think that you'll return to straight club production?
It's always there. There's two parts to me -- the DJ Blaqstarr side and the Blaqstarr side. The DJ side is Baltimore up and down, the rawest form of Baltimore. And the other side is more of an artist that's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Everywhere and everything at the same time.
What does that mean for your live performances? Will they still include "DJ Blaqstarr"?
They'll have both. I'm gonna give them the best of both.
The most recent dance track we've seen from you is M.I.A.'s "XXXO." What was it like to work with her and N.E.E.T in-house?
Working with her was great. It's the same formula that I use. You know when she wrote the lyrics, she was just pulling them out of the air and saying them as I was working on the beat. It was a beautiful experience.