S/T 003: Dirty Bird

Listening to the work that American producer and DJ Dirty Bird has released in the past year, it would be hard to believe that 1) he’s only been making house music for a handful of years, and 2) he never had plans to make music in the first place. Dirty Bird’s artistic profile includes painting, clothing and graphic novels, and while he’s found success in electronic music, a deep dive into his discography reveals a wide palette of ideas that range from jazzy hip-hop to nostalgia-inducing pop-punk. His background in the arts has undoubtedly contributed to the strong visual identity found in the presentation of his music, and his wide array of influences have brought him a hardcore fanbase that religiously watch him stream deep house mixes on Twitch, buy his music & bonus collectibles on Bandcamp and his gum.studio website, and ensure the gospel of Dirty Bird is spread across Twitter.

Creating a cult fanbase is not the goal for Dirty Bird, however; what is most important to him is making the type of music that restores the feeling of the genre’s forefathers. Nowadays, house and electronic music is best known for its massive synths and colossal bass-drops, but that’s far from the experimental origins of house music that filled dancefloors in warehouses across Chicago and Detroit in the 1980s. Dirty Bird’s music takes a futuristic approach to that classic house sound. It’s unquestionably tied to the electronic music of the past, but with a plethora of fresh new ideas that aim to push the genre forward instead of simply recreating the past. Sound Over Time sat down with Dirty Bird to talk about everything from the narrative in his newest albums to his feelings on collaboration and what he sees as the future of both house music and his own career.

What albums, artists or songs do you remember most from your early childhood, that your parents or other older figures in your life played?

Dirty Bird: Mostly stuff my dad liked. Jeezy and Gucci mixtapes, 8 Ball and MJG, Three 6 Mafia. My first CD was from Dem Franchize Boyz, and then Tha Carter II.

The music you make doesn’t really match up with the style of guys like Jeezy, UGK or Three 6 Mafia, but I think there’s a similarity in tone.

For sure. I’m a big believer in the idea that even if you don’t make the same type of music that you listened to growing up, it subconsciously affects how you approach it. The relationship between the music I make and the music I listen to is really interesting to me. It’s kind of like a puzzle that I can’t figure out. When I was making Sounds of Life, I was listening to shit that was way different than the stuff I was making. I wanted to make something like “Da Summa” by Three-6. Something that feels like driving down the street with your homies. I love the really groovy, funky Three-6 songs. They’re fucking crazy, and they don’t get enough love compared to the hardcore stuff.

I was also listening to All Screwed Up, Vol. 2 [by DJ Screw]. That’s probably the biggest link between older southern music and my music now, because when you slow down a sample, it’s gonna have that chopped-and-screwed tone that he pioneered. My sample technique is heavily influenced by DJ Screw.

Screw’s music has almost been gentrified at this point, through the rebranding of what he did as the “slowed-and-reverbed” YouTube trend.

Nobody will ever do it the way that Screw did it, though. He wasn’t the first to slow down records; people had been doing it to disco songs in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When you present a new tool, this new mode of making music, people are bound to try it. I can’t think of someone else who has that level of influence of music creation. I can’t think of anyone else who added a new tool into beatmakers’ arsenals since DJ Screw.

What album or artist do you believe influenced your taste most when you first started really diving into music?

I don’t think I really knew how to make music until I started diving deep into Ryuichi Sakamoto, Flying Lotus, Moodymann, and Fred P’s albums. I learned a lot from all the Knxwledge tapes too for sure. As far as listening, though, I started out as a big Wayne, Gucci, and Jeezy fan, and then Kanye and Odd Future. After that, I expanded from there. I think just being online and playing a lot of video games shaped my taste in music more so than any particular album or artists. I used to love the Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 soundtrack and the Skate 3 soundtrack. Now that I’m older, I’m having a second coming of music exploration. It’s mostly because I fell in love with house music like 2 years ago. It’s led me to feverishly consume every subgenre of electronic music I can find.

I think it’s so cool how video game soundtracks can influence young people’s sonic palettes so early. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Skate, and even FIFA, tons of people get into different music because of them.

It’s because they spend so much time with them! Even if you don’t like it at first, if you hear a song for the 500 hours you spend playing one video game, it’s gonna be your shit, and you’ll think, “maybe I’ll start listening to more stuff like this”.

I know that you’re big into video games, especially fighting ones like Tekken or Super Smash Bros. Do you think the skill-building that occurs when playing those games has translated into your progression as a musician?

People always think I’m joking when I talk about how serious I take improving at Tekken, but I am deadass serious. It’s taught me so much about the patience, perseverance, and confidence that you’ve gotta have to improve. That feeling goes back to playing sports as a kid. I’ve always been a borderline-unhealthily competitive person. Getting older, though, I’ve learned to take the edge off. I’m not competing with other people anymore; I’m competing with myself, pushing myself to see how great I can be. It’s way healthier.

When I first used to start something new, I always did because I wanted to be the best. I still do now, but it’s not for the reason I used to want to. When I first went to art school, I was like, “I’m gonna be a superstar” [laughing]. Now, what qualifies as being the best has nothing to do with stardom or public reception, and everything to do with reaching personal goals I’ve set for myself.

That desire to win trophies, it’s gone now that I don’t play competitive basketball or run track. The only sport I do now is skateboarding, which is a really meditative and a borderline spiritual experience for me. Getting better at something physically, it forms a relationship with your body that makes you in tune with it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Video games do the same for me. When I’m playing Tekken, I have to be in a good space mentally. If I’m not, I’m gonna fucking suck. [laughs]

How do you think skateboarding and its culture affects your music?

I think skate culture is the reason I listen to so many genres. The soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 expanded my taste so much. I learned about Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, all the bands I love through that game. That led to a huge indie pop and rock phase, and I learned about all of that because I got into skateboarding.

Was there a specific album or artist that really pushed you to want to make music? If so, what was it or who were they?

My friends made me want to make music more than anybody else. Shoutout to the NXGN boys and shoutout to JOON. I went to a lot of local events when I was at NYU, and those experiences really pushed me to want to make music. JOON taught me how to use Ableton, and the rest is history. After that, it was all about Black Mahogani by Moodymann. It’s a perfect album and it’s something I’ve been chasing for a while now. I aspire to make something that deep, jazzy, and so full of life.

Has there been an album that you feel challenged or change the way that you want your music to sound? If so, what was it?

It’s still Black Mahogani, I think. The Duality EP by Fred P, too. I don’t know enough about music theory yet to make anything truly jazzy, so I’ve been chasing those projects a lot. I want that gritty and soulful Detroit sound, but I also want that abrasive jazz approach intertwined. Three Chairs 3 is another album that inspires me a lot. I never thought house music or electronic music in general could ever sound like that man it’s so crazy. It walks the line between unrefined and perfectly executed. It’s like an un-quantized drum loop. That human touch makes it better than anything a machine could make.

You’ve referenced Moodymann a few times in your answers. What makes his music so special to you?

His sampling skill, and use of live instrumentation. He plays the drums and the keys, and he collaborates with [vocalist and keyboardist] Amp Fiddler as well as [saxophonist] Norma Jean Bell. They make so many live versions of [Moodymann] songs, and [Moodymann] has remixes of Norma Jean Bell remixes, and that Detroit live band aspect is what I think makes it so different from all the other deep house stuff I listen to. It makes it really ‘90s! A lot of ’90s deep house has live keys and drums that you don’t usually get in contemporary deep house. To see him make [songs] live from the jump, and then for him to re-sample those tracks and turn them into deep house songs, that’s one thing I really like. Nobody uses that same process [to make music]

He’s also not afraid to use really abrasive sounds in the middle of a luxurious-sounding house record. He’ll take something that’s really lush and jazzy, and throw some really abrasive techno-style bass or a weird vocal transition into the mix. I hear that and I’m like, fuck, I can’t do that shit. That shit’s hard.

The way he mixes in some more aggressive sounds into his music, I think that’s so smart. It keeps the people honest.

Yeah. That’s Detroit shit. Him, Omar S., all the Three Chairs guys, they’re so good at making abrasive shit sound groovy. I wish I could do that. It’s incredible.

What you said about the importance of the “human touch”, it sounds a lot like Madlib’s process of not correcting his drums after programming them because he likes how it keeps his music feeling organic.

Madlib is a fucking genius. Everyone knows that. Unquantized drums are so fire, and what he says about them is right; and it changes how you consume music. We get really used to 4/4 drums and basic pop and rap music arrangements, so those songs become easy listening. Anything outside of those time signatures, people get confused. My first exposure to unquantized shit, it changed how I thought about arranging samples. As I’m starting to make more music, it’s becoming more and more apparent that there’s a lot of math involved. Even when I’m DJing, changing between BPM, that shit is hard! It’s why I strayed away [from steep BPM changes] when I first started DJing. Trying to figure it out is like a math equation.

Dealing with weirder samples, it’s helped simplify that process for me. You learn how to find more naturally occurring rhythms, ones that you wouldn’t find with perfectly quantized drums. You know when you hear an Earl [Sweatshirt] beat, or a Mach-Hommy beat, the loop feels like it shouldn’t work, but it does? That feeling is the goal. Madlib probably gets that too. When you get that one loop that sounds crazy even though it shouldn’t? That’s what I live for.

Was there a live performance that you saw early on that helped you shape what you believe music should inspire within people? If so, what was it?

I saw Lauryn Hill live at a Tidal concert after Beyonce had performed and it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve also seen Kanye at the Meadows. I was super high, and had an out of body experience. It feels like I was finally seeing the full spiritual power of music. It was one of the ten best moments of my life. Music has this incredible power to induce trance-like states of ecstasy. It’s really cool.

You mentioned before that you DJ as well. Have there been any DJ sets that have inspired you the way you mentioned seeing Kanye and Lauryn Hill live did?

Fred P’s Boiler Room. It’s just three hours of the deepest house you’ll ever hear in your life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, in person, a deep house set that really inspired me. But I never hit the clubs or live shows like that in college, unless my friends were performing. Most of the shit I’ve seen, it’s on YouTube, and it’s been during this quarantine period. And so before I got booked for my first virtual DJ performance, I watched a bunch of the Boiler Room sets online. And that Fred P shit, man, it was fucking crazy. I already knew Fred P was amazing, but his mixes? Unreal. I think he’s the best DJ in the world. Nobody is playing stuff that deep that seamlessly. He has incredible taste.

Do you think that part of the reason that you’re interested in making music in various genres is because of Ryuichi Sakamoto? He did a lot of different stuff, from jazz and ambient to synth-pop.

Yeah, for sure. The first album I ever heard from him was Async, in college. After that, my professor gave me a USB drive of all the Yellow Magic Orchestra stuff he did, and I started going through the rest of his catalog. But it was Async that made me feel like, “yo, I need to go make some weird ambient shit that I’m not making right now”. It’s probably also because I was in art school at the time, and was reading so much theory that wasn’t music-related- but I could see so much of that [theory] how Ryuichi approaches his music. He has an ethos that can be applied to any type of art; one that makes it feel more like a practice and less like a hobby.

It sounds like he takes a very professional approach.

Exactly. He takes a very professional and theoretical approach; more than just opening up Ableton and messing around. It gives you an internal sense of guidance. I found that really inspirational, and it made me ask myself, “what kind of music do I really want to make? What kind of spiritual presence do I want to create in my work?”. That shit changed me as a person.

You still do a fair amount of work on your own, but you’ve been collaborating with different artists a lot more lately, including a joint project with producer Dazegxd. How does collaboration excite you, and how does it improve different processes of making music for you?

It’s funny, because I usually really hate working with other people [laughing]. I never liked group work in school, and I never used to ask other people to work on music. That was until I made Malware. That was literally the first time in my entire life that I was actually excited to work with other people [laughs]. And I think it’s because, when I think about working with other people, it has to be someone who I don’t have to explain anything or over-exert myself in any way. It has to feel natural. Almost like making new friends. You can’t really explain the criteria for making friends, but they exist. You fuck with some people, and you don’t fuck with other people; I try to stay away from working with people I don’t fuck with.

It’s definitely important to work with people you actually like. When you work with someone you really connect with, the effect is often the sum being greater than its parts.

Exactly. Even when I first started making art in college, I would have gallery shows, and I realized that I’m not a good networker. I’m not gonna be the guy who goes up to people at an event. I don’t love meeting and talking to new people, and having to kiss ass and social climb. I’m not a social climber, and I’m not a hustler [laughs]. So when it comes to collaboration, it has to be someone that understands that. Someone who isn’t gonna try and push me out of my comfort zone when I’m not ready.

Making Malware, me and Chris [vocalist and frequent collaborator, stage name ICEDOUTOMNITRIX] were already friends before we collaborated; I think that’s why it worked. I only worked with Daze because Chris recommended them. I usually don’t work with people my homies recommend to me. But for whatever reason, I had a good feeling about Daze, and the Chris co-sign made him valid in my eyes. Those types of people are really the only ones I’ll work with; my friends, and people who my friends recommend. I don’t really want to work with anyone else; except Earl [laughs].

Stylistically, you guys are a match made in heaven. It would make sense. And there wouldn’t be a problem with you needing to explain him stuff- he knows what he’s doing.

Exactly. He’s someone I look up to, and I wouldn’t feel any pressure in that scenario.

You guys would probably get along.

I think so. It would be different, though. Daze and Chris are a lot younger than me, so it makes the stress level way lower. We have similar interests, but I’m the big homie in those scenarios [laughs]. I’ll be in teacher mode sometimes. They’re like my nephews.

That’s a cool relationship to have with people, though. As long as they’re willing to learn, you’ve got years of experience you can teach them with.

I’m learning things too, though. The thing about these digicore kids, they’re so good at arranging songs. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know where they learned how to do it, but they’re all better than me.

It’s all tutorials on YouTube.

The kids are good, man.

Despite being best-known for music, you’ve also released work in other art forms. Does the music you listen to influence your visual art as well? If so, is it different music, and which artists or albums are they?

I don’t think the music I listen to influences my visual artwork, but the music I make and the visual art I make definitely exist in the same universe. My stage name is taken from my comic book character, so I’ve always thought of myself as role playing as him in a way. I don’t spend much time painting or drawing anymore, but when I was studying in college everything was a mix. My music informed my drawing, and vice versa.

Do you think that music you make in the future will be from the perspectives of different characters?

Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it. I have been thinking of a new alias to release breakbeat stuff or a one-off album under, but I haven’t been thinking of new characters because I haven’t been writing any new comics outside of a screenplay for an animated short I’m thinking about doing down the road. I forget that Dirty Bird is a character sometimes since I haven’t thought about Gully [the comic that Dirty Bird first appeared in] in a while. But before I branch off, I need to find a way to make the narrative that’s currently in my music more apparent.

The narrative ideas on Brainworks and Neurogenesis, they make sense in my head, but I haven’t told anybody. I want to tell people, but I need to find the right way to tell it. There’s only like, four people who really know about it. It’s okay, because it doesn’t take away or add too much to the music, but I’ve had a hard time trying to tell it. I’m not a super accomplished lyricist, so I don’t think I have the linguistic tools to tell it. The Time Traveler music video that’s coming out should help tell the story, and I’m hoping to do more animated companions to my albums in the future that help shed light on their narratives.

What is the narrative?

It’s a long story. After I made Halcyon Palace, I went to post it on streaming services and the distributor I used asked for the name of the person who owned the copyright sounds. I didn’t understand it, and so I put my real name. I didn’t think my damn name was gonna show up at the bottom of the album’s page on Apple Music!

No way! I didn’t even notice that.

Yeah. If you go to the bottom of Apple Music, you could see my full name. At that point, people were eating the EP up, and I didn’t want random people knowing my name if I got more popular. So I changed my website from my real name to gum.studio[ADD LINK]. I was making Brainworks at that time, and that’s when I got the idea for Gumlab. In my head, it was gonna be this fictional, super-futuristic corporation that performs experiments on humans. One of those mega-corporations that you always see in dystopian sci-fi movies. They would specialize in auditory stimulus products, and Brainworks is the name of their brand of these products. So listeners would be being used as a “test” by listening to it. I didn’t tell anyone about that, but the Brainworks CDs I made are medical-grade data discs, and the text on the disc says “For Lab Use Only”. It looks like a CD you might find in a hospital.

Malware is supposed to be the soundtrack to the Gumlab corporation being hacked and a bunch of their data leaking. That’s why I put a password scraper with the album; it’s supposed to be a hacker’s electronic album. Neurogenesis is the sequel to Brainworks, so it’s again about auditory stimulus products. “Neurogenesis” is the process of forming new neurons in your brain, and Gumlab is using the album as a way to create that process.

Even if you don’t ever make something that tells that story, I think it’s still important to have that narrative to guide your music, just for the process of making it. It helps you figure out what you want different albums to sound like.

Yeah. I learned that from Ryuichi’s stuff too. Having that internal narrative, I’m not trying to make music that sounds like something else. I’m thinking about what kind of movie it would soundtrack. It makes my songs have a sort of character to it that makes me not need a producer tag, because it’s all connected to this movie in my head.

That’s probably why a lot of musicians like having movies playing when they’re recording, but they turn the sound off.

I’m a visual learner, so the visual aspect is crucial to me. Even with the plugins I use, I need visualizers on them to see what I’m making. I always get the cover to an album made before I make the music. Once I get the visual ideas done, I know what the album is going to sound like.

What is it about music that made you want to go full-time with it, instead of continuing to also make visual mediums of art?

That’s something I had an existential crisis about, like last week. I was thinking to myself, “why do I even make music? Why is this the thing that I decided to do?”. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to make music, or even wanting to. Even today; I love making music, and I love being a producer. But I don’t live and die by being a musician. I’ll live and die by house and rap music, being a fan of it. When it comes to making it, I feel like music is just something I happen to do, and I happen to be doing it full time.

If there was ever a time I felt like I wanted to switch into doing comics or animation, I would just do that. I’ve been doing music on a whim the last two years because it’s fun, I like it, and I feel myself getting better at it. If I ever felt like I wanted to stop doing music, I would just stop. I don’t think I could do anything forever. I want to be making things forever, but I’m not really sold on one particular medium.

You’re an artist, not just a musician.

Exactly. I hate when people say it like that, though. “I’m not a rapper, I’m an artist”.

Yeah, I get that. But you literally do that. You do a bunch of different stuff. You’re not just on a radio show talking about how you aren’t a rapper.

You’ve settled really nicely into the deeper side of electronic music. Will that be the permanent genre that the Dirty Bird project will exist in, or do you see yourself continually shifting styles?

I think I’m okay with house being my permanent genre, at least for right now. [House music] has so much depth, and I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet within the field. Recently, I’ve been making shit that’s mid to me, but I know it’s good. That’s how I know I’m getting way better. I can imagine songs that are way better than what I’ve made, and people seem to already really like the stuff I’ve put out. I’m excited to keep getting better at house music, and I’d love for house to become a topic in popular music again. I’ve learned the most making this type of music, and not to be full of myself, but I think I can push the genre places it hasn’t been before. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied until I do that.

That being said, as soon as I learn enough about music to make a jazz album, I’m doing that. I’m only making jazz after that.

I don’t know how people do jazz. Watching jazz musicians amazes me, because I don’t understand how people can so easily improvise like that on the spot.

That’s what I’m saying! I’m pretty good at improvising on playing keys in real life or on Ableton. The only thing that’s holding me back is that I don’t know much about music theory. Once my Yamaha keyboard comes in, and I really sit down and learn music theory, it’s over.

You’re gonna bring back jazz and house music. As far as house, If anyone’s gonna do it, it’ll be you. From what you’ve told me, how you think and the music that influences you seems to understand that middle ground between the deeper sounds of house and the type of music that people want to hear outside.

Seeing Drake sample Moodymann, that’s when I knew it’s possible to make house music popular again. I don’t think my music will ever be massive, but I think I can make music that influences the sound of popular house music, even if it’s just a tiny bit. I don’t anticipate being a superstar. I don’t have any star power. Even now, having fans of my music, it’s a wild feeling.

I don’t think it’s off the table for you to become as big as someone like Kaytranada. His sound is relatively accessible, but he also has a very distinct style and works with whoever he wants.

Yeah. That’s why I find it so cool to see all the digicore kids follow me now. It’s really interesting to watch them get into the music that I like and the music I make. I’m hoping I can work with them more, and push a combination of our styles to the forefront. Seeing what they can do with house music, it could be insane.

They would probably love techno music..

They would! They just don’t know it yet.

Well, who knows. Maybe you’ll be the Kaytranada of digicore.

[laughing] That shit would be crazy! I’d love that. It sounds so funny to say out loud.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Follow Dirty Bird on Twitter @gum_mp3 and on Instagram @gum_flac.

Follow Sound Over Time on Twitter @soundover_time and on Instagram @soundover.time

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