S/T 006: Cristal London is Bringing the Power of the Internet to Latin Music
It’s pretty much consensus that the last seventy years make up the “modern” era of music, a time in which a majority of the current dominant genres and standard song structures were invented and innovated on. In each of the seven decades, new tools appeared and subsequently influenced each decade’s most popular sounds. Sometimes these tools took the form of technology: the electric guitar in the ’50s, the synths of the ’80s, the effects pedals of the ’90s, and the advanced samplers of the aughts. In other cases, they took the form of social movements, such as the psychedelic counterculture of the ’60s and the popularity of disco clubs in the ’70s. The music of the 2010s, however, was built on a tool that was both technological and cultural, and surpassed all others in how it affected the music industry and its creators: the internet.
The first record that made the internet’s power as a musical game-changer apparent was A$AP Rocky’s 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP (That’s not to say there weren’t people using the internet as a vehicle for their music before, but the discourse surrounding the internet’s role in the industry truly gained steam with this tape).Though not producing or rapping on a single song, the project’s sonic and aesthetic direction was spearheaded by the late, great A$AP Yams, who at the time ran a popular Tumblr blog. Yams clearly spent a good amount of his time diving down YouTube rabbit holes of rap music that came from local scenes beyond his native New York City, and the blog became a hub that broke down the regional barriers that had previously existed in hip-hop culture. By the time Live.Love.A$AP was out, the general public was enamored by the idea of Rocky and the rest of the Mob; a group from the boom-bap centre of the world making music that took equal influence from Houston, the West Coast, and the South, mixing them all into one hazy pot to become the most forward-thinking, coolest-sounding posse in the world.
While it was a novel idea at the time, this type of genre-mixing would become commonplace within a few years. The internet had become the world’s biggest, greatest record store, as artists young and old could now sink thousands of hours into finding music from different countries, in different genres, and across any time period. New York City’s musical identity is now the drill music first made popular in London. Dancehall and reggaeton grooves are now regularly adopted by Western pop stars, and often guarantee a chart-topping hit. The murky, nocturnal sound of Toronto records like Take Care and Echoes of Silence continues to be the standard for R&B artists across the world. But the synthesisation of existing styles was not the most powerful way that the internet impacted music. It was instead what was created from a generation of musicians who used it to create entirely new types of music, ones that incorporated multiple genres and whose origins could not be traced to a certain country or region, but found its home online.
The birth of cyber-genres was inspired by the accessibility of music in the online age, but it was only made possible through another massive movement in the internet era: pirate culture. Once locked behind steep prices, almost every digital audio workspace (DAW), sample pack, and plugin was now available for free to anyone who knew how to maneuver torrent websites. It became cheaper to become a producer than it was to be a guitarist, and so the world’s best young creatives flocked to the endless possibilities that came with downloading FL Studio or Ableton. Once SoundCloud emerged as a platform that provided a free alternative to record labels as a distributor, there was nothing that could stop anyone with an idea and a laptop from creating something entirely new.
What resulted from this newfound availability of audio devices was quite possibly the biggest expansion of the musical spectrum since the punk and new wave trends of the late ’70s. PC Music overwhelmed pop music with their half-abrasive, fully-infectious brand of “bubblegum bass”. Future funk and vaporwave brought nostalgia to the world of electronica. A group of anime-obsessed Swedish teenagers in bucket hats became underground rap favourites. Of every major genre, the one that was left mostly untouched was Latin music, which has steadily updated the formula for its most popular styles over the years with little variation. But the internet was going to make sure that didn’t last forever, and Cristal London looks like the prime candidate to shake the Latin world in the same way people like SOPHIE and Young Thug did to their respective spheres before him.
The effect that the internet had on Cristal London’s music isn’t hard to hear. You can trace his unique style back to many cult figures of the cyber-era; the isolated atmosphere of Dean Blunt, the auto-crooning of Ecco2k, the melancholic emotional tones of Kevin Abstract. This melting pot of influences is placed within a Latin context, whether it means a smooth R&B tune sung in Spanish or pairing a reggaeton rhythm with sounds fit best for a night drive. The scope of Latin music is so large that it only makes sense for someone to tinker with it and produce work that is equally interesting and outstanding, and Cristal London has positioned himself as the architect for this new space, in which Latin music gets the internet makeover that it deserves, respectful of what makes it such a cultural cornerstone while also relentlessly experimenting to bring out its full potential as the basis for a new kind of cyber-genre. For this week’s Sound Over Time interview, we sat down with Cristal London to explore how the internet affected his sound and process, the way he continually blends new musical finds into his own work, his career as a DJ, and more.
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?
Cristal London: When I was younger, I found out that [Argentinian Ska and Reggae band] Los Fabulosos Cadillacs were coming to Costa Rica. I had never heard their music before other than their biggest hits, but when they announced their show, I started getting into all of their music and became a huge stan. Their show was amazing too; my aunt took me to see them. I also saw Bob Marley on a livestream, and it was transcendental.
Was there ever a DJ performance you witnessed that inspired you to become one, similar to how seeing Los Fabulosos Cadillacs inspired you to become a musician?
When I started going to clubs, I already knew how to DJ. It made it a weird experience, because the DJ who was normally at the place me and my friends went to most, he would use a lot of tricks to cover up his lack of skill, like using altered tracks. It made me start being a bit of a hater [laughs]. The sets that informed my DJing were the ones I watched from Boiler Room, much more than going clubbing.
It sounds like seeing your local DJs did have an effect on you, then. They made you realize you could make it, because the bar was so low.
Yeah. When me and two of my friends started playing clubs, we mostly worked at a place directly across from where that same DJ worked. And we definitely tried to outplay him. It was kind of like a competition, and it was fun. We had a very different mindset than other DJs in Costa Rica, though. A lot more open to LGBTQ+ people, who felt more comfortable at our spot.
We also played different shit, and had fun with it. We would play music from High School Musical and Jonas Brothers songs, and people liked it. We became known for it; it was our thing. But we got bored of it pretty quick. Right as we stopped doing it, we found out other clubs had started playing the same shit! It got really popular, even at festivals. They had High School Musical songs playing at a big yearly Latin music festival.
That’s insane. You started a whole new wave. You can tell your grandkids you had every DJ play Disney Channel music.
[laughs] It was cool. It was a bit childish, which I kind of regret, but it felt really cool.
Which artist or album that came from your hometown do you feel influenced your own music the most?
There’s a Costa Rican band that goes by 424, and they have an album called Oro which is an amazing blend of indie rock and R&B. It was basically AM by Arctic Monkeys, before AM ever came out.
Do you think your love for Oro pushed you to make the type of genre-blending music that you make now?
Yeah. I didn’t think about it much until I stopped to try and recognize which Costa Rican bands shaped me most, but 424 is one of them. They especially influenced my process in making music. It was made with British producer [Phil Vinall] who came to help them, and they made it in a jungle. I watched a documentary on how the record was made, and it made me want to make a record in that same fashion. I make all my music at home now, but I hope that one day I can go someplace and make an entire concept album about that experience. Somewhere like a beachside hotel.
That blend of styles also inspired me a lot. I compared it to AM because it had that similar combination of indie rock guitars and melodies with more hip-hop and R&B influenced drums. It makes me want to do the same thing, but with reggaeton and other Latin music in the mix as well.
Do you think the Arctic Monkeys heard Oro and used it as inspiration themselves for AM?
I don’t think so. I think it’s just a bit too obscure, but the vibe is definitely the same.
I was surprised that the sound of AM didn’t become a popular sound. I think that the more emo-sounding rap-rock, stuff like Lil Peep, took the lane I thought that style would exist in.
I don’t think so. The only band I can think of that really pushed that sound was The Neighborhood, and their music now is mostly just indie while Jesse Rutherford’s solo stuff is closer to trap music. Omar Apollo kind of does it too, now that I think of it. Maybe if he gets bigger, it’ll catch on.
The atmosphere of your music reminds me a lot of the R&B sound that came out of Toronto in the last decade. Are you a fan of that stuff?
I’m a big fan. The people at the label that puts my music out, they always say I could be the Latino PARTYNEXTDOOR [laughs]. I listen to a lot of PND, and the Weeknd as well. I remember being in sixth grade, and my dad left to work in Atlanta for a while. When he came back, he brought Drake’s first tape [So Far Gone]. When I heard it for the first time, I was blown away. They would never play music like that in Costa Rica, and so it was unlike anything I’d heard before. I loved the songs where he sang.
Your music incorporates a lot of different genres. What were the artists or albums that inspired you to take a more experimental approach and mix different styles?
I like going into rabbit holes of microgenres and trying to emulate them. Recently, I’ve been really into sophisti-pop, 70s psychedelic soul, yacht rock, samba, bossa nova, dancehall, R&B-ish reggaeton, baile funk, and latin pop. I mostly wanna make music that feels like everything I listen to. But it’s really hard [laughs].
How do you work those genres into your music?
When I’m discovering a new style of music, I spend a lot of time reading about the studio techniques and the instruments they use. For example, getting into sophisti-pop, I noticed they draw a lot from Latin music, between using congas as percussion or playing Latin melodies on brass instruments. Those specific aspects are what I look for, and I like to apply those.
I also like to use the songwriting as inspiration for my own tracks. There’s a band called The Style Council I love, and they write really deep, sad, and romantic music, and they were only twenty years old when they started working. I was amazed that they were able to share experiences like that at such a young age. I try to recreate that raw feeling in my own songs.
So you look to recreate emotional reactions, not just specific sounds.
Exactly. My second album was inspired a lot by yacht rock, and how that music feels like the west coast.
Your music doesn’t sound a lot like other contemporary Latin musicians, which seems attributed to your exposure to American music at an earlier age. How do you think being able to combine your knowledge of American music with Latin culture has affected your music, and made you stand out?
I think it’s because I believe that while I physically lived in Costa Rica, I truly grew up on the internet. People in Costa Rica are still very Americanized, but there’s still a resistance from people to embrace American culture, especially in the Southern regions closer to Argentina. But since I grew up online, I embraced that culture instead. I would go out with my friends wearing a [Golf Wang] hat, and nobody would know what it was. The pushback against American culture has definitely lessened since the rise of celebrity culture on social media, but it still exists. I just continue to embrace it.
Do you think Costa Rica being more Americanized than other Latin countries made it easier for you to embrace American culture, even with that pushback?
I think so. It mostly came from my dad, who bought our family a desktop computer and would show us all sorts of cool stuff from his childhood. There’s also a desire that a lot of locals share to escape the country and go to America, because they see it as a better place to live. Both those things were factors in me getting into American culture, and shaping my sound.
Did your dad know American music from his childhood because he grew up in the U.S.?
Nah. He was born here, but he was the same as me growing up in that he listened to a lot of American music. I’m not sure why or how, because he came from a very rural town. But the first records I ever had were ones he gave me. There was a Michael Jackson album and a Paula Abdul one. He also taught me about Naughty By Nature. It was cool.
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?
Sun by Caribou. Anything in Return by Toro y Moi. Goblin by Tyler, The Creator. Seeing Sounds by NERD. Anything by Pharrell, really. He’s probably my biggest influence.
Both Toro Y Moi and Tyler are disciples of Pharrell, so it makes sense that he’s your biggest influence. Did you find him through those two and others citing him as a primary inspiration, or were you aware of him before?
I’m not sure. I’d definitely heard Pharrell before, because growing up, there was a channel that played music videos and he was so huge at the time that I would hear his songs all the time. He also worked with Daddy Yankee, who was super popular in my area. But I don’t think he really inspired me until later on, when I became a Tyler fan. I’ve always strived to try and mirror his mindset, and the way he’s able to work with so many people and bring the best out of them. He’ll work with someone I’m not a fan of, and I’ll still enjoy the song because of him.
It’s almost like a stamp of approval if he works with someone.
Definitely. A good example for me would be Britney Spears. Growing up, I didn’t listen to her outside of “Toxic”. Once I got older, I saw she had worked with Pharrell, and decided to give her another chance. Now, I love her.
Which album of yours do you feel people will most likely use as inspiration and influence in the same way that these other albums have influenced and inspired you?
I’d hope that people are inspired by ANGELS LIVE IN MY TOWN. I think it’s so polished, and that I do my influences justice. I hope people will catch onto that, and get inspired as well. I also hope my next album will be somewhat influential in the future, as far as genre blending and working different textures into an R&B and Carribean music context.
From the sounds of it, you want your music to push others to remove the boundaries of what Latin music is supposed to be.
Yeah. It frustrates me when Latin musicians make something unique, and the media just calls it R&B. But at the same time, a lot of Latin artists that try to make something unique are really just introducing what is normal in America to a new audience. I want people to do whatever the fuck they want, and move outside of their comfort zone. Make different blends of shit. If you make R&B, don’t just do House of Balloons. Especially for Latin artists, you have so many genres you can pull from. Why not try making a song with traditional R&B melody and vocals, but with Latin drums? It would probably sound great.
I’m working on my next album right now, making two to six beats in a day that are all different. I’ll make reggaeton, R&B, and trap music all in a day. I’ve been working on bolero, funk carioca, and bossa nova instrumentals as well. Those are the genres I’ve been listening to most as of late, and I want to recreate those vibes. Personally, I could never make something that I wouldn’t want to listen to myself, so I just make the music that I love.
Bunny by Cristal London
Listen to Bunny by Cristal London on Apple Music. Stream songs including Lola Bunny, 4 What? and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Follow Cristal London on Instagram @cristalondon1.
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