The Angel : In The Realms of the Groove
It’s more than likely that you haven’t heard of her, but you have heard her. She always shows up in the last place you expect – on remixes of the Tokyo-based Fantastic Plastic Machine, pop-soul diva Jody Watley, jazz great Donald Byrd, DJ Food, Frente, the Brand New Heavies and others. In the producer’s role, she’s done 3 productions for the forthcoming Bay Area MC/singer Mystic, and the soulful, jazz artist from Japan, Monday Michiru. And she’s done the scores for the Hollywood movies Gridlock’d, ‘Til There Was You, and the Boiler Room.
‘Lure them into the calm and then fuck them,’ a derivatives trader’s philosophy on customer service – it’s the only line I can remember from this book called F.I.A.S.C.O., which detailed the behind-the-scenes madness during the derivatives trading scandals in the mid-90s. It came to mind the other day, watching the video for the Boiler Room – a kind of Swingers 50 miles to the West of Wall Street, but still as East as you can get from Eden. A film about a bunch of white boys suckering in people to invest in stocks that don’t exist, intoxicated by power, driving around in sports cars, listening to hip-hop. Beats kick in and out of the soundtrack, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the moments when the beat-led score fades into tracks by De La Soul, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, or when the soft atmospherics of a quiet scene drift into the beauty of Tricky’s “You Don’t” from Maxinquaye.
The first time I heard the Angel was on a remix of the Pharcyde’s “Otha Fish” in the early 90s. “I had done a deal with Delicious,” says the L.A.-based producer, “So, we were on the same label. And I had a good relationship with the owner of the company. And I basically just said, ‘Look, I know I can remix people, and I love the Pharcyde, you should let me try this, I can do it on specs, just give me a shot at it.’ And I convinced him to let me try it, and when I did it the response I got was so incredibly positive. I love the Pharcyde. It was such a satisfying thing, to be working on something I totally believed in, with another act that I really was so into, and dug, and really wanted to do a good job. It was a great start for the whole remix thing.” Alongside Tricky’s first single, “Aftermath,” it was my favorite track on Volume 4 of the Rebirth of Cool. Nobody was calling this smoked-out, bluesy, jazzy, slowed down blend of hip-hop trip-hop back then, but, like Massive Attack’s even earlier Blue Lines, these tracks might be considered blueprints for the familiar sound of the later 90s.
There’s something slippery about her production style that you can’t put a finger on. You can hear elements of drum’n’bass (she cites Adam F, Photek, Dom & Roland as favorites), hip-hop, electronica, jazz, sampladelic/ambient atmospheres, and actual instruments –- but it’s as if everything’s melted down in the sound until all the roots in the music come together as one sound – a sound easily identifiable as the Angel’s. Or, at the point of identification or orientation, the music breaks, new patterns threaten to emerge, and then are replaced by something else. Yet, it’s all done seamlessly and naturally – like cruising through city blocks, the soundscapes shift with the landscapes.
“I’m really into a good, fat, slow beat,” she says. “I like a good slow jam – I don’t mean a slow jam, in a slow jam sense. Just something that moves you along. You can put more into a piece that’s slower, because there’s more space and room for it. When things are kind of fast and frenetic, it passes you by so quickly. It’s a different dynamic.”
In the mesh of influences that form the Angel’s sound, I think it’s the dub element that acts as a unifying force – and not even directly, cause the dub style’s already latent in so much drum’n’bass and hip-hop.
“Clubs in New York were the first place where I was really exposed to dub,” she says. “And I listened to Scientist everyday just for the vibe, just to get a good fucking vibe going. That sort of sums it up for me. — Space Invaders, Meets The World Cup – got that, listen to that all the time — Heavyweight Dub Champion. The spaciness of those tracks, the spaciness of dub, and the delays, and the fact that you have a lot of things bouncing around in the mix is just very hypnotic and luring, and it’s got a really soothing effect. And I think that’s also part of what’s crept into my consciousness, and what people kind of identify as being a dub element of what I do.
“The ways of what the bass does in a lot of dub — dub hits you in ways, and the bass moves you in a big wash of something almost ethereal. It’s almost tactile, it’s so big. I think that’s something that’s definitely crept into my consciousness as an artist. I don’t make dub records, but I know the element is there. People always comment on it. I’m a bassline freak. And it could be funky basslines or other kinds of basslines, but when it comes to those big washing, sub kind of basslines, nothing does it for me like that.”
The melting pot mixes of the Angel fittingly brought her to the seaside locale of Bristol on the coast of England for a collaboration with More Rockers. The resulting album, Through The Haze, came out under the name, Jaz Klash. A lush mix of live instruments and drum’n’bass. One half of More Rockers forms one half of the legendary Bristol group, Smith & Mighty, who scored their biggest hit, a decade ago, with a smoky, dubby version of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By.” Then, Smith & Mighty got caught up in record label quagmires which silenced them through most of the 90s – but they’ve got a good set-up now with K7, and their album from 2000, Big World Small World, makes up for lost time with a conscious and emotive blend of soul, hip-hop, drum’n’bass, and dub. Says Angel, “They’re very talented. But circumstances sometimes work against even the most talented people. It takes a lot longer for them to ever get heard. They’re part of the roots of all of this music that everybody is embracing from Bristol. A lot of it started with them. And maybe they’ll finally get their dues.”
This school of taking the best of everything soulful and treating all the elements dubwise extends back to Bristol-based groups, like the Pop Group in the early 80s, and into the Wild Bunch crew in the late 80s from which producer Nellee Hooper, Soul II Soul, Masive Attack, and Tricky emerged. Says the Angel, “Bristol’s a really cool city. I really loved the time that I spent there. I got a really good vibe, and there’s a lot of creativity there. And some of the best music coming out of the UK is interestingly enough coming out of there, and who knows why. There’s a lot of highly concentrated talent in a small space.
“England is very open in that respect. It’s much more open there than it is here. California’s laid back in a different way. But I’m a New Yorker, and that’s a whole different breed of American. And I’m a New Yorker, who has spent a lot of time in London. I feel having lived in all three places that London is probably the most open arena for new music. It’s doing different things, pushing boundaries, doing something unusual – it is encouraged there, it is respected there. In America, everything’s so homogenous. Our radio is so homogenous. The industry has created such a tight space that no one is really encouraged to push boundaries and find something different, because then the marketing department at all these companies would actually have to think up a new idea of how to sell something, and nobody wants to do that. They just want to fit every artist into the same three or four marketing plans they’ve had for the past 20 years, and just keep selling records, and make it easy on themselves, and that doesn’t help to inspire lots of good things happening. I’m not saying that major record companies in England don’t have the same kind of outlook, but the underground is so much stronger there. Maybe that’s because it’s a much smaller place. America is huge next to the whole of the UK. I can understand why something that is underground there can actually penetrate and wind up overground, whereas here that is so much harder to do that. It takes that much longer.
“There’s a lot of nice things I could tell you about L.A., even though I could tell you a lot of horrible things about this place. It isn’t my favorite place that I’ve ever lived, but the lifestyle’s pretty cool for the most part if you can avoid all the horrendous attitudes of the stupid people. In that space, I’m 1000% New Yorker, where it’s all up front. There’s no bullshit with me. And I don’t appreciate the backstabbing, nightmarish scenarios that I’ve encountered in L.A.. I don’t understand how people deal with each other on that level. It’s just a waste of time. But it’s not everybody. There’s a large concentration of people who are in L.A. to make it, and they don’t care how they make it, who they step on, how they conduct themselves. That’s the only thing of interest to them. I don’t have that attitude. I never have. So I find it very alienating to be here sometimes. It’s just negative and it drags everyone down. It’s not to say that doesn’t exist everywhere to a certain extent, but there’s a high concentration of it in L.A. It’s a high powered city with the film industry. There’s so much going on here that it attracts that element.”
“When I go to New York, I always feel like I’m home. That’s where I grew up. That’s where my roots are. That’s where my headspace is. There’s a certain energy in that city that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Almost the moment you land, you feel it. It’s just a place where you get things done, you know. Everybody I know who lives in New York who didn’t grow up there is totally changed from being there. If you spend a lot of time there, you just go wild, because it’s the sort of place, where you can go wild. It’s a cool place, a weird place. It has a certain earthiness, even if it’s not a sweet, sugary coated earthiness. But I think what you see is what you get.
“So I exist in my own space, and I do my own projects, and where I have to, I assimilate, and where I don’t, I keep myself to myself. I’ve come across some really talented, really cool people both here, and other people that are not from here, but I’ve met them because I’m here, and that’s been a real bonus. I have such an unusual cast of characters (on my projects). Everyone’s coming from their own space, but it all works together, and that’s the way it should be. Music being the universal language, it doesn’t really matter what you call it at the end of the day. If something moves you, it moves you, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Who cares what it is, in terms of genre. I’m a big advocate of bringing styles and people together, culturally and musically.”
(The Angel’s debut under this moniker is being released in May 2001. It features guest performances from Tre Hardson of the Pharcyde, Navigator from Freestylers, Cokni O’Dire, Mystic, and Divine Styler. It’s released on Supacrucial/New Line. Her previous album, Tuned In Turned On from 1998, came out under the name 60 Channels. A soundtrack is available for the Boiler Room. As if the Angel doesn’t have enough multi-tasking to do, The Angel’s been extremely careful about getting herself into her own label SNAFU. She operates independently, licensing her albums to labels for a limited period of time. “I believe that more artists should take a little more responsibility for what goes on the business side,” she says. “Everybody wants to be cushioned, but the more you’re cushioned and pampered, the less you know about what is actually going on in your own life. That’s the bottom life. It’s your life. It’s not just some thing you do.”)