In the era of rapid download and less rapid file sharing, the American musical landscape has unceremoniously uprooted itself. One need only glance at recent superstar efforts—the turns toward durational performance, the app-album effrontery—to grow a mite suspicious of music makers’ truest intent.
There are, however, those few who are bushwhacking for themselves a bit of light at the end of the aural tunnel–and that light is strobing, laconic, and maybe a bit electrochemical in aspect. This, at least, is the glow from Fade to Mind, the Los-Angeles based record label, aesthetic movement and cultural blitz that’s sustained steady surge since its July 2011 inception.
To adequately describe the label’s sound surely risks spinning into madness, but to give you fair forewarning, FTM interests/side effects may include: R&B vocal sampling, grime-tinged taunts, machine gun throttles, ballroom chants, dabs of dub, UK Garage, vogue house, Baltimore club, Jersey club, the sound of something being put into hyper drive, and beyond. To be sure, the mob of sounds makes for some unprecedented clinks, clanks, and rattles that beat description.
With a thrillingly perceptive lineup of artists, DJ’s and producers—including Massacooraman, Total Freedom, Fatima Al Qadiri, Nguzunguzu, MikeQ, and Rizzla, among others—the label’s become increasingly known for its mélange of sexy, ominous, culturally-aware and globally-minded club and dance music. It’s extensive roster of on-trend tastemakers is thanks in part to the efforts of Ezra Rubin, the Fade To Mind co-founder best known as Kingdom.
Ezra Rubin, aka Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Fade To Mind.
After a career strung with acclaimed re-works, mixes, and releases on Fool’s Gold, Night Slugs, and more, the May 28th release of his recent EP Vertical XL has enjoyed worldwide success, and for the first time, that success is enjoyed on his very own label. Rubin’s new home-within-a-home could not be celebrated more searingly than with "Bank Head”, the EP’s combustive tip-off: the track of the summer that listens like a proud, nostalgic triumph. It’s a song that comes from far back in the cerebrum’s underwater recesses–a beat that before now, you didn’t know you knew so well.
“Bank Head”’s video debut, (above) directed by Jude MC, produced by Capture This Digital and Thunderhorse Video, is an imaginative look into what happens when the synthetic and the natural combine into one brilliant Pop bubble.
The clip is spectral and cryptically futurist in effect–picture in your mind’s eye, an ethereal goddess, voyeuristically observing and telepathically participating in your very own spiritual pilgrimage, complete with pods, caves, neurotechnology and other delightful odds and ends . Then watch the video. Maybe you’ll see what I mean.
“The song really has an interesting story, and it really is the story of Vertical XL in general,” Rubin muses. “I moved to LA and it was a total reset for my life. I didn’t realize what I needed to get back into creating again… 'Bank Head' had been this catalyst, this evolution, this one beat that really was my first thing I was able to create in LA, and it is much smoother and silkier than anything else I’ve made, so it really kind of reflects that move, that change.”
Though for Rubin, “Bank Head” and Vertical XL is not only a departure from earlier work, but a culmination of years-long efforts, a fought for watermark of creative growth and musical progression that feels more like himself than ever before.
“It’s definitely the most cohesive thing I’ve made. It’s surprised me how therapeutic it felt to make [Vertical XL]. This new stuff reminds me of weird beats I used to make on my old keyboard when I was a kid–it’s brought me back to all kinds of different parts of my musical life, and its surprised me how emotional that was.”
Vertical XL plays like a line of thought, gliding every so often between broad, expressive tones and terse guttural volleys. Tracks like “Zip Line,” “Takedown Notice,” “OG Master,” and sinister speaker-shaker “Corpse,” traverse the spiritual highs and dark, bodily lows that build both sides of the club and dance culture. Furthermore, it’s an EP that takes root in the very earliest touchstones of Rubin’s personal soundscape–namely the R&B, Grime, and early Jungle listened to as a boy of rural Massachusetts.
“When I was under 18, I didn’t know any way of how to get into raves or anything, so I was just alone with my headphones, listening to Jungle. So there is this Jungle-influence that’s through the lens of someone from somewhere rural, or someone who listens to a lot of different music alone.”
Yet, for all the wonderful yearning and learning of Kingdom’s top-tier production, you’d be seriously remiss to sleep on the source of “Bank Head’s” silky vocals: Fade To Mind’s newest friend and artist, the soloist phenom Kelela. Her forthcoming mixtape, “Cut 4 Me," features production from FTM heavy hitters Nguzunguzu and Kingdom, with Night Slugs giants Bok-Bok, Girl Unit and Jam City completing the index. The singer’s recent contributions have sparked a refreshing of creative life for Kingdom and Fade To Mind at large:
“Kelela is kind of the fruit of the Fade to Mind labor. Once Kelela sang on ‘Bank Head,’ it seemed like that was partially an inspiration to continue. At times when I would be lost she would just be sitting on the couch in the back, giving me tiny feedback like, ‘Oh, cut that part out,’ or helping me complete melodies. Her presence is part of the whole EP process for me really. Her openness, and her artistic vision–she’s definitely the star of the song if you just listen to the audio. She just comes to the table with a lot of ideas and you know she’s not like the usual R&B singer. She comes from Jazz and experimental music, but she grew up on Mariah and Brandy, and so she has a unique perspective in that way.”
Kelela. Photo credit: Christelle De Castro.
In a way, Kelela is emblematic of the talent on Fade to Mind--young, freeform, and at times a touch insurgent. History dictates that these combinations don’t always gel with a mainstream public, but the label’s forward-leaning momentum would seem to indicate that it might be the exception to the rule. It’s never easy convincing people to see earnest, creative depth where they hadn’t looked before, and Rubin acknowledges this readily, but forges ahead just the same.
”It’s really hard, we’re up against a lot. With EDM becoming a really big force in America, a lot of kids the majority of electronic music fans just want to go to festivals and hear some crazy bangers, I get that, too. Maybe if I was 20 right now and just discovered electronic music I’d wanna go pop a molly and hear Steve Aoki, and some hard shit. You know, there’s that side of it. We bring a weird emotion to the club–it is hard sometimes. Like, why am I not as fun as those other DJ’s? Sometimes it feels like we’re not killing it because the next guy is just going to go for the easy choices or whatever.”
As an American independent record label specializing in club music, Fade to Mind has only thrived in the gaps between extremes, pontificating on the trends and obsessions that face a club music landscape while taking aim to sublimate them. Whether dance music is or isn’t your bag, this is a very good thing.
That’s what makes Fade to Mind truly exciting to watch–expressly for its artists’ shared interest in keeping club goers guessing as to just what are the sounds that really move them. Together and separately, they offer a dance floor promise: a hope not only for a new club sound, but something a bit more pronounced than that. Maybe it’s a commiseration in a new national profile–that somewhere out in the dark, there’s an unnamed crowd worth speaking to–a fractured, woundedly ebullient multi-demographic of transpersonal, American people.
There truly is nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. Besides, if the madcap experiments at Fade To Mind continue, soon enough, no one will even think to wonder if it was right or wrong in the first place.