Lunice likes to start his sets on a somber note. At a recent show here in New York City, he opened with Chopin’s funeral march, sung by a computerized voice chanting “Swag” over each gloomy note. “I’m taming swag down,” he told me just before taking the stage. “I never actually put myself into the whole swag world.”
But the 24-year-old producer and DJ can’t escape the ubiquitous monosyllabic catchphrase – Mad Decent’s website proudly proclaims him “Montreal’s king of swag” – because he speaks its language fluently. He dresses like Odd Future’s lost member and has a habit of performing Lil B’s cooking dance on stage. His music takes its cues from popular American hip-hop, the sort that currently dominates urban radio, thumping at just the right tempo to seamlessly segue into any rap song of the moment. But so far, hip-hop hasn’t been showing love back.
At his New York gig, he was preceded by a surprise mix from Just Blaze and followed by the legendary dubstep DJ Kode9. Sonically, Lunice sits somewhere similar, part hip-hop and part underground electronic. When he spins, he’ll mix Jeezy with Rustie without hesitation. And his beats, backed by 808 kicks and whipcracking snares, can be both menacing and lush, synthesized arpeggios fluttering that much higher atop trembling low frequencies. The results have been dubbed ‘trap music’ – though Lunice vehemently rejects that title – based on their resemblance to what one might find on a Trap-a-Holics mixtape. Thanks to the borderless Internet, American electronic musicians like Flosstradamus and Baauer have also been adopting the trap style.
Yet despite their Southern roots, Lunice’s beats have found their greatest success on dance floors overseas. He is signed to the Glasgow-based LuckyMe record label, whose roster tends to dabble in the grey area between hip-hop and so-called bass music, its own proper scene and the U.K.’s signature sound for the past five-odd years. Somehow, good ole American trunk rattling has been outsourced.
“You know why?” Lunice asks rhetorically. “Because dudes in Atlanta are all caught up in Atlanta sound. But I get it – it’s the American vibe. It’s like, ‘Yo, I’m from New York, I got my N.Y. sound. I’m from Brooklyn, I got my own sound.’”
That doesn’t mean Lunice’s sights aren’t set on the American hip-hop industry, which has immovable borders despite its transnational reach. “You can’t come in in the States and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m producing, let’s do this.’ You cannot,” he says. “You have to come from somewhere. You have to introduce yourself from some platform before you can actually break [into] the whole game.”
And that’s exactly what Lunice aims to do with TNGHT, the duo he comprises with LuckyMe co-founder Hudson Mohawke. On their eponymous debut EP, they’ve created a unique breed of post-Lex Luger hip-hop and standalone U.K. bass instrumentals. “We’re not focused on the DJ route where we do a bunch of gigs,” says Lunice of their plans. “We’re mostly focusing on putting out tracks for rappers. That’s it.”
But it’s not like rappers haven’t had a go at their beats already. Childish Gambino, for instance, released a verse set to Hudson Mohawke’s “Twistclip Loop,” and Waka Flocka freestyled over Lunice’s “The Good Kids” for a Pitchfork video segment. Electronic music has always borrowed ideas from hip-hop, remixing and sampling with a nightclub mentality, but it operates on different terms. TNGHT’s formula is not a straightforward verse-hook arrangement. Instead, they focus on progression and build-up, creating self-sustainable songs that demand more out of a vocalist than just straight bars.
Hip-hop producers, on the other hand, have already shown signs of TNGHT’s influence. “It’s almost not even worth talking about unless it’s a complete, straight A-to-Z bite,” says Lunice. “Hit-Boy got on some shit, heard shit from me and HudMo, and [made] something that sounds sort of similar. We ain’t gonna complain, ‘cause it’s only three notes. We take it as a compliment.”
American hip-hop acts are increasingly turning to Europe for fresh ideas. The title track from Drake’s album Take Care is produced by Jamie xx, and Azealia Banks’s claim to fame, “212,” relies on a beat by Belgian producers Lazy Jay. (That’s Lunice dancing in the music video, by the way.) Most notably, Kanye West’s single “Mercy” credits Hudson Mohawke with additional instrumentation. West also lifted TNGHT’s song “R U Ready” from their hands, and Lunice says he doesn’t know when it will resurface. The duo was forced to create an alternative version, “Higher Ground,” which appears on their EP.
Despite such milestones, Lunice stays humble. He knows that TNGHT could pave the way for his peers to cross over to the mainstream they know so well. “The whole TNGHT thing, it feels like it’s the voice of all of us dudes,” says Lunice, citing the LuckyMe, Night Slugs, and Numbers crews as examples. “A lot of people you wouldn’t really think were all in the whole hip-hop culture in general. So it’s just like, why is it different?”
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