Hakim Murphy is a name which seems to have been around for ages yet just hovering below the radar. A prolific producer, label runner and DJ, he’s been gaining a lot of momentum recently due to the quality of his compositions as well as his omnipresent gigging, both as a DJ and a live act. One of the latest artists to emerge from house music’s spiritual home, Chicago, he has taken inspiration from the past but put his own original spin on the genre, his productions often going out on a limb and stretching recognized templates to their limits.
I caught up with Hakim, via Skype, in the surreal surroundings of a Berlin Internet café and got down to business.
Hakim started the ball rolling by telling me about his meal of “nice Italian food” which incorporated “some spaghetti, a pizza and a salad"... He’d played a “strange party" for Studio R the previous night, for whom he also guested on a radio show.
You’re from Chicago, right?
I was raised there, but I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. I was eleven or twelve when I left. My mother decided she wanted to leave, so that was it. It would have been the summer of 1988.
When you moved to Chicago that was around the time house started to make its presence felt across the Atlantic. Were you aware of the music coming out of Chicago at that time?
I used to listen to WBMX, and they used to play a lot of mixes which used drum machines, but I wasn’t really into that. Then in 1991 when I was in my first year at high school, I met a DJ from a roller-skating rink. He gave me a tape, which had stuff like Robert Armani, Paul Johnson and Cajmere on it. This got me interested but I really got into Dance Mania, because I was a dancer. I started DJing because everybody was playing the same records, which I found strange as there seemed to be a lot of records available which weren’t being played, and this frustrated me. So that’s how I started DJing... production came later and happened through meeting Fast Eddie and Tyree Cooper... I was a dancer for Fast Eddie...
Does the Dance Mania sound still influence you when making music?
Yes, because it was relatively simple but also with feeling, and great for dancing... it could be limited to two or three sounds: a kick, a hi-hat, maybe some toms and a synth sound, which are also the roots of my production.
You’re quite prolific at the moment, putting your music out on a range of different labels, and it’s difficult to keep up with everything, but what I have listened to comes across as quite abstract with a recognizable structure underpinning it. How would you define your output?
Experimental. Sometimes I’ll use Reason, sometimes Outboard gear, sometimes Ableton, and to keep it fresh I’ll occasionally switch between them and try different arrangement styles.
When I first started I was using an MPC and not having great success, but now recording has moved on, and I’ve got better piano skills now. I can compose a lot faster, I do a lot of PA work now... so I would say experimental... and abstract but with structure.
I went to a school of musical composition. I play the piano, and it took me a while in order to be able to sit down and express myself and learn how to play a melody. Making house music is easier and less complicated than jazz or classical though.
Is Chicago where you’re still based?
Yeah, that’s where everything is, I haven’t really thought about relocating yet.
Sometimes I make too much music and I don’t want to release everything but I want to release most of it, so I have to take a break. I discover new approaches and methods and immediately act on them, making four or eight tracks in that particular style...What’s the scene like there at the moment?
I think it’s the same as it always was. There are underground parties and it’s a split between the North Side and the South Side. The Southside people are stuck in a nineties disco era and also freestyling and breakdancing. Then you’ve got the North siders, the people who do everything, like Derrick Carter... there are different factions, and still lots of parties. If you know the right people you can find the right parties.
You mentioned you were a dancer before you were a DJ and this reminded me that Joey Anderson was another guy who started out as a dancer before playing and making music. Is dancing still an important part of your life?
I dance “generally”, if I’m out with friends, but sometimes I’m a little shy. When I went to New York in January me and Joey did a session, we talked about house and we made some music, and it was very interesting to get his perspective on it. We had a discussion which centred around how a lot of people base their understanding of house music centred on Afro-Caribbean percussion, whereas we both agreed that for us the central sound was more synthetic, based on drum machines and acid, with few vocals, and no congas...
There seems to have been a rise in more abstract sounds making themselves heard. Would you put that down to anything in particular?
I think people got tired of hearing the same thing over and over again. Like when minimal was popular, people get tired of fads...
Where you ever a fan of minimal?
I never dabbled in it. If you make music and something’s boring to you then it’s going to be boring to someone else. I can’t put it out if I don’t like it personally. I’m into textures, tones... and making minimal didn’t occur because of this.
How many labels do you run at the moment?
Two. Synapsis Records is me and my friend Ninbum (Cho), who does the artwork and is on a hiatus at the moment, and Machining Dreams, which is all me.
How important is having an all-round strong identity for your label, which extends to the artwork, and how valuable you feel an online presence is? Your blog “Machining Dreams” is another of your outlets of expression, in addition to the label site. How important is it to maintain these?
My philosophy is to be able to feel where I’m going. Machining Dreams started out as an art project and the first release was only 200 copies, which I put out there with the initial objective of just making my money back, because 200 copies is the least you can press and hope to still break even. And it was just going to be my releases, but then I started trading releases with other artists and was able to pay some when they got popular.
Synapsis Records has taken a little bit longer to develop... obviously you need a clear vision in order to evolve, and you have to love the music, which I do.
As far as the blogs are concerned, I use them as a means of cataloging my releases, a place where they are archived to show my body of work. I like to keep them updated so if anyone wants to research the history it is there. I keep two blogs for both record labels and a picture blog for both of the labels and random other stuff.
What’s your approach to making music, your daily routine?
It’s pretty relaxed. Sometimes I make too much music and I don’t want to release everything but I want to release most of it, so I have to take a break.
I discover new approaches and methods and immediately act on them, making four or eight tracks in that particular style. I call it “freeforming” or “terraforming”... the ability to improvise within whichever medium I choose. This is also an approach I use when I do a PA.
What about DJing?
I do vinyl, but CDs are important as well because I can play unreleased label tracks from me and my friends... I also use them to save carrying around too much. I’ll usually take about forty records and the same number of CDs to a gig... I don’t like using USB sticks though.
You mentioned jazz and classical before when talking about playing the piano. As the influence of jazz has been noticeable during the evolution of house and techno, who have been your greatest influences from that genre?
Thelonius Monk is my favourite keyboard player; Duke Ellington, who isn’t very overcomplicated but the feeling is there; Sun Ra, who released a lot of records, and taught me that you only live once, so just let it go, especially if it’s on your on label.
Where would you place yourself and others like you in the pantheon of black American music?
As part of a continual lineage of experimental musicianship. Commercial sounds are stronger, like terrible gangster rap which young American kids have been into for a long time and has crossed cultural appeal... but I’m part of “the underground” and if my music is able to reach even just a handful of people, and they get it, then I’ve managed to inspire someone, and I’ll have achieved my goal.
Finally, what have you got coming out this year?
“Orbital Manoeuvres” by Innerspace Halflife on Machining Dreams has just out. Me and Specter are putting out “Hardware Hustlerz” on Syncrophone imminently. I have a release on Machining Dreams called “Spectrum Prints” which will come out in July. And then there’s my hm505 alias bringing something out on Third Ear in October. As well as this there are some remixes... under the hm505 name and my own.
Hakim Murphy’s All-Time Chicago Top Five:
|Hakim Murphy Online|