It’s 9 p.m. on a chilly, late-September Wednesday. Tadd Mullinix is slated to appear as his James Cotton persona at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor at 10. Mullinix has just moved across town to an apartment near Ypsi — the buzzer to his crib chirps out an eerily fitting electro-squawk (“eeeeyyoo!”).
Like some makeshift therapy session, we’ve got an hour to get to the root of Mullinix’s many distinct personalities. ‘Gestalt’ would probably be the most fitting armchair psych term for the ensuing dialogue as Mullinix is clearly an artist much greater than the sum of his nicks. Recording as metro Detroit’s reigning pimp of chip-hop, Dabrye (pronounced Dab-ree), Mullinix has garnered global props and local love for his blend of lush and saucy melodies amid electro jolts and stagger-beat minimal thumps. Dabrye’s One/Three release on the now-ubiquitous Ghostly International imprint is stark, iced-out (a la Antarctica — not in the ‘Yo Vanilla!’ or bling-bling senses of the term) funk that tastes complete despite its few ingredients.
Dabrye’s latest album, Instrmntl, on Hefty Records’ Eastern Developments sublabel (Hefty is owned by one John Hughes, as in the guy who gave us Ringwald and Ferris) is appropriately minimal, yet more buoyant and dynamic than One/Three would have us anticipate. Two/ Three is on its way (catching the trilogy hint?) and a whole new direction will be charted, complete with MCs at nearly every level of the game.
In the meantime, there’s a new Ghostly single, “Payback,” in the works that features a new track, a remix and a megamix of Dabrye on the flip, compliments of British media darling Prefuse 73. The new Dabrye piece is a standout with haunting, crispy beats, oozing with highly active, excuse me, electroplasm.
It’s no secret that hip hop is increasingly more electronic-based. But there’s still a lame double standard confusing cutting-edge instrumental hip hop and its watered-down, bump-deficient electronic cousin, trip hop. But Mullinix is sure that Dabrye is “more pure-form hip hop than just an electronic artist making hip hop.”
“There are a lot of changes going on in hip hop right now,” says Mullinix, whose own production work adds weight to that truth. “It’s inspired me to become a hip-hop producer. It’s very liberating to see people like Timbaland, Jay Dee, Madlib, Rza … people are doing really left-of-center techniques. They’re [hip-hop producers] getting really creative now and people are starting to open their eyes to it. Even in the pop industry, the Neptunes are making really weird beats.”
Dabrye’s idiosyncratic approach to hip hop hasn’t gone unnoticed. In August, Instrmntl charted at No. 1 on WRAS in Atlanta, an influential station in the region (kinda like WDET meets U of M’s WCBN). Requests poured in nonstop.
“When I went to the radio station to do the interview I asked them which song was the one that they’ve been playing. They said, ‘We play four of ’em. We play ’em all the time.’ It was a big surprise. I was so grateful,” says Mullinix, who was obviously overwhelmed by Southern hospitality.
Mullinix’s James Cotton alter ego — which he reserves for straight-up dance music — has helped make Ghostly the Midwest’s hybridized answer to brainiac indies like England’s Warp and Germany’s Kompakt. James Cotton’s first release, Mind Your Manners, is quirky house that mocks the lines between kitsch, glitch and dance-floor glitz.
Cotton’s forthcoming EP is industrial electro-tech madness with a melodic core. Unlike Dabrye, Cotton’s difficult to know at this early stage. Apparently, Cotton is big on dodging expectations.
Having unknowingly ripped off the name of an established bluesman for his dance single pseudonym, Mullinix decided to stay with it after realizing the faux pas. “It’s just a nickname,” claims Mullinix. “I’m not trying to spoil anybody’s glamour.”
At least Mullinix returns the favor by toying with his own name. His Tadd Mullinix releases ensure that the James Cottons of this world aren’t the only ones making record-store filing more difficult.
“I thought, ‘yeah, it’s my birth name and I feel really close to this music,’” explains Mullinix. “But then my interests started wandering and I felt like I could put that same closeness into the other things that I do. So, that name to me now [Tadd Mullinix] means anything that’s not like anything else that I do. Everything else that I do has an [external] formula that people understand. With Panes (the forthcoming Tadd Mullinix album on Ghostly) and Winking [Makes a Face], I had my own formula that I was trying to adhere to and I wasn’t considering much of anything else.”
2001’s Winking [Makes a Face] was Mullinix’s (and Ghostly’s) first full-length release. Winking is a tough pill to swallow. At its core, Winking is a classically arranged series of microprocessed mini-concertos. Mullinix, who picked up the cello long before the sequencer, created an album that exists neither for the furrowed-browed Mozart fan nor the laptop punk contingent (see Kid 606). Winking — which has just been reissued — is darkly triumphant and shockingly earnest — sort of an ode to joysticks.
Out in November, Tadd Mullinix’s minialbum, Panes, is even more elusive. Its ambient-cum-spastic structure makes Winking seem like a pop effort. It takes patience to get into it, but the payoff is there. Panes shows that Mullinix (the persona, mind you) has loosened up a bit after working with Dabrye and Cotton. The result is a tasteful combination of Basic Channel and Aphex Twin. Any longer, though, and Panes’ freeform spirit would have turned an artful interlude into a study session. Tadd Mullinix isn’t for everyone, and he’s not trying to be.
“I’d rather make the kind of album where very few people actually get it and stick with it than just a one-year album for a shitload of people,” he insists.
Enter the day job. Tadd’s eclecticism has found a home at his place of employment, Ann Arbor’s Encore Records, a haven for vinyl junkies and music collectors. Sifting through the aisles and piles of musical artifacts at the area’s premier used-music marketplace has kept Mullinix’s peripheral vision open.
“It’s changed my life creatively,” he claims. “Being exposed to all kinds of different music helps give me an idea of what’s out there — what’s been done and what hasn’t been. It helps me to be an observer.”
But the job has its awkward moments. “Once a writer sold me my own CD after reviewing it,” he explains, smirking in disbelief. “But I’d rather him sell it to us so we can sell it to someone else than have him just throw it away or ignore it. I feel that way about all music, not just my own.”
Keeping his anonymity and humility intact, Mullinix sucked it up and gave the guy $4.
At the Heidelberg later that night, Tadd appears much more comfortable behind the decks than talking about himself. It’s obvious that Mullinix brings his DJ skills to the studio — he instinctively knows what fits, even if it seems strange. Here’s a guy just pushing 24 who could be caught mixing Dr. Octagon’s “Blue Flowers” with something as washed-out and unlikely as My Bloody Valentine’s “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” back when he was 18. Mullinix continues to create juxtapositions that make sense. He works the crowd with a smoothly transitioned mash-up set that bridges abstract hip-hop with acid-drenched techno, click house, broken beat and jungle. For such a diverse set, it’s almost freakish that Mullinix has made a record to match each style.
Ghostly International chief Sam Valenti puts down his drink and explains why he’s invested so much money and sweat in the Mullinix oeuvre. “The thing about Tadd that really impresses me,” asserts Valenti, “is that the artists he looks up to respect him. Matthew Herbert’s a fan of James Cotton. Jay Dee’s a fan of Dabrye. Some people think that having different aliases is a copout, but for Tadd it’s because he has respect for the genres and styles he’s working in. He talks about his aliases like ‘I don’t know if James would do this,’ or ‘I don’t know if Dabrye would do that.’ I think that’s why he’s so successful at bridging different sounds.
“In my original mission statement [for Ghostly],” adds Valenti, “before I met Tadd, I said that the label was committed to a diverse catalogue for a generation of music lovers who listened to everything from Def Jam to Blue Note. Finding Tadd was the fulfillment of that wish.”
Tadd Mullinix’ new release, Panes, is due out the first week in November.Robert Gorell writes about the electronic scene for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org