The release of Dabrye's Three/Three on Ghostly International on Friday manages the feat of being both one of the most anticipated Detroit albums of the year and one of the great surprise albums of the year.
Dabrye is musician Tadd Mullinix's hip-hop producer alter ego. His first album One/Three came out in 2001, a unique hybrid of techno influences (Detroit techno, Warp Records, and kindred labels) and the classic hip-hop productions of Pete Rock, DJ Premier, the Bomb Squad, and J Dilla in particular. His second album, Two/Three, came out in 2006 and featured his hero J Dilla and Phat Kat on the single "Game Over," as well as Waajeed, Invincible, MF Doom, and Guilty Simpson.
And then... pretty much silence from Dabrye. "Free Dabrye" T-shirts started appearing. But while a lot of people were awaiting the conclusion of the trilogy with the anticipated Three/Three, nobody was holding their breath.
Mullinix was anything but idle in the intervening years. With a slew of musical alter egos and a stint in painting to keep him busy, his creative output didn't slow down at all. But a trip to Armenia in 2016 to teach beatmaking to kids at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies suddenly rekindled his interest in making Dabrye tracks. A year later the new Dabrye record was done.
Three/Three is an organic evolution of the sounds of Mullinix's first two albums — the intervening years just made it clearer how ahead of their time those two records were. The new album features a dream lineup of both Detroit (Danny Brown, Clear Soul Forces, Nolan The Ninja) and national (MF Doom, Ghostface Killah) MCs. Metro Times sat down with Mullinix during last week's blizzard to learn more.
Metro Times: How did the Dabrye project start?
Tadd Mullinix: My high school friend Rodger Devine hooked me up with a free tracker program, which is basically a really sophisticated sequencer. I was like, "I can do whatever I want!" and started making all kinds of tracks — house, techno music, hip-hop, and all kinds of stuff.
I had been working on this stuff for three or four years when Sam (Valenti, Ghostly International founder) came to Dubplate Pressure (Ann Arbor record store owned by Todd Osborn) where I worked, looking for me on Todd's recommendation. He said, "I heard you make house music." I gave him a cassette I had made for me to reflect on when I was driving. On that cassette were all these other styles. Sam said, "I want to sign a lot of this stuff." So I had to think, "Am I going to do a hodgepodge album? How am I going to organize all this different music?" I thought the best way to do it was to create different names and categorize the different styles under each alias. So that was pretty much the beginning of Dabrye.
MT: So Two/Three took five years. Why twelve years for Three/Three?
Mullinix: I had really bad writer's block. I can't really explain why. My mom passed away. Dilla passed away, and he was a massive inspiration to me. I could listen to a new Dilla track and just get all energized and go in the studio. Suddenly I didn't have that anymore. Other related scenes cropped up and I wasn't sure if I was really relevant anymore. I felt like they were exploring similar territory and I didn't want to be redundant. I wasn't really sure what I had to say.
MT: What's changed in your approach to production since Two/Three?
Mullinix: I think the biggest difference is the first two albums had more editing trickery. I felt like I didn't want to overstate that, and 10 years later it isn't really that novel. The electronic side of hip-hop as a genre isn't really that unusual now. It's kind of commonplace — it's in the commercial music, it's everywhere. So I went back to my roots to more traditional styles of hip-hop.
One of my signature devices is making a subtly linear composition, so every measure might have the foundation of a loop, but there are little flourishes that make each measure unique throughout the track, so there's technically no repetition. This time I wanted to do it in a more organic way so the tracks are more groove-based and sound more jazzy.
MT: All the great MCs on the album seems like a total dream lineup. Did you reach out to all of them, or did some of them approach you?
Mullinix: We approached everybody, because the hiatus meant that everybody kind of let go of their expectations. They nudged me a little bit, but nobody knew that the album was on the horizon. So I had a lot of time to think about it and make a wish list. And to be honest with you, I didn't run into any problems. It's pretty incredible. I feel super lucky.
MT: How does also being an electronic artist affect your approach to hip hop?
Mullinix: The sound design probably. The futurism that came from Detroit techno had a big influence on me.
MT: So now that Three/Three is out, is Dabrye done or will there be future releases?
Mullinix: There will be future releases, definitely. But now I can think about new ideas. Hopefully I'll be producing more for MCs albums, that's kind of a long-term goal that I've never been able to really do as much. I'd like to produce for (Ann Arbor MC) Kadence for sure. Another thing I'd like to do is produce an entire album for an MC rather than just individual beats.
MT: Are there going to be any Dabrye live sets?
Mullinix: I'm building a live set with Kadence and I think I'll start making a few new tracks for him in the process.
MT: How long until the next Dabrye record?
Mullinix: There's nothing quite in the process. I just finished the X-Altera project and I have to develop a live set for that too, so I've got a lot going on...
MT: What's that?
Mullinix: So there's a new project that's coming out on Ghostly this year. It's sort of like a hybrid of styles and kind of a new type of sound. The name is a reference to the Underground Resistance groups X-102 and X-103 — Robert Hood and Jeff Mills' aliases on UR. So it's a nod to my techno roots and another style of music, which I'll wait to disclose. X-Altera also comes from Latin, ex altera, which means "from the other side." So it's kind of like taking elements from one zone, one genre, and combining them with another.
Dabrye's Three/Three is out on Ghostly International on Friday, Feb. 16. More information is available at ghostly.com.