I first stumbled upon Onra's music three years ago when I picked up Chinoiseries (Label Rouge), a sprawlinlg beat-tape in the line of J Dilla's blueprint for the future of hip-hop, Donuts (Stones Throw, 2006). But unlike the late Dilla's many lackluster imitators, Onra proves a worthy disciple.
Chinoiseries' crackling intro blends hip-hop quotables over boom bap percussion, closing out with Dilla's signature rally call, "Let's go!" But the transition into "The Anthem" is unexpected: a bass-heavy break anchors unfamiliar horn blasts and traditional Mandarin vocals, unsteady and fissured in odd rhythm. What follows are 30 head-nodding beats culled from late 1960s and early 1970s vinyl straight outta dusty Saigon crates — some Vietnamese, some Chinese in origin. The effort certainly takes cues from RZA's eerie psychedelic architectonics for the Wu-Tang Clan, in which he transformed Staten Island street sagas into a Shaolin kung-fu epic, but Chinoiseries is more furtive and gargantuan, scattered and undigested.
Onra, or Arnaud Bernard according to his French government papers, isn't your typical Parisian hip-hop producer (whatever that is). He was born in Germany to a Vietnamese father and French mother and moved to France at a young age. He spent summers in the Ivory Coast where his mother lived and listened to the Caribbean polyrhythms of Zouk. But what initially hooked Onra to the beat was early 1990s American hip-hop. "I never really liked music before hearing my first rap song," Onra tells me over an extended e-mail correspondence. "I was like, 'This is it, and anything else is garbage.' I had this state of mind for a few years before opening to other genres."
Travel permeated Onra's early life, and hip-hop gave him a common language with other wayward teens searching for a sense of themselves. "Through hip-hop, it has always been easier to connect with people because we share the same passion. So we're pretty much on the same wavelength — at least, we speak the same language," he says.
What makes Onra stand out is a talent not only for exploring the semantics of hip-hop's codified scriptures, but its heavily layered emotional fabric. The MPC sampler/sequencer is his weapon of choice for recontextualizing sonic histories and mythologies. I'd even go so far as to say that he usurps tools of hip-hop to ground a sense of place in today's widespread diaspora, where traditional and modern, distant and far, the animate and artificial grind against each other in sometimes uncomfortable, and unsalvageable, ways.