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Performance anxiety
Scott "Prefuse 73" Herren – whose work blurs the lines between hip-hop and electronic music – is feeling the pressure that comes with success.

By Mosi Reeves

IT'S LATE MORNING in Decatur, Ga., and Scott "Prefuse 73" Herren says he's feeling the pressure. The success of his last album, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives – which landed on a number of year-end top-10 lists, including one in Spin – is on his mind. "There's a lot of psychological shit that stops me," he says in a worried tone. "Living up to expectations, you know what I'm saying? People want it to be the equivalent of the first record, and I know they're not going to get it."

Released in summer 2001, Uprock Narratives was, as the name implies, b-boy inspired (uprocking is a form of breakdancing) a hip-hopper's take on glitch electronics. Herren dismembered his beats with quick edits and distortion, then turned the entire mess into funk grooves that seemed more powerful with each jump cut. Slices of rap vocals – a hint of a verse by Nas, a vocal by Illinois group Rec Center – were chopped up into bits of sound that were splattered, staccatolike, across the tracks, rendering them nearly unrecognizable. He held these compositions together with head-nodding beats and keyboard melodies as infectious as anything written by Todd Rundgren.

Herren was supposed to have turned in the as-yet-untitled follow-up to his record label, Warp Records, two months ago. But it's not as if he hasn't been working – at this point he's completed 40 tracks, although he plans to use only eight of them. "For every 10 beats I'll make, I'll keep one," he says. "I'm always making beats, always making music. I'm stuck at home all the time, so I'm kind of in a weird world."

The project has brought him back to his hometown of Decatur, which he abandoned for Barcelona, Spain, last year. "My dad's from Spain," he says, "and I didn't grow up with him, so when I finally had enough money, I UPSed all my gear, hooked up with somebody through a friend, and found a dope apartment."

When he was growing up in Decatur, Herren was heavily involved in the local hip-hop scene, often going to the skating rink to listen to hip-hop and watch breakdancing with his friends from school ("I was a fucking toy," he says, laughing), and going out at night to paint his name on the city's walls. At the same time, his mother was forcing him to learn piano, violin, and drums. "Nerdy kid shit," he calls it.

"I used to treat graffiti the same way I now treat music," he says, noting that he still bombs walls occasionally. "I was always trying to do some different shit but never knew how to go about realizing my ideas. With music, I was much more able to do that."

Herren began banging out tracks on cheap four-track equipment in '94. A demo of his early material eventually made its way into the hands of Steve Askew, who ran a local recording studio, Microgroove. "He was, like, 'Yo, I'll buy you an MPC-3000 if you can take the workload off me, and you can just work the MPC off by making beats,' " Herren recalls, adding that having the MPC-3000 allowed him to sample records with greater accuracy and make more sophisticated beats.

His job at Microgroove mostly involved producing tracks for aspiring local rappers. "It was the big thing to do in the mid '90s, have your own shit," he remembers. "Cats would come in and be like, 'Yo, I want a beat, dog.' And you're like, 'OK, like this?' Dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-d-d-d-d-dink! You know, just simple shit. And they're happy. They put it on cassette and bump it in their car." Needless to say, Herren never ended up working for Cash Money Records.

Instead, he reached an epiphany when his coworkers at the studio exposed him to experimental electronic artists like Autechre, Squarepusher, and Mouse on Mars, who were then emerging in Europe. Their mid-'90s albums – and in particular Squarepusher's whirlwinds of distortion and glitch effects that he turned into choppy junglist beats, and Mouse on Mars's playful, near-ambient work – led Herren to further explore the possibilities of his MPC-3000.

This led to Sleep Method Suite, Herren's first release under the nom de plume Delarosa, in 1997. "In 1992," he says, explaining where he got the name, "I bought this crate of records from the thrift store, and they had this name on them, Eric Keenan Delarosa. It was fresh shit. Getting a crate of records – especially in '92 – by artists Gil Scott-Heron, Alice Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders. I didn't know the guy, but he schooled me on so much shit." He adopted the pseudonym Delarosa in homage to that collector, later changing it to Delarosa and Asora. He also began using the names Savath and Savalas.

The early Delarosa and Asora recordings were primarily atmospheric, downbeat workouts; Herren didn't find his artistic voice until he recorded his first full-length, Agony, in 1999 (though it wasn't released until 2001, on the Miami-based Schematic label) and refined the disparate techniques that would become his calling cards. On tracks like "Two Hum," Herren adopts an almost painterly approach to sampling, piling layers of instruments over a slow, contemplative backing track that unwinds over several minutes. "Swipe Width" finds him chopping up rap vocals, then burying them deep in the white noise that the thicket of distortion inevitably creates.

Herren – by this time familiar with his MPC-3000 to the point of establishing a recognizable production technique and sound – sought to focus his efforts on writing instrumental songs, compositions with a linear concept and story line, instead of ambient, free-form workouts. He began his journey "making bugged-out beats," as he puts it, a tribute to his free jazz and electronic heroes. "Eventually," he says, "I formulated it into something that I liked. And that's how Prefuse 73 was born. I coined that for that era of jazz between '68 and '73 – the prefusion era." It was his way of paying respect to the jazz-rock work of Miles Davis and of free jazz pioneers like Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray.

Meanwhile, Warp – which had released important Autechre and Squarepusher albums – had heard one of his demos. Eventually the label decided to make him the flagship artist for its newly formed North American operation, which would be based in New York City. Herren's subsequent Prefuse 73 records for Warp (the Estrocaro EP, Uprock Narratives) were essentially hip-hop "edit" records, similar in style to mid-'80s dance records by producers like Mantronix and the Latin Rascals that simply sauteed electronic effects on top of the beats.

"It's so simple compared to other electronic shit," Herren says self-deprecatingly. "It was like, all right, I can keep this boom-bap element. I don't have to freak the beats and go crazy, but I can keep this structure and then do crazy shit on top and throughout the music."

As Prefuse 73, Herren is one of a growing number of producers (including El-P, Madlib, and Boom Bip) who blur the lines between genres, leading them away from the basic funk loops and keyboard hooks that have defined rap music for decades. "People appropriate hip-hop in different ways," he says. "Some people do it by wearing fucking FUBU. Some people appropriate hip-hop in their minds, in the essence, in the elements."

There is a moment on his recent EP, '92 vs. '02 Collection, when the music (on which he plays more keyboards than he has in the past) goes completely awry, sounding schizophrenic and disjointed. The fact that it's there confirms, despite supposed worries about the response to the upcoming album, that Herren is at home with a head full of sounds and influences – jazz, hip-hop, and electronic – and that he's able to sculpt them into a harmonious whole.

Prefuse 73 plays with Amon Tobin, Bonobo, and DJ P-Love, Mon/28, 8 p.m., Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F. $15. (415) 474-0365.