How Exile is changing the way we see and hear hip-hop
MUSIC Few producers have pushed forward the aesthetic of West Coast underground hip-hop like Exile. His dynamic production style navigates a certain uneasiness at the heart of Californian reveries: warm pulses of boom-bap ride over blown-out bass lines and dirtied, jazz-strut melodies. Yet among the towering forces of Dr. Dre gangster pulp and Madlib beat tapes ad infinitum, Exile has been something of a submerged anonymity.
Exile (born Aleksander Manfredi) broke out into the Los Angeles scene at the brink of the millennium as part of the duo Emanon, formed in half by dexterous lyricist and singer Aloe Blacc. In reality, they had already been hustling an arsenal of cassettes since the mid-1990s, championing sun-bleached soundscapes and whimsical verses on the grind. It set the framework for Exile's prodigious output during the last few years (holds breath): another decisive Emanon full-length, 2004's The Waiting Room on Shaman Work; full production in the vein of Marley Marl for two freshmen rap debuts, Blu's impassioned 2007 Below the Heavens on Sound in Color, and Fashawn's solid 2009 Boy Meets World on One Records; a versatile 2006 beat conductor showcase, Dirty Science (also on Sound and Color); and the 2009 concept album Radio on Plug Research, which reworked a pastiche of sound bytes, vocals, and loops culled from Los Angeles' AM/FM frequencies.
In any free time scrapped among those projects, Exile also helped spearhead a new form of live performance with the Akai MPC, a powerful drum machine and sampler tool henceforth used only for production. "The MPC is able to do almost anything any instrument can do if it's programmed right," Exile tells me over the phone. "Buttons allow you to trigger and manipulate sounds — and that's exactly what music is." No longer limited to mixing, scratching, and juggling prerecorded sounds on the turntables, the producer can build, layer, and freak music from its most basic building blocks. "The idea is to have your own instrument, made up of other instruments: a chopped up guitar, horn, bass line, and drums; then add some synth keys," Exile says. "You have all these instruments at your fingertips and you can rework them." Simply put, Exile brings a hip-hop producer's analog studio to the stage.
Whether flipping robotic percussive breaks and lurching sub-bass that reach into your gut and pile-drive your sternum or reimagining Afrika Bambaataa with kindred spirit DJ Day, Exile continually impresses and body rocks the crowd in his live show. Sure, some talented laptop performers have incorporated similar techniques into their sets from behind glowing Apple computer screens, but it's thrilling to see Exile openly at work in front of the audience. The visual aspect is key as he demonstrates unparalleled skills on the machine, tapping buttons in rapid-fire wizardry like a future-funked Thelonious Monk.
Exile invokes a natural musicality when playing the equipment. This makes his claims that the MPC is a real and serious instrument all the more convincing. "The first instrument I learned was an accordion, which has a lot of buttons," he says, amused by the thought. "Then I picked up the keyboard and some drums. But I really learned to play the drums with the MPC."
Exile was that kid in junior high finger-drumming syncopated rhythms on classroom desks and beat boxing in the hallways. Hooked on hip-hop and electronic jams, he was inspired to make programmed music with whatever tools he could find. "The first song I ever recreated was Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" with a turntable and two-tape decks," Exile recalls. "I recorded a two-bar section of a song, rewound so there were two bars of empty space, recorded two bars again, and then empty space again. Do that for three minutes, then go back and fill in the empty space, and add another tape onto that." Repeat that DIY method until the sounds of a loving genius knock out of the speakers in full android glory.
This restless impulse to create took Exile down a long road experimenting with four-track recorders, Roland samplers, and even helium balloons before he laid his hands on the MPC. Now, he's a certified fiend, transforming the way we see hip-hop as much as we hear it. And there's much more to come.
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