Hieroglyphic Being by Kevin Beasley

“Somebody takes an idea, then pushes it further. It elevates everybody.”

Hieroglyphic Being Bomb Web 1

Photo by Celeste Sloman. Courtesy of RVNG Intl.

Jamal Moss and I met a little over a year ago in Vancouver, where we were both performing in the 14th New Forms Festival. This was the first festival I had participated in, given that my work is often realized within the museum and gallery context, but for a seasoned veteran like Jamal this was his playground and point of connection to the world. Since then we have sporadically kept in touch, reconnecting at a gig I helped organize in New York in the spring of 2015—and not even realizing that he was working intensely on the colossal album We Are Not The First, recently released under his Hieroglyphic Being moniker by RVNG Intl. 

Not only does Moss continue to create densely layered sonic landscapes that push music composition to its edge, his wealth of knowledge about music pioneers and under-recognized philosophies about life, the cosmos, culture, and the music industry fuel his journey through the world as a cultural surveyor. As a DJ and producer since the early ’90s, Moss’s acumen on politics, social dynamics, and economic structures is channeled through his music and guided by his experience as both an “urban refugee”—a term Moss uses to describe his living situation in a Resident Advisor/SONOS Origins series video—and an academic with a focus in cultural anthropology and ethnographic film. He is constantly traversing the corners of a spiritual universe where the effect of these spaces is given form in his deep catalog of recordings and productions.

I gave him a call on a warm fall morning to discuss his new record—unbridled, unmatched, and urgently provocative.

Jamal Moss How do you feel?

Kevin Beasley I’m feeling pretty good man, how’re you?

JM I’m cool—a little winded because I got back to the crib and had some Jamaican food and then passed out. I just woke up like an hour ago. I had plantains, rice and beans, some greens, mac and cheese. I walked into the shop and told them to give me everything. Just put it all in there, I don’t give a fuck.

KB (laughter) How was your trip? You were in Portugal.

JM There are few places I would move to, but that’s one of them. I liked it because it’s multi-ethnic—though you could still tell the “native” Portuguese folks are resentful of what doesn’t look European in a European country. You can see the look on people’s faces, like they don’t know how to catch themselves—a two-second delayed reaction before they realize there’s racism in their face. It’s not like the whole country’s jacked up, but you can tell some people are conflicted, like, “Damn, I’m supposed to be civilized. I can’t show disdain for other cultures.” I was thinking, Yeah, if you didn’t want to colonize one third of Africa, we wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place.

KB Right! It’s wild man. When I was in Spain a year ago I was kind of surprised. There’s a lot of racism chilling in that place. It really turned me off. I enjoyed it—it was beautiful. But it was so embedded. You can see it, and you can feel it—just something casual, whether you’re going into a shop or you’re getting food.

JM You know what it is? In the areas closest to Africa they have to be the most racist. Because they’re closer to Africa there’s a lot of resentment, because they’ve got more subsidiary African blood. You look through the history—Spanish and Portuguese people, because of the Moor’s conquest, have definitely a good percent of African blood.  

KB It’s crazy.

JM Yeah, it is what it is. I ran into a lot of people who were cool, but you could see the look on some people’s faces like, “Look at you, I don’t want to absorb your genes.” (laughter)

KB This is pivoting a little bit in thinking about the potency of social relationships now.  Everything is spreading through video and social media, things are being reported, things are being seen. And there’s this intensity I feel whenever I’m going to the studio or when I’m making something—there’s no way I can block all this stuff out. There’s no way you can isolate your practice or isolate what’s going on from your daily routine, or whatever it is you’re doing to have a career, or to make your work, or to stimulate your mind. I’ve been listening to your record and it is so potent—the collaborations that are there, the expansiveness that is happening with the sounds. It’s just so dense. You’ve mentioned you were asked to do the record a while ago, and you were like, “I’m not ready.” Something about now felt really important for you to do it. What was it?

JM It was important for me to do it now because I keep seeing all the fuckery everywhere I go. It’s like how we just talked about Portugal or Spain—you go places and see the resentment or disdain, and how Europeans see people of brown or black color and want to deny your existence. It’s like that now with the electronic scene. You walk into a club or go to a festival and you get half—I won’t say all—but you get half the people in those environments who look at you like, “Why are you here?”

But they’re re-appropriating or repackaging for their own intents and purposes. We just go to see what they did with it. I just feel like now it’s getting to the point where the idiocracy, if that’s the right term to use, of this culture—it’s too far gone. So instead of me sitting at home being bitter and having conniptions or catching myself pissed off, I was like: Let me be proactive. That gave me an outlet. You see what I’m saying?

Not to be all Black Power or make other people feel less-than. I was just trying to explain that there were other people doing all this way before others came along, way before I came along.

KB It sounds like shit has come full circle. This album is bringing in the inspiration. Literally, the Sun Ra Arkestra are on the tracks. They’re there; their presence is felt. With these new collaborations I was thinking about your presence and I’m like, He’s all over this. It’s like his body is present, but this is like a future body that has this crazy accumulation of experiences, that time has collapsed, all of this stuff. I mean your voice is on it—the tracks, the rhythms, everything. It’s like downright funky, you know? It’s digestible, but you’re going to have to fucking chew real hard in order to really get the depth, the throes that are there. It’s a very curious record, man.

JM Thanks, because believe me, with the original versions—you’d need a fork and a knife to really chew through it. It took a year for me to sit down and really digest what was going on, and they asked somebody else to rearrange it. And in my mind I was like, That’s a remix to the meat. You can choose whatever clinical, sanitized term that people want to call it, but when you have a person come in and arrange it, and they weren’t there doing studio sessions, it becomes theirs because they weren’t there to understand the premise, the concept, the emotion, the whole fusion of what was going on. They’re just outside looking in, and that’s kind of like what’s happening with the scene now—people outside looking in, people who weren’t there for the raw moment. This person has mad skills. I just felt when people hear it, the haters would have come at me like, “This ain’t Jamal. This doesn’t sound like him.” I didn’t want it to come out like that, so I had to really come back and do work. Believe me, the original versions—you would just have to get down or lay down, that was it. (laughter)

KB (laughter) It’s like a multiverse or something, the way that these sounds exist—you’re aware of their expansion, you’re aware of where they’re coming from, and it’s just a really deep feel to get into. It’s a complete work. But what I like is that all the tracks have these multiple touch-points, there are different elements within each that really stick with you. And there’s no formula—you’re looking at something that is very worked through but doesn’t feel belabored. It’s like there’s some cosmic explosion that’s happened—there’s a lot of energy packed inside of it.

JM If I would have made the album when they first approached me, that would have been straight up like another reality. You said multiverse? That would have been an alternative me in another, parallel world that had to take on that challenge. But if I would have had that cheese beforehand, the whole sound would have never existed. It would have been a basic kick-drum, hi-hat, snare, acid bassline, some melody, a couple of phrases—you know “jack your body” bullshit. That’s what I didn’t want to do.

I would go to sleep at night with Pandora on, and it would retrain the brain. All I would listen to was classical stuff, jazz fusion, industrial noise. I retrained my brain and, over months, just listened to different note variations, and time signatures, and changes, and cultures. It may sound like bullshit to some, but it actually works. After two years of that, this album is what came out. So I’m not trying to say I’m this prophetic genius or whatever—I really had to sit down and absorb all of the stuff that’s going on in the world sonically, physically, spiritually, sexually—if you want to add that, too—or esoterically, and let something build just for that project. It does not sound like anything else I’ve done before, but there are similarities.

As far as the term I use—Rhythmic Cubism-Synth Expressionism—that’s always what I’ve been doing, but now people can see it at a higher, professional level. On my own, people have a different, skewed lens or perception of what this bubble I’m in is about. Some people will not digest it because I’m not part of the dynamic structure that’s accepted in the marketing, or the developed consciousness of the electronic music world or the culture itself. So I’m always going to be pigeonholed as “Oh, that dude from Chicago” or some people would just say, “another nigger with a drum machine.” I just keep it real, because when they look at you there’s always the concept of people from a certain ethnic background or socio-economic group that get a hold of some equipment. It’s very trivial how they treat certain artists. I don’t want to make it a black, white, brown thing—there’s black folks that get bougie as fuck when they get some money and tenure and status, and they act like they don’t know where the fuck they came from.

KB Right.

JM So I’m not gonna just throw it all at white folks, Asian folks, Hispanic folks. It’s just people who don’t know how to ethically and morally digest the elevation of status in society. They forget where they came from because they get caught up in the material world and the hype. I find it very infuriating. For years, especially with Chicago house or with Chicago cats, I would always hear, “It’s just some young, black kids from Chicago, and they got all these little toys, these drum machines, and they were tinkering around, and they accidentally came up with this sound.” And I’m like, “You make it sound like you gave a bunch of chimpanzees or some orangutans in a cage some drums”—

KB (laughter)

JM —“and some sticks and they just started banging on it, and they just so happen to have caught an eight-measure rhythmatic syncopation, in sync.” They say, “Oh, that’s an anomaly, these apes are able to keep a rhythm and a sound structure going for eight measures.” And that’s what that sounds like to me when these cats say that. If they really did their research, they’d know that a lot of these young black youths, when they started with house music culture, were all in actual bands. Some of them were jazz musicians, some of them were in rock bands—

KB Right.

JM —some them were in funk bands. You’ve got to realize, a majority of people from urban cities had parents who grew up with the rebirth or the Cool Jazz or the Blue Note culture in their household, so that stuff carried down to the kids. So they would hear this stuff, and a lot of kids who grew up in the ’70s were disciplined with the piano, and bass guitar, and a horn, and a sax… You can look at all of Spike Lee’s movies—most of his movies show young black youth doing what? Remember his mom would say, “Come up here and practice on that horn.” And he’d be like, “Oh, ma!” What was that one? Mo’ Better Blues? (laughter)

People look at it now with a skewed lens, how the urban youth are caught up in commercial society when it comes to hip-hop and R&B, because it looks like some court jester shit. They look at people from urban environments and they’re like, “Oh these cats, they don’t know music. They don’t even know how to do a whole note. They’re doing quarter-notes.” They wouldn’t even consider what they’re doing a note.

KB It makes me think about someone that I was looking at quite a bit—just his quick rise and fall—Bobby Shmurda, from Brooklyn. Do you remember he came out with that song “Hot Nigga” that went from basically zero to a thousand over the summer? And then the video came out where he was at Epic Records basically doing a minstrel show for the whole CEO brass. Then the next thing you know, he’s in jail because the police were tipped off by his videos, right? So the idea that the pathway is predetermined—people are falling into the trap of material possessions, this image that’s constantly being created, and it’s all in the name of what? Culture? Art? All these cats from the early ’90s and the ’80s who were big hip-hop heads and made their way out of the ghetto are now being heavily rewarded. Everything’s being controlled by marketing and the rich, white CEOs that are funneling money into what’s profitable for them. It’s not in the best interest of the community at all. I don’t even know how to get out of it.

JM Well, the whole point of my work is doing my part to get everybody out of it. It’s not just black youth; it’s society as a whole. We’re at a point in human evolution and civilization that as artists—whether it’s in literature or the visual medium or the sonic medium, or whatever—it’s our job now to heal and save humanity. It’s for us to fight back and be proactive to get us out of this weird, manipulative, cultural bubble they’ve got us stuck in. It’s gotten to the point now—they’ve got society so dumb, you read articles about how symphonies and orchestras are now going out of business because nobody’s supporting them anymore.

KB Nobody’s supporting them! Exactly. And what, Derrick May just did a show in Chene Park in Detroit, with the Detroit Symphony—

JM That’s his part to let people know, to break that bubble. To get more culture.

KB But the crazy part is that you guys have been doing this for decades. And it’s this thing where it’s circling back, biting people in the ass now. That’s why Jeff Mills has an issue with coming and playing in the States.

JM The powers-that-be realized that they’ve got to figure out a way to make more money. It’s like the dog chasing it’s own tail. So of course they realize there’s this public culture that’s been around for so long, that’s been either willfully suppressed or subconsciously suppressed. Now they see the tide is turning and they realize: Oh, these cats have been running around for twenty years, building this whole scene, and now we want to insert ourselves and see if we can capitalize off it. But they always will do that with any culture in its inception. It happened with the blues back in the day, it happened with early jazz, it happened with early soul, early rock’n’roll artists. Technically speaking, the originator of rock’n’roll is an old black woman. People don’t know that. She only got the spotlight on her when they wanted to do a case study, like in anthropology. “We must ethnographically record her, and get a visual of her, so we can study her and siphon her essence.” I mean that’s what those guys did back in the day, when they used to go south, down in the Delta and record artists on the farms.

That’s what they’re doing now to the people in this culture. Hopefully with this next generation there will be a cultural uprising. But history repeats itself, unless people wake up and stop it. And that’s why my whole thing comes back to We Are Not The First, because I want to be make sure it’s not just about me. People see Marshall Allen, Daniel Carter, and Shelly Hirsch—people who have been on the forefront for decades doing what they do. You have to realize they didn’t walk around seeing themselves as “underground,” they were just creating and doing their craft. Other people put certain titles or meanings to it because they were trying to figure out how to package the genre and make some money. And when they couldn’t figure out how to package and push it to the masses, the powers-that-be walked away. But these people were still doing what they do. And that’s the whole thing. Bullshit fades over time, and the real stuff will come to life.

KB That is so true.

JM Everybody’s doing this modular synth stuff. I’m looking at it like, “You spend $3000 on this? Why don’t you spend $3000 on the old vanguard who have put this stuff in place? So they can get the royalty checks.” The powers-that-be manipulate you. They herd you like a sheepherder. You sit there complaining about how this shit is messed up, but you spent thousands of dollars before you even studied the culture.

It blows my mind. It’s like with this album, with Ben Vida—dude knows his modular business, you see what I’m saying? So you got people who do modular stuff who are professional. They ain’t into it because it’s a toy, or a trinky-dink, or a trendy thing. He’s on this album to show, “Hey, here’s a modular concept. This is what you can do. Okay, this is what you can do when you add a live drummer with modular sound, then when you add a vocalist into the fray, then jazz musicians.” When people play saxophones, French horns, or clarinets, baritones and all that stuff, they do the same thing with their mouth that these instruments try to do with patches and keyboards. People don’t even want to try to think about that!

KB (laughter)

JM It’s just weird that people limit themselves and don’t push the boundaries. That’s one thing about this album—to let people know: Push yourself. Study what’s going on. Dig deep, because when you push the boundaries in whatever art you push everybody else forward.  

KB Right. It’s the realization that your gestures, your contributions, your thought process is a contribution to a culture and not just your own personal image. It’s like people are trying to raise their own visibility rather than pushing on the form. It’s a much broader, holistic perspective, one that holds accountable the culture that has birthed this thing. And then where it stands now, and how does that propel in the future? Especially now, because there’s so much information, so much data, so much transference of material. When you push something through a threshold, it has an impact. It changes the space. I think that gets lost because we’re so interested in the image, the visibility, and not in the actual thing itself.

JM Exactly. I just hope that even the haters or lovers of this project will just sit down and think about the world they’re in and what they’re going to do to make it better. That’s how society was forged. Somebody takes an idea, then pushes it further. It elevates everybody. So have at it. That’s how I look at it. I got an album on Soul Jazz [Records]—it actually came out a couple years ago. I did that all with a guitar and a 303. Of course I had a drum machine, but all the bass lines, all the acid stuff—that was done with a guitar. I don’t even know how to play a guitar.

KB (laughter)

JM But you know, I got time and access. I was able to tinker. If I’m able to tinker and come up with a concept that comes to fruition, imagine people who actually know music theory, who actually have access, have the know-with-all and reach to actually raise the consciousness and awareness of creativity to the next level. I’m not going to use any current big artists’ names who do the hands-in-the-air festival—you know, singing nursery rhymes to the crowd outdoors and shit.

KB The difference is that you have a cause and a purpose. To give the benefit of the doubt to some of these hand-wavers, maybe they did have a cause and a purpose but the conviction wasn’t there, or they weren’t able to maintain the conviction in it and lost it along the way.

JM They lost it along the way because they get caught up in the physical and material matrix. Like the mental and the spiritual essence of you is dampened because we live in a physical world. That’s why you need meditation, you need time alone to yourself to figure things out. Sometimes people can get so lost in the physical matrix, or the material matrix, they just don’t give a damn.

And I think that’s what happened. I think people consciously know that shit’s fucked up around them, but they’re so spiritually, mentally, and emotionally beaten down. They just give into the excess. So when the people are waving their hands in the air—that’s the walking dead right there. They just got their hands up.

But that Soul Jazz record, Acid Documents, is coming back out. I really tried to emulate Jaco Pastorius. I tried. My fingers hurt. (laughter) This one track took me about six days to get eight measures. Jaco? Dude does that in a millisecond.

As a human being, you have a long way to fucking go no matter how well or comfortable you think you are in life. Especially if you’re taking a turn toward the cosmos, and you gotta walk the universe.

KB That’s the intention. It’s there, and we see evidence of it, but you still can’t come to grips with it. You just have to exist in your futile inability. You’re very insignificant. And you have to recognize that. It’s the perspective, and how you move on from there with it.

JM Marshall Allen has been around for decades and, technically speaking, he’s still relevant. But he’s not doing what he’s doing to try to stay relevant. He’s doing what he’s doing because that’s just his being, his fiber, how he walks. This man has been doing this for over sixty-plus years, maybe more. Those are the people that stand the test of time. Any culture, only three or four people are even known a couple hundred years later.

KB And the crazy part is that when you look at who’s remembered, and culturally what the dominant prevailing ideologies are, it’s like, they’re probably not the ones who are out there moving, that are actually getting to the fabric of what was happening, that are actually being very critical and know what’s going on. And that’s literally all you have, is how rigorous is your practice?

JM And the whole thing is now—with what everyone calls EDM or electronic music culture, or whatever. Who’s going to be remembered? I’m gonna tell you right now, it ain’t no Avicii. It ain’t no… you know those cats…

KB You forgot them already.

JM Exactly! I can’t even think of their names! (laughter)

KB What’s the one with the mask?

JM They’re about six years into the height of their fame and I can’t even remember. Think about the people who’ve been here for thirty years. They don’t even get a third of the hype, marketing, or notoriety. So imagine two hundred years from now when you reflect on the classics, talking about, “Oh yeah that was the period of time when electronic music became a phenomenon” And to me, I’m like, “Oh, everything is electronic.” That’s the funny part. What makes electronic music so special? When you’re two hundred years in the future they’re going to be saying, “The world around us is electric.” To them it’s going to be like fuckery. So two hundred years from now there might be a thing called “No Music.”

KB Who even knows?

JM So that’s the mantra [in EDM], you sit there and stew in your own ego, and there’s nothing bad about feeling good about yourself, but when it gets to the point where it starts depressing others you need to really sit down and think about the bigger perspective, and get over yourself and move forward. And I’m glad to be part of this project, to be able to include people who came before me to remind people in this day in age, “Sit your ass down and realize you’re here because other people sacrificed a way of life or being for you to come into existence.”

This goes back to what I was saying for artists to help make it heaven on earth. Not that whole bullshit mantra, about gold streets and pearly gates waiting for you—it’s our job to make it happen now.

KB Damn. That shit’s thorough. That’s good.

JM And when people read the titles [on this album], it’s all written in there. Like, “Cybernetics Is an Old Science.”

KB I’m curious about how the conversations will surround the work. It’s a prompt, a challenge. It’s something that I think will push how people think about not only music production but our being, how we’re moving through the world.

JM It’s insane that we’ve come so far in technology, in making sounds. I read something a long time ago—so don’t quote me verbatim—about how there was at least a minimum of 66,000 frequencies or harmonies that you could channel into, as far as tones and textures, and we haven’t even scratched the surface on ten percent of that. We still have a long way to go when it comes to the whole conceptualization of what it is to create a sonic structure and palette. From a cultural perspective, since I studied anthropology, it’s always been known that tribes around the world used music as a way to fuel and empower their culture, and in their medicine. The Native Americans had the drum, and they had a ceremony. Africa, with the Dogon, they had their ceremonies. Hell, when you look at a few groups in Finland and at the Laplanders, they incorporated sound to fuel the tribe to move forward. In every culture, you need that type of sonic energy to push the culture forward. In this day and age, it’s the war drum, and that’s kind of fucked up.

KB Yeah, it is real fucked up.

JM The sound we hear today is still the war drum, and that’s kind of sad. You hear “Taps” when it’s time to go out to war. When you sing the National Anthem it’s not about pride! It’s about supremacy, you know? That’s the war drum. It’d be nice to have some song that’s all about healing and bringing everybody together.

It is what it is. I just hope people will be able to get a hold of the concept. You can hate—I don’t care—but the whole point is: I injected something into society that’s gonna make you be proactive. You can either be proactive, or you can sit on your ass eating chicken, you know.

KB (laughter) I mean, you can be proactive and eat chicken at the same time…

JM You can do that too! You know what they say [in The Matrix]—the spoon doesn’t bend, it’s you that bends.

KB It’s not the spoon. Right.

JM Enough of the angst. I just hope everybody enjoys it and gets something out of it. And if they don’t, I have to continue.

KB I think it’s a real powerful work, man. For sure.

JM Oh, you know what’s funny? When I was at the airport waiting for a cab to come back home I was talking to this Caucasian gentleman, right? Cool as hell. We’re chitchatting, but other white people are really annoyed that we are getting along so well.

KB Oh, whoa.

JM Dude didn’t tell me what he was involved with, but the shit he broke down to me… I was bugging. It all went back to Iran, you know, about the nuclear capabilities—it’s all bullshit. It’s all about infrastructure. He said they worked out a 180 billion-dollar deal for Boeing to go in and basically build airlines and airports for Iran.

KB The international airport out of Tehran has a train line that is under development that goes from the city center all the way to the airport. You see a lot of infrastructure building taking place in that country, just in general.

JM At the end of the day it’s business as usual. It’s always some back-door deal and the opportunity to make some big money. I was just shocked, the same thing with China, dude.

KB That’s why the market is fluctuating so much, because China’s market is fucked up. You can’t have communism and the free market operate the same way.

JM That’s like trying to mix Kool-Aid with hot chocolate. (laughter)

KB (laughter) Then put some gummy bears in there to bridge it. You get that mush, that nasty drink. People are just getting off on it.

JM In other words, the design model is Starbucks, when you look at their motherfucking latte menus. The world is a Starbucks latte menu, when it comes down to it.

Everyone keeps talking about how the US owes everyone money, but I thought the business model was everyone owes everyone money. That’s how you make money, keep everyone in debt, pull favors, and make money off the interest. The US owes China, how much does China owe America? When the ’80s hit, what started happening? A lot of US companies were like, “Yo, we out. We headed over to China.” They were already doing it before NAFTA and the free trade agreement.

The corporate and political interests already know it’s a new world order, but they are just slowly letting the masses digest and accept it since the end of WWII. They already drew it up for the next 150 years. Everything is being bought up. It’s insane. All I know is, how can I be down? Do I need to go to Zimbabwe and start building some shit? And it’s funny too because I’ve traveled to different places and they are looking at me like, “Why are you here?” They can’t always digest it.

It’s just weird to be there in Lisbon. It’s just as culturally diverse as Brooklyn or Chicago. I knew that before, but being there, I was like, “Damn, it’s no joke over here.”

KB That’s straight. That’s what you were vibing off of.

JM It’s the same bullshit no matter where you go on the planet, but always three differences—different languages, old ass buildings, and the cuisine. There might be two other nuances, but that’s it. Anywhere you go, it’s the same human story.

Kevin Beasley is an artist living and working in New York City. His sculptures, performances, and sound compositions have been featured in exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Walker Art Center, MN; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; Modern Art Oxford, UK; Seoul Museum of Art, Korea; and other galleries and institutions. He is represented by Casey Kaplan Gallery, NY.

C. Spencer Yeh by Michael Barron
C Spencer Yeh 1
Joshua Abrams & Nathan Bowles by Clinton Krute
Abrams Bowles 1

Memory, texture, and tradition.

George Lewis by Jeff Parker
Lewis 01 Body

Musician, electronic composition innovator, and MacArthur fellow Lewis has been documented in more than 120 recordings as well as numerous installations and written texts. He talks with Parker about where improvisation and politics intersect.

Refusing Erasure: Raven Leilani Interviewed by Sarah Etter
Luster5 1

On candidly depicting a black woman’s consciousness, the contradictions of intimacy, and the joys of other art forms.