We’ve got TNGHT: Young producers Hudson Mohawke and Lunice join forces to bring a new spin on hip-hop

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

The Red Bull Music Academy studios in South London are the venue for my interview with Ross Birchard (26) and Lunice Fermin Pierre II (24) — better known as Hudson Mohawke and Lunice — about their new project TNGHT. As graduates of the classes of 2007 and 2010 respectively, both have benefited from the energy-drink manufacturer’s yearly “finishing school” for musical up-and-comers. Looking around, though, it’s a wonder how any music gets made — table tennis, foosball and retro arcade machines are just a few of the distractions. As we wait for Birchard to join us, Pierre mentions that someone once tried to interview him over a game of table tennis. I asked how it worked out. “Not well for him, he didn’t even get one point!” he quips back.

Pierre, who is from Montreal, is fresh off DJing in Leeds the night before, and admits he’s only had 90 minutes sleep. Apparently someone forgot to tell him he had a day full of interviews booked. You’d forgive him for being less than enthusiastic as a result, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth — he’s friendly, talkative and practically bouncing off the walls with energy. It’s tempting to describe it as infectious, but it doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on collaborator Birchard, whose typically Scottish, dry sense of humour could be mistaken for cool indifference. They might come across as an odd couple of sorts, but together they’re one of this year’s most exciting acts — two young producers at the peak of their powers who have managed that rare feat of combining underground legitimacy with some mainstream success. Even prior to their debut release as TNGHT — this July’s self-titled EP — the two had marked their forays out of the club scene and into the rap game not with baby steps but swaggering strides. Heard the “Kanye West Presents Good Music Cruel Summer” compilation or Azealia Banks’ “Fantasea” mixtape? That’s Birchard and Pierre on production duty.

Their take on hip-hop is one that celebrates the uncomplicated — trance-y synth arpeggios and looping vocals maraud their way over 808-led drum patterns that alternate between hyperkinetic jukelike speeds and the familiar half-time of dubstep and grime. Recently, TNGHT have often found themselves being mentioned alongside America’s latest faddish genre, Trap — beats characterized by drum patterns and vocal samples that champion drugs and violence, inspired by the street-level “realness” of rappers such as T.I. and Three 6 Mafia. Pierre is happy to poke fun at the perception of the genre, mouthing out “cocaine b-tches real Trap sh-t” in an exaggeratedly slow drawl, like a 45 record being played at 33, as an example of what you might hear in a Trap track. Neither seem too pleased by the comparison, but nor are they overly concerned — Birchard insists that Trap’s popularity is something “that’s going to come and go,” and instead describes their style as “direct, club hip-hop — it’s basically pretty much what we’ve always done (separately), but stuff that we might not have released.” Fortunately it was one such track that did see a release — Birchard’s remix of rapper Gucci Mane — that inadvertently brought the two together.

“We already knew each other from about four years ago. But (that remix) was one of the first times I’d heard him make a really straightforward rap track, and it was f-cking tight!” Pierre says.

Until then, Birchard’s releases had largely conformed to his trademark wonky approach to hip-hop — a style that has since been aped and imitated by countless numbers of inferior producers following his debut release, “Butter,” on Warp in 2009.

“Without wanting to be too arrogant … a lot of people have copied the Glasgow ‘sound’. A lot of big, mainstream tracks came out that did have that influence on them, and it did piss me off for a while.” But with Birchard’s recent plaudits as well as those of compatriot Rustie, who won British newspaper The Guardian’s album of the year award in 2011, more and more people are aware of the origins of that Glasgow sound.

“With how well (Rustie’s) album did, and then me doing the Kanye and R. Kelly tune, it just felt like … finally! I still don’t consider either of us to be well established, but back then we were even less established and I was still thinking, ‘F-cking hell, we’re never gonna get anything out of this, we’ve poured our heart and soul into this’ … I’m still b-tching about it now, I’m just gonna leave!” he jokes.

He didn’t, and now he and Pierre are the ones calling the shots — something they attribute to their upbringing in the club scene.

“Big mainstream hip-hop producers don’t have any experience of playing in clubs or playing at festivals, or any of the stuff that we’ve spent the last five or six years doing. Their actual exposure to the music life is just sitting in dark rooms, in a studio,” says Birchard. In contrast, TNGHT know how to put on a show — their recent gig in London sold out as far back as September, and was a frenzied blur of dancing, moshing and crowd surfing (and that was just Pierre)!

“It’s become a very interesting advantage in that we have the choice to tour off our own music. We can make a bunch of projects, show them to a vocalist or a rapper — if they don’t choose them? Fine. I’ll put an EP out,” explains Pierre. I ask them if they’ve turned any rappers down themselves. “Yes,” is the answer, but they decline to name any names. After all, they don’t need to bruise any egos in the rap game — they’ve already got them running scared.

TNGHT play Electraglide at Makuhari Messe in Tokyo on Nov. 23 (10 p.m. start; ¥8,800 in advance); and at ATC Hall in Osaka on Nov. 24 (9 p.m. start; ¥7,800 in advance). For more information, visit www.electraglide.info or www.warp.net.