James Blake talks RZA, dubstep drops

(Originally written for Reverb1)

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So often, when we hear of a new band or musician, we want to know exactly what we’re in for before we give it a spin.

Is it electronic or more instrumental? Can you dance to it? Is it going to make me sad? (Well, were you sad when you listened to it? Then why do you think it would make me sad? …)

The thing about James Blake’s music, is you could respond in the affirmative to all of the above, sometimes about just one song. His cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” from his debut self-titled album, has all the hallmarks: a soulful piano line, speaker-shaking bass, affected drum beats and lyrical melancholia, wrapped into one somehow cohesive package.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a uniform process,” Blake said of piecing a song together. “It could be that I’ve already written a beat and I have these lyrics laying around,” or vice versa. One constant is while the production is typically done inside—where else—”the writing probably happened abroad, or on a plane or wherever. Outside the house. You can probably hear that on the record.”

Blake’s speaking of both his debut and his new LP, “Overgrown.” “Overgrown” is both a logical progression of his production and songwriting and a bit of a roll of the dice. While much of the album harkens back to his debut, Blake recruited Wu-Tang Clan legate RZA for one track (“Take a Fall for Me”) and nearly unplugs altogether for another (“DLM”).

His collaboration with RZA might seem out of left field, but according to Blake, hip-hop has always been a strong influence.

“When I’ve been producing, it’s always been in hip-hop song form. Whether it be Wu-Tang or D’Angelo…[or] Lauren Hill. I just always had it around,” Blake said. “Obviously I haven’t played a major role in any hip-hop culture because of where I was born (laughs)… but I do enjoy it a lot.”

Like you could expect of any kid weened on Wu-Tang, Blake was beside himself when the RZA said yes.

“A couple of people suggested that somebody should rap over it,” Blake said of he production on “Take A Fall For Me,” “and I said if anyone’s gonna be on it, it has to be RZA. I wanted someone with feeling.”

As for actually being able to pull RZA for a track at the ripe age of 24? “What can I say,” Blake replied affably, “I’m very privileged.”

“Take A Fall For Me” included, the sound on “Overgrown” trends toward the speaker stacks of a club more than the headphone-headspace of his debut. Both the title track and the album’s first single, “Retrograde,” contain that element of modern dubstep most revered and ridiculed: the drop. Though Blake would never liken himself to a Skrillex or Deadmau5, he conceded the point: “To be honest, I’ve never made music like that. But yeah, [“Overgrown”] is probably the closest I’ve come to a bonafide drop. In fact, it sounds really good out.”

But for all his cited influences and aims in making music, it’s the abstract that intrigues him. In most fields of work and forms media, there’s little that’s left up to you. There’s always some finite goal in mind. Music, he says, is different. As a musician, while you can blend in if you wish, you can also “demand of people that they listen.”

On both of his LPs, his choice is resoundingly the latter. Obvious in production and subtly written, Blake’s music isn’t just for the club kid or the tender of heart, but both and then some. It’s abstract and, despite one’s best efforts, undefinable.

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