DIRTY BIRD x KCSB INTERVIEW
KCSB’s Internal Music Director Yousef Srour sat down with innovative multidisciplinary artist and house producer Dirty Bird to discuss his artistic journey, important vision, and more. Catch a live DJ performance with Dirty Bird hosted by KCSB & KZSC on Saturday, May 22nd at 8 PM streaming live via Zoom and KCSB’s Youtube channel (YT livestream link). You won’t wanna miss this one.
It doesn’t matter whether you call him Dirty Bird or Gum, just make sure you’re picturing an anime character speeding off in his Toyota Supra. Gum’s cartoon manifestation is cloaked in an orange zip-up jacket and pants, dreads floating around his head, green-tinted shades covering his eyes, green headphones to match, and gloves for when he comes across some action. He engages in high-speed chases and fights villains in disco clubs, just like a classic ‘70s Blaxploitation movie, where Gum is the star.
Hailing from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Dirty Bird has a quartz-cut production style that gleams and glimmers with the same shine as a rotating disco ball. His music is distinct in its ability to be an homage to the past, deeply influenced by the crates he’s digging through, the rich history of the South, and the quirkiness of pop culture. You can hear the influence of DJ Screw and his style of using chopped up samples, you occasionally hear the snares of Atlanta trap cut through his tracks, and an old-school jazz cut is a necessity. That being said, I still consider Gum to be the only artist who can successfully remix Ariana Grande and Britney Spears in a way that maintains their same 2000s aesthetic, but infusing it with progressive synths and a reinspired, glamorous bounce that makes listening to your guilty pleasures much more acceptable.
A recent graduate of New York University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art, an ex-middle school teacher, and having been a sitting member of his city’s art council, Dirty Bird is both an activist and an educator. The 24-year-old dives into conversation with me about how he evaluates his time and labor, jumping through countless hoops as an independent, DIY artist in the underground house scene, unsatisfied with the expectation that he has to settle for dismal royalty checks from streaming services, and processing fees when selling his merch online; Gum values his labor so much that he does everything himself. He started his own website, Gum Studio, where he sells everything from custom-branded hazmat suits to 24k gold CDs to USBs with tutorials that DO NOT teach you how to steal passwords. A pack of 6 CDs might run you back $60, but he designs the packaging, details them, and burns all of them himself.
As an educator, Dirty Bird had a clear grasp on just how influential he was on his students, but he applies that same mentality to his approach as an artist. His latest album, Time Traveler, is an Afro-futuristic disco-house project that closely examines the history and genealogy of house music, maneuvering through the genre’s origins, sampling obscure jazz, funk, and disco tracks. Gum reworks these songs to have “Gum’s Groove,” from the drums that force your body to sway back and forth to the sparing guitar riffs to the saxophone that breeds Cowboy Bebop-levels of adventure into the narrative of Time Traveler. As the album progresses, the music attempts to imagine what disco-house will sound like in the 2070s, utilizing beats that sound like dripping ice (a reference to both glistening diamonds and water droplets) and ethereal club scenes, with fluid soundscapes and heavily-modulated vocals from his collaborators.
Gum is the modern-day Powerline, bringing new life to a genre that was in the process of being forgotten amid the Y2K revival—although Gum realizes that disco music and its colorful energy are more fitting now than ever. He’s a product of the internet, embracing its experimental and non conforming nature as he makes whatever music he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants.
Yousef: Where in North Carolina are you based out of right now?
Gum: I’m in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina right now; it’s a small town in the North East part of North Carolina, so I’m an hour or two hours from Raleigh.
Yousef: Not a lot of artists come from North Carolina, and I’d like to say that even fewer house artists reside there. How do you think living there has impacted your approach to making music?
Gum: It’s been really cool because I feel like the genealogy of my musical influences is really weird; I get a little bit of the Southern rap from Memphis and Texas and Atlanta, and I get a little bit of jazz because Nina Simone, she’s from North Carolina and she’s an incredible incredible jazz musician, and then you get a little folk music and all these different genres from different parts of the East Coast kind of mesh in a weird way in North Carolina. It’s been cool to see how that has impacted my musical development. I feel like my sound is unique for that reason. I have all those amalgamations come together, which I can attribute to my experience growing up in North Carolina.
Yousef: When did you first realize that you wanted to start being a producer?
Gum: It’s only been 2/3 years, I think it’s coming up on three and a half now. Between Junior and Senior year of college, that summer in-between, my friends were making a bunch of music and I was like, “Yo, I’m going to start making music too since all my friends are doing it.” After that, I picked it up on a whim and I started making weird stuff for my friends and staying up all night in their apartments just making weird electronic stuff, making weird ambient stuff. As we got closer to graduation, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start taking it more seriously, I guess, now that I’m getting pretty good at it.” I started my little house stuff. I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to do this for a while and see what happens,” and here we are. 3 years later and I’m still burning CDs.
Yousef: You’re getting quite a following though.
Gum: Yeah, it’s been nice. I feel like it was kind of a transition because I feel like I built my online following mostly through—I was an artist, but I wasn’t producing a bunch of stuff. I did a comic for a while—Okay, that’s a lie, I was doing a bunch of stuff. I did a comic for a little bit, I was doing illustrations, I was doing paintings; I was doing whatever I could get my hands on while I was in college. I feel like my following built up because of that. One day, I was like, “Okay guys, I’m going to make music,” and that’s just how it happened. I’m grateful that my supporters were able to crossover and support me in both ways.
Yousef: A lot of people don’t know this, but you received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art from NYU. How did your time there help sort-of guide your artistic direction?
Gum: It changed my life. I can’t say this enough, but having the privilege to have a theoretical Fine Arts and studying theory as opposed to the actual practice of, “Can you draw an apple realistically?” All the technical stuff is really cool, to be able to master your technical skills is a privilege too, to be in a space to do that, but to be able to engage with critical art theory day-in and day-out for 4 years is life-changing. It changed the way I approach the world and the way I approach making objects or making videos and music. It exposed me to so much theory that ties in to my political theories also. It changed my mindset in terms of how I want to relate myself to my labor and the meaning of my objects when I put them out to the world. Being able to think critically about that for 4 years, before I even had a career, it put me in a good place mentally so now I’m really conscious of what I’m doing, the purpose behind it, and I have a clear path. Basically, I know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m a professional, and I can only say that because I had the time to stumble through theory and learning what I want to get out of the artistic experience because of my time at NYU.
Yousef: Before you became a house producer though, you were a civics and economics teacher. How do you think that’s shaped you as both a person and as an artist?
Gum: It’s funny because teaching is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. All things considered, I think teaching is the craziest because you have such a large impact on a developing child over the course of a year, and that can send them on a crazy trajectory. You might never see the end of that path, and you might never know how your actions set them along their life path, so it’s a lot of responsibility for somebody who’s 23 years old. I’m teaching a bunch of kids who are only 10 years younger than me, like, “Yo, I don’t know anything.” Teaching made me reaffirm my personal politics. From week 2, I was teaching the difference between socialism, communism, and capitalism, and I told them straight up, “Look, I’m not the type of person where I can be in a teaching setting and be unbiased, but what I will do is address my bias, tell you why I’m biased, and help you hold yourself and critique your own views against mine.” Just critical thinking skills. I had to really be on top of my stuff and figure out why I believe what I do and then figure out the best method of teaching where my bias is still a learning experience, but it doesn’t alter their basic understanding of the concept. That was the hardest thing for me to do, but it also taught me a lot about myself and taught me how to get the essence of my beliefs into core fragments that I can disperse to my students, and I feel like that’s also just a good tool for the average person to have—to know exactly what you believe.
Yousef: What was it like for you to work on your city’s art council?
Gum: I was only able to go to 2 or 3 meetings because of quarantine, but it made me realize that there’s so much to be done in my town. It takes so much money; everything takes so much money and political power. I don’t really have either of those, but I do have a decent degree of expertise. It gave me an experience to where 10/15 years from now, I’ll be able to take what I experienced then and build on it. It taught me that there’s a lot of bureaucracy when it comes to making improvements to a city. It’s something that I already knew, of course, but to see it first hand, it’s like, “Damn, we have a lot of work to do before we can really start to change shit and get new programs and get new buildings.” It was easy for me as a young activist to say, “I want these changes to be made; I want this, this, and this,” but once you start doing it, it’s like, “Aw man, this is going to take forever dude.” There are so many people that are old and white and rich in charge, and you have these age-old tendencies that you can’t break and it sucks. It didn’t depress me at all; it made me realize, logistically, when I get older there are going to be a lot of obstacles in my way that I have to figure out how to navigate and it’s going to take a lot of political skills that I don’t yet have.
Yousef: The way that I originally found out about you was through talking to one of my friends, the External Music Director here at KCSB, about artists that value their music more than the traditional $20-40 for a standard 1LP/2LP album. Obviously there’s Mach-Hommy & R.A.P. Ferreira [milo], but there’s also you, who sells 24k gold CDs for $45 and 7-inch records for $40. What made you decide to take that approach when selling physicals?
Gum: Honestly, when you’re put in that position where you have to do things on your own, you start to have a vastly different approach to how you value your labor and how much money you think you should be earning from it. I didn’t even care about the standard rates for CDs or vinyl because it didn’t apply to me. Most people aren’t producing their own stuff, going to independent vinyl cutters locally and getting them to cut their stuff. I feel like I’ve had to take on a lot of responsibility, personally, in getting my stuff made. I make my own CDs. I do that shit at home. When you’ve been burning CDs for hours, and you’ve been waiting months for some random guy in the mountains to cut your vinyl for you, it makes you wonder, “Am I making enough money for this? Are my prices okay? Am I going to be able to live off this?” The answer has been “No” for so long that you get to the point where, “I’ve got to be able to live somehow off of this. My price has got to go up or else it’s not going to make me feel okay with myself.” Once I realized that, I was like, “Yeah, my price is going to be whatever I need it to be because I’ve got to make a living,” and I always make that my upfront statement. Yes, it’s going to cost this much. Yes, it’s going to take this long to produce; and that’s just how things are until I get more resources and, ideally, some sort of distribution deal. Until I get there, this is what it is and this is what it has to be. I think people appreciate that when you tell them upfront. If my CD is going to be $100, this is why. You can either take it or leave it, but either way, it’s going to be $100. There’s only so much I can do. As a living artist, what do you want from me? Do you want me to sell $5 CDs, 24k gold? I can’t do that, I’m sorry.
Yousef: You’re not pressing 5,000. You don’t have the price point to sell people a $20 LP.
Gum: Exactly. And it’s not because I don’t want to. If I could sell 24k gold CDs for $1 each, I would. I would give them away for free if I could, but since I can’t, it is what it is. Supply and demand. What can I do about it?
Yousef: This already goes into the next question, but I know that you’ve been selling CD box sets that you’ve been burning yourself at home, in a completely DIY fashion. What has that process taught you, as a fully-independent artist?
Gum: It makes you pick up a lot of skills, whether that be people skills, or just technical skills. This is also where my art background came in handy because I’m really good with my hands at making stuff. Having that experience, making vinyl lettering—I worked at a print shop before, and any kind of thing that you can think of that you can make with your hands, I feel like I’ve done it in some way, shape, or form. I have enough experience where I can recreate anything I see with my own two hands. That makes me feel very confident and powerful. When it comes to music stuff, it’s just like, how many skills can you pick up? How wide can you expand your skill tree? That’s what being an independent artist is all about. Case in point: when I was doing my Time Traveler vinyl, they emailed me, “Do you have a barcode for your UPC, or ISRC, codes for your tracks?” I was like, “What? A bar code? ISRC, UPC, what is that?” Luckily, the music distributor I use, they keep all my stuff on an online portal and I can go see it if I need it. It wasn’t an emergency, but I was like, “How do you make a barcode?” I had to Google, “Barcode generator for UPC codes” and I did a BS job on the barcodes, but it worked out fine. It’s little stuff like that that you never think of that you need to take into account. I had to sign a bunch of contracts to give them the rights to press my music, and since I had been using independent cutters for so long, this was the first time where I had to sign over the rights for them to press my vinyl for me. I didn’t even know that was a thing. You pick up a bunch of small things like that on your way that make it really worth it. When I’m sourcing my cases or my discs and stuff, I’m a nerd so I’m always looking out for new types of discs or new types of CDs or new types of cases that nobody’s using, and you start getting mad over really small stuff. The price of my cases went up by 20 cents a box and I was losing my mind. I was like, “20 cents! That’s like 5 extra dollars!” I was pissed. It’s a lot of little stuff that you end up navigating. That’s the hardest part and the most rewarding. Now, I have a bunch of behind-the-scenes experience so if I ever get to the point where I have to put the work on other people, then I understand fully what I’m asking them to do. It gives you such a perception of labor. Somebody was asking me, “Why don’t you start a record label; get some other artists and start a label yourself?” No. This is so much responsibility. Even for one person, I would never want my actions to affect another artist’s career when I’m not ready for it. That’s so much responsibility and pressure, and you’re affecting a whole other person’s livelihood. I’m not comfortable just saying on a whim, “I’m going to start a record label.” No, that’s a lot of responsibility. It makes you more appreciative when you ask others to do labor for you when you understand and experience doing it on your own and doing it for yourself.
Yousef: Can you talk a little bit about Gum Studio & how you were able to jumpstart your own website that you could use to sell merch and release music through, and essentially manage yourself?
Gum: It started out as just my name, my first and last name dot com. Once my music started getting a little more popular, I was like, “Aw man, I don’t want my real name everywhere.” I just changed it to Gum Studio. We’ll change it to dot computer because nobody has the dot computer URL extension these days. I thought that was pretty sick. At first it was just going to be a portfolio page, and I had all my design work and cover art and whatnot, and once I realized that Bandcamp takes 15% from your orders when you first start out—until you sell like $10,000 worth of merch, then they cut it down to 10%. Still, I was like, “10%, that’s a lot of bread.” So, I started selling my CDs and stuff and hazmat suits and all the other weird stuff that I started selling on my own webstore so I could cut out the middle man. I’m doing all of this over 5 or 10 bucks for each sale, but that shit adds up. I don’t want to keep paying those processing fees from Bandcamp. I figured, everything I don’t want to sell on Bandcamp, I can sell on my own store. It turned into my online resumé now. I do an archive of all my past events, an archive of anytime I appeared or written press, all my design work that I’ve done for all my music, and it has a webstore. It’s one-stop-shop for everything about me. I think it’s a pretty good tool to have, even though I feel like Twitter is the main way people know me or find out about me, mainly, but the website is a good way for, “If you want to know more about this guy, it has everything in one place.” It helps a lot, and since I don’t have a booking agent, I have to read all my emails individually. It’s hard because I put my email in my bio and I have 100 people sending me music, asking me to look at it. I’m like, “I can’t put you on! I don’t know what you expect me to do. I’m not even famous.” People send me beats, and I don’t use other people’s beats, I’m not comfortable. People think that because I put out one rap album that I’m a rap album, but I’m like, “No, I did that one time and I got lucky; I can’t do that again.” It’s hard creating boundaries online. It’s such a nuanced thing to do. Of course I’m open to being contacted by people, but it’s hard to separate personal and business boundaries online, because even if you’re really clear about it, sometimes people will overstep. They don’t have bad intentions, it’s just hard to have hardcore boundaries, so my website’s a way of mitigating that, where you can only contact me through the submission form if you’re really serious.
Yousef: I saw on Twitter that you’re a big fan of Deep Fantasy by Surfing. How do you think that vaporwave has had an influence on your style of music?
Gum: I think it’s so interesting, because on one hand, it’s so cringey. It can be this weird, techno-orientalist fetishy genre, but when you get good vaporwave, it’s like, “Aww, yes.” Everything you love about the internet, everything you love about chopped samples, it’s all in one place. You get this really nice group of electronic music. I think vaporwave bleeds into the Y2K trend that’s happening now, which I guess I’m kind of a part of. It’s more of a visual trend lately; I don’t even think it’s a trend. The people that are invested in Y2K aesthetics in the current contemporary moment are people who appreciate it as a mode of art-making, and not just a fad. We had this resurgence of a certain visual language with the Y2K stuff, and we have a similar resurgence in music with plunderphonics and vaporwave stuff, and that’s kind of where I fit in. I’m using similar methods of art-making when it comes to sound, using washed-over synths and analog synths, chopping samples and using Japanese pop samples and stuff like that. We all have the same tools, but the way we use them is definitely indebted to early-2000s stuff and mid-2000s stuff. You can see that in both the visual design and the sound. Vaporwave is cool! I don’t care what anybody says; it’s cringey, it’s corny, but sometimes it’s pretty cool and I really like it.
Yousef: I was just listening to Deep Fantasy the other day, and I was like, “Holy shit.”
Gum: It’s so good! Deep Fantasy is so good. Sometimes I’ll open Ableton and I’ll be like, “I need to make something like ‘Moonlight’ right now and if I don’t, I’m going to die.” I cannot do it. It’s too good.
Yousef: Speaking of Twitter, you stay quite connected with your fan base through social media and livestreaming on Twitch. Why do you think it’s so important to maintain a relationship with your listeners?
Gum: Those are the people that are giving you money. I don’t want to boil it down to, “I want to be nice to people who give me money,” but sometimes that is what it comes down to. If you want to be successful, you have to engage with the people you care about, and I do care about my community and I care about my fans. I care about them outside of music. I want to establish a community that I can uplift whether I’m making music or not. Even if I’m not twitch streaming, and even if I’m not making music anymore, I would still be doing things that would enrich my community. That comes down to education stuff, sharing resources, and sharing money. That’s pretty much the only thing the average person can do, unless you’re in a place of political power. You can only do so much, but what you can do, you should do. If I can provide joy by streaming on Twitch, and I have the time and energy to do it, then I’ll do it; if I have the time and energy to make music, then I’ll do it; if I have the time and energy to share resources to read articles and write articles, then I’ll do it. That’s really what it all comes down to. In college, I was super social, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m much more of a homebody. It’s always funny when people are like, “How come you’re not famous?” I don’t have much starpower; I’m awkward. This shit makes me anxious, everything makes me anxious. I’m always nervous. I’m not the type of guy to go up and randomly talk to people; I’m a pretty reserved person, except online on Twitter, and that doesn’t really count, that’s not real interaction. In person, I’m so different, I’m so reserved, and I’m perfectly okay with that. I’ve been able to engage with my community so well because that’s one boundary I’ve been able to set; my social boundaries online are really good. I don’t get in no drama, I don’t really care about much of the stuff that goes down on the TL, I’m kind of in my own lane, I stay in my own lane, and I like being in my own lane, hanging out with the people who just so happen to be in the same lane as me. It’s chill; I just like chilling; I don’t want to do anything that’s not chilling.
Yousef: In that respect, how do you decide that you want to work with someone and that they’re a good fit for your music?
Gum: It’s hard because I really don’t like working with people. It’s not because of anything they do, it’s just I think I’m a hard person to work with. Even though I don’t think anybody that I’ve worked with would say that, it’s because I don’t communicate that way. In my head, I’ll think through a hundred reasons why this probably won’t work out, and I’m like, “Nah, I don’t got any beats.” If somebody asks if I’ve got any beats, I’m like, “Nah,” even though I know damn well that I’ve got 20 beats. In my head, “Nah, I don’t really think this is going to work out.” It’s tricky because when I make music, I don’t make music envisioning another person on the track. The only time I’ve ever done that was when I made Malware. It’s because I know I’m going to get Chris [ICEDOUTOMNITRIX] on a track, I know I’m going to get Vision[4k] on a track, and I know I’m going to get my homie Justin [JOON] on a track. Once I had that set in stone in my mind, those were the only 3 times I sat down and actually made a beat with someone else in mind. On a day-to-day basis, even though I want to work with Earl [Sweatshirt] so bad, but I’ve never sat down and been like, “I’m going to make this beat for Earl.” Even when people pay me to make beats for them, I’m still never thinking—it sounds kind of douchey to say out loud, I’m never really thinking of the person I’m making the beat for. It’s all like, if I can tick off all their criteria, fine, but the rest of it is going to be all me. That’s what gives it so much character though. I’ve never tried to do any sound that’s not me. At the end of the day, I’m the one that’s going to make it and I’m the one that has to attach my name to it. When I think of that level of responsibility, it just makes it hard for me to reach out to people and collaborate; except when I get excited about doing remixes. Remixes don’t count because those songs already exist and I can put my own spin on it, but when it comes to real deal collaborating, in my head I’m thinking, this is going to stand the test of time whether I like it or not. If it’s good, it’ll be modded and celebrated forever, and if it’s bad then it’s going to suck and it’s going to be remembered for that reason, or at some point in our future, we’re going to have to say, “Aw, that song kind of sucked,” and I want to avoid that if at all possible. Collaborations are a lot of responsibility. I’ll get over it once I get older and I’ve been a musician for longer, but I’m such a beginner. I have that beginner’s pride where it’s like, “Everything’s mine and I’m doing it on my own.” At my core, I’m a perfectionist, and I don’t want to put my perfectionist pressure onto anyone else. Even when me and Chris did our McFly EP, that was so natural, but it’s because I knew him already. In my head, I already knew what he was going to do already, so I didn’t have to say anything. I just had to send the beats, get them back, mix and master. That simple; boom. In my head, it didn’t really feel like a collaboration because it’s not like we were in the studio together making it together. “I’m going to send you these crazy beats, you’re going to do your little crazy thing over it, and we’re going to have a crazy EP,” and that was it. When I think of true collaboration, I think of being in a shared space and sharing ideas back and forth. In terms of energy, it’s such a taxing activity. Even when I’m with my friends, sharing ideas is not easy. Articulating yourself and trying to articulate what you want from somebody else is a delicate process and it’s really hard to do because of the limits of language. I tend to stay away from it whenever I can. It’s so hard; it’s so difficult, but it’s something that you get better at as you become a better musician, and it’s part of the learning process. I just need to learn to be a better collaborator.
Yousef: I know you just mentioned Chris, but in terms of him [ICEDOUTOMNITRIX], how did that relationship develop?
Gum: It’s funny thinking back because I don’t really know when we became mutuals. We became mutuals on my old account before I got suspended. He started making music before me, but I started doing music seriously first, and I saw him posting the new stuff he was making on Twitter, and I was like, “Okay, Chris!” he was doing it for fun and I was like, “I’ve got to get him on some of my beats first. I want to be the first person to do a full project with Chris. I want to be the first one to get him on some beats.” He put 2 of his singles on Spotify, and I was like, “Yo, I’m going to send you a bunch of beats and let’s just do a thing,” and it just happened. It happened in the span of 2 or 3 weeks. I sent him one beat and then he finished it the next day; I sent him another beat, and he finished it in the next 2 days; I was like, “Okay, I’m going to send you 4 more, and whenever you finish them, just send them back.” We ended up with an EP and it was that simple. It was the same thing that happened with me and Rx Nephew. I did not expect to make 3 songs with him. I woke up one day; my friend told me he was doing $50 verses, and I was like, “Okay, let’s do 3 songs with Rx Nephew,” and it ended up on Pitchfork. I was like, “Ah, that’s crazy.” It’s the shit that like that you don’t really expect to happen, and it happens naturally and it feels really good. Working with Chris was on a whim, we’re homies, it’s just sending beats to homies, and things worked out really nicely.
Yousef: How did your last account get suspended?
Gum: I got suspended for being mean to Bernie Sanders. It’s because he said something and it was something where he was speaking on a situation where a black woman or a black person was a victim of police brutality, and he said something snarky. Somebody asked him, “What would you tell your child on avoiding police brutality?” “I would just tell them to follow directions so they don’t get…”—I don’t know, I can’t remember what he said, but he said something that I felt was insensitive about how you should respond to a police officer when you’re at risk of violence from the officer that I did not like. I said something stupid and then I got suspended.
Yousef: It’s not really his place to even say that.
Gum: And that’s how I felt. I don’t dislike Bernie Sanders, but I don’t like him either. I don’t like any politician. It was just funny. It’s funny to tell people and they’re like, “Oh, so you hate Bernie Sanders?” so they’re like, “Who’d you vote for?” and I’m like, “Woah brother, let’s not. First off, I didn’t vote.” It was just stupid Twitter shit. It happens.
Yousef: How does it feel to be a black house artist right now, thinking about the gentrification of the genre over the past few decades with predominantly white, Europeans artists breaking through?
Gum: I feel good, but at the same time, I find myself upset a lot. Not necessarily upset with an individual, but more so like, “Yo, there are so many white people making mediocre house music and there are so many black people making really good house music.” What is the disconnect? What is going on? It comes down to, how do black people make money from this? We’re the ones who started it; how do we get back to the position of being in control of the genre? When I say that, I don’t mean how do we gatekeep it from other people, but there’s a certain amount of Amish dudes. When I see Mixmag posting their “Best New Mixes” and “Best New Song” and it’s a bunch of white guys, I feel kind of snubbed. Maybe it’s egotistical of me to say this, but I feel like I’m not getting my due credit, me and my peers. I feel like me and my peers are not getting our due credit, and that’s what upsets me the most. I know we’re doing some real cutting-edge house music and I know that for a fact, so it’s frustrating. It’s the classic underground musician scenario: how do I maintain my underground integrity? We have to make a living out of this, we have to get paid regardless. How do we get society at large to love black house music again? When I think about it, it’s going to be a decade long struggle. We’re going to have to wait for the music trends to cycle back around, and we have to maintain our underground presence and maintain our community presence, and it’s a lot of work to do, but it’s not a hopeless amount of work. It’s a hopeful amount of work; it’s work that you want to do. Being black and making house music right now is definitely important. This is a time where we can have this resurgence in this black genre that can also happen for other black genres. I want to see the same thing happen to jazz. Jazz has, throughout time, been run through the mud; they threw jazz under the bus, even to the point where black people have this perspective of jazz being something that’s either like, one – for old people or for old white people. No! Jazz is cool; jazz bands are sick. How do we rebrand jazz to be the hip, young black thing because jazz is sick. I feel the same way about techno and house. Everybody’s like that’s the weird white people who do drugs in Germany; I’m like, “Okay, that’s part of it.” Detroit is literally right there. It’s this big reeducation process, reappreciation process, and it’s how you kickstart that. What’s my role in the kickstarting of the resurgence of house music? It’s fun to see how it all pans out though, because part of me knows it’s going to cross back over into pop. I’m okay with that. I hate pop music, but it’s not going to stop me from appreciating what pop music is on a social level. Even if I dislike it as a cog in the industry, pop music brings a lot of people happiness. I would love to see black house music have that same kind of power in the industry; I think that’s what’s lacking. It all comes down to that. It’s a power dynamic thing; it’s always a power dynamic thing. It feels so crazy to figure out how we can cause this shift of power to where we’re the ones controlling the narrative of house music; that’s what it really comes down to. It’s not just about making the money no more or the recognition; as a black person, I want to be part of the group of people that control the narrative of house music and how it’s perceived, both now and throughout the rest of time. That’s a responsibility I want to be a part of, and have my peers be a part of as well. We’ll see how things unfold.
Yousef: It’s happening. Your last few projects have taken more of a route of repurposing and refamiliarizing your fans with disco music and its roots in black culture. Do you think of your art as being educational in that sense?
Gum: I never thought about it like that, but I sure hope so. I hope somewhere, a young 14/16-year-old black kid is learning about disco music because of me. If so, that would be crazy. You’re right though; that’s something I never really noticed for myself until recently. I’ve been learning a lot from the old masters lately. I’m listening to a lot of jazz and a lot of blues and funk. It all comes back to, how can I make this a dance track? Everything I hear, I’m like, “How can I make this a dance track?” I’ve been playing around with the blues minor scales lately when I’m building tracks, and I’m like, “Yo, this is kind of crazy. Blues and funk is kind of crazy.” Once you strip away the guitar and just have the keys and drums left – the good folk funk music from the 60s. Once you take away the guitar, because the guitar is kind of twangy, it has that blues-folk sound, and once you take that out and you just have the keys and the drums, it’s just 2 or 3 steps away from contemporary jazz, and jazz is only a couple simplifications away from being deep house music. Once I start thinking of it like that, there’s a world of language between funk and jazz and deep house. Being able to navigate that as a producer, if I’m able to do that successfully, hopefully that will be an educational experience. You realize so much about black history through the roots of the music. When I look at how the scales have been treated throughout time by black musicians and the narratives that they were trying to tell through their music and how that formed the way that they engage with the basic tools of music-making—it’s so hard to articulate, but everything just clicks. When I think about how jazz was created, and how funk and blues was created and the traditions of black oration and storytelling and how the music accompanies that storytelling and becomes really abstract—you take away the words and it becomes really abstract, and then you get jazz and you simplify the jazz and then you get the deep house—it’s so crazy! It’s so connected. Realizing those connections and building on those connections is a way we can make our music both more complicated – but it doesn’t even have to be more complicated, just more connected. Once we move post-genre, post-genre black music is going to be so crazy and I can’t wait to see… what I would want from my career would be for someone from the younger generation, like a 13 or 14 year-old black kid, to grow up and start making weird pop music and be like, “I learned about disco because I was listening to Dirty Bird.” That would make me so happy.
Yousef: To see your influence, and to be able to pull from it and create something completely new.
Gum: Exactly. Which would be funny, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know anything about music on a theory level. I’m still a beginner; I just started learning the piano 2 weeks ago. To see that this is my strength as a beginner is—I have so much to learn, and once I learn more, I can teach others more effectively. I hope someone out there is learning from my music, because I’m learning while I’m making it.
Yousef: You took down all of your pre-Sounds of Life music from streaming services a few weeks ago. What was your intention behind that?
Gum: I think it all sucks now. It wasn’t anything special, I just didn’t like it anymore. When I think about how I want people to engage with my discography for the first time, I don’t think I would want it to start with A/V Club. Even though that was my first album, I think controlling how people engage with my music for the first time is important to me. If that means I have to limit what they access first, then so be it. It just comes down to the narrative. I want to be able to control my own narrative when it comes to how my music is being received. What I don’t want to happen is for somebody to—imagine they go on my Spotify profile and the first thing they listen to is A/V Club, like, “No, no, no. You can’t fully appreciate that until you’ve heard the new stuff. You’ve got to hear the best stuff first, and then you can see how he was learning over time.” I’m a control freak; I want to be able to control as much as I can in how people engage with my music. If that means taking down all my old shit, then so be it. I don’t want you to hear all the bad stuff first; you’ve got to hear the good stuff.
Yousef: There was some good stuff though like, “I Love My Girlfriend.” I was sad when I saw that [was taken down].
Gum: It’s funny because what I’m struggling with now is that I feel like all my old music has so much character, and you know why? It’s because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Now I’ve gotten to the part where I kind of know what I’m doing, so when I open Ableton, I have a schematic in my head for how I want to make a song, but when I didn’t have that, I was just doing whatever I wanted to. Now, I’m at a point where – there’s the thing where it’s like, “The man who thinks he knows everything knows nothing.” I think I know something now, but it’s put me into a place where I’ve created a box for myself, whereas previously I didn’t have a box. Now, it’s like, I need to figure out how to take the box off again. I need to figure out how to get out of the genre cage that I put myself in for some reason. It’s fun. It’s been a fun thing to learn and unlearn and teach myself something new. I feel like with my old music, I learned so much and there’s so much I have to learn. I have to learn music theory if I want to get better, so that’s why I’m doing it now. Some days, I wake up and listen to my old stuff, and I’m like, “This is not quite as good as what I’m doing now, but if I took the skills that I have now and remade those songs, it would be so much better.” It’s fun learning from my old music. It’s still teaching me stuff; it’s valuable.
Yousef: Have you ever thought about making the complete transition to becoming a musician who solely sells their work on Bandcamp and their own website?
Gum: Yes. That’s something I’m also navigating with my next project. I want stuff to be on streaming just for access, for new listeners. I do realize that streaming does have a big impact on the discovery of new artists, but at the same time, I feel like I’m at a part in my life where I can be okay without it. If I will do it, I’ll be okay, but at the same time, I do realize the advantages of streaming. It’s hard because I want to be able to make enough money to live. Streaming sucks. I figure I’ll do a couple vinyl or CD-only releases, and after they’ve been out for a while, I’ll throw them on streaming. It doesn’t hurt to have stuff on streaming, it’s just annoying to know that you’re not making as much money off it as you could. As long as you’re being upfront with your audience about why you’re doing what you’re doing, it won’t matter. If I say, “I’m going to do this on vinyl only or CD-only, but it’ll be on streaming later, and the reason I’m doing this is because I’m not going to get paid unless I do it this way.” Having that clear communication makes it so that the media you choose to release your music on doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re controlling what your audience expects from you, it doesn’t really matter how you put out your music.
Yousef: There are so many different approaches. Some people do a standard LP, they’ll do a collector’s edition where the vinyl is colored and that’s at a different price point, and it’s also on streaming so there are levels to how much you want to support the artist too.
Gum: Exactly. It’s so funny when people argue on Twitter when you’re a beginning artist. Should you just put out a single and then an album, or should you put out an album first? I’m like, “Yo, *whispers* nobody cares. Nobody gives a fuck.” Just do what you want to choose. Establish your expectations from your audience at the beginning, and then it won’t matter later. Everybody knows I put out music when I feel like it., so nobody expects me to put out an album once a month or once every 3 months or once a year. Nobody really expects anything from me because they expect me to do what I want to do. Once you establish that, it doesn’t really matter what you do anymore. I feel like I have this kind of privilege because I don’t have a huge audience; I have this cult following where I control my boundaries and my engagement with my music and my audience to a really fine level. Once you start getting up to 500,000 monthly listeners, that kind of becomes out of your reach. You can’t really control how people engage with the music. That’s going to be so crazy. I don’t know how to navigate that if I get more popular. It’s a bridge you cross when you see it.
Yousef: Something that I found to be quite interesting about you is that you’re a crate digger, buying lots of vinyl from Ebay, utilizing Discogs to grab some 12” singles, using obscure albums to chop up and sample for your projects and livestreams. How has crate digging helped you grow as an artist?
Gum: It’s exposed me to so much music that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. When I think of how long streaming has been around and how long online music, as a thing has been around—analog has been around way longer. There’s so many bands that put out music on vinyl and never became popular, so now there’s hundreds of these vinyl records just lying around and no one’s listening to. When I think of that, there must be this endless amount of music that I haven’t heard from these average people who were able to throw out their one song on vinyl this one time, and it was never a hit. When I think about finding music like that, it makes it really fun. It adds a different appreciation to it when you know it wasn’t a widespread release or it wasn’t super popular. Not from a hipster standpoint where it’s, “I listen to music that nobody’s listened to before.” That’s part of it too, that’s fun too, but to be able to appreciate another person’s effort throughout time in that way, through vinyl, that’s where I get the joy from—knowing that in 1999, these 2 black guys put out this weird-ass dance record, and even though it’s not on streaming no more, here I am playing it again in my house. It’s the cycle and the narrative. We appreciate and have listened to music throughout time, vinyl was one of the best ways to do that. We have access to all these limited releases and not so popular releases that allow you to appreciate another person’s work throughout time, in a way that’s not just—you can’t really get that same effect on streaming. For someone to have ended up on streaming, that means it has to have passed hands through somebody with enough power to do that. When I was first learning how to music out through streaming, I was like, “Damn, there’s lowkey a lot of hoops you’ve got to jump through to get your music on streaming.” When I think of all the people who didn’t have that kind of energy and support to make that kind of music and were pressing it on wax or burning bootleg CDs, there’s so much music. There’s so much music that didn’t pass through the power hands to get to the masses. It’s cool to see the efforts of people who weren’t superstars and learning through their work.
Yousef: As a collector myself, what’s your favorite record in your collection?
Gum: Noooo, I don’t know. My favorite record, fuck. I’m going to trim it down to 5, maybe. Actually that’s a lie, I’m going to trim it down to like 20. 1 through 12 would probably be every Moodymann vinyl that I have. I love all of the Moodymann projects equally; all are my precious treasures. Out of those first 12, Black Mahogany is #1. I think that is my favorite record. That’s my favorite album; the record is beautiful. The release had 3 or 4 different B-sides on the last record, so it’s a 4-disc pack, and on the 4th disc, there’s versions of it with different B-sides. Once I found that out, I was like, “That’s so cool.” Black Mahogany, and then there’s the rest of my Moodymann records, and I have an original pressing of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and it’s stamped by some rich guy who lives in New York. I looked him up and I couldn’t find much about him, but I found his family was super rich. First pressing of Electric Ladyland and then probably Some Rap Songs. The album means a lot to me, so to have it on wax is, for me, that same feeling of having your grandpa show you his favorite record. I can’t wait to do that 40 years from now. Even though the album is still going to be on streaming probably, or whatever system we use to listen to music in 40 years, but the fact that I can still do what all the oldheads do and pull out SRS on vinyl and put it on a turntable and be like, “This is what music is”—the fact that I can do that is a big source of joy for me. So yeah, Black Mahogany, the rest of the Moodymann catalog, Electric Ladyland, and SRS. Those are my favorite records.
Yousef: That completely resonates with me because I picked up recently, Back From the Dead 2 by Chief Keef, and I’m dreaming of just showing my kids and being like, “Come here and check out ‘Faneto.’”
Gum: I would probably cry, dude. I have DJ Screw, All Screwed Up, on vinyl too and I’ve been thinking the same thing. It’s genres of music you wouldn’t expect people to play on vinyl, but it’s so funny. Imagine you throw on some wax and it’s Back From the Dead 2. It’s so funny, but I totally get it.
Yousef: It’s an essential. Can you walk me through the genesis of Time Traveler, since it’s a completely distinct album in your discography, especially with its incorporation of 2000s-era electronica and its reimagination of disco-house music?
Gum: Time Traveler was fun. The practice albums were Brainworks and Malware, which I was practicing incorporating a narrative into my music. Time Traveler was the time where I was finally able to make the narrative obvious and make it consistent and coherent throughout the whole album. It was also my first true concept album, where the concept behind it is evident in the music. For Brainworks and Malware, those are both concept albums to me, but because I didn’t make the narrative known to my audience, it doesn’t really quite count if both parties aren’t aware that it’s a concept album. With Time Traveler, people are aware and I’m also aware of what I’m doing, so this is cemented to me as a concept album. I wanted to show the progression of black music from the 70s until the 2070s, in my head. It’s funny because the way I made it—honestly, if I could go back, I would trim probably 2 or 3 songs. I would make it 2 or 3 songs shorter because I feel like it’s such a long album and it’s hard to hold people’s attention with electronic music for that long, unless it’s a masterpiece. I know that Time Traveler’s not a masterpiece, but I still like it. If I trimmed it a couple songs, it would have been a masterpiece. The tracklist was originally 8 or 9 songs, and it was mostly from the first half of the album, so everything up until “Captain’s Log” and then I had 2 or 3 songs that didn’t end up making the cut. The tone of the albums was so different because it was mostly disco-house and it was mid-2000s electronica stuff, and once I finished “Captain’s Log” and a couple of other songs, I was like, “Let’s just make this a whole experience. Let’s do a music video, let’s do CDs, let’s do wax, let’s do everything that I could possibly think of doing with the album.” Time Traveler is definitely the album with the most merch, the most collaborators, the most songs, the most everything; it’s like my deluxe album. Time Traveler’s crazy. It’s funny because I didn’t anticipate it being such a big deal in my discography, actually no, that’s a lie. I thought Time Traveler was going to be my pop album; the one where when you think of my name, you think of Time Traveler. I feel like that would be impossible for me to do because I have so much music. I don’t think I’ll ever have an album where when you think of me, you’ll think of that album because I’ll just have too many. It was fun. The music video is still in the process, but that should be coming out soon. Once that comes out, then the narrative will make even more sense. It’s kind of loose right now, where you kind of feel the narrative, you feel the time shifting with the music, but with the music video, it’s character-driven. It makes the album itself more character-driven when you have somebody to follow throughout the narrative. Right now, when you listen to it, it’s not like you’re following a character per se, but you’re experiencing a shift throughout time as you’re listening to the music, which is cool in its own way. Once the music video comes out and it becomes more character-driven, I feel like then it’ll bring the album back to the forefront of my audience’s mind again and everything will click into place. I’m excited; Time Traveler’s fun. I feel like I could have done better in certain areas, but tracks like “Felt So Good”—“Felt So Good” is crazy.
Yousef: That one is so good. That’s probably my favorite song of yours. It’s amazing.
Gum: Thank you, thank you. That’s the power of disco-house, man. Someone was telling me that they were playing the song and they were trying to Shazam it and they couldn’t get the sample. I was like, “Perfect. That’s so perfect. That’s how I know that I’ve done my job, because the song itself is from 1978, it’s called, “Dance Turned Into a Romance,” but I forget who the artist is. It’s a group of women singers [The Jones Girls]. The song itself is not a classic disco song, but it was fun to remix. “Felt So Good” is crazy. “Captain’s Log” is crazy. “Watchu Need” is crazy—a sexy, crazy, techno song; no one is doing crazy, sexy techno anymore, so I had to do that for the one time and that was fun. I got a bunch of homies to co-produce. I got Daze[gxd] on the last track, I got Harrison and Coldwaterchris on “Gum’s Groove.” “Gum’s Groove” is crazy; I’m so proud of that song because I was so happy to be able to get my friends that are able to play instruments on a song. My contribution was the drums; I did all the drum programming which was cool. It was cool to feel like I was in a band for the first time, playing with all my homies, my homies playing all their instruments, doing their little things, I’m pressing buttons on the drum machine. It felt good. Time Traveler was fun and it was a big learning experience; I learned a lot about my process, and hopefully when the music video comes out, everybody will be excited about it again and will listen to Time Traveler one more time.
Yousef: In regards to Neurogenesis, what pushed you to release a sequel to Brainworks?
Gum: It just made sense, because the music that I was making at the time was just so—when I made “Mizu,” I think “Mizu” was the first track off Neurogenesis that I had made. After I had made that, I was like, “This song is crazy.” No, that’s a lie. I made “Cartz 2” first; after I finished “Cartz 2,” I was like, “Yo, this is crazy.” What made me realize that it was going to be a sequel to Brainworks was that it gave me the same feeling of my brain fucking exploding, and I was like, “You know what? You know what other album of mine did this? Brainworks. This has to be the sequel.” What links them together for me is the last track on Brainworks, “Untitled,” because it has no drums, it’s just a weird loop, a weird sample, but it makes my brain active in that same way. I want to make something that has that same feeling, but just execute it better. Some of the tracks on Brainworks that were really sample-heavy like “New Drug” and “It Doesn’t Matter,” they’re good songs but the arrangement could have been more exciting. It’s crazy because when you have songs that loop forever, on one hand, you love it because you can just sit there and loop for as long as you want to and it’s great, but on the other hand, if I change the arrangement maybe it can be more exciting. The reason it’s a good song is because it’s not exciting, so you get that conflict. It’s hard to decide between making a good, relaxed song or a good, exciting, arrangement song. With Neurogenesis, I wanted to get better at arranging house music to make it more engaging. I think I did a good job; it’s just cool. It’s a good sequel to a good album.
Yousef: It’s like an upbeat version of the more downtempo Brainworks.
Gum: Exactly. It’s just a little bit more active, a little bit more exciting, whereas Brainworks is definitely a lot more chill. Brainworks is like being in one of those sensory-deprivation tanks, whereas Neurogenesis is like getting an MRI scan and it goes wrong.
Yousef: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment so far?
Gum: Probably the NTS mix. The NTS mix is just something I wanted for so long, and to finally be able to do it. Ugh, it’s hard. The NTS mix and my BLOCK FM Japan mix, those 2 are probably my biggest achievements because they’re international in scale, and they’re both things that I really wanted to do since I first started making music. I love NTS, I wanted to do an NTS mix so bad, and to finally be given the chance to do one as a guest on somebody’s show was a dream come true. Then, I followed it up with the BLOCK FM mix. I was just like, “Aw man, life is so good. I’m playing at a radio station in Japan. I’m playing all the weird house music, and it felt so good.” I think those two, because to be recognized on an international scale as some random kid from North Carolina is just like—to be able to tell other young black kids that I was appreciated internationally for my personal appreciation of house music, to be able to do that on an international scale, what more could you ask for? Those two definitely.
Yousef: Who have you found to be your greatest inspiration, both artistically & personally?
Gum: All of the digicore kids. [Os]quinn, Dolly, Daze[gxd], [Jodie] Raegun, Eric[doa], Glaive—the kids are so good, dude. All of the young kids are so good. They make you keep grinding. I see the stuff they’re doing and they’re so talented and they have their sound, not simplified, but they’ve gotten to the core of the essence of their music really quickly. That’s something that usually takes years to develop, whereas they hopped right out the gate, “This is what my sound sounds like. This is what my brand’s going to look like,” and it’s all really articulate from the jump. I’m like, “Damn, that’s pretty commendable.” To see them grow on the world stage, because they all have 10x as many monthly listeners as me, so to see them, I’m like, “Y’all are growing on a nationwide scale.” To have all these people witness you get better over time, it’s pretty cool. It inspires me to keep grinding and to keep doing my little weird thing. Especially when they reach out to me like, “Yo, I love your music.” I’m like, “Really?” It’s funny when your little homies are doing better than you and they’re like, “I love your music!” I’m like, “I appreciate that man.” It feels good to know—I feel like I’m so in my own lane sometimes, so I don’t really know how people from other lanes view my music because I don’t really listen to that much new music either. I’m always listening to 80s and 90s stuff, I’m always listening to records or looking for old music to play on-stream. I never really get the chance to sit down and actually listen to new music that’s coming out. So to know that new artists who are personal to the scene are also listening to my music makes me feel really cool. It makes me want to keep working hard and to keep growing together. I always tell people that. When they’re like, “I love your music,” I’m like, “Let’s keep growing together.” It feels good to be a part of a movement in the larger music community where young people are doing their best and getting better. It feels good.
Yousef: What are you hoping to accomplish within the next 5 years?
Gum: In the next 5 years, I want to make a real jazz album. A real, real deal jazz album with a band. I might stop making music after that. That would be my peak. If I could put a band together and really execute all the ideas I have when it comes to composition, I would probably cry afterwards. That would be perfect; I couldn’t ask for more than that. To put together a real deal quartet and just record a timeless piece of music, that’s my goal for the next 5 years, maybe even the next 10 years. That’s a life goal for me, to make a jazz album. It means so much to me, when I think of the genealogy of my understanding of music, it all comes back to jazz. I have to make a jazz album. When I think about the black experience, or even politically, it all comes back to jazz. I want to put a band together and really execute and flex my knowledge. I want to accumulate my knowledge first and then put together my little band and do my thing and that would be a big dream come true.
Yousef: I love jazz; it’s probably one of my top 3 genres. No matter what, you always find your way back to jazz. And after listening to your latest project, Neurogenesis, what do you hope for people to know about Dirty Bird?
Gum: I want them to know that I’m a student first. Not even a student of music, of everything. I love picking up new skills, I love learning in general. I think that’s what I want everyone to know about me. I’m a student first, I’m always open to getting better and learning new things, and that’s a driving force for me, both politically and individually and musically. I just want to get better and help other people get better and improve the general quality of life. It can be as abstract or succinct as you want it to, when it comes to getting better. I want everything to get better. I want to learn more, to understand more, and I think for music, I’ve been able to do that in a way that I didn’t expect. Not only am I learning stuff musically, but I’m learning stuff about how to manage myself, how to manage my relationship to my own labor, how to manage my relationship with other people, how to navigate my day-to-day emotions. I’ve been able to learn so much, and I want to keep being able to do that and being able to make good work alongside that. I treat all my releases as a checkpoint, and I’m always learning and I’m always getting better. This just so happens to be the thing I produce at this moment, and it’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned since all my other albums. It’s always a building block and I’m always learning and hopefully I always get better. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I release something and it’s not as good as the thing I released previously. I think everything that I’ve released is better than what I’ve produced previously, in my opinion.
Yousef: That’s the only opinion that matters. You’re not trying to impress anybody. You’re putting your art out there and people are going to appreciate it.
Gum: Exactly. I just hope I always feel like that. I hope I always continue to always get better, and I’m always in the process of learning.
Interview conducted by Yousef Srour.