At 15 years of age, Hudson Mohawke (performing under the name DJ Itchy) became the youngest ever finalist in the UK DMC DJ Championships, which is basically the Big Show for British turntablists. A year later, Ross Birchard — the Glaswegian musician behind the stage name — was already bored of competitive DJing. That's when he started composing his own songs.
Hudson Mohawke has always seemed like a bit of a natural: an omnivorous appetite and encyclopedic mind for sound, who's unafraid of ambitious compositions. His aesthetic is rooted as deeply in '70s prog jazz as boom bap, UK electronica or glitch hop. He's a visionary songwriter, raised on the old-school art of crate-digging — a grace that's served him in any of his endeavours, be it his composerly HudMo releases, his acclaimed work as half of TNGHT, or his tenure as Kanye's in-house producer.
We caught HudMo in London, shortly after the release of Lantern, resting up following some days on the road, and ready to indulge us in a little reflection. We asked: after all that time studying music, all of the hours spent programming, after all of the vinyl he's sliced, all of the recording sessions he's been part of, which albums are absolutely essential to Hudson Mohawke?
Where did music-making begin for you?
Hudson Mohawke: Before I started making music, I was DJing. And I’m glad that I did that at a young age. I was doing that competitive battle style of DJing. It’s not necessarily all that creative, it’s more about the competitive aspect, which is appealing when you’re young. I got bored of that by the age of 16 or 17 and I started making my own music.
Did you come from a musical family? I know there’s a video out there of your dad, who won a contest for some rap song in the mid-80s.
He was a radio host in Scotland, but he’s originally from L.A. Particularly for the mid-'80s, he had a niche slot on that station. He was able to keep that for quite a while. There aren’t that many American people in Scotland. My mother is a drama school teacher and two of my sisters are art teachers. It’s not necessarily a musical background, but definitely based in the arts.
When did you get involved in that competitive scratching scene? Why did that seem appealing at a very young age?
It became appealing because the first music that really caught my attention was rave music, and a lot of that came from records that were essentially scratched records sampled on 45 rpm instead of 33. A lot of that genre was based on sped up samples. I always wondered where the sounds came from. I randomly spotted a DMC video one day. It was playing in a store. I sort of made the connection, “oh, all the samples I’m know from those rave songs and these are the original pop records they came from.” It went from listening to a lot of rave music, straight into the competitive aspect of it.
It seems striking to me that you’ve become a big influence on American hip-hop. Was DMC your entry into that world? Were you always plugged in?
DMC was certainly my introduction to hip-hop as a whole. But as far as making anybody aware of me stateside or North America-wise, that really only happened once we started the TNGHT project which was relatively recently. That was me learning hip-hop and rap culture in general. I had no context. I didn’t know anything about that scene before.
All of that time you spent scratching and manipulating these little sounds, do you think that transfers to the music you make now?
I never really made that connection for a long time, but the way that particular samples are chopped relates to the way I’d instinctively do it if I were scratching them or something. I won’t necessarily know it when I’m programming them, but listening back, it’s exactly the way I’d scratch them. That was a revelation for me: how much it’d rubbed off on the production side.
There are two noises on every HudMo release that I can think of: one is the little girl —which is one of your sisters, I believe— saying “Hudson Mohawke” and the other is that “ahhhhhhh” singing sound. What’s the story with those?
There’s myself and a sister who’s a year younger than me and we have two sisters who are a decade younger than us. At the point when I was first doing that, I would have been in my late teens and they would have been 7, 8, or 9, something like that. I would get them to sing. “Could I just record for 10 seconds?” I’ve ended up using those same sounds. It’s a signature.
How do you feel that what you do has changed from Butter to Lantern?
I was having a conversation with another journalist at the Montreal Jazz Festival and we were talking about how usually its an artist’s second record which brings more pressure. I feel like it’s been the opposite. The first record was much more challenging for me. Lantern is something I’ve been able to put all of my effort and thought behind, rather than Butter, which was essentially cobbled together from things I had laying around. I wasn’t trying to make an album, it was more a mixtape. Lantern was a considered whole.
Yeah. I think part of it is about showing people who just discovered me off the back of TNGHT that there are records before that and a wider palette of musical influences versus just making “trap bangers.” It was about displaying those broader sensibilities. I think some people who were expecting a straight up hip-hop record were taken by surprise. I mean, I had Antony involved. A lot of the vocalists are not really involved in the rap world at all.
Tell me about choosing your collaborators. Did you start with a wish list?
I always have a wish list. It’s not something I’ll ever release — until maybe I do the collaboration. But Antony and Miguel, in fact, everyone on the record, is someone I’ve had on my bucket list of collaborators. Not necessarily because they’re huge names, but because they’re artists that I respect.
At the time I was making the record, Antony was looking to change direction musically as well. It worked out that we made an entire album together. I never expected to be in a circumstance where I could work alongside him. It wasn’t that this song is for your record and this is for my record, it was just a week or two of "let’s make some music and see what happens."
Hudson Mohawke's Essential Albums
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalypse (1974)
Hudson Mohawke: I always mention this record. It’s maybe ’74. I bought it from a charity shop knowing nothing about it, during the period when I’d buy records for, like, how the sleeves looked. It had some stupid psychedelic-looking sleeve. It was $3 or something. "I’ll buy it. Fuck it." And as much as jazz fusion might have a negative connotation for being noodley, it’s the first time I heard a lot of really talented musicians from different backgrounds, who were at the top of their games, playing together as a joint ensemble. To have Billy Cobham, Jean-Luc Ponty, to have them all playing together on one record which goes from brooding, over-the-top jazz into opera into crazy guitar solos — that’s what really drew me to it.
Common, Like Water for Chocolate (2000)
I can’t remember exactly when this came out, but it was in the era of my purest hip-hop interest. Songs on that record are like traditional, straight up hip-hop. That’s what really inspired me at the time and that’s what inspired my early productions as well. You get DJ Premier beats and Mos Def is on the record. I guess it’s what now would be referred to as True School hip-hop. That was a big influence at that time.
Drake, Take Care (2011)
There’s a couple of tracks on it that, really, when I first heard it, it was just like, “oh my god.” I’ve become relatively good friends with Just Blaze now, but it was the first time, having been a fan of his older material, that he returned to that classic Just Blaze, as far as that “Lord Knows” track. It wasn’t even a sample. Originally, it was, but the he played it and thought, "no, I’m going to record a full gospel orchestra. I’m going to do it properly." That ethos really inspired me. Also, the “Doing It Wrong” track with the Stevie Wonder harmonica solo, it happened right when I was going through quite a painful breakup. And the song in itself became important to me.
Radio Dreamscape 1995 (1995)
This is one of the very first pieces of vinyl I ever bought. For some reason, they recorded a live rave event and then pressed it onto vinyl. There wasn’t even time on either side of the record to fit a full set in, so it gets to the end of the record, and the MC is shouting, “We need more water for the dancers on stage,” and then the set just fades out. And then you can turn it over and it picks up from the next track in the set. It’s a bizarre way of showcasing a festival. But it’s probably the first piece I ever got myself.
Caldera, Sky Islands (1977)
It’s another jazz fusion-type group, but they’ve been heavily sampled in hip-hop, too. I love listening to those records and finding those originals and being like, “oh shit, that’s where that sample came from.”
Dexter Wansel, Life on Mars (1976)
That record’s also been sampled countless times. Dexter Wansel is an artist from Philadelphia, who’s a huge record producer also. I happened to run into his son [Andrew “Pop” Wansel] the last time I was in Philadelphia. The fact that, like, father and son both became major record producers seemed inspiring to me.
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
I think when that was released, it was very much what hip-hop and pop, at the same time, had both been missing. From the very first song, when it’s like “Can we get much higher?” from that moment on, it’s classic after classic after classic. I think that was the shift for Kanye between heavily sample-based music towards something progressive and considered as a full project. It’s such a bold record for a pop record.