“Mentorship is dead” – FreshNerd
Keith ‘FreshNerd‘ Mitchell stands out amongst the waves of free-release beat makers. He is phenomenally productive and remarkably idiosyncratic; the restricted use of samples, tongue-in-cheek artwork and inexplicably capitalized track titles are all trademarks. In a market crowded with mediocrity and homogeneity, his beats stand above most of his contemporaries.
As the genre gains momentum, even though it looks backwards to hip hop’s initial focus on the music rather than lyrics, artists like FreshNerd (part of the 100 Akres label) are setting the tone for its development.
Impressed by Rapper Big Pooh and Black Milk’s ‘The Purple Tape’, FreshNerd went one better. Instead of focusing on one artist, he chose to limit himself to one album. This ascetic dedication to such a challenge produces remarkable results. He’s chopped Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She So Unusual’, flipped Billy Ocean’s 1984 release ‘Suddenly’ into a beat tape for beat nuts, and ripped Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ into, in his own words, “digital confetti.” His most recent release shreds Thundercat’s 2011 release ‘The Golden Age of the Apocalypse’ and features guest spots from the precocious talents of The Soulstice. Throughout all of these albums (and there are many more to be downloaded from the Bandcamp page), FreshNerd has developed and established his own sound.
There are traces of Madlib and Stones Throw-era J Dilla, Bullion and Brainfeeder eccentricity, but FreshNerd is difficult to pin down. Tracks oscillate between club bangers like ‘Charlie Murphy’, the infectious melodies of ‘Odysseus’ and the neck snapping boom-bap of ‘loverHUH’. Samples are heavily chopped and carefully restructured. Check the insistent Notorious B.I.G. sample on ‘C.B.J.’ from ‘The David Bowie Beat Tape’ which becomes a refrain. The sound, partly due to his methodology, is refreshing. Samples are limited but their potential is unlocked by an eclectic approach. Albums weave between left-field instrumentals, audio snippets, and straight-up production duties. In fact, some of FreshNerd’s best work comes from working with emcees; his track as NerdBOOM is one of his best.
Not only does FreshNerd bring a new approach to beat making, his record label 100 Akres is similarly iconoclastic. Digital releases are free and there are beat cassette tapes sold on behalf of disparate artists (spanning Michigan and York, Cali and the Philippines). Coupled with his humble insistence on releasing his own music for free, FreshNerd’s innovative approach attempts to deal with the growing pains of a new business model. Free released hip hop exemplifies the genre’s continued and irrepressible capacity for evolution.
FreshNerd insists that the state of hip hop isn’t cause of concern. The proliferation of the music has simply meant a change in volume: “statistically when you at it, IMO, I think the good:crap ratio is the same”. Fortunately for beat heads and hip hop fiends, FreshNerd, and 100 Akres, continues to support the good side of the equation.
Following our informal conversation, FreshNerd took some time out to answer some questions:
How difficult is it to run a small, independent record label? Are there any labels you model yourself on?
It’s a lot of work but since it’s fun, it doesn’t feel like work. I don’t think I can really call it a full-fledged indie label yet, but it’s definitely going that direction. I don’t model myself after any one label, but the ones that I take bits and pieces from are Def Jam (the 80’s/90’s Def Jam), Stones Throw, Mello Music Group, and One Handed Music.
How do your beat tapes come about? Do you limit yourself to one artist’s album as a challenge or because you are a big fan of those albums?
A bit of both but more as a challenge. It’s frustrating at times but that’s the beauty of it. Whenever something is too easy, you’re not growing. I read somewhere… ‘If you’ve never gone to bed thinking how much you suck, you’re not challenging yourself hard enough’. Ha! Trust me, I have plenty of those.
There’s been a lot of popular press coverage about the decline of mainstream sales and the demise of quality hip hop, but there is definitely a burgeoning sub culture on the internet. Do you think hip hop has been separated irreconcilably between mainstream and underground?
That’s a tough question. Reason being, the music industry is still trying to work itself out at the moment in this post-napster / digital / iTunes era. Also, hip hop isn’t the ‘happening’ genre in mainstream music’s cycle at the moment. Dance music is what’s ‘happening’ so that has an effect as well. So yeah, in a sense it has been separated from the mainstream but it’s just out of cycle at the moment. It will come back around like it always does.
The good thing though, is that hip hop artists don’t really need a label right now. As long as you have the right team. The ‘right’ team, then I think you can make a living off of it. Not a rockstar life, but I think it’s more possible now than ever to make a modest living off of music.
What artists have influenced you the most?
The biggest two would be Black Milk and 88-Keys. Black Milk because, well, I don’t really need to explain do I? 88-Keys: I like his range as a beatmaker and more importantly, dude actually took an hour out of his day to speak to me on IM. This is back when AOL IM was the jumpoff [laughs]. I thought that was dope and our conversation stuck with me until this day. You don’t get that a lot from people in the industry these days. Mentorship is dead.
A lot of the best music that I’ve heard over the last year has been released for free on Bandcamp. But why do you release your music for free, instead of charging a fair price?
The main reason I release for free is because I’m still nobody [laughs]. Nobody knows me so I think it’d be ridiculous to ask people to pay money for someone they’ve never heard of. I’m still building a ‘fan’ base and I have a while to go, even though I’ve been releasing projects consistently for two years.
How did the collaboration with the Soulstice come about? What do you make of their MF Wonders project?
MF Wonders is DOPE! Man, they actually hit me up about two years ago asking to post their music. At that time, I didn’t think their music was ready like that but I heard serious potential and knew they had more in them. I’d give my feedback when they asked and recently out of the blue, they shot me the link to MF Wonders and I was floored by their growth. If they keep at it, I’ll bet my left nipple they’ll make some noise on a mainstream level in a couple years.
What projects have you got lined up for the future?
I’m working on LA Lytes with LA. She’s a dope emcee from Brooklyn. I’m also working on an EP with The Soulstice, they were just featured on my last tape. Of course I have a beat tape dropping next month and another I Love Loosies in March.
Is there anyone you’d especially like to work with?
Ab-Soul (TDE, Black Hippy) because I think he’s the nicest emcee out when it comes to wordplay (he’s underrated), Suzi Analogue, she’s dope and has her own lane, Godsilla (from the DMV) they’re just dope to me. Scarface, no explanation needed really [laughs] But I like working with new artists mainly.
Your sound is genuinely idiosyncratic. Was this a conscious decision to be different or is it the result of colliding influences?
I think it’s a result of several things. First, my background is DJing. I played my first record at the age of four. My father is a DJ and had a crazy vinyl collection with everything ranging from Prince to MJ to Studio One 45’s to Hall & Oates. Also, I first started making beats on my friend’s, Ray, Roland MC-505. This dude was a ‘beat genius’. He was the first one that put me on to Jay Dee (Dilla) back in 2001. Anyways, Ray would make beats everyday… I mean, beats! He’d erase anything off his machine if one of us mentioned another beat that it reminded us of. He made it a point to always push boundaries and do something different. He was ahead of his time. But yeah, that’s also where it comes from.