Interview: Max I Million (The Limelight #7)
The Limelight is an ongoing collaboration with illustrator MC Blue Matter. Sparked by a mutual love for beats, the series intends to shine a light on the people behind the productions.
With tomorrow’s release of his new album Uncut Gems, Swedish producer Max I Million takes a fresh approach to raw, loop-based beatmaking. On top of an early album stream, we wanted to get to know the man behind the MPC2000XL a bit better. “Drinking coffee or bourbon, taking long walks with no specific destination. I need that contrast and balance.”
(Illustrations: MC Blue Matter)
The Bandcamp text for Uncut Gems mentions the music is “equal parts futuristic and nostalgic.” Can you illustrate that with some examples from the album?
I believe the music is already there; I just channel it. Practically, that means that every piece of music that has ever made an impact on me is stored somewhere in me and finds an outlet when I sit down by the sampler, the piano, or whatever tool I decide to use. Naturally, a great deal of that music is what I heard growing up. At the same time, I don’t see the point in recreating what has already been made. I strive to push things forward and make something people haven’t heard before while staying loyal to the classic. A big part of what I do is paying homage to those who inspired me, though taking those influences to the next plateau and into a new incarnation. And thinking about it, hip-hop is a lot about recycling, for the lack of a better word.
This is specifically evident through the concept of sampling. And futurism is more like a state of mind to me. Picturing what’s not there and letting it manifest. Not holding back on what might be considered trippy, weird, or ”out there.” My main objective is to elevate minds and take them on a little journey.
My last two albums were pretty experimental. With Uncut Gems, I wanted to go back to the basics of raw, banging, loop-based hip-hop beats but adding elements of vivid melodies and a sense of progression within the compositions. It’s strictly beats, but they take lots of unexpected turns.
With so many gems to pick from, what made you go for “Splattitorium” specifically to bring an ode to The Pharcyde?
It just happened. I was actually simply vibing to some jazz, not really in a creative mode, when I just happened to run into the Vince Guaraldi Trio sample Dilla used for ”Splattitorium.” It struck me, maybe he was in the midst of doing the same thing when he found it. So I just jumped out of the couch and turned on the MPC, sampled that piano, and went with the flow. Needless to say, The Pharcyde (and especially Labcabincalifornia) has influenced me a lot.
I’m revealing a trade secret of mine now: but I extracted the acapella from “Splattitorium” by NOT inserting the line-in cable all the way into the input, only letting some frequencies through to the sampler. I made the whole thing impulsively and wasn’t even planning to use the beat for anything, really. But it turned out it was a great idea to include it on the album. That’s where it belongs since I was in Uncut Gems-mode.
“On this record you’ll hear me playing on bottles, tapping on wooden boxes, handclaps, the sound of ice rocking in glasses, knives and spoons clinking, the sound of the rain, and actually I play a little on a mandolin that just happened to be around at the time.”
Can you please explain how the title of Uncut Gems relates to your own production style and beatmaking? Not per se specifically just for this release, but generally speaking.
That takes us back to the concept of making some raw, strictly hip-hop shit for this project. Head nod-inducing beats that aren’t overly produced… Straight out of the machine. But in a general sense, I believe imperfection to be perfection. Let’s say I laced a couple of hi-hat hits or a bass note slightly out of place rhythmically—that brings humanity and soul into it. In the mixing process, I try not to remove the sound of dust and crackle from the vinyl sampled—that also brings humanity and soul into it. and so on. The glow is in the heart of the music and if it shines bright enough, why polish the surface and risk scratching it? Diamonds in the rough. Organic goods. uncut gems. That’s what it’s all about.
Reading the Bandcamp text by Andrew Martin, it really feels as if you wanted to go the extra mile and contribute much more than “just beats.” Such as the left-field creative approach to it. With a ton of instrumental releases out there these days, do you feel like that’s lacking sometimes; more thoughts and concepts behind beats?
I love the fact that instrumental hip-hop has made its way into the big editorial playlists, I mean…it pays my bills! But I don’t approve of the ”chill-beats-to-listen-to-while-studying”-approach to music. Personally, I engage fully when listening to music. Back in the day, when dope beats usually were accompanied by lyrics, a super simple, repetitive beat could do its part impeccably. The variation and the thoughts injected came from the lyrics. Today when instrumental hip-hop is widely accepted, I feel like it’s the beatmakers job to put thoughts and concepts into the beats. To me, it’s important that the track is strong enough to stand on its own two feet without relying on vocals.
I noticed you played all instruments on Uncut Gems. What instruments do you play and which gear did you use for the album?
I play what I can get my hands on. I don’t excel in any specific instrument, besides the MPC2000XL. But I play the bass, drums, and keys as far as conventional instruments go. However, anything that makes a sound is an instrument. On this record you’ll hear me playing on bottles, tapping on wooden boxes, handclaps, the sound of ice rocking in glasses, knives and spoons clinking, the sound of the rain, and actually I play a little on a mandolin that just happened to be around at the time. There’s also a discreet use of sound effects and dialogue from obscure movies. I think a lot of these elements will go unnoticed, but they add to the overall experience nevertheless.
All the songs are made on the MPC2000XL—my hub for everything—even in the case of sampling my own playing, rather than other records. The great thing about the MPC is that there is no right or wrong. Everybody has their own techniques and methods; it’s a blank page with endless possibilities. And yeah, the 16bit sound is something special that you can’t otherwise emulate.
How does it feel to have Joe Buck design the album cover for Uncut Gems, considering his decades of work in the game that includes creating the iconic album cover for De La Soul is Dead? And do you consider the illustration to translate well to the actual music?
It’s always an honor to be working with a legend of any kind. I had some ideas I was hoping to come alive on the cover and Joe nailed it. As I’ve gotten into numerous times now, the MPC is really the center of my creative process and I always wanted to have that manifested in an artful format on a cover. Uncut Gems was the perfect project to make this happen. And not only that, he captured the whole beatmaker culture in a few almost pictogram-esque figures. You got the crates we dig in, the turntables, the speakers, headphones… He captured it all. I love it. My introduction to hip-hop was De La Soul, so you could say the circle is complete now.
The idea behind our The Limelight series, is to get to know the person behind the beats. So here we go: Do you have an educational background in music?
None whatsoever. I’m self-taught and reading notes is like trying to read hieroglyphics. I’ve only learned by doing, and that actually goes for anything I’ve ever been good at. But I guess there’s no better education than listening actively and curiously to tons of music. Studying it with your ears.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not really. Some of my family members are somewhat musical, but my great grandfather on my mom’s side was a musician by trade. He played the organ in church back in the 1800s. That being said, I did hear a lot of great music in my home growing up.
What are your earliest memories of discovering music?
The first music I fell in love with, at around two or three years old, was actually marching music. My father was in the army and had this record with drums only. Loved it! Maybe that laid the foundation to being inclined to Rhythm. My mother was a Beatles fanatic, but she was also very much into soul. Marvin Gaye and Earth Wind & Fire were two favorites. The first album I bought was Bad by Michael Jackson. At around the same time, I remember seeing the music video for “Me Myself and I” by De La Soul, which really fascinated me. I got into hip-hop through them, A Tribe Called Quest, and Naughty By Nature. Later on Cypress Hill, the Beastie Boys, and Nas. When I found Gang Starr and Pete Rock, that was it for me. I was hooked. I felt like their styles were tailor-made for my taste. Later on, Madlib and J Dilla got into the picture and that was when I decided I was going to be a music producer…
What do you like to do when you’re not busy with music?
I work hard with music about four days a week. The outside world is distant at that point. But that work also includes making content for social media and music videos. The rest of the week I excercise, eat a lot of good food, and watch movies. I also spend a lot of time hanging out with friends and family, or at least I used to pre-covid. Drinking coffee or bourbon, taking long walks with no specific destination. I need that contrast and balance. I’ve tried making music every day, along the lines of a normal day job, but what really works for me is getting deep into the craft for many, many hours at a time. Then distance myself from it and let that itch kick in, where I feel that strong urge again to create. And the cycle continues.
Exclusive Pre-release Album Stream of Uncut Gems:
Max I Million – Uncut Gems:
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