Sian: Bridging The Gap Between Techno and Hip-Hop

Author : Marco Sgalbazzini
April 05, 2017

Sian: Bridging The Gap Between Techno and Hip-Hop

Classic modern techno, that’s likely to be the sound you think of whenever you hear of Sian and his Octopus Recordings imprint. The Los Angeles-based label owner, producer and DJ has made a name for himself running one of the strongest techno labels in the world, with releases coming from respected artists the likes of Jay Lumen, Oliver Koletski, Julian Jeweil, Enrico Sangiuliano, Gregor Tresher, Noir and many more.

To this day, Sian’s own productions have been to this day a further testament to the quality of Octopus’ output. Intelligent leftfield techno that strives to walk away from generic big-room sounds while remaining palatable to those in the midst of crossing the bridge to the “underground.”

Sian’s latest project, however, is very different from what you may be used to from him. On Monday April 10th the Irish-born artist is releasing Capital Crimewave, fearlessly transcending those invisible boundaries between warehouse techno, urban hip-hop, mind-bending acid, dubbed-out electronics and countless other future genres in between. The massive 20 track LP sees Sian bring together his love for hip-hop and techno, binding together his diverse catalogue of machine-made sounds into one cohesive audio experience that is unlike anything previously released on Octopus. For the project, he is joined by guest vocalists such as AG Fernandez, bringing together artistic minds for the creation of this brand-new atmospheric and murky late-night journey.

6AM had the chance to sit down with Graham and AG before Miami Music Week, taking the opportunity to discuss the album and the bridge that they hope will bring techno and hip-hop closer together. Capital Crimewave is available for pre-order via Beatport.


You just came back from Miami Music Week. It’s very difference now that the conference is separate, there seems to be a lot less of the cohesive industry gathering that there used to be. How was it for you?

Sian: We always do showcases in Miami, we throw in some good DJs and it’s still a good time, it’s kinda good to be there if you have a label still. But yeah I know what you mean, as far as networking, creating new records and all that stuff it has changed yeah.

Your label is also one of the only few doing anything techno during Miami Music Week. Obviously SCI-TEC is there and Richie is doing his PLAYdifferently night but that’s it, and it makes sort of sense since it’s Miami. 

Sian: Yeah exactly. I mean we found it hard, like last year we had a showcase and we felt like the music they we are playing was just over their heads. You know how that was like… I mean, I’m kind of the middle underground as far as techno and the big room. But we had a guest who went full… you know heavy techno, and the crowd was not as responsive. Honestly an amazing DJ, I am a huge fan but it just showed how the mind of the crowd in Miami is not ready for that, they are there for a different kind of music, you know? Bouncy bongos, tropical.

Yeah, they’re looking for that sort of tropical feel. I mean it makes sense. So tell us about the party you have lined up.

Sian: We have a showcase there on Thursday at Treehouse.

Who’s playing on that one?

Sian: Me, ANNA, and two of the label roster, Juheun and Shelley Johannson. Myself and ANNA are going to go back-to-back also.

Juheun is actually doing a mix for our Global Vibe Radio coming up. I like what I have heard from him so far.

Sian: Is he going to do a live mix? A live recording? I’ve been mentoring him to do his live show and he has been pushing it every week. Now his live show is getting really complete, he just performed in Tokyo and everyone felt it was full of energy.

How did you discover him?

Sian: He booked me at a party in Phoenix. We stayed friends, he was promoting parties and then he started sending me tracks and just kind of went from there, he is now a big part of the Octopus movement.

Yes, I’ve seen him in a lot of the label lineups. So let’s talk about Capital Crimewave that you guys are coming out with and let’s backtrack a little bit: people know you from your more techno underground, dance music background. When did you first start listening to hip-hop?

Sian: Right from the start, I actually started out playing hip-hop and like general dance music, mixing genres. I start out playing… I suppose it was called “trip-hop” then. It was like from that, I went through bass and everything to techno, you know. And then techno just kind of became what I got known for. But all the time through that, I’ve been a big fan of hip-hop all the way.

Were you a listener also growing up?

Sian: Absolutely, I would have been more of a listener of the Wu Tang Clan end of things, and nowadays I listen to everything from the harder, darker stuff like 21 Savage, I’ve been listening to the Sour Patch Kids mixtape and that type of sound.

How did you guys meet?

Sian: Through AO right?

AG: Yeah we actually met through one of my family members. His name is George and he’s a producer as well, and him and Sian had a good genuine contact and we met. Sian was looking for vocals and it sort of happened that way.

How did the process develop exactly?

Sian: Well AG had some vocals ready and…

AG: Yeah I already worked on some stuff, had some recordings made and I sent them over and they seem to fit perfectly with the music Graham was producing.

Sian: It’s funny, some of it was just in the perfect key already… the lyrics just worked with the music I had already made. Some of the other needed a little adjusting but it was all pretty much there. Crazy!

So did you ever have to send any of your music to AG to sort of “commission” him to come up with lyrics for?

Sian: Not at all actually.

AG: Interestingly enough that didn’t happen. And I never sent him lyrics for him to do a complete new track for. We both had music made together, separately, that fit with the other’s work. It was the perfect match.

So AG did you listen to Graham’s stuff before?

AG: Honestly no, I never did.

How about any electronic music?

AG: Here and there yes, but it wasn’t really my thing you see, there was nothing connecting my world with his world.

Is that what the purpose of the album is?

Sian: In a sense yeah. There’s this acidy techno meet hip-hop and it really works. I can see it being played in different types of environments, and musically it speaks to me. It connects two musical passions of mine

AG: Yeah I think so. There’s different types of hip-hop, some you listen at home chilling, some in your car, other works as background music when you’re doing stuff. Graham’s music is perfect for that for example, to listen to at home when you’re getting stuff done.

I listened to the album several times, all the way through as I worked on articles and what-not in my office, and I couldn’t agree more with that AG. Do you guys see this music as being played out in clubs?

Sian: It can be, but not exactly necessarily the way it is presented through the album. These aren’t tracks to be played by a DJ on a night out necessarily, but they can be adapted and remixed so that they can be.

AG: Exactly, for me it’s more of music to be listened to in your own time.

AG, has this made you more interested in techno? Working with Graham on this project.

AG: Yes definitely. I have found myself listening to more of his stuff and his sound than before. Of course I am still a hip-hop and rap guy, but I really respect what he does and see a place for it.

Do you see this as a change of direction for Octopus Recordings or is it a one-project thing?

Sian: I think Octopus is going to keep doing what it’s doing, but it will also expand and go in different directions like this album does. Both will happen, giving the label new layers, a new dimension if you will.

And AG do you think you will be doing more work of this kind in your career?

AG: I would love so honestly, especially with Graham if the album goes the way we think it will. It was great working with him and I really love the way the tracks came out!

Graham, you aren’t the first artist to explore this coming together of techno and hip-hop. 

Sian: No actually, there’s others who have come from darker sounds and gone that route, and then there’s people like Heroes x Villains in Atlanta, with his VELD project exploring more of the opposite direction. There’s this meeting in the middle of both sounds which is great honestly. AG and I started collaborating last summer and now we have a finished album about to come out and it’s good to know others are doing similar things.

That’s very interesting, especially how both of your music sorta fit together so well without having to really change anything you were independently working on. It shows how musically there is this connection. 

Sian: And there’s a couple of people too. I mean, you’ve probably seen some, even more commercial artists like Skrillex he has started to play flat-out house and techno sets and they’re kind of coming a little bit more towards us. And some of the techno guys are going a little bit more towards them. And it gets really interesting, deadmau5 playing like harder techno sets to even charting our tracks. Even Above & Beyond charted one of our tracks recently and I was like kinda scratching my head thinking like, how did they get it first of all? And why are they playing it? (laughs)

Right. I did notice that family that definitely there’s a part of trance that is now playing a lot of techno tracks. 

Sian: Yeah they are basically hammering it with techno in some of their harder trance.

And then there’s bunch of artists more on the techno side like Nina Kraviz, playing trance. There’s a lot of blurring of genres. It’s an interesting time from that perspective.

Sian: I would like it to go back to how it was when I started when there wasn’t such a great divide in genre definitions and when you could mix up everything.

Interestingly that’s when I started listening to electronic music. At the time I listened to a lot of Sasha and John Digweed and they played everything from progressive to house, techno and breaks… they were never in one pigeon hole at all. 

Sian: That’s why they’re still around. The moment you become extremely narrow in your taste, it becomes easy to disappear. Look at drum and bass, what happened there? It got too narrow and disappeared for a while. . It has happened to everyone. A genre or sound can get too narrow and it disappears for a while. Same happened with trance and same with progressive, and what I guess people are calling “proggo” now, this whole big room stuff. I think there are so many people out there kinda cloning the same sound, and there’s just so many of those tracks coming out of this progressive techno sound. It’s not quite right. You know my label is kind of the weird kid in the corner out of those five top-sellers and yet it is still one of the top five techno sellers. 

You are the little weird one but yet you keep churning those tracks out.

Sian: Man, we can… like, there was a period where everything we did was top 10, top 10, top 10. And then I got to the point where I would question if it was actually interesting and sustainable. You know, if you are gonna do that, you are kinda backing yourself into a corner because people expect one thing from you whereas every now and then we’ll try something a little different and weird like, you know, we’ll get a darker artist that provides something a little different like Noir or Huxley. Initially I was disturbed by the idea, but then I realized it gives us that “coolness” factor, and I am not afraid to do that.

You mentioned, you know, how the label is sort of gonna not change direction, but sort of expand and take on this sort of a broader musical role so to say. Will that include some of the artists that you’ve already had on the label exploring these options or is it more about bringing new artists in?

Sian: I think it’s more about bringing new artists in actually. Because we’ve kind of worked with and have a very strong connected family of artists that are all big sellers on Beatport. They have all established themselves and all grown into their own careers, so it’s more so about taking chances and doing new stuff like what we are messing with. Developing people like with Juheun, who is becoming his own artist now, working on his live show and building his world around him.

That makes sense. Are you guys gonna do more music together in the future?

AG: I’d love to!

Sian: Hopefully yeah! At the moment, I’m just focused on doing all of the organization of this album. All of the press stuff and admin. But as soon as I get rid of that, I’m gonna get stuck into remixes and new music. We’re already listening to new stuff.

How about a tour together? Anything coming up?

Sian: I’m doing a DJ tour but eventually, I mean if the album goes the way I hope it goes, then I would love to try and do a couple of live shows where the theme would incorporate AG and live vocals. But that’s kind of hard to do that, you have to build a live set and get all those parts working in a live scenario together. It’s a lot of work.

AG: Yeah it’s a lot of work to get ready for that.

Have you done anything like that at all?

Sian: Yeah, I’ve done a couple of live shows. I did one in Amsterdam. But I’m messing around with the idea of doing something like it, but a lot bigger. I kinda have a vision for it, how it would look, how it would sound, essentially like a hard dance floor, acidy version of the album.

With live vocals, I hope. Right?

Sian: I’d love to do that. It’s just about getting to the point where the music’s big enough so that it makes sense, so that the promoters are willing to bring out the live show and not just the DJ set. It would need to be Bonobo size or Modeselekor for that to happen.

Oh yeah, I can imagine the amount of parts that are involved.

Sian: And really it’s all about the work in the studio translating a normal track from an album into the live show. It’s so much work, months of work.

 

Good luck, I would love to happen! You mentioned your DJ tour coming up too, what stops you’re making?

Sian: I think it’s like 30 shows now. So it’s pretty much from now until the end of July, nonstop. Sometimes it’s 2-3 shows a week…I will do most of the U.S., South America, working on the Australia leg and then some dates in Europe. I am just kinda cherry-picking a little in Europe. I have just been going there for so many years that I want to focus over here more. But yeah, I will be doing the usual ones. Sonar, ADE, all that stuff.

Let’s go back to talking about techno and hip-hop. Hip-hop and house have been associated for a while now, you know you even have G-house and of course the use of hip-hop sampling in house tracks for decades. There is a definite separation of culture between hip-hop and techno, some sort of clash going. Why do you think this disassociation exists, and do you think there will be a bridge between the two following the album and more like it in the future?

Sian: I hope so. I mean, I think certain parts of it will work together. At least for those like AG and I, who are quite open-minded anyway, you know? And then I think the reason they were so separate is just like, maybe people in hip-hop see electronic music as this free booze, party image.

AG: It’s the clothing, it’s the overall image. It’s the image that EDM presents that kind of keeps a barrier between the two versus making it more personal.

Sian: But the more underground stuff, on both sides it’s linked. You have people like Brodinski, a ton of Atlanta rap people. I think on the more underground side, for both genres, there’s more of an even field. But on the commercial side, you know, hip hop clubs tend to be very like splashing out on bottles and the like, and with EDM it’s almost the same. I don’t think it’s really a black or white thing, I don’t think it’s about different people from differently walks of life, it’s just two different sets of values. You know what I mean, people at mainstream clubs are a lot more showy, do you agree?

AG: Yeah

Sian: Yeah it’s more about models, bottles, a bit more baller.

The flashy thing?

Sian: Yeah, it’s flashier. And then honestly EDM has kind of a bad rep in hip-hop right? They think of free booze, glow sticks…

AG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s more like… you know, happy and dance and all for 24 hours straight. It’s visualized that way at least.

Sian: Yeah, but I mean the sides that we both come from, I think, there’s definitely a mix going on there. You got people like Boysnoize, Brodinski and even some of the harder Detroit artists like DJ Stringray, there’s more of that quality music that brings the two together.

Do you think that a project like yours will get the more techno side to listen to hip hop more and vice versa? And AG do you think your audience finding and listen to this album may be attracted to exploring a little bit more of Graham’s side?

AG: I think so actually because, everything I have heard from EDM is kind of generic, but your sound… when I hear your stuff it puts you in a location, I feel like I am in a jungle sometimes. When the mind hears something new that it has never really heard before, it kind of wants to explore more.

Sian: Yeah it has bit more depth. I think that’s the difference between techno and EDM. It’s like EDM is kind of just fucking sparkles and shit. And similarly his side of hip-hop has a little more depth too. Obviously it’s strange, there are so many links between his music and mine, you know most of techno is made from that 808 sound.

AG: You have some high keys and then you have the real low keys that come with both our sounds, they match.

Sian: It’s so close. You know that’s why I think it worked and it just slotted together perfectly, because like a lot of hip-hop that I like, it’s so minimal, vocal and then that hard 808. It’s not far from techno at all.

I definitely hear that in the album, you can hear how that translates with your vocals AG and your music Graham. Together they come together and it feels seamless. 

Sian: Yes, it’s just stripping away everything you don’t need, reducing it to just something that works on the big speaker. It’s just that simple.

From the early foundations of electronic music, with house for example, people of different walks of life have been coming together for and through music. At the time it was way of expression, of celebrating freedom, bringing the more “marginalized” members of the gay community, African-American and Latino communities together under one roof. With techno and hip-hop today we also have two generally different audience demographics. Do you feel like we can start to see a coming together of these two groups from albums such as yours?

AG: Definitely, especially with the message and the words and the combination of the sound because they’ve already heard trap music, they already know what that sounds like. Compared to old school golden age hip-hop, now this is a new age and if it synchs it can bring people together.

Sian: And also if you listen to artists like Kid’s Lyrics, it’s not about drugs, women, abuse, whatever. It’s actually a really positive kind of message. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love some really, really filthy and nasty hip-hop also, I just think it’s like it’s in its own art form and it’s meant to be rough. But I think you got to have a positive message like that. It does help break that barrier. A lot of the reason why people in the dance community are afraid of hip-hop is they kind of feel like what is this stuff about shooting kids and stuff. You know, there’s a Future line, what is it? “Fuck the DA lady in the mouth”.  I remember hearing that in store and there was some kid singing along and his mom was like, “What the fuck?!” You know that kind of message doesn’t really jive well with the club, where everyone is having a good time, on ecstasy, all about hugging strangers, peace and love, and all that. And that kind of message is just the opposite of what they’re thinking with, you know? Maybe it’s that. Maybe ecstasy is to blame! (laughs)

If you look back at ’90s hip-hop, the lyrics, the message, the poetry that was behind all these tracks, that’s when it exploded, you know, that is a lot different than some of the hip-hop we have today.

AG: That’s when it got exploited, when it exploded and became mainstream.

Sian: I kind of feel like hip hop now is where rock was in the ’80s. You know, spandex, the hair and all. It’s kind of like plastic in that way.

AG: Yeah you’re so right.

Sian: And then there’s a whole new wave of people like AG, even I suppose A$AP Rocky doing some a little more positive and little more intelligent. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of A$AP Rocky but that school of hip-hop is breaking that kind of baller mode.

AG: Yeah, cause they rap about that stuff but they are also in the community as well you know, doing good things, giving back. It’s moving towards where it should be.

Sian: You kinda see how people are, maybe even returning to rapping about something else other than ice and DA ladies and so on. There’s a deeper side to it now.

AG, who are some of the artists that you get inspired by?

AG: Man, I get inspired by the J. Coles, the Kendricks, the Jay-Zs, Andre 2000, Outkast, Big Boy, that whole group of people. Oh man, I got some of my favorite independent artists who, like, came up from the underground and kind of went mainstream, like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa… there’s another underground guy named Saudi Money, his name is Asaad. I think he’s one of the best rappers I’ve ever come in contact with. He’s from Philadelphia.

Sian: Do you know 21 Savage doesn’t have a record deal? Same with Chance the Rapper, they opted for more the publishing side rather than a record deal. So they don’t owe anyone any money. They just all profit. 21 Savage gathered all the money together for his own recording project, didn’t take a record deal with any major, he didn’t end up owing his house to any label. He just did it on his own back and kinda grew it at the grassroots level. Same thing with what Brodinski is doing with the Sour Patch Kids mixtape. It’s highlighting all these new Atlanta artists and showing them they don’t need a label, just put it out there on the internet, it’s the ultimate platform.

I love what Chance is doing too in Chicago. He’s doing some amazing work giving back to the city.

AG: Yeah, that’s an inspiring.

Sian: It shows that it’s more than just rapping about gun violence, it’s about overcoming the struggle and once they are able to overcome that, give back to the communities they came from. That’s the way hip-hop is going now, the way it should be. It’s that message we are a part of. Man, that’s a good way to bring the interview full circle. Almost speech-written!

 

Capital Crimewave comes out on April 10th and is available for pre-order via Beatport.

Connect with Sian: OnlineFacebook | Twitter | Soundcloud | Beatport

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