Kyle Austin is on a mission. Or, as he puts it, "a caffeinated mission," to be precise. Trying to navigate a transatlantic time difference, we had scheduled our interview for 5 a.m. Philadelphia time — his choice — only to scuttle it, due to the vagaries of Skype. Six hours later, I've finally got him on the horn, and he tells me that he still hasn't slept. "My sleeping pattern is kind of erratic," he says, "so I'll just go 'til I crash, and wake up and keep going."
Austin's circadian arrhythmia certainly gels with the music he makes in his Hprizm guise. The Queens-born, Brooklyn-bred, Philly-based producer inaugurated the alias in 2012 with City of On, a 20-minute, single-sided swirl of Middle Eastern footwork rhythms, radiophonic skronk, and bass-synth flagellations; this year, he's put out two EPs full of lurching, bleary-eyed boom-bap instrumentals that sound a little like RZA's Ghost Dog score, but with Sufic mysticism in place of Samurai wisdom. All of it comes a liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, intellect and sensation, and all marked by a profound sense of coming-into-being — loop-based but in constant flux.
Prior to Hprizm, Austin was best known as High Priest, a member of New York's Anti-Pop Consortium — a tongue-twisting, bleep-worshipping hip-hop crew that stands (sonically speaking, anyway) as the missing link between Cannibal Ox and present-day signal-jammers like Death Grips and Clipping. Given Anti-Pop's knotty lyrical bent, it might be a surprise to find Austin striking off in an all-instrumental direction. "It threw a lot of people," he admits. "They're listening all the way through, thinking that the lyrics are going to start at some point. Six or seven minutes in, they're like, 'Oh, OK,' and then it's just like, 'Oh, I've gotta take another listen to that because I was waiting for the rhymes,'" he says, laughing.
In part, he says, his instrumental turn came about as a reaction to the increasingly lyrical focus of Anti-Pop. After nearly a decade of label-hopping (Dan the Automator's short-lived 75 Ark, Warp, Ninja Tune sub-label Big Dada, and even the jazz-oriented Thirsty Ear, which released their 2003 collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp), the group went on hiatus in 2009 — perhaps because neither labels nor listeners knew quite where to file their margin-walking take on hip-hop. "The intention wasn't for the ratio to be more instrumental than vocal," says Austin of Anti-Pop, "but that equation kind of inverted over time, just from the course that the group took. When I reached the point of doing my solo project, I submitted a fully instrumental album and [the label] was like, 'Yo, what the hell are you doing? You gotta rhyme on this thing!'" He scrapped the demo and returned to the mic, but he also began putting together a jerry-rigged hardware setup that would allow him to combine his interests in live performance and sample-based beat-making.
"Being a New York statement," he says of Hprizm's tangled, mid-range mash, "I wanted to bring back that collage element. When you look at the Bomb Squad, Marley Marl, RZA, it's not really musical, it's more textural and collage-oriented. That point of view is kind of what schooled me, so I just wanted to [pursue that] — as opposed to running from my influences."
His new EPs, KUSH and AKHI, may be instrumental, but that's hardly to say that they're content-free. Both records are musical attempts to flip the "out of Africa" theory of human development on its head. After Antipop Consortium traveled to Dubai for a 2012 symposium on classical Arab Tarab music, Austin began exploring "these transatlantic parallels" that interlink the Americas with Africa and the Middle East. "It just kind of sparked something in my brain," he says, "considering that I haven't been to Africa yet, and I have such a fictionalized connection to it in that way." The result is an uneasy fusion of North African instruments and new-school boom-bap, with many of the sounds taken from a hard drive full of digitized acetates from the region, dating back to the 1940s, that was given to him in Dubai. As Ytasha L. Womack (author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture) put it in her liner notes to KUSH, "This is rewiring music… the masterful flipside of Sun Ra's Alter Destiny."
The jazz analogy isn't far-fetched: Austin is currently working on an improv-based project, "Waves," inspired by the lives of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. The first performance, in February, featured free-jazz titan Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), Vijay Ayer sideman and electro-acoustic composer Steve Lehman (saxophone), and the Cuban-American pianist David Virelles. "I'm thankful to be an active part of that community as well," Austin says. "Each part feeds part of the wheel, because in that environment, I'm not playing loops. I have to chop, because the environment's not loop-based, and the time signatures are different. It has to be something more breathing and more modular."
While he develops "Waves" for live performance, Austin is also figuring out how best to put it to tape. "I haven't recorded that much in that format yet," he says, "just because, financially, for the way I'm hearing it, I haven't set up the infrastructure." But his time on campus at William Paterson University, where he's teaching classes in listening and production — and, crucially, has access to a studio — has given him ideas. "In an ideal scenario, a month of rehearsal and then two or three days in the studio will yield the better result. We have a few more live dates, and that will help gel the performative aspect of it. End of this year, early next year, we'll start with the recording aspect of it."
In the meantime, he hasn't entirely given up rapping; in recent videos on the Anti-Pop Consortium YouTube channel, you can find him unspooling a cappella rhymes like his "Rooftop P.S.A.," which traces the links between Egypt and Flatbush, Exodus and the Middle Passage. But even here, you can hear Austin hinting at the "vow of silence" that characterizes his instrumental side. As he puts it in last September's "Reverse the Curse," a solo cut with a video directed by his bandmate Earl Blaize, "Tapping in the infinite source, I had to lift it / I know I could be more prolific with it / But when it's a matter of saying something of substance or not saying nothing, I — / I'd rather be silent."