Rap Monthly: Low Leaf Makes Beats, Plus Teejayx6, Westside Gunn, and More
Spin’s Rap Monthly column interviews an artist making waves, reviews selections from the past month, and holds goofiness accountable when necessary.
The L.A.-based producer and vocalist Low Leaf was dancing in the living room of her shady bungalow in Eagle Rock when the Independence Day earthquake hit. Fiddle-leaf figs and clay elephants framed the front window, votive candles and a book of Buddhist paintings covered the coffee table, and an acoustic guitar rested against the fireplace. One room over, through a dreamcatcher-draped doorway, sat her instruments: a baby grand piano, Fender Rhodes, MIDI keyboard, and two harps, one electric and one electro-acoustic. Thankfully, Southern California’s largest tremor in two decades left the space unscathed, and the musician, born Angelica-Marie Lopez, initially did not even notice the vibrations. She laughs telling the story while welcoming me into her home on a still afternoon in mid-July.
Lopez is one of the Los Angeles producers pushing forward an underground community that produced some of the past decade’s most exciting electronic music. As the story goes: L.A.’s beat scene, anchored by the weekly Low End Theory showcase at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, created space for record fiends to connect the dots between the likes of Madlib, Aphex Twin, Sun Ra, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Burial, cultivating new styles and breakout talents like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Anderson .Paak, Open Mike Eagle, even Odd Future. But Low End Theory ended last June, and the scene has waned; two weeks after this interview, the godfather Ras G, who mentored Lopez and many others, passed away. Things are different. “We’ve been through so much,” Lopez says.
The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grew up in the San Fernando Valley, studied media at the University of San Francisco, and has lived around Los Angeles ever since. She has DJ’d the parties you know and the ones you don’t, played keys on FlyLo’s Cosmogramma, and released six solo albums of baroque folktronica pop—built around harp thickets and spiritual aphorisms, and driven by the scene’s trippy omnivorous rhythms. She’s a restless experimentalist: in the past year, she dropped four ambient improvisations dubbed “meditation mixtapes“ that translate changes in electric currents—measured on the surfaces of plant leaves, with a magical device called the MIDI Sprout—into meandering baths of organic and astral sound.
I quickly learn Lopez is a true flower child when she attributes the earthquakes to the solar eclipse that happened earlier that week. Or in her words: “I feel like I’m a plant.” (She also loves Post Malone’s “Sunflower.”) We meet two days before the release of her new album, an installment in the storied hip-hop record store Fat Beats’ instrumental series, Baker’s Dozen. This is her first LP on which her voice does not appear. It’s a dense and soothing 30 minutes that tastefully blend spaceship and Nintendo sonics with reactive strings, shakers, chimes, tambourines, and other hand percussion into something like Venusian ritual music, never lacking oomph. Fans of Teebs and early Four Tet will abide.
Lopez approached her full-length instrumental debut as a challenge, if not a dare. “I’m really inspired by composition and singing and stuff, so I feel things more as a song rather than a beat,” she explains. “In that way [the album] gave me some, not restrictions, but parameters to work within, which actually unlocked even more.” It was not lost on her that—following local veterans like Daedelus, Dibia$e, and Ras—she is the first woman to contribute to the series: “I was like, ‘Oh hell yeah, I’m down,’ because a lot of people for the longest time thought my boyfriend [rapper and engineer Zeroh] produced for me, and they didn’t know that I make all my own beats.”
We discuss the project in her front yard—Lopez crouched next to potted holy basil (her “home frequency plant”) on a wooden ledge at the base of a gnarled oak tree, me in a rope chair hanging from a flowering jacaranda. Wearing a boxy oversized glen plaid suit, she talks with her hands, punching her palm for emphasis, and is prone to high-minded tangents. Near the end of the interview, she cautiously reveals that she raps for the first time on her next album. Zeroh snuck me a preview during her photoshoot, and I can confirm that she can spit.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Have you always created where you lived?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I prefer it that way actually [rather] than going into a studio ’cause it takes me a while to get into a vulnerable space. I feel like living at home and having your creation space in that same area—creation is like life for me anyway, so that sacredness is intertwined with everything. It’s easier to just flow. ’cause if my studio was somewhere else, I’d have to schedule when I go over there and stuff like that. I like to just wake up and be able to walk over there while I eat breakfast and drink tea.
Your normal mode is songwriting. How would you describe your beatmaking process?
I would just turn everything on and start making noise. I would just start making noise. One day I would just maybe start with some drums, program some loops. I would just start making loops and not think and not judge and when I found something that I liked, I would just start building upon that idea. One day it would be me sitting with a synth and that would be the start. Actually, I feel like all the stuff I made within two weeks, they started not on my instruments. I was in Ableton playing around with percussion sounds and making drums first. I guess the drums were the basis of it, then putting instruments on top. That’s when I catch the feeling and see if I would like it. I have to be moved by something.
Where did the meditation mixtapes idea originate?
I used to do pop-up group sound baths, public sound baths, in 2015 when people didn’t really know what it was. They were so powerful but I was not grounded enough to handle being a space holder for that kind of thing. People would come up to me afterwards and say they were revisiting traumas and wounds from this and that, and their back had pain but now it was released. I was amazed at the healing quality of music. Like, it’s real. But I would have to recover for two weeks energetically. I would be depleted because I was just being a channel to help people heal through stuff, and I wasn’t grounded enough to take it, so I held back on it. I’ve always felt this calling to continue to approach an experiment with music and sound from that perspective, with that intention, and I wanted to figure out a way to do it without having to interact with people face-to-face.
When you mean when you say the tapes are “in conversation” with specific plants?
When I found out about this device called the MIDI Sprout by my friend King Britt—he put me onto it—I was so intrigued, and I already had the idea to just jam with the plants, to just jam with plants! That was it. Just combine it with the sound frequencies. I tune all my bowls to 432 hz. Because a plant can feel you, I was intrigued at the idea of: if I would play a certain chord, how a plant would respond to it, you know? I did experiments and I found that they indeed were responding to when I’d come closer to them, when I would water them, when I would play certain chords that were more dissonant. They would respond through the MIDI. The deeper I went into it, I found that every single plant offers a sort of spiritual, medicinal property, like assistance. For instance, the first plant I worked with was a bird of paradise, which happens to be a flower essence you take when you want to be more creative and just uplifted and inspired. The music that came out of it happened to be really high vibrational sounds.
Did those experiences inform your work on the Baker’s Dozen?
Because all the meditation mixtapes were just one take, improvised straight through, I would find myself landing in a place that I wouldn’t have if I stopped. So when it comes to all the music I make outside of the ambient music, I don’t stop myself. I’ll keep going and I won’t build on something unless I really like it. Because in the past, I would just create to create ’cause I felt like that’s what I needed to do as an artist, just stay creative. But I don’t want to work on something unless I really like it, and sometimes you just have to get some warm-up beats out of the way before you get to the good stuff. So in that way, I learned that lesson from doing the meditation mixtapes: to just keep going because you might end up some place you wouldn’t have if you stopped.
Did you miss using your voice on this project?
I didn’t when I was making the Baker’s Dozen because I was really excited to try to get a little harp solo in there and just focus on my instrumentation and composition. I wanted the music to speak. But now that I’ve done that, it makes me approach the way I use my voice on current tracks differently, like an instrument as well. I feel like in past songs I was doing too much with my voice. So the stuff I’m doing now, there’s a lot more vocal restraint, and just what needs to be there is there. But you haven’t heard that stuff yet.
Since we’re talking about vocal stylings, and this interview is for SPIN’s “Rap Monthly” column, I might suggest there are a few songs in your catalog on which you’re rapping. Do you ever want to rap?
It’s an interesting question because I’m rapping on this new album. I’m bringing up Edwin [Zeroh] again, but he makes fun of me because I would always say, I’m not rapping, I’m just kind of singing faster, you know? But yeah, I’m writing bars on this project. I’m a little, uh, I’m not nervous, but I just cover my face and I’m like, yeah, sort of. On the next project, it’s this side of me that I just have never been able to express in the music. I feel like with the music, I’ve explored these ethereal realms and da-da-da-da-da, you know what it’s about. But when people who know me in real life, they’re like, whoa, I thought you’d be a lot more holier-than-thou. I’m actually a bit outspoken sometimes and just can be really fiery if someone crosses me wrong. I can just be really good at talking shit if need be. There’s just been a lot of parts of myself that I could never express through my art because I was contained within this unconscious aesthetic that I created for myself, which was my preference at the time, but I feel like I’ve really outgrown that.
Look Back At It
In July, we enjoyed rap music that shrugged shoulders, extorted family members, and named a firearm “Sensational Sherri.”
TisaKorean – Soapy Club
In a better world, TisaKorean’s “Watermelon Booty” would be the biggest song out right now. All due respect to Lil Nas X, but the track is undeniable. The swarming, shaky beat and TisaKorean’s indelible and instructional hypeman skills make this one of the finest dance-rap records in some time. Then again, you could pretty much say that about the entirety of Soapy Club, a 20-minute assault of outlandish raps, quirky ad-libs, and psychedelic and abrasive production that seems transported from another planet. TisaKorean is young and only getting better, but why not board the train now while he’s giving you better music than you could know what to do with? —Israel Daramola
Westside Gunn – Flygod Is an Awesome God
There is a simple reason Buffalo’s Westside Gunn has heads believing New York traditionalism may yet produce another star, and it is not his impeccable taste in ’70s R&B flips or tricky vivid runs like “mathematicians, money machines, fiends overdosin’ over dishes.” It’s his voice: that tireless cackle that hits like it’s insulting your mother from out the sunroof of a G-Class driving past. His trademark “boom-boom-boom-boom” and “skrrrt” ad-libs often function as his music’s primary percussive blows.
Hearing those ad-libs deployed over Conway and Benny verses at a sold-out 1,200-person club in Los Angeles last month proved Gunn would be the world’s greatest hypeman if he wasn’t so good at rapping himself; it also makes most other modern boom-bap sound empty. Flygod is the level-up when Gunn starts getting Madlib beats, and he leans into the theme when appropriate: praying to God that his scale ain’t off, bragging about walking on water before Jesus did it. With the help of a Raekwon intro/coronation and Sauce Walka’s verse-of-the-year entry, it’s Gunn’s best work. —T.B.
Teejayx6 – Fraudulent Activity
Could Teejayx6 possibly have an 800 credit score, as he claims on Fraudulent Activity’s title track? Consider the mixtape’s evidence: the Detroit rapper made $1 million off computers, catfished a white boy out of $6,000 on Tinder, has 20 spare iPhones sitting on ice, stole his grandmother’s social security deposit, stole his dad’s identity, stole his mom’s credit card, Instagram banned him for doing cash flips, feds shut down his Silk Road account, and FedEx banned his address. There’s also a nice moment when Teejay strangles a domestic abuser with a wife beater, though that’s neither here nor there. It’s unwise to take an imaginative scammer at his word, but it’s very fun to listen. —T.B.
Plus: D.C. star-in-the-making Xanman’s Hell Yeah, Chicago drill legend Katie Got Bandz’ The Rebirth, cross-gen Memphis duo Young Dolph and Key Glock’s Dum & Dummer, the triumphant return of French Montana and Max B’s Coke Wave, and the Alchemist’s latest blessing, The Cool Kids’ Layups.
Get Out the Way
A song between YG, Tyga, and Blueface was, of course, inevitable. The former two are currently riding high off “Go Loko,” which would be the biggest hit out of L.A. this year if it wasn’t for the latter’s “Thotiana,” and Blueface showed up on Tyga’s recent album, which you don’t remember existed. “Go Loko,” despite its home on the charts, is mostly a waste of a dope beat, and the Era of Blueface, despite his minor new hit with Rich the Kid, feels like it’s already coming to a close. “Bop,” the song featuring all three, lands with a thud, the kind of “Swagger Like Us”-style posse cut where everyone involved seems to understand that they should be on a song together, but not how to make the song in question any good. Mostly, we’re served misogyny of the Death Row variety, but over a rinky-dink beat and with a chorus that grates against the ear. Drab superstar team-ups like this have the accidental effect of making Blueface, rapping on the beat like it’s layered with banana peels, seem more interesting than he does on his own tracks; Tyga, meanwhile, remains the most vexing presence in popular music. His reemergence is not what we needed, but after “Taste” it is what we deserved. —Jordan Sargent