The Toronto-based producer discusses a Yamaha keyboard that provided valuable lessons in composition, DIY demos, the Roland SP-505, and her evolving workflow.
The vast catalog of DJ, producer, and vocalist Vanese Smith - better known as Pursuit Grooves - defies simple genre categorization. Running the gamut from instrumental hip-hop to house, ambient, and everything in between, she has consistently displayed an impressive range of sounds in the 15-plus years since her first record dropped.
Though perhaps best known these days for immersive instrumentals, Grooves did not start out as a beatmaker. Growing up in between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, her foray into production began after she picked up the mic at age 15. After a stint rapping over other people’s beats, she realized she could create her own instrumentals with a little bit of practice.
In a time well before the abundance of Instagram and YouTube tutorials available today, Grooves started from scratch. As a teenager in the mid-90s she picked up a Yamaha PSR-510 keyboard synthesizer and subsequently developed a better understanding of textures, percussion, and chords. “It had five internal tracks that I could build songs with,” she says. “I could only use the internal sounds so I really developed my sense of drum building and chord playing - which was great to practice before I added sampling capabilities.”
The Fostex X-18 4-track was another useful tool that allowed her to enrich her beats by incorporating vocals. Though it would be some years before Grooves had a proper first album, there were several early attempts to share her music with the world. First came the 1998 cassette tape The Pursuit of Fixations, which was entirely composed with her Yamaha and Fostex. This tape isn’t currently available anywhere outside of her personal collection and the few lucky people who have a copy.
Next in line was the 2003 CD-R Bliss Amongst the Haystack. Composed entirely on a Roland SP-505 sampler and microKORG synthesizer/vocoder, this album has a Discogs listing but is considered by Grooves to be more of a demo than anything else.
Nevertheless, putting these two projects together helped her build up a DIY skill set that proved useful in future endeavors. “I carried copies of each during that time to pass around old school hip-hop style,” she says. “I designed my covers - even purchased a CD printer where I could print directly onto the CD.”
A 2001 move to New York City gave ample opportunity to further hone her beatmaking skills while dipping her toe into the music industry through internships. Five years after her relocation to the city she released her debut Fun Like Passion, a 13-track instrumental album entirely composed with a Roland SP-505 and a microKORG. The beautifully somber Dilla tribute “Missin U Simply” serves as the opener and sets the tone perfectly, while other memorable moments include the hype, hard-hitting “Healing Secrets.”
Around this time Grooves met A & R, DJ, and producer Jay Scarlett at a show in Amsterdam for the British electronic group Spacek. Their connection led to the inclusion of her track “Push Up” (also from Fun Like Passion) on Rush Hour’s seminal 2007 instrumental compilation Beat Dimensions Vol.1, which features the likes of Hudson Mohawke and the Flying Lotus + Samiyam duet FLYamSAM.
Grooves credits MySpace for initially helping her interact with others in a rapidly expanding beatmaking community well before the dominance of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. She made connections with other like-minded creatives all around the world as all sorts of new opportunities presented themselves. In 2008 she found herself headed to Barcelona to participate in the Red Bull Music Academy with peers Dorian Concept, Sauce 81, Fatima, Lukid, Nino Moschella, Onra, Taku, and Teebs.
Meanwhile, other important figures in the industry started to take note of her work. In 2010 legendary radio DJ and label owner Giles Peterson selected her song “Pressure” for his Brownswood Bubblers Six compilation. The song, which features excellent sung and rapped vocals from Grooves, comes from her projects Wild Art Forestry (2008) and Fox Trot Mannerisms (2010).
Her Roland SP-505 sampler played a critical role during her first decade-plus of recorded music. “The 505 was my SP-12/1200 or MPC,” she says. “In my price range of course, and with a lot more sampling time.”
Though her beloved 505 featured heavily on Fun Like Passion (2006), Wild Art Forestry (2008), Fox Trot Mannerisms (2010), Frantically Hopeful (2011), Leaping Desire (2012), 91 Fellows (2012), Preparation (2012), and Modern Day Minerals (2014), her methods of employing it continued to evolve over time. On her early work she never used the sequencer on the 505. “I just resampled and layered over the track before,” she says. “It meant that I couldn't go back and change anything, but it meant I had to really train my ear.”
As time went on, however, she started tracking out instrumentals into GarageBand to expand her recording capabilities and improve the quality of mixdowns.
After a decade of fairly dedicated use of the 505, she mixed things up by mostly utilizing the simple software iDrum to create her 2013 album Broadcasting A Sensory Sequence. The record has a heavy focus on drum programming and mixing, with Grooves playing all the basslines and melodies herself.
Though seemingly full of endless reserves of energy, she found herself lacking the ever-bright spark that had fueled her creativity for so long after the release of 2015’s Mythico. This lack of desire to record new tunes turned out to only be temporary, as she has released three albums in the six years since: Felt Armour (2018), Bess (2019), and Mo:Delic Island (2021).
Like her music, Pursuit Grooves current career path does not easily fit into a neat little box. In addition to her instrumental production, she is an esteemed live performer and DJ as well as a respected video art and graphic designer who works under the name Mo:delic Arts. Her recent resume includes a role as consultant and instructor for the 2021 Disney movie Spin and production work on Ebony Pioneers, a short film about 35 Black women who from the 1960s and ‘70s who were trailblazers in various disciplines.
Now, as a featured artist at the May 2022 Electric Island festival in Ontario Place West Island, Pursuit Grooves will no doubt continue to push the envelope in electronic and sample-based music well into the future.
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