"The Capacity to Put Out a Lot of Depth”: A Mejiwahn Interview
The Oakland-based producer discusses the benefit of constraints, his use of the vintage Casio SK-1, collaborations with Liv.e, and his upcoming album.
Several years before contributing to projects like Liv.e’s full-length solo debut Couldn't Wait To Tell You... and Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin’s collaboration FlySiifu's, Oakland-based producer Mejiwahn spent a summer working hundreds of hours at an Alaskan Salmon cannery. After completing his stint there he purchased a brand new laptop and started making instrumentals with Ableton.
His first publicly released tracks went up on Bandcamp and Soundcloud in 2013. To make compositions at this stage of his career he utilized both extended loops and tiny musical fragments, which he once described as “sprinkles on a donut.” Early works like “Unknown Planet” and the Chester Watson collaboration “Origami” - both of which were produced as Art Vandelay moniker - showcase the origins of his current sound and style.
While the endless possibilities provided by Ableton were useful early on, with passing time he sought out more constraints to help simplify his creative process. “I had the patience and the excitement at the beginning to spend a week or two on a beat back then,” he says. “But now I can hardly spend more than a day or two before I just need to move on.”
After starting out on Ableton Mejiwahn incorporated an AKAI MPC1000 (later swapped out for a 2000XL) and a Roland SP-404. The famed 404 still features heavily in his current setup, as does an electro-harmonix 45000 Multi-Track Looping Recorder and other bits of gear. The 45000 enables easy music-making and collaboration with other people like Brussels-based producer ShunGu, a close friend who he enjoys recording with in-person whenever possible. It also cuts out the need to look at a screen while working. “Definitely, at least for me, the screen distracts so much from using my ears,” he says. “Maybe I'm just easily visually distracted.”
The Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard from the mid-‘80s is also a integral part of his collection. Though the device is rather limited by today’s standards, it was employed by heavyweights like Easy Mo Bee, Large Professor, and Questlove early in their careers. Over the past 35 years the vintage sampler has earned itself a devoted online fanbase due to some of the interesting textures it generates. “The quality of it, even though it sounds like a toy, kind of, does pick up a low end and it has the capacity to put out a lot of depth,” Mejiwahn says.
In addition to depth of sound, the keyboard’s ability to record any sample and time stretch/pitch the sample across the keyboard is one of his favorite features. And while many fellow SK-1 affianados look to the sampling features when using it, the stock sounds that Casio included are also well worth exploring. “The flute and organ sounds are really nice,” he says. “There's a portamento button and a vibrato button that both add cool effects.”
Mejiwahn also points to the one key play feature, a function that he has just become more familiar with. Essentially, it lets artists play out an extended sequence on the keyboard and then play it back at any speed by using the right combination of buttons. He hypothesizes that this may have been a way for beginning pianists to hear brief bits of their work replayed at different speeds.
Whatever its intended use, it provides open-minded musicians with endless opportunities to warp their own sounds and sequences. “It's just part of the technology within the Casio that makes it sound all fucked up and weird when you do that function and try to push it past its intended limits,” he says. “It makes me think, ‘Who has unlocked that function in the past on records that you might not know?’”
Though it is far from a mainstay in modern studios, the SK-1 still found its way into the recording sessions for Dallas/Los Angeles-based vocalist Liv.e’s critically acclaimed 2020 full-length debut Couldn't Wait To Tell You..… Produced by Mejiwahn and co-produced by Daoud Anthony (co-producer of Saba’s Care for Me) and Shungu, the record features one track of production/keys from Dolfin Records’ Ben Hixon and additional instrumentation from Brainfeeder’s Salami Rose Joe Louis, Oakland’s Cheflee and Pacific Yew, and pianist Kafari, who hails from Portland, Maine. These combined talents effectively blended elements of instrumental hip-hop, jazz, R & B, and soul to provide the necessary musical support for Liv.e’s potent vocals.
On “Moving On Felt Great and This Feels (Good) Too” - which features C.S. Armstrong and the musical stylings of Mejiwahn, ShunGu, Kafari, Salami Rose Joe Louis, and Cheflee - Mejiwahn ran his voice through the SK-1 and replayed it while everyone jammed over MPC percussion by ShunGu. Readers looking to hear the SK-1 vocals should check the middle of the song and listen closely to the background melody.
Salami Rose Joe Louis also had an opportunity to utilize the SK-1 on “Stories With Aunt Liv,” which features her collaborating with Mejiwahn, Shungu, and Cheflee on production. The SK-1’s easy vocal sampling once again proved useful as Louis sampled her own voice and replayed it.
Listeners with carefully trained ears might also be able to catch the sound of the studio’s well-worn drum pedal squeaking during recording. The squeaks sounded surprisingly good as part of the beat and ended up making the final cut.
Mejiwahn is also quick to credit ShunGu’s mastery of the MPC2000XL for giving the percussion on Couldn't Wait To Tell You... unique textures that proved key to the overall production. Though a beat up drum kit did provide some of the sounds used for recording, Mejiwahn and ShunGu also curated “drum” hits using some very interesting methods. “What we would do to start the day when he was out here is just record a bunch of sounds,” he says. “Put the mic in a cardboard box and hit the bottom for a kick or tap a pen on something. A lot of those sounds are just random objects in the studio.”
Given how much great music came out of these sessions, it’s no big surprise there was even more left in the stash. With the one-year release date anniversary of Couldn't Wait To Tell You..… passing at the end of July 2021, Liv.e decided to drop CWTTY+. A continuation of sorts, the liner notes state that the album, “features 6 unreleased songs including ‘the true ending of this project!’” Fans of the duo’s previous work won’t be disappointed thanks to Liv.e and Mejiwahn co-production and Liv.e’s beautiful vocal flexing.
These days Mejiwahn is closing in the finish line of his first solo release since 2018. Though specifics regarding the composition, gear, and overall sound of the project are under wraps for now, fans can expect a selection of music recorded with friends over the past 2-3 years. Whether or not he employs samplers like the SK-1 remains to be seen, but if his track record thus far is any indication, the album will be a quality product regardless of the gear used to make it.
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