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Above & Beyond 

The Angel rises

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

"How can you truly be an artist if you’re so worried about being some thing?" pon ders producer and remixer The Angel. "If you’re an artist, you’re an artist."

That’s a tough attitude to stick by in the modern music biz, which puts its participants in neat little boxes, and often rewards them nicely for staying there. But over the past five years, The Angel’s quietly become one of the industry’s most diverse producers and remixers. Though she’s not a Dust Brothers–level household name, the L.A.-based musician’s lent her hand to countless trip-hop, hip-hop and rock 12-inches, compilations and soundtracks. She’s also completed scores for such big-budget films as Gridlock’d and Til There Was You. And, within the past two months, not one but two Angel-spearheaded albums have hit the streets.

The earlier release of the pair, Jaz Klash’s Thru the Haze, is a collaboration between Angel and acclaimed Bristol drum ’n’ bass duo More Rockers (a.k.a. Smith & Mighty), who together create a layered, lightly jazzy and decidedly anti-clashing soundscape. The more recent Tuned In Turned On, released under the banner of 60 Channels (both albums are on World Domination), is an Angel-spawned collective of MCs and singers both little- and well-known: Navigator (of Asian Dub Found ation), Japanese acid-jazz star Monday Michiru, L.A.’s Cokni O’Dire and ex-Frente! leader Angie Hart are a few. It’s a darkly percolating trip-hop otherworld, where Angel drags her participants out from under their various musical rocks and integrates them into her cohesive, sexily atmospheric swirl.

Semicloaked under umbrella names this time around, Angel does release re c ords with her own nom de plume, though she notes that people immediately think of hip-hop when they hear "The Angel." It’s that pigeonholing thing: "I understand why the industry needs those tags," she says, "and why radio and journalists need them. But as an artist, I don’t think we do. I’ve generally tended to sit right in between genres. I fall between the cracks intentionally."

Which is how she’s ended up with such a wide-ranging bunch on the new album. When assembling 60 Channels, she chose to team almost entirely with artists she’d worked with before, and those span the gamut. "I put my feelers out to the people I really respect and whose work I respect, and who I have a great rapport with," she says. "I pretty much work with the same cast of characters." But despite the various cake icings, Angel produced, mixed, engineered, programmed, wrote all songs but one (a Curtis Mayfield cover) and actually did much of the singing herself.

"I didn’t want anyone to have any preconceptions about what I’d be doing," she says of her modestly obscuring pseudonym. "And it was important to me that people didn’t see it as ‘Oh, another female solo artist, yawn.’ Because even I find that boring, truthfully."

Born in Brooklyn and raised partly in Italy, The Angel spent time in London before ending up in Los Angeles five years ago, when she signed her first record deal with the about-to-be-doomed Delicious Vinyl. She picked up the stage moniker at this time; Angel’s her real first name, anyway. Original plans were to release her debut 12-inch as "Angel C.," but she thought it might be confusing: "I said, ‘No way. This is Los Angeles, and there’s 9 million Angels, and 8 million of them are guys.’" When Delicious founder Mike Ross suggested adding the distinguishing prefix, she adopted it, though she found it "a bit posey. I was like, if that solves your marketing problem, go for it," she laughs.

Though the Delicious Vinyl days resulted in just a few singles by The Angel, the move to Hollywood and her association with the label opened up the gates for her as a producer. After convincing label mates the Pharcyde and the Brand New Heavies to let her remix some of their material, Angel soon began doing mixes for such notables as Towa Tei and Spearhead, even getting tapped to try hipping up Australia’s Frente! (previously best known here for their radio-grubbing cover of New Order’s "Bizarre Love Triangle"). "There’s always something good that comes out of even a negative situation," Angel points out optimistically of her brief label stint. "It’s led me to everything up to this point."

Though Angel’s done exceptionally well in a rough business, the road since Delicious hasn’t always been smooth. As one of the few women who’ve gained a rep in the boys-club electronic-music world — on the Svengali side of things rather than as a puppetlike diva — Angel’s seen her share of nu-school record-label chauvinism. "I’ve had a million and one business meetings," she says, "and I can tell you that if I’m in the room with a male manager, a lot of times the conversations will be directed toward [him] —unless it’s something not very important, something fluffy. But I’m ultimately the person that makes the decisions, and I steer my own career."

Fortunately, Angel’s gotten good at ignoring any condescension ("Hey, I’m pretty humble; I just keep my head down and do my thing," she says), but stalwartness alone can’t change her working environment of choice. While the record biz got its nastiest rep due to a few over-the-top harassment cases, its day-to-day sexism isn’t so much about blatant taunts or leering offers as it is about subtle allocation of attention and resources.

"Had I been a guy doing what I’ve been doing all this time, bigger things would have happened sooner," says Angel. "There are a lot of DJ-producers who are guys and who don’t have half the skills that I’ve got, who are doing incredibly well because everybody wants to be excited about them."

After deciding she’d had enough of the majors’ various tribulations, Angel now retains ultimate control of her work by recording in her own studio, then licensing completed albums to record companies after the fact. "So many of my friends have been sold that major-label dream," she explains, "and are sitting around with major deals and can’t even get their product released, demoralized to the point of not even wanting to record any more. All the major-record-company thing is, ultimately, is money up-front, and no guarantee of anything beyond that. As nice as money can be — and we all need it to survive — it’s not worth it to me to sell out to that idea.

"It’s taken me a long time to get to the position where I could [license my own recordings]," she says, "but I’m glad that I stuck it out and waited." She notes that the environment for artists is friendlier now than it was a few years back, and we can all thank the current state of technology for that.

"It used to be that you had no choice," says Angel. "If you didn’t have your own little studio setup — and even if you did, it was never really good enough — you’d have to get a record company to pay for all that stuff. But you don’t need those trimmings anymore. If you don’t need the loan up-front, you’re better off making it yourself and finding a way to put it across. I’ve had to survive through some pretty lean periods, but it’s been very important to me that I do things independently, that I don’t take the usual route. My idea of success is not being rich and famous. It’s making the kind of music that I want to make and people appreciating it and understanding it and liking it, simply because they dig it and get it — not because someone’s hyped it down their throats."

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