Photo byt Larry Hirshowitz
I’m late for an interview with The Angel, and when we finally do hook up, she makes her displeasure known. When you’re as slammed with projects as this criminally underrated voice in the underground dance scene, there’s no time for anything except dwellin’ in the lab 24-7, for real. Actually, she’s gotta be about the most engaging sound-fabricator any brain-picking info-seeker could hope to chat with — just don’t call her a diva.
“If I had been an MC, I knew everybody would think it was some man who propped me up, that somebody else was pushing all the buttons — that’s an automatic assumption if you’re a woman,” says the dreadlocked producer (whose name on her birth certificate really is The Angel). “I have done some emceeing, in the early days, but it’s never been what I was about. I’d much rather be controlling, shaping the music, you know?”
The Angel’s beat-based consciousness was forged in Brooklyn at the tail end of the b-boy scene circa mid-to late-’80s. But the real catalyst was her London stint from ’91 to ’96, hanging out with everyone from Headrillaz to Goldie, going through drum ’n’ bass boot camp and getting a handle on how to produce. When she got back to the States, rather than hooking up with a rap dynasty or dancing on the end of a Svengali’s strings, The Angel found a third way to get paid: the movies. She got in on that gravy train and kept her cred with Boiler Room, the smash indie film she scored in its entirety.
Machiavellian concessions to commerce for the sake of her art is a fundamental part of The Angel’s modus operandi, but it’s turning down the chance to work with former Police drummer and film-score honcho Stewart Copeland on the Bruckheimer-size Tim Roth vehicle Gridlock’d that best illuminates her character. “I have a lot of respect for Stewart’s creativity and actually am very fond of him as a person, but I knew that it wouldn’t be a real collaboration, and I wasn’t going to be the tea boy. I’d forever be associated with someone else. So he did his thing and I did mine — we each had separate cues. It worked out for the best, and I still got credited.”
In between the Hollywood hullabaloo, The Angel vents artistic steam with 60 Channels, a dream-’n’-bass indulgence that her scoring work helps to bankroll. “The whole purpose of 60 Channels is to see how far I can push my production skills — it’s an outlet for the extreme side of my personality.” But it’s a side too few people got to hear. The 60 Channels Give Me Your Love disc’s original label and distributor, World Domination, went under soon after the album’s release. Unfazed, The Angel re-released it on her own Supa Crucial Recordings, but that was too little, too late. “You’ve already serviced [journalists, etc.], so on the second go-round it’s kind of anticlimactic.” At the moment, Supa Crucial’s roster of artists includes, well, herself — but not for long. The label’s debut drop, The Angel’s No Gravity, should draw aspiring jocks like flossers to Cristal. The record is aptly titled because no category can contain its quiet riot of dub, passive-aggressive beatdowns, funked-out lounge, and verbal virtuosos such as Divine Styler and the Pharcyde’s Tre Hardson. More democratic than the eggheaded 60 Channels, No Gravity is something the laptop set can nod to while keeping dancing heads at the party.
“The feedback I’m getting on this record is that it really flows. I wouldn’t say it’s a commercial record. Actually, it’s a lot closer to the stuff I did when I was just starting out, so in a way I’ve come full circle — and if that means No Gravity’s more accessible as a result, I don’t have a problem with that.”
Some of No Gravity’s contributors, like ragamuffin Navigator, Cokni O’Dire and GoodVibe recording artist and diva-in-the-making Mystic, may be new names to the masses, but these are people The Angel has worked with as far back as her London days. “I don’t want it to be like some cameo where they show up to do their thing and get paid and leave,” The Angel says sternly. “Hopefully, our music works off each other in a reciprocal kind of way.”
The Angel has a reputation as a gear geek, tech-head, whatever you want to call someone who likes to have state-of-the-art toys to make music. Nerdy only in her easy familiarity with the USS Enterprise–like consoles of today’s gadgets, the truth is that The Angel is refreshingly Luddite. “I’m pretty old-school — I like the simple stuff and just finding new ways to get the most out of it.” There are a few indulgences, like her Akai s-series sampler and those pricey little Yamaha O2R mixers, of which she has two hooked up together for some 80-channel splice-’n’-dice action. “You don’t have to have the latest or most expensive equipment,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘Oh, you gotta have this and you gotta have that.’ Basically, the best equipment is whatever works best for you.”
Talk to anyone who uses, say, a Palm Pilot, and they’ll marvel at how they ever did without. The same can be said of producers. “I always swore I’d never go digital, but ProTools [recording and editing software] allows you to do so much — taking care of all the grunt work like lining stuff up and tracing, which remembers everything you do so you don’t have to search for it later. Before, it was like five people had to work together on one track, and there was always one person who’d fuck up and not remember how they did that one cool effect or whatever.”
Think we’re dropping names in an advertorial way? Frankly, The Angel does get a pittance here and there for her endorsements, but from none of the above, so there. (“Yamaha doesn’t give me anything — they’re Yamaha, they don’t need to.”) And her advice to aspiring producers fording a wilderness of Rolands, Technics and Korgs? Stay lost. “The only way to learn all this stuff is to dive right in. There have been times when I would have to be patient and pull out the manual, which was the worst. I think the people who write those things have only a vague understanding of the technology — they aren’t the people who designed the equipment, and they damn sure aren’t musicians.”
Like all machine-dependent composers, The Angel is as opinionated on sampling as when Flavor Flav declared, “Y’all can’t copyright no beats.” When is it adornment, and when is it plagiarism? The Angel isn’t taking any chances. If a sound isn’t from a legally clear CD sample glossary, she’ll snag a single note from a session musician — the cursory thwack of a snare, the plink of a piano key, perhaps — and use that as the base for a loop to be stretched and manipulated endlessly. “[Sampling] is just a super-useful technique — it’s also great because you have an instant hit. I mean, because your source was a hit, how could yours not be one?” she says, laughing. “In a lot of ways, it’s really a retro way of making music, all those old funk and soul records. And if you do go that route, you’re gonna have to worry about clearing, and if you’re gonna do that, you’re talking serious money.”
Squirreled away in the studio is where The Angel is happiest, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t occasionally feel the need to flex her chops live. “I don’t have anything special planned, like spinning on my head,” she says of her upcoming performance at Sugar. “Hopefully I can get some of the people who play on No Gravity to help out, but it’s just a question of who’s around — they all have their own projects.” All the better to rock it spontaneous, you might say. Plus, you never know what tastemakers might be in the audience, right? Like she cares. The Angel has neatly sidestepped the mainstream music biz with her New Line Records distribution deal, which gets her product on the retail shelves, but more importantly furnishes her with a direct pipeline to filmmakers in need of a fresh score. Keeping clubbers swaying and the popcorn eaters tripping — now there’s a crossover audience.
The Angel’s outlook on the game is an unusual mix of steely resolve and clear-eyed realism. She’s not cocky, but there’s no question she knows exactly who she is. “The odds of making it in this business are incredibly slim. That’s why the only viable way for most people is to go independent. Unless you’re going for the gold, there’s no point in trying to write what you think people want to hear.”