For such a prolific artist, it's taken a while for veteran Beijing producer Soulspeak to get a proper solo album out. In addition to bread-and-butter pop production work to pay the bills, the left-field beat maestro has left an impressive dent on the city's hip hop scene via high-profile collaborations with former DMC China champion DJ Wordy and, more recently, underground-heavy MC J-Fever.
Soulspeak, a.k.a. Jeff Liang, has taken advantage of the new wave of independent record labels that have sprung up in Beijing this year: Color Blind, his new LP with J-Fever, was just released by Douban's D Force Records, and newcomer Ran Music has just released Flux, a full-length album collecting snippets of solo work the artist has put in between 2008 and now. Ran's also got two more in the chamber for Soulspeak: an electro-jazz record featuring Shanghai-based trumpeter Toby Mak, and an album for a ten-piece afro-beat band that Liang has put together in his free time.
I sat down with Soulspeak to talk about the skittering influences on Flux, LA vs Beijing beat scene comparisons, his abiding love of funk guitar, and why his next solo album will come out in the format of a plastic toy rabbit...
photo by Fang Yifei
SmBJ: I know you grew up in LA... are you from there originally?
Soulspeak: I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, but I pretty much grew up in LA. My parents are from Taiwan and moved to the States in the '80s. My dad went to school there, and kinda stayed… [laughs] But I grew up in different parts in LA, moving around a lot. My dad was always changing jobs.
SmBJ: What did he do?
Soulspeak: My dad used to own a candy store, selling tea, coffee, almonds, going to different malls and trying to set up stores.
SmBJ: How did you get involved with making music in LA?
Soulspeak: There used to be this hip hop crew called the Handroids. It was two DJs and an MC, they were all graffiti writers. My friend's brother was a DJ and we used to sneak into his room and steal records and fuck with his turntables and stuff. That's how I got into sampling and hip hop stuff, but I've studied classical guitar since I was 11. I've been playing classical music since I was a kid, played piano from when I was 6. When I first started performing it was mostly guitar. Funk bands, rock bands, a lot of punk rock. When I was in middle school and high school I was playing funk and jazz. Hip hop was really when I was in high school and I started working, and I could afford to buy records or dub records from friends.
SmBJ: What kind of shows were you going to when you were growing up?
Soulspeak: At the time, when I was a kid, all the stuff that was all-ages shows was mostly punk rock. So I went to a lot of DIY punk shows. Then when I was in university, it was before Low End Theory, they used to call it Sketchbook. The idea was you'd go into this place and a bunch of DJs would be playing heavy-ass beats, instrumentals, no MCs. And then there would be sketchbooks, you could do graffiti and stuff. This was in response to — LA has this thing called Project Blowed in South Central, it's like an underground hip hop cypher thing. Right next door is this place called The World Stage, which was a jazz club. Like Billy Higgins, those guys started a pretty good jazz club out there. And every Thursday a bunch of kids would go freestyle and just be battling. A lot of people came out of that, like Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5 and all those guys. But Sketchbook was in response to having no place for producers, no place just to play beats. This was before this whole LA beat scene, like Low End Theory.
SmBJ: Would you play there?
Soulspeak: No, I was still fairly inexperienced. I'd just go and listen. I loved the beats they were playing, people like DJ Nobody, Daddy Kev.
SmBJ: Why did you move to China initially?
Soulspeak: My grandparents are all from here. They fled to Taiwan during the revolution, or the civil war, whatever you want to call it. My grandfather's from Qingdao and he'd always say, "You gotta go check out Qingdao." So one day I was working and I just decided to go and check it out. I applied for random jobs, a lot of it had to do with teaching English. I went out and picked up random jobs, and started working on music. And I really liked it. I stayed for a year, then I went back to LA for a year, and I thought LA was kind of boring so I came back.
SmBJ: Back to Qingdao?
Soulspeak: I went back to Qingdao, but it was really slow. There's not a lot of music there. So I ended up coming to Beijing right after the Olympics.
photo by Fang Yifei
SmBJ: Did you know about the the music scene here before coming?
Soulspeak: Actually no, not really. I was doing a lot of internet searches, at that time it was Myspace. I remember meeting this group called Dun Due, it was a Cantonese rap crew that did really out-there shit. Like Quasimoto pitch-shifting their voices really high, rapping over soul samples. I really like that kind of hip hop. But Beijing, it was also because my girlfriend at the time, my wife now, was just like, "Let's change the city." So I said, "Fuck it, let's go." I didn't know too much about Beijing to be honest.
SmBJ: What were you doing for work early on?
Soulspeak: I did English tutoring… I worked at a cafe for a little while, like making mochas and shit. Which I had no experience in. I would just go on the internet and look at the ratios and how to make it. It was a friend who opened a lounge, so I was just working there, just kind of bumming around.
SmBJ: How did you get involved in Beijing music scene after moving here?
Soulspeak: The first people I met I actually met through DJ DSK. I knew him from before, he did a compilation and put some of my music on it. And then he introduced me to this guy called Raph. Raph and MC Weber used to do this thing called Section 6, it was a hip hop party with battles. I didn't know anything about the scene out here so I went to that. One of the first guys I met there was DJ Wordy, we ended up jamming and becoming pretty good friends.
SmBJ: How did you transition into being more active as a musician, and working in music professionally?
Soulspeak: I've always worked as a musician. In LA I was doing classical guitar, session work. And just a lot of random gigs. You're doing a lot of events, and then you also do a lot of studio recording, with cellists and stuff like that. So I did that. And in LA also I started getting involved with commercial writing, sound design, making sound patches for commercial companies. They would ask for specific sound effects, and I would do that kind of sound design. So I've always been involved in that, and making my own music as well. To me they're all kind of connected. There's not a lot of separation.
SmBJ: Putting aside commercial work and collaborations, how many releases have you put out solo, as Soulspeak?
Soulspeak: Not very many. I haven't released that much stuff on my own. It's because I think I'm kind of partially too low-key, and partially too lazy. The self-promotion thing never really interested me that much. The process of making music is very serious and sacred, but once it becomes a product, it's something that exists, but that I don't think about pushing too much. I don't do Soundcloud as much as I should, Xiami, those kinds of things. The album I'm putting out now, a lot of the songs I finished in '09. A lot of that music was done in '08, '09, and I added a couple of tracks from last year. I'm always making music, but not really thinking about the actual release.
So for personal releases, I've done one EP in LA, with a defunct record label called Future Stress, it was mostly beat stuff. Then I did an EP earlier this year with Ran, Ghost Echoes, and the one that's about to be released, Flux. With Wordy we've done three albums I think. Two albums and one with ChaCha. Then production for other people, I've done a lot of random shit. Like pop artists, just to make a living.
SmBJ: Listening to Flux, I feel I can sense your influences shifting over time. A lot of it has a very LA sound, parts of it even reminiscent of classic Dre stuff. And there's influence from the LA beat scene I can pick up on. And then some tracks have higher BPM, more syncopation, kind of a footwork sound. How have your influences changed over time?
Soulspeak: Probably you're right, a lot of it's growing up in LA, that influenced a lot. Especially the pre-Flying Lotus beat stuff was a heavy influence. Not so much Dre, but I think Dre kind of encapsulated that sound, that heavy Moog bass type shit. I think cats like Battlecat, Snoop Dogg's first album. But also more obscurely, there's a heavy P-Funk influence I think. LA's sound is heavily influenced by Parliament. So there's definitely a huge funk, soul influence in everything. Especially because that was the first music that I loved to play, funk guitar is so fun to play. And Flying Lotus, stuff like that... It was more like Aphex Twin, and actually a lot of Detroit techno. But that's not so apparent in my music.
The sound's definitely changed. Especially after coming to China. In LA you're surrounded by that stuff. You have choices, but you get involved in certain scenes. I think being in Beijing I've been more exposed to different kinds of music. Especially from the UK, different kinds of grime, stuff I never knew about in LA. No one in LA is like, "Yo, let's go listen to some grime, let's put Wiley on." Footwork, at the time there was no footwork. There was Chicago ghetto tech, ghetto house, shit like that. So I guess being here... It's kind of weird, because there aren't a lot of scenes. There are scenes, but they're really loose. But I think I'm listening to more music on my own here, digging for more obscure stuff.
SmBJ: What other comparisons or contrasts can you draw between LA and Beijing?
Soulspeak: I don't know about the hip hop scene in LA now, since I've been out here. But the kind of hip hop I liked back in LA was very DIY, what they called "underground" hip hop. It's kind of a stupid term. But very much in opposition, in its ethics. I like that about music culture, when there's set of ethics, unspoken rules. I feel like it doesn't exist so much with the hip hop here. Hip hop in Beijing is still kind of stuck in a sense in the '90s underground boom bap stuff, or it's kind of flipped completely to trap-based stuff. I like more experimental hip hop but I don't find a lot of that in China unfortunately. The kind of hip hop I like is kind of... doing shit that's not really "hip hop." It's not really "hip hop," but it's still hip hop. I don't know if that makes any sense. [laughs]
SmBJ: You've had first-hand experience working with a few of the major new indie labels that have popped up in Beijing recently, like D Force and Ran Music. What do you think about the label landscape in China? Do you think it's moving in a direction that will support artists or support music in a new way?
Soulspeak: Yeah, I think definitely it'll help artists. Like family-wise, money-wise, labels help front some of the money you'd have to pocket yourself. A lot of artists, if you're just surviving on music, you pick up random gigs just to make a living. But I think a lot of younger artists need support in terms of handling internet stuff, PR, logistics, and I think a lot of the newer labels are pretty good about that kind of thing.
On the other hand, because there's a lot of new labels, it's too soon to tell what kind of impact they'll have. Once it becomes a huge industry...like doing work for pop stuff in China, there's a huge amount of ghost-writing. And copyright for big companies is pretty fucked up. The big companies out here that you do production work for, they buy your rights straight up. Like the song will give you nothing, but here's an amount of money for you to produce it. And even working with smaller labels… I've worked with [some non-pop labels] who'll say, "This is all the money we can give you." It was mostly friends who were asking me to do it so I was like, "Cool, whatever, money's not that big of a deal." But it's the same shit, where [the label] doesn't talk about copyrights.
With these new, smaller labels, there's actually a talk about copyrights. With Ran, they were really clear that the copyright is negotiable. D Force was also pretty negotiable on certain parts of the copyright. So I think for an artist, the rights to your music is still pretty important.
Soulspeak: In terms of whether it's going to change anything… To be honest, I'm not very hopeful for anything. I don't really think that far ahead. Nor do I really give a fuck if it changes. I think there are artists that are always gonna do their own thing. Labels help, but to me it won't be a revolution or anything. Because this kind of music, it's still very… there's not a huge audience for it. Especially if you look at Flux, a lot of it's reminiscent of '90s or early 2000s beat music, which wasn't even big then. But it's shit that I had sitting and I wanted to put out.
SmBJ: You have a lot of records coming out this year… In addition to Flux you also just released an album you did with J-Fever on D Force, and Ran has lined up an album you recorded with Shanghai-based jazz trumpeter Toby Mak, as well as another record for Flash Beats Bone, a band that you started. How does the experience of collaboration change your work, as opposed to when you're in the studio, in the box making beats?
Soulspeak: To me, I like collaborating with others because if you're at home all day, you kind of easily… You're always struggling to challenge yourself to do new shit that's interesting to yourself. And I don't want to recycle the same things over and over. So I like collaborating. Toby's a great jazz player. He's pretty much a staple in the Shanghai jazz scene, and he's from Australia and he was doing a lot of very traditional jazz out there. I met Toby gigging with a pop R&B singer. He was on the gig and we played together. He's interested in electronic music, and I'm interested in jazz, so we just started sending ideas back and forth. On record it's one thing, but live it's something completely different. There's a lot more room for improv. That'll come out in November or December, we'll probably play a lot for that one.
And the band, Flash Beats Bone, started out with me and this guy named Lucas. We actually started as a production duo for some Inner Mongolian music. We met for a gig to produce this Inner Mongolian singer. She didn't like the track, she said it was too weird. But we both liked it. So we were like, "Fuck it, let's make it into something else." And it expanded into a broken-beat, electronic, afro-beat thing. I guess long story short, I like collaborating with people. It's just fun to do.
SmBJ: Do you have any other projects coming up?
Soulspeak: Yeah, I'm doing this lullaby album right now. You know those white plastic bunnies? It's like kids' toys, there's a chip inside with songs, and you can choose stories on MP3s and stuff. And the songs in there are really bad, like "Xiao Pingguo" and shit like that. But my daughter loves that thing. So I had the idea to… I've been composing music, super slow, ambient, vapor-wave, slowed-down beats type stuff. I want to import that music into the chip and put it back in this bunny rabbit. So, hack the rabbit and then play it for my kid, and try to maybe put it out or something. It would only exist in that format. Which is interesting, because it allows me to think about music in terms of, you know, the function of it in that state is different than say making beats for a car, or for a club.
SmBJ: Do you usually think about the end result when you're producing?
Soulspeak: Rarely. Unless it's a gig. Unless they're like, "OK, I want you to make a song with this feeling." Usually they're really abstract. I used to pick up production work where they're very specific. And I stopped doing those because they're stupid. One guy will be like, "Can you make a song like Edison Chen," or, "I want a song exactly like Erykah Badu." It's just like, "Then why did you find me to do this? You can find anyone to copy the chord changes, change the sound, switch the pattern of the drum. Anyone who just graduated from any music school in China can do that shit." So usually when I produce stuff for myself, I don't think about anything. I spend a lot of time listening to different kinds of music, and then I'll just try to be blank and experiment and see what comes out.
Flux is available now through Ran Music; stream it here, and keep an eye on their feeds for updates on Soulspeak's upcoming collaborative records and associated gigs.
Top/cover photo by Fang Yifei