"The strongest element of Damacha’s music is its potent ability to establish an immediate mood. The songs on Ding Ding are all short, simple, and sample-based, but within seconds, each one suggests some feeling or elicits some image in my mind. On opener “Taiping Road,” for example, Damacha samples a tip-toeing melody from a harp or zither-like instrument over a burbling low end and rickety old percussion. The track evokes mystery, pure and simple — the aural equivalent of Tintin stealthily walking Shanghai’s night streets... There is no doubt that Damacha’s vocal samples — from The Blue Lotus and elsewhere — help to set these moods."
This review begins to get at Damacha's distinctive style: an obsession with Chinese sonic culture, filtered through the mind of a particularly internet-articulate beat savant. Damacha's music — while averaging out around the 90 bpm boom-bap mark — jumps from style to style and incorporates samples from every possible source, working through the maestro's flitting obsessions with Chinese mall techno, McDonald's music, classical instrumentation, gutter pop; his collaborations with producers and rappers mediated by Twitter, Weibo, Wechat, QQ, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Douban; and his in-the-flesh encounters with Shanghai's underground elite at such glorious dives as The Shelter, Arkham, Arcade.
Late last year, Damacha released a cassette on new Hangzhou-based hip hop upstart Groove Bunny Records, and is readying an experiment in Shanghai-inflected foowork for the excellent SVBKVLT label. Look for the latter to drop soon. In the mean time, Damacha's taking the high-speed train up for his Beijing debut on Friday, March 6 at Dada. Ahead of that, he took us to some of his favorite vinyl and cassette digging spots in Shanghai, and waxed philosophical about the art of sampling, Chinese hip hop, Xinjiang techno, etc...
Digging with Damacha:
Damacha: I played guitar and a couple of other random instruments for a while. When I first came to China at the end of 2010 is when I first started making beats on my own. I had been doing electronic stuff with friends, but that's when I first started using Ableton and making my own beats. It was right when I moved to Beijing and experienced China for the first time. So making my own electronic music has always gone hand in hand with me learning Chinese and being into Chinese culture. Right when I was expanding my own style of music for the first time was when I was experiencing China for the first time, so they're kind of together in my brain.
Damacha: I've always liked Chinese hip hop. When I first heard Chinese hip hop I had been studying Chinese for a couple of years already, and I was really fascinated with it just because of the wordplay and everything. At that time, I was still kind of under the impression that in China, you couldn't just do whatever you want. And I was like, "These rappers are going out, doing whatever they want, saying whatever they say, that's so cool." I know it's not really like that now, it's different now. But yeah, I've definitely been influenced by Chinese hip hop. And also Chinese traditional music, Chinese pop. I love all kinds of Chinese music.
Damacha: The first Chinese rapper I really liked was Soft Lipa, Danbao (蛋堡). He's a Taiwanese rapper, jazz hip-hop. It was pretty easy to understand compared to other rappers, so that was the first one I liked.
Damacha: And then, when I moved to Beijing, I heard IN3 (阴三儿) for the first time, and that was fucking awesome. Hearing IN3 and Jiaowei — in my opinion the best MC from IN3 — and Xiao Laohu. I saw Xiao Laohu freestyle live once, it was the first time I ever heard his music. And I was like, "Fuck, these rappers are way cooler than any rappers I know back home, and this is happening right here in front of me." I thought Xiao Laohu was cooler than Lil' Wayne or Mos Def or anyone.
Damacha: I moved to Shanghai in August of 2013. The first show that I ever played was a 1LVSH thing. But that's not really how I got plugged into the scene here, that was kind of a one-off. I met Endy [Chen], the Groove Bunny Records guy, through this Taiwanese rapper named Li Mao. She's done work with Xiao Laohu and Tangrenti also. I just knew her over the internet, and she introduced me to Groove Bunny Records. Then Endy hooked me up with a show at The Shelter, and then more people saw me play that night. I made more friends, like Ceezy and Kin. And then eventually I met [Shelter boss] Gaz, and [venue managers / promoters] Reggie and Li Sisi...
I've worked with a couple of local rappers in Shanghai. Not that many. I've worked with a rapper here named Tommy Sire. He was doing something with an American rapper named Brian King. I've done a song with each of them individually. I've worked with a local rapper named Maxfeel, he's a really good rapper, I want to do more work with him.
Damacha: Other producers… A producer here that I've been doing a lot of stuff with lately is a guy named Swimful Buterfly. He's from England, actually… I met him on Twitter. [laughs] He had been to Shanghai a couple of times, spent some time here in the past, and he had just graduated from school. So I was talking to him online, and he ended up moving here. I make beats with him all the time, because he's kind of doing a similar thing with me, trying to give new life to slept-on Chinese music and samples, Chinese instrumentation, just the art of sampling… But he makes trap. So the stuff I've been making with him is different. He and I and this guy Pantoo are working on a project together currently.
Damacha: My way of going about making beats... it's not about whether a sample is good or bad, that's not necessarily the point. It's just that it's there, that I absorb it. Sometimes I find a really good sample, that's from a song that's really well produced or recorded, a really good melody, but I can't make a good beat out of it because I don't get inspiration from it. A lot of times, "good" stuff is harder for me to work with, and I would rather work with something lower-quality, or not as well-produced or well-known, just because there's more room to get creative with it. There's no right or wrong. I don't have a set method, like getting the sample, chopping it up, and making a beat out of it.
Being in China is the influence. Being in China is the inspiration for it, alone. To absorb everything that you confront aurally while living here. All the sounds, like the crazy music that they're playing in McDonald's, or that really annoying song that they always play on the radio. So it's more trying to absorb what's going on around me, really.
SmBJ: When you're digging for samples, what exactly are you looking for? That first shop you took me to, it's like an antiques store that randomly has a bunch of old flexis. How did you find that place?
Damacha: Honestly, I was just walking down the street one day, and I was like, "No, it can't be…" There was a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk, and I walked a bit closer, and I was like, "Indeed it is." It was just a big pile of records, and they had them out on the sidewalk. I literally was just walking down the street…
Damacha: There aren't any famous singers in there. Those records are… it's all like, "the government says to make this so they make it" kind of stuff. Honestly, I don't look for any names in particular. Especially with these. With the tapes, you can find names, but with these… I mean, you could find some Western operas and stuff, but I just try to find things I think are interesting. I like to collect records from around the world. At my house, I organize my records by which country they're from, not necessarily by the genre. I'm more interested in hearing different stuff from different areas of the world and different styles of music than a particular musician.
SmBJ: So you're just looking at what's written on the label and buying them based on that?
Damacha: Well yeah. They're three kuai! I don't buy any of the ones that have Communist songs, though. I heard it's illegal to sample the national anthem.
Oh, this one is a story on a disc. This one should be cool to sample. It says "Story Disc: The Shining Red Star."
SmBJ: Are you a big vinyl collector back home?
Damacha: Yeah, yeah. It's the same thing, though. I'd be digging with my friends, and they'd be like, "I'm trying to find this soul singer from Motown, 1977." And I'd be like, "I want to find a Russian record." [laughs] I'm not a big music nerd like that, I don't really know that many names of singers unlike most people who are really into music. I don't really remember them that well. I collect records back home too, I have my collection in Wisconsin, sitting in a trunk in a basement. I don't have that big of a collection of records, not like Gaz or Endy. Endy, if you ever get the chance to see his collection... it's insane.
SmBJ: How did you find the spot with the cassettes?
Damacha: I went there with Endy. That was two months ago, maybe. He just heard that there was digging at the Qiujiang Lu electronics market, down in the basement, for records. So we came to look for records, and we were walking down the street and we just saw those piles of tapes.
SmBJ: What did you get this time?
Damacha: I actually got singers and stuff. I got Mariah Carey, Teresa Teng. One is just piano songs.
As far as Chinese music goes, I do keep track of singers and artists more than I used to. This one's Yang Fei Fei, she's a Shanghai local. She's in operas and stuff. This is Wang Leehom (王力宏). He's like, [sings "Forever Young"]. Horrible. It's like Jay Chou-type stuff. This project I'm working on for Gaz, this footwork project, I sample Wang Leehom in a song. It's a cool effect, where you don't really think about it as Wang Leehom, but he's there.
And then I got Jay Chou…
SmBJ: I guess you have more name recognition with cassettes, but are you also getting some of them blind?
Damacha: Yeah. Like the piano one, I don't know what's on that. I love buying tapes where I don't know what they are. It's much more fun that way. This one's called 红楼梦, like the Dream of the Red Chamber or whatever. I don't know how it's on a tape. I thought it was just a book.
One of them I got today, it's like, "the gourd brother", 葫芦哥... what's a hulu? Like a gourd, right? Yeah, I have no idea what that will sound like.
SmBJ: You just released a cassette on Groove Bunny, right? Is there anything particular about the cassette as a medium that you like as a producer and a listener?
Damacha: If you have a Walkman, it's really nice to be able to put a cassette in there. You press play, and you don't press stop until you're done listening to it. It's not like listening to a song on your iPhone or something, it ruins it. Even when people got iPods, they were constantly switching tracks, because you have so many songs. But with a Walkman, you just leave the tape in there. You might listen to the same tape like five times before you even end up switching it. I think it's a much more fully developed way to listen to music, just because of the physical medium. Even though the sound isn't gonna be as good... or maybe you like the sound better, like I do. [laughs] I like how tapes sound. Everything sounds better on a ribbon. It's so cool to have your music on a ribbon, you know? It's just a handsome little box with your music.
Damacha: My next release, for SVBKVLT, will be on CD. It's like footwork, kind of. I could make 90 bpm hip-hop beats until I go blue in the face, because I've done it so much now. But I've been spending all this time in Shanghai, going to shows all the time, because there's so much good music here. And the taste in Shanghai is different, what people want is always different. A lot of people want to hear more "club" forms of music. People don't go out to listen to Aphex Twin or Flying Lotus or something. People go out and they want to hear EDM and shit. So my music has kind of been affected by the club culture in Shanghai, I guess. Trying to make a club form of music, but it's the weirdest club form of music I can think of to make. Footwork sounds really weird when you first hear it. The dance influence is one thing that's different, I've never done that before.
Damacha: The other thing that's different is I'm sampling these modern forms of music. I'm sampling Chinese pop, and these random CDs from those guys that sell CDs on the street, you know, with the speakers. Like Chinese wholesale pirated goods techno or something. I don't know what it is. It's cool. Have you ever heard Xinjiang techno? I'm trying to find some good Xinjiang techno. I don't know who makes it. I really want to find out. Sampling the synths from that is really cool, to take it and use it in my own way.
I'm trying not to directly sample stuff that much any more. Just taking a loop and putting your own drums under it, it gets old. So I'm trying to sample things in more creative ways and use more than one sample in a song, bring a lot of different samples in. Do more composition with samples.
Damacha: Other than the SVBKVLT thing, another big thing coming up is a split tape with Pete Chen. He's another producer on Groove Bunny. I went down to Guangzhou earlier this month and just hung out with him for two weeks, making beats all the time. We did a lot of work on this split. And we're always on QQ all day, sending samples and shit to each other. It's gonna be a cool project I think. We use a lot of the same samples, and we might rap a little, both of us, even though we both suck at rapping. [laughs] But it's kind of for fun.
Damacha: I feel people see me as mainly a sample-based producer, but I actually do a lot of stuff that's not sample-based. As for my releases, other than those two main releases, I have a ton of stuff I'm trying to release. One thing about me as a musician is that I'm not into working with labels or anything that I don't know personally. I've released things on a label of my friend's back in Minneapolis, and a label of my friend in California, and Endy, and now I know Gaz. I'm just into working with people that I know. I'm not trying to release something on some big cool label that I don't know. I'm not trying to be famous or make a gajillion dollars or anything. I'm just trying to work with cool people.
Catch Damacha in person on Friday, March 6 at Dada, when he'll share the booth with Beijing's Bloodz Boi, Puzzy_Stack, and Shackup for the latest in Digital Freedom's Trap Don series. "Gonna get incredibly buck," he says. Full info in the listing.