With The Buddy System Project, King Britt Finds Strength in Numbers

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King Britt by Colin Kerrigan

In a now famous interview clip filmed in the summer of 1969, Doors frontman Jim Morrison talks with Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins about the future of popular music. Morrison predicts that the future of music will be machine-driven, creating the space for individual composers to fully execute their vision alone.

“That’s probably what’s going to happen: some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical…like an extension of the Moog synthesizer—a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y’know? There’s somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form.”

After nearly four decades of hip-hop, house, and techno’s domination of the pop cultural landscape, and the resulting leaps made in sampling, synthesis, and recording technology, Morrison’s vision of the autonomous electronic musician doesn’t seem so fanciful. Today, many of the songs we love—especially in dance music—can be credited to the imagination of a single creative mind.

In many ways, Philadelphia-based, DJ, producer, and composer King James Britt is exactly the kind of autonomous future musician that Morrison envisioned. A veteran of the electronic music community, Britt has spent decades of building his production catalog armed with an arsenal of drum machines, samplers, and synthesizers. Yet despite being a more-than-capable solo artist, much of the music in his deep and expansive catalog is the direct result of fruitful collaborations with musicians across genres and from all walks of life. From his early work in crafting progressive dance floor architecture with Josh Wink, the live jazz-funk and ’80s pop explorations of Sylk130 and beyond, Britt is an electronic auteur whose process is deeply rooted in the art of collaboration.

In 2014, Britt launched a new enterprise called The Buddy System, a label and live series that would challenge his skill as a facilitator of deeply sympathetic musical alliances. Hoping to cultivate an air of mystery, Britt would announce a date for each concert, but keep the lineup secret until showtime. Listeners would show up at the venue and be treated to collectively improvised sets from Britt and luminaries like Lushlife, RJD2, and HPrizm of pioneering hip-hop futurists Antipop Consortium. After struggling with attracting audiences for the secret lineup shows, Britt decided to focus on The Buddy System as a label, and has since released projects from Zuben and The Puerto Rican Space Program. The latest release from electronic experimentalist Moksha Black was released in January.

We spoke with Britt about Buddy System and how the collaborative spirit continues to inform his work.

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For starters, you strike me as a really open collaborator. From the early days with Josh Wink and Ovum, up to your current work, it seems like you really value collaboration and center it in your work. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, I am an only child, so I always sought out playmates and creative comrades since I was little! Some of my first collabs were in high school with DJ Dozia and later with [legendary jazz bassist and Ornette Coleman Prime Time member] Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

The Wink collab came in ‘89 when I had finished demos for Strictly Rhythm and got them signed. I then asked Josh to go in with me, and let’s rock it. We just met at this point but we were like-minded brothers. Later, we started Ovum In ‘93-’94. But I have always embraced collaboration. Sylk130 is all collaborative. All the singers and musicians from Silk City/Back2Basics [Back2Basics was a legendary early ’90s party where King and Dozia would spin house, funk, and acid jazz cuts while live musicians played along], we basically recreated my demos and, of course, with live musicians it became incredible full and rich. This led to working with many heroes like Alison Moyet, Kathy Sledge, Grover Washington Jr., etc.

Buddy System grew out of the need for many friends who love to experiment, but didn’t want to use their name. So in the beginnings of the label, all the names were anonymous. It was a cool concept but really got confusing for people. We just wanted to people to focus on music. So no, there’s anonymous names—now it’s pseudonyms. Pseudonyms make more sense—there’s something to latch onto.

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Right. So much of the climate of music is revolved around press and image and branding, I can see complete anonymity being a tough sell.

Yes, man [groans]. Even our live nights, we tried it. I just want as many people to hear the sounds, ao I needed to shift.

I remember. You were bringing out some heavyweights to play, and refusing to put names on the bill

Yes. First one was RJD2 and Lush Life with HPrizm. But Philly wants to know who’s playing. If it was an already established night, it may have worked. It actually may work now. Buddy System is all about friends and comrades

It was interesting how the live show was structured. I remember the one with Prizm, OddKidOut, and Mikronesia. Each player performed a solo section in the first go-round and then you all performed together as an ensemble.

I love to do this. I do this with Fhloston Paradigm a lot. Like a live revue from the James Brown era—everyone shines. It’s always the best way to showcase friends. I know how to put cats together who are great at their craft. And when it’s a journey, there are no rules per se. But with the label, it’s a different approach. Like Puerto Rican Space Program is only Lumin from Miami. This is not a collab, although we have in the past. I encouraged him to really push his experimental side, so Buddy System was a safe space. So the collab was more spiritual than physical.

What about Moksha Black? I listened to his songs, and I was like, ‘What is this?’

He wishes to stay anonymous. He came through the lab, and we did all those songs in two days, Philly via L.A. So if something moves me I reach out.

Could you talk a bit about how Buddy System has changed, and in what direction you see it going in as a label?

Well, at the moment the main difference [between the label and the club night] is the lack of anonymity. But there seems to be a similar thread sonically that is happening. Synths, more electronics… Moksha shifted it a bit, so I was happy to bring in more field recording vibes. I think it’s natural when producers or artists embrace a label for its aesthetic.

And you and Moksha produced the record together? If so, how did that work? Was it improv?

Yes, completely improv, with a few overdubs. Each song started with me creating these weird loops with field recordings, exploring different pathways instead of starting with synths and stuff resulting in a more organic shoegaze and haunting vibe. It took me out of my comfort zone, which I embrace and as a label. I want to be a platform for uncomfortable creativity [laughs].

I love that practice of starting at a specific point with a sound, or very limited source material, and just seeing where you can go with it. You can create so many new things out of that tension.

Exactly! It shifts your ears, and thus your path

So, the Moksha Black record is available now. What do you have on deck for Buddy System next?

Well, we just recorded this improv project in Berlin with Mikronesia, Hainbach, Clara Hill, and Christina Wheeler that is completely blissful. I haven’t had time to get to editing or mixing, but would love this to be the 10th release! Also, a Moksha Black album is in the works. I love to keep the artwork consistent and not bring in artists faces and such. That keeps it focused on music. Vinyl to come in fall too—a 10” series. I don’t rush the releases, they organically happen.

-John Morrison

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