Lifetime Achievement: ShunGu

ShunGu

“I wouldn’t be making music if it wasn’t for J Dilla,” says ShunGu, a hip-hop producer based in Brussels whose music hooks post-Dilla beats around the head-nodding combination of woozy, melodic synths and thumping drum patterns. “For me, in hip-hop, Dilla’s like what John Coltrane is to jazz. Dilla’s choice of samples, his choice of drums—it all comes from Dilla for me.”

ShunGu isn’t shy about the way he’s been influenced by the late Detroit producer. Over the course of a 30-plus-album discography—which kicked off in 2014 with a series of zodiac-themed beat tapes—ShunGu’s become adept at taking the building blocks of Dilla’s music and adding his own stamp. “Dilla really gave me the basics of MPC drums,” ShunGu says (he used to work with an MPC 2000 before switching up to an MPC 3000). On top of this spacey boom-bap foundation, his melodies nod to a wide—but always cohesive—range of styles. ShunGu’s latest project, A Black Market Album, was inspired by a trip to Oakland, and appropriately incorporates deep P-Funk-style cosmic basslines. The producer’s remixes pitch-shift and warp a cappella vocals to bring new textures to the tracks. His more intimate compositions have a moody, low-key neo-soul ambience.

ShunGu’s deft layering of influences is something regular collaborator Chester Watson appreciates. They first met via a mutual connection at the Hot Record Societe collective; since then, the Florida-based MC Watson has provided cover art for a number of ShunGu’s releases. “I really like how bouncy his instrumentals have always been,” says Watson. “A lot of people within the genre have extremely dull, almost lifeless instrumentals. But ShunGu has always had a colorful palette of sounds that I, in a way, grew up on. Whether he’s sampling or rocking it off the skill, he knows how and when to layer.”

Spote Breeze, an MC from Oakland who guest stars on A Black Market Album, describes ShunGu’s beats as being like “a multilayered, groovy canvas.” He adds, “ShunGu forces and inspires me to want to explore pockets and push my pen. His choice of drums and complementary sounds never fail for me. Whether it’s flow, bars, or content, I just feel more inclined to creatively flex without worrying about who gets it or catches on. ShunGu’s production just makes me want to rap-rap, man.” The New York City-based Pink Siifu, who also guest stars on A Black Market Album, talks in equally enthusiastic terms about the producer’s style. “The thing I like most about rapping on his beats is the jazz and feeling of his actual genuine self in the beat,” he says. “It feels like he puts himself in the beat, bleeding his personality and smile.”

Delving into a discography that takes in bass-heavy rap albums, astrological-themed beat tapes, and psychedelic-enhanced soundscapes, here’s your guide to the essential releases from ShunGu’s discography.

The Capricorn Tape

In 2014, ShunGu launched an ambitious zodiac-themed series of beat tapes, releasing an album inspired by each star sign every month for a year. “It sounds cliché, but I found out about Sun Ra and I was reading all these poems and wanted to do something with an astral theme,” he recalls.

The expansive project kicked off with The Capricorn Tape, in homage to ShunGu’s own star sign. “Weirdly, I hang around a lot of Capricorns,” he says. “We all share an energy that seems to elevate each other.” There’s an overt Dilla influence right from the opening track, “Capricorn,” which is fueled by gritty snares and thudding kicks. “Dilla really gave me the love of MPC drums,” says ShunGu. Fittingly, the album ends with a flip of Slum Village’s “Get Dis Money,” which ShunGu takes in a muted, dusky direction with snatches of celestial synths and shuffling hi-hats. (A collection of key cuts from all 12 albums was also released as An Astrological Series in 2015.)

mylost_rmx Vol. 1

Dropped towards the end of 2014, mylost_rmx Vol. 1 collects ShunGu’s remixes of rap songs by artists including Danny Brown, Inspectah Deck, and Kool Keith‘s former rhyme protege, Sir Menelik. The producer began retooling a track by hunting down the a cappella of a song he wasn’t wild about the beat on. “When you cross an a cappella with a beat, it can be just magic, like you don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he says. “You could throw a thousand beats on it and it can all feel different, but I want the one where matching it can give warmth to it.”

Under ShunGu’s watch, Danny Brown’s “Blunt After Blunt” transforms from a menacing track powered by prowling pianos into a smoothed-out jazz-fusion outing fueled by a slinky guitar loop. Brown’s voice, usually an endearingly high-strung caterwaul, is warped into a grainy drawl and becomes a tonal counterpoint to the beat. ShunGu’s talent at switching up the original vibe of a song also comes through on his flip of Sir Menelik’s “7XL,” which co-stars Brand Nubian MCs Grand Puba and Sadat X, and first appeared on Rawkus’s Soundbombing II compilation: The original space age backdrop, which was produced by DJ Spinna, is given a gritty gravitas by introducing a classic syncopated James Brown breakbeat. “I mostly make these remixes for myself,” explains ShunGu. “Sometimes, I just want to hear a good rapper on my tracks.”

All I Do

Released on Berlin’s progressive Cosmic Compositions label in 2014, All I Do opens with “Erykah,” a song that drives home the neo-soul element of ShunGu’s beats. “I remember my aunt was actually the manager for Zap Mama and they did stuff with Erykah Badu, so I remember that track from my aunt bumpin’ it,” recalls ShunGu, who also credits D’Angelo as an inspiration. There’s an alluring moodiness about “Erykah,” with the deep bass also bringing to mind the sultry groove of ‘80s U.K. R&B troupe Loose Ends. The song’s complemented by “Ndambi,” which appears towards the end of the album and showcases a seductive effect that brings the vocals in and out of the mix, almost as if they’re shimmering.

Keen to develop the soulful musicality of his beats, ShunGu says he’s “trying to practice more and more keys, and also getting more into jazz now, plus gospel. I’m actually listening to a lot of gospel these days ’cause I’m thinking in a way all the music comes from that.”

24 Hours

ShunGu admits that 2015’s six-song 24 Hours EP was originally meant to be a full album. “I was trying to do a big project with a lot of rappers,” he says, “but I found out it was so hard to do that alone in my room! So finally we got to six tracks and I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I’m gonna stop now ’cause I’m tired of trying to build something bigger—maybe I wasn’t ready yet—so I’ll just release this stuff spontaneously.’” This was back when ShunGu’s beat-making habits were so impulsive he’d often record a tape during the day and release it the same evening.

The svelte 24 Hours might have fallen short of its intended scale, but it’s a punchy demonstration of how ShunGu’s beats enhance an MC’s verbals. The project sparks into life with “What We Do Best,” which layers savvy lyrics from Brooklyn spitter Fresh Daily over a backdrop that shares a soulful sample source with Mobb Deep’s ‘90s classic “Give Up The Goods (Just Step).” Elsewhere, the slinky, static-crusted “Get Some” beds the words of Iowa’s Strangers Of Necessity with funky Hammond organ; the hazy, piano-powered “Sum Style” features Stanley Ipkuss taking it back to the days of “spray cans and tape cassettes”; and closing cut “Moon1120” skews experimental as Chester Watson relays a rhyme that references “Socrates and boom-bap” over slurred drums and disorienting piano arpeggios.

All Stars Vol. 1

Debuting in 2015, the four installments of All Stars came to fruition after ShunGu realized he was stockpiling a hefty cache of beats he felt bad about not sharing with the world. “They all mean something to me but it’s really personal,” he says. “I see each one like a project in my head.”

Digging into the collections is like sneaking a glimpse into the array of influences that shape ShunGu’s beat-making instincts. A standout from the first volume, “Fall In Love,” is an emotive dig into the DNA of the Slum Village song of the same name. Also notable from the inaugural album, “drmthtbass” toys with jungle tempos and rhythms but creatively sets them to ’70s jazz-funk aesthetics, while “Antolog” incorporates blasts of sax and rolling double bass to conjure a meditative atmosphere.

Exile Dreams

Exile Dreams was the start of ShunGu’s Oakland adventures. Released in 2018, the album was inspired by a trip to the Bay Area, where the producer was welcomed into a local hip-hop scene. “[It was] like I was suddenly in a different place, like in the way they’d built an environment that’s really impressive and really community-minded and there’s solidarity,” he says. While in Oakland, ShunGu hung out at local studios, began to learn to play the drums, and “just made beats, and took LSD, and smoked spliffs every day, and tried mushrooms.”

The fruits of these sessions became Exile Dreams. It’s a project that fuses West Coast ‘70s soul vibes with psychedelic touches: “Extended Metaphor” swaggers along with a breezy soul guitar riff; “Wonderawful World” is coated with a warm layer of hiss and includes what sounds like background studio chatter to usher an intimate feel; closing cut “Brand New” combines a sweet soul vocal loop with wavering organ lines and occasional backwards tape effects. “That trip to Oakland was very important for my music,” reflects ShunGu, adding that the collaborative spirit he experienced helped broaden his musical palette.

A Black Market Album

“This album wasn’t based on samples, which is the main difference from my other projects,” says ShunGu. The 10 tracks are still anchored by drum patterns tapped out on the producer’s beloved MPC, but on top of the punchy snares and clobbering kicks, cosmic swirls of synths were added by ShunGu, and the musician Gabriel Govea Ramos was called on to add bass and guitar lines. This live musicality imbues the album with what ShunGu calls a “pretty chill vibe,” adding that the music reflects his own personality.

In common with Exile Dreams, there’s a buoyant West Coast influence bubbling through A Black Market Album. Bay Area spitter Spote Breeze unravels a tricksy rhyme pattern on “Drop Knowledge,” a track the MC describes as “laid-back but stern, a fun, G-funky, boasty, and bouncy onslaught of bar-heavy lingo expressed in a stream of consciousness style. The beat sounds and feels like confidence and sureness.”

Joining Spote Breeze on the guest list is Pink Siifu, who brings his snug flow to the lilting relationship rap “Pick Up The Phone,” a track he describes as sounding “like an arcade or like neon nostalgia, it reminded me of just learning how to skate and starting to crush on someone and you just wanna talk to ‘em.” Both collaborations came about during ShunGu’s trip to Oakland, where all three artists wound up playing the same Smart Bomb party.

“Time Moves Slower Here”

Bookended by tracks from Quelle Chris and Blu, “Time Moves Slower Here” is a Chester Watson song ShunGu produced for the Gangster Music Vol. 1 album, which was curated by illustrator Marlon Sassy. ShunGu says the song was originally ear-marked for Watson’s upcoming solo album, A Japanese Horror Film, but when given the opportunity to get involved in Gangster Music, they decided to place the track there. (ShunGu says he’ll be working on a second Gangster Music compilation.)

“Chester is really one of my favorite rappers and I’m always excited about producing for him,” explains ShunGu. “But the music I make for him is a different side to my usual music. Like I can make thousands of beats a month but sometimes none of them beats will fit for Chester Watson.” In the case of “Time Moves Slower Here,” ShunGu’s sample-free backdrop consists of a growling bassline and hazy hi-hats that radiate trip-hop vibes. “The production is mellow but it also has an underlying energy that pushes you to move,” says Watson. “In my mind that movement was skateboarding, but it could be background music for anything. I feel like you could shred or cruise to this track and it would not feel out of place.”

Phillip Mlynar

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