“Will my soul live on if I’m brain dead?” asks Tay Sean on “Dawn Chorus,” a sepulchral vision of death from his debut album, Leavings. The Seattle musician, producer and rapper is a familiar face in his hometown; he’s performed alongside THEESatisfaction, contributing synths to their 2015 album EarthEE, and co-founded the collective Cloud Nice, that once included rapper Nacho Picasso and producer Seven Davis Jr. His solo bow is the result of years of work, some of it with local group Helladope. It’s also a reflection of the Northwest hip-hop’s scene reputation for social consciousness. (The accompanying short film for Leavings makes that theme plain.)
Casual listeners to Leavings will note similarities between Tay Sean’s chopped up nu-funk sounds and buttery rhymes, and the elegantly appointed Afro-Futurist visions of scene leader Shabazz Palaces. However, while Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler speaks with commanding confidence, Tay Sean tends to question his place in the world, whether it’s the technological dystopia of “Supramundane,” or the claustrophobic monogamy of “Space Madness.” He struggles to deepen his spirituality, and his jagged, enigmatic tracks reflect his mind’s wanderings. He presents himself as an all-too-human artist who loves the soul, jazz and funk of the ‘70s, and makes music as a form of catharsis. It’s the listener’s privilege to hear him work these issues out.
I don’t know. I’m trying to answer that question myself. I see what you’re saying, man – I think there’s something interesting about the music here. When I pick other people’s brains about it, people say, ‘Oh, we don’t really have a signature sound.’ Seattle doesn’t have a style that you would associate with it automatically, like you would Atlanta, or Miami bass, or all that Southern rap music. Those are definitive sounds. In Brooklyn, you’d expect to hear a braggadocious rap and heavily-compressed beats that are sample based, you know what I mean? All of those regions seem to have their own sound. I don’t think Seattle views itself in that sense, so maybe that’s where the eccentricity comes from. There’s less of a preconception of what we’re supposed to sound like, and maybe subconsciously that makes us a little more explorative. Because that’s what I think about Seattle music—it seems to be kinda experimental, right? Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction—I can’t think of any other hip-hop acts that sound like them. They have a very unique sound. Then I think maybe the weather has something to do with it. When the sun goes away, and it starts coming around to, like, September and October, and it’s starting to get cold and I’m cooped in the house with the [heating] fan, I’ll get a little more creative and start spending more time in the studio, or spending more time with my nose in books.
Is the Cloud Nice collective reflective of the Seattle hip-hop scene in general, or is that your corner of it?
I would say that there’s a good handful of us that seem to have this kind of more spacey, abstract aesthetic—Shabazz, myself, THEESatisfaction, and a few others. I think there’s a good chunk of the community who’s like that. I think that’s because we all influence each other. And I think that, for whatever reason, it’s like this continuum hearkening back to the stuff that was going on in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, with soul music and jazz and funk all merging together. You had guys like Herbie Hancock and stuff like that. I think all of us are big fans of that time and that sound. But, also, we connected to that feeling—where that music comes from, or what creates that kind of music, what kind of conditions and moods and feelings create that. I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but I certainly feel a strong connection to that music, a strong spiritual connection. It really speaks to my soul, you know what I mean?
But to answer the other part of your question, there are different types of hip-hop that define our scene. There’s a beat scene here that’s more like an L.A. beat scene—producers that pull out SP-404s and do shows on SP-404s. There’s also the frat-rap contingent, too; Macklemore, of course, is the leader of that, in terms of doing college circuit-type shows and having a really large white fan base. There’s a handful of local hip-hop acts that are in that vein. Then, there’s a wide group where the rap is more what the mainstream rap sounds like today, with elements of trap production, drill, and stuff like that. Some of my guys like Nacho Picasso and Jarv D, who were early on a part of Cloud Nice started a collective called Moor Gang, and I would say the Moor Gang collective is in that vein. It sounds more current, and fits in with the radio landscape. There’s a lot of talent in that crew, too, but they have a totally different sound.
It’s funny that you describe Macklemore as “frat-rap.” Is that a diss?
Is it a diss? I mean, maybe it is if it sounds like a diss. I’m just being honest. Like, the guy’s fan base has to be incredibly white and young. I feel like that’s part of their business plan, to make music that appeals to young people who are white and buy music. Or maybe it’s just a by-product of Macklemore himself being white, so that’s just the type of music he makes.
Let’s move on. Your album, Leavings is very cryptic. You rap and sing in a very abstract way. How did you develop that sound?
I think listening to Shabazz Palaces has drawn out similar characteristics in my music, as far as things sounding more cryptic. I think the reason why that appeals to me so much, and the reason I went for that on this album, is because it was my first solo project, so it’s very introspective. I’m trying to look at these pieces of me that sometimes aren’t so solid. They’re more ethereal and formless. So I think the language I use on the album is cryptic and abstract because those are the places in my body that I’m touching on in that music.
I definitely noticed similarities between Leavings and Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, but your album seems much more musical. There were several moments of jazzy funk that I don’t necessarily hear in the other groups. Where do you feel most comfortable in your music – as a vocalist, a producer, or a musician?
I’m not a very good instrumentalist in terms of playing instruments. I wouldn’t really consider myself skilled at that. Production, making beats, writing songs, and composing is something that I find a lot of joy in. So my background, like a lot of producer/beat-maker backgrounds, is that I started out digging records and sampling. I’ve got a big fucking collection of records at my house, because when I was younger, that’s how I made beats. When I got my first keyboard – incidentally, I bought it from Macklemore, my first Yamaha Motif – I started blending the sampling with the keys and stuff, so I could start playing bass lines or a lead over the top of [the samples]. Eventually, I phased out sampling altogether. It’s because I realized it brings me a lot of joy to figure out the patterns and the chord progressions, and figuring out what’s making that music tick, or what’s giving me this feeling about this song.
So that’s where my sound comes from, right? You hear my stuff in my songs that might sound like they’re from that period I was talking about before—that ’70s period. That’s my greatest inspiration musically. It’s that period of music where the synthesizer was introduced, [and there was] this beautiful meshing of genres. So, in a way, [my music] is still influenced by the sample culture. It’s what gave me that context.
So your background in sampling informs your current music, even though you don’t sample anymore.
Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m getting at. The music that I would come across when I was sampling is now the music that I hella admire. In a way, all of those records that I was sampling, I’m trying to learn how those great artists did their thing. It’s amazing to me, because there’s a huge difference how music was made then, and how it’s made today. Today, I feel like we lose a lot of that instrumentation and that feeling. It’s not a band playing on tape, and they have to [perform] at one time [during the recording]. One person can sit in front of a laptop with a little MIDI controller and do all that stuff himself. But oftentimes we lose the richness of the instrumentation. So I think I was making an effort [on Leavings] to make it sound like it has some of that, even though skill-wise, I’m falling way short of those people I’m talking about.
What do you want to convey with Leavings?
That’s an interesting question. When I write a song, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily trying to have a specific message, or get a certain point across. Really, it’s a therapeutic thing for me, where I’m trying to figure out, how do I really feel about something? So when I’m talking about a relationship – there’s a couple of songs where I talk about love relationships, and trying to be as honest with myself as I can be when I go into the studio or when I’m writing a song. Hopefully, if I wanted someone to take something away from that, it would be for them to also be honest with themselves about how they really feel about it, and just accepting values and not questioning them, and to really think about what these things mean.
There’s one song on the album [“FML”] about waking up and being hungover, and being just genuinely lustful and super-horny. I’m going through my phone and calling all these girls. That’s a real thing that I’ve done [laughs]. So it’s me being honest about that experience—what does that mean to me, that weird, super-lusty feeling that I have?—and just trying to convey that as honestly as possible.
Another song about a relationship on the album is called “Space Madness.” This is me coping with being in a relationship with someone, and the feeling of needing space. So I’m feeling like my energy’s being taken from me, but I’m trying to convey it in a way that’s not disrespectful. I guess I’m trying to figure out that feeling. What is that feeling, and how do I put it in a poetic way to where other people can understand it and say, ‘Hey, I relate to that. I know what that means. I’ve had that feeling. I know what that feels like because you said it that way’?
How about “Supramundane”?
The term “Supramundane” means beyond mundane. But I feel like a lot of the motions we go through in our day-to-day society, obviously a lot of it is survival oriented: You gotta wake your ass up, get in your car and drive to work, gas up every now and then. Then you come home, and throw on the TV or whatever. We spend a lot of our lives doing this stuff. So I think I’m challenging that [routine] in my song. I’m saying, ‘Why? Why do we do it that way? Why are we living life that way? Is that what we’re meant to be? Maybe we’re more spiritual creatures, and we ignore our spiritual lives?’ I go into that topic on more than just one song. But I don’t think we pay enough attention to our spiritual lives. Also, we don’t question our path enough. I think we often accept the status quo. So, especially in rap music, you get a lot of songs that are all about the same thing. You get the songs about, ‘How many bitches did I fuck?’ Then you get the songs about, ‘How much lean did I drink, and how many drugs did I do?’ It’s this narrow set of topics that people pull from, and I’m just questioning that. Why is that the limit? Why can’t we be a little more imaginative or creative, not with just the music we make, but how we live our lives? So, in “Supramundane,” I’m challenging reality television, droning out on video games, and stuff like that.
Are you a religious person?
When if you ask if I’m a religious person, do you mean if I follow a major religion? No, I’m not a religious person in that sense. But I’m definitely concerned with my spiritual well-being. I have my own spiritual practices that I like to do.
Is Leavings intended for a wide audience? You said that, in some ways, it’s therapeutic for you. Is it something that’s meant to be heard by others, or is it a private record?
I’m coming to terms with this idea that you have the art of it, meaning expressing myself in the way that I express myself. But that’s not necessarily for anybody. Then you have the entertainment aspect, which is, like, ‘Okay, now I’m doing things for people. I’m trying to entertain other people,’ or, as you were saying earlier, convey something to other people. And I think it’s both. I try to be conscientious about doing both in songs, because I do want to hit a wider audience, know what I mean? I want other people to be inspired, to enjoy it, or just to vibe with it. Music is very important to me, so however other people want to interact with it, I want it to be interactive, you know? So I definitely want to reach a wider audience. I wouldn’t just say I made it for myself.