Bullock: You were born in Germany, your father is Indian-Vietnamese, your mother French. You grew up in the French countryside, Germany and the Ivory Coast. In the past you’ve said that this heritage is unimportant. Surely this can’t be true for an artist as musically diverse as you?
Onra: My multicultural background made me who I am today, I definitely can't deny that. Growing up, I never realised what a crazy mixture I was raised in, it was just normal to me. I was just saying my heritage is not very important in the case of the Chinoiseries project. It's not because I'm Asian that I sampled Asian music. I got a bit tired of that cliché.
What is it about the hip hop you were growing up with in the Nineties that chimed with the young Arnaud?
I'm not sure what happened, I guess I was looking up to a couple of older friends that were into that stuff. Before 1990, I was too young and not very interested in anything but video games. Then when I found out about rap music, it instantly became a passion. Hip-hop was brand new to France in 1990. It just started to be on TV, some compilations were coming out, some French artists were blowing up on a mainstream level. I've always had a penchant for Afro-American culture, like the Ivory Coast in general; a lot of people there were looking up to what was being invented in the US, artistically and culturally.
Give me a chronology of your hip-hop listening, what was your entry point into hip hop and where did it take you?
Basically, in 1990/91 at the age of 10, anything that had some rap on it, I was automatically into. I started with a few cassettes, one rap compilation that I got from a homey at school. It was in 1990 and I was still in Germany. It had all the big names on it: Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim, LL, Public Enemy, you name it. Then I got hooked up by my stepbrother with two important cassettes that I still own to this day: A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory and NWA's second album Efil4zaggin. I was more into the gangsta sound of NWA at the start, they taught me all the rude words. The first cassette I bought with my own money was Kriss Kross in 1992, for Christmas. The first CD I ever owned was Doggystyle in 1993. And then it went on and on and on.
With a really limited budget and limited access to culture, it was a true hustle to get your hands on music back then. You had to record thins from the radio…so it was a case of anything I could get my hands on, I would really cherish it. From 1990 until 2000, I was all about hip-hop and R'n'B, strictly, and nothing else. When I moved to Paris in 2000, I opened up to many different genres by hanging out in record stores and that's also when I got an internet connection...
Is it important to you that the way you produce beats – sampling from a record onto an MPC mixer – is the same as the way they made the music that originally inspired you?
I think so... I think nobody cares though, unfortunately. It is weird because everything these days is getting so generic, you would think people esteem the fact that there are still some people making music the old-school way and still managing to sound relevant: working their way through the machine's limitations, the analog factor, to the charm behind the craft. But I think the new generation of listeners couldn't care less about all this, they see music as a product and just consume it without questioning its origins.
To me, it was important to carry on a certain tradition. I will always be a huge fan of music first and I'll always look up to my elders and hip-hop and R'n'B artists from the 90s in general. They totally played a part in my education. That doesn't mean I will forever make music with just my MPC though, it will all depend on the project.
You quoted Gil Scott Heron who said, when asked what kind of music he made, that he was making blues no matter how it sounded: funky, jazzy, spoken word, whatever. In the same way, you say hip-hop underlays all your music, even what some would call your more house-y sounding tunes. What do you mean by that?
I mean, even if it sounds totally different to one person’s ears, that probably wasn't my intention. To me, everything I do is hip-hop. Even when I’m making techno, it will still be hip-hop because of the way I've been making music – like I mentioned earlier – with an MPC and some records and simply my intention behind that.
You’ve been making music since the days of Myspace and before. Chinoiseries your first record was made in 2007. You started off with no Facebook, no Twitter, no Soundcloud. Never promoted your music much. How did word spread in the beginning?
I was making music way before Myspace. Myspace was one of the first platforms I used to showcase my work though. I can't really explain how it spread. I never really tried to push my music because I've never felt confident about it enough. But something inside of me pushed me to release stuff that I wasn't really 100% satisfied with. I was just being careless and thought: ‘Let me release this real quick, there's no way I can have a career in music anyway, so at least I’ll have some projects out.’ That was the mentality. So I think it just spread because I was releasing stuff. Simple as that. It also helped that I was releasing pretty unique albums too, collaborative and solo.
How often do you DJ and how does your set differ from your recorded music?
I play live a lot more than I DJ, but I hope my reputation as a DJ will keep growing because I really enjoy doing it.
My live sets are 100% my own music, which I perform with the MPC. As for my DJ sets, they change all the time. One thing for sure is that I don't like to DJ my own music. Then it all depends who/what/where I'm playing. Obviously won't play the same thing at a festival in Poland and in a small club in Bangkok.
You’ve talked about there being genius original producers touched by the divine - Hudson Mohawk and Flying Lotus, where the character is present in the music. You also say that unless you are a big name, you have to have a concept or be original to make a mark. Where do you stand between these two camps?
It's not really what I wanted to mean. Basically, I want to encourage people to be themselves, stay unique and not try to copycat or sound like anyone else. Some are gifted and naturally came up with their own sound, like the artists you just mentioned. But a lot of people lack originality, personality, character. Even if technically they have some respectable craft and put in a lot of work to get to that level, I personally do not really value that kind of copycat stuff.
I have used the help of having original concepts to create albums, firstly because I like original things and I don't want to do like others. Secondly, because it's nice to have a direction to follow. It sets boundaries and imposes limitations and eventually makes you more creative. I also realised it helps spreading your name if you have an original concept for an album.
So I was just saying to other producers out there, “You want to get your name out? Be yourself, that worked for me.” It's not my role to say how I see myself in the music world. Only time will tell but I'm definitely not a genius!
Yatha Butha Jazz Comboin 2013 was a freeform jazz-fusion album. No samples. Everything played and improvised. What were your motivations there?
It's a collaborative album with another French composer Buddy Sativa, with whom I share many musical influences. We used to hang out in his studio in Paris and smoke a lot of Thai weed and it used to get me real amped up. One day I just had this spontaneous flash of creativity hitting me while we were eating spaghetti carbonara and I slammed one hand on the table and screamed, “Let's make a spiritual jazz album right now!”
Buddy looked at me weird because he’s a trained musician and he knows I can't play shit. We sat down behind his computer screen and started playing one instrument each, one at a time. Some virtual, some live instruments. To make it more conceptual, I imposed a ‘rule’ which we would have to follow on that album: everything had to be spontaneous, everything recorded in one take, and we couldn’t touch/edit it, no matter how messed up it would sound so we could keep that ‘live-recorded’ element to the music. After a few hours, we had improvised three tracks and we kept on smoking until the dawn, incredibly amazed by the result we had got.
So to answer your question, we had no motivation behind that album, we just wanted to make a spiritual free-jazz album, and we did. To me it's a huge achievement and something I can look back on and be proud of.
I'd like to add that this happened when a lot of people were hopping on the ‘Trap’ bandwagon and some other producers were telling me, “You should make that style, it's the new-new.” I spontaneously did the exact opposite without even realising it.
Chinoiseries has made some people primarily think of you as the guy who cuts up Oriental hooks with hip hop but this is one small part of what you do. How does Chinoiseries sit with the work you are doing now?
Yeah, I got pigeonholed... it was very easy to put me in that box, the Asian dude making that Asian thing. When I released the first Chinoiseries, I thought my ‘career’ had just started and ended. I thought it was my last album and I was going to start working a regular job. I did this for fun, I never took it seriously. Now 10 years later, I really take it seriously, and I'm forced to admit that whatever I'll do in the future, this is the project that's probably gonna stick to my name.
I'm about to release a third and final volume to Chinoiseries so I'll be done with it, once and for all. Hopefully, from there people will also move along as I explore new territories.
Deep in the Night(2012) – hip hop but 80s synth, disco elements. Rufus meets Luther meets Tom Tom Club and R’n’B hooks. The record now seems very ahead of its time seeing the wave of nu-disco coming through club culture. What as the reception at the time?
This sound actually started in 2010 with my biggest release to date, Long Distance. It was very well received by the press and the audience, and I think it was a bit ahead of its time. I hear some people today that try to make similar stuff to this so I guess it aged pretty well. Deep In The Night is just the continuity of Long Distance.
On your latest record Fundamentals (2015) was your choice of MCs to work with driven by your desired tempo for the beat or did you make beats with rappers in mind? Like Do or Die on 'Over and Over' or MC Melodee on the slower jam ‘Love Tip’.
When I was making those beats, I was asking myself the good old question, “Who would you hear on this beat?” and my guests’ names naturally came up to my mind. I love all their flows, voices and vibes... I think they all fit well in what I was trying to do.
You collaborated with T3 from Slum Village on a record in 2010, The One. What was it like to work with a legend and presumably a hero of yours? Which other influences would you like to collaborate with?
It was incredible to get T3 on Long Distance. It was the first time for me to work with an American guest, and I've always loved Slum Village. I was really happy with what he sent me back. His voice was already in the hook, so I guess it was pretty natural for him to write on the beat. Do Or Die and Daz Dillinger are other people I consider legends, and I was absolutely delighted when I managed to get them on Fundamentals this year.
Onra is part of the Red Bull Music Academy, part of its 2008 alumni. Now in its 17th year, the Academy runs from 25th October to 27th November, and will be based at La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris’ 3rd Arrondissement. Across the five weeks the Academy will host a cutting-edge programme of music events, workshops, public lectures and art exhibitions with contributions from the likes of Laurent Garnier, Jean-Michel Jarre, Hudson Mohawke, Nicolas Godin (Air), Floating Points and John Talabot b2b Roman Flügel to name but a few. Tickets and full event info are now available at redbullmusicacademy.com/paris.