An Interview With
At 33, Philadelphia native King Britt is on top of electronic music•s world. Coming of age in Philly•s hip-hop Golden Age (with Jazzy Jeff, Cash Money, and Schoolly D), Britt is now part of Philly•s most recent renaissance that is revamping hip-hop, R&B, and electronica (The Roots, Jill Scott, Jazzy again, Ursula Rucker, Bilal, and the like). Having recently signed with Om Records, he has just released his first installment of his three-part Scuba project. Born out of an acid trip, the Scuba persona has turned house on its ear with its odd mechanical blips and bleeps, its hard-driving chants, and amazing quality, which can be heard on remixes as varied as Jazzanova, Atjazz, Tony Scott, and Vikter Duplaix. Britt is now batting in the meat of dance music•s “heavy hitters” line-up, which includes Kruder & Dorfmeister, Jazzanova, Thievery Corporation, etc. I recently got the opportunity to talk to Britt about his name, Philly yesterday and today, and the myriad, fascinating directions in which his music and formidable talent have taken him and where he will go next.
Explain the name.
What do you mean?
How did you come up with the name “King Britt?”
That•s my real name. My mother named me after the King James Bible.
Well, what got you into music?
I guess you can say I started listening to music in the womb. My parents have always been playing incredible music. My mother was into jazz vocals, and my father listened to James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic.
Then in seventh grade I transferred to a Jewish school, Greenfield, here in Philly. My friends were listening to Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons, and we started a band playing that stuff.
That•s what Sylk 130 was all about. It•s sort of my autobiography.
Philly had a nice little hip-hop scene in the late •80s. Who of those folks influenced you?
Well, I grew up with a bunch of those guys, Jazzy Jeff, Will Smith, and Cash Money. I guess I was part of the whole evolution: the graffiti, the music, breakdancing.
That•s when you became a DJ?
No. I never thought I•d be a DJ. I was a collector, a total audiophile. Spinning didn•t come until later. I was working at Tower and met Josh Wink. Now, here was this white guy totally into the music and spinning. We went to warehouse parties. Acid house was really big. Later on, I moved in with Josh and Grover Washington, Jr.•s son. I just watched Josh and later got some tables and started spinning.
So, who out of Philly influences you more? Phil Spector, Gamble and Huff, or Cash Money and Schoolly D?
No one really influences me more than any other. I mean, Gamble and Huff are incredible arrangers, and Cash Money lays down great rhythms and breaks. I guess that•s the beauty of being a DJ, you can go back in time to create your music.
What•s going on in Philly now?
Oh, it•s so incredible, bro. Everyone•s moving here, working with everybody else, combining their efforts. It•s a beautiful place to be.
What moved you from spinning to producing?
Well, I was producing back in high school with the band. I started collecting keyboards when I first heard bands like Front 242 and The Thompson Twins.
That•s funny, I went to an all-white high school around that time, and I couldn•t stand that music. I could only listen to hip-hop.
Yeah, and since I was surrounded by hip-hop, I rebelled by listening to The Thompson Twins.
So, how did you become the Digable Planets• DJ?
Well, I was working at Tower, and Butterfly came in. He was looking for some rare James Brown, and I was like, “Naw, you•re not going to find that here.” So, I took him to Record Exchange, a spot where you can do some real crate digging. We started vibing, and he played me a demo of some of his stuff. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” It wasn•t like what you heard on the first album. It was more like Prince meets Tribe Called Quest. He asked me if I wanted to be in his band, and I said, “No, I do house.”
Anyway, he moves up to New York and disappears for about six months. He got a record deal and called me up, saying, “I•m putting together a jazz band, wanna go?” So, I did. We went everywhere, bro. It was a lot of fun. I made a lot of connections.
But, by the second album, I•d left to join Ovum [his record label with Josh Wink], and Jazzy Joyce became their DJ.
Though it•s hard to pigeonhole your career, it seems you•re more into dance than hip-hop.
Well, I•ve done everything. But, after working with Butterfly on Sylk, I was like, “Yo, I gotta do a hip-hop album.” So, that•s coming out in January for [Barely Breaking Even Records]. I•m very proud of it.
How do you go about re-mixing a song?
Well, it•s not a science, just what you feel at the time. But you do have to listen to what the artist has to say.
What about when you re-mixed Tony Scott•s “Hare Krishna” [on Verve Remixed]?
Well, I knew everybody else [on the compilation] was going to be doing Nina Simone and Carmen McRae and folks like that. But [“Hare Krishna”] was the first yoga record ever. My mom used to play it all the time. And I•d just started taking yoga at the time. So, I just had to do it.
Can you take me through the process?
Yeah, first is the chant. Buddhist ideology calls for repeated chanting. So, I looped the chant. Then, of course, are the beats. And I built a soundscape around those. Then I got Larry Goldman to play cello for the track.
So, who are the artists out there who really do it for you?
Jazzanova, The Society from Denver — they•re about to blow up. Rob Life, who produced Ursula [Rucker]; he•s so damned talented. Deego and Mark from 4 Hero, Yesterday•s New Quintet, Kaidi Tatum, Bugs in the Attic — that•s the album of the fucking year. And Obafunke, he•s my boy. I liked working with him, bringing his sound to my sound.
Well, I guess I should get to the point of this interview: Scuba.
Ah, Scuba. My baby.
What was the inspiration behind Scuba?
Well, I was tripping on acid one time back in •95, and it opened this door in my head. Like these aliens were talking to me. I locked myself in my room for three days with my MIDI and then I came out with four tracks completely done except for one that needed some vocals added. It•s not like I•m condoning drugs — I drop acid maybe once a year — but that•s what came out.
So, that original EP had four songs on it — some super deep shit, not your normal house, a very cerebral 12-inch. It sold like crazy. Fat Cat sold something like 15,000 copies.
Is that when you decided to do an album [Scuba: Hidden Treasures]?
Well, I put the word out and got bites from everybody. Then the folks at Om [Records] wrote me a letter. They had every 12-inch. I knew these were the guys I had to work with. They inspired me. That•s why I turned down Virgin.
It•s a three-record deal.
Yeah. The first album was remixes, but the second is totally different. It•s going to be all Scuba originals. I•m working with Morcheeba and Imani Yuzori from 4 Hero; and Yvona Santillin, from Toronto, and I are writing the whole thing together. It•s more influenced by Stereolab and Radiohead than anything else.
So, how does Scuba differ from other dance music?
It•s sensual, deep, and sexy. I really try to push the envelope on sensuality, choosing chords that pull at your heartstrings. And, of course, the rhythm.
Yeah, the reason I like it is because it•s sort of a “thinking person•s” dance music.
[Chuckles] Yeah, something like that. I wanted it to be more than just dance music. It•s great for the club, but what it is, is driving music. I don•t drive, but it•s perfect music to drive around to.