LWE Interviews Sherard Ingram

With a discography extending all the way back to 1987, Sherard Ingram’s music and life have simply seen too much growth and change to permit easy characterization. Sure, a through-line connects the span of his work, but not one that parallels any single current of electronic music history. Which is kind of funny because, telling his story, Ingram can’t help but mention the key players of Detroit’s seminal second wave. His debut solo production, “Covert Action,” originally appeared on a 12″ alongside Underground Resistance’s “The Theory” and Carl Craig’s “The Climax.” Techno proudly claims that record as its own, but listening to “Covert” today, its stutter-and-groove has as much in common with hip-hop or beatdown house. Ingram’s first full-length recording — 1998’s Collapse of Modern Culture — enlisted the talents of friends Anthony Shakir, Kenny Dixon Jr., and Carl Craig, and its anomalous collection of deep-space funk and leftfield downtempo is held as a classic by followers of multiple genres. The next chapter in Ingram’s story is no less auspicious.

Shortly before his untimely passing, Drexciya’s James Stinson rechristened Ingram “DJ Stingray,” an “assault-based DJ” for the legendary aquatic sound warriors. Galvanized by this Drexciyan connection and informed by a brisk DJing style that challenged the hegemony of the 4/4, Ingram’s latest work favors breathtakingly fast-paced techno whose wiggling keys and searing bass lines roll and weave in agitated surges, yet glide in lithe, unbroken lines. Lately he’s used his Urban Tribe and DJ Stingray monikers to disseminate this sound through Rephlex, WéMè, Trust, Pomelo and, most recently, Planet E and [Naked Lunch]. This year he also masterminded a reunion of the Collapse team, whose new long-player on Mohagani assumes a different template altogether. In April, The Wire‘s Derek Walmsley took down Ingram’s story in a must-read interview. Tipping our hats to The Wire, Little White Earbuds turn to Ingram with some follow-up questions of our own.

I wanted to start with “Covert Action.” That track had sort of an interesting journey, first appearing alongside Underground Resistance, later compiled with broken beat and sort of introspective hip-hop via Mo’ Wax, and then getting a reissue on Planet E, a label we tend to associate with the dance floor. What sort of audience did you originally have in mind for that record? And what sort of listening situation did you envision for it?

Sherard Ingram: At the time within my own my mind I had placed some distance between myself and the sonic status quo. So the track came about as an expression of this mind state. I was listening to hip-hop of course and industrial, along with doing some hip-hop tracks for some younger guys. As far as the listening situation, I just saw it as something a person could sit back and chill or drive to.

Was it a record you could fit into your own sets when you were DJing?

No way could I have ever envisioned that track being played in a DJ set, and certainly not one of mine at that time! [laughs]

So DJing and producing were separate ventures for you back then?

At that time I was moving away from DJing and became more interested in production. I was subscribing to musician magazines and audio engineering magazines like Mix. I had always wanted to be an engineer. I was even in a recording school for awhile, and worked in it as well. But I must note that DJing helped me with sampling and selecting records for sounds.

I read that you worked with an Yamaha RX-5 early on. What other equipment did you cut your teeth on?

The first drum machine that I worked with was by a company named Mattel, and the machine was named SynSonic. I used the Alesis MMT-8, Alesis HR-16, Casio CZ-5000, Roland 909 and 808, Dr Rhythm — I think it was DR-550, I’m not certain — and a few more devices here and there. In fact I still have the manual for the RX-5 and a memory card with songs on it.

Wow. That’s probably quite a time capsule.

Indeed!

Several year later, you were working on The Collapse of Modern Culture. Was this always conceived as a group project?

Urban Tribe started with “Covert Action,” which was just myself. With The Collapse of Modern Culture, it was my first LP. I can say it was very nerve-wracking and it made me appreciate artists, from all genres, who put out LP after LP for years. At one point during the production I felt overwhelmed and like I needed a little help. So I called up two men who I had great respect for even before there was an Urban Tribe, Ken [Dixon Jr.] and [Anthony] Shake [Shakir]. With their advice and production skills, along with Carl’s of course, the LP got done and I really liked the sound of it.

Were there periods where you had this whole team in the room at one time? Or…?

That’s classified.

How long did it take to complete the album?

About a year. I would pull away from it for a month or two at a time, so it made it a longer process than it should have been. [Laughs] I really wanted to take my time and not feel pressured and stale.

You mentioned in the interview with The Wire that your plan at the time was to live off of your music for a while. How long were you able to do that?

With a little frugality and denial I was able to stretch things out for about a year, I would say. Naturally I had to do some odd jobs to make ends meet.

After Collapse, there was a period of relative quiet in terms of published material. Were you making much music between ’98 and ’06?

Between ’98 and ’06 I was working menial jobs and doing minimal production, but nothing that was released with the exception of a mix I did on Ken’s first 12″. It was a strange period for sure. I was a little too focused on chilling. It took the DEMF and a meeting with James Stinson to snap me out of a malaise that I was in.

Was that the first time you’d met James?

No, I had known James since ’89 – ’90 from working at Buy-Rite records in Detroit.

What was it about this meeting that changed things for you?

Well, this is when he brought up the concept for a Drexcyian assault DJ, based on what he heard me doing at the first DEMF.

How did you get involved with DEMF festival?

Carl called and asked if I wanted to play, and I said yes. It was my first time playing in front of such a large crowd. It had its ups and downs, but I was richer from the experience.

Do you know what it was about your set that caught James’ eye?

Of course I’m speculating, but I believe it was the overall selection. I don’t really get into trendy tracks, and I look for eclectic or cutting edge material. Not to say everything I played was mind-blowing, but I think it caught his interest.

Starting around 2006, your catalog really picks up steam, and your music takes on a more anxious, fierce quality. It’s much faster. Did your time with James Stinson play some role in this?

2006 to now is a reflection of my contact with James and my travels through Europe, along with my experiences in Detroit. Add to that a desire to liberate others from creative monotony. The tempo is a tribute to Detroit and the jitters of yesterday and today.

I see your music as carrying on a certain Drexciyan tradition. Do you feel any responsibility for furthering the Drexciyan concept and spirit?

You can definitely view it as such. Yes, without trying to copy Drexcyia, I do incorporate what I think are aquatic textures and high-tech refined funk. I don’t listen to Drexcyia and then compose, however.

I wouldn’t think. Given the differences between the music on Collapse and, say, your latest Planet E record, do you feel any pressure over people’s preconceived ideas associated with the Urban Tribe brand?

Not at all. I enjoy mixing things up. I think when an artist begins to become too concerned with branding, then things get stale. It’s okay to have a style, but as electronic musicians we have to keep pushing or we are doomed to stagnation.

How do you typically determine whether to author a record as Urban Tribe or Stingray?

Urban or Stingray? With Stingray I look for uptempo, no-nonsense electronic warfare audio. UT, I’m looking for more at-home or in-car relaxing vibes.

But the division isn’t so rigid. A good deal of the “Social Engineering” and “Loyal Opposition” records have that surging, anxious vibe.

No, it isn’t a rigid division, and when you’re involved in the creative process there are anomalies to be certain.

Do labels ever request one name over the other?

No, I usually determine that. Although I like to keep one concept with one label.

For your most recent record, you’ve reunited the Collapse team. Was this something you guys had always planned on doing?

Shake, Carl, and Ken are very busy, so I have to be the catalyst behind bringing those guys together. But they are always cool and give it one hundred percent.

How did you collaborate on this one?

This particular project came about through different methods, from FTP exchange to live mixes to pre-formed concepts that were changed or editied. Almost the full range of possibilities.

Yet it’s been characterized as a sort of “jam” project.

Interesting.

Credit it, perhaps, to the record’s loose, low-slung mood. There’s a lot of discussion about the album’s runtime. Why one- to three-minute long compositions?

It’s a break with tradition would be my best description.

Out of curiosity, whose voice do we hear on “Program 2”?

[aughs]That’s classifed too. Sorry, man.

Alright. You’ve worked with Nina Kraviz on something forthcoming. How’d you two meet?

Through Mr. [Heinrich] Mueller. I was looking for a vocalist, and he recommended her.

It seemed like maybe they’d been working together on something — but then things aren’t usually crystal clear with Herr Mueller. Speaking of whom, you and Gerald Donald (aka Heinrich Mueller) are collaborating as well, no? Can you tell us anything about that?

I’m really excited about that project and I really look forward to getting it out. I didn’t intend to let people know of his involvement so early, but I was just too hyper, I guess. You should hear something this fall.

I’m excited to hear it. Will it have any sort of conceptual frame, along the lines of Arpanet or Zerkalo?

Let’s just say that it will be a surprise to everyone, this I can promise.

Excellent. So you’re touring Europe next month, and presenting Urban Tribe live. What can people expect from those shows?

I had to tweak some parameters based on the past shows. I think people can expect a good sonic presentation along with a new face or two.

So you won’t necessarily be up there alone?

No I will not, and anyone you see on the stage is a person who has or will be contributing to the Urban Tribe project.

Will all parties be masked? …Sorry, silly question.

That’s okay. I’ll save that for the cam phones and YouTube.

On that topic, though, can I ask you about the mask? Is that a part of your persona today because of Drexciya, or is there more to the story? I’ve heard Mike Banks talk about it as, in part, a reaction against a nasty side of the commercial music business they saw in Detroit.

You can thank Mr Stinson for the mask idea. I just decided to keep it going. I think it is a byproduct of the UR paradigm, however.

On a sort of similar topic, I was also interested in the name “Urban Tribe.” This concept of an urban tribe as a small counter-cultural group built around shared interests and a common ethos. Would you say that this applied to your time working at Buy-Rite Music? Or, at least, to the creative community you found with guys like Ken and Carl?

I think that’s a fantastic description. My time at Buy-Rite was a learning and growth experience, and the owner Cliff Thomas was a tough mentor and teacher. His store provided the environment and opportunity to meet a lot of cool artists and DJs and people in general.

Do you see communities or meeting places (whether a record store or what-have-you) of that sort today?

Yes. Facebook… Myspace! [Laughs] Seriously, other than seeing cats at a party or social event, I personally don’t know of any places like Buy-Rite anymore.

So for your work relationships today, do you rely more on face-to-face, or online interaction?

Broadband is a must!

Your track titles suggest a dystopian vision of contemporary technology, but you seem to have come to terms with the (I’m kneading here) post-Collapse landscape.

I think that with maturity comes perspective. You can look at something as holding you back, or you can turn it into an opportunity. I think we are at the very beginnings of some major global sociological shifts. Here in North America one can look at the Hurricane Katrina response and the Gulf oil spill blunder as examples of outdated modalities.

Do you think that changes will be made, that those errors won’t be repeated? It’s hard not to wave those things off as beyond our control, even hopeless.

Accidents do happen but in the cases of Katrina and the Gulf spill, reactions were insanely slow. Humans can control how they prepare for events beyond their control, which should directly affect reaction time. The current model for energy is surely out of date.

And surely there’s opportunity in that. It sounds like you look on the future of these situations with hope.

With the right people and thought patterns, humans can do almost anything. I do see hope if we can move aside certain negative and destructive forces.

kuri  on August 18, 2010 at 5:02 PM

good interview Chris. a little surprised that you asked about Nina Kravicz’s reported involvement on the LP and not about Mariska Neerman’s documented writing/production credit on “Insolitology” from the Loyal Opposition 12″.

keith  on August 18, 2010 at 6:31 PM

awesome, one of my favorite artists. respect!

Chris Burkhalter  on August 19, 2010 at 7:48 AM

Failing to ask about Mariska Neerman was definitely a missed opportunity, Kuri. For whatever reason, it hadn’t occurred to me at the time, though “Insolitology” is certainly one of my favorites this year. It would be cool to take some questions to Neerman sometime though…

Shaun E  on August 19, 2010 at 9:14 AM

Nice piece!

Incidentally, Mariska will be playing alongside Urban Tribe in London on October 1st. Should be quite an evening…

http://www.bleep43.com

Ruby F  on August 19, 2010 at 8:56 PM

CONGRATULATIONS SHERARD! This is very impressive and I wish you much success in the future!

anon  on August 27, 2010 at 1:48 AM

You fail to note that the track “Covert Action” was actually a collaboration with Carl Craig. It was originally released on Carl’s first label Retroactive on a 12″ called Equinox Chapter One. It was also featured on the Buzz compilation CD “Equinox” before being on Mo Wax. Logically since it was made with Carl Craig once it was long out of print he reissued it on his label Planet E. Would have been great to hear more about how his collaborations with other artists actually work in the studio a bit more. I know Craig was listening to a lot of Wu Tang at that time – you can also hear their influence as well as that of Shut Up and Dance in the 69 material.

As you don’t seem to know that Planet E has actually released many non dance floor tracks in it’s long history – think Recloose, Jason Hogans and many others as well as Detroit Hip Hop from Lacksidaisycal and Big Tone on their side label Antidote, Francesco Mora and Tribe on their side Community Projects and much more.

“Covert Action” is also a precursor to Carl Craig remixes like his phenomenal mix of “La Funk Mob’s “Ravers Suck Our Sound” and his mix of Rob D’s “Clubbed To Death” for Mo Wax both quite overlooked now and very different to his sound today. I remember reading in the Wire that Carl was inspired by ODB during that time. Also I remember Lavelle was totally inspired by Covert Action – I seem to recall an interview with him were he said “Bug in the Bassbin” and “Covert Action” were two of the blueprints for Mo Wax too. Something long forgotten as is Mo Wax itself today.

And I agree with Kuri you should have talked more about the new Planet E ep and the ideas behind it – probably one of the best records on the label and certainly my favorite release on Planet E this year…

littlewhiteearbuds  on August 27, 2010 at 9:38 AM

You seem awfully upset about the reality that no interview is comprehensive or mentions every detail about an artist. That’s life.

Chris Burkhalter  on August 30, 2010 at 11:38 AM

There are lots of questions I would have loved to ask Mr. Ingram. Some simply didn’t occur to me at the time but, bear in mind, I had Ingram on the line for about two hours! There’s only so much material we could’ve covered. In my place, someone else might have opted to focus on other topics. I prepared questions based on what was on my own mind, and tried to fit as many as possible into a comfortable conversation that I hoped would give the reader a better sense of Ingram as a person.

To cover some of your more specific grievances, anon, I think I touched on “Covert Action”‘s various pressings twice in the above interview. Those looking for more specific detail on that topic should consult discogs. As far as Planet E goes, I of course hadn’t intended to define it as an all-club-bangers-all-the-time label (of course it isn’t). By rather mildly characterizing it as a label we “tend to associate with the dance floor,” I’d like to think I didn’t draw the lines too narrowly. Finally, Carl Craig’s interest in gritty hip-hop is certainly an interesting topic, and one that I agree would be interesting to hear him discuss at length. I hope you’ll understand that I didn’t feel it was the most relevant subject for this interview.

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Sherard Ingram aka DJ Stingray interview « The Hipodrome Of Music  on August 20, 2010 at 2:36 AM

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