Interview: MssingNo Speaks for the First Time

The London-born, Leeds-educated producer reveals influences, production methods and more.

Pushed out late last November, when most music minds were peering back over 2013 in retrospective mode, Mssingno’s debut EP could have easily been ignored. As it transpired, the 16-minute Goon Club Allstars release caused a low-level seismic shock. Many pointed to “XE2” as the highlight: a crystalline R&B-grime hybrid that somehow wrought femininity from R. Kelly’s paean to playin’ “I’m a Flirt.” Despite the 11th hour entry, the tune was named FACT Magazine’s Track of the Year.

On the eve of his first gigs – in support of fellow Tri Angle signee and RBMA alumni Evian Christ – we linked up over Skype with the still-anonymous producer. Throughout the chat, a parallel repeatedly comes to mind, that of fêted New Jersey beatsmith Clams Casino taking his first steps into the light circa 2011: jovially unconcerned with the fripperies of fidelity and carrying a refreshing absence of any considered game plan.

Mssingno – Xe2

How long were you plugging away making the initial batch of tracks before it started to get picked up? There was already a bubbling hype about “Brandy Flip” before the Mssingno EP dropped. Did it take any coercion from Goon Club to actually convince you to make the leap?

Well, the furthest tracks back off the Goon Club EP were made two years ago. There was a bit of recognition off the tune I did with [the MC] Cas from people like Dusk & Blackdown, plus Faze Miyake – that was a real boost. I didn’t especially want to release my [early] ones in the first place – I wanted to come into the scene with a bang – but in hindsight it was definitely a good idea.

Have you continually worked with Cas throughout, or was that put to the side while your solo stuff progressed?

Before “The Drugs Don’t Work” was even finished he was flinging me ideas left, right and center for tracks. Then I had a bit of madness where I lost my laptop with all the stems. I’ve been remaking every single beat though, recording it properly. We’ve got some massive stuff coming up, old and new.

One of the main things that appealed to me with the EP is the clarity of the bell peals and xylophone. It’s a really nice contrast set against the thick texture – blue light flickering through a dense fog.

By running with those same Cubase VST presets for years, I learned them inside-out.

I’m always looking for interesting sounds, put mad effects on it, and try to stay away from these normal scene instruments that everyone else has used. Most of these tracks were made with only about five to ten of the same instruments, then a load of drum samples. I’m not too good at the technology stuff, so by running with those same Cubase VST presets for years, I learned them inside-out. I guess through the dusty old speakers I was using, it was just coming out clear and kind of loud and punchy, you know? I never really EQ or master it too much: I just got it out there, and yeah, it is what it is.

Even as a happy accident, the placement of elements on the mixdown felt pretty natural.

Most of the tracks are fairly simple: there’s just a nice high end and a nice low end, and – from what I was working with – I was always trying to get the thickest sound I can. As I’ve listened more on club-standard speakers and whatnot, it actually sounded better and better – somehow it all just worked pretty well.

What’s been your listening regime as you’ve grown up?

I used to mainly listen to rap and grime. I’ve never really had my ear to the scene too much; I don’t really try and dig deep for music. I subscribe to some pretty weird channels on YouTube, so whatever pops up I listen to.

As well as the R&B flavor, your beats seem to draw influence from a certain point on the grime timeline: a middle ground between grime-grime and the road rap that split off circa 2009/10, which caused a bit of consternation with people who felt the genre was moving in the wrong direction.

Yeah, definitely. There are a lot of people who began making really good sounding road rap instrumentals who didn’t get their shine – grime did get a little bit boring at some points. Even a lot of the new stuff that people are making now isn’t really cutting it. It doesn’t have the same potency. My stuff feels more like R&B to me, but I never know really what to say when people ask what genre it is.

MssingNo – Brandy Flip

The EP drew heavy praise, but more often than not there was an opening caveat: “I thought vocal pitch-shifting was dead but hey, this isn’t bad!” I don’t know if that winds you up at all?

I wasn’t really aware that people were sick of all the R&B vocal pitch stuff but I know it got rinsed that in the, err, “UK Bass” kinda scene. I don’t agree with female vocals getting pitched too far down: I think that’s all a bit weird. Often when I download I don’t even know what the original sounded like – I find it great that you can just load up Cubase and build a whole new tune around an a cappella. It’s almost like working with a vocalist, and an amazing vocalist at that. I really listen to the a cappellas and visualize how it can happen. Generally I think if it sounds as melodically fitting as possible, why not do it? As long as people say it’s working, then I’m happy.

So what of the new material going forward – I heard mutterings of a link with Dro Carey?

I’m desperate to keep it fresh, keep it moving, but obviously there is a little bit of pressure now.

Everything that everyone’s heard from me so far has been old. No-one’s really heard anything that I’ve made in the last six months, say. I’m desperate to keep it fresh, keep it moving, but obviously there is a little bit of pressure now, and I’m not going to do it stupidly. I’m going to be doing some collaboration with various people: Dro Carey, possibly Visionist, try with Kelela maybe. My focus will be working with a lot of vocalists right now, because you can get caught up using a cappellas.

And the edit of Plata’s “Kru” that’s been floating about? It treads a similar ground of the light/dark and sweet/sour, with a Cassie vocal getting flipped, so it’d make sense you would put your hand to a remix there.

Yeah, exactly. Plata is a sick producer, a kid from Barcelona who is still in school but he’s big; I’ll keep my eye on him. A lot of the stuff that I hear at the moment doesn’t really grip me. Those are the kind of tracks that are just pleasing to me: that mash of innocent and raw, very pure tracks made in bedrooms.

Mssingno – Skeezers

Do you personally feel as if you slot into a subset at the moment? There are young producers out who, if not homogenous in sound, approach self-promotion from similar mindsets – a detectable presence online but it’s all very sparing and arms-length.

I can’t really say where I’d put myself to be honest, but yes, I guess it is more of an outward thing than an inward thing. It’s definitely good to have people receptive instead of falling through the cracks though. People can take me as I come: all I want to do is just put out some sick music.

And the anonymity? Tri Angle do tend to prize these slow reveals, but the roster is generally built up of producers who have a clear vision of how they want to be presented anyway.

I mean, yeah, you’re right. Traditionally it is probably more professional for producers to stay in the shadows a little bit. But I’m not trying to hide away or anything. I’m out here.

Are you looking forward to translating it all on this first proper run of dates, or are you nervous?

It’s totally learning on the job: no doubt at some point I’ll be sliding the fader across to a muted track.

I’ve done the Lisbon show already. That’s the first time I’ve ever played live, anywhere – and it was sick. I only had three days practice before that, so I was a bit rusty but yeah it popped off. I’m trying to put together sets by taking bits out of every little corner of the music spectrum that I’ve listened to over the years. So it might be a kind of R&B sound, then a 130 Funkystepz type number, which could switch into a Youngs Teflon tune. It’s totally learning on the job: no doubt at some point I’ll be sliding the fader across to a muted track.

In a way that echoes the way you’ve gone about everything so far. Not overly hurrying it, just getting to know your trade and putting feelers out there.

The main thing is I want to be playing straight classics and just heavy tunes that I know everyone’s going to like. Actually, to be honest, I don’t really mind if they like them or not; I play them if I like them. So, yes, I guess that it kind of mirrors my production in the way that even if some of my mates weren’t really digging the stuff, other people were feeling it. I’m just making beats that sound good to me.

By Gabriel Szatan on March 20, 2014

On a different note