To get to Jabba’s hut, you must find yourself in a strange, industrial backside of Brooklyn known as Wallabout. Then you enter through a loading dock, crawl up several flights of stairs and lean into an unmarked door. Inside you’ll find a warren of paper, paint and cushion. Stationary from the Gagosian Gallery is scribbled on with the words “Dancehall General Crowbar” and frog-faced caricatures; sketches and pictures of African masks and lists11One of which is titled “Dream Cars” are tacked onto the wall space in between his ceiling-tall paintings, which are finished in shades of burnt ochre and olive green. They lurch overhead, casting long shadows in the glow of the computer screen.
A pair of NS-10s emits whorls of bass draped with the sounds of whip-poor-wills, dripping slime, and rocks (or perhaps broken bones) crunching underfoot. The effect is dark but not scary – more like dank and overgrown, a swampy aesthetic that informs Lil Jabba’s keystrokes and brushstrokes. “This is like my castle, my keep,” says the 24-year old, gesturing around the room as he plays unfinished tracks with names like “Green” and “Lime” from his forthcoming full-length, Grotto. “A lot of the sounds in my new album have been harvested from around the building. I just got into field recording, so I’ve been banging on pipes and getting interesting room tones and sounds throughout.”
I like how grottos and caves have been part of humanity forever. [They were] the first house you didn’t have to build – you’d just crawl into a cave and you’d have a warm, safe spot.
A succulent musical strain that sort of sounds like instrumental grime oozes from the speakers as lists his other, more recent production interests: sound-designing on vector synths, using foley noises designed for films and hopping up and effecting bits from bass sample packs. He’s also gotten into trawling videogame farms, sites where hackers have extracted thousands of high-resolution noises, like clashing swords or explosions, from inside Playstation’s and Xbox’s. “The whole album is very much about the time and environment that I’m living in right now: imagining the relationship between the industrial, the natural and human history.”
As if to underscore this point – and to escape the late-summer humidity that makes New York City feel like an air lock – we journey to the roof, where he contemplates his sonic and visual fantasies. He points to an unfinished concrete box accessible by steel stairs, a pillared but wall-less perch overlooking the dull yellow lights of the Brooklyn Naval Yard, and two unusual electrical towers that frame the city beyond.
“That little area right there is the grotto,” he avers. “That’s my sanctuary. I go up there almost every day and have a little moment [to myself]. My studios have always been these swampy caves and I’ve always thought that’s kind of who I wanted to be – sort of caveman-ish. My music isn’t super polished. I’ve always really loved lo-fi stuff and gritty sounds. I like how grottos and caves have been part of humanity forever. [They were] the first house you didn’t have to build – you’d just crawl into a cave and you’d have a warm, safe spot.”
While his current environment may be throwing his cave aesthetic into sharper relief, murky shades have permeated Lil Jabba’s world since he was a teenager, when he was producing “MF Doom-y sort of wonky hip-hop” and wheatpasting the streets of NYC with “posters of weird creatures.” Dark colors and aqueous sounds are all over his first release, 2011’s Swisher, on Baltimore cassette label Watercolor. At the time, he was studying painting at art school in Baltimore, listening to a mix of ’60s garage rock, rocksteady reggae and Detroit techno, and going to DIY shows where the likes of Dan Deacon, Cex and Juiceboxxx played. “When I was in Baltimore, Bmore club was kind of… not happening in a way? But the punky vibe did influence me. There were always weird noise shows, and they helped me to come up with an idea of who I wanted to be musically and artistically.”
Through a friend named Will, Lil Jabba heard a Chicago footwork mixtape, which led him to obsessively watch dance battle videos on a YouTube channel called WalacamTV. “It was the first music in a long time that got me really fired up and excited. I hadn’t really heard anything like it,” he recalls. “I started making these beats – they weren’t very good at the beginning – but I guess I brought my own style and flavor to the game. I was sampling weird garage rock and elevator music. One of my earliest tracks sampled [German glitch/IDM group] Oval. The dudes in Chicago weren’t doing that kind of stuff – they were sampling rap tracks or doing their own vocals. Over time, I got in contact with DJ Rashad and sent him some of my stuff, and he really encouraged me. It was a good ego boost. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to try to put something out and make a name for myself.’”
Often when I’m working, the only time I can blast my music is deep, deep in the night – and at those hours, you feel like making music you want to listen to and feel, not just dance to.
Released on UK label Local Action in 2013, Lil Jabba’s debut album Scales dovetailed with the beginning of a global interest in footwork. With its 160bpm tempos and skittering snares, and his affiliation with Rashad’s Teklife crew, critics drew parallels between Scales and the Chicago sound. But even then, it was clear footwork wasn’t the only color on his palette: Scales also contains shades of Southern rap (not least in the “Lil Jabba on the track” drops), sci-fi-inspired synth-work, and more strange noises than the Amazon jungle at nightfall. And while footwork music by its very nature implies dancing, Jabba’s tracks aren’t tightly tethered to any DJ formulas, often trailing off or changing tack midway through.
“When I’m making music I’m not necessarily thinking, ‘I want this to pop off in the club,’ although I really enjoy hearing my stuff on a massive soundsystem,” he confesses. “I sometimes think my stuff is too complex for the club, but whenever I DJ I try to drop mainly my own tunes. It gives me an opportunity to test them and it’s a nice boost to see them work on the dancefloor. Often when I’m working, the only time I can blast my music is deep, deep in the night – and at those hours, you feel like making music you want to listen to and feel, not just dance to.”
He explores these outlying melodic elements further on the three EPs that have followed Scales: Gully on True Panther and 47 and Keep on Local Action (both named after Lil Jabba’s studio). “People tell me they think it sounds like twisted carnival music. There is an element of something mischievous and toy-like at points,” he says. “Gully was the first EP that wasn’t purely my version of footwork. I was trying to find something new for myself.” Connecting with the deeper side of UK garage (Burial and El-B) and reconnecting with grime – via its more instrumental and experimental directions over the past couple of years – has helped Lil Jabba expand his repertoire.
It’s been good for me to slow it down recently. It gives me an opportunity to really understand the sounds I’m working with and how they all fit snugly together.
“I’ve always been a maximalist,” he explains. “But lately I’ve been more interested in soundscapes and cinematic type stuff, and that’s harder to do in footwork – the drums are so rapid that it’s hard to draw out samples and let the track breathe. I like all my footwork stuff, and I’m best known for it, but a lot of it was so hectic that it’s almost overbearing in a weird way. It’s been good for me to slow it down recently. It gives me an opportunity to really understand the sounds I’m working with and how they all fit snugly together. I’ve also been making orchestral music with no beats, the kind that you might hear in a movie or a concert hall, just building up my skills and seeing what I can do once I know how to use these tools better.”
“The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’ve always been into the underground. I love being part of the underground and trying to push sounds that I think are new and interesting – those are kind of the primordial pools.” Jabba turns his face towards the murky black water of the East River and smiles quietly. “It kind of all starts in the cave... at least, that’s the way I see it.”
Find out more about Lil Jabba’s artwork at alexander-shaw.net. Find out more about Alexander Shaw’s music at soundcloud.com/lil-jabba.