Making Miracles out of Bad Music Since 2006
Onra is one of those artists you discover, cherish, and want to keep all to yourself, only to discover he’s tight with A-Trak, loved by Diplo, and pretty much one of the bigger artists doing what he’s doing — that is, straight-from-the-crate record sampling and mixing with no Abelton or anything like it in his possession.
His latest EP Deep into the Night, an extension of his 2010 album Long Distance — on Fools Gold — has garnered love for its all-out 80′s and neon feel, but it’s quite far from representative of Onra’s versatile tastes. The French hip-hop zealot recently topped off his two-part album Chinoiseries, which sampled Vietnamese and Chinese records from the 60s and blended it with hip-hop for a genius equation. He has also worked in Bollywood, and apparently there’s a reggae project on the way too.
Now on tour around the US, Onra is temporarily living in New York and gearing up for a huge show there. We snagged him for an interview and chatted about the 80s, the life of a biracial kid in the Ivory Coast, and being a hip-hop snob.
How did the Fools Gold collaboration come about?
Well, A-trak approached me a couple of years ago when I released Long Distance, and he really liked this album and basically he offered me to do something for Fools Gold anytime when I’m ready, so after all those tours around the world I finally found some time to work on something new, and I just thought the Fools Gold project was a great opportunity for me, and for that.
Deep Into the Night is an extension of Long Distance? How do you think your sound has grown since then? Why return to it?
Yeah, I’m making many different kinds of sounds on different projects, the tour sounds different. Because it’s Fools Gold and because it’s their style I did an electro EP, something more uptempo more danceable, but actually A-trak asked me to do the same vibe as Long Distance, he wanted the same style. this is what I gave them.
You mostly deal in hip-hop. What got you interested in the sort of 80s neon dance sound ?
It’s just a crush that I had five or six years ago with this genre of music, and I didn’t know anything about it before discovering it. When I discovered it I went very deep into it, started buying more and more of it. Yeah, i just fell in love with it. This genre was everything.
Do you feel like this is the most palpable sound in the French electronic scene, amidst all the Kitsune artists?
I don’t know anything about the French electronic scene. I’m more about the hip-hop scene, really. I’m not that familiar with those labels and people. It’s funny, it’s very easy to associate me with those labels and stuff, but I don’t know anything about them and I don’t think they know anything about me, but France is a funky country.
Hear “L.O.V.E.” off Deep Into The Night
What’s the latest in French hip-hop?
Nothing much besides my close friends that nobody knows about. There’s very few interesting things going on. One artist I’m a big fan of is called Walter Mecca. I think he’s a genius. I’m a big fan and we’re really close friends. We make music together. Pure talent.
Seem like you’re an independent force who isn’t terribly attached to one sound or label. From Fools Gold to Low End Theory, Chinoiseries, etc.
Yeah, because my inspirations are so various. The one thing that differs me from other people in the same scene is that I didn’t grow up in electronic music. Like I was saying before, I didn’t know anything about electronic music besides you know, Daft Punk. I never had this culture of electronic music. For me even if it sounds electronic and my album is on sale in the electro section in iTunes, it’s all about the hip-hop. I get the MPcs at the record stores, and for me no matter what it’s hip-hop that’s what I’m about and trying to make people understand. As far as my different kind of styles, this is very different from the Chinese stuff and the other stuff I’ve done before. But you don’t want an artist to do the same thing over and over again. I could do 20 volumes of Chinoiseries all my life and probably get away with it, but it’s not what I’m looking for. I have new ideas. I’m trying to come up with new concepts, the hip-hop Chinese traditional music was a very new thing for people, like a new genre, because it’s never been made before, just like the 80s stuff.
Is it a relief of sorts to be out of the Chinoiseries crate-digging, research travel?
Well I did for all my albums, even Deep Into the Night. I’m not sampling mp3s. all those records come form the same crate in Paris. I always go into the same store, it’s a sale crate, garbage music from the late 80s. For Deep Into the Night it’s not even good music, it’s a sort of pre-New Jack bad 80s sound. That’s what i made this EP with. It’s always the same concept. I always go to the crates, I always go find some records and make something out of it. I have a reggae project that I’m working on with old vinyl from Tokyo to Europe. That’s it. This is what i do. I always do that same thing but somehow the result is always new.
Are the MPCs prohibitive for you?
Yes, I feel extremely limited with this machine. I feel like it’s too late to make a new technique. I think I can still reinvent myself — make new, fresh music with this machine, but eventually I will have to move to a computer program just like everybody else.
What are your earliest memories of hearing music?
I was 10 years old. All I know is that when I discovered hip-hop it was like I had never heard music before, and never after. From the age of 10 to 20, I was very close-minded, it was only R&B or hip hop, I didn’t want anything else. I was living in the country side of France and Africa too. I was influenced by these places, and it was all I could find. My first cassette was a “best of” of the hot songs of the year. It had every big name — LL Cool J, Eazy-E, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, all those guys on one cassette. I could discover many of them, all in one place! The first official album I got was NWA Niggaz4Life, and then Tribe Called Quest’s second album The Low End Theory. It was good start. NWA taught me most of my slang, the N word, the B word, that stuff. Tribe Called Quest showed me another side with multiple samples.
You lived on the Ivory Coast?
My mom still lives there actually. She has been living there for over 20 years now. So I was going there every year for a few months to visit.
How did living there influence you?
the first, MPC I saw was in the Ivory Coast, so that’s the first time I touched it. I didn’t even know why that is really, it just influenced me. In the ivory coast a lot of people look up to the American culture as far as entertainment, with hip-hop and R&B right there, it’s the main genre, and of course the local African music. I was just going to clubs in West Africa, which may sound weird for an asian French dude, but this mix of culture made me who I am. That’s why I do some Chinese hip-hop, and, a mix of everything because I’m a mix of many.
Is France your home base?
Yes that’s my home more than anywhere else, more than west Africa more than Vietnam, but obviously I don’t look 100% French. At some time before my life, I felt like some French people didn’t consider me one of them because I’m half Asian, and then when I went to Vietnam I understood that I REALLY wasn’t one of them, so between France and Vietnam, I’m more French than Vietnamese.
Hear “A New Dynasty” off Chinoiseries pt. 2
Favorite and least favorite part?
I like that the city is so big there are so many things to do, you have options. i like my new York options. All the records stores too. New York is definitely one of my favorite places to work for records.
You’re living in New York while you’re on your. What’s your favorite and least favorite part about it?
Least favorite is the way how people are so cold. You think you can be friends with someone but then…naa. One other thing that I really hate actually is the fear of missing out. Every time i stay home on a Thursday, Friday night, I feel like I’m a loser or something, I say, ‘What am i doing now, should go out?’
There’s even the acronym FOMO, fear of missing out. It’s popular in New York.
Yes I know about that! It’s really strong here. New York is probably the only city in the world where this feeling so intense.
You studied marketing? Was that a family pressure thing? Do you still use it?
Yeah, it was something I did, really for my dad and my parents because they wanted me to get an education. I never had to use the master in any proper job. It wasn’t though useless because obviously I learned many many useful things at school. But I hope I’ll never be working in marketing.
With the internet is it harder to find good records?
No i don’t think it’s harder. Some stuff got more expensive, some stuff less, depending on what you’re looking for, but you can find good records everywhere. Obviously over the years the records or not getting any younger. If you’re looking for something from the 70s, it’s 40+ years old, and it’s a format that doesn’t age very well. The more you play, the worse the quality is going to get.
After New York?
DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, LA, Hawaii, Portland Seattle, Vancouver.
Any timetable on your next project?
Not really. All i know is I have this and this to do, including this interview with you. I realize i can make music only with my setup in Paris. I try to make music here but I don’t feel as inspired. I just need all my stuff, all my equipment and stuff. i can’t let myself go really, being creative and stuff, buy some more records, get some inspiration, when i get back to paris in septemeer i’ll get into creative mode. we’ll see what’s going to .