Interview: Jlin

16 Mar 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

Dark Energy is not for the faint of heart. While it would be possible to place the album in the context of legendary footwork producers such as RP Boo and the late DJ Rashad, it would be more accurate to say that Jlin, an up-and-coming producer from Gary, Indiana, has blown apart the foundations of footwork in order to make space for her own uniquely relentless sound. Each of the eleven tracks on Dark Energy subverts expectation at every turn, toggling back and forth between percussion-heavy urgency and equally urgent periods of spacious subtlety. Jlin’s quick transitions are both inescapable and unpredictable, making Dark Energy exemplary of the most controlled and skillful form of pure pandemonium.

Jlin’s debut album will be released on 23 March by Planet Mu. In the meantime, I sat down with the producer and together, we delved into Dark Energy.

Read the interview after the break. 

(Photo by Matthew Avignone)

Let's start from the beginning of the album, with "Black Ballet."

That was actually the very last song that I finished. I knew that I wanted one of the songs to be ballet-related. So for two or three weeks, I was watching Black Swan, which is one of my favorite movies, but I was drawing absolutely nothing. It was actually making it worse because I wasn't getting anything. And then something told me: Alvin Ailey. Immediately I started watching a lot of Alvin Ailey Youtube videos and it was like this spark came over me.

What made you feel that spark?

There was a connection. I totally understood the movement of their bodies, rhythm-wise. It was like a conversation almost. A silent conversation. That's how "Black Ballet" came into play. At first I was nervous because I was like, "This is far out." But I was really pleased with it.

The track itself felt far out?

It felt far out to me because I had never done something like that before. It was unfamiliar to me, and so was "Erotic Heat." But "Black Ballet" was uncharted territory. You're in there but you don't know what to expect. But I didn't shy away from it and go, "Oh no, I'm not gonna put that out because that's not what people expect of me." Usually what is far out or crazy is what I'll throw out there. I'll see how far it can go.

What other tracks felt far out or uncomfortable? You mentioned "Erotic Heat."

"Infrared," for sure.

Why's that?

I had to go back and play that over and over just to make sure I was hearing it. The sounds. It was just heavy all the way around. The percussion, the synths.

I think you’re quite skillful in controlling the momentum. The whole album is high-energy but there are certain moments when you manage to create space. It gets drawn out.

Right, exactly. Impact is a tool for me. For me, impact is more important than the sound itself. I'm trying to channel the momentum and to be able to be in control of it. Sometimes there are highs, very intense, and there are lows. I wanted it to be an adrenaline rush all the way through, so that you had to go back and listen to it two or three times because it was just so much to take in at once. Sometimes I'll listen to a track of mine before I go to sleep and then I have to go and listen to another track and another – and the next I thing I know, here I am, up for two hours. Then I'll go from my stuff to Sade's to Rachelle Ferrell's. I listen to so many different genres, but there are specific people that I really take note of – not to mimic but just to respect.

Who are those people for you?

I listen to Rachelle Ferrell a lot. My mom put me on to her at a very young age. Sade too. We used to listen to all kinds of artists when I was younger because everybody liked different things in the house.

It sounds like you grew up around a lot of music.

I did, but it was all older music. It wasn't my generation, at all. I had to come into my generation on my own and through my friends. But yeah, I know a lot of jazz. Different things too. The Art of Noise, Elton John. I become like a sponge, not just for music, but for the things that I see and feel – that's where the impact is. Now it's just a matter of channeling that impact into a frequency and a vibration and a sound. Putting it into the atmosphere. I'll never grow tired of that.

What is the process, for you, of translating something you've seen into a sound?

I have to become the thing that I saw. I got that concept from a Bruce Lee saying, "Be water, my friend." When you pour water into the cup, you take the shape of the cup. It's the same process. Sometimes it can be very uncomfortable. A lot of times I have to go places in my mind that I really don't want to, but that, to me, is the realest sound. That's why a lot of times I find myself running from myself. I'm sure you've read that I create from an unhappy place. To create from a happy place just doesn't do it for me. If you create from trauma, there are so many things that can come out. Darkness and blackness – they're not bad things at all. The word 'black' has such a negative connotation and it's so not true. If that were the case, I don't believe the stars would come from darkness. People have gained most of their momentum from low spots. Blackness and darkness produce beautiful things. Like a diamond. It's a piece of coal but when you put pressure on it, what happens? 

There's something about Sun Ra that comes up for me in that reference to stars coming from darkness.

Right, exactly. It's poetic. The process itself is beautiful even though it may be hard. It's beautiful. If you've ever looked at a puddle of oil on the ground, look at all the colors inside it. What I put out splashes so many colors because every color originates from black.

There is blackness in the context of the color spectrum, but then there's also the experience of blackness, of being a person of color. Does that come into play in the album for you?

Of course. It amazes me, the negative connotation that black has. Black is the original color of original colors. And as far as being a person of color goes, I'm just one of those people who doesn't accept everything that's out in the atmosphere. I just don't. The atmosphere that we're in now – we're in trouble.

Say more about that.

Look at the state of world. We're in trouble. Look around you. I feel like I have to put it out there that it's my responsibility to put a certain vibration and frequency back into the atmosphere. There's so much love lacking. People are so accustomed to whatever being thrown into the atmosphere and they just adapt. But it shouldn't be like that all the time, because not everything you put out is a good thing.

In some ways, this is the perfect time for this album to come out.

Exactly. A lot of people are afraid. They're afraid to talk about certain things. The media can immediately shift what you've said and turn it into something else. One day you were being praised and the next day you're being hated. That's how powerful the media is. Because you may have been addressing something that's real, but if you violate a certain terrain, it's like you blackball yourself. In a way, with this album, I probably touch on a lot of subjects silently. I say it without saying it.

In my experience of the album, there's so much of black history there. Like the track, "Mansa Musa."

Absolutely. If you think this one is something, wait 'til the next one.

Oh yeah? Is there a next one?

Hah, you're the first person I've said that to. But yeah, I think it's my responsibility. That's why it's taken my whole life to get through this album. I had to go through so much. It was less about the music and more about my experiences. What I had to go through and what I had to learn, first about me as a person and then about what came before me as a person. I'm still learning.

What were some of the things you felt like you needed to learn before you were ready to produce Dark Energy?

I needed to be honest with myself. That's a hard thing to do. I'm still grasping that. A friend told me, "The truth doesn't hurt. It only hurts when you try to fight it." That's probably one of the realest statements I've heard in my life. Failing is very important. Failing is more important than your success, and I still fail. I'm in a wreck right now musically, but that's another story for another day. And being transparent publicly is hard. It takes a lot of energy because you're vulnerable and you have people who are waiting to eat you alive as soon as you step out. I went in telling myself, "Not everyone is gonna like your music." And you know what? I would be pissed if everybody did like my music. I would feel so unaccomplished.

You want that agitation.

Yeah, exactly. It would be like being in a happy state all the time. No trauma, no drama. What is that?

You spoke about how hard it is to be publicly transparent –

It is. That's the hardest part. The fun part is the creating and the producing, because you can just put your message in a bottle and send it out. But then you remember that once you send it out, it's gonna find people. Interviews are fine, but then you have to remember this interview is not just between you and the person you’re interviewing. It's about to go out into the world. It's like, "Oh, do I sound silly? I wonder if I sound stupid there." There are people just waiting for you to fail and to devour you. To say, "I don't like this. This is whack. She's not going anywhere." You have to be ready to face that. It's kind of like being thrown into the middle of a jungle full of vultures who haven't eaten in months, and here are you, fresh meat. But that kind of thing also gives me an adrenaline rush. You have to know how to use that force against itself.

You've really mastered how to channel difficult emotions –

There are those moments when it is so intense that I can't hear anything. But once I get my hearing back, that's when I create. But when I can't hear anything and I can't rationalize the sound, I don't create.

So there's this element of constructing the tracks that is very emotionally internal for you, and then there’s the fact that you don’t use samples, which means that every sound has to come from you.

Right. That goes back to sometimes having to go places you don't want to go mentally. And as far as sampling goes, I used to sample and I still know how to – I just chose to get away from it. Sampling is such a heavy thing in Chicago footwork. All the stuff on Dark Energy took time and it wasn't so much the music as having to learn myself, having to trust myself, having to forgive myself. It's more personal than it is musical.

I want to backtrack to something you said about footwork. Have you felt constrained at all by that label? You’ve mentioned that you don't like to name genres.

Yes. If I feel boxed-in or restrained, I have a tendency to react a certain way musically. Did you notice the name of one of those songs is "Abnormal Restriction"?

I was thinking of that track exactly.

That's where that feeling comes from. When I feel restrained, I lash out. I lash out in a way that you can hear in my music.

I don't know if this is appropriate to say, but I worry that people will react to Dark Energy by saying, "Look at this great new black female footwork producer" and take only that away from it.

You brought up something that I was worried about. This is predominantly male field – before we even touch the black aspect. I don't want to be known because I'm a female producer. My gender and my race have nothing to do with what I can do as a person, though melanin is very important to me. But I don't want to become a stereotype. You get seen for being the first of this or the first of that but not for your work or your craft. I should be able to stand toe-to-toe with anybody who comes before me or after me. It shouldn't matter that I'm a black woman who produces. Though, again, melanin is very important.

Have you had a lot of people talk to you about what they take away from the music?

Not a lot. Most people just give you their reactions to it. They don't go into detail about it. Certain people do. A lot of people just really like the way it comes across, the way it's presented. I’ve heard people say, “Man, I listened to this one track like six times in a row!” That makes me happy, though I'm never satisfied.

No?

I have happy moments but then those moments die very quickly. I'll make a track and be satisfied with it for one to two days max, and then I'm like, "What's after that?" I'm never satisfied. I have to keep creating. That's my heartbeat, my constant heartbeat.

Is there something you think it's important for people to know before listening to Dark Energy?

No. I never want to dictate to a person what they should feel. It's just a message in a bottle. However you take it is however you take it, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent. Who am I to tell you what you should get from the album? I feel differently about it every other day. So if I feel like that, who I am to tell you what you should feel?