Musician and rapper Material Girl creates sonic collage work in the form of songs. His grand, ambitious soundscapes created entirely through samples mimic the freneticism of everyday life. Going out for groceries, walking down the street, breakups, hearing about atrocities on the news, all within the confines of his city of Philadelphia.
His latest album, Tangram, takes great inspiration from the radio plays and sound experiments by Chapel Hill rapper Coin Locker Kid. Like the namesake puzzle, Material Girl lays piece next to piece to create an image in sound. To celebrate his debut’s success, our editor Young Fenimore Lee caught up with Material Girl about the new record over the phone recently. Here’s the conversation.
Young Fenimore Lee: How do you feel after the release of Tangram? How do you feel about all the success it has garnered through rateyourmusic and the like?
Material Girl: It’s been somewhat surreal, honestly. When I initially released it, I didn’t think it would catch on, but when it started gaining an audience and people started talking about it organically, it felt very… I almost had to dissociate from it because I couldn’t believe it was happening. But I’ve been over the moon about it. I actually got a really nice email from Coin Locker Kid just the other day congratulating me on the success and saying he wanted to keep talking, so it’s been excellent, really.
Young: Speaking of which, would you say Coin Locker Kid is a big influence for you?
MG: Immense. He’s been one of my primary influences. He’s unfairly classified as hip hop, in my opinion. What he does with song form and his self awareness as an artist is absolutely unprecedented.
Young: His work as Coin Locker Kid or as C’est la Key?
MG: Both, I think. Coin Locker Kid is the more condensed album version. A lot of the sonic elements of my music come directly from albums like The Salmon of Doubt or Traumnovelle, especially my forays into jazz or drone or ambient, which he sticks his hands into. I think his radio plays, where he goes into these extensive monologues and dialogues about artists and the doubts he has about releasing art, are really important touchstones. Superflat, too, was a really important touchstone for the content of this album.
Young: Who else would you say were your major influences for the album?
MG: City Light Mosaic and I have influenced each other, obviously – we’ve known each other for the better part of 6 years. There are a lot of artists where it’s not just their music, but rather, their approach to creating music that inspires me. I owe a huge debt to Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor not only because of the content of their music, but how they understood their music as not just jazz, but as – I think Braxton called it – a new black music. Although I’m not black myself, that entire approach of forging your own context through songs and improvisation was influential to how I wanted to approach making music. In terms of hip hop, my music wouldn’t exist without groups like Standing on the Corner or Slauson Malone. That new generation of lo-fi, abstract hip hop.
Young: It seems that we’re approaching a hypermodern age of hip hop.
MG: I think it’s been around for a while, though. If you look back at even the late 80’s in hip hop… You look at Public Enemy, their music is essentially a sound collage. They’re trying to mimic the sound of riots and race riots. Things like Death Certificate, these really dense, dissonant beats just layered sample-on-top-of-sample expressing this huge cultural trauma. And stuff like Cannibal Ox, or Company Flow, some stuff that El-P produced, a lot of the stuff that any number of producers were involved with in that scene, reflects that. Discord in music has always been experimental and evocative of a certain place and time, and I feel that fits into my approach.
Young: Do you still feel like there’s something new emerging with artists like Coin Locker Kid?
MG: Oh, absolutely. What I ultimately think has been the difference is that hip hop originated as music that just came from DJ parties, throwing breaks onto certain samples or certain records that were popular at the time. A form of dance music. Over time, evolving into things like MIKE or Slauson Malone… I feel like hip hop is venturing in a similar direction to the New Thing and free jazz in the 70’s, where it’s becoming more cerebral, sit-down-and-listen music. Elements of music that are communal and danceable are stripped away, and a lot of hip hop artists are launching into this abstract and demanding direction. Post-punk if you want a rock equivalent. We see even in the mainstream with To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not a party record.
Young: Given that, why do you think trap made its commercial boom during this era?
MG: I have a huge love for a lot of trap music across various eras, from the foundations in southern hip hop to the more modern iterations. I don’t think that trap is necessarily a response to more cerebral music. Where trap is revolutionary is that it’s thrown so many stranger and transgressive elements into the music. If you listen to one of Future’s songs on DS2 or you go on Soundcloud and check out people proximal to Spaceghostpurrp or some of Spaceghostpurrp’s own stuff, you hear all these strange elements that have this long basis in black experimental music.
You know how when you’re trying to feed children something you’ll put it in a food they already like? I feel like that’s what trap does to the mainstream by injecting strange sounds and experimentation. If you put a hot 808 under anything, you can get a pretty sizable audience listening to some strange sounds they wouldn’t otherwise be keyed into.
Young: How’d you come upon the people in No Agreements?
MG: We met crawling forums, talking about our musical interests and the music we made at the time. We were obviously amateurs, young teens at that point, but we shared commonalities in our taste: indie rock, post-punk, and weird experimental stuff. How many other 14-year-olds can you find listening to this stuff when you just go to a small high school?
So we got together and were like, “you like CAN? I like CAN, that’s crazy!” We started making music communally, and over time we wanted to do something more organized, so in the past year or two, we pulled together under the label No Agreements to unify our efforts. We’re very democratic, but City Light Mosaic is the prime mover of the label.
Young: Talk about the album art and what working with Canyon was like.
MG: Canyon is a fairly recent friend of mine. I mentioned that I was drafting a collage based on a tangram board, with every piece corresponding to a song. They asked me to send them images corresponding to each song, then they’d match each image with collage material. So for "Funeral Parade of Roses", I sent the original album art, that Basquiat tribute, and for "Swoon" I sent images of water and spider webs.
YFL: I’m curious about something. You mentioned that you grew up with mu-core music. In these internet music communities, there’s a somewhat contrived sense of what music is. Everything is focused on creating hierarchies and narratives of what music is. Do you feel like that’s unhealthy to some degree? What do you make of that, now that you’ve grown into your own artist?
MG: I was talking about this with Coin Locker Kid the other day. We were talking about how his music is difficult to categorize and is thrown into the category of experimental hip hop. We both agreed that that approach is somewhat reductive. The splitting of hairs about these minute and often ahistorical details about music is frustrating.
On the other hand, this weird micro-canon that comes out of spaces like rym or online boards is actually fascinating because it allows for these new contexts in which music ahead of its time can win retrospective reverence in digital spaces. Or a new album will come out that no major outlet is talking about, but it’ll pop off on Soundcloud. An example I can think of on rym is how Reptilian Club Boyz popped off in a way that I feel like it wouldn’t have if that digital space didn’t exist.
If I had to name one figure from the past 10 years whose influence is going to be unmatched on people who make music, it’s Lil Ugly Mane. I’ve noticed a lot of producers on Soundcloud and Bandcamp taking up the mantle of what he did and implementing it in their own music. I think him and Spaceghostpurrp are enormous influences that have emerged in the past decade.
(Young: People have begun to piece together that the sample here is from the “hijacking” incident on WKCR that was re-uploaded to 4chan, I think.)
The only reason that this track exists is that I needed an intro for the album, but a fun fact is that the reason that I found that sample to begin with is because I have a terrible addiction to Tik Tok. That audio was trending, with teenagers trying to scare the shit out of each other.
When I was making this song last year, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with the state of the world. There were incursions into Syria by the Turkish government, and the situation in the Middle East and America was getting bad. I was listening to a lot of avant garde jazz, because it was channeling the kinetic nervousness that was in me at all times. I felt I needed to get that stress out in some sense, so I was working on this one track chock-full of dense neurotic stuff like house music and free jazz slapped together, and I added all these samples in to act as instruments bouncing off each other. It was cathartic for me.
I sampled a beautiful vocal section that comes in at the end of the Jimmy Eat World song “Goodbye, Sky Harbor” from Clarity. I didn’t want to make something that’s stressful and abruptly ends. I wanted to give this sense of relief, that at some point, if you persist through this dissonant, turbulent time in history, that things have to improve at some point through human effort. That was my sign to myself that things are stressful, but you can’t get complacent – there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
The lyrics on that are difficult to make out. A lot of the phrases are made up from sections of Jewish apocrypha, mystic texts, and nonsense phrases from Dante’s Divine Comedy and from 8 1/2 by Fellini. This entire song is about how, sometimes, to express particular notions in a situation or a context, words come up short, so you almost have to reach for nonsense or gibberish. A lot of this song is about how I came from a family of immigrants; we’re all expected to speak the language of the West even when that language comes short of describing who we are at some points.
I wrote "Flood" at a time when I was getting into a new relationship, and at the same time I was sure how my future was going to go. Things were not going so hot for me, and I was wondering if it would be fair to this person to promise them a future that maybe I couldn’t give them. A lot of the song is about this feeling of anxiety just flooding over you. The use of that one SWV sample was almost ironic or sarcastic. That’s one of my favorite love songs of all time, it’s a beautiful R&B song, but it was also this sureness about giving yourself fully to somebody that I didn’t feel like I could do.
That song is dedicated to my partner. It was my followup to "Flood", like, despite all this uncertainty, I still want to have a life together with you.
That song was me dealing with the deaths of several family members. I originally had a verse penned for it, but the way Coin Locker Kid described the death of his mother and the displacement of his household through various metaphors was just so perfect that I felt like putting my own verse on it would be redundant.
I needed to finish the album off. At the time, I was thinking about family members on my dad’s side who had died in the past years, and how I hadn’t been able to go back to my home country to speak to them for a long time. I also felt like I was letting myself down in my personal and professional life, and in some ways, my idealized version of what I wanted my life to look like was falling apart. This song came from the feeling that I couldn’t be there for people, and I was not only failing them, but myself. It's about not pulling through for people, and whether they’ll remember you when you depart from this world.