Ivan Ave

Ivan Ave

Photo credit: David Morrison

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Ali is a giant fan of Norwegian rapper Ivan Ave, so we asked him to come through when he was in L.A. and talk about his internet enabled global network. He's from Oslo, signed to Jakarta, a Berlin based label, and works often with Mndsgn, who grew up in New Jersey and who he met through Tumblr.

We weighed the responsibilities of artists, heard about Ivan sneaking 90s R&B out of his older sister's collection, and learned a bit about rap music being made in Norway. And then, Mndsgn jumped on my mic to tell us more about their collaborative relationship. We hope this one takes you places.

IVAN AVE: I'm Ivan Ave.

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up, Ivan Ave?

IVAN AVE: What's good?

ALI: What's happening? It's good to have you here, man.

IVAN AVE: Hey. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm a big fan of the show, so thank you.

ALI: Well, I'm a big fan of you.

IVAN AVE: Hey. Thank you, man. Likewise.

ALI: So, what's popping in Jakarta? What is Jakarta?

IVAN AVE: Jakarta is the label I'm signed to. It's a Berlin- and Cologne-based operation. I put out two records – three records actually – on Jakarta. Two LPs and an EP. And it's a great home for me right now. They get it. And I appreciate what they do musically and politically.

FRANNIE KELLEY: What do you mean by that?

IVAN AVE: I guess one example is they have a sub-label going on right now called Habibi Funk where Jannis, one of the managers, he travels to a lot of Northern African countries and countries in the Middle East, and he digs up old funk from the '80s and '70s.

ALI: Wow.

IVAN AVE: Arabic soul and funk that we wouldn't've known existed if he didn't reissue it. So that's his whole agenda. I might be reading into it. Like, he might just be a Arabic funk-head. But there's definitely a vibe of like, they're trying to bridge some gaps in Europe right now that I think are very important. So that's why I say that politically I respect what they're doing.

But it's mainly about the music. But I guess you can never really separate the two.

FRANNIE: Right.

ALI: I never knew that there was Arabic funk.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

ALI: Like, I've been digging for a lot of records. I don't think I've ever –

IVAN AVE: They actually just discovered the first Arabic rap artist.

FRANNIE: What.

IVAN AVE: He was like a James Brown impersonator almost. He – that was his character on stage. And they just recently discovered that he also recorded a bunch of rap tapes in Arabic in the early '80s, I want to say.

ALI: Wow. That's crazy.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

FRANNIE: Do you remember his name?

IVAN AVE: I don't. And they're going to kill me for not –

FRANNIE: We can add it later.

IVAN AVE: – plugging it right now. But the name of the label is Habibi Funk, and there's going to be a whole lot of stuff coming out on there.

ALI: Wow. So how'd you link up – if it's a – you said Cologne, so that's Germany. And you're based in Norway.

IVAN AVE: Yes. Oslo.

ALI: How did you all link up together?

IVAN AVE: Well –

ALI: This whole thing is fascinating because you're talking about Arabic funk with a German-based company.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

ALI: Like, the whole –

IVAN AVE: I guess it's just a natural dynamic of how Internet oriented music is right now and has been, obviously, for a decade. So I put together an EP called Low Jams with Ringgo, Mndsgn. I put that out myself, just put it up on Soundcloud. And, yeah, some offers started coming in, and I felt like Jakarta was the right place for me. So they hit me up when I put out those four or five tracks. And then they put that on wax and we released it, just like a limited – I think it's 300 copies. That was sort of the start of my relationship with them. And then we've gone on to put out two more LPs.

ALI: That's cool. So he's here – ladies and gentlemen – Mr. Mndsgn, and we'll get him in here in a minute, but how did you two link up? Was it through the Internet?

IVAN AVE: Yeah. It was kind of serendipitous how – it really happened through some visual stuff. Cause I was big into Tumblr back in the day, and I got to know a lady by the name of Tanya Enriquez who – I guess we just shared the same stuff on Tumblr or whatever. We were into the same art.

And then I got to talking to her, and she lived out here in L.A, and she knew Ringgo. So she knew I was looking for beats. She also knew Ringgo was looking for MCs or vocalists to work with. And that's – that was the connection. So, again, it was just like this online link up that I think is more common now than meeting in real life even.

FRANNIE: And also the lowkey, like, girl-made-it-happen story that is incredibly important to hip-hop and not often acknowledged.

IVAN AVE: True. I guess that's timeless. Yeah.

FRANNIE: Yeah.

FRANNIE: But, I mean, speaking of which, I read another interview you did where you speaking about – you have older sisters?

IVAN AVE: I have two older sisters and one younger. Yep.

FRANNIE: And they are who put you on?

IVAN AVE: I would say so. I would – not necessarily knowingly, but I would sneak into especially my oldest sister's room and listen to CDs. This is mid-'90s, late-'90s. So – but also they would put me on, but I would also be sneaking in there.

So it was like, The Fugees, Janet Jackson, Raphael Saadiq, Lucy Pearl at some point. So I kind of came from R&B more than hip-hop coming up. I was very much influenced by what they listened to, and then I kind of found the harder stuff coming through the soul-influenced hip-hop. So that was the birth of my obsession.

FRANNIE: Can you tell us how we could hear that influence on like Helping Hands, for example?

IVAN AVE: I guess my thing is just I'm always trying to be as honest as I'm able to be when I express myself. And sometimes it feels more honest to me to be singing a part of a song, or to be sampling some rare, like, soul-jazz or even some R&B stuff. Or not necessarily sampling, but I like my production to be just reflecting how I feel at any given time. So I think it's in there. I think I'm not necessarily your classic rappity-rap MC. So hopefully it's reflected in –

ALI: It comes across.

IVAN AVE: Yup.

ALI: I think so. Like, a lot of the songs kind of – it made me wonder if that was your thing or if it was Mndsgn's sort of thing.

IVAN AVE: Right.

ALI: Bringing some of the R&B aspects.

IVAN AVE: You know, we were – me and Ringgo, we were born in the same month in the same year. And I think we came up discovering a lot of the same music and the same time. So that's why it's such a fruitful collaboration. It's because I don't have to explain anything to him, and whenever he plays me something, I'm like, "Oh, this resonates, and that's probably because of this record in '98 or this single in 2003." So we definitely come from a lot of the same experiences, having discovered all types of music.

ALI: Yeah. Can you talk about – cause I know you mention it on Helping Hands – you say something about being 5 or something like that, and it sounded like you were talking about your love affair with hip-hop or discovering it.

IVAN AVE: I think it might be 9.

ALI: Nine?

IVAN AVE: But yeah. See, I'm from a very – when I was growing up, it was – I'm originally from a region in Norway called Telemark, and it's the mountains. Like, it's a small town. It's a village by U.S. standards. So there wasn't really – I didn't have cable. I didn't have the Internet at 5. So all this music found me through my sisters who had CDs and stuff.

And I distinctly remember when I was 8 or 9 how just the sound of chopped drum breaks, how it would mean a lot to me. I didn't know what it was, but it would totally pierce through and hit me. So definitely around that age – 8, 9, 10 – I would be very fascinated with just the sonics of it, not knowing anything about sampling, not really knowing anything about jazz or funk or all these styles of music that –

ALI: Existed.

IVAN AVE: Yeah. Which was the DNA of the hip-hop that I was being exposed to.

ALI: So when did you find your voice as a poet, not necessarily as a rapper but more as a poet?

IVAN AVE: Well, I don't – you know, I'm constantly trying to find that. So I wouldn't know. I mean, I've been writing raps for damn near a decade, but I guess I'm still just trying to evolve and try to be me on a track, which is not as easy at it sounds. I mean, for some people, it's just raw and natural and – but I'm – I guess I'm more an introspective person. So that's an art form in itself to me, is just to find that space where you can be 100% you.

ALI: So are you talking to yourself on a song like "Find Me?"

IVAN AVE: Yeah, definitely. A lot of my songs are like me just coaching myself, just trying to give myself a meta-view of where I'm at, so that by writing these verses, I get to sort of – it's therapy. Like, that's such a cliché, but it's definitely me trying to figure out my own shit.

ALI: I think it's really clever. And there's a lot that you're talking about. What was the inspiration on that?

IVAN AVE: For this record? Helping Hands?

ALI: For "Find Me Pt. 2."

IVAN AVE: Oh, "Find Me Pt. 2" is the sequel to a track on Low Jams, which was the first project I did with Ringgo. So there's a track on there called "Find Me."

And I write a lot of songs that are like lists of – so I'll have a concept. In this case, the concept is, "You can find me doing this. You can find me doing that." But I'm also trying to find me, like, in writing the song. So it's just a easy way for me to get to writing, is to have that tag. On everything second or fourth bar, I'll say, "You can find me doing this." It might be on some braggadocio. It might be on some super frail like, "I'm – I don't know what I'm doing right now, but you can find me doing this bullshit that I shouldn't be involved with." So you can take it – you could bring that into whatever your struggling with or whatever you're winning at. So it's a very agile way to write one song.

So "Find Me Pt. 2" is really just a sequel to the original. And then there's an outro part where I talk about a few friends of mine who took their own lives and who I wish that we could've found or grabbed before that happened, and who definitely struggled with finding themselves. So I guess I just try to cram in whatever I can when I have a concept like that, just to fill it up with meaning for myself, and then hopefully it resonates with someone else.

ALI: Yeah, you mentioned specifically, you know, someone dealing with depression.

IVAN AVE: Mhmm.

ALI: And so is that something that is common in Norway or is it –

IVAN AVE: Yeah, I mean –

ALI: I ask that because here in the U.S., it seems to be a very prevalent thing that's not really talked about much.

IVAN AVE: Yeah, I think it definitely is a plague to young people universally right now. Cause we have – for the first time really in history, we have to deal with all these images of success that are just in our faces all day, with Instagram and like – I realize I sound like a 70-year-old right now.

FRANNIE: A little bit.

IVAN AVE: But it's just interesting to me how – I don't even know how we expect to be – to feel fulfilled and happy all the time when really what we're doing is just trying to hold ourselves to the standard of success and achievement that is pretty unrealistic for a lot of people. Not to say that that's the root of all depression, there's a lot of ways that these negative vibes can reach you now, whereas earlier, when I was 10, you could shut off. You could climb a tree, you know what I mean?

ALI: There's not a lot of tree climbing in Brooklyn, man. But I wish we could get to a more simplified sort of a lifestyle.

IVAN AVE: Yeah. Yup.

ALI: It may change some things.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

ALI: Yeah. Well, I find that your music is very therapeutic. It's deep. And you paint such a picture, and specifically I'm harping on the song "Find Me" because it really touched me.

IVAN AVE: I appreciate that, man.

ALI: And, you know, just I think a lot of people come up against obstacles, and I think the way you said it was like, "People in a boat in" – what was the line that you said?

IVAN AVE: That's a reference to what's going on in Europe right now –

ALI: Right.

IVAN AVE: – with the influx of refugees just trying to make it to shore, you know? And a lot of European nations are not dealing with it in a way that I think is even humane. So I think we'll look back at this moment in history where we're repeating a lot of the mistakes that were made in the late '30s, with the Jewish European population not really finding a home anywhere. And the powers that be have their interests, and they make it out to be something that it's not, which is these people need somewhere to live. Like, they need to live.

So I guess the verse ends on a note where I'm just trying to make that clear, that history will look back – will find us and look back and, you know, judge what we're doing right now, which – it sounds pompous when it's not over a beat, but it's –

FRANNIE: You're fine.

IVAN AVE: It feels true to me, so.

ALI: Well, I like the fact that when so many other rappers are putting in their music things that're way more frivolous, that you are bold enough to lay it and you do it in such a very poetic way.

IVAN AVE: Thank you.

ALI: Do you feel responsible, that you have to do that?

IVAN AVE: Yes and no. For me, it would be weird to me to not be saying something, true stuff on stage. Cause whatever the crowd is and wherever you're playing a show, I feel like there's enough good music out there where nothing important is being said – and it could be good music. So I appreciate rap that's not that dense with meaning.

But, yeah, I guess to me personally, it just feels right to be able to pull some of those themes in. Cause we're in this room; these beats are dope. So we don't – we might as well talk about some real shit – and still have a good time. Like, I'm not trying to bring the vibe down. But, yeah, I guess it just – it's boring to me to write a whole song without touching on some real subjects.

FRANNIE: So in the U.S. at least, musicians who sort of take that approach – maybe sort of less and less, but still – are put in sort of category and, like, get booked to play certain things and are depicted in a certain way.

IVAN AVE: Conscious rap.

FRANNIE: Yeah. Backpack, you know, whatever you want to call it. What is your role within the context of Norwegian rap? And what is happening in Norwegian rap?

IVAN AVE: Well, there's a lot of good music being put out. Rap in Norway is mostly in Norwegian, so most of the rap music that's on the radio is in Norwegian. So –

FRANNIE: Are there rap-only stations in Norway?

IVAN AVE: Not really. Not on the scale where, you know, they matter.

FRANNIE: OK.

IVAN AVE: But there are shows on student radio. I guess, yeah, there's some shows, but you kind of have to go the pop route in my opinion. With what I'm hearing, that's how I see it. To be big on the radio, just like here, you have to kind of fuse rap with whatever's hot at any given moment.

But I really respect Norwegian lyricists who are able to utilize the native tongue in new ways. That's always interesting, and I don't rap in English to distance myself from Norwegian hip-hop at all. I just had this opportunity because I have family in the U.S. and I've been coming here a lot, so I speak the language. And I always wanted to make music that would allow me to tour overseas and whatnot. So there's definitely a strong tradition of good hip-hop in Norway.

When it comes to the jazzier stuff that, I guess, if you want to label it that, that I make, there's not really a lot going on. I'm very fortunate to be a part of a crew called Mutual Intentions, where we're just like-minded artists and designers and photographers who really came up in the mid-'90s and late-'90s and that kind of influenced what we want to create. So I don't feel like I'm alone in doing this back home, but that's because I have this circle of homies who really get it and want to be a part of what we consider to be dope art and music.

FRANNIE: Can you tell us more about Norwegian hip-hop? Like, who are the players? What it sounds like, priorities.

IVAN AVE: See, I wish I stayed more updated.

FRANNIE: Sorry to put you on the spot.

IVAN AVE: To be honest with you, my whole – obviously, I could tell you more about –

FRANNIE: I'm so curious.

IVAN AVE: Yeah, yeah. There's definitely some names, some people who are doing really well. Lars Vaular. I'm trying to pronounce it so that y'all could Google it. He's –

FRANNIE: OK. But how do you actually pronounce it?

IVAN AVE: Lars Vaular.

FRANNIE: Yeah, I definitely couldn't Google it.

IVAN AVE: Lars Vaular, he's an amazing lyricist and songwriter. He raps in Norwegian. There's Karpe Diem. They're probably the biggest act. That's Karpe Diem with a K. So those would probably be the two biggest names in Norwegian hip-hop for all I know. And, yeah, they're very good at hitting whatever is popping right now.

FRANNIE: Could you compare either of them to an American act that we might know?

IVAN AVE: Oh, man. That's a tricky question.

FRANNIE: Why? Why is it tricky?

IVAN AVE: Because it's such a different context. Like, the music industry – I mean, Norway is a small country. It's five million people. You could definitely get to a point where you're making noise doing some weird shit more so than here, I think. I mean, I don't know if that's true, cause whatever is big on the radio right now is pretty weird, in the U.S.

FRANNIE: That's kind of true.

IVAN AVE: I mean, it's not weird anymore cause we're conditioned to –

ALI: It's the norm.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

ALI: Accepted as the norm. But yeah, yeah.

IVAN AVE: Yeah. So that's tricky. I don't think I have a good comparison.

FRANNIE: Is it kind of like everybody knows – I mean, I'm actually just kind of mind blown that there's only five million people in Norway. So I feel like –

IVAN AVE: Mhmm. Might be 5.5 but yeah.

FRANNIE: I mean, in that population, I feel like people would at least be aware of almost everybody.

IVAN AVE: Right.

FRANNIE: Is that true?

IVAN AVE: There's definitely a lower ceiling or whatever you want to call it. So – but that's not to take anything away from –

FRANNIE: No, not at all.

IVAN AVE: If you're trying to stay up on top, that's as hard as anywhere.

FRANNIE: Yeah.

IVAN AVE: But it's definitely a smaller scene. And the media is even – like any city or region, the media will have their take on things, and that hardly changes when it's such a microcosmos.

ALI: Can I translate that as, "The media will have their favorites?"

IVAN AVE: You go ahead and call it what you want. Yeah.

FRANNIE: Not that you as now a member of the media have any, right?

ALI: Hey, hey.

IVAN AVE: I'm trying to be able to go home still.

ALI: I see how you unfold in your answers.

FRANNIE: It's tricky over here too, you know?

ALI: It's very tricky.

FRANNIE: But what you were saying about – I want to go a little bit further with what you were talking about the context of rap in Norway. Because I mean, the context of rap in America goes back to slavery.

IVAN AVE: Yup.

FRANNIE: So how – just if you could sort of detail how the context is different and how – what type of consideration goes into your work and also your peers when thinking about that context?

IVAN AVE: Right. Well, what I'm very happy about and proud of as a Norwegian is that those two acts that I mentioned are good examples of songwriters who actually deal with social issues, and the divide between east and west in the city, or religious beef that's going on right now.

So I think they wouldn't've made it to where they are and stayed there if they didn't address some of these issues that some people think hip-hop is obligated to deal with. I'm not really the one to say if that's the case. I have too much respect for hip-hop as a culture and all that it can be to really come out and say that it needs to deal with this and that. But that's my favorite style of hip-hop. If you have the balls and the ability to address issues like that, then I'ma listen to your record.

So yeah, there's definitely a lot of that going on back home, where people take on that responsibility. And then there's also a whole bunch of artists who just try to copy Drake or whatever else is going on. So I think, just like in the U.S., people are going to be people, and people go into the studio with their intentions. And then it's just up to you as a listener to tune out or in.

FRANNIE: Yeah. Decide.

IVAN AVE: Yup.

FRANNIE: Well, I think there's two different ways to sort of think about Norwegian hip-hop and Norwegians making hip-hop, and one of which is, oh, that must be really different. Is there any type of – how do you sort of deal with the outsiderness or the voyeurism of it?

But then the other side of it is the more I think realistic version, which is that hip-hop is global and that there are things in hip-hop for everybody and that you can take sort of the mechanics of it to talk about things like religious beef or like the refugee crisis. Yeah, I don't know if there are conversations that you have privately or that happen.

IVAN AVE: Well, I have them with myself a lot.

FRANNIE: OK.

IVAN AVE: As a white man, as a Northern European white male, there's a lot of privilege that I try to be very honest with myself about. I just want to add that some of these acts in Norway are not white people. They're the children of immigrants or – so there's – it doesn't really only have to do with nationality. There's a lot of stuff that comes into play, ethnicity, religion.

But for myself being a student of black music traditionally, I go into it with a lot of respect and humility, cause I know that no matter how early this music came into my life, it's definitely rooted in other people's history. And I can't help but love this music and so much that I need to be a part of it. That's just something I need to do. But still I can't lose sight of the fact that it didn't come from my parents or my culture.

Having said that, like you said, it's a global culture at this point. I'm signed to German label. I work with a producer from Jersey living in L.A. And I don't really deal with it when I'm out doing shows or whatever. I don't really feel like that's a part of the conversation between the stage and the crowd or whatever, or meeting people after a show. Some people might not know that I'm from Norway and when they find out, they might go, "Oh, shit. You're Norwegian. I didn't know that." And then that's really that. Cause it's such a universal language.

Just the beat in itself is a language that we speak fluently if you're a part of the culture. So it's definitely broken a lot of boundaries between people who come from very different cultures and backgrounds, and now we feel like we're in the same room with the same understanding of what's going on. So.

FRANNIE: Well, I wanted to ask if you could a little bit about "I Do." Because to me, that song is the most Bomb Squad-esque feel, which is kind of hilarious to me.

IVAN AVE: OK.

FRANNIE: And then also – love songs in hip-hop, like, what – respect.

IVAN AVE: Hey. I think I'm only able to write love songs if I'm the clown of the story, cause that's – again, that's what feels honest to me. So "I Do" is about me being in a club scenario when I probably should've been at home just dealing with my shit. So "I Do" goes, "Do you need a hand, cause I do. Oh, shit. You got a man? That's cool." Like, I'm definitely not in my element, just trying to find something that I think will save me, when really I need to just save myself. So yeah, it's kind of a desperate tune actually.

FRANNIE: It's your "Passing Me By."

IVAN AVE: Maybe. Yeah. I've never thought of that. But yeah. It's over like a boogie beat that Ringgo made. He showed me that in Paris. We did a show there about a year ago. And I DJ a lot, so I play a lot of boogie and '80s funk and soul and house music. So that beat really hit me.

I wasn't sure if it was going to be on the record cause I hadn't really done anything that sounded like the '80s as much as that beat does. But I felt like if I'ma do this track, I gotta do some boogie shit on it, some Glenn Jones like, "I'm in pain" stuff. Yeah, so that's how that track came about.

FRANNIE: Well, I like it.

IVAN AVE: Thank you.

FRANNIE: You guys could both speak to this, though people have talked a lot about it before, but how being a DJ improves your discernment when you are either choosing beats or making them or figuring out how to rhyme over them. Do you have – do you think there's a formula?

IVAN AVE: Well, formulas, I try to stay away from.

FRANNIE: Alright.

IVAN AVE: But it's definitely a huge part of how I write music. I got into record collecting – before I started DJing, I collected jazz mostly and still do. And then at a certain point, I realized I had enough records to make some money off of being obsessed with records. So yeah, I've been DJing just for like three or four years. At this point, it's such a big part of how I hear music and select beats and mix my songs that I can't really even separate it from my music that I make. So it's a big part of it.

FRANNIE: Do you mean like you can kind of anticipate people's reactions or –

IVAN AVE: You know, you analyze bass lines or shakers or whatever. When you're DJing, you see the reaction and you learn from that. But it's more so about learning about vibes and how lyrics combine with production. It's more so about the emotion of it than the science of it, for me.

But being a part of, like I said, Mutual Intentions. The homie Fredfades who I've done several records with, he's a producer and a crazy collector. So just being around people like that has taught me a lot about finding samples or just finding a sound and a vibe that you want to include in your own catalog.

The whole crate digging thing for me now isn't necessarily about finding a break or finding a loop. It's more so about finding some sort of expression that resonates with me, so that I can learn from it and try to do my version of it.

FRANNIE: Yeah. And just to be clear – and this is coming from a person who does not make music – these are things that you kind of – and also not wanting you to spill state secrets or anything, but it is more of a feeling. It's a thing that you can't really articulate, that we don't have language for it. Is that correct?

ALI: I definitely identify with what Ivan said. For me, digging is definitely – it's about being exposed to a feeling first and foremost, and then wanting to feel that again. And it's an unknown feeling, but it's just, you feel it. You don't know what it is, and you connect with it and wanting to continue.

And then transitioning that from being a fan of what you been exposed to and then actually now it turns sort of into a mission or – for me, it's been a life mission, maybe not so much for others. It may be more of a hobby. But in search of that feeling and that discovery and learning, as he says, the exact same thing. And it's like connecting with other humans. It's like time traveling in a sense.

FRANNIE: Yeah.

ALI: And learning that there's aspects of something that occurred before you – 50, 60, even 100 years prior to your existence – that it resonates with where you are. And it's still – there's some sort of a unison. And so then transitioning that from fan to DJ to explorer to then wanting to be an artist and sharing it, really. So it's keeping the cycle going, I think.

IVAN AVE: Right. Yup.

ALI: Yeah, but for me specifically – and I get a sense from you too – I don't like to repeat myself, but also I air towards what people call abstract.

IVAN AVE: Right.

ALI: And it seems like you do as well, and I don't know if that's because those frequencies – there's something about it. I can't really state what it is. But there's something in those frequencies that just move my molecules.

IVAN AVE: That's dope.

ALI: In a way that's different than maybe someone else is doing something a bit more straightforward, or what I call straightforward.

IVAN AVE: Right.

ALI: And so just wanting to share that feeling, whatever I got, you know, with other people, and put it into music in that way. And it – to some people, I think they feel it the same way I felt it, and some people, maybe just not their thing.

IVAN AVE: For me, I don't – if I ever start thinking about how a certain track will make people feel, I feel like I lost already. Because also I'm drawn to chord progressions that feel unresolved, but they feel beautiful. I think to me just personally I just like to be in that space where this really draws me in, but it's not – there's no conclusion. There's no – it's just more questions. But I need to just sit with these questions. I'm talking sonically and musically right now, which speaking of abstract, I'm being very abstract, but –

FRANNIE: No you're not.

IVAN AVE: – it's something about that feeling of just having a – for me, a beat is a canvas as well. So I need the canvas to not be too straightforward, because then I'm stuck with some straightforward bars at the end of the day. So it's definitely – I guess that's why a lot of the '70s jazz stuff seeps into my music. It's because – which also was the DNA for a lot of neo-soul, if you want to call it that.

It's just that vibe that feels good to you but it doesn't condescend. It's not too clear to you why it feels good. That's what I'm searching for. And I'm continuously seeking something, which I think is why I want the beat to feel like it's seeking too. I don't want it to end up where we're going. I want to just be going.

ALI: I just want to know, in the history of records that I could think of, no one mentions Earl Klugh

IVAN AVE: Oh! Yeah, yeah.

ALI: – so, what was up with that?

IVAN AVE: Well, it was just a rhyme scheme that needed a Earl Klugh pattern. I'm saying like – yeah, it's just a bunch of syllables that needed Earl to step in.

ALI: OK.

FRANNIE: Who is Earl Klugh though?

IVAN AVE: Guitar player, right?

ALI: Mhmm.

IVAN AVE: Fusion jazz legend. Definitely not aware of his whole catalog, but to me, the whole fusion era is a big part of my record collection and my life. And yeah, he's one of the lowkey greats of that era.

FRANNIE: And why did that catch your ear?

ALI: Because, well, from his style of jazz, it's not popular. If you're into digging for the sake of discovering samples and stuff like that, that's not the go-to person.

IVAN AVE: True.

ALI: But that also may be based on the error that you are exposed to music. And what I mean by that is, let's take a song like "Give It To Me Baby" by Rick James. It's a song that you might have heard 1020 times, right, but it could be that other 2000th time that you heard it and you hear something completely different that you didn't hear before.

And in hearing it that way, if you're sampling, chopping it up, and manipulating it, you may pull out (sings). It's a little synth line that it stands out, but it's so well-blended that you might not have heard it before. So then you do that, and now everyone is exposed to it and it becomes discovery.

So with Earl Klugh, when you mentioned him – knowing that there's an age gap between us – I was just interested because I've listened to his records, and I'm like, it's cool. I appreciate it, just for not sampling it but just for something to listen to.

IVAN AVE: Right, right. Yeah.

ALI: But when Ivan mentioned it, I was like, "Wow. That's dope." Another great unsung hero I think that you mention was Malik B.

IVAN AVE: Yes.

ALI: Can you –

IVAN AVE: Well, The Roots were just instrumental in me. I guess what they did was show me explicitly how jazzy hip-hop is, that it's really – there's such a strong parallel. Basically I'm trying to do solos with my verses, and I'm not the first MC to try to do that or be conscious of doing that. But yeah, The Roots just blew that whole – they just blew my mind with that.

Cause I realized this is equally ill to the best jazz music. In my opinion, it's up there. I feel like we're going to be looking back, and there's going to be Ornette Coleman and there's going be the Malik Bs, you know. If you're a really dope MC, then you're up there with the jazz legends in my mind. So yeah, he's, like you said, sort of like a forgotten legend to a lot of people – but not to me.

ALI: That's dope. There's – I don't know where you got this from, but there's something that plays in – I forget what song – where it's a discussion of an artist – is it an artist?

IVAN AVE: Yes.

ALI: What is that –

IVAN AVE: That's the outro to "Hello," a track off of Helping Hands, I think.

ALI: OK.

IVAN AVE: Where – it's an interview with – they're talking about monetary gains versus creative freedom or whatever. I think it's Pat Metheny, and he's being his purest self. And I really put that in there to kind of make a joke at my own cost. Cause I've been such a loner in the studio and such a purist in a lot of ways, and I'm starting to realize that there's actually a living to be made off of doing this weird music.

So I'm just trying to poke fun at that whole mind state that a lot of people think I'm in 100%, where it's like, "No. I'm not trying to make a song that could make it on the radio." It's not – that's not my agenda. I'm just trying to be honest and whatever song comes out that a lot of people could like, I'd be very happy with that, so.

ALI: That's kind of my motto.

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

ALI: Yeah, pretty much. If it works, it works. If it works and radio happens to play my music, that's what it is. But I don't make music for the radio.

IVAN AVE: Exactly.

ALI: But the beauty of that is if you are true to what you're doing and you make it good, then you can have a really good life, I believe, in terms of making a living off of it. You do have to work hard. I'm not even trying to imply that it's easy and those are just the steps, just, "Check. Check. Got that. I'm good." No. I mean, there's a lot of – well, there are a lot of sacrifices that one makes, and there's a lot that you have to do –

IVANAVE-NPR-2016-4311.jpg

IVAN AVE: Definitely.

ALI: – but I can say if you stay true to it and spend the time making sure that it's good, then you'll do fine and skip those other answers.

IVAN AVE: Thank you, sir.

FRANNIE: It does feel like an appropriate time to ask Mndsgn to step in.

ALI: Who's microphone we going to bring him in on?

FRANNIE: Oh, good question. I mean, we could share.

ALI: Alright. Cool.

MNDSGN: My friends know me as Ringgo, but a lot of people know me as Mndsgn. Living in Los Angeles for about five years, just moved out here on the strength of music and creative energy. It's good to be here though. Thanks. Thank you guys for having me.

ALI: It was a surprise that I was actually hoping was going to happen.

FRANNIE: We both –

MNDSGN: Oh, OK.

FRANNIE: We didn't even talk about it –

ALI: Yeah, we didn't talk about it.

FRANNIE: – but we both had our fingers crossed.

MNDSGN: Word. Yeah. Well, he's staying with us, so I was like, "Yeah. I'm coming."

ALI: I was like, "Is he going to come solo? Is he" – I was like, "Nah, he's going to bring him for sure." It's good to have you here.

MNDSGN: Yeah. Thanks, man.

ALI: So, what about Ivan peaked your interest.

MNDSGN: I think when I first checked out his music was his voice that sounded tight. Anyone that I'm working with, skill level is definitely important, but if you got the voice, if it sounds good to hear, then I'm fucking with that. But also I think the first thing I peeped was a video, and even the video was tight. It was the song "Portals."

IVAN AVE: Yeah.

MNDSGN: It was just mad simple him walking on a beach at sunset, just rapping, some ill loop in the background. I'm just like, "This cat's tight. I'm going to – I'm definitely down to work with him." So definitely the voice though.

ALI: So was it easy, the – I guess there is a sense of ease via the Internet cause you guys were emailing music back and forth. But did you have any Skype sessions where you guys jumped on?

MNDSGN: Nah.

ALI: Nah, it was all –

MNDSGN: I don't even – man, I sleep on Skype. I don't really use it as much as I should. I think it was mostly through like Facebook or something.

IVAN AVE: Yup.

ALI: Facebook?

MNDSGN: Yeah. Facebook Messenger.

ALI: Facebook is the plug.

MNDSGN: You're probably the only person I talk to on Facebook Messenger. That's another thing I don't really use that much.

FRANNIE: Well, that's like a European thing, right?

MNDSGN: Is it?

IVAN AVE: What? Facebook?

FRANNIE: Facebook messaging.

IVAN AVE: Oh, is it? Damn.

MNDSGN: Oh, the messaging.

IVAN AVE: That's why people don't hit me back in the U.S.

FRANNIE: No, I'm serious. When my brother lived abroad and I would go – like, nobody's phone works and just Facebook Message works on your phone.

IVAN AVE: Yeah. Yeah.

MNDSGN: It does work. Yeah. It's super efficient.

IVAN AVE: I guess we spoke through music a lot too. I would send him a batch of samples from my record collection. And a lot of that ended up being our first project, the Low Jams EP. So it wasn't really – we didn't need a Skype conference call to discuss what we wanted to do. It was more like, "This is what I'm feeling." And then he would send stuff back, and it would be like, "Mm."

MNDSGN: Yeah. I imagine that's probably what it would've been like if we were working in person. At first, we would've just been like, "Yo, peep this. Peep this." That's – yeah. So.

IVAN AVE: That's still what we do.

MNDSGN: Yeah. But – yeah, and that too. Like, him just having an ill ear for records. That's definitely a plus when collaborating with somebody.

ALI: When did you fall in love with hip-hop?

MNDSGN: Ooh. There was like different stages. I feel like at the very beginning it was mainly me looking up to my older brother Darryl who was always watching Nas videos on MTV and shit. You know, all that, the old school shit. I remember – "Rapture" sticks out in my head, by KRS-One. Every time the video came on, I'm like, "I gotta b-boy."

But I ended up really getting into b-boying in like middle school into high school. So that was like another layer of hip-hop that I feel like drew me in without realizing. It's definitely one of the main elements I feel like.

IVAN AVE: It's funny too, cause when we got to know each other, we talked about that. And I used to b-boy a little bit.

ALI: Wow.

IVAN AVE: And that was another parallel. And then we did a tour in February this year, and at a couple of these shows there would be a b-boy battle at the end of the show. And my man still throws down. Like, he –

MNDSGN: I still get down. Yeah.

IVAN AVE: I'm over here talking about how I'm a b-boy too, but he's still a b-boy. Like, people don't know.

MNDSGN: Yeah, it's cool. It's cool to still implement that into what I'm doing. Like, I could – I'm now making music that I could dance to, and it's a good feeling.

But to go back to your original question, I remember the first hip-hop purchase I made. Actually technically it was my mom who paid for it, but, like, Wu-Tang Forever was the first physical thing that I had in my hands. And then –

ALI: How old were you? Yup.

MNDSGN: I was in third grade. I was in third grade. I don't know what my mom was doing buying that. Like, she had to buy it for me. I couldn't buy it myself.

ALI: That's kind of –

FRANNIE: She thought it was about bees. It's fine.

MNDSGN: Yeah. It kept me out of trouble.

IVAN AVE: Bless her.

MNDSGN: Ironically.

FRANNIE: How did it keep you out of trouble?

MNDSGN: Cause I wanted to just – it was the music. I didn't know what they were talking about, but I knew the beats were dope, and the way that they were rhyming over the beats were dope. So, like, I was just in the headphones rather than in the street, causing trouble.

FRANNIE: I forget the name of the song, and I think it's the GZA but I could be wrong, but he has a verse where he says, "Paragraphs contain cyanide."

MNDSGN: "Triumph?"

FRANNIE: Yeah. "Triumph."

MNDSGN: Yeah.

FRANNIE: And that was actually the best argument I ever had for why listening to rap was fine. My mom needed to calm down. I was like, "Listen. It is a metaphor. You're fine."

MNDSGN: "They're saying scientific things. This is educational."

FRANNIE: Right.

MNDSGN: Man, that video was on MTV too. That's crazy. You'll never see some shit like that on TV today.

ALI: What's your digging like?

MNDSGN: Digging?

ALI: Yep.

MNDSGN: It's very similar to this guy. It was kind of tough being on tour with him cause we would be looking for the same shit.

IVAN AVE: Sharp elbows.

MNDSGN: Yeah. Yeah, right now just like, I gotta either be able to listen to it, play it out, or just be inspired by it. So I mainly find myself in the jazz/soul crates, and soundtracks too, like foreign soundtracks. Yeah, it's weird. I still dig, but I still like playing and making stuff from scratch. So if I'm picking up a record, it's more than likely just for inspiration, to listen to and then if I want to, even study it and try to figure out – try to transcribe the piece.

ALI: I'm sure in asking – from a jazz perspective, who were some of your – the people that you study as great composers?

MNDSGN: George Duke. Dave Grusin. Like, a lot of the earlier 1980s stuff.

ALI: From a hip-hop perspective –

MNDSGN: Oh, like producer-wise?

ALI: – who are the hip-hop composers/producers? I won't say – I'll say composers cause it's the same, but we haven't been labelled as such.

MNDSGN: Yeah. I mean, early on, when I first started, I was big on Primo and Pete Rock and a lot of East Coast stuff. But I look up to cats like Madlib who was making beats first and then realized that they could do everything from scratch. I feel like that really resonates with what I'm doing, because I've been making beats for a long time, but lately I've been getting the urge to do something completely, like, live. And that's making me want to study music a little bit deeper.

I was actually just thinking recently I feel like making music without knowing theory is like being – it's like being a carpenter without knowing math, you know what I mean? Like, you gotta know at least some math. So like, if you consider yourself some type of musician, I feel like it helps you to know some theory or a little bit of a musical, technical foundation. So cats like Madlib I look up to, cause he figured out how to make something totally live and sound like a band, but it's just all him.

FRANNIE: Are either of you guys classically trained? Or trained?

MNDSGN: No. No.

IVAN AVE: Not at all.

MNDSGN: I took music theory in high school, but that shit went completely over my head at the time. I wasn't –

FRANNIE: It's math.

MNDSGN: Yeah, I was like – I was in a classroom full of kids that were – they were already in bands. So, like, I was just making beats with like Fruity Loops. So I was just like, "Measures? Staffs? What?"

IVAN AVE: I think there's a lot to be said for the carpenter who doesn't know math, though.

MNDSGN: And there's a lot to be said about the musician that doesn't know theory.

IVAN AVE: Yeah. Cause isn't that what brought about some of the illest beats in history? Just putting stuff together and nine out of ten times it might come out too weird, but that tenth beat can be very interesting.

MNDSGN: Yeah yeah.

FRANNIE: I was actually listening to this podcast earlier or yesterday about artificial intelligence, and it was – they were basically saying that we won't have real artificial intelligence until a robot will do something that shouldn't work.

IVAN AVE: Word.

FRANNIE: Or that is, like, wrong. And that's how any type of innovation – like a quantum leap in anything happens because you just trial-and-error-ed it until it felt right.

ALI: You guys are getting deep.

FRANNIE: It happened again.

ALI: It happened again.

FRANNIE: It's your candle.

ALI: You might have to stick around. You might have to cancel some shows, Ivan, and stay here for a bit and drop some science.

I actually agree with you in terms of – well, coming from a DJ, sampler, musician side of things, that at some point I think it's really important to learn some part of music theory. I mean, maybe not go so deep like you gotta come from Berklee or something like that –

MNDSGN: Right. Exactly.

ALI: – but there – I think – for sure at some point, I think the switch should flick on. And I definitely am a believer in feeling and just going with your heart in things so as a carpenter goes with their heart and just go, "Well, if I measure just like this much, should be right." And then you'll look out and start putting things together.

IVAN AVE: Right.

MNDSGN: Right.

ALI: And same with music.

But I think at some point, the sampling aspect is so dope, but then, at least for me, I hit a brick wall, which is why I picked up instruments. Because I felt like, "Well, I want to get beyond that obstacle," and to stretch my own mind, you know, being so enamored with so many other musicians who also were free and they were feeling, but they knew. They knew math. They knew the science –

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: – of the music.

MNDSGN: The balance of the two.

ALI: Yeah. It's a balance.

IVAN AVE: Definitely.

ALI: And so – and it's great rolling off feeling, but if you can, in a sense, understand the formula of things, then combine, you never know.

For an example, learning that the Earth resonates on 432 Hz, it's kind of like, "Eh, that's too much information for me." But at the same time, it's like, "What does that really mean?" And tuning your instruments at 432, why? Because that's what the Earth resonates on. So is it truthful that it does resonate within our own DNA differently or is it just a bunch of fluff?

MNDSGN: Yeah, right.

ALI: I don't know. And learning how we got 440 Hz, and someone – and time decided to just shift the tuning a couple of steps, and now the whole world goes against –

MNDSGN: The Earth.

ALI: – the Earth. And what does that ultimately mean for us?

FRANNIE: Wait. I'm sorry. Can you back it up one level?

MNDSGN: "The Earth!"

FRANNIE: What do you mean time shifted to 440?

ALI: Well –

MNDSGN: I guess the recordings of music, the standard of music –

ALI: The standard.

MNDSGN: – was tuned –

ALI: Was tuned to 432, and some point in history, someone moved it.

FRANNIE: You mean some point in the –

MNDSGN: The history of, like –

FRANNIE: – 100 years of recorded music.

MNDSGN: Yeah. Right, right.

FRANNIE: And we don't know when that happened.

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: Yeah. Well –

FRANNIE: What?

MNDSGN: I mean, how is it – at what process in music, in, like – I don't know – just a record, do you tune? Do you even – you know what I mean?

FRANNIE: Right. Is is mastering? Or when is it?

ALI: Well, especially when you combine the sounds of Asian music, which the tuning is – I don't know what that is. I know it's something on a scale, but it's not 440. But anyway, without going too crazy.

FRANNIE: No, it's interesting.

ALI: But the point is that I think that learning these sorts of things definitely opens up the mind even greater. So when you talk about like George Duke, his music is, man, like, time-traveling for sure. And with Premier being one of the guys on your list, one thing that I can say about you is you remind me of Guru a little bit. It's like Guru and Talib Kweli.

IVAN AVE: Oh, wow. Thank you.

ALI: Just your flow and the way – like, Guru had this –

FRANNIE: Presence.

ALI: I mean, I guess the sound of his voice, to start with, was definitely – you know, when you talk about the frequencies and sound of Ivan's voice – and you don't sound like him in frequency-wise, but Guru definitely had this sound. And then his style was just his style.

FRANNIE: I think you're talking about, like, a solid – a two-feet-on-the-ground type of –

ALI: Yeah. Exactly.

FRANNIE: Yeah.

MNDSGN: He was clear.

ALI: Very clear.

MNDSGN: Crispy, crispy voice.

ALI: So you remind me of Guru a lot. You remind me of Guru and Talib.

IVAN AVE: That's –

ALI: You know, Talib – Guru was – he wasn't extremely poetical, but he was just – he just laid it out there so straight –

IVAN AVE: Yup.

ALI: – that it was like, "Whoa," you know? And I think you have the poetics of what Talib have, but you also have that straightness.

IVAN AVE: Damn. That's quite the mutant. Thank you.

ALI: Yeah. You guys make a great combination. I'm happy to have both of you sitting here.

MNDSGN: Thank you, man.

IVAN AVE: Thank y'all.

MNDSGN: Appreciate you.

FRANNIE: Yeah, there's a lot of promise in the room. It's cool.

ALI: Yeah. I mean, for me, for those who are listening, I'm going to be partial to the music you two make, and there's a lot of hip-hop out there, and we make space and room for it, but this is my flavor. You guys are my flavor.

IVAN AVE: Thank you very much.

MNDSGN: Respect.

FRANNIE: Well, why don't you say how this interview even came to be?

ALI: Oh, this interview came to be because I was doing what I do sometimes, just digging in the crates. I did –

FRANNIE: Of Twitter.

ALI: Well, before – that's the path to the story.

FRANNIE: Fine.

ALI: So it begins because I digitally dig in the crates, and that may – I've been chastised for being a digital crate digger. I don't really care.

MNDSGN: Same.

ALI: Me and mediums, it's whatever. Give me a 45; give me an 8-track; give me a cassette; give me an mp3.

MNDSGN: FLAC.

IVAN AVE: FLAC.

ALI: Exactly.

MNDSGN: Digging in the FLACs.

IVAN AVE: Shout out to FLAC.

ALI: Hey, what's your FLAC player, by the way? Nah, we can talk about that later on. But anyway, point is – and so I've discovered your music actually on Spotify I think.

IVAN AVE: OK.

ALI: And so I was like, "Yo, who is this?" It was so dope. And I was like, "Hm. I wonder if he's on Twitter."

IVAN AVE: Yup.

ALI: And I hit him up, and he hit me back.

IVAN AVE: Yes, sir.

MNDSGN: The Internet, man.

ALI: The Internet.

MNDSGN: Woo!

ALI: So I didn't know anything about you prior to finding Helping Hands on Spotify, and I became an instant fan and couldn't stop playing the album. It was just so dope and –

IVAN AVE: Thank you. That's amazing to me, man. I feel like a full circle right now

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: Yeah.

IVAN AVE: Coming up in the era we did, it's huge to us to be here. So thank you.

ALI: Yeah. And it's crazy – it's trippy – because then you responded and said, "Mndsgn." And I was like, "Daaaamn." Like, I don't know why I didn't process it from the sound, but – and I've always wanted to talk to you, so it's just serendipitous how it all happened. And I did say to you, Ivan, "If you ever find yourself in L.A. Hit me up. So you can come talk to us here at Microphone Check." And you did, and that's dope. Thank you.

IVAN AVE: Thank you.

MNDSGN: And it's even crazier that you know my girl Lima's dad from back in the day.

ALI: Yo! That is crazy.

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: Kenny Lee. Salaam.

MNDSGN: Shout out Kenny Lee.

ALI: Shout out Kenny Lee. And for those – to give our listeners a little backing story on Kenny Lee, Kenny Lee is probably most well-known for his relationship with Russell Simmons, but Kenny was a huge friend of Q-Tip and I. And he introduced us to this kid named Hood, and he kept talking about this kid named Hood and how he wanted to get on. And he would bring Hood to the studio a couple of times, and one of those times, Tip was like, "Yeah, cool. He could get on the track." And it happened to be the "Scenario" remix.

And Hood sets off the first verse on "Scenario" remix. And that wouldn't've happened if Kenny wouldn't've been around. So Kenny definitely introduced us to Hood, and the world got to hear Hood in that one and only massive song.

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: It is crazy. But definitely Kenny is the homie. The OG Kenny Lee. And yeah, when she said that Kenny was her dad, I'm like, "I remember you from before you were born, so let me give you a hug." So, nah, it's really great to tie those connections.

MNDSGN: Yeah. Music, man.

IVAN AVE: Small world.

ALI: And you moved to L.A. and it sounds like you had – I like the way you said it, cause I like to think that I came here for the exact same reasons. But you just put it so nice and poetic.

MNDSGN: Word. Yeah, I mean like, there wasn't really much going on – I grew up in New Jersey.

ALI: What part of New Jersey?

MNDSGN: South Jersey. Like Gloucester County. Closer to Philadelphia.

ALI: I have no idea, never heard of that.

MNDSGN: Yeah, exactly. That's why I left. I was like, "I don't – I grew up here, but I don't even know."

ALI: Have you ever linked up with Jazzy Jeff?

MNDSGN: No.

ALI: No?

MNDSGN: No.

ALI: He's the only from nearly those parts –

MNDSGN: Yeah yeah yeah.

ALI: – that's – he sucks up the talent. I shouldn't say "suck up" cause that sounds negative. But he definitely finds great talent and does wonders with networking and bringing people together. So –

MNDSGN: Yeah. I haven't ran into him.

ALI: You haven't linked up him?

MNDSGN: Word.

ALI: I assumed maybe. Soon come.

MNDSGN: Yeah.

ALI: Alright, well, let's wrap it up. Thank you both for –

FRANNIE: Thank you so much.

MNDSGN: Peace, peace. Thank you.

IVAN AVE: Thank you.

MNDSGN: Much love, man.

Joe Moses

Joe Moses

Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq