Osunlade Interview: A Man With No Past Originating His Future
Mark Dale caught up with Osunlade to discuss the places he's called home, his comments on South Africa, his plans for the future and much more in one of his most revealing interviews to date.
Date published: 23rd Nov 2015
Osunlade is a man worth listening to. As his two decade long solo production career suggests, he's a man with something to say musically. As anyone familiar with the social commentary he promotes regularly on Facebook knows, he's also a man with lots of things to say outside music.
Unedited and uncensored on social media, Osunlade is a thoughtful, interesting, educated and at times outraged man. His subject matter is not always easy reading. Following a recent trip to South Africa he posted a commentary on Facebook that drew a huge amount of attention, some positive, some negative.
It was difficult to separate the fact that some of his most vocal and high profile detractors in the issue have a financial interest in maintaining a much more docile relationship with the party scene in South Africa as it currently exists. But regardless of whether you objected to or identified positively with Osunlade's comments, it's impossible to doubt the man's depth of feeling on the matter or his personal ethics in speaking out regardless of future ramifications to his income.
A child of St Louis, Missouri, just a few miles from Ferguson, where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot dead in 2014, Osunlade was a man out of place within the city and to some extent even his own home. A self confessed loner, he channelled his energies into music and was a multi-instrumentalist by the time he left as a teenager, moving to LA to pursue a career in music.
There he worked as a major label music producer with several high profile R&B/soul artists before moving to New York where he set up his own Yoruba label in 1999. Named after a religion from west Africa Osunlade had become interested in while living in New York, Yoruba has served as a platform in which he has explored African and Latin influenced deep house.
He has produced eight solo albums, his debut having been issued by UK based Soul Jazz Records and has produced countless remixes and several mixed compilations, not least for Defected Records (watch the label's Mixmag Lab with him below), another UK label with which he maintains strong relations.
As a DJ Osunlade stands out from the crowd. Not superficially so, as in the days when he could frequently be seen spinning wearing a large bone through his nose, but through his music. His sets are spirited affairs. It's little wonder he's one of the favourite DJs at festivals such as Suncebeat, where his continued appearances make him something of a resident at the event.
Spontaneous and fuelled by the energy of the crowd before him, he covers the globally aware house sounds his label is famed for alongside techno and deep house that ranges from deep and driving to unabashedly melodic. He's never boring when playing before a spirited audience, he compels them to dance harder.
It was quite busy this year, really congested. I myself didn't do much. I just did my two parties, I did a panel with Sonos Studio, which was really cool and I slept. Other than that I really didn't get involved with too many parties, there was a little too much pushing and pulling for me. It was very busy.
What's the difference between ADE and the Winter Music Conference in Miami?
One's good and one's not? Ha! No. Winter Music Conference is pretty much the same thing, for the most part, but I think for the last 7 – 10 years there's been no business going on and there's no conference. It's just label parties.
In Amsterdam actual business takes place, there's a strong conference side, an exchange of ideas and music, people finding new ways to deal with this business that we're in. That's the difference. It's not just party, party, party, you see a lot more people going to the conferences and the panels.
Do you think that has something to do with the European attitude towards the business of it?
I think it has to do with that, of course and I think it's also the fact that it's in Amsterdam. I've only been involved the last three years, but I've noticed that, certainly in the last two years, there's been a lot of international artists present, not just European artists.
It's just more appealing than Miami, it's a lot less false, definitely more affordable, once you get here and it's easier to get around. It's more like a village here, so you're more likely to go to the panels and the non party stuff.
In Miami that was done at a hotel that was at the far end of the strip so it wasn't really that accessible. You're on the beach in Miami, so it's more a party mentality. In Amsterdam there's a totally different aesthetic to the city that lends itself to a different attitude.
What are the practical difficulties of doing studio work, A+Ring and label work when you are travelling and when you are at home on Santorini?
Studio is the only real difficulty when I'm travelling because 90% of my stuff is analogue, I don't really do plug ins and that kind of stuff, so I literally don't work unless I'm at home. I have two studios, one in the States and one in Greece. It kinda helps out to have those two options, although I'm rarely at either of those two places.
I don't get to write until I'm home, luckily that'll be next week. A+Ring is pretty easy because I'm usually pretty good at having things set up at least for to six releases ahead of time. It's getting a bit more tough at the moment because there's a lot of album releases, so that entails a bit more than just single releases.
Throughout your career you've played a variety of different instruments. That requires a certain kind of studio set up. What are the options of doing that on a small island like your home Santorini?
Both of my studios are live. Fender Rhodes, old synths, Moogs, clavs, drums, a shit load of percussion, guitars and basses. The Fender Rhodes is pretty much the key to any chords or piano work, then the synths take over from there. That's pretty much it. If I need horns and strings that gets done in other places.
My set up in St Louis is pretty much a dummy set up of the one I have at home with the exception that there is an acoustic piano as well, which is a bit more difficult to get in Santorini than it is in the States.
You've released about 20 albums throughout your career. From your previous answer I take it that's a format you will be continuing with strongly in the future. But a lot of people in dance music have moved away from that format, they concentrate on digital releases and 12”s.
I'm not opposed to it. The thing I learned early on, when I released my first LP on Soul Jazz and it's been of great benefit to me, it's a much more viable way of promoting yourself if you have an album release. People are, I guess, more interested. It's more of an exact statement of where you are at that moment.
No-one's going to ask you to tour off a 12”. It really is more of a natural statement of where you are. You're influenced so much by things like travelling, this kind of lifestyle that we have. I think if you then put that in some kind of form that says I've been here this last two to three years, for me it's done, documented and I can move on to the next thing.
It's a release, emotionally and spiritually. You kind of let that go, all that travel, those places, the relationships you might have had, the people, once the music is done.
If the music you make is a reflection of where you're at, at the time you make it, do you think there's a noticeable difference between the music you make on Santorini compared to the music you made when you were in Puerto Rico?
Oh yeah. I can't make music any place else like I can at home. It's the one place I'm totally unplugged. I don't have a car, I don't have a television, so my world is closed to whatever I want to do and that's mostly just create. I kind of have a downtime life there. Wake up, cook and kind of do nothing, be a bum and reflect on the places I've just been and the things I've done and then put that into music.
The studio in the States is at my mom's so it's a different thing. I'm at my mom's! [laughs] Even though it's its own space and I'm secluded from the rest of the house I still have responsibilities as a son, things to do. It's like going back home. I can't play drums at 2 o'clock in the morning when I'm there! [laughs] So, there's quite a big difference!
I think the first things I did when I moved to Santorini were that Jazztronik Dentro Mi Alma remix and the Atjazz featuring Ernesto Put It On remix and I think those two remixes were a stepping stone sonically and creatively for me. That's what the island gives me. I always have this feeling when I write there, it's effortless and it's honest. I don't have to think about it, it just comes. It's really moody and specific.
How did you first discover the island?
I'd been playing Greece for about seven years and the main promoter who had been booking me was one of those kindred spirits, a really good friend. One time he said, you know what, I just realised you've never been to the islands, you've never really seen Greece.
So him, Franck Roger and myself went and did a tour of about five islands, playing a few gigs but mostly just seeing the people, the villages and experiencing the food. We went to Santorini last. I'll never forget arriving on the boat and just seeing this majestic place.
He said "I brought you here last because I knew that your energy would not want to leave here afterwards," We landed Friday and on that Friday night Franck played Casablanca Soul, which is a bar that I'm now involved with creatively. We went to dinner before he played and before dinner was up I knew that would be the place I lived next.
The owner of the club said "Well, if you're serious I have a house" and so in three days I was there. So it was just like the universe put me there and said, here you go, here's your next place. I was just moving from Puerto Rico at that time, so it was kind of effortless.
You were born in St Louis. Do you have brothers and sisters there?
I was raised an only child but I do have brothers and sisters there who I only met when I was way into adulthood. I was adopted so... long story. Another interview.
I didn't know you were adopted. I was going to ask where your mother and father were from.
My birth parents were pretty much from two different sides of the spectrum. My father was from a pretty well off family, half Irish half black, my mother's side was pretty much poor black. I think my adoption was pretty much a political and financial decision between the families, a social thing as well.
At what age did you decide to look into that?
I didn't decide. My friend went to school with my older brother and he was always telling me I looked like this guy he went to school with. You kinda hear that and go, ok, whatever. One day we were in the neighbourhood where he lived and we went past his house.
I'd had my adoption papers since I was 12 and on adoption papers you don't have a name, it's just your mother's maiden name. So we met and it was pretty interesting because we looked very, very much alike, we were the same height. It was kinda freaky. He didn't know anything about it.
My parents had never told him he had another brother. I gathered some information and went home, I'd told him, if your mom's name is on my adoption paper, I'll call you. And it was the same.
Yeah, freaky. It was the universe placing something there for me, like it has done my entire life. It's one of those things that I've accepted. I believe everyone's lives are written. No matter what you do, no matter what choices you make, the end of the road is always the same, it's just how you accept it. You can plan things but everything's already set up.
I'd always known I was adopted but my parents didn't talk about it much. It was never an issue one way or another. But it really did give me a sense - and I think this is something that most adopted kids feel - a sense that you are in this world alone.
You're raised by a family that's not your biological one and you feel that separation, although you do feel that you are of these people because they gave you everything that you are. You don't have any idea where you come from, your history, so you have this thing that, it's just me.
What was it like growing up in St Louis?
I was pretty much a loner. The only thing that really gave me joy was playing music. I started to play the piano when I was seven. By the time I was 12 I had several bands. We would rehearse in the basement and when the musicians left they would leave their instruments there. That's how I learned to play so many.
When we rehearsed I would watch the bass player or the drummer, then when they left I would practice what I'd seen, on their instruments. So my life was consumed with music. Most of my life I kept pretty much to myself. I didn't have a lot of friends, I didn't have that life where you'd go out and you'd play ball with a bunch of friends.
My mom was pretty much adamant that I shouldn't go to school with or have relationships with the kids who were in the neighbourhood, so I went to school outside of my neighbourhood and I didn't really know many of the kids in the neighbourhood.
I know you a little and the thing I really don't get is your move to LA. To me that sounds like the most not you place.
It was the most not me place! But it was the place I needed to be to catapult my career. I left home at 16 and at that time my mom and me weren't doing well at all. My father had brothers living in LA and his way of making peace between my mother and I was to send me there on a trip.
I stayed with my uncle and in my first week there I met these guys who'd had this one off disco single in the seventies and I just did a studio session with them. I went back home to St Louis and within three months I got a call from Toni Basil. She was friends with these people who I'd worked with and she offered me to come and work on this movie with her.
So I moved to LA, stayed with her and starting working on stuff like Sesame Street. So that's where it all started for me. But that was the hardest part of my life, I really struggled in LA because it was the business side of the music. I was dealing with majors, record releases, producers.
I did that between the ages of 18 and 26, after that I had dual residency there and in New York. It was an important time for me. I got into the business out there. Luckily I met Alison Gabriel early on, who was A+R at EMI. She'd just signed Eric Benet. She moved from EMI and went to BMG. She was my champion. Every place she moved I ended up doing work there.
When she was at BMI everybody who she had under her I produced. When she moved to Warners, same. She introduced me to my managers, who were in New York. I left LA eventually to go and live in New York full time and I did that mainly to get away from the mentality the place had put me in.
You live in a rat race where everybody is competing with one another, whereas New York was just where you recorded, where the style and the culture was. Most of my time in New York was spent in studios, but all of the meetings, the business and the bullshit was done in LA. It's interesting going back now because I really like LA. It's really creative now. The scene is the opposite, there's really nothing in New York now, so it's great to visit LA.
What prompted your move from New York to Puerto Rico?
That was simple. I didn't like Bush and I felt that as long as I lived on the land, I was gonna be partly responsible for whatever he did. It was before 9/11. I never liked that family, his father, his policies, not that I'm too much of a political person, but I guess I just sensed evil.
The label was doing really well back then, I think we were in our second year and we were doing quite a lot of Latin and Brazilian kinda stuff. I lived in Harlem and the east of Harlem is all Puerto Rican. I had this fantasy that I would move to Puerto Rico and do this fusion of Latin music and electronic music, not knowing that reggaeton was just coming out [laughs].
I got to Puerto Rico and you'd see all these 16 year old guys on the corner, jamming to reggaeton and I thought, well, my idea's not happening! [laughs] I did 5 years down there and that was pretty hard too. It was a lot like Miami, people living that lifestyle, but on an island that doesn't really have anything, it's a subsidised part of the States. It was quite sad. But it also gave me some things too.
I was reading one interview you'd done where you said you really didn't feel American.
I've never felt American. I think a lot of people don't feel American. I think there's a real misconception about nationality in general. They want you to claim a place because you were born there, but I think, specifically if you're a black male in America, there has to be a big part of you that doesn't feel like you belong. You're made to feel like you do not belong.
I started playing music at a young age with whites, blacks, Chinese... St Louis was really segregated. Blacks lived on one side of town, whites lived on the other or in the suburbs. I had all types of friends, but I couldn't visit them. I could never understand that and I was never given a clear answer as to why.
That was my first understanding that this place was not for me. It's just not humanly fair. People accept what's just not right. My mother gave birth there, fine, but the social and conscious energy is just not for me. Again, that thing with the universe happened and my first album was on a British label, so immediately I was considered kind of an international artist. My audience has never been American.
The first country to really support me as an artist was France. Over the years I've had the blessing and the benefit of travelling the world, explore and expand my life and I'm definitely not American, never been an American. I'm definitely of it. I understand it, because I was raised there and I have that culture in me, but there's so much more to me.
Are you a man of no nation then?
I'm everywhere, man, I'm in the wind. We're all that, we're all just little particles. Now they're discovering there's a really interesting sphere that's like 15 million light years away or whatever and I'm like, yeah, well there's some other shit out there. When you realise you're just one tiny speck of something that's much larger than us, you realise you don't really belong to anything, you're just on this planet and that's it.
Of course being of no nation doesn't mean that you're with a heritage. At what point did you become interested in exploring an older ancestry. I'm thinking specifically about Africa and your decision to call your label Yoruba.
I think that happened when Yoruba came into my life which would have been about 94 or 95. As far as Africa is concerned, soul music to me is African music so that's always been there.
For me I first became interested in Latin, then African music, African rhythms. Latin was my introduction to African. I was listening to this music that was spiritual, it was soul music, just that simple thing of the drum. Drum and voice. The soul of that was undeniable. The connection with that was something that was innate within me.
The rites of Yoruba are secret and ancestral. How did it actually come into your life?
I kinda new I was... crazy when I was young. Nah, I knew I was pretty much into something else as far as my intuition went. From the age of 12 or 13 I would hear things and I could see things that weren't... visible.
My introduction came, as I said, in about 1994 and I was dating a priest. I went to my first ceremony and that freaked me out and excited me. I was really excited to see the magic of the unseen. It was always something I was into and I knew it was part of me, but to be involved and see it firsthand was really intoxicating.
When I moved to Harlem it was definitely my path, because I would meet people, like a random person on the street, selling jewelry or incense, who would say, 'hey, you need to learn Yoruba, you need to know how to speak it, here's a book'. Just randomness like that.
Everyone I met for about two years just seemed to be involved in the practice. I couldn't get away from it. I just think it was my ancestors way of telling me that was the way to balance myself.
When was your first visit to the continent of Africa?
South Africa was the first, about 10 years ago.
I've visited sub Saharan Africa a few times, to some extremely poor places and travel there is very different. It's not like travelling as a tourist, it's not like going on holiday. It can be profoundly moving and going there does change you. So I identified with your recent comments about South Africa. What was it that specifically happened to you while you were there that provoked those comments?
It wasn't so much a specific incident as it was the air. The black South Africans had this air where, they walk with their heads down, they just looked like they had their tails between their legs. And it wasn't like the whites were taking the supreme role, it was more like it was a given.
I felt like black South Africans had no fight and it was, ok, this is just the way it is and we're gonna walk slowly and quietly, because it's better now, so it's gonna get better. The bad incidents that happened came from the better off black South Africans, the well to do ones, where, as a black person, I felt like they thought you shouldn't walk with your head high, you shouldn't have pride, this is not the place to do it.
For example, in the airport, going to the business lounge, every person that works there is black and they give you a look like, what are you doing in here? The service, the treatment, the looks, the energy was like, you're supposed to be down here with us. You're not privy to this advantage, this is only for whites. It wasn't a good energy at all.
You arrive at the airport and from there, for the next 20 minutes until you get into town, it's just these shanty townships where all the blacks are living. You go to these places and play and you think you're giving the people a nice time for a few hours, but what is that actually doing? It's not doing fuck all, they still live here.
I went for Spring Fiesta, one of the biggest festivals of the season. 10, 000 blacks, all shouting your name, like you're the saviour and you look at them and think, fuck, your admission here was probably what you'd usually spend to eat for two weeks, a month. So I felt like it wasn't a celebration, it was more like an escape of their reality. How should I feel about that?
The experiences I had overall, it didn't feel good leaving there, as a black man and not saying anything about it. The other thing was that I had my mom with me and I'd been thinking she was gonna go there and see South Africa, see all this black pride, this black love and it was just the total opposite.
I hadn't been there in 10 years. I think 10 years ago it was better, it was only seven or so years after apartheid, so there was an immediate change in the attitude. It was the conditioning of the minds now, that whole acceptance of this is just how it is, that didn't feel right. It didn't feel right to me as a human, first and foremost.
And what was your mom's impression of the place?
My mom is kinda more docile now she's in her old age. She used to be a fire in hot pan, man. Now she's really chilled. She was mostly trying to keep me calm, cos I was commenting on everything I saw that didn't feel right. I know she felt the same energy I did, because we had conversations about it.
For her, as 70 year old woman, it was going to a part of Africa where she'd never been, checking out the culture and the shopping, the other side of it. It was different for in some respects. She was a lady that came up through the civil rights movement in the States, so I'm pretty sure some of it wasn't a good feeling for her as well.
Of course it's a very complicated place because of the history of racism there, but now you have an extra dimension of economic segregation too because it's the black people who are now in power.
Exactly. And they're stealing all the money. It's really corrupt now. The majority of the politicians are now black, but they're not doing anything for the country. There's a lot to be done, both there and worldwide in response to prejudice and injustice. Talking about it, and I'm still talking about it, the good thing is that it's produced dialogue.
That's something I liked about it. Something that I didn't like was hearing 'Well, it's only been 20 years' Change happens when you're ready. We are the people of this world. There's enough money and enough heart in this world that we can change whatever we want to change and I can't accept that 'it's only been this long.' Slavery's only been 400 years ago and now they're killing us.
It's that whole thing Sly Stone said, if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything. It's as simple as that.
You've been generous with your time today, thanks for that! As a final question I wanted to go back to the music and ask you about the release you gave away at ADE and what plans you have for future releases.
The thing I gave out was the release on my new label Yoruba Soul. It was kind of an inevitable thing to do. Everybody thinks Yoruba is Yoruba Soul, because that's the name I remix under. So I basically started a new label to separate the house and the soul stuff.
A lot of our distributors like Defected and Warners, do the dance stuff really well, but when I do stuff that's not dance they kinda lose it because they don't have the same people in place, the magazines, the promoters, it's a totally different world. I figured to be fair to the label and the artists and myself that I needed to separate them.
So that was the first Yoruba Soul release, by Miles Bonny and the idea is to do a 7" label. I'll do a few album projects with some of the artists but it's mostly going to be a 7" label. I really wanted to do something with double 7" gatefolds, because I don't know anyone who's ever done that.
In terms of 12"s there's something new on Yoruba every two months. The last one was Tenderlonious, who's actually from the UK and is part of Henry Wu's crew, which came out a couple of weeks ago. It's a new signing and I've been a fan since 22a started. He and Al Dobson Jr and those guys are just doing great stuff.
I'm working on my new album right now. It's been in the works for about two and a half years now and it still won't be out until at least spring next year. It's in the final mixing stages. I worked with a 15 piece orchestra on it so I'm just taking my time with that. I'm taking quite a bit of time off, from November to April, to finish that. It's a funk album, so it'll be on Yoruba Soul.
The next release on Yoruba Soul is myself, just this little funk thing. I'm going to reissue some things on Yoruba too, things like the Jimmy Abney album, which is really, really good and I'm really proud of, but it never really got pushed.