A rising figure in hip hop circles for his work with Magnum K.I. and collaborations with everyone from Pip Skid to Birdapres (among many other projects), Rob Crooks’ last record, the Hearts EP, fits somewhere between his past and present. Bearing sonic similarities with everything from krautrock to hip hop to electro, the EP has a punk rock spirit, a constant sense of urgency amplified by Rob’s approach to using drum machines and samplers as instruments, and embracing the mindset of just going for it with or without the technical wherewithal.
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Amid his Marathon of Dope Eurotour with Zucchini Drive, Rob found time to contribute to this month’s Tribune Tapes, a compilation comprised of jams from the Hearts EP, past collaborations and tracks by other artists of influence.
I called him the day after he got back from tour to talk about heavy books, sketchy roadside panhandling in Poland and the artists that helped shape his genre-defying sound.
ST: You just got back from Europe.
RC: Yeah. Last night.
How was your trip?
It was great. It was definitely a new experience… I need a bit of time to process it all.
I was looking at some of your video blogs and I noticed that you played in a venue in the Czech Republic that kind of looked like a spaceship, and it also looked like some absinthe might have been in the mix. Can you talk about that night?
Yeah, we were in Prague. I was really excited to play Prague – I’m really into Kafka. I got a chance to check out Kafka’s birthplace. It was really cool. That show might have been one of the worst shows on the tour. We played at this touristy bar where I don’t think a lot of the people at the bar were from Prague. The way that it was set up was there was the stage and then around the corner there was the bar where people would get drinks. The bar part was completely full and the venue part where the stage was had about a handful of people. We went on early, at like 11 or 12, and right after these DJs came on who were playing, like, really intense techno and they were backstage before the show doing all sorts of drugs in the bathroom. We finished that show a little disappointed that the show went so poorly, so we just said, ‘f it. Let’s do some absinthe and go out.’ So that’s what we did. We ended up going to a couple of bars that were full of people being crazy and I guess because of all the absinthe we ended up fitting in.
Speaking of Kafka, I read that you like to get into one “heavy” book (literally and figuratively) on tour. What did you read on tour?
I was reading Paul Virilio. I think the book’s called The Logistics of Perception. I didn’t get as much reading done on tour that I would have liked because there was just so much moving around and I can’t read in the car – I get a headache. I brought about 10 books on tour with me and I would just read a passage whenever I got a chance.
You also experienced a very bizarre form of panhandling while you were on tour. What happened?
We were driving out of Poland and as we were driving on the highway we saw this guy who was in a pretty nice car, like a BMW. He was waving at us as we past him on the highway and he was flashing his lights and driving back and forth between lanes and we didn’t really know what that meant, so we all discussed it and just kept going. Then, not even 10 minutes later, there was a different car, another BMW that was doing the same thing. We kind of thought maybe we had a flat tire, I mean we didn’t really know what was going on, so we pulled over…then the guy that waved us down came up to us and he was dressed nice and he had two young kids in the car. Our car had a Belgium license plate and he said, ‘Oh you guys are from Belgium? I have family in Brussels. I’m just trying to make it there, but I think I‘m going to run out of gas. Can you lend us some money for gas?’ Based on how he was dressed and the fact that he had kids in the car, we were, like, ‘Well yeah, you know, we got a few bucks’ and we came up with like 5 euros, and he’s, like, ‘No I need more than that. I need 250 euros.’ At that moment we got very suspicious, and so I got back in the car and we sped off. Not even five minutes after, another car tried the same thing on us, so we kind of agreed that we weren’t going to stop until we were out of Poland.
Yeah, it was a weird experience.
I want to talk a bit about the Hearts EP. I like that EP a lot. I brought it to a friend’s on the weekend and we were listening to it and trying to identify all of the various styles that were coming into play and I felt that at its core it seemed to have this very punk rock energy. Was that something that you were going for?
It wasn’t something that I was going for necessarily, but I think that it has always been an element in all of the music that I’ve ever made. Even when I was making more traditional hip hop music, I think it always came across with a very punk rock vibe, especially when I perform live.
Even though I wasn’t strictly influenced by punk rock growing up, I was influenced by groups that had a punk rock aesthetic, like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, but also some local music, like this band called Alien Hybrid that used to put out music in the early ‘90s in Winnipeg. I was influenced by that whole DIY aesthetic and I don’t even mean it as an aesthetic, but just the idea that you should make music regardless of your innate capabilities. From the time that I was 12 years old, I was always into going to see live shows and I think that’s where the punk rock thing comes into play for me. I never really thought about how to get the cleanest sound, I just did it…As I get older I see how I’m kind of in line with a lot of the ideas and aesthetics behind punk rock.
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing songs when I was in grade four and the reason being because my older sister was in band, and so I would always see her in her bedroom practicing the songs that she was writing and that was something that I wanted to get into. When my sister would go out, I would sneak into her room and take her guitar into my room – and I didn’t know how to play guitar. I would just kind of, like, write out these songs on a piece of paper and I would do this thing where I would take one tape deck and I’d record the guitar part, and then I’d take another tape deck that would record the original tape deck playing the guitar part, and then I would sing the lyrics on the other tape deck so it was kind of like a two-track recorder.
Not really smart, just a loner. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom.
When it comes to performing live is there a certain kind of approach that you appreciate in others that you try to apply to your own shows?
Yeah, definitely. I started doing the stuff I’m doing now with samplers and synthesizers on stage, because I would go and see live bands, specifically my friends from high school who were in a band called The Mouth-Boat. They were a three-piece band and they were so tight and so crazy and there was so much energy that they would give off, and that’s kind of what I felt I was missing. When I was just doing strictly hip hop music and rapping over pre-recorded beats, I think that I was missing that whole live element.
Were there any particular artists or albums that made you realize that hip hop could be approached in different ways?
One of the things that really blew my mind was hearing Buck 65 for the first time when I was 18. When I heard him for the first time, I was kind of confused by his music. This was before he got signed to a label and he was putting out stuff independently. I heard his album Vertex and it was such an interesting album, because it’s such a work of art and yet there’s kind of this mystery behind him. He didn’t really give away too much of who he was and I didn’t know where he was coming from. It took me so long to figure out where he was coming from and I remember going to see him live for the first time and expecting to see him live and understand him a little better. It might have been at the Pyramid or the West End, but regardless, he got on stage and he just had this one light bulb hanging from the ceiling and everything else was dark. He had his turntables in front of him and he didn’t say anything between songs. Songs would just play and he would do the vocals and he would scratch and juggle on his turntables and he was even more mind-blowing to me after that. I was like, ‘Holy shit, I have no idea what is going on here.’ It was just so intriguing to me.
There was also a group called Themselves. They were another group that made me see that hip hop could be so many different things that I hadn’t originally conceived. I got to play with their producer, Jel, in the fall and the cool thing about him is that he does all of the beats live. Just seeing that other acts are doing hip hop music live, bringing their samplers on stage and using their samplers not as computers, was really intriguing to me. They’re not just pre-programming music and pressing play, they’re actually bringing their samplers on stage and playing them like instruments.
What are you currently working on?
I have two songs that I’m hoping to get out on a 7-inch later this year and hopefully those two songs will be remixed a few times, so I’ll be able to put out a digital EP in addition to the 7-inch. I also have another album worth of songs that’s ready to come out. I have a lot of material that I’m just sitting on that I need to put out, so 2013 is hopefully going to be a year of putting out a bunch of new music.
Rob Crooks will be at the Windsor Hotel on Saturday, March 2 with Ultra Mega, the JD Edwards Band and From Giants.
- Hey! Hey! – Rob Crooks
- Sleep – Magnum K.I.
- I Never Knew – Pip Skid
- Artificial Source of Light Destroy All Planets – The Mouth-Boat
- Frankenstein – Rob Crooks
- Ripple – Shushaku Jushaku
- Jaguar Sky (DJ Co-op Remix) – Zucchini Drive
- Through the City – Magnum K.I.
- I Hate You – Pip Skid (feat. Rob Crooks)
- Pump Up the Volume – Birdapres & Rob Crooks
- Madness – Dynamo
- Knows How To – Rob Crooks
Find Rob Crooks at www.robcrooks.com or follow him on Twitter @RobCrooks