I can’t count the number of times I’ve found great songs through hip-hop samples. Discovering artists like the Jimmy Castor Bunch, Harold Alexander, and more courtesy of looped horns, drum breaks, etc. has done a lot to broaden my musical horizons, but sometimes, it can go the other way. Case in point: Philly producer and beatmaker Old City takes punk rock, cuts and chops things up, and along with his collaborator, Tr38cho, creates hip-hop songs using everything from Black Flag basslines to rants from Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong. They’re instantly addictive, endlessly listenable, and – outside of the inherent instant novelty of “punk rock sample hip-hop” – really great tunes. I hopped on the phone with Old City to discuss his early work and upcoming debut full-length, due out this fall.
What’s your background to come to making hip-hop beats from punk rock songs?
I’ve been in the punk scene more or less for 15 years at this point. I’ve been in Philly for about as long – used to do shows in Jersey and then moved to Philly, did some shows here. It was around the Low Budgets era, before Dead Milkmen got back together. I’m not necessarily a musician – I still don’t think of myself as a musician. It just feels like there’s more important people or people that know about musical structure that can do that. This is sort of just a creative exercise.
I was driving home from one of my jobs at one point and I’m listening to Aus Rotten – because I grew up in Jersey and Aus Rotten was from Pittsburgh – and was like, “Oh, there’s a break in this.” Just understanding the fundamentals about what made hip-hop hip-hop was like, you find the breaks and make that into something. It was a guitar line that just looped effectively in their song “Pathetic Humanity.” Went home and kind of figured out how to match it up to drum samples and break beats and literally figured it out from there and was like, “This makes sense,” and then made a couple of those and then just figured out what I wanted to do after. It was like, “This is actually kind of good.”
It was pure happenstance. In Philly it’s not uncommon to go to a basement show and there’d be like someone freestyling between the sets or there’d be an electronic act – very eclectic as far as genres go. There was a local rapper that I was looking to work with initially and it just kind of went back and forth and they moved around a little bit or changed their mind and wanted to go on tour – this, that, and the other thing – but I kept on just making songs and and composing what is going to be like the record that’s going to come out and just all the little creative decisions that come along the way.
What I appreciate about what you do is that you’re not just pulling from one particular style of punk rock. That first EP you put out is MF Doom and Doom which is great but then, “Sixers” has Black Flag and “Get Sued” has Green Day. It contains multitudes. Is this all the stuff that you enjoy and you’ve just been listening to it with new ears now?
It’s an interesting thing because it’s all sample-based and if you listen to kind of sample-based music or read any interview, those sample-based musicians basically say that you have to listen to it in a sort of detached manner. You have to hear that little part and know what to do with it or something like that. You’re not necessarily enjoying it in the same way that you’re just really enjoying music but I’ve gotten a newfound respect for Green Day, for example.
Anybody that was around 15 or 16 when American Idiot came out and just wanted nothing to do with it – it’s kind of come full circle for them, because there’s a new generation that grew up listening to that stuff. That’s their influence. There’s a lot of little things that could be pulled from, here. There’s songs that, if you’re making an instrumental, it works perfectly fine, very minimally.
“Pipebomb” is one of those songs where it’s just the Dead Kennedys track and it really doesn’t need anything else because the atmosphere is there, whereas “Get Sued,” it’s like, “You could just make this as maximalist as possible: throw the kitchen sink at it!” and it makes it even better. That thought was very interesting – that most people think that punk rock is one-dimensional, for the most part – like, there’s not really shape to it.
In a lot of ways, they’re right. D-beat or street punk is just mad and fast, silly kind of stuff but I basically ended up going through discographies of bands and finding small little clips and finding all the similarities in those certain styles of music that already existed. I was taking all the theories I had and finding all of these stylistic differences, like jazz’s influence on Operation Ivy songs or Chuck Berry riffs that Total Chaos would make for a little guitar solo. Little stuff like that.
Dead Kennedys is one of those bands. They have songs that sound like exotica. There’s so much range to their music. Just the fact that I don’t actively listen to Green Day – they totally have that, too. They jump stylistically, constantly. It’s like, “Well, I don’t want to listen to anything they have to say, but cool: I’ll tip my hat to you guys now.”
Making beats and putting things together, making a mashup EP is one thing but working with an emcee is something completely different. How did you come to know and work with Tr38cho?
He was on tour. Again, I was on the fence, working with a local emcee and was up in Trenton, New Jersey, where I was working at the time and it was just – there’s a spot called Mill Hill Tavern. It’s like a basement bar and he was on tour with the group that he used to be in and I was talking and kind of venting about “This isn’t going fast enough” or whatever to make the project with a friend of mine and he literally was like, “Why don’t you work with Tre right here?”
I thought about it and messaged him a week later. One of the the biggest difficulties is the fact that he lives in a different city. He lives 400 miles away in Buffalo, New York, but we just make it work. We do a lot of stuff Postal Service-style and and I’ll take trips up and we track for a couple hours every time I go up. I stopped driving because I kept on getting tickets every time I drove up there.
But, yeah: we’ve got a system down, for the most part. He’s an amazing emcee. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life and and for the collaboration, he’s just like a fantastic collaborator. He’s receptive to criticism. I feel I know my role in the process and don’t like push super-specific thoughts about what he’s saying but we kind of discuss what we want to do with the track ahead of time.
Some songs are like, “I think it should be about this” and then he responds to that and other times, I’m like, “What do you think the song should be about?” but the main thing that I’ve really appreciated is just learning to be completely flexible and accepting of a collaborative process.
Outside of Tre, one of the times, I had like a sample and it was a bongo bridge and I asked a bongo player to re-record just a 15-second part but then – being a bongo player – they got super into it and sent me six minutes of recording and I’m like, “We’ll have to use some of this, now,” and it just changed the entire song because it was open to what they were suggesting.
Is it Tre, through his connections, who has brought in people like Murs on “Sixers”?
Yeah, we’ve got some people that are featured on certain tracks. I’ve reached out to people and and handle those kind of communications by email. That’s how the collaboration with Murs came about: just messaged his manager and and we talked about the track and then they said they were interested in doing it.
Shawna Potter from the hardware band War on Women is going to be on a song. It was the same kind of thing, where I didn’t know her, but I’ve seen the band and just said, “Hey, I’ve got the song. Here are examples of songs I’ve made – they’re not released yet, but would you be interested in working on it?” and she took a listen and liked what she heard.
I’ve become more familiar with Shawna’s work because of Two Minutes To Late Night and when I saw her on the the track listing in the press release for the upcoming full-length, I was just like, “Well, that makes sense. She knows how to collaborate.”
Totally. You know, I try to be in the studio as much as I can. If I could have been out in California working with Murs – to be in the room and give little notes, like, “Oh, yeah: the way that you said this might have been this way” or whatever, that would’ve been awesome. There’s always little things that can be done in those situations, so just even having talks with whoever you’re working with is always helpful.
With Shawna, I drove down with a friend of mine. We went and booked the studio and she just was just a complete trooper about it and hung out for about an hour or two and then they’re like, “Yeah got some got some stuff to do,” and then they came up to Philly for the book that they had released [Making Spaces Safer] and did a speaking tour and we reconnected back then and got a copy of the book.
What’s the plan for the release of this full length? You’ve put out a seven inch, which is very punk rock, but is the LP just going to be digital and Bandcamp, or is there a possibility of a physical release?
I’m shooting for the physical release, definitely. It’s kind of one of those things. Just out of respect and and, obviously, making sure everyone’s on the same page, I messaged every band that I possibly could that I’ve sampled. I’m going to kind of bill this as a punk rock Paul’s Boutique. It’s just sample-dense. Punk rock samples and I sample dance and hip hop and so I gotta message Discord like, “Hey, I sampled somebody whistling at the end of a Minor Threat song: is it cool if I used it at the end of a song?” and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s fine,” and then I messaged them and I was like, “This is probably only going to be on the internet but if I ever do a physical release it’s going to be like 500 copies on vinyl or something like that,” and they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. If that changes, let me know.”
Everybody has been overwhelmingly supportive of it. The bands that I couldn’t get hold of, I just couldn’t get a hold of and it’s more like, “We’ll see what happens. If I hear from them then I’ll cross that bridge,” but more than likely at that point it’s like, Green Day probably isn’t going to call me and shoot me a message about making 500 records that sold to people in Philly or whatever.
Old City’s debut full-length is out that fall, and you can snag their self-titled EP on Bandcamp.