Jamal Moss considers himself a child of many. Growing up in 1980s Chicago, he was a child of the city’s loft party heyday, pulled into the club scene by the grooves of Ron Hardy and Derrick Carter and kept there by the manic acid of Adonis and Steve Pointdexter. His key influence, though, is Sun Ra; the Afrofuturist jazz pioneer whose cosmic philosophies have permeated his own production work. For Moss, club space and headspace have merged into one.
Starting out as a producer in the mid ’90s as part of the Chicago Bad Boys and Dirty Criminals collectives, Moss went on to record under various solo aliases — The Sun God, I.B.M (Insane Black Men), Iamthatiam, Africans With Mainframes and his best known, Hieroglyphic Being. The scope of these alter-egos mirrors his restlessness; one that has led him to record nearly 70 albums, singles, EPs and collaborative works, released on his own imprint Mathematics, as well as other labels including Spectral Sound, Crème Organization, Technicolor and Altar.
Moss’ live sets are as much of a history lesson as an exercise in muscle memory. A year ago I crammed into one of his shows in a dark and sticky basement in Glasgow, and the impression that night left still lingers. A former body-builder, Moss’s formidable frame loomed over the decks, as he crashed industrial noise, cosmic jazz and militant four-to-the-floor techno together with gleeful abandon. His unorthodox style doesn’t pander to anyone. This past April, he played a three-hour set in Manchester that riled some club-goers into rushing the DJ booth to protest; witness the irony of white British twenty-somethings demanding “real house music” from a Chicago native raised on sets at mid-’80s house nightspot the Muzic Box. One of the party-goers showed Moss a message he’d typed out on his phone: “You are the worst DJ ever.” A few months later, Moss released a recording of that night’s set on cassette tape, titled Reel Torque Volume 5: The Worst DJ Ever. Even militants benefit from a sense of humour.
After 20 years of producing, Moss is finally learning how to slow down and commit his thoughts to tape. His brand new album for Planet Mu, The Seer Of Cosmic Visions, is a collection of experimental compositions that span a 10-year period, newly remastered at Berlin’s Dubplates and Mastering, but keeping Moss’s rough, organic production style intact. Meanwhile, he reveals, he has been working with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra on a new group project, going by the name of Hieroglyphic Being & the J.I.T.U Ensemble. The project will blend his experimental electronics with improvisational jazz; an album, titled We Are Not the First, is due to come out on the New York label RVNG Ltd in the first quarter of 2015.
“The heads at RVNG Ltd had wanted to work with me for about two years, but I kept being hesitant because I felt like I wasn’t ready,” says Moss. “I came around eventually. They wanted me to do with I do with machines, but with humans. I sum it up as another learning experience that will help me grow as a creator — to merge the worlds of what I do and what has influenced me, in order to spark others into pursuing the same in kind.”
Wondering Sound caught up with Moss to discuss his route into DJing, dance music as therapy and the importance of going against the grain.
When you look back on your career as a producer and as a DJ, what do you think your drive to create was born from?
I’ve always been an outsider. I was left on my own at three years old and raised by a generation older than that of my mother. I never connected with blood-line family. I never really connected with people at school. I’ve always been a loner. I never thought, “Right, I’m gonna make myself all punked out,” because I’ve just been that way. When people meet me, I crack hella motherfuckin’ jokes because it helps me to not be nervous. I never went overseas to play records to get famous or rich. I did it because I wasn’t accepted in certain communities at home.
How did you start DJing?
I was homeless back in the ’80s, crashing from place to place, so I’d always be at someone else’s house, dabbling with their turntables and records. At university, I traded my TV in for two turntables that used to belong at the R2 Underground, where Ron Hardy used to play. I remember geeking out so hard about getting my hands on them.
I bought and played records as a passing therapeutic exercise. I can’t speak for people from outside of Chicago, but watching real DJs growing up made me see that it’s a discipline. I came through at a time when you couldn’t just run around calling yourself a DJ, and not get cleaned up. You have to go through straight-up boot camp before your peers would sit down with you and be like, “Alright, you’re okay by me.” Until then? You stay in your motherfuckin’ lane.
How did you get in your own lane, then, as it were?
The first gig I ever got paid for was a 1992 day-party for mentally and physically handicapped people in a healthcare centre. Like, people in wheelchairs and on crutches moving around to me playing stuff that I liked. It was part of a sound healing therapy program, and they felt that form of art would help them in their development. I was just a small part of that for them. It got me thinking: “I’m playing music to people who are essentially nurtured outcasts, but they have a right to hear and feel this music just as anybody else.” To see them enjoy funk, soul, rare jazz – hell, they got into it. It blew my mind. It made me realize that I can do things that were apart from what is conventional.
After that, in around 2001, I got a residency in a bar in Lincoln Park. I was flat broke, staying on peoples couches, and I thought, “I’m gonna learn the craft in whatever way I can,” so I chose to do so in the most out of the way environment possible. I could have gone to the deep spots where the heads were at, but I went to a commercial spot so I could bring the underground to them. A friend of mine, Yusef, had a vast record collection, so I wrapped some records up in a bed sheet, picked up some busted headphones, and walked into the place. I ended up doing the residency for four years.
And what did you learn in those years?
I learned to be there from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., playing non-stop. I told them that I didn’t want my name on the marquee or nothing. People just have to come for what’s being played. The people that I played for were white, well-to-do people from Lincoln Park area. These were corporate people, hearing the records that were getting played in the underground clubs, and you know what? They liked it. I learned that it’s not about being uneducated or different. Take the ego out of the mixing, and whatever to that. Over the years, people would come up to the club owners and say “Hey, the big nappy-headed black guy, with the locks and stuff? We wanna book him for our party.”
After going from commercial, tacky clubs and deep into the underground club circuit, what have you learned about crossing boundaries?
That you don’t just walk into an environment and become God. It’s about the will of the people. Whatever it is you’re going through, you’re there to help people with whatever they’re going through. I have to put something on that’s going to cleanse the palate of whatever spiritual vibe is going on. I want to make them turn around and say, “Did he just fucking put that on?” Once I get their attention with that sonic hurt, I can get them caught up. Get them moving to that off-kilter, tribal Indian blues — that industrial drone, Sufi mantras on top of that four by four. I see it as a primitive exercise. I am a soldier. That’s the way I can describe it without choking on my own bullshit.
What do you mean when you call yourself “a soldier”?
I don’t say soldier in the sense that you’ve got to come in and attack. I’m not going to force you to bend to my will, rape your mind and pillage your resources. I say soldier like I’m gonna come out and boot camp you. A lot of people where I come from, people who do what I do? We are soldiers. Educators are soldiers. It’s not a war against the masses. It’s a war against a lack of knowledge.
If it’s all about knowledge, what do you want the people to know about you?
I want them to know that I’m a multifaceted motherfucker. Just cause I’m a black child from a black community in America doesn’t mean that I’m a soul child. If people can cross that barrier between what they think is exclusive, that’s how we learn. People look at each other and assume that their mental scopes are very narrow, and when they’re not, they’re shocked. I’ve never claimed to be techno. I’ve never claimed to be house. The terms I like to use are “synth expressionism”, and “rhythmic cubism.” When I sit down and work, I think in visual terms. I know it sounds cliché, but I’ve always tried to create a sonic painting in my mind. It’s a harmonic DNA. I need to pull something from within. There is a lot I don’t put out — whatever I’ve got out, I’ve got 30 times more I haven’t put out. I have sketches I can’t do anything with, because it’s too far out there for me to finish. The stuff I do have out there, it’s more digestible and palatable, but doesn’t compromise what I’m trying to express. I’m just part of a continuum, trying to get that celebration of life and art into the world.