Prolific underground producer Ringgo Ancheta is an enigma — and he’d like to keep it that way. Recorded as MNDSGN (i.e., “mind design”), Ancheta’s most recent release, Yawn Zen, is a haunting, shadowy distillation of soul, jazz, hip-hop, exotica, and electronics. The album is the outgrowth of Ancheta’s spirituality. His prior release, Breatharian, outlines a rigorous approach to self-improvement. Yawn Zen may also mark a clean break with what could be generously described as a very complicated childhood. But it’s hard to say, as Ancheta refuses to talk about it.
Speaking over the phone from his home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ancheta readily discusses his life since he moved to California from New Jersey in 2011. But he suddenly and unexpectedly clams up when asked about his backstory. The first few sentences of the press release that accompanied Yawn Zen describe Ancheta’s Filipino parents’ experience with Japan’s infamous Aum Supreme Truth cult, and mentions a childhood home near a mysterious New Jersey commune, and his father’s career at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Ancheta, however, refuses to elaborate on any of these details. He won’t even discuss why he won’t discuss it. “I’d just honestly rather not get into it,” is the most he’ll say.
According to Ancheta, Yawn Zen reflects the state of relative bliss in which it was created. It also marks his debut on Leaving Records, a cassette-focused partner to Stones Throw, a highly regarded haven for hip-hop’s trippier artists. Although he has been releasing work as MNDSGN since 2009, Ancheta only devoted himself to music full-time last year, when he quit his day job as a pro-audio salesman in L.A.’s Guitar Center music stores.
“It was cool,” he says. “I got everything at cost. I was still broke, though, ’cause it’s a commission-based job and you just get paid a weak-ass salary if you’re not much of a salesman — which was my case.” Away from the nine-to-five, he was forced to develop new work and life habits. (One Yawn Zen track is titled “Frugality.”) He meditated and practiced “amateur yoga” with an MC friend named Zero. “I found my peace just having the time to do what I wanted to, and finding the rhythm to it. Like, not always working 24/7 — you definitely need some rest.” Ancheta works at home, with almost devotional simplicity, on a pair of synthesizers, a couple of samplers, and an indispensible copy of the software Ableton Live. “I’ll [also] run some shit through a regular-ass tape deck I got from the thrift store,” he adds with a nod to economy.
Ancheta was born in San Diego in 1988. He describes himself as a reclusive kid who was obsessed with drawing anime until he discovered B-boy culture in middle school. Ancheta may have found southern New Jersey, where his family relocated, to be a cultural wasteland, but intriguing things were happening right across the bridge, in Philadelphia. In 2007, he joined Klipm0de, a collective of artists and producers that includes Knxwledge, Devonwho, and Suzi Analogue. Soon, Ancheta began releasing his own music, a beat-heavy sound full of lush synthesizers and spare samples, and started making annual trips to Los Angeles.
He completed his first full-fledged album, Nomaps, during a three-week stay in Portland, Oregon in 2011, and he considers the album a transitional moment both artistically and biographically. On a trip south with a friend, Ancheta listened to this fully developed collection of sticky, brooding grooves while driving past Mt. Shasta, a northern California spiritual landmark. “It made me feel like I was doing something right,” he recalls. “I had a little moment, y’know?”
Ancheta arrived at a nearly perfect synthesis of theme and content with 2013′s Breatharian. “About halfway through most records,” he says, “I start to feel like there’s some kind of continuity, and I’ll slowly try to conceptualize a possible theme.” Breatharianism, also known as inedia, is the belief that it’s possible to survive solely on air and water. For his album, Ancheta took a suggestion from his older brother and added documentary audio in which advocates explain how breatharianism is different from fasting, and why they haven’t died yet. The result effectively staves off any accusations of irony. “I haven’t tried to practice it,” he says, “but I definitely feel there’s some truth to it. There are documented cases where gurus have lived an extended amount of time just by meditating and feeding off the sun.”
For Yawn Zen, Ancheta followed a time-honored precept of both the Buddhists and the Beats: First thought, best thought. Every track on Yawn Zen track is a first draft. “They’re all demos, essentially,” Ancheta says. “I didn’t rerecord anything.” He makes his vocal debut on “Sheets,” an off-key but on-point reflection of his willingness to embrace imperfection. “I really wanted to get a vocalist on ‘Sheets,’” he explains, “but I didn’t know anyone who could fulfill the sound I was looking for. So I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.’ It came from laziness, in a sense.” The slicker “Exchanging” lies in a nebulous zone between strummy psych-folk (the “guitar” on the song is actually a pitch-shifted bass) and shimmering keyboard soul, and feels all the more heartfelt for Ancheta’s amateur way with a tune.
Yawn Zen also expands upon Ancheta’s fascination with the period during the 1980s — “because, you know, the ’70s was shit” — when soul acts replaced acoustic instruments with electronics. He cites the vocoder work of Herbie Hancock (on Sunlight) and Roger Troutman, R&B innovator Kashif and post-disco funkateers Change. “I’m really inspired by that [sound] right now,” he says. “At the same time, I’m trying to integrate it with what I’ve already been doing with beats.” While most of Yawn‘s music is original, Ancheta sampled Stylistics drums and Martin Denny’s percussive exotica. He also covered one of his favorite songs, the Rah Band’s 1983 “Messages From the Stars.” “I wanted to sample that song straight-up, but I thought it would be interesting to cover it line for line and loop it like a sample.”
Surface Outtakes, a cassette-release addendum to Yawn Zen, is a far looser mixtape of B-sides and other peripheral material that Ancheta mostly recorded subsequent to the official album. Its centerpiece, “Eggs,” echoes Yawn‘s Zen whispers — “You always have what you need,” Ancheta sings, “but you feel like it’s never enough.” The accompanying low-budget video, shot on mountains and beaches, evokes The Man Who Fell to Earth, Brother From Another Planet, and the Sun Ra documentary Space Is the Place all at once.
Ancheta may not be keen on discussing his past, but at times it’s right there in his beats. When I ask about 2010′s “Walter Rand Center of Transportation,” a track characterized by a buoyantly hallucinatory calliope-like sound, he laughs. “That’s an actual place in Camden, New Jersey,” he says. “I was on my way to an interview for a job I didn’t want. I realized I was going to show up too late, so I called the place from the Walter Rand Transportation Center and said I probably wasn’t interested. It was kind of a shitty day. When I got home, I made that track to bring me down to earth.”
Those days seem to be behind Ancheta for the time being. He’s about to embark on his first tour, which will involve his first international travel, as well. “I moved out here without ever thinking it would be possible to be part of Stones Throw,” says Ancheta. “I used to listen to straight-up MF Doom, Madlib and Dilla in high school. That was my shit for quite some time.” He pauses, then adds, “Still is, of course.”