Who Is…Darling Farah

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 08.13.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Darkly romantic techno — sometimes warm and dusky, sometimes cold as brushed stainless steel — that wraps up Detroit, Berlin and London in a single, sweeping package

For fans of: Actress, Burial, Marcel Dettmann, Blawan, Shed, and Sandwell District

From: Detroit, Michigan (via United Arab Emirates and, now, London, U.K.)

Personae: Kamau Baaqi

That the electronic-music producer Kamau Baaqi, aka Darling Farah, is just 20 years old and has an album and three EPs to his name may be unusual, but it’s hardly unprecedented. The last couple of years have produced a bumper crop of fresh-faced talent, from Nicolas Jaar to Porter Robinson to Madeon. What’s notable is the fact that Baaqi discovered electronic dance music while living in the United Arab Emirates.

“I moved to the Middle East because my mom found work out there – she was working as a librarian,” he explains to me when I reach him on the phone in London, where he’s currently studying music production and sound art. “I kind of tagged along. Seeing as I was only 16 when I left, I didn’t have much say in the matter.”

There wasn’t much of an electronic-music scene to speak of there, so he did what kids all over the world do when they feel isolated: He turned to the internet. Originally a hip-hop fan, he discovered electronic music through a collaboration between MF Doom, one of his heroes, and the Los Angeles beat-maker Daedelus, and from there it was a bottomless tumble into a rabbit hole of YouTube clips and MySpace players. Eager to try his hand, he ordered a Monome 40h – a smaller version of Daedelus’s performance tool of choice – and immersed himself in online user forums to learn the basics of Max/MSP, a notoriously arcane software platform.

He released his first EP not long after, in 2008, but it was his Berline EP, in 2010, that really marked his arrival. Released on London’s Civil Music, and accompanied by remixes from Funkineven, Clara Moto, and Christian Martin, the single showed Baaqi to be a capable interpreter of the punchy, bass-heavy sound of U.K. house.

On his debut album, Body, Baaqi has clearly found his voice. You can hear elements of contemporaries like Actress and Marcel Dettmann in his smudgy timbres and basso rumble; there are also ample echoes of techno touchstones like Basic Channel and early Kompakt. But there’s an expressive impulse on Body that sets the album apart from many of its similarly inspired peers.

“I haven’t actually done that many phone interviews,” said Baaqi, as we’re wrapping up our conversation. “I was afraid I might say something dumb, but this actually went pretty well.” One of us should have knocked on wood, because that’s the first time in years that my recorder has failed on me. Fortunately, Baaqi was kind enough to endure my questions a second time around, the following week.

On coming up with the name Darling Farah:

My mom had this book with the word “Farah” on it, and it jumped out at me. I liked the idea of it being a girl’s name, something that was separate from me. I’m pretty active on Twitter, and I actually have all these followers that are dudes that think I’m a girl.

On feeling like a fish out of water:

They tried to teach us Arabic in school, but I never really learned to speak it that well. But you get used to the fact that other people are speaking a language you can’t speak. All I can speak is English, so I just had to get used to it. Maybe it was a bit weird at first. Even if it was weird, it never really bothered me. When everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand, you’re not blocking it out, it’s just that nothing’s making sense to you. I can say that after four years, you can kind of pick up, like, tones, and where the conversation is going. After a while, you’re not completely lost, but you can kind of tell if someone’s being, like, a dick to you, or something like that. It just depends on how engaged you are with the people you’re surrounded by.

On having dreadlocks in the Middle East (and in London):

It’s not hard; it’s just kind of annoying sometimes. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just like, maybe they’re not used to people with dreadlocks. But they already have certain connotations for it, if you know what I mean. If I’m coming into airports in the Middle East, it’s a no-go. It’s really awkward. They always search you. It happens, it happens. I can’t really blame anyone. I was telling my mom a few days ago, in London – and this goes back to the language question – now that I’m here, people still have a funny opinion of dreadlocks, but it’s in English, and now I can actually understand what they’re saying. In the Middle East, they were probably talking about it the whole time, but I wouldn’t know. Here, it’s the same thing, but I can actually understand what they’re saying, or why they’re shouting. I don’t know which is better!

Emphasizing the “kid” in “rave kid”:

I went to the Detroit Electronic Music Festival a few times as a kid. My dad took me. He was also a musician, and he listened to all types of music. When I was a kid, I didn’t really know where I was going; I just knew it was a festival. I remember, because this is around the time he had bought me turntables, this is when I was trying to do scratching, like hip-hop stuff. And he was telling me there was a DJ called Mad Professor that does a similar approach, but in dub. So he took me down to see the show. Mad Professor didn’t actually have any decks at the time – he just had a massive mixing board with effects and all kinds of crazy stuff. I went there thinking he was going to mix with turntables, but what I ended up seeing was like a science project. And I was just a kid, so I was like, “What is this?” It was cool.

On long-distance learning:

The Middle East is where I found out a lot about music, more than what I was hearing in Detroit. Techno is there if you know where to look for it in Detroit, but I didn’t really go looking for it. I was listening mostly to rap. I really liked MF Doom, and through one of his tracks, “Impending Doom,” I discovered Daedelus. And that sent me off on a search to discover more music like he was making. A lot of the hip-hop I was listening to had samples, and the choices they were using would be like orchestral samples, acoustic stuff, just weird instruments from around the world. And Daedelus had that kind of approach with the sounds he used and the samples he chopped up. So maybe I found the connection between that and hip-hop. When I heard Daedelus and MF Doom, the beat made sense and the rapping over it made sense – it just clicked.

After that, I was doing my own research, just surfing the internet and finding out about new things, finding out about what was big at the time. That was basically just MySpace and YouTube. YouTube clips of gigs, songs, all that kind of stuff. I remember the French electronic scene – most of those artists are the first wave of producers or DJs that I was into, the first ones I was really following up and researching as a fan. Ed Banger, Institubes – whatever was happening in Paris from, like, 2006 to 2008, I was heavily into it. From there, it was just like going deeper into the tunnel, starting from the surface and going deeper and deeper. There was U.K. garage and drum ‘n’ bass, even dubstep, later on down the line. That was all through the internet.

On starting out the hard way:

When I started making music, I started out with the Monome and Max/MSP, because that’s what I had seen Daedelus was using. I didn’t know anything about the software – I just thought that was normal. I thought that was how everyone made electronic music. It’s like when you look up to someone, you just kind of follow what they’re doing. In terms of making music, I didn’t even know where to start. I just saw him and saw how he was doing his live thing, and I thought I’d try it myself.

I wasn’t too nervous, I was more excited to just get it started and get everything set up and start cutting up samples. I remember I had a demo video of how to cut up samples live, and I was like, “Oh, I have to be doing this.” At that time, it wasn’t a serious thing anyways. It was kind of like a hobby, just to mess around and see what happens.

The people I looked up to, I would be studying them – like, how did they do it? I’d just go back and replicate it — but just the part that I liked the most, like a sawtooth synth or something. But I guess that’s less the case now, because I know how to express myself a bit better. I don’t have to worry about ripping someone’s style off.

On his Berline EP and the Berlin/Detroit connection:

For me, it was kind of like paying homage to something I didn’t know too much about, but I knew that I was really excited about it. At the time I didn’t really know what to think of Berlin. I knew it was a big place for techno and electronic music, but I didn’t know as much as I probably should have. But I listened to the music, I was heavily into it, so I was paying homage to something that I wanted to take further, down the line. It was a fan kind of thing.

It is a little weird that I come from Detroit, and I was fascinated with Berlin. But I didn’t really think of it like that. I thought about it more as exploration. People do make these connections, and it’s so – it’s not a bad thing, but it’s very analytical. I don’t see why it should have to be that way, like a Detroit kid and this or that….It’s weird.

The more I look back Detroit techno’s history and legacy, it became a self-aware kind of thing. My eyes kind of opened and I was like, “Oh, now I get what they mean by that legacy.” I’m not intimidated by it, but I’m way more aware of it. I don’t think it’s going to ever be too intimidating. I would be lying if I said I always knew about the Detroit scene or I always was involved with it. I’m just coming around to that now. So I think it’s only natural to embrace all different types of electronic music, rather than just one city, even though it is such a crucial reference point for a lot of places that have taken on the sound.

On the evolution of his sound and the creation of his debut LP

Once Berline came out, that’s around the time that I realized I was moving toward something different. Something new, I guess. In the three or four months that I did the album, it was a start-to-finish kind of thing. I would just start making tracks, but I didn’t have any outtakes or tracks I didn’t use. All the tracks I made for the album are ones I knew I was going to put on there. The thing is, I had music I had before the album, just tracks sitting around, but I knew I wouldn’t put them on the album. I was at a different point in my life, and they were just old, musically.

A lot of the sounds – I would record like a shot, like a stab or something like that. And from that one little piece, I would go into Fruity Loops and manipulate it and find different ways to flip it or reverse it or pitch it down, put different effects on it. It was seeing what alterations made it sound better. It’s more sample-based than synths, but by sample-based I mean I would take a kick and resample it, and turn it into some sort of pad. There’s not so many actual synthesizers on it. The synths were a part of it, but they were more like tools to create other sounds.

“Aaangel” – that is the one track that uses the most synths. It’s nothing but an arpeggiated synth. That was pretty simple as well. There was a one-hit note for a synth, and I made it into an arpeggio, and I remember I put it under some effects I was using, and that was just it. I liked the arp enough to keep it on its own. It had that isolated feeling I wanted to emulate. That’s the fun thing about making an album. You can do these sorts of things – actually have the chance to have these two-minute beatless tracks, or different things that you can’t really do for an EP or a single. Doing an album gives you a lot more freedom.

On moving to London:

It had more to do with music than anything. When I was thinking about places to go when I finished high school, I knew that I was going to study music. And I knew I was going to have to be somewhere where the music scene was something I’d be interested in, and interested in being in. If you’re going to live somewhere, you want it to be where the music is good and good artists come over to DJ and perform. I didn’t get to see many artists play in UAE. They had a few of the big commercial names but it was more like a concert. I wanted to be involved in the music scene, and I thought London was a good place to check out, a chance for me to get close to all the things that I was waiting to check out, in terms of clubs and DJs and bands.

On live performance and DJing:

When my dad bought me turntables, I was more into the turntablism, like scratching and mixing hip-hop records and breaks. I’m not actually the best DJ. I can’t beatmatch that well. I know my way around turntables, but I don’t really consider myself like a DJ-DJ. I’ve done it in the past and I still do from time to time, but I’m not like a guru. But the live shows have been really fun. Every time I do a show, I learn something new, so after every show I can come back and build upon a set, and add to it and make changes, get the feedback that people give me after shows and put it to use. The most recent show was at the Boiler Room. It was Tom DeCicco and Objekt and Ryat. I was happy about that, because I got to see all their sets, and they all killed it. Plus, it was Ryat, and that’s a Brainfeeder artist. I’ve been into Brainfeeder for way too long anyway. So it felt pretty huge to be on the same bill with someone like her.