Conversations is an interview series in which we discuss a specific component of an artist’s work.
In this edition, George Awwad chats with the basement R&B duo Abhi//Dijon about their creative process, their primary influences, their thoughts on Kanye West, and more.
What were some of your earliest memories together?
Dijon: Well, Abhi was in bands back in freshman year of high school. I wasn’t. I didn’t do music stuff.
Abhi: I remember Dijon would play Rock Band and I was like, “This dude can really sing the Strokes really well.” That was probably one of the earliest memories.
You two started writing songs a while back and, as far as I know, “Let Down” was your first track. How did that come together and when did you two decide you wanted to start writing music together?
Abhi: I think with “Let Down” my parents were out of town and Dijon had just bought a midi and we were at my house and we were like, “Let’s do something,” because there’s nothing to do in the summer. We made that and we thought it sounded really good, so we were like, “Let’s go to the beach,” and we finished the track.
Dijon: I was doing home and water stuff, so I was already doing a lot of beats and I never really worked with midi software before, so that was already kind of something different about everything that was going on. We both got acclimated to learning the software together since I got the midi. Without thinking about it, that was kind of a fresh way to really start the whole project.
How would you say your process has changed since then?
Abhi: We don’t completely know nothing. I would say a big thing is we just practice now. I kind of feel like we have the same exact approach that we did then, except we realized what we like and what we don’t, taste-wise. I feel like we do the exact same thing, like, “Yeah this is cool—hey this is cool,” then we put it in. Dijon has gotten better at mixing.
Dijon: I’ll become the greatest of all time.
Abhi: That’s the truth. The realest mixer.
Dijon: Especially, when we did “Let Down,” I think we were using Reason for no reason. I didn’t know why.
Abhi: I think it’s because we happened to download it.
Dijon: Yeah, so we had Reason and that was where “Let Down” was made, but I’ve had Fl Studio for a minute, but never really used it. I used it years ago when I was fifteen. Then we went back almost immediately and we tried more stuff in Reason, but it just wasn’t really feeling right. So other than that, the approach has been the same. We’re just learning what things do and how sound works. We’re still learning a whole bunch and that’s why we’re listening to certain dudes that we know are good at mixing.
There’s a lot of recurring themes on relationships in your songs. Is that something you actively draw from experience or are you guys just writing some of that because it sounds good?
Dijon: I’d say our approach lyrically is that everything comes from just syllables. That’s the way we do it. We make melodies and we riff on melodies without words and then we just fill in the words. That’s not to say everything is meaningless, but it all just depends on the vibe of the song, so if it’s a lot more upbeat or silly sounding, and then it’s like the words that fill in will start to make more sense along a certain theme. But that’s why “T.M” sounds real serious, because that was a real thuggish track. That’s essentially what it was with the hard sounding drums, but still everything lyrically comes from the air. It’s just syllables really.
Forgot to ask this earlier, but where did you two grow up?
Abhi: I grew up in Maryland pretty much. I moved around a lot when I was younger because I was born in India and then I came to New York. But now I’m in Maryland.
Dijon: I was a military kid, so my parents were never really together, but I was born in Washington state. My mom was from Maryland and when I was a kid I moved around everywhere, kind of like Abhi, because of the military, but then I started to live with my mom. She moved back to Maryland so she could go back to school, so I was in Maryland from the end of second grade to the end of sixth grade, which is how I met a bunch of friends, where I would eventually meet Abhi through those friends. After that, from sixth grade on, I was everywhere; California, Hawaii, Germany, Washington again—I just jumped around, but I would always come back to Maryland.
Has the community that’s around really pushed you two creatively?
Dijon: Most definitely, yeah. I think in terms of aesthetics and climate, it has absolutely nothing to do with us, but the fact that Ricky Eat Acid lives here and Alés lives here. I guess that’s it. I mean, those two are some of the bigger people that we listen to and some of our bigger inspirations living here. On that level, Maryland does influence us, but I don’t think the climate really does anything. “Let Down” was made at the beach, though.
Abhi: I think that kind of does. We saw Sam [Ray] doing his thing and we thought it was pretty inspirational the way he’s been pushing. Maybe if we do end up in a cooler place, our music will just like… I guess we have no other way of finding out till we do that.
There’s probably a lot, but are there any primary or main artists that you two actively draw influence from at the moment?
Dijon: Abhi’s not allowed to listen to Western music.
Dijon: There are only a few gods out there, a true few, and they’re pretty typical, but that goes for Kanye, The Neptunes, Timbaland, J Dilla, D’angelo the god, The-Dream, and then Alex G for sure. The thing these dudes have in common, obviously they make good songs, but everything they touch is theirs, you know what I mean.
Abhi: They just paved their own way and got their sounds on the radio. Back then I just feel like some of the stuff the Neptunes and Timba were doing were weird, there were really weird sounds, but we look back today and it sounds normal to us. They just pushed the envelope, and that sounds really cliché, but they really did and it was crazy.
Dijon: I think a super important thing since we don’t have a lot of musical training, obviously with the people that we like the sounds will rub off, because we don’t have a theory or composition background. But more than anything, what’s super influential about these dudes is the impact. Just like, their imprint on stuff more than anything. We always grab a couple of pieces that might sound a little Pharrell-y or a little Kanye. The influence comes from the fact that you listen to “Umbrella,” “Baby,” and you listen to “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. All those things are super dream songs. Those are like the dream, all of them.
With Kanye, we didn’t know who produced Mariah Carey‘s “Stay the Night” but we were listening to it and were like, “This sounds like… I guess it’s just Kanye.” We thought it was someone just trying to be Kanye, but that aspect of recognition is the most influential for sure. More than what goes into the music, mostly because we don’t know enough to be like, “Let’s replicate the same chords,” because we don’t know the chords. So it’s just about finding that consistent set of aesthetics in your music and then just forcing them in the most organic way into the songs, because all those artists did that with everything they touched.
Kanye West gets a ton of negative perceptions thrown his way because of his ego and approach. How do you guys feel about that specifically?
Dijon: We both have a ton to say about Kanye. We love Kanye. I am Kanye. We’re all Kanye.
Abhi: [laughs] Okay, you might have to start on this one.
Dijon: The answer to part of your question, when it comes to people’s perceptions about Kanye—I can never blame or knock anybody for having a very negative, but shallow, perception of Kanye, because I know his media image precedes him and his music. That’s just a fact. That’s how it’s gonna be. His presence outside of music will always be the first thing that jumps to people’s minds.
People are still talking about his whole Taylor Swift thing—I don’t know why, but people are. So I can’t blame someone for saying he’s a jerk or something, because he probably isn’t the funnest dude to have lunch with. At the same time, I don’t have to jump down their throats, because I’m usually aware that the people who say that haven’t followed Kanye’s trajectory since College Dropout or Blueprint. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t old enough to listen to it. You could go back and listen to it chronologically and just hear the growth and hear what he’s trying to do. A lot of the cats who judge Kanye for persona only, they’re not listening to the shit that he’s really doing.
Abhi: I just feel like he’s someone who has always tried to keep pushing no matter what. It was just really easy to see how human of a dude he was. You listen to his early stuff and you can actually hear him develop as an artist. He’s had one of the most inspirational careers, no doubt. Seeing him come from being a fan of Jay Z to being his friend and doing an actual album with Jay Z. It’s inspirational to look back on his growth over the past 10-15 years by listening to his music. You may not like his rapping, but his production is incredible. I also think the way people are looking at him trying to push into the fashion industry is dumb, because his work ethic is unmatched and he can pretty much do anything he sets his mind to.
Dijon: We talk about it all the time, and it’s probably not the correct term, but it’s almost musical Darwinism. Homie just grinded and really pushed it, and he still can’t play and he doesn’t have theory, but you can hear when he’s talking about on “Spaceship” about writing five beats a day for three summers—that’s what made him who he is. You’re gonna get a whole bunch of talented cats out there and that’s great, but then rarely do artists just physically force their way through limitations. He’s just a prime example of someone who keeps trying to put effort into producing, therefore he evolves all the time.
If you go from Blueprint to Late Registration, and just his knowledge of what he was doing and how he wanted to do it, he was a prime example of somebody who wasn’t necessarily born with prodigy fingers on the pianos or weird theory compositional knowledge, but he just kept learning and kept practicing and grinding, so everything he made after that sounded different. It sounded fuller. It sounded stronger, but it still sounded Kanye. So he’s just an example of something very strange, where you can grind, and practice can actually make you do cool stuff. You can listen to a lot of old stuff and just be like, “Holy shit this is the same person,” but he constantly is learning all the time.
But it’s all connected, too, because people want to talk about his ego. Think about how many people out there who are embarrassed to discuss their U2 or Coldplay era that they grew out of. Kanye’s ego, the shit people bug him about, is the reason that he expands so much. When Graduation was out, he was like, “I really like U2 and Coldplay, that’s what I’m on now.” That was one of his unabashed or shameless cosigns that he would do. Right now, he’s jumping on James Blake, because he’s just fascinated by him, but I know other artists are very quiet about the things they’re just figuring out. There’s a lot of insecurity in the game. Kanye is insecure about so much, but the last thing he’s insecure about is learning new artists and new sounds. That’s a really strong thing, because a lot of artists keep that under wraps and slowly try to replicate a trend, as opposed to being very open about it. Kanye is just openly fascinated with how other people make certain sounds and he’s just shameless with that. It’s a very incredible thing and it wouldn’t be there without that ego. He’s the kind of artist that you need to be, because he knows when he wants to grow and how he wants to grow. Sometimes he knows he can’t do it by himself.
Abhi: You definitely just summed it all up.
Would you guys want to start producing for rappers or maybe throwing a hook someone’s way?
Abhi: I feel like we’d be down to do anything that we could. Drawing off of Kanye, we just want to learn as much as we can first. I feel like there’s not anywhere we want to limit ourselves. If we’re into something, I feel like we’ll jump into it and we’re obviously huge fans of rap music. We definitely would love to make beats for rappers.
Dijon: For sure, I feel like you can’t say stuff like this without it sounding arrogant, but I wouldn’t say we are arrogant. We know there are so many things we need to learn, but it would be cool to have a different approach to production. Especially these days with all the set modes of sounds. That’s why Pusha T and some of the songs on My Name Is My Name is incredible. “Suicide” and “Numbers on the Board“—those are some crazy tracks. Hearing stuff like that where people are still willing to jump on production like that and not necessarily just a bunch of trap/808 production with pitched up samples is super inspiring. It’s cool that producers are looking for strange and grimy production. That definitely makes us want to produce for rappers. There’s a lot of open minded rappers, so that makes it appealing for sure. I’d love to rap for people, too.
Abhi: Dijon can rap. He just acts like he can’t rap. One day he will, but hey, I can rap too. Y’all should know, I might be the greatest rapper.
Kanye knew he could rap from the beginning but got caught up in producing. Is that where you’re at, or is it the opposite?
Dijon: Well, we don’t know that we can even produce yet. I think we go through fits where we’re like, “We might be okay at this shit.” I wanted to rap for a very long time. That’s why I started making beats, though, because I was too afraid to rap. I was too self-conscious.
Abhi: I’ve always wanted to be a lead singer in a band. I still wanna be a lead singer, so if anyone is down to join a band with me, hit me up.
Dijon: He’s dressed like Liam Gallagher from Oasis right now.
Going forward are you two more so focused on putting together a live act or potentially just working in a studio?
Abhi: We really just want to make sure our production game is as tight as can be, before we step into other realms. I just feel like we wanna make sure that we can do what we want to production-wise first. Because the live game, that’s a whole other thing on its own. We’ve definitely thought about it and how we’d do it, but right now we just want to make sure we can get our production down.
Dijon: We’re still learning so much about production. You can even hear that in the songs, track by track, through our releases. More than anything, we’re just not the greatest musicians, so making a live set would be a lot tougher, especially if we want to make it compelling. I mean, Abhi was in bands so he knows, but not me. Abhi wouldn’t want to carry an entire live set by himself. Abhi can actually handle himself on keys and guitar, but me personally I’ve never really played an instrument. I think it’d almost be selfish to try and knock out live shows right now, because it’d just be kind of goofy. I think there would be a lot of backtracking. It’d be dope as hell to just sit in the studio and learn a lot more.
So what are your plans for the rest of the year of 2014?
Dijon: In particular, we have someone we’re trying to do a collaboration with, just to see how it works and how we can work with that person’s vocals.
Abhi: A couple of other people have hit us up about remixes and collabs, but right now I feel like we’re just gonna keep working on tracks on our own and maybe get together an EP or something. We pretty much only work on stuff when we meet up.
Dijon: People don’t know we can only meet once or twice a week, so that limits as much as we can do. Sometimes one of us might come up with a melody and we would call the other person and we’ll try to squeeze it in next time we meet. Hopefully we can drop at least a few more songs in 2014, though.