Following the inspiration of fellow Seattle artists Blue Scholars, Marcus D recently went out on a limb and used Kickstarter to ask for donations to help create his latest project, the beautifully realized Melancholy Hopeful (read our review). Largely a success, Marcus found out just how much fans were willing to invest in him. It was much more than he had imagined, with some contributing upwards of $500 in return for a custom Marcus D beat. As he realized, the DIY aesthetic in Hip Hop continues to grow in the Internet age, so if you can’t find the right avenue for your music, sometimes it’s best to just do the leg-work yourself.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Marcus by phone a while back, and he spoke at length about how Kickstarter helped him connect personally with fans, noted the key differences between the American and Japanese Hip Hop markets and revealed how a concert in Japan led to Nujabes’ label, Hydeout Records, handling distribution for Melancholy.
Brandon: I wanted to start with your Kickstarter campaign for Melancholy Hopeful. Why go the Kickstarter route in the first place?
Marcus D: I think for me, a lot of it had to do with my past albums. Not everything was the way that I wanted it to be and I knew they could be better. The only thing that was holding the potential back was an actual budget. This is really my first album that I was confident to put out there for everybody to listen to. For me, it was really about making it something that I could be proud of and also something that my growing fan base could be proud of too. For me, a lot of times nowadays, it seems like listeners in the mainstream don’t really have faith in their artists. They’re kind of just fed whatever’s on the plate.
It was important to have my fans invested in the project too because it actually stopped a lot of the pirating on the Internet. The people who had access to it before the release date have an investment in it. They didn’t want to put it up online for other people. It was sort of like the old Russian folk tale about the red hen asking people if they wanted to help make the bread, but nobody wanted to help make it. They all wanted to eat it. The people who had a hand in helping make the album weren’t gonna sell it out to everybody else and put it up for free download.
Brandon: So it sounds like this is definitely gonna be your model for the future then, considering how well it’s worked for all parties.
Marcus: Yeah, definitely.
Brandon: I’m sure you had reservations about Kickstarter, at least at first. Melancholy Hopeful is a fantastic product, but this was also a case of trying to pursue a new avenue to raise funds. How did it feel when you actually came in over budget before the deadline?
Marcus: When I was planning out the budget and everything, there were quite a few things I wasn’t factoring in because I was completely new to it. Basically, I think it was around like $800 over with the 10% that Kickstarter and Amazon Payments take out collectively. By the time I was done making the project and pretty much done with everything, I think I had like $20 left for shipping. I think I need to budget a little more for shipping [next time] because I have a lot of international supporters. At the same time [though], I was really new to it and I had just seen a group from Seattle the I know really well, the Blue Scholars, do it. It was the first I had heard of it, and I think they had made around $50,000 or so and they had only pledged for like $15,000. I knew it was something that, if people were interested in it and it caught on, then it was gonna be something that was really helpful. I knew that the whole incentive process just makes it that much cooler for people.
With the type of music that I do, the fans are really more into supporting the artists and getting things that nobody else has because it’s really more of an underground mentality. When you offer things that nobody else knows about that nobody else can have, it gives them an incentive to pledge a little bit more and know that the funds are going to somebody who’s actually using it for the project, not just to spend an advance on buying a chain or something.
Brandon: I believe your top of the line offering involved giving donors production advice. How’s that been interacting with the people who pledged? Have you started that process yet?
Marcus D: Actually, one of the coolest things was the beat-making lessons because I actually got to Skype and just do a one-on-one lesson with them on how I make beats. With that, it’s really just a gateway. It just turns into them asking me questions about how I got into what I am doing and how they can possibly get into that same realm – just like tips and pointers on how to really get a foot into this type of industry and how to characterize yourself in this day and age with the way things are now. It was really more of just a Q&A session after I had been teaching them some things about beat-making, so it was really cool to interact with [them].
Honestly, I think that was probably my favorite part about the Kickstarter [campaign], that it showed [me] so many people were down to support what I was doing. Some of the people donated $500 for a beat, and for me, if I’m spending $500 on something, I have to have a pretty strong investment in that product. For them to put that type of force behind me, somebody they may not have even met before, it really restores my faith in the whole industry. Seeing people support like that, it just usually doesn’t happen, so I know that I’m doing something that inspires [others].
Brandon: The international distribution for Melancholy Hopeful is actually being handled by the label Nujabes created, Hydeout Records. How did that connection come about?
Marcus D: Basically, when I was in the middle of crafting the album and the Kickstarter was already done, me and Substantial went and did a Japan tour last December. While we were over there, we had a show that was set up by one of the promoters where the Hydeout crew had basically agreed to perform and open for us. So a couple of the DJ’s were there and the owner of the company, Takumi, was there. The owner of Tribe was there too, so pretty much everybody from Hydeout was there that night at our show. Substantial and I did a little bit of a tribute set at the end. Everybody was really moved by it because his death had just happened that last year, so it was coming up on the two year anniversary of it. [There] was definitely a really cool air about that whole show. It was really powerful.
This was when [ Nujabes' posthumous album] Spiritual State was coming out, so Takumi had brought a lot of the CD’s to start selling before the actual release date. I ended up picking up a copy and he gave me one of the 12”’s of “Love Sick Pt.4” that came out before [the release]. Long story short, Substantial and I ended up having dinner with Takumi one night before we left to go back to the U.S. I kind of pitched the idea that I had a project that I was interested in possibly having them listen to. I figured they get a lot of requests like that, but since it was coming from an inside source and Substantial is really good friends with all those guys, I figured it might be something worth trying.
I got back to the U.S. and he told me to send a few of the songs. I sent him some of the rough cuts from the album. They were all pretty much done but they weren’t mixed yet. He listened to it and said that he really liked it but that it didn’t sound like their releases. A lot of the times, [they deal with] more low-fidelity type tracks. Even if they have the technology to do things to make it sound more high-quality, they do low-quality because they want to be more like the original U.S. Hip Hop type stuff back in the 90′s. They sample down to make their quality lower so it can get that old boom-bap feel. With me, I use a lot of samplers but I run everything through my computer because it’s just much more efficient. They had told me that the quality was a little too high and asked me if I had any beats that I had made on MPC’s or something. I was like “No, not really, but let me get the album mixed and maybe I can send it to you again.” Vitamin D, who’s basically the godfather of Hip Hop in Seattle, ended up mixing the album, which is a huge deal for me because he’s mixed a lot of the music I listen to. I had him run [the album] through some compressors that were more lo-fi. I sent the album to Hydeout again and they loved it.
Growing up listening to Nujabes and all of the Hydeout releases since I was about 14 or so, it was a pretty big deal to have them give me that official seal of approval so that I’m not just another clone doing stuff that sounds like him, you know?
Brandon: One thing I was always curious about, making that connection from Seattle all the way out to Japan, how did you end up listening to Nujabes and Hydeout in the first place?
Marcus D: [Through] my friend who I’ve known a long time. His cousins came up to Seattle one summer and they had all this new music. They basically were like “Yo, I think you’d like this based on what style of music you listen to.” We were driving around and he put his iPod on the dock and started playing some of the tracks. I was like “Damn, what is this?” And he was like “It’s this guy named Nujabes.” He basically showed me a lot of the tracks.
I started searching him out and I found a few tracks on the Internet that were from Substantial and his album To This Union A Sun Was Born. That was the first album that they had put out together… then a few of the tracks from the Samurai Champloo soundtrack, which is the anime that he did. I was listening to it on my iPod and it kept saying “Samurai Champloo OST” on the info. I actually found out about the anime through the music as opposed to vice versa, which is how people usually figure it out.
I actually tell them all the time that I’m grateful for them coming up that summer because it’s definitely given me a lane to do my music in. I think without that, I wouldn’t have been inspired in the same way.
Brandon: I did want to talk in particular about a couple tracks on Melancholy Hopeful that I was absolutely enamored with. One of them is “Inasense.” I’m still kind of blown away by how everything comes together. Nothing seems muddled, which is exceptional considering how much is going on. How did that track come about in the first place? Did it start with the piano? The horn line?
Marcus D: It’s funny. When I found the actual sample, a lot of it was just the piano keys, so I ended up kind of interpolating it and replaying it because I wanted it to sound more like a live track, which I think I definitely accomplished because it still has the warmth of the vinyl behind it [since] I left part of it in there. It started out with the piano keys and then I found a drum break that sounded pretty good with it, so I layered the drums over the piano, and then with the live drum feel, I was like “Okay, this is to a point where I can’t just put some VST Synths over this and compose it on a keyboard. I need actual players to play these parts.”
My friend Jerson Zaragoza, who does a lot of bass work throughout the album, was actually in the Philippines at the time, so his cousin Pat ended up playing bass for the track. He did an amazing job because everything just flows really well with the rhythm behind it. After that, I talked to my friend Carlos Overall, who’s an amazing sax player. We went to his studio and he recorded the sax take. It was actually just one take – he did a freestyle take through it. The guy’s basically been playing for 20 years, so he just sat down with the tenor sax and played through it a couple times.
After that, I layered the horns from the sample on there so everything’s just kind of freestyle and free-flowing but at the same time it just keeps the rhythm going through the bass line and the drums and everything. It ends in sort of a rubato type of tone where it’s just kind of everybody going at their own pace, but then it comes in and ends all at the same beat. That was definitely one of my favorite tracks to work on and easily one of my favorite tracks.
Brandon: Another thing I noticed with this album is that every emcee delivers, whether it be topics or tight verses. Substantial’s verse on “Night On the Town” is probably one of the best verses I’ve ever heard. How were you able to get such a consistent output? How involved were you with their approach to your instrumentals?
Marcus D: A lot of the times, I don’t like to tell the artist what to rap about because I think that sort of suppresses creativity, but at the same time, I usually name the beat something that will influence my opinion on what I think the song should be about. It’s more of a subtle tactic than [saying] “Yo, you should rap about girls on this track.” That’s kind of cliché, but with all the tracks that I give the artists, I usually give them the name of the track then give them like a short description on what I was thinking the song should be about.
As the producer of the album, there are certain topics that I just really don’t want to tackle. If you listen to [Melancholy Hopeful], all the lyrics are extremely positive. There’s no derogatory things. I actually think there’s not more than one swear word on there. I didn’t even tell them not to swear or anything. It just kind of came out that way. The music doesn’t really call for much aggressiveness. I don’t really tell them what to rap about, but I give them a little insight on what I was thinking about for the song and then I usually just let them go from there. I know all of the people that I work with personally and know that what they do is usually within the same realm of what I’m looking for.
Brandon: Did you end up gravitating toward this cast of emcees through your fascination with Nujabes? Most of the people on this album were collaborators on his projects in the past.
Marcus D: Yeah. Growing up listening to Nujabes and all these people that he worked with, they were sort of like my favorite rappers growing up. To be able to work with people who you’d looked up to for years is sort of like a self-accomplishment type of thing. They’re really dope too. All of them are extremely nice people. They’re not fixated on monetary things. They’re just really cool all-around people to work with.
[The connections] all came from trying to do a lot of the stuff that’s popular in the Japanese market and then also trying to off-set that with people from Seattle and people from the national scene. I tried to get a good mix of both of them in there, but [the album's] definitely more fixated on the Japanese market and what’s popular [over there].
Brandon: Although most of the album doesn’t call for aggressiveness, I did notice that Luck One really subverts that idea on “Street’s Lament” by bringing a more energetic flow to the fold. Were you surprised when he took that approach or did you sort of expect that on that beat?
Marcus D: [Laughs] Actually, yeah. That was one of the very first tracks that I did for the album, because if you notice at the end, he says “2010.” We had recorded it back in 2010. When he sent it to me the first time, the choruses were basically yelling. He told me that he loved the beat and everything, and he was just like “I just really need to get some stuff off my chest that I’ve been thinking about.” Usually the best tracks come from that type of emotion. He sent it to me, and I was like “Yo, this is really dope, but for the market that I’m working towards, they’re usually turned off by this type of yelling, so could you maybe tone down the chorus a little bit and re-record it?” He was like “Yeah, that’s no problem,” so he did it again and sent it back and I was like “Yo, I don’t want to stifle the creativity too much so I think this will probably work.”
I really, really like the flow on the verses because it’s just so fluid and flows with everything so well, and what he’s saying on there is really important too because in Seattle, everybody is sort of passive aggressive here as far as things that need to be done to change the city for the better. He basically just points it all out in two verses. I think it’s really cool to have that sort of directness and also give solutions for those problems, all in the same song. It was definitely one of the first tracks we recorded, and I really liked it because it’s something different from what the other artists did. The beat’s still sort of mellow but the same time it can be taken in two different ways. I think he just went the other way with it, which I liked actually.
Brandon: You were just speaking about being aware of what the Japanese market tends to prefer musically. How much of a break down would you say your audience is in the Japanese or Asian market as opposed to the domestic market? Are you a much larger presence overseas than you are domestically?
Marcus D: Yeah, [by] a lot. When my first album came out in Japan, I think it sold around 3,500 copies, and this is just me as a new artist that nobody had heard on just a regular, independent label. Here in the U.S. it’s difficult to even get an independent label to look at you. Most of the time, I choose to just do all of the distribution on my own because that way I’m not giving my entire life to a label to promote my stuff. Out there, labels still take a lot of the percentage but they usually give pretty good advances. They set up booths in all of the stores. So with this release, my album had the main display case in every Tower Records in Tokyo. The Tower Records in Harijuku and Shibuya had my CD in the display case. [Tower] has the #1 album and #2 kind of like we do at all the FYE’s and different places in the U.S. The album was actually #1 on there.
[There's] definitely more of a presence for my stuff over there than over here because I get a lot more show opportunities in Japan. There’s usually at least ten times the amount of people that come out to the shows there than they do here. It’s the same for Substantial too. When we were at the restaurant having dinner with the owner of Hydeout, there was a fan that recognized him in the restaurant and asked for an autograph. It’s pretty crazy when he goes out there because there’s posters of his face in different record shops.
Brandon: What do you really notice or pay attention to when it comes to the main differences between catering to the Japanese market as opposed to the American market?
Marcus D: For the most part, it can be sort of pigeon-holing because there’s a really niche market out there for “jazzy Hip Hop,” as it’s called. A lot of the people are just Nujabes clones and are just people who loop some drums over a jazz break. It gets pretty repetitive. Almost anybody can put an album out, but at the same time, there’s a certain characteristic that people want from that.
I try to be more complex with the type of stuff I do out there as opposed to here. A lot of my stuff is more beat battle oriented for the U.S. market, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from this album. In Japan, a lot of my stuff is more piano-based with horns and smooth down-tempo type stuff because that’s just what’s popular in Japan right now. I feel like [with] things that come from the U.S. over to Japan, Japan is usually about ten years behind. They’re still doing a lot of the B-Boy type stuff and a lot of the 90′s Golden Age of Hip Hop.
Since Nujabes was sort of the main proprietor of that sound, people who work with his label or people who work with the people he worked with are sort of held to a higher esteem than other people who are just putting out instrumental albums, so when I do tracks over there, they’re more laid-back. The drums aren’t as hard but they’re still intricate, because even though I try to cater to that market, I don’t want to sacrifice my sound for it.
I think my biggest complaint about people over there or people who try to market [there] from the U.S. is that their drums just don’t hit at all – you put it in your car and you’re kind of wondering where the kick drum’s at and where the thump is at. To me, that’s just Hip Hop. There needs to be a low end to it, and a lot of times, the producers here kind of sacrifice that for that sound. I don’t believe in that.
Brandon: Did you ever get the chance to meet Nujabes?
Marcus D: Marcus D: I actually never did, but we spoke on the Internet one time. It’s cool to hear different perspectives about him from every single person [I work with though] – from Shing02 to Funky DL to Substantial.
Sometimes when you meet somebody, they’re less than what you had expected, and for me, to a point, I almost feel like not meeting him may have been a blessing in disguise because a lot of times, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Everybody says that he’s an amazing guy, but at the same time, a lot of people never stand up to the vision that you have of them. I think that for me, that possibly could’ve been [the case]. I still have that image of what he was. I think that’s pretty important because I still think he was an amazing producer and I don’t know him personally. That’s just sort of how life is sometimes.
A lot of people ask me if I’ve met him before because they just expect that I have. I’ve met everybody around him and everybody in his circle and everybody at his label but I never had the opportunity of actually meeting him directly.
Brandon: In my Melancholy Hopeful review, I wrote that I think you’re really carrying the torch for that Nujabes sound and being a great torch bearer for it. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, or would you say that assertion itself is pigeon-holing your sound?
Marcus D: Yeah, to a point. It’s fair to say. I’m definitely honored with that comment because a lot of people try so hard to have his sound, and with me, the way that I came up listening to his stuff, it just came naturally. It wasn’t something that I tried to model my sound after. It was just what I gravitated toward.
A lot of people say “Oh, you sound like Nujabes” or “You’re filling a void,” things like that. That’s definitely one of the hugest compliments ever because it’s sort of like how people have styled their beats after DJ Premier. To a point, you copy until you spin off into your own sound because every great producer started by copying somebody else. Then you get your own style and you get your own characteristics and it becomes your own sound. I think that that’s sort of what I’m trying to do every day with the beats that I make – become more of something myself so that someday people can [say] “Yo, you sound like Marcus D.”