This piece was originally featured in our fourth issue, available here
I spent three weeks over email talking to Geng; the visionary behind the mercurial label Purple Tape Pedigree (PTP), psychosis-inducing beatmaker King Vision Ultra and one half of the revolutionary doom collective Wormwatcher. During our conversation, we discuss everything from blending hip-hop with metal and ethics within music scenes to mental health, addiction and his time growing up with Cannibal Ox members Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, as part of the Atoms Family.
First of all, thank you for agreeing to the interview. Really appreciate the time you’re taking out to do this with us. Secondly; because we’re mostly a metal publication some of our readers might not be familiar with your work as Geng, King Vision Ultra or your label, Purple Tape Pedigree. Would you like to introduce yourself for our readers?
Thank you for hitting me up and to help spread light.
I go by Geng – born and bred in New York City since ’81 – but have active projects under King Vision Ultra (album Pain Of Mind out now on Ascetic House) and Wormwatcher (a “band” with Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste). It’s all classifiable under “heavy music” *laughs*. KVU is me dialling back to my ’80s/’90s NYC hip-hop roots with all of the other metal (doom/black) and drone/noise influences carved into the canvas. Wormwatcher is blackened doom played by two people of colour, replacing the drummer with the rhythm of dialogue snippets being bent through the sampler: A wall of ancestral, anti-devil frequencies. PTP is an artist collective-slash-imprint that thrives on being multifaceted. It isn’t focused on a single genre nor medium, but rather a shared energy and headspace. We weaponize things like noise or ASMR whispers or coded messages on a garment or YouTube playlists or rhythm or scent into tools for self and spiritual-preservation.
On Pain Of Mind, the samples and production remind me of Cannibal Ox or Liquid Swords in their coldness but then you bring in vocal samples which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dystopia album. What influences, specifically, helped you write that album and how did you reconcile the hip-hop and metal influences?
Ah, that’s crazy you hear those references in the production. I would say that GZA, El-P, and Dystopia all sit in my bag of influences. I ducked school the Tuesday [GZA’s 1995 album] Liquid Swords dropped just so I could have some of the album cuts on a tape for the next school day *laughs*. The first time I heard [Dystopia’s] Human = Garbage, I was so into it that it got put on repeat for a second listen and by ‘Hands That Mold’ I got to feeling real sad. That was an experience.
As far as Pain Of Mind influences, I was listening to mostly jazz for a year and change, maybe it’s that “you’re older and ready to truly understand” thing. So yeah… all of the early ’70s albums from Miles, Herbie, and the ECM label – the spiritual and darker sounding stuff. Definitely revisited Axelrod‘s Songs Of Experience. Prodigy‘s untimely passing led to listening back to much of the Mobb Deep catalogue. Styles P. Previous reading up on the sun, chlorophyll, binaural frequencies, and meditation. The Places That Scare You. Dealing with a few loved ones who were struggling with trauma-born addiction and various brushes with “stopping it for good.” Starting the year with another childhood friend who had hit rock bottom and got locked up, first Rikers, then sent upstate.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was exposed to both hip-hop and metal at an early age. First hip-hop from the radio and this show called Video Music Box in the mid-’80s, plus they didn’t just play hip-hop, there’d be videos from everyone like Michael Jackson and Talking Heads to Whitney Houston and Living Colour. I got into watching MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and saw Metallica‘s ‘One’ and Tool‘s ‘Sober’. Then came grunge, specifically Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, with the more bugged-out stuff of the day like Primus and FNM. But yeah, in NYC, being around friends who were in hardcore bands or who skated, it was like Wu-Tang or Smif N Wessun one minute, then Slayer or Black Flag the next. My pops was a Deep Purple and Floyd head… heavy… but also seemed happy when he heard Sabbath coming out of my room for the first time (high school). Coming up like that made me a fan of this borderless approach and I’d like to think that KVU is something like that now. The shows this month have been The Body/Lingua Ignota/Big|Brave, then Inga Copeland/L’Rain, then a crazy experimental-meets-noise-meets-footwork thing where I’m on a bill with RP Boo and Foodman then NAH and my kinfolk, YATTA.
Let me just say that I never got into rapcore or bands that even subtly resembled that, the closest thing for me was banging the Beasties and Leeway.
That’s what I found so appealing about Pain Of Mind actually, is that it doesn’t take the clichés of either style of music yet retains the aesthetic of both. Although I’ve always thought early ’90s NY production was reminiscent of black metal from that period too. There’s a lot of stylistic smudges that come through on the album but the one thing I noticed the most, in terms of any overall theme, was that of mental health. We spoke briefly about me being institutionalised earlier, but I presume that is a common experience growing up in working class New York?
Word thank you for sharing that, I’m glad it felt that real to you. You’re literally the second person to compare rap to black metal to me in a week… I see it. The other person specifically stated that P (Prodigy of Mobb Deep) was the epitome of that concept, being that his music was all of the outright nihilism and darkness of black metal. Yet, all in all it felt better coming from someone who had actually suffered from the systemic ills of being black in an American “inner city”, as well having dealt with the physical pain of an auto-immune disorder. He said it changed his perspective on the white dudes posturing “evil” in spikes and make up… though no disrespect to the great black metal folks, we’re both fans of Darkthrone and plenty of the American bands.
Fuck, I’m glad you got outta there quickly. The issue of mental health is most definitely a shared experience of varying degrees among probably 95% of the folks I know. For me, it goes back to the mid-’90s when friends in high school were being prescribed meds because they were “overactive” or had issues with “paying attention”. It felt more like a punishment, like some type of scarlet letter; that prescription slip and those orange bottles you’d have in your backpack next to the books. Mind you, most of these kids were actually beyond book smart and were probably just bored of standardised academia. I think that lately, especially with social media and YouTube, the information has been spread so widely and the conversation has elevated to a point where people are reading/hearing other stories and realise that they are poking at a similar plate on the daily.
What’s also interesting is that, unlike most things, mental health seems to extend beyond class lines, you know? Of course, there’s the lack of resources and misinformation within marginalised sections of society, but if you look at things like suicide rates, gun violence and mass shootings, plus the amount of kids on ‘scripts, it’s not just happening in the so-called inner city. It is hard to pinpoint because it ties into so many other things fucked about America; say, the industries of pharma and firearms, law and access, but back when I was working with high school kids, it was the students who had it sweet, summer homes in the Hamptons and all, who were on x-y-z medication and even checking in and out of institutions. That could also just be the mass-medicating of kids thing, which is a trend among those affluent circles. The overprotective parenting leading to a knee-jerk reaction at the very notion that their child might just be struggling with the stresses of being a teen with a smartphone and social media account. That’s an issue which arises with privilege and access to healthcare, so now there’s this other idea at which they can throw their money in support of this “we are doing just fine” imagery.
What I find interesting is research into rates of schizophrenia and psychosis in inner cities and how paranoid a lot of music say from New York and London can appear at certain periods. If I recall correctly Joe Muggs recently wrote about you in The Wire and mentioned you worked with El-P in the ’90s? It seems now as well artists have started opening up more and mental health/addiction are becoming talking points within hip-hop generally.
Yeah, I’m curious about that sort of thing as well. There’s definitely a connection there and while everyone here isn’t living with schizophrenia, the energy of the land is definitely thick with a certain chaos. I’ve been here 37 years and still take the train everyday, and that definitely contributes to my overall perspective because you see so much, practically every time… from the really dark, sad shit – definitely saw someone shooting up between train cars last night – to some really encouraging, human moments. It’s all very human really… it keeps you grounded if you have your eyes off of your phone for a moment.
Haha, it was Joe Stannard! I have never worked with El, just met him many times and was in the same crew as Cannibal Ox, called Atoms Family, for a couple years. I think as the underground hip-hop thing developed, and more people started to enter and participate, and a larger lens was applied to the culture, we saw more instances of folks who were struggling with depression and addiction. It took some lives and drastically changed the trajectory of many others. The whole internet message board thing made it even crazier with people coming out the woods, literally in some cases, putting people’s personal biz out there. Even that whole thing between Definitive Jux/Cannibal Ox and that Anticon fanatic, after dude did what he did, heads posted his address online. Shit, to go that far as a fan of someone, physically assaulting a so-called rival artist, dude had some issues for real. Looking back, it just wasn’t a very cloaked community, there was no major record label machine to hide behind; plus the internet was brand new so everyone was learning how to navigate that alternate reality.
How long have scripts been a thing in America? We’ve only started seeing them becoming popular in the England over the past four-six years. I’m not sure how credible this source is because benzodiazepine addiction is relatively new as a social phenomenon and it’s not in much literature about addiction but we don’t even prescribe alprazolam so it’s a complete import from the USA. Although I have heard of it being prescribed in Scotland.
They’ve been around for decades and I guess the trend of getting high off the pharm of the moment cycles in and out like anything else. Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s I know heads were fucking with methaqualone (quaaludes) – that’s what the band Gorilla Biscuits derived their name from apparently; those pills were dumb big. Urban legend is that Philly actually been sippin’ “lean” way before Houston, and from having known some of their drug climate via friends and rap over the decades, I believe it. Heads were talking about Tylenol 4s and Xannies for years before that shit popped in NYC. But yeah, pharms came back here with a vengeance in the mid/late-2000s. All of the legal dope and speed, basically. I knew a few heads who got addicted due to sports injuries. Actually, benzos were what took a friend of mine down to rock bottom with full-on, street-level opiate addiction and eventually got him locked up – that was one thing that sparked the KVU project.
So we spoke about how the topography of a city can influence the sound of a given music, and how hip-hop and metal don’t sound dissimilar. From what you’ve said previously, you can see how a lot of the same lived experiences influence both hip-hop and metal/punk/hardcore. Did those two worlds ever collide or intersect in the US though?
I think there are quite a few artists over the decades who’ve exhibited this intersection, to varying degrees of balance for sure. First who come to mind would be Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. PE doing a song with Anthrax and wearing Minor Threat tees. The Beasties started in punk/hardcore and always had this crazy mix of punk/metal/funk on every album. Run DMC did that Aerosmith collab plus ‘Rock Box’ and ‘King Of Rock’. Of course, some of these things had to do with Rick Rubin being somewhere in the fold. I think by the ‘90s, after the whole mosh pit thing in hip-hop, say with Onyx and Cypress Hill, it got a lot more understated. I feel like a lot more hardcore and even some popular bands were the ones doing the cue-taking from hip-hop, from the tuff guy NYHC stuff like Madball and 25 Ta Life to Rage Against The Machine and Mike Patton‘s various projects. Shit, even Incubus had a DJ or two (probably a Mike Patton influence). I remember by the later ’90s, Bill Laswell had this Praxis project that was like a supergroup comprised of these super geniuses at whatever they did… like Buckethead, Brain from Primus, and DJ D Styles… it was like an instrumental thing that could’ve fit in with all of the DJ Shadow/Mo Wax type stuff. I believe the more experimental stuff was where you found the crossover. Now you have a lot of artists doing the noise rap thing which to me has more punk/metal energy than say industrial roots. I’d say Clipping, Moor Mother, B L A C K I E, Eu1ogy, JPEGMafia, Prison Religion, VIOLENCE all fit into this category, though each one with their own flavor for sure.
Do you think any hip-hop or electronic influences have bled through in to metal/hardcore/punk scenes? I know there’s hardcore and post-punk bands incorporating drum and machines and synths, borrowing from techno, industrial and EBM, but I haven’t heard much convincingly from metal.
There are some for sure! For metal specifically, I’d say The Body stands out the most to me – although at this point, I’d be very hesitant to call them a metal band. They aren’t the only ones for sure, but shit, every time I’ve seen ’em live, they’ve done something different in terms of playing with or without traditional band instruments. Their albums over the last few years are probably just as indicative of this culling from various non-typical musical languages. Definitely not just on the Godflesh-y drum machine vibe.
Otherwise, I’d say bands with some far reaching electronic, and even hip-hop, influences are Deli Girls (NYC) and Sour Spirit (Philly)… more on the punk/noisy side of things, even jazz with the latter, but both are utterly ridiculous at what they do. I recommend buying all of their music and making it a priority to go out and see them live.
The Body kind of transcend genre in the sounds they incorporate, but it seems like that kind of experimentation is becoming common among more progressive bands in general anyway. It seems, with the current focus on politics, that bands are finally having to affirm their political leanings too. In what direction do you see metal going, or what would you like to see happening in the scene in the next couple of years?
Exactly. I’m glad to see more folks focusing on politics in a way that is more about accountability, both on a personal and communal level, especially in things like metal, noise, and hip-hop. I’ve come across more folks who want to talk about this in each of those spaces and it’s great that this is on our minds. The climate isn’t going to get any better if we keep on with being complacent – I’m not saying everyone has to engage in physical protest or marches, but acknowledging one’s own points of access, mobility, and privilege, if applicable, is vital to this convo of community and “making things better”. There are certain things I used to listen to, more so on a hip-hop level, that I just can’t get behind as a 37 year old man who can do better… same goes for all the people listening to shit like Burzum, claiming that they are against violence, hatred, and aren’t operating under the ideas of whiteness and patriarchal folly. You really don’t need to pump that stuff anymore and there’s no time to have some “the art and the individual are separate” debates… especially not in predominantly white spaces like those of metal or noise.
I just hope to see things progress in a way that makes these spaces far more inclusive and respectful of people in general.
Similarly, there’s been a growing awareness in the electronic and club scenes about politics & inclusivity. In the UK this conversation has grown over several years, but its often been a painful process of figuring out a common language and ethics that everyone can follow while also calling out actors within the scene who don’t behave accordingly. Generally though, its created a better and healthier environment for all fans of the music. A lot of our readers may not even be aware there are local scenes for this music in the US so I was wondering, in your opinion, how healthy club music is in America at this moment?
Well, any conversation delving into the betterment of a certain space’s politics and social norms is going to be difficult and not without some messiness. There’s a very thin line between protecting and overzealous policing, rehabilitation and ostracising. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a set rule book of universal law for this sort of thing because there’s just so many factors to consider. Are there genuinely toxic actors in these communities and do they come in all forms? Definitely. Do we just call them out publicly and block them from re-entry? Instead of answering that, let’s ask how fruitful that method has been proven to be. Call-out culture is a real thing and can be abusive or at least highly counter-productive as well. There’s usually a conversation to be had and it is a fuck ton tougher to carry out, versus the act of holding court on the timeline or in a comments section. That’s the dangerous shit. The electronic and underground club scenes here and overseas to my knowledge have been actively navigating around these ideas for a bit longer, or more proactively, than what I have seen in metal and noise, due to the fact that a good bit of the origins stem from POC and queer cultures. I think some things have changed for the better because of the dialogue, a simple example being more balanced line-ups in terms of representation. A lot less shows with all white cis male line ups. But yeah, there’s definitely a lot more work to do around this as a whole.
This piece was originally featured in our fourth issue, available here.
Interview: Joe-Julian Naitsri