Kingdom on a Decade of Influencing Club Music

Kingdom on a Decade of Influencing Club Music

Through his solo productions and work with artists like Kelela and Dawn Richard, through his releases for UK dance label Night Slugs as well as his own Fade to Mind imprint: Ezra Rubin’s Kingdom project has defined a decade of club music, providing some of dance music’s most out-there and expressive sounds while also retaining an in-your-face, body-moving intensity. Back when we were all still allowed to go out, I remember hitting up a club night with my friends in 2013 just to hear Rubin play “Bank Head,” his unbelievable collaboration with Kelela from that year. If you’re making it a late night just to hear one song in a room with other people, there’s clearly something special about the person playing the music.

Rubin’s latest album as Kingdom, Neurofire, came out last week, and I thought this would be a great time to reflect on the highlights of his career so far. We spent an hour poring over his catalog and tripping down memory lane when it comes to his role in shaping dance music in the 2010s; here’s our conversation for you to read.

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“Mindreader” [ft. Shyvonne] (2010)

As a little boy, I was always really into music. I had a clichéd little gay boy late ‘80s musical taste—Mariah Carey, Madonna, Boyz II Men, Crystal Waters. I still have those cassettes. I was really drawn to dance-meets-R&B type of stuff, even C&C Music Factory, which was super cheeseball but there were these Euro dance beats. My dad bought me a cheap Kawai keyboard when I was 7 or 8, which was what got me really into producing. I’d listen to the radio and think, “How did they make that sound?” I’d try to figure it out on my keyboard, and if I couldn’t, I’d be really fascinated about how they did it.

I took piano lessons when I was 11, but my piano teacher was more into the tech side so she taught me MIDI stuff—she had a Korg M1, which I still use today. I eventually swerved into rock territory, because my older brother was in bands and was really enthusiastic to get me into them. I had this really shitty drum set I found at the dump, so I was playing in ska and punk bands in the Boston area in the mid-’90s. It showed me this whole DIY scene that was happening. But I was still listening to electronic stuff and rap. There was a Boston radio show called “No Commercial Potential” that played ambient stuff and Aphex Twin. I didn’t know the artists playing on it, but I’d definitely tune in.

In 1998, I got my first drum machine—a Roland Dr. Groove. Around that time, I was getting more fascinated by rap and R&B, as well as drum and bass and Björk, as well as the producers she was working with. That was also the time when Timbaland and the Neptunes had every slot on the [charts], so I’d listen to syncopated beats on a Destiny’s Child song and be really drawn to those. I’d spend a lot of time trying to emulate how those sounds were made.

I moved to New York to attend art school. I never thought of being a musician as a job. I had my tonsils out freshman year, so I went home halfway through the year and laid in bed taking codeine cough syrup. That’s when I really learned my drum machine and started making a lot of the beats for my early demos. I had a little band called Memories Forever that was just beats and me and a few friends doing vocals, so we drove around in a van around 2003 and 2004 playing galleries with extreme Providence-area electronic bands. We were making zero money, just doing it for fun.

When I graduated, I got a job at a gallery working as an art administrator while I was trying to make art. A few years after that, I threw my first party—a small gay hip-hop party in this club that was built behind a liquor store in Williamsburg. Telfar came to that party and asked me to DJ, but at the time I didn’t know how to—we were just burning CDs and playing them.

He offered to teach me to DJ, I went over to his party, and from then on he’d have me play more of his parties. When I started doing that, I started pursuing music more. A-Trak bought my first mixtape at Opening Ceremony, so I ended up releasing my first single, “Mindreader,” on Fool’s Gold. That release has a different flavor than everything I did after that—trance-y dance music with R&B elements.

That Mystic EP (2010)

I was already in touch with [Night Slugs co-founder] Bok Bok in 2010. We met through Flickr, which apparently had some sort of community element back then while we were all posting our weird GIFs and graphics we were making. We began emailing and sharing demos, and according to him, the first demos I sent him and L-Vis 1990 was the reason they wanted to start the label.

By then, my sound had already shifted quite a bit. That Mystic is dark and cavernous—Baltimore club mixed with dubstep. “Seven Chirp” didn’t get much attention on that EP, but it features a super-chopped-up sample of a 702 song. There’s a UK producer called Kid D who does these grime-influenced R&B chops, and “Seven Chirp” was influenced by him, as is “Maze” from my new album. I recently re-listened to “Bust Broke,” and I was like, “Whoa.” I had the balls to make a Baltimore beat with one trance stab, and then there’s an extended a cappella sample of Faith Evans’ “When I Get Home” that breaks down for a minute. I’m shocked I didn’t get in trouble for it.

Dreama EP (2011)

This was an even darker step for my music. One of my favorite tracks was “Hood by Air Theme,” which I made for one of the first Hood by Air shows. [Hood by Air founder Shayne Oliver] didn’t even like it at first. He sent me Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and said, “Make me something out of this.” I did, and he was like, “I didn’t mean remix it.” He didn’t end up using it, but he gave me his blessing to call it “Hood by Air Theme.” After it was out and got a good response, he co-signed it.

“Stalker Ha” is one of my most viral songs, I think. It ended up in Grand Theft Auto V—Flying Lotus put it on his radio station. That song was very much inspired by Mike Q, who I’d been following for years before that. It was one of my first attempts to make a ballroom track, and Mike and I had traded a bunch of music at that point too. But a whole random group of gamer fans would hear it, and they still comment on the YouTube, “This is the best song to drive at night to on Grand Theft Auto.” People would put it in their voguing videos, too.

Around the time I was finishing up Dreama, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which was totally surprising to me. I’d been losing weight and I was thirsty all the time, but I wasn’t sick or anything. I just so happened to go to the doctor, we did the standard tests, and he came back from the other room and said, “You’re a diabetic.” I was really shocked. I’m sure people read this and think, “He must’ve been eating a lot of McDonald’s,” but Type 1 is an autoimmune disease. It’s not caused by any behavior or lifestyle. My immune system just decided one day to kill all the insulin-producing cells. He gave me an insulin prescription and needles, and I haven’t gone a day since then where I haven’t had to do that.

That was a huge paradigm shift for me. I was DJ’ing every week at Mr. Black, a pretty fun and diverse gay night in New York. I’d walk out of the club in the middle of the night and go to Subway because I had to eat to keep my blood sugar up, and then go back and finish the night. It felt like a split life, because I didn’t show what was going on to my club friends. I didn’t want to look sick or in need, and I was still processing it emotionally.

It was a lonely, dark time, but I was also peaking in terms of how much DJ’ing I was doing—four nights a week in the city. I burned out on it. I was also going to L.A. for Mustache Mondays, playing and hanging out with Nguzunguzu and Total Freedom, and it just felt like the atmosphere that I wanted, so I drove cross-country and moved out there.

It was Prince Will’s idea for me to start Fade to Mind, and Nguzunguzu was the inspiration for me to do it because their music was so incredible, but there was no proper outlet. But I was super hesitant to do so. I was into creating, and I didn’t know if I had the time to organize everyone and be a team leader. It scared the shit out of me. But with Will’s pushing, I did it, and I’m glad I did it.

Vertical XL EP (2013)

In L.A., there’s a lot of good R&B radio and a relaxed atmosphere, so on this EP you hear some smoother R&B creeping in—but there’s some industrial sounds too, so it’s half and half. I’d been introduced to Kelela by Total Freedom the year before, and “Bank Head” happened pretty naturally. I sent her the beat, she freestyled over it, and it came out perfect. I still love that track. She made magic on that one.

Kelela, Cut 4 Me (2013)

Starting a label was a hill, and making vocal music was a mountain. Figuring out the process of working with a vocalist and getting things right for them is really big. If you look at underground labels that are like Fade to Mind, most of them don’t have a vocal album on the scale of Cut 4 Me. It was a bigger undertaking than we ever had imagined. That was back when people were still buying MP3s, so we gave it away for free at first. At the time, it helped get people involved in things. Now, giving away MP3s isn’t so much of a selling point.

Aside from the music being amazing, Kelela’s identity and progressive views on race and sexuality—she’s not just some cookie-cutter R&B chick. She has a really unique vision. So it helped that she has such a special personality. It took off like crazy, and we didn’t expect any of it to happen.

Kelela, Hallucinogen (2015)

After Cut 4 Me, Kelela wanted to spread her wings and do other things. It’s so hard for a tiny dance label to make projects like hers, so it was natural for her to spread her wings—she was opening for Solange at that point. It made sense that she wanted to explore other avenues and take full control. She’s a producer in her own right, like what you hear about Kanye: she’ll grab stems from people and executive produce her own thing, which is totally natural for someone as talented as her. She wanted to call the shots, which was an empowering experience for her. She brought me in on “Rewind” so I could do my whole Kingdom remix vortex thing to make it special.

Shox (2016)

I had a fantasy of doing another Night Slugs release as part of nostalgia for those days. But in the end, sometimes I’m a bit too nostalgic and I don’t recognize when I need to break out on my own. By the time I was done with it, I decided it wasn’t the right fit for Night Slugs, so I picked the tracks I liked the best and was done with it. I’m glad I put it on Fade to Mind, and it was exciting visually because I collaborated with Sam Rolfes on it, too.

Tears in the Club (2017)

I approached vocal production the same way I transitioned from art to music. I always enjoyed vocal music and R&B and thought of weird ways to make R&B, but not in a real aspirational way—more in a “Lol, what if this could happen” sort of way. Kelela opened me up to the actuality of doing vocal production.

I’d met some singers before Cut 4 Me came out—I met Jhené Aiko, I sent some people some beats. But I had no idea how to cater something to a vocalist just yet. After Cut 4 Me, I thought more about what works for a singer and what doesn’t. I had a manager at the time who helped connect me with SZA and Syd, and my brother connected me with some vocalists too. It was my first time doing actual sessions with singers. I was also really into Vine when I was making this album, so a few songs have Vine samples on them.

Working with SZA was super inspirational and exciting. She was still in her Soundcloud mixtape days, she was pretty shy and insecure and kept saying self-deprecating things the whole session, but we recorded “What Is Love” and six months later I got a text from her that she was in a studio finishing up CTRL. I went to the studio, played her “Down For Whatever,” and she immediately jumped on it. Mike WiLL Made It was in the studio too, so I was pretty intimidated and quiet. He had a bunch of minions running around doing everything for him. Working with Syd was the chillest thing ever. She’s very laid-back. She just showed up and made it so easy. She stepped in and engineered her own vocals, too. She was super easy to work with.

DAWN, Infrared (2016)

A lot of my vocalist connections seem to come in from fashion. I’ve often found that hitting up the artist’s manager with a standard approach doesn’t work. But fashion is what pushed me further into music, so sometimes it’ll be a stylist or choreographer who will casually play some of my music around a singer. I met Dawn through my friend Jackie who used to run Opening Ceremony. She’s been indie for a long time, she’s a hustler who does her own thing, and she’s always experimenting with genre. She can do it all.

It was cool, because I watched her on Making the Band and followed Danity Kane, and I loved the Diddy Dirty Money album. We did a bunch of cool stuff. Not all of it came out—she freestyled over jungle beats and did a Sade cover over some breakbeats. She was super easy to work with. We only managed to get about four or five tracks done before it was her time to get it out there. I would’ve liked to do a full album, but I was really happy with how it came out, especially because we did a deluxe edition with remixes from Fade to Mind artists.

My favorite part of that experience was doing a live performance at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. She was on a stage, I had my equipment below her, and there were amazing visuals and projections from Kyselina. I liked that she was above me, and I was in this cave creating the atmosphere. Dawn was all fitted out head-to-toe in Hood by Air, too.

Neurofire (2020)

On Tears in the Club, there was a lot of night-drive atmosphere. There’s a few energetic tracks, but mostly a lot of low-key R&B energy with a touch of my weirder influences. The project was dominated by these known singers, too. I wanted to dig myself out of that foggy, misty side of things on this new album—to infuse more of my identity into it, to get back into chopping and remixing. Trying to do vocal production stuff could be soul-crushing sometimes, because sometimes what the singers wanted to hear was a reference beat for what was on the radio. I wanted to go back into my own zone, and making my own album here was a chance to go back and make things as weird as I wanted to make them again.

I intended Neurofire to be a dark club album overall, but there’s a little more uptempo energy on it. “Genesis Fem” was crafted out of a demo that Pheona sent me, so that was an example of a new way for me to make a vocal track. There’s dark rap tracks, rave-y house tracks, and I was working with vocalists that were people I was just hanging out with—more casual collaborations, which meant more freedom to experiment.

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Jamie Larson