A sound artist, an experimental composer, a music-making savant with analog machines – this is Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being, the next in a lineage of Chicago’s electronic producers driven by a vision to return House Music to its brilliantly rough and eclectic foundations. His releases and the catalog of his label Mathematics Recordings have a cult following worldwide, but it didn’t happen overnight: with a DIY ethic and all-consuming passion, he’s been pounding the streets of Chicago as a foot soldier for House Music since the edge of the early 1990s. This is an interview with the Man behind the Being behind Mathematics.
Tell me a bit about how you started Mathematics.
Mathematics started from the concepts of fringe movements that I was involved in at an earlier age, and from a lot of esoteric literature and science fiction that I was into. Plus, Mathematics is another term for music and sacred geometry, and I was heavily influenced sonically by early Jazz or Free Jazz musicians.
Mathematics has seemed more in tune with a DIY attitude which is in House Music’s DNA, but neglected by many in the scene. What did you start out with?
An idea and a Manifest Destiny, or The Universe guiding me to the right people (Adonis and Steve Poindexter) to mentor me first about the culture, the politics… They provided me with the knowledge and the tools to do it myself and stick with it even if nobody else feels or believes in what you’re creating. This is how it all should start out – seeking out mentors and learning the environment and culture well, and then applying it to the medium (keys, drums, singing, vinyl, etc.) in which you choose to translate it (dance, art, music, literature)…
I wanted to see it through no matter how long it would take, with the idea of having a purpose, the idea of giving back to the culture that got me through hard times, and the idea of helping others the best way I can with the little resources I have to get through the doors that were closed to me in the beginning.
What’s your view on how House Music has evolved from your time in the scene?
The tech is the only thing that has really evolved, but it has caused a lot of the people in the scene to de-evolve in their creativity by letting the software and computers do most of the functioning.
The early days were hot ’cause you had people with little means creating something huge – a serious economic or social movement. Nowadays it’s so huge but the people give it little to no meaning – it’s become a side fad or hobby for a select few. We all need to get back to the core/foundation so it doesn’t get tossed and burned out again two years from now.
From your bio it says that you started out working shows at the Powerplant?
Let’s clear this up: it was a 2210 S. Michigan, and I was part of a collective that did functions or gatherings for the youth of Chicago from all genres or walks of life, usually on Sunday evenings. If we couldn’t get it then, we moved from place to place in the South Loop (531 S. Wabash, The Edge of The Looking Glass, 19th & Michigan, 225 Hubbard, etc) on various nights or evenings.
So at the time (late 1990/91) the place went through so many names, that’s what I remembered it being at the time. Not gonna play the game of “I was The Man back in the day…” I was a foot soldier and I did my part.
Were you doing art or sound, and how did that transition into creating and playing music?
A lot of people came to the social gatherings to just kick it and express themselves through visual art, music, poetry… I would usually either help promote the events or do door or security most of the time. But when things were mellow I would bring my E-mu drums and orbitron effects unit given to me by a relative and I would just do weird sound installations or Noise Art from time to time. From there, people would ask me for recorded tapes of it and I would sell them for extra money.
The transition came about much later when mentoring under Adonis and Steve Poindexter (’92) and even then it took another four years to put it to vinyl (’96), and I waited another five years before I felt like I had enough life experience under my belt to go all in (2001). And I just wanna say that I am not a musician; I’m an experimental composer or sound artist who likes to mimic music that has influenced or inspired me.
One of our staff is one of the DJs for WNUR’s Streetbeat, and you’re an alumni yourself?
Yes, alumni from 1992 to 1996. I also did the Streetbeat show for 3 years from 1993 to 1996 (1996 with Noleian), a segment called JACK-FM.
People talk about the Gramaphone alumni but how important was it to be at WNUR, at that particular place at that particular time in the mid-1990s?
It was a great learning experience on how radio can control and influence the masses as well as the behind the scenes politics about what can be played on non-pirate radio. I learned a lot about other forms of electronic and acoustic music, both good and bad (Happy Hardcore/Grime/D&B/Gabber/TripHop/Glitch/Ambient/Drone/Progessive/Trance). But I think I was (to others at least) the only one really representing the Chicago Urban electronic experience at the time and I got alot of blowback at times for it. But it was all part of being a foot soldier and doing my part to keep it going.
I also got a chance to do interview segments with alot of people before they got really massive – Miss Kitten, Carl Cox, DaftPunk, Roni Size – and get their take on House Music.
You’ve been an inspiring guy to me by your example – I think some of the records you’ve released, by yourself and by others, have proven to be way ahead of the curve and are just now being appreciated overseas for what they are. Do you feel that Chicago is behind that curve?
First I want to say thanks for the kind words of moral and economic support and to all the others who do the same locally or internationally, for without you there be no me.
For me, the records are actually BEHIND the curve because they are influenced by other music or artists that came before it. The releases are more about paying tribute and respect to the ones who came before and to leave a blueprint for the ones who come after. That’s just part of the cycle of life in all mediums of expression.
Now readers, don’t take this the wrong way. Use this a zero point to elevate and achieve a better Chicago culturally. But Chicago at this point don’t even have a sidewalk or a street, let alone a curve to stand behind, until it knows how to follow directions and stick to a path. Remember, Chicago built the “streets” (House) but didn’t maintain it. We ran on it, spit on it, pissed on it, walked all over it and took it for granted. We didn’t go back and keep those streets safe, clean, and re-usable for others to utilize those streets or follow the same path we started. We put up “Detour” or “Dead End” signs. And all in the meanwhile, others who been on our streets (danced/DJ/etc) studied the blueprint, went and built a better walkway and were doing it properly.
I asked Tevo Howard about the gear in his studio and he said it wasn’t really that important. Do you agree? or is the use of analog equipment an ideological statement now?
Tevo is right! For me it’s about the human interaction and experience first before digital, analog, acoustic or natural sounds. Period. You use those mediums as a form of communicating or translating those interactions or experiences. Some people can express themselves well and some not so well. The main gear to rely on is called “Purpose” and “Reasoning”. That’s the best ideological objective, period.
There are 500+ new tracks on beatport a week, 1000 DJs in Chicago competing for 50 jobs and people are tearing each other apart to sell a handful more downloads or to get slightly more attention. You seem entirely removed from that feeding frenzy. First, what’s your take on that “thirst” (of stabbing people over freakin’ pennies) – and second, how do you stay above it? You’ve certainly seen peers rise and fall and you’ve risen above some of your own, too.
It goes back to there being a crowded, broken-down infrastructure (the “streets”). You’re gonna have to build new walkways to cut out the madness (the thrist/feeding frenzy/stabbing people for pennies) and lack of resources for people to thrive in this city as artists. You have to stop, cleanse, regroup, re-learn, research and rebuild, re-energize, re-locate, re-orient with your environment and start fresh and to just get it in (foot soldiering) and try and do it right, period, or move on and nurture and support (mentor) the next.
These are the ways I try to stay above it all. Believe me, I’ve fallen from grace a few times in the past 15 years but it’s part of the human experience. But you must learn from your past mistakes or wrongdoings to grow for the better. That means if you don’t, you sacrificed and burned others in vain.
As far as the industry with Beatport or Live PA gigs or no DJing gigs or download issues: that’s not my focus. That just comes with the territory. If people in the local industry get back to the foundations of what this social/artistic movement was about then all things concerned will come to fruition.
And for the record, my mentor told me along time ago that if you just create a hit, then none of that will be an issue, period.
By the time this hits the streets I understand you’ll be doing a live set in London. What does your live set consist of?
What I have been using since Day One: mixing with two analog drum machines of raw experimental arrangements (Noise Art).
Let’s say you’re starting out today, in 2011, instead of in 1989. What is the single most important thing you need (in your head, in your hands, in your heart)?
Life experience with the culture and guidance with a mentor, period, in this day and age.
Your sound has progressed – you can hear it in the more complicated chord progressions and such – while retaining that grimey patina you had back when you started. As an artist, where do you think this is leading to? (Or, maybe better said, as an artist, where do you want to go?)
It’s still all part of my learning and evolving as a being (I have a grimey perspective). All the arrangements and chord progressions or radical sounds – it’s life being translated through my works sonically, and will continue to evolve that way until I stop doing what I do or the Universe calls me back.
Mathematics records are available on vinyl distributed exclusively by Groove Distribution; click here to check out their vinyl catalog or check out the digital collection from Beatport. For more info, check out mathematicsrecordings.blogspot.com.