Up Close: Jon Hopkins

Talking to the Mercury Prize-nominated producer about self-hypnosis and creating his own personal brand of electronica

Up Close: Jon Hopkins

Hailing from across the pond, producer Jon Hopkins invites audiences to a sketch of his personal realities in his third studio album, Immunity. The album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize this year. Hopkins brands his self-written music with an entrancing digital ambiance. His use of hypnosis extends his production beyond any natively progressive genre like electronica.

Hopkins’s techno abilities have allowed him to collaborate with Coldplay and Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan and make remixes for Four Tet to Nosaj Thing.


The Varsity: What is the most important influence to your music?

Jon Hopkins: To be honest, I’ve got very little idea of what the current stuff people are listening to. My writing stage lasted for nine months, listening to the same music. I never really listened to anything new. I’d go back to old records, ambient stuff. My own production is really just a collection of things I’ve listened to over the years, which was European techno, ambience, breakbeat. Anything I bonded with as a child. I have confidence, I like what I do, and it does something to me.


TV: What sorts of instruments do you predominantly rely on? 

JH: I’ve relied heavily on piano. I’ve had this one for nine years, it’s come with me into every studio I’ve been in. It’s my main instrument for its nostalgic value. I was predominantly self-taught, but when I was eight, my parents put me into lessons. I resisted, of course, but soon realized how valuable they really were. It’s an amazing instrument. To realize the value of the technique is so useful. It’s very applicable in composition and production.


TV: What is the music scene like in the UK? Do you feel like your music reflects that?

JH: I feel like my music is terribly different… It’s not better or worse in any way, but it’s just not part of any particular scene. I don’t really care about whether or not it sounds new, I’ve been lucky enough to get people behind it and that’s been what’s helped me take it to a good audience. I do implement certain rhythmic techniques, hi-hat patterns and 4/4 beats you’ll hear today, but I make a conscious effort to use acoustic sounds and beats that are more interesting than relying on sampling.


TV: What inspired you to begin producing? 

JH: It’s always been what I liked most. At about 10 years old, my parents got me a portable studio. It was a secondhand, brown old thing. It was four tracks onto a cassette, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I started layering up tracks and realizing what certain things were. Time, how you could make sound go left and right, add treble, add bass… Then it became instantly fascinating. Music was always built into me for some reason, though. The first band I heard on the radio was Pet Shop Boys. Their electronic sounds — rather than band music — inspired me, but music was an obsession, ever since I was two years old. My mum used to use it as a means to calm me down.


TV: Did you continue with music during your post-secondary education? 

JH: I went to music college, and there I learned about professional synths. Sounds were more than just something people made. I grew up in a good time. Technology was finally getting to the point where you could have a home computer. It really started to happen when I was 18-19, pcs were affordable, programs were accessible.


TV: When you compose,do you use hardware or software predominantly?

JH: I really try to stop myself from doing everything on the computer, but mainly tracks that incorporate many synths/bass, I refuse to let myself do that. Let them sound different. On my previous album, the majority of it was composed on the piano, but I knew Immunity had to be different. Logic is what I write on. It’s perfect for arrangement and automation; if you have an idea and an effect, it’ll immediately latch right on. Automation keeps everything alive and prevents it from going sterile. They’re all the same, it’s whatever you started with. Logic and Cubase are easiest for me, but I’m sure Ableton is great too.


TV: I’ve read that you have a fascination with self-hypnosis. How did that translate onto Immunity? 

JH: Mainly “Sun Harmonics,” the 12-minute song on the album. It functions along the premise of repeating a thought for a long period of time to move into a deeper state of being. Upbeat tracks will do that too, and bring you to a higher state of consciousness accessible through meditation. It’s all about tapping into that part of your brain that you wouldn’t normally.

Jon Hopkins will be playing at the Hoxton on November 21 with Clark and supporting act, Nathan Fake.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On the rise: Shah

U of T alumnus turned rapper Shah on being a child of the '90s and moving from Toronto to New York

On the rise: Shah

New York-based rapper, Shah, preaches how security is not synonymous with success, using his life’s own fusion of art and academia to ground the argument. Having graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of commerce and a doctorate in medicine, Shah’s drastic decision to put his craft rather than his credentials into practice has resulted in his debut album, Today, which  will be released on November 1. Shah’s ’90s-born, assertive, story-telling lyricism — which he sets to minimalist, ethereal production schemas — reminds modern rap mavericks that a degree shouldn’t be a distraction from riskier, underlying passions.


The Varsity: What was it like, making the radical switch from medicine to music? 

Shah: I always stood out in med school because I looked like the guy who didn’t belong there. I would show up to class in my hoodie and my fitted and only be there to write the exam, then watch the rest of the lectures on video from home. The boat came and went for basketball, so rap was all I had left. I don’t think I surprised too many people with my decision to pursue music.


TV: Did you find that your degree distracted you from your passion at all? 

S: I did things a little differently. You should never take your passion and make it anything less than your main pursuit. In my case, I wanted to secure all my risks before taking the jump, so I finished my degree at U of T, but music was something I was always obsessed with and best at. If I could do it again, I would have dropped school altogether. I realized I needed to be having fun everyday. There, I had limited options.


TV: When and how did you first realize that rap was the route you had to take in music? 

S: I used to rap in high school. I grew up on Nas and Wu-Tang, and the ’90s were definitely their prime. From there, I grew up and started a non-profit organization at U of T, teaching kids how to read and write through rap music, but that only got me closer to the industry. It didn’t put me in it, which is where I both wanted and needed to be. Making the music seemed like my last and only choice.


TV: What is it like being a Canadian rapper trying to make it in New York? Are you responsible for your own production? 

S: One thing you’ll find here is that people want to support other people. It’s that culture of bringing up the entire state with a rapper when he goes platinum. I love Toronto, but there’s an issue with dishonesty. That’s why our mixing process especially is so involved. I have a lot of influence over the creation of the beat, but I can’t execute those pieces. I’m like a four-year-old who found a keyboard.


TV: Who made the greatest impact in how you honed your skill?

S: I look up to the big guys: Michaelangelo, Julius Caesar, NASA Space Exploration. I always kept in mind that doing things on a grand level can be done by anybody. Napoleon? Short guy, but he made it happen. They remind me that there’s always a better version of myself, but it’s going to be discovered off the beaten path, not that it’ll stop me. I’m an adventurer, discovery is the theme I’m addicted to.


TV: What are you trying to achieve through your music, having been in the academic stream and now pursuing an art? 

S: My music was engineered to appeal to people who want to relax to a sick beat, but without compromising the depth in the lyricism. There’s always that hype that doesn’t require intense analysis, but everything in my work is very intentional. In terms of today, I would say Kendrick Lamar is the closest sound I could compare myself to. Him and his endless love for cyphers, I respect that.


TV: Were there doubts starting out, or have you had that moment that put things into perspective? 

S: There was never a moment where I wanted to give up, but there were moments of frustration where I would ask myself why it was taking so fucking long. The reason it’s taken so long is because I’m proudly a perfectionist, and so is my team. You put people from medicine, finance, and fine art together, you get a varied dynamic and great results.

From Hamilton to Hyperdub: Jessy Lanza

On hometown pride and keeping academia separate from music

From Hamilton to Hyperdub: Jessy Lanza

Jessy Lanza’s relationship with music goes way back — both of her parents were musicians who put her through piano lessons, and she spent a few years in Montreal studying music academicly. While pursuing her Master’s in musicology, Lanza realized she would rather make her own music than study the music of others. Naturally, she returned home to Hamilton in order to immerse herself in doing what she’s pretty much been born to do. It wasn’t until another Hamilton native, Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys, asked Lanza to collaborate with him that she began to have the makings of an album. Her debut album, Pull My Hair Back, was released under the boundary pushing record label Hyperdub. In this way she sits comfortably alongside other artists such as Burial, Laurel Halo, and Zomby, to name a few. Her first effort is an interesting one. At the first listen, one can quickly identify the album as r&b, but it’s hard to ignore the influence of dance music. Get to know Jessy Lanza before she takes on the Garrison in her first headlining show on November 2.


The Varsity: Did you know an album was going to come out of your collaboration with Jeremy Greenspan? 

Jessay Lanza: When we first started working on stuff, we didn’t know what was going to happen — or if we make enough material to make up a full album. But eventually, we had enough tracks that sounded like they belonged together, to make up a full album. So it sort of just came together.


TV: How did you arrive at that distinct sound that pretty much defines your entire album?

JL: I don’t know where it came from. We had to get rid of a lot of tracks that we didn’t use for the record. So I think the fact that all those songs sound like they belong on a record together was a pretty solid decision. We had to get rid of a lot of stuff to make a very cohesive record.


TV: The Guardian recently included you as one of the future faces of this genre we now refer to as “experimental R&B.’” How do you see R&B evolving in the future?

JL: I don’t know, I have no idea… It’s just like every genre that’s being crossed with different things. In this case, I set out to make an r&b record, but I think because Jeremy also listens to a lot of dance music, it has those sorts of sounds on it as well.


TV: How did growing up in Hamilton have an impact on your relationship with music?

JL: Both of my parents were musicians and they’ve always encouraged me to do music in some way. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a teacher or if I would do my own music. But yeah, I grew up in Hamilton and I still live there now.


TV: Were you able to find time to make music while you were working on your Bachelor’s and Master’s, or was it something you put off to the side in order to focus on your studies?  

JL: While I was doing my Master’s, the whole time I was working on it, I stopped. I didn’t get to do anything creative really — just reading and writing, which is what your Master’s is all about. For my undergraduate degree, I did jazz piano, so that was very focused on learning other people’s music to studying jazz. I didn’t get to do much creatively at that time.


TV: Do your academic interests influence the creative process of making music, or is this something you keep separate from one another?

JL: I keep them pretty separate. I try not to let anything that I was doing mingle with what I do now. It’s a pretty separate chapter of my life.


TV: You ended up leaving your Master’s degree in order to pursue music. Have you ever had moments where you tried to convince yourself to stick it through, and just complete the Master’s despite not wanting to?

JL: No, definitely not. I mean, there were moments when I was like, I should go to teacher’s college and, not exactly get a real job, but a more reliable and consistent job. But everybody has moments like that. In order to be happy, you need to have a lot of passion for the subject. I hate to think of people who aren’t passionate doing it just for the sake of doing it. Nobody needs that kind of attitude.


TV: From what I’ve heard, Hamilton, despite it being a smaller city than Toronto or Montreal, is a great environment for the arts. What do you think Hamilton has that bigger cities lack?

JL: There’s a pretty tight arts community. The people here don’t really care about what’s going on outside of the city. The music scene is big enough to sustain itself. There are always more people supporting the local acts when the big names come to play. Usually I would go to see my friends play. There are a couple of shows that come through where my friends are opening for someone I was never familiar with before.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sad boys’ season

A review of Autobiography by the Smiths' singer, Morrissey

Sad boys’ season

“My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets,” begins Morrissey’s depiction of drab life in Manchester, England — nothing less than what we’d expect from the man who warned us that “everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey.”

autobiographymorrissey_lrgMorrissey’s succinctly titled Autobiography, is a love letter to the past. Pages of the book are interspersed with humdrum pictures of family and friends, all black and white, and underscored with amusing, thoughtful captions he has written himself. Take for instance the caption below a photo of his bikini-clad mother, which reads: “Mother, always nearest the heart. Staten Island, 1975.”

The bulk of Autobiography is dedicated to casting aspersions on everyone from old flames, to NME magazine, to the man credited with discovering The Smiths’, John Peel. The narrative of the book is built on breaking all ties, sometimes with the writing slipping into digression; as in the campy moments where Morrissey details his favourite boy bands and girl groups of the ’60s for pages on end. These occasions of indulgence bare ghastly similarities to those of Patrick Bateman in American Pyscho and his parodic expositions of ’80s pop music — moments which occur, similarly enough, just before Bateman slashes into another one of his houseguests.

For better or worse, taking down everyone in his past is exactly what Morrissey himself has set out to do with Autobiography. For Morrissey, it seems, there has never been a subject too hallowed or too sacred for ill-tempered vivisection. Large chunks of the book read like polemical, hot-blooded paroxysms. Apart from these moments of malice, Autobiography is a masterful tour-de-force. It is a book which compromises the Mancunian life of a young English schoolboy-turned-lovelorn poet-musician, but it leaves the reader with a bitter and unsavoury taste in the mouth. Then again, maybe that was the point. One gets the impression that these bouts of malevolence are sparked by perceived slights and betrayals from those whom Morrissey had once loved.

Autobiography reads like the narrative of any great love-tragedy. As Morrissey favourite, Oscar Wilde,  says: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Published by Penguin Classics, Autobiography earns Morrissey his rightful place on the bookshelf, alongside his boyhood idols Tolstoy, Dickens, and Twain.

Living Arts: Cooking with 2 Chainz

“My stove deserve a shout-out, I’m like: “What up, stove?”

Living Arts: Cooking with 2 Chainz

“I smoked a blunt for dinner, another blunt for breakfast,” boasts Taulheed Epps, a hip-hop artist better known as 2 Chainz on his new album, B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME. While 2 Chainz implies that this breakfast is a satisfactory meal for him, it’s clear that he is too much of a foodie not to pair his blunts with some high quality seafood.



The album is accompanied by a cookbook entitled #MEALTIME. Besides gold chains and hashtags, 2 Chainz has a penchant for kale and heirloom tomatoes. The recipes were created in collaboration with Chef Aleem, an upcoming celebrity cook from Atlanta who went on tour with 2 Chainz.

I decided to have some #METIME myself and try out the recipes, mostly because I was feeling #hungry.

The cookbook opens with an advisory introduction: “2 Chainz doesn’t write down his music, it flows naturally from his mind. Follow 2 Chainz and feel free to freestyle your cooking… Remember: embrace mistakes, and always cook within your comfort zone. #TRU.”

I began by making sautéed asparagus. The instructions begin with putting on “an Adidas sweatsuit, Chainz N Thangs.” I don’t own these things, but I did my best with what I had: Roots sweatpants and some gold necklaces. Then I played the mandated track, “Mainstream Ratchet.”

The recipe is relatively simple and takes about two and a half rounds of “Mainstream Ratchet” to cook. The last instruction is to “vibe out” to the song. I contemplate the lyric: “I’m real, you ain’t, calamari, crab cakes,” which seems to suggest that calamari is more authentic than crab, yet 2 Chainz has a recipe for crab cakes in his cookbook. Assuming he’s referring to artificial crab, I digress to the “Me Time” sauce.

The sauce is tricky, because it requires you to go to the mall and spend “a handful of racks” on a new outfit for the night, get a manicure and pedicure, and spend some “me time” at home catching up on seasons of The Wire. The sauce itself is quite simple, and feels personal, as 2 Chainz is revealing his favourite recipe, which he suggests pairing it with almost all of the others. It’s delicious, even without a full commitment to its instructions. I assume that when Chainz suggested getting a new outfit for the night, he was not talking about a sweater from The Gap, but that’s what I bought for my “me time” meal. I didn’t get a manicure or pedicure, but I did make my roommate paint my nails while we watched clips from The Wire on YouTube.

The recipe for mashed potatoes begins with the reasonable advice to remove your four-finger ring, if wearing one, and set it aside before beginning­ — I was not (but normally would be, of course). This recipe is a bit more time-consuming, but smells amazing all the way through, and is broken up in the middle by the instruction:“…play “Feds Watching” and celebrate the good times you had this year,” before adding the sour cream and parsley to the potatoes. You’re supposed to serve the mashed potatoes in a gold bowl, which I did not have. “Feds Watching” continued my speculation of 2 Chainz’ abhorrence for imitation crab meat with the line: “I’m raw, talking California rolls,” since raw seems to refer to genuine crab meat rather than the fake stuff.



For the mixed seafood kebabs, you are meant to invite your friends over for a cook out, telling them that “2 Chainz is firing up the grill.” That would, however, be a lie — and I cannot afford to feed all my friends seafood, so I ignored this rule. The recipe itself is really good — like the other recipes, it is surprisingly simple, flavorful, and healthy, and pairs quite well with a nice helping of “Me Time” sauce.

The food is actually really good and the album is consistent with the promised theme of “me time.” A highlight is the end of “I Do It” featuring Drake and Lil Wayne, a gospel celebration of taking time to yourself. 2 Chainz is preaching to do so by making some delectable eats. Surprisingly, I was genuinely inspired by the 2 Chainz cooking experience.

At the end of the meal, I get to cleaning the kitchen to the sounds of “Fork.” In the wise words of 2 Chainz: “I’m ballin like Mr. Clean, I gotta keep my kitchen clean.”

Talking trap in Toronto

Toronto's new sound

Talking trap in Toronto

It’s grimy, wild, and dirty. If you listen to hip-hop, you’ve heard of it before. Toronto has taken note, and hip-hop culture has embraced it. Trap along with its partner, atmospheric sound, are taking over the industry, and all we can do is bounce slowly to the beat like Pusha T does in his new music video, “King Push.”  Let’s first get an understanding of what “trap” and “atmospheric sound” are so we don’t get left behind.


It was a trap, once you found yourself in the Southern states, namely cities like Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, and Memphis; there was no getting out of their culture and hardships. Difficulties growing up, drug dealing, and all sorts of illegal activities to simply survive, this was the trap. Pioneers of the sound and message of trap include Young Jeezy, Three Six Mafia, TI, UGK, Bun B, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, and Rick Ross.

Of late, the South’s musical signature has spread like wildfire and the exclusivity attached to the term trap is gone. It is everywhere, and you can tell it’s trap when you hear the deep 808 bass punch, crisp hi-hats fluttering in the foreground, and layers of either grand cinematic sounds or spooky synthesizers weaving in between.

Atmosphere or atmospheric sound is Toronto’s contribution to this massive wave of trap. Atmospheric music owes its roots to ambient music — music that was created to induce a sense of calm or peace. Atmosphere is airy, light, liquid, melodic at times, and weird at others. With that in mind, producers like Noah “40” Shebib, and Zodiac have taken its niche allure and combined it with hip-hop beats to make a Toronto sound that people around the world know about.

Atmosphere can, and often does, set the tone for an entire song. Take for example the track “Tuscan Leather” off Drake’s latest lp Nothing Was the Same — widely considered the best beat on the album. It is typified by a light string atmosphere with chipmunk voice samples flowing in and out of reverse play, hard bass kicks, a sharp and quick hi-hat sequence, and a baseline that has been heavily synthesized to add to a sound that is distinctive of the artist, 40, and the city, Toronto. He puts a lot of effort into making the piece sound as atmospheric as possible, while retaining the classic trap hi-hats and bass drum.

“PBR&B” artist The Weeknd and fellow Torontonian producer Zodiac released a couple of tracks that fell into atmospheric sound, stamped with Toronto’s seal of approval; however since their relationship went sour, Zodiac never received credit for the tracks he produced. Songs to check out include, “Loft Music,” “The Morning,” “What You Need,” and the first half of “The Party & the After Party.”

WondaGurl is the producer to look out for, though. Her production takes what Drake, 40, The Weeknd, and Zodiac have made into the “Toronto Sound” to another level. She’s a timid 16-year-old and has already made a beat with Houston rapper Travis Scott on his song “Uptown” with A$AP Ferg, the self-proclaimed “Trap Lord.”  A feature beat on Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail is what the young WondaGurl would call her greatest achievement. The song “Crown” begins with a very liquid and atmospheric reggae distortion sample, follows with a dark synthesized baseline, and invites Jay Z’s lyrics with some of the hardest hitting 808 bass drum you will ever hear. It is trappy, heavy, and brings out primal bloodlust in its listener, and we can be proud to say, that it is the “Toronto Sound.”

This love for trap and atmospheric sound is shared by many Toronto-based producers and musicians alike. It would be worth checking out “TFHOUSE,” Adrian Hogan’s “The First Suite,” “Boi-1da,” and “Illangelo.” While many critics will argue that trap is mindless, monotonous, and often full of misogynistic, violent, and materialistic messages, it is important to recognize the raw sound and to celeberate the roots of beat production in the trap music genre.

Album Review: Guilt Trips by Ryan Hemsworth

Ryan Hemsworth’s debut album Guilt Trips is a project fleshed from human emotion, each track fashioned like a limb to assemble the album’s persona as a whole body. Hemsworth produces an understated and intimate atmosphere whose cohesive internalization of indie, rap, and hip-hop influences has Guilt Trips indecisively harbouring on the borders of electronic dance music and lo-fi, purple beat production. While “Still Cold” appears nostalgic of an 8-bit era, in all its Gameboy-sonic glory, “Ryan Must Be Destroyed” adds a more sombre facet to the same ‘video-game fervor.’ The intro’s sample of a music box frames the soundscape for an Alice-like descent into Hemsworth’s wonderland. The pop-native instrumentals are matured by closed hi-hats and echoing gong drums, which eerily carve an aggressive r&b track that is a misfit in its own genre. Hemsworth graduates from the scattered bodies of his previous mixes and eps with
Guilt Trips,
but his ability to incorporate a human presence into his productions is still there. His intricate fusion of aggressive percussions, airy synths, and feminine sighs rhythmically flourish Guilt Trips with a sensitivity that delicately deafens.

Album Review: Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! by P!ATD

Panic! At The Disco (p!atd)’s fourth album takes the band back to their Las Vegas roots.  The album’s lead single, “Miss Jackson,” takes on a murder narrative, acting as a metaphor for singer Brendon Urie’s youthful promiscuity as he sings: “Where will you be waking up tomorrow morning?”  Another song, the club-inspired “Vegas Lights,” celebrates the carefree energy of a night out.

The dominant theme is love. “Girls/Girls/Boys” explores sexual identity whereas  “Girl That You Love,” blurs the line between love and loathing. “Casual Affair” deals with the pressures of secrecy, while “Collar Full” and “Nicotine” capture the vitality, the feeling of addiction, and the impatience that complicates love.

Fans who were hoping for a return to the flamboyant theatricality of p!atd’s debut album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out may be disappointed, but Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! has a lot to offer. The exciting blend of hip-hop and electronica tells a coming-of-age story set against a Las Vegas backdrop It is a record that will resonate with many, yet is also an ode to the freedom that comes with maturity.