Ezra Rubin aka Kingdom’s music is often associated with forward-looking club music, thanks to his ties to Fade to Mind (the LA record label, studio collective, and party that he co-founded with Prince William in the early 2010s) and Night Slugs. But if there’s one genre that he most readily embraces, it’s R&B. His breakout single, 2013’s “Bank Head”, was a collaboration with the then-emerging Kelela, while later singles saw him work closely with former Danity Kane singer Dawn Richard.
Rubin’s debut album Tears in the Club takes the ideas established on these collaborations and runs with them. While the album gives plenty of space to the producer’s own unusual, 4K take on dance music (a reinterpretation of garage, grime, dembow, and other national and international club rhythms), it’s when vocalists like SZA and Syd offer their voices to his sumptuous, emotionally-dense instrumentals that it shines brightest. “I’ve learned so much from my collaborators and feel blessed to know them,” Rubin tells Dazed. “Co-writing with them teaches me what works and what doesn’t for a singer, what sounds make a singer want to let it all out vocally and which things alienate them. It’s about learning to share space.”
Rubin’s Dazed Mix comes on the heels of Tears in the Club and prior to his appearance at London’s Phonox club on April 27, and features tracks from the Fade to Mind and Night Slugs family, slow swung R&B rhythms, and new music from the underground club circuit. Listen below and read on for an interview with Kingdom about making his debut album.
Fade to Mind celebrated its fifth anniversary last year. In a relatively short time, it seems fair to say that you and everyone associated with the label have decimated and rebuilt the landscape of club music in America. How has your perspective evolved during that time?
Kingdom: Back then I definitely didn’t recognise the broader effects we were having. We had our heads down and were just focused on our circle. For years I was also so focused on setting up our events and executive producing and mixing our releases, I didn’t stop to think about much of anything. Embarking on the creation of this album was about me stopping and realizing what the last five years meant, and the effect we had, and then putting Fade aside for a moment. It was about remembering what I was doing before Fade, and honing in on my own emotional state and ideas for the first time in a long time. I had to let go to make this album and I was only ready to let go once I looked up and saw that Fade’s effects were rippling through culture.
What has it been like seeing so many of these artists grow and acquire more and more fans and play bigger and bigger gigs?
Kingdom: It’s the best feeling ever. That’s the goal. I even love seeing the artists that are only peripherally involved with Fade getting shine.
Given you help head up an independent label, what do you make of the economy of releasing music independently right now? It feels like the music industry is in a state of flux – a lot of independent labels are folding (and big labels are clueless, only spending money on top tier commercial talent), and then you have certain big artists self-releasing albums with big Apple Music deals. How do you think artists will be able to successfully compete and make money moving forward? How would you like to see things play out?
Kingdom: I’m really not sure. I could see a conflict of interest happening, where artists signed directly to retailers (Apple Music, etc.) will get extra attention on those networks, and then lose the attention instantly if the numbers don’t crunch. But buying music will forever make sense to me because I’m a DJ. You at least need an mp3 to be able to play it. The idea of DJs playing from Spotify sounds scary to me, but who knows.
“There are no limits for R&B” – Kingdom
Even before Fade to Mind, you were one of the first DJs deconstructing R&B in the way that many have done in your wake. Of course, the landscape of music is always shifting quickly and everybody borrows from everybody. Do you recall where your experimentation started? Can you locate the spark?
Kingdom: I always talk about this, but I still think back a lot to 1998 and 1999. I was discovering jungle, through import vinyl I bought at Newbury Comics. A lot of these diva-jungle records which I thought were new vocals, were actually using acapellas from 80s R&B records laid over chopped breakbeats. I was similarly fascinated with Darkchild’s productions for Destiny’s Child’s first album. Both of these things really pushed the idea of R&B vocals over insane beats to the next level. Those two things (and of course Timbaland) made me realise there are no limits for R&B. Around the same time I was also hearing DJ/Rupture’s work – he did a lot of experimental R&B and rap blends on his early tapes, which were a big inspiration.
You’ve always had such an impactful ability to bridge nostalgia with propulsive, new sounds. How do you bridge those two sensations successfully?
Kingdom: The bridge is intention and devotion. Knowledge of and admiration for the material are also really important when blending sounds. But generally I’m a bit blind to what sounds right and what is formal. I’m obsessively casual and was raised by hippies? I’m not sure! I guess I just don’t even see a boundary between the two. That’s why the album title sticks with me. I’m really excited by inappropriate mixtures.
It’s hard to believe this is your first full album. What does that mean for you?
Kingdom: It means a king size tempurpedic bed. My own area to be sloppy or obsessively neat, or emotional. Healing sounds that also tell the story of the pain. Really, I think I was just holding back all these years and waiting for the right time, so there was a lot of pent up energy, that when released resulted in making more melodic material than ever before, and exploring my vulnerability. A vocal track on an instrumental EP overshadows it in a way, but when the vocals are sprinkled throughout a full-length tells a more accurate story of my life, charting my warmer more social mind states as well as my very solitary lost-in-the-woods moments.
How does your work as a producer with other artists inform what you do with the music you release as an artist?
Kingdom: I’ve learned so much from my collaborators and feel blessed to know them. Co-writing with them teaches me what works and what doesn’t for a singer, what sounds make a singer want to let it all out vocally and which things alienate them. It’s about learning to share space. Then when I shift gears to my solo work, it makes me all the more excited to get to what I’m trying to say on my own.
Were you always planning to call the album Tears in the Club? It’s such a great assessment of what you and in a lot of ways what Fade to Mind is about.
Kingdom: Nope, it was last minute. The title track was always named that though, since last year. I was originally trying to make the title more interpretive but in the end it was so blatantly obvious that it worked.
How did some of the collaborations on the album come to fruition?
Kingdom: I met Syd through Kelela a few times, and about a year later I hit her up to work on a feature. Prince Will and I met her at a studio in LA while I was recording the album – such a fun day, brainstorming, writing, and recording for a good eight hours, punctuated by frequent weed-smoking breaks. She has the calming effect in person that her voice does on record, and she did a lot of her own vocal engineering too.
The work with SZA was more of a journey. We recorded ‘What is Love’ in Brooklyn at the very beginning of my album process, the second verse was a whole year later. Then we worked on a few other demos last year that never got finished. Then just a few months before my record wrapped we recorded ‘Down 4 Whatever’. That’s the newest track on the record, and I think we both had finally come out of dark places in our lives. You can hear it – at least I think you can.
That was also the first track I ever sang a demo for. I got up the courage to do a few little AutoTuned riffs with no lyrics, and played them to her at her studio in LA. She liked a few shreds of the melodies and ended up reworking them into the hook and bridge, and adding lyrics.
“(Syd) has the calming effect in person that her voice does on record” – Kingdom
How did you arrive at the final record? Was it difficult to edit?
Kingdom: Yes, very drawn out. I mixed the whole record and am a perfectionist, so that filled the many months of 50-hour weeks. Mixing and edits and changing things then changing them back.
What do you make of the current post-EDM pop radio sound, with artists like Chainsmokers topping charts and Justin Bieber working with Diplo and Major Lazer?
Kingdom: It’s a whitewashed version of some great ideas from underground dance music and dancehall. Not the biggest fan. To me, it’s LA Lyft driver Spotify-only music. Martin Garrix ‘Animals’-era hard EDM sounds better to me most days.
Do you think the mainstream is slow to pick up on the type of electronic music that’s actually current? (Bonus question: what do you think of the proliferation of the Exhale plugin? Britney Spears is using it. Too far, or not far enough?)
Kingdom: There is certainly a delay. 80s Freestyle producers, and later Todd Edwards, innovated that type of vocal sampling. Even on my first record ‘YOU’, I was doing pitched vocal samples (inspired by Todd and Freestyle) over some dembow samples – back in 2008! So it takes them just under a decade to digest it and spit it out as a plugin. (Exhale – which I had never heard of until you asked me that, FYI – looks scary.)
I love how in ‘Nothin’, Syd sings, ‘Didn’t work this hard for nothin.’ Do you relate to that sentiment? A lot of underground artists might see themselves in those lyrics.
Kingdom: Yes, and I really challenged myself on this record putting in long hours, saying no to gigs and staying focused. I think everyone expects ‘something’ from their hard work though.
01. Florentino – “Air”
02. Hitmakerchinx – “Ida”
03. Leonce – “Snakes”
04. Helix & Leonce – “Carbi B Bad B Edit”
05. Domo – “Drink in Her System” (Kingdom edit)
06. Girl Unit – “Intoxicated” (Kingdom edit)
07. Capone–N–Noreaga – “Hood Money” (instrumental)
08. 702 – “Steelo” (Girl Unit blend)
09. Probelm – “Make Me Say (Ay Yi Yi)” (Leonce x Kingdom edit)
10. Unknown – “Unknown”
11. Hitmakerchinx – “Smokin Kuku Riddim”
12. Kingdom – “Nurtureworld”
13. Hitmakerchinx – “XERCIST”
14. Sa-Fire – “Don’t Break My Heart” (Kingdom remix)
15. Kingdom – “Untitled”
16. Hitmakerchinx – “Power”
17. Tinashe – “Days in the West”
18. Florentino – “Colombian Flute”
19. Kingdom – “Each & Every Day”
20. Mr Eazi – “Skintight” (feat. Efya)
21. Kwamz & Flava – “Wo Onane No”
22. Spooky – “Coolie Joyride” (Florentino edit)
23. Hitmakerchinx & DJ Aaron – “Watching U”
24. Reef the Lost Cauze – “Not that Easy” (feat. Ethel C)
25. Kingdom – “Untitled”
Kingdom plays Phonox, London on April 27