The R&B star and the co-executive producer of her new Take Me Apart remix album discuss telling new stories in club music
In a podcast interview in August, Erykah Badu said, “Recording is like perfecting a moment, where performing live is just creating a moment.” An interesting parallel can be drawn between Badu’s definition of the recording and the function of a remix within club culture. If recording music is about perfecting a sonic moment, then remixing music is about perfecting, or fixating upon the moments in a song that literally move us.
The perpetual renegotiation of a song is something that fascinates R&B star Kelela, and sits at the core of her career as a musician. Last week, she released a collection of remixes to songs from her debut album Take Me Apart, enlisting long-time collaborator Asma Maroof, aka Asmara, as co-executive producer. The Los Angeles-based DJ and producer – known as one half of the electronic duo Nguzunguzu, resident at the iconic Mustache Mondays party, and a regular on GHE20G0TH1K lineups – played a key role in curating the remix album’s extensive list of contributors. From Kaytranada’s funky dance grooves to DJ Lag’s infectious gqom beats to serpentwithfeet’s angelic falsettos and a standout from go-go legends Rare Essence, Take Me A_Part, The Remixes is an ambitious attempt to continue a rich legacy of rearrangement, and reflect the expansive, genre-defying genius of her and Asma’s global club community.
“That was the real objective: to make it be a platform for a bunch of people who you may never have heard of in experimental and electronic music,” Kelela says of the the 20-song project – notably longer than its precursor. With Asma also at its helm, the remix album plays like an Asmara mix, its sequencing and far-reaching sounds mirroring her skill as a DJ/producer.
On the day of the album’s release, Dazed caught up with Kelela and Asma to talk about the challenging yet rewarding process of working with so many artists, embracing authority and intuition as women of colour, and the nuances of club culture they most enjoyed celebrating.
When did you first have the idea to do a remix album? Was this always a part of the plan?
Kelela: It’s pretty much always been a part of the plan. I’ve always been attracted to that way of rearranging, whether it be through club music or through jazz – the way that standards are reimagined or that way that people just are constantly reinterpreting their own music. That’s always been a part of my life, and I recorded the album with that in mind.
Your lyrics are so intimate and vulnerable and tender, and a lot of remixes are intended for dancefloors, clubs, and parties. What were you thinking about when you took those stories and collaborated with musicians to make music intended for social environments?
Asma Maroof: It doesn’t necessarily always have to do with the lyrics, but maybe just the mood of what’s being evoked in the song, and telling a different story with those words. For instance, (in) the DJ Lag remix of “Onanon”, he uses the “We go onanon,” (and) that lyric gets transformed into something that’s like, “We go all night,” like, “We’re dancing until forever,” whereas the intention of that lyric before is about a relationship. It’s recontextualising. It’s very interesting how you can tell a whole new story just by taking bits and pieces of Kelela’s lyrics because they’re so saturated with meaning.
Kelela: A dance battle is a club phenomenon that exists separate from the romantic moment that I’m describing in the track. I think what’s important to establish first and foremost is that we executive-produced (we received all of the parts for everyone’s productions), but they are the producers. They’re the ones who are creating those fixations in those tracks. You could say that that’s collaborative, but on a certain level it’s also kind of not – not in the way that we think about collaboration. I’m sending them the parts and then they’re just sitting by themselves with the parts trying to figure out what they want to say. Oftentimes, that results in someone fixating in one part of the lyric that you didn’t even think was a thing. I’m just as surprised as you when I hear that.
Which of these, when you heard them, were you most surprised by? Which remix made you hear yourself most differently or in the most unexpected way?
Kelela: The one that feels most re-contextualised, or most flipped, can oftentimes not be the one that is the most surprising. I would just describe it more as elation, rather than surprise. LSDXOXO was just a magical one. BADSISTA was another one that felt flipped and new.
Asma Maroof: I was really excited by people that did vocals on the tracks. That was surprising – to hear a new voice with the production. Also, as a response, in a way. The serpentwithfeet one, Ethereal, and Divoli... to hear the way that they interacted with her vocal was very surprising and gratifying.
What was the process like? What were your roles respectively?
Kelela: I’m giving this one away to Asma. It’s a lot. There’s a few different ways that we worked. One of them is straightforward: ‘Here are the parts, send back the remix.’
Asma Maroof: Well, first it started off with me and Kels just talking about what we want to hear and brainstorming. A major one: from the moment she made “Take Me Apart” (we’re both from the DMV area), I immediately heard go-go when she sang it. That was from when I was sitting in the studio just listening to her record it. So, that’s one that’s been in our brains since Take Me Apart. Kels wanted a lot of the old remix (style) like (how) Mariah and Destiny’s Child re-sang a lot of the parts. They brought new life into the songs and that’s what Kels did with a lot of these songs: (took) them to that new world that they’ve been brought to.
Kelela: The Ahya Simone arrangement was actually just something that I asked her to just improvise: “Listen to the song and send me some voice notes of you just completely off-the-dome-ing and then just send it me.” I took her harp part and I created an arrangement with just the instrumental. I snatched parts and I looped them. I can just take audio and just kind of make my own song. That’s what I did in Ableton. Then, I sang that song over my chopped up harp arrangement and then I sent it back to her so she could hear what it is that I’m trying to do. She played linearly through a bunch of different ideas, so I just fixated on a few. Then I sent it to her so that she could memorise and learn how to play it in the order that I put it. And then we went into the studio to actually record it live together. That’s actually a live recording and it’s the reason why it sounds that way. With an organic single instrument it’s necessary that the person is there. It was a really beautiful experience for me because I’ve never recorded with harp. Harp in your ears is like extremely distracting and also really comforting.
“Part of the manifesto is that you could have three completely different lives for the same vocal... That’s our culture” – Kelela
It seems like each one has its own story and the whole remix album came together so organically because of that. What did it feel like to work with Rare Essence as people who are from the DC area?
Kelela: Asma is the one who had the idea to do “Take Me Apart” as go-go.
Asma Maroof: It was really huge for us. Unfortunately, we still haven’t met them and it has definitely been a remote thing, so of course everyone’s like, “When’s it going to happen live?” The thing about go-go music is it’s really about that live moment and that energy and that’s where the recordings come from. So, this one is done a little differently. We even talked about that beforehand. With Kelela re-singing the song, it really just gives it new life. That was really exciting. Even to get those stems and hear her recording it in the studio just makes us all warm and fuzzy. Rare Essence is definitely legends. We heard them on the radio. Backyard (Band) and Rare Essence were literally the two gogo bands that everybody knew. It felt amazing.
Kelela: Asma and I grew up in a microcosm of tape-sharing and sweaty basement parties. Your currency for cool in that time was literally which tapes you had. How you socialise with people was like, “Let me dub the tape.” And if you have that tape, it’s a status thing. We’re not only just like, “We like this band,” but we come from this culture where you’re obsessed with procuring the recording. You can’t even hear it if you don't have the thing because it’s not online or it’s not being sold in that way. They’re like idols beyond, you know what I’m trying to say? The name Rare Essence is... my 14-year-old self is just having a moment because if you had asked me back in the day if that would ever be possible, I would just laugh. It would be silly. I’m really honoured – we’re both really honoured – and still can’t believe that they’re fucking with us like that.
What do you most enjoy about working with each other?
Kelela: There’s something so glorifying about being in a room with somebody that you respect. I really respect Asma’s ear. Not just because she’s an incredible producer and knows how to put things together and curate, but also because we grew up in such parallel. I oftentimes in the studio (am) negotiating with somebody, because they understand either/or. They understand where I come from and the tradition that I’m speaking to and coming from. And then there’s other people who understand more where I’m going. There’s a way that I feel like she understands both.
Asma Maroof: I’ve always felt such a fruitful experience working with Kelela. This isn’t our first time working together, but it is our first time on this scale and on this kind of project. Since I met her, I definitely think it is where we’re from but also what we’re attracted to sonically. It’s similar wavelengths. It’s so fruitful when you can find somebody like that to collaborate with because you know sometimes there’s like the questioning of like, “Wait, is this cool?” Having someone to be a sounding board or to bounce those ideas off of can be very empowering, especially as two women in this field – women of colour who are constantly being questioned. There’s that barrier and feeling empowered to surpass that barrier just gives me so much strength. She’s very strong in her vision. It’s not even like she needs me to be there. It’s not that at all. It’s more the conversations that we have around music and what happens from that is what’s so interesting and just brings new iterations and worlds from something that’s already made.
“You can tell a whole new story just by taking bits and pieces of Kelela’s lyrics because they’re so saturated with meaning” – Asma Maroof
Kelela: There’s a way that we empower each other through that conversation. Not only is the song better for it, but when your ideas are constantly being challenged and constantly questioned, there’s a way that you move through the world considering a lot of things. You can’t navigate the way that a man would navigate studio sessions or even dictate the drums on a track. It was really important to me through this project that everyone was going to have to go through us. Not on some reverse-machismo shit, but really on a more profound level. There’s insight and intuition and consideration.
What a dream.
Kelela: There’s also this aspect of how producers from the underground, from the club, from an experimental place... how their music is being used by the mainstream. There’s a really extractive process that is a default setting right now for a lot of artists. Taking sounds and slapping them onto (things). I think there are some really beautiful interpretations, but there’s ones where it feels overtly unfair to the person because they never asked permission. They made another track just like yours and you never really get credit. People really experience that. The bottom line doesn’t improve for them when those songs become successful.
I think one of the byproducts of us approaching it from a place of humility and being two women of colour who are leading the project, (is that) it’s providing a bunch of people with an experience that considers them. It considers what they’re saying and tries not to dilute what they were saying. It shows a lot of respect so that from the beginning of the project, from when we reached out, until to the end, there was at least one positive experience of collaborating and contributing to a larger project. That was really important to me – that I provided people with some type of experience that wasn’t shitty.
Can you talk about the decision to include more than one remix for some of the songs?
Kelela: Part of the manifesto is that you could have three completely different lives for the same vocal and that’s what we do. That’s our culture. In the club you’re gonna hear a halftime version, then you’re gonna hear one with no drums, then you’re gonna hear one that’s 150 BPM.
What comes next after this? Are you going to perform some of these remixes live? Will you work on something else together?
Kelela: I’m not exactly sure. I just decided to put it out in the world and see what happens and respond to that in the moment. I definitely have plans for trying to bring it all together. I’m brainstorming right now – planning and scheming.
Asma Maroof: Yeah, you’ll definitely be hearing the tracks in the club. Kels already does that (Nathaniel W. James & Dave Quam) version of “Waitin’” live and also the “LMK_What’s Really Good Remix” – you allude to that in the live shows as well.
Kelela: Yeah, there’s a few remixes that have been incorporated into my live set already, because that’s just what I do. But, yes I'm thinking about how to create a live iteration of the remix album.