“Three Views Of A Secret”, S.E.M.E.
Aja West controls The Mackrosoft, a label and group that for the last 9 years has released piles of funky, jazz-fusion projects. Their tracks have hip-hop sensibilities (as teenagers, Aja and his brother, Cheeba, interned for The Dust Brothers) yet their music’s quite varied, squeezing R&B, rock, and electronic into textured arrangements—think synthy, erratic Bob James with hard drums.
Mackrosoft Records is 15 albums deep since starting up in 2000. This year, they’ll add a trilogy of works that might be their most intricate; Shirts and Skins, S.E.M.E. , and Upgrade. Colorful and uncluttered, Aja’s arrangements show his composing prowness. He doesn’t read music or write music, but plays most of the instruments himself. He’s surrounded by notable musicians (Money Mark), some of them legendary (Headhunters’ Paul Jackson and Mike Clark). And they all follow his lead, coming in to replay parts, enhance others, or as Aja puts it, “fill in the gaps”.
I spoke to Aja recently while working on an article and found him genuinely eccentric and funny. Here’s a guy who openly takes mushrooms and cuts records, all while orchestrating musicians and running a label. Here are parts of our interview along with standout tracks from his upcoming trilogy.
What exactly do you do?
I make funk jazz, funk soul, funk rock, and all styles of funk that be. I’m Aja West and you’re rocking with the best.
You still take mushrooms while working on your music? How do they affect what you do and others around you?
Absolutely. Over the years, I’ve worked a third of the time in The Netherlands allowing me to use many species of fungi in many unusual but legal environments such as zoo’s, great museums, and red light districts. Altering one’s perception of the world through plant psychedelics will usually give you what you need not want. Psychedelic and mystical catalysts had already provided me with a direct experience of simple joyful noise infused with a plethora of meaning at a fairly young age.
How else has it affected your work?
Later as I developed a firm partnership with the plant. I spent a lot of time working with it vertically rather than horizontally, meaning fewer trips at higher doses rather than many trips at lower doses. It gave me incredible clarification about life purpose and insight into my role in the creation of what seems to me to be totally honest funk jazz and potentially sacred sound.
Somewhere in the middle of this non-consensus reality, I have found times when I could work on actual usable material under the guise of some kind of very different cosmic game. Bold colored audio bars from Cubase disappeared into virtual reality and reappeared in large 4D panels twirling around me. I could edit, cut, and paste but I couldn’t totally trust the outcome at dawn.
What are the setbacks to being on shrooms and doing what you do?
The true problem with using mushrooms and recording comes soon after you’ve moved out of non-consensus reality. You’re likely to find yourself struggling to press “save” before the monitor dribbles away or you lose yourself in a screen saver of your mind’s making. Nothing compares to the majesty of the direct experience of ecstatic revelation. Which for me requires my eyes closed in total darkness usually lying in the philosopher’s bed far from here.
What are the actual recording sessions like?
The music starts with an idea and usually a beat then the laptop crashes. Once it’s up again, I lay down the drums and the musical themes on separate tracks. Once a slew of takes are recorded while I watch and signal the players, intuition tells visual auditory display let me know when I have enough to edits. I’m a very visual person skeying in on display and the combination of pure imagination guided by sounds and rhythms.
Explain to everyone about your obsession with synthesizers, how it began and how many synths you’ve got.
It started with me looking through windows. Then I realized I needed to touch the keys. I became a lover of pure circuitry, while underage. But there’s a deep valve in my heart saved for keyboards like the Rhodes electric piano and almost everyone who comes over to the studio would know think I’m obsessed with books, percussion and vinyl. I can’t answer how many synthesizers I have because the rate they’re bought and sold is at the speed of thought. Also I’m modest… though I’m sure I got more records than you!
How much wax would you say you own?
I have a lot of LP’s for the average person, though not for the average deep digger or sample-based producer. I’ve moved twice in the last chunk of time so the collection’s been parsed down to my essential 3,000 slabs of wax.
Name a record from your collection you really dig that folks should check out.
“Flash of the Spirit” – Jon Hassell and Farafina (1988). You’re pretty much safe with anything by the brilliant trumpeter and creator of the 4th world genre, Jon Hassell. On this record, the African percussionist group Farafina plays sanctified African rhythms building a challenging palette that whisks listeners through exotic key signatures and tempo changes. Hassell lays his signature electronically modified trumpet over the trance like percussive polyrhythms. Dope.
What’s your studio(s) like?
My studio is a laptop and an audio converter from 1997. I usually have one musician laying down one track at a time. Not a large studio with a group playing together. Most of the players on the tracks have not met each other before. For me, every time a musician contributes another layer, each layer contains a “what if” question splintering off into a million tracks. Quantum Physics.
How many songs would you say you’ve recorded there?
Many thousands, if you count all of the separate twists and turns throughout bringing a track to fruition.
You said you were influenced by Prince Paul. What was the first Paul track you heard? What it about him struck you? ”Me, Myself, and I” was a great first jam. The second was “Eye Know” which hooked me. I still think that is one of the most sweet and sincere hip-hop tracks that really worked out. “Shwingalokate” I think had a couple Parliament tracks sampled to pull it together but it’s the incredible placement of the Bernie Worrell Synth Solo that makes it special. Lastly, Paul did one of the only psych ward songs “Psycho Linguistics (Convergent Thought)” off of Psychoanalysis (What Is Its?).
What’s your favorite De La album?
My own mixtape of, “Three Feet” and “De La’s Dead”, losing the skits and gaining one genuinely seamless collage of all the genres that came before it.
What did working with the Dust Brothers teach you?
My brother Cheeba rocked with the Dust Brothers full time. They’re terrific producers, no questions. I was more a fly on the wall, lucky enough to do a remix for “Fight Club”.
“Two Men Enter”, Shirts and Skins
Where did you get the picture for “Shirts and Skins”?
It’s from 1969 and was taken by Mac Cheever, a scientist working in Uganda. The photograph is a Karamojong nomadic warrior. Two years later, Idi Amin’s army slaughtered 30,000 Karamojongs. I can only guess at the fate of this astounding looking nomad.
Talk a bit about Steely Dan and Creed Taylor’s influence?
First things first, I have nothing on their catalogs. In the construction of my music “Steely Dan” are the most personally and professionally influential to me. The vocal melodies are extremely tight and Donald Fagen’s voice shines like a pawned diamond. The safecracker engineering requires multiple blades, for multiple days.
Creed Taylor made sure his covers were special via Pete Turner’s photos and design. We’ve been lucky with this comparison we certainly find it honorable. We’ve simply used a lot of black boxes to encapsulate interesting imagery. CTI had a stupid amount of good musicians. What I love is all the great composers and producers that recorded for CTI, “Gil Evans, “Oliver Nelson” and “Bob James”. They do something similar in the way Creed would put together multiple bands to do tracks. “The Mackrosoft”, “Steely Dan”, and Creed Taylor shared how they all worked with many bands or configurations of great player’s swapped in and out to create multiple great bands.
What are some of your favorite Creed Taylor projects and why?
My first thought would be Idris Muhammad’s “Power of Soul”. The full scope of “Power of Soul” can only be taken in by studying the challenging and lasting music but also the physical LP’s numerology, printed clues, photographs and Idris’s unique belief’s about music. This one is really deep and full of unexpected nuances on so many levels.
That said, my favorite Creed Taylor project is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”. The Mackrosoft album Antonio’s Giraffe was honoring and attempting to introduce more people to his work and particularly that album. The cover art, a robotic Giraffe, was a direct ode to “Wave’s” cover which features a giraffe in mid-stride. The whole album has a strong positive vibe; though don’t pick this up if you’re looking for deep funk. This one has all the great jazz cats CTI is known for, but this outing finds them stretching out through these compositions ushering in a new era in Latin jazz.
Talk about how it is to work with all these seasoned musicians–similar to Creed’s protocol.
Building a track is relatively unique. I break bread with the player until we find mutual syntax for our modes of work. Absolutely every take is separate assuring no two players should ever meet. (at least not through me) Even a horn section is done one horn at a time so there is absolutely no bleed. This gives someone or more likely some thing the future power to manipulate this music infinitely.
If you could make an album of beats for one rapper to appear on; who would that be?
Which ever of these gentlemen is available and you’d accept under the definition of rapper: Donald Fagen, Zack De La Rocha, D’Angelo, or Prime Minister Pete Nice.
Mackrosoft Records have been mad prolific already. Where do you see your label and music going in the upcoming years?
I’m coming for the “belt”! I hope to be more prolific, firmly holding on to the title, “The hardest working man not in showbiz.” Thank you all for everything!