Akouo is a Tasmanian DJ and producer with a DIY approach to his craft. His tracks are part Biggie, part FlyLo, and part electro banger- and he definitely wants you to dance with him. Musicianship and originality are the hallmarks of an Akouo- Greek for ‘to hear’- track. Visiting New York to play some gigs and take inspiration from the city, we went sample hunting with him in Little Italy, Nolita, and on the J train. On the way, we talked about 808s, sampling and crate-digging, and finding a voice in the electronic music game.
How do you like New York?
This is my first time in NY.
What does New York mean to you coming from Tasmania?
I’ve been into hip hop for a long time. I’m staying in Brooklyn purely out of the fact that Biggie grew up there . I think out here, it’s a little bit different from Australia as far as electronic, underground music goes. In Australia, people don’t get stuff with that gritty edge.
So you’re coming out here for inspiration. How’s the scene in the US compared to the scene in Australia?
There’s a movement here. I mean, there are movements in Australia, but they’re a little more on the safe side, whereas over here everyone’s testing it all the time- as far as sounds go, as far as mixing goes. Out in Australia, everything has to have a poppy element, everything has to be viable in that kind of market. But over here you’ve got guys that make the hardest beats: they don’t have that poppy element and they still sell shows out. I wanna tap into that.
The states have always been a source of inspiration for Australian artists—can you talk about that trend and how it’s changing?
I mean, Australia has been looking to the US for so long for inspiration, but the reason that everyone’s looking at Australians at the moment is because they’re coming out with unique sounds. Nothing against the market here, but I think it’s getting a little bit tapped out. There’s a lot of trap coming out now that sounds the exact same, and you can no longer take inspiration from that, you’ve gotta look a little bit deeper and little bit harder.
So what are you hoping to take sonically from New York?
I can definitely use a lot of the samples I found. I can make an entire beat just out of this hissing sound [noise from a nearby construction site]. Chopping it, pitching it- I can make a synth out of it by distorting it, I can make chords out of it. You can make something out of anything. You’ll hear them in different tunes over the next year. Listening to these samples is going to remind me a lot of New York. There’s gonna be a little bit of New York in all of my beats for the next year or so.
What do you sample the most?
I try not to use 808s [drum machines]. It’s overused at the moment. Maybe a bass drum or an 808 snare, but apart from that I try not to let the 808s get into my beats. So I end up going through old records for drum breaks: that’s where I get my drums. And I make all my percussion samples myself. I’ll break some glass at home, or use coins, all that sort of stuff. I get a lot of sounds from bushwalking in Australia.
So we’re gonna be bushwalking in downtown New York- that kind of DIY approach has got to influence your sound…
I think it’s super important to have an organic sound, something more personal and unique. I feel there’s so many producers who take sample packs from other artists- it’s super easy to make a beat sound dope when you’ve got sample packs from Pharrell, or Just Blaze. The reason that underground guys like Timbaland popped up so quickly was because people were like, ‘Hang on, this doesn’t sound like everything else.’
Ok, so more generally, what was your progression as a musician?
I can’t read music but I can play a little guitar, I can play a bit of bass and some drums. I’ve been making beats for 12 years. As a kid I went straight to hip hop ’cause that was the easiest to make back then. And it was the same stuff I used to collect on vinyl anyway, so it was a natural progression to start making hip hop beats.
How has your sound evolved from hip hop?
I think at a certain point you can’t just be making beats for rappers. You have to actually look at what you want to bring to the table, what you wanna show the world. It’s not just like, here’s a backing beat for someone else to take all the shine. For me, it’s about being able to express myself in the way that I want to. That’s why I moved on to my own thing.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to Flying Lotus, Taku, the new Kendrick [Lamar] album. That’s my LA soundtrack. The musicianship on the Kendrick album is so next level. A lot of people don’t appreciate it, they’re like, ‘Where are those hard beats? Where’s that hard gutter shit?’ He even has skits that almost rub people’s nose in the fact that it’s art house.
How do you bring that sense of musicianship to electronic music?
I don’t wanna copy anyone else. I was thinking about getting some drum pads to play with actual drum sticks, and then I noticed that everyone was using them. I was like, ‘There’s no point.’ You have to be real creative with any technology coming out.
So how do you contend with the fast pace of technology?
I’m trying to use stage presence. More interaction with the crowd. I love being able to connect with the crowd, dance with them. The music is 50 percent of my show and me interacting with the crowd is the other 50 percent. There are a lot of artists out there taking it to the next level production wise- they’ve got pyrotechnics and everything- and I feel like that kind of takes away from the artistic element. It takes away from the actual person up there on stage. It distracts from that personal connection you can get from seeing your idol.