The New Pioneers
When they join the video call, Ricky Zoker is at home in LA where they recently relocated from Hudson, New York, and Camae Ayewa calls in from her phone — she’s in the car on the way from Philadelphia to Maryland with her partner Rasheedah Phillips, with whom she runs Black Quantum Futurism (a collective based on “a new language of healing, memory, and justice that can be transmitted and used as a technology”), at the wheel.
Zoker and Ayewa are YATTA and Moor Mother, respectively, both poets and musicians who experiment with jazz, punk, noise, and soul, and with concepts of time and space — explorations often aided by the manipulations and distortions of looper pedals and voice synthesizers. This past July, the pair released their collaborative record, DIAL UP, an exquisite collection of nine ecstatic tracks created in pandemic times, back and forth from Philly and Hudson. Connected again in mid-August via video-turned-voice call (there were some technological issues at the beginning, naturally), the two artists discussed the making of their EP, the recording equipment they wish existed, and their relationships with technology, and with each other.
How did you two start working on music together? How did DIAL UP come about?
Ayewa: We're in the same family — musicians and sound family. We’ve worked together before this project.
Zoker: I'm remembering playing with you spontaneously at the Kitchen when you were playing with Irreversible [Entanglements]. Do you remember that?
Ayewa: Do I remember it? I got the pictures! That was awesome, we still talk about that as a band. A track I was making for this EP, I asked if Ricky could do some vocals on it, and it was brilliant. We were just talking and we said, "Hey, let's make another?"
Zoker: I felt relief receiving what you sent, because it's nice to not have to make everything happen on your own. It was nice to just respond.
[The connection starts breaking up, and we all turn our cameras off to make it more stable.]
Zoker: Camae, you sent me a bunch of sounds and half-made tracks. Or, to me, they felt fully-made. And then I sent you some beats, and then with that exchange, we both sang or added words or instrumentals to what each other sent.
Ayewa: I remember acting crazy in my house every time you sent me a track. I would have to show Rasheedah, and Rasheedah doesn't even like music, really. It was me stepping up being like, "Yo, listen to this. I'm going crazy." It was a lot of fun and it felt good.
Zoker: It felt really good. It felt easy. I feel like if it were just me by myself, I would have mulled over it for a long time, kept wondering if it was done. But the way you work, it's like, it's done it's done. I learned a lot from that.
Tell me about this idea of “dialing up.” Even though it’s not to do with dial-up internet, the record title conjures that image for me, especially in this time of pandemic video calls where we’re learning how to connect via the internet in this way and it all feels very insufficient and glitchy and slow.
Ayewa: I didn't think about dial-up internet, it was more on the metaphysical, self-care — we talked about how to connect outside of technology. We didn't discuss outside of technology, but I say “outside of technology” 'cause we're saying, “We're gonna dial up to you. We're gonna dial up to each other, we're gonna connect outside of the wires.” I think that's a powerful statement. I've been moving in that way, I know Ricky's been moving in that way. Redefining technology. Apple is not the technology god, or whatever. We all have a way to connect and not compromise or depend on these systems of so-called social interaction... Social network, that's what it's called. Outside of that. We had to pick up the phone to talk to each other. So that is a part of it, being in two kinds of isolated situations. We were both in the woods. I was thinking about that, Ricky. I'm in the woods every day and you were like, "I just went on a hike.” We were in these kind of organic antennas, you know? So, of course it would speak to that.
Zoker: I remember in our conversation we talked about nature as technology. As the original technology. I was thinking about ways of getting to the space that is you and is also your ancestors and is also peace and what it takes to get to that place. And it can be really easy if you have time, and if you have space. And it does feel like dialing up, because you're going from one place to the other without moving.
Ayewa: And also leaving some things, which is cool. We both made these works inside of our homes or bedrooms or little studios, so when we go outside with this EP, we didn't take any of that with us. We took a break from that to come back to present the work with what it needed to have.
Zoker: I still feel surprised it even happened. It just felt like the way for me to center myself during this moment, and remind me of all the things that exist outside of the confusion right now.
“We're gonna dial up to you. We're gonna dial up to each other, we're gonna connect outside of the wires.” I think that's a powerful statement. —Ayewa
What tools did you use to make these songs?
Ayewa: This guy from Princeton makes voice synthesizers, he just made a new one and sent it out to me and a couple of different artists and I used a bit of that to record the poems. I just used it twice, it's a learning curve, when you get [a new] model of something. He's looking for feedback to make it more accessible to more people.
But I'm usually very hands-on, whatever has batteries. I'm very simple. I'm like, “Oh, this one's ready to go, let me pop it in. The synthesizer's ready,” you know? And the fact that they were made over time means different instruments are allowed to get in there.
Zoker: [I was] recording my voice without a mic, just into the computer, 'cause sometimes I'm just like, “[expletive] it,” I can't be bothered. And a beat-up performance mic. And then you advised me what mic to get, and I got that mic: the Thriller mic.
Ayewa: You got the Shure? Oh, yeah!! You get real close to it. It's chill.
Zoker: Now that I have it, I can hear when you were using it, ’cause it's so present, it's right in your ear. Also, I used the thumb piano at some point. In “We.” I think that's the first song I used acoustic guitar for. I've been wanting to make more folk type things.
Do you have favorite tools you use in your music?
Zoker: I usually use my voice pedal, but I think this is the first time I put that aside and just sang straight.
Ayewa: Oh, wow, I didn't even know that. What! Whoah!
Zoker: Yeah, this is the first time I've sang straight, which felt more clear. And because the things you sent me had so much texture and layers and information, I was like, OK, in order to cut through, I need to come through with my truth and my clarity. So I'm happy it pushed me to let go of that. The loops affect pedal. Because I've been told by friends, who I ignore, that it can be a crutch. I ignored them for a while but I think it's kinda right. So I'm happy that what you made pushed me to let it come through clear.
Ayewa: Wow. I mean, that reminds me of the "Dialing Up” track because the way you were — and you did this several times — where I'm taking an old voice, I'm talking about like, late-1800s voice, and then you're responding to it. The conversation's happening, well, we are making the conversation happen now. It's so amazing how there was no talk about this and you were just, like you said, singing free. Oooh, the way that conversations happen in those tracks is so brilliant. I didn't even know to even ask. I was just so blown away. "Oh my goodness, wow, wow, this is so good!” That's all I could really say as feedback.
Zoker: The samples you use with people's voices... it feels good to be singing with other people, even if they’re —
Ayewa: Julius Eastman! But we know Julius Eastman, you know? Sound family. You can tell from that track.
Zoker: To be able to talk to people from the past, it's magic.
Is there anything about technology that really frustrates you?
Ayewa: I'm sick of batteries and I'm sick of cables.
Zoker: I'm sick of cords, they're so annoying. I wish everything just talked to each other. I could just be like, "OK, everything, are you ready?" And then just go straight through.
Ayewa: Just simple on and off switches.
Zoker: Right. I hate having to set everything up, it really annoys me. That's part of why I like performing so much. Quarantine and making this album got me to find joy in recording. Part of why I got into this is because I wanted to perform, because it's immediate, you feel people, you see them. I ended up closing my eyes while singing so that I could imagine space and environment, which you're really good at creating.
I guess that's why people work with engineers, because then they plug everything in. But I don't want anyone telling me what to do.
Ayewa: No. We're gonna talk about bad technology, it's people in the studio telling you what to do. That's the bad technology. Instead of just listening. It's so annoying for someone to ask you if that's how you wanna sing something. “Or maybe you should…”
Zoker: I think people fall in love with the technology and forget about the content, which frustrates me. To me, all of these things are just pathways to get the feeling and the sound out. And if you're sitting there in love with the tool, then to me that's missing the point. I think oftentimes those people are who end up in the studio, which is good in one sense because they know how to use the thing, but also it's a distraction.
Ayewa: Most times it doesn't even sound like they actually did anything. Unless it's some famous engineer, you know, like a Travis Scott song or something. You see that people are working really hard on that. I don't know. I'm not an engineer, so can't really talk about that. But I think without an engineer, we did great. Maybe we dialed up for our engineer.
Zoker: The engineer was up there. The engineer was whoever brought us together.
I think people fall in love with the technology and forget about the content, which frustrates me. To me, all of these things are just pathways to get the feeling and the sound out. —Zoker
What about dream technology — is there anything you wish for, or think should already exist?
Ayewa: I like how they have these toy pianos, you know, kids have all these different little dinosaur keyboards and all that. I wish that some of these synthesizers had toy versions. More things that I don't have to spend $2,000 on, I can just buy a plastic version. They have this with trumpets, you can buy a plastic trumpet for $100, then work yourself up to a $400 trumpet, then go further. I like this toy experience, of getting to know some of these really expensive models. And I know Behringer, the synthesizer company, they've been doing these low-budget models of things, but I'm even thinking cheaper than that, you know. Not just like a boutique drum machine of the 808, something even more toned down, like little toy drum machines and things like that.
Zoker: There are things I would want but I also don't want. Like something that, when I'm taking a walk I can just sing and it sends to my program. And then I can do a beat with my mouth, and then it transcribes that to the program.
Ayewa: I want that, too. I want that one.
Zoker: So that by the time I get home, it's ready to work on. 'Cause it happened on my walk.
Ayewa: There's some programs, especially now, people doing remote recording and stuff. But something easy, 'cause Notepad don't really work. It's kinda like what you said about singing free if you want to. I think Notepad or Voice Memo is more about singing it right there as best as you can and then maybe go home and sing it over or something. I like your idea. Instant, let me turn this on [boom bum boo boom boo boom] You know? My computer's already charging...
Zoker: Or, where you sing something and then it links you up with someone who's making something that corresponds with what you're making, and you can decide if you wanna collaborate or if they look wack and you don't wanna do it.
Ayewa: Like, you can swipe left? Like, nah...
Zoker: Like, in your profile there's the voice memo that you did and then someone's like, "Oh, I'm working on this thing…”
What are each of your favorite songs from DIAL UP?
Ayewa: “27” is mine.
Zoker: No way. Wow, I didn't know that.
Ayewa: Yeah. Are you kidding me? Like I said, I go into the woods, I walk around, I listen to the EP, give it the OK, and always keep coming back to this, and having this energy. I'm gonna use a boxer analogy but I don't mean violence: it got me pumped, you know? It got me strong, it got me ready to knock out anything. But not in a violent way. It wanted me to get to work but in the most caring sense. I guess people call that excitement. It just got me. It wakes up cells in my body when I listen to it.
Zoker: I think I have two. "Henrietta," and the first song, "Dialing Up To You." I think "Henrietta" because it really sounds like you're melting a record and painting with it. And then writing her name into each fold.
Ayewa: That's basically how I made it. You’re right 100%, that's weird, you're right.
Zoker: It's like you flip it and then you say it and then you flip it back and then you say it. And it feels like you're making it permanent. Which is crazy to do in a one-minute song. That's wild.
Ayewa: I was actually, making those sounds, I was going wild. Describing things. I was like, "Let's go. Aaah!" kind of energy.
Zoker: It felt like you were resurrecting her [Henrietta Lacks]. And getting everybody to applaud, or something. And “Dialing Up To You,” I just felt like, “This is right.” After whatever I released last year, I was like, “Where the [expletive] am I gonna go?” And then I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what I need to be doing in this moment, because the foundation you made, made it the perfect place for me to remember how to sing. Camae, you saying that your favorite track is “27” makes me wanna go in that direction more.
Ayewa: Please. Please! We're dealing with so much, so any time you get those sound messages that can take you, you know? You need that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.