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Indie hip-hop-meets-jazz-'n'-psych outfit Free the Robots was a fake band, but now it's a real one. Also, Free the Robots was always a one-man band. Chris Alfaro is that man.
What is Free the Robots?
Free the Robots has been causing confusion. People think it's a band, but really it's just me. I do some collaborations with people. The way I make my music is a blend of samples and original composition with analog instruments—trying to mesh that whole digital/analog thing, but keeping that gritty, classic sound.
Do you consider what you do to be hip-hop?
I do, and it's . . . weird. It's so many different things. It's jazz. It's hip-hop. It's psychedelic. My formula is kind of hip-hop because I'm into drum machines and samplers and stuff. But I wanted to do some newer stuff with it. I've worked with so many different bands—indie bands, hip-hop artists, but it's all Free the Robots music, and it changes as I work with different people. It's kind of everything that represents me. I grew up on hip-hop, turntablism, punk rock and all sorts of stuff. So I'm taking elements of myself and putting it into whatever I'm working on.
Did you start off in music as a one-man band?
I started off DJing with my brother, and we had a scratch crew called the Stormtroopers back in the mid '90s. We got really into the DJ-battle scene. That was all during the time when a lot of rock bands started experimenting with DJs. I joined a high-school band, and I was their DJ. That opened me up to that world, and I started playing bass and guitar, but at the same time retaining my hip-hop DJ roots. Then I started producing beats. I kept on making hip-hop beats for people while playing in different bands—punk bands to acoustic jam stuff. I kept with that till 2004. The last band I was playing with broke up, and I took all the elements of my past and just decided to make something that was just me. When I figured out that you could upload music on MySpace, I didn't need to do the label thing.
So beyond the networking aspects, MySpace actually inspired you as a musician?
Yeah. I honestly started this project as a joke. I wanted to make some random stuff. But the first few songs I finished I was really stoked on, so I decided to make a fake group and throw it on MySpace. I did it, and people started responding. It really started off like a joke band. In the beginning, I even made fake characters for band members. The way it started was so open. When I finally came up with this, I wasn't trying to impress anybody at all.
What got you to put jazz samples into your music?
That's what I listen to. I wanted to keep it sounding vintage. I didn't want to make it sound too clean. The sound of the original recordings is what I'm trying to preserve. I do a lot of digging and find a lot of gems at swap meets and places like that.
Do you acquire stuff to sample primarily from vinyl?
It's 100-percent vinyl. I'll spend an arm and a leg on some records to find a good sample. Sometimes you get lucky in $1 bins at Amoeba Records, but you mainly find Barbra Streisand records there. Swap meets, record shows, private collectors who want to do trades, eBay . . . Turntable Labs is doing a lot of reissues of some classic stuff. Browsing through their library has really opened me up to some artists—it's all basically research and getting lucky.
Do you have any local favorites?
For vinyl, I like Bagatelle Records in Long Beach, Turntable Lab, Goldenwest swap meet, Cypress swap meet, and the record show in Buena Park. Obey Clothing and Obey Giant have helped me out a lot. As far as venues, Detroit Bar has always been supportive. I'm also involved in opening up a new restaurant/bar/boutique in downtown Santa Ana. That's going to be the place where I'm going to perform a lot. August is the expected opening, depending on inspectors and stuff like that. Everyone—my two partners and our chef—is a musician. It's called the Crosby. It's at 400 N. Broadway in Santa Ana, on the outskirts of the Artists Village. My main focus is talent booking.
How has the reception been locally?
Honestly, I haven't had too much of a response from Orange County, but there aren't too many venues that embrace this kind of music, but that's true of the United States. I actually released my first record in Germany and Japan before I even got close to anything in the United States. When I started playing live shows is when people here started to respond. I want to open more people up to this kind of music in Orange County.