Beats and Bongs
DJ Frane's stoned classics of psychedelic hip-hop
You know those T-shirts and stickers emblazoned with "THANK YOU FOR POT SMOKING"? That's what I think of when I listen to DJ Frane's music, in which one of earth's finest natural products mingles with the DJ/producer's off-center imagination to manifest some of the sweetest instrumental hip-hop you haven't heard . . . yet.
The Santa Monica-based 32-year-old makes no secret of his fondness for herbal head augmentation and its catalytic effect on his creative process.
"Weed helps me . . . to see things from different angles," Frane explains. "To see concepts that you take for granted more in a naked form, as opposed to being filtered through your everyday routines and brain patterns that you've built up."
Frane's three albums—Frane's Fantastic Boatride (1999), Electric Garden of Delights (2003) and the new Journey to the Planet of the Birds—encompass his psychedelic-hip-hop trilogy. Water, earth and sky are the elements that each work respectively inhabits, with fire being the common bond, as suggested by the series' subtitle, Beats to Blaze To (he ain't talkin' arson, dude).
As a precocious teen, Frane flipped for Public Enemy and N.W.A's densely layered, sampledelic hip-hop. Both groups' complex production tantalized his synapses more than their lyrics did. These revelations came when he started deejaying during MC battles at Hollywood's Poisonous Records in 1991.
"The more I started smoking weed, the more I got into other kinds of music," Frane says. "So I went from imitating the Bomb Squad and Dr. Dre's style to using those same kinds of techniques, but applying them more to a Pink Floyd type of aesthetic. Making it mellower and stonier, basically, but still loving that same sensibility of layered, sampled hip-hop, that kind of funk. That was the birth of the style I'm doing now."
Frane rhapsodizes over Dre's production onStraight Outta Compton: "The beat construction is so deep, you feel like you can listen to it over and over and hear new things each time. I try to emulate that with what I'm doing—have stuff that you won't hear for years and years, and then one day you notice it."
That description is a metaphor for Frane's own producing career. One suspects he won't get his props until Wax Poetics magazine profiles him—in 2023. Maybe.
Frane's three full-lengths represent some of the most inventive examples of mind-expanding hip-hop production of the past decade, yet he's still self-releasing his music, personally contacting press and radio people, and booking his own tours. "I don't have a manager," a resigned Frane says. "I have records and weed."
Yet somehow Frane has accompanied cult-fave R&B singer/blue comedian Blowfly on five substantial tours and has been commissioned to remix country superstar Tim McGraw's "Real Good Man." His music appeared in a pot-smoking scene in Romeo Must Die. Plus, '70s funk legends Mandrill give Frane carte blanche to sample their catalog. Why is this cat unsigned?
One thing that may keep Frane forever underground is his predilection for using more than a hundred uncleared (shhh!) samples per LP, many of which come from high-profile artists' recordings. Despite being a classically trained pianist and an able guitarist, Frane prefers to construct tracks primarily from his dazzling record collection. (You will definitely acquire a new appreciation for "Planet Caravan" after hearing Frane flip it.)
Frane's deep subterranean status has enabled him to sample rampantly with no legal repercussions. He justifies his methodology thus: "Stylistically, I like using recognizable stuff sometimes. It helps you appreciate the recontextualization. If it's all stuff you haven't heard, then you have no idea what's going on. If there are little pieces of stuff that you know, then you can appreciate it more. I like the magic of recontextualizing things.
"I try to keep my sampling very organic-sounding," he continues. "I don't like taking something and looping it and putting some effects on it. I like to sound as if it just naturally grows out of the bed of other music it's sitting in. I like when you can't tell if something's a sample or played live."
Speaking of organic, Frane hopes to eventually record an album using 24 lyrebirds (they can imitate any sound they hear) and, if he needs electricity, enlisting small woodland animals to run on treadmills hooked up to a generator.
This was actually one of the less-farfetched concepts Frane outlined in our interview; others included "gravitational communications," "existential turntablism," magic mushrooms harvested by "space flamingoes" and a space-time theory he calls "before/after/outside." (I wasn't stoned enough to totally comprehend the latter notion.)
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For all this heady talk, though, Frane firmly believes that "music is a visceral experience."
"I've found that with making art and music especially, it's best to keep it as intuitive as possible and not have it too cerebral," he says. "The more I can make decisions based on what sounds good when I'm high, that's where I excel. Trusting that stoned judgment."