"My mom gave me two records to listen to on my little record player when I was six," said Orlando-based acid-jazz/electronic musician Michael Donaldson. "I don't know why she gave them to me ... but they totally shaped the way I am." Those two records -- The Platters' "Greatest Hits" and the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" -- launched Donaldson on an early musical voyage that finds him landing in some pretty exciting places these days.
The 28-year-old Donaldson, who records under the name Q-Burns Abstract Message (a cue-burn is a radio term for the crackling sound a record makes after being played many times) and runs the electronic label Eighth Dimension, recently inked a deal of sorts with Astralwerks, the New York-based label that is the U.S. home of the Chemical Brothers.
Eighth Dimension's artists -- including DJ BMF, the Lickerish Quartet, Pimp Daddy Nash, Dubmarine, Dynagroove and Q-Burn -- now will be featured exclusively on the Astralwerks UK compilation, "Selected Material," due in stores Monday. (The CD will be available in the U.S. via Astralwerks' distributor, Caroline.) In addition, Astralwerks will release two CDs by Q-Burns Abstract Message: the four-track "Doublecross" EP (Sept. 25) and an as-yet-untitled full-length album (early 1998).
The opportunity for the artists of Eighth Dimension to have their music released via Astralwerks is indeed a big deal. Think of Astralwerks as a sort of electronic equivalent of the Seattle-based rock label Sub Pop -- a haven for independent-minded musicians with the benefit of international distribution. And with music media biggies like mixmag (the bible of global techno) and, more recently, Rolling Stone, publishing stories on Orlando's electronic scene, the timing is right-on. While Donaldson himself has been releasing Eighth Dimension's music for the past several years, the Astralwerks signing is proof that the rest of the country is taking Orlando's electronic music seriously.
Partly due to good PR and a desire to have their music heard by others, Donaldson made a habit of sending out releases by the Eighth Dimension artists. Peter Wohelski, a former Tampa resident and now co-director at Astralwerks, took notice of the Eighth Dimension product landing in his mailbox. But it was an out-of-town DJ gig that started the relationship. "Over Christmas I did a gig in Tampa and Peter was in town," says Donaldson. "I met him for the first time and we hit it off really well. He just kind of mentioned to me, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing something with us?'"
He adds, "What I like about Astralwerks is they're 100 percent focused on electronic music. They've always been. It's not just like, ‘Oh, this electronic thing is big, so we need to put out some electronica releases.' They are firmly committed to it. If it is all a fad and it goes away, they'll be there after the fact."
During a phone interview the week after the Rolling Stone story hit the streets, Wohelski had the enthusiastic tone of a guy who was happy to bring attention to Orlando and Eighth Dimension. "Q-Burns Abstract Message is a really great addition to the Astralwerks roster. ... The whole `Eighth Dimension` crew ... really shows the great diversity that is electronic dance music today." And while Orlando has made a name for itself because of its dance club scene, he feels Eighth Dimension represents part of the progressive evolution of electronic music. "They're a little bit more refined, a little bit more sophisticated. And they're interested in pushing the envelope of the music, which is what I think electronic dance music is all about."
Eighth Dimension's downtown studio looks like either a dorm room or a college radio station: music posters decorate the walls, stacks of records and CDs are everywhere, and the lone couch is mostly covered with boxes. A door leads into the studio, a small room crowded with a collection of analog and digital synthesizers, samplers, guitars and recording equipment. Here is where the music of Q-Burns Abstract Message -- considered acid jazz, a lofty term at best -- comes to life. With elements of jazz, techno, hip-hop and ambient pop woven into the mix, the music is eclectic, embracing both programmed electronics and live performance.
Combining those two elements is something that Donaldson always wanted to do. "When I was 14, I was in a punk band in Louisiana and I had just gotten my Juno 106 (an analog keyboard). I almost got kicked out of the band because I insisted on playing synthesizer in it. A lot of the things I was really into way-back-when always incorporated both. I was a huge New Order-head, and they always did both. One of my favorite records of all time is the My Bloody Valentine record, ‘Loveless.' Half the guitars on that are sampled. It's kind of an obvious extension in my mind."
Another stylistic fiber of his music is his love of the production aspect of hip-hop (samples, drum loops and found sounds). "I was really huge into the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy's production team), Eric B & Rakim -- things like that," he says. His fascination with samples lead to the eventual purchase of a sampler, albeit in a roundabout way.
"Actually, Meat Beat Manifesto was directly responsible for me buying my first sampler," he recalls. After striking up a conversation with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto before a concert and subsequently being allowed to play around with the group's gear during sound check, Donaldson was convinced he needed a sampler. "The very next day, I took every single penny I had out of the bank and bought a sampler. I was converted right from that moment."
That investment provided a creative catalyst that would take Donaldson's Q-Burn alter-ego into the electronic world. While he says longtime friends are surprised he is doing dance music now, he feels there was always a rhythmic quality to his sound, even when he was playing guitar.
Moreover, Donaldson has become quite crafty at sampling, beat construction and manipulating sound. So crafty, in fact, that he has become a sought-out remix producer, taking other artist's tracks and tweaking them into new directions. While a remix used to mean having a engineer simply extend a song or add audio effects, the process has expanded into its own art form.
Typically, a remix producer takes the key elements (like a vocal line, melody or a drum loop) of a track and then deconstructs the tune until it resembles something entirely unique. Donaldson likes to think of this concept as a collaboration, rather then just tacking on new parts to someone else's track. His remix credits include a diverse collection of artists: acid-jazzers Us3, rockers Faith No More (a drum and bass remix), and the Violent Femmes (he remixed "Blister in the Sun" for the film "Grosse Pointe Blank," although the cut didn't make the final soundtrack).
And he recently finished a remix of a certain British electronic outfit, though the mixing was done quite covertly. "I just did a remix of the Chemical Brothers' ‘Where Do I Begin?' which I did without them knowing. They know now," he laughed. Astralwerks had contracted Donaldson to do a simple, radio-edit of the song (that is, simply cut the six minute single down to four minutes). "After listening to the song a bunch of times while I was in there (the studio), I got this idea for a remix." The newly constructed track, along with the edit, was sent to Astralwerks, but the label will have the final say on whether or not to release the Q-Burn mix.
Donaldson currently is in the studio in his Q-Burn mode, recording the full-length release for Astralwerks. And although that CD won't be released for several months, the "Double-cross" EP contains four tracks that will not be found on the full-length. "It was kind of a conscious decision in a way ... when you listen to it, it's kind of like a four-song album," he adds.
Donaldson's involvement in the Orlando music scene has been extensive; from DJing at WUCF and WPRK and playing in bands (he is a former member of local ambient-pop band Tick Tick Tock) to opening Bad Mood Records downtown (which he recently sold). The label itself has unique origins, actually starting as a series of weekend get-togethers for like-minded electronic artists who wanted to exchange ideas and collaborate. Eventually the idea of pooling resources and starting a label proved to be an attractive, if labor-intensive, solution.
Essentially functioning as an extended family, Eighth Dimension has artists who are directly involved in the day-to-day operations, while others take more of a backseat role. Jon Curtis, who releases his music as Pimp Daddy Nash (acid jazz) and the Lickerish Quartet (drum and bass), has been involved with Eighth Dimension since its inception, having assisted Donaldson with production work during his Tick Tick Tock days as well as produced his own electronic music for over a decade. Jon has four tracks on the "Selected Material" CD, but looks on in amazement at Donaldson's ability to consistently produce engaging music. "It's just constantly flowing out of him," he says. "You put him in front of some equipment for a couple of hours and he'll give you a tune. It literally runs in his blood. He's just amazingly prolific."
After several semisuccessful releases (and a lot of lessons learned), Eighth Dimension decidedly shifted gears to become a licensing entity. Says Donaldson, "We create finished projects and sell them to other labels." The Astralwerks deal is a good example, as all the music was already recorded when they were approached by the label.
Yet since the Astralwerks CDs are essentially a series of one-off releases (no lengthy deal was signed), Michael is excited about the prospects of a long-term commitment for Q-Burns Abstract Message. A three-year, anything-he-produces-gets-released arrangement would make him smile, and he has been talking to several labels about just such a relationship.
At the end of day, however, what motivates him is his love of the music. Gerard Mitchell, co-founder of Eighth Dimension (and the Phat-n-Jazzy night at the Sapphire Supper Club) and the man whom Michael credits as the business brain behind the label, agrees. "For the most part, he's having a lot of fun. He's a kid in a candy store."
Jon Curtis has his own theories: "He's a walking ball of music, pure and simple. I think he's just a huge music conduit."
And while Donaldson feels that he's not a major player in the electronic music scene because there are so many talented people working here, his philosophy certainly won't hurt the scene's creative energy. "I'm really into positive feelings, spreading a positive celebration-of-life-type feeling," he says. "I'm really not into negative music."
Astralwerks presents sound in the Eighth Dimension: "Selected Material," Astralwerks/Caroline Records
When Astralwerks asked Eighth Dimension Records to put together a compilation of their artists for a U.S./European release, it was time for Orlando's acid jazz scene to shut-up and play some music. "Selected Material" proudly showcases Central Florida's contributions to the world of acid jazz/drum and bass: Pimp Daddy Nash, DJ BMF, Lickerish Quartet, Dynagroove, Dubmarine and Q-Burns Abstract Message are all accounted for.
To get the rhythms flowing, Pimp Daddy Nash presents "Because Blonde Wore Red," a prime cut of hip-hop beats and rubbery acoustic bass. Then DJ BMF takes you to "Sound in the Round," with furious scratching and female crooning taking turns in the spotlight. Dynagroove continues the vibe on "Check It Out," where a squelching synth participates in a spaced-out duel with vintage jazz samples. And those into drum and bass will appreciate the two velvety-smooth Lickerish Quartet tracks.
"Selected Material" satisfies. So sit-back, relax and soak up the sound in the Eighth Dimension.
Q-Burns Abstract Message: "Doublecross," Astralwerks UK
This four-track CD is an almost seamless slab of sound. Q-Burn seems to have shed most of his acid jazz leanings, so that what we have here almost deserves its own genre. The music -- exotic electronic textures, pulsing basslines and fluid rhythms -- makes your body want to move. But this is more than dance music; you can appreciate "Doublecross" in almost any environment.
Detailed production and real song structures -- actual melodies and guitar parts -- help Q-Burn achieve an otherworldly state. Songs sprawl with bubbling electronic hues while continuously morphing beats set everything in motion, especially on the title track; hip-hop beats, Cocteau Twins-guitar and washes of sound seem to envelope your whole being. This is Orlando-produced music that is truly for the mind, body and soul.