KINGDOM (BORN EZRA RUBIN)
ORIGINS Raised in rural southern Massachusetts, the D.J. and producer Kingdom got his start in music “kind of by accident” while studying fine art at Parsons School of Design. After scoring the first few seasons of shows for the cult fashion disrupters Hood by Air, Mr. Rubin moved to Los Angeles and co-founded the record label Fade to Mind (Fatima Al Qadiri, Kelela, Nguzunguzu).
“We’ve always joked around about it being sad, sexy, scary,” Mr. Rubin said of his label and creative collective, which blends a diverse palette of underground club music (footwork, UK bass, Baltimore club) with modern rap and R&B influences. “There’s a little bit of hedonistic sexuality, a little bit of the melancholy and this shred of violence and disorder and dystopia.”
WHAT NOW? “Tears in the Club,” Mr. Rubin’s debut LP as Kingdom, takes his cavernous, multilayered tracks closer than ever to pop song structures, featuring vocals from the R&B individualists Syd and SZA. “I really just wanted to delve more into melody,” Mr. Rubin said. “I’m not formally trained, and a lot of my music doesn’t have that melodic core to it that someone can sing over. When I started to make a few more beats where that seemed to be possible, it just gave me this amazing feeling.” Mr. Rubin discussed “Tears in the Club” in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why are you drawn to female vocalists?
I’ve just always been a fan. That’s the contrast I like — bringing something really, really heavy in the instrumental, and then there’s this somewhat lighter layer of the feminine over it. Maybe it’s partially my own feminine side that is either conflicted or shamed or hidden, and it’s a way for me express and explore that.
What were you listening to in your formative years that put you down that path?
Janet and Mariah, for sure. I had a really heavy This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins phase, so there was this more ephemeral, dreamy side, too. Brandy, of course, for enjoyment but also for the technical [aspect], hearing the way they were layering her voice, using it as an instrument over really futuristic production. There’s always been male vocalists sprinkled in, too; I’m just attracted to male vocalists who can really show their vulnerability or desperation. It gets on my nerves to listen to a male vocalist who’s all bragging.
What else were you looking for in collaborators for the album?
Syd and SZA both have a somewhat alternative approach to their vocals. They aren’t straight-down-the-middle R&B, they aren’t the more contemporary R&B radio sound either. They know those sounds, but I feel like they’re going at it with a real unique, left-of-center approach.
Half of “Tears in the Club” is still instrumental. Were you deliberately trying not to go too far in either direction?
Yeah, I definitely wanted there to be moments where you’re a little bit alienated. The vocals are so warm and welcoming, and that hasn’t been my experience these last few years. There have been real moments of loneliness and desolation. I wanted to make people feel that more introspective side of what I’ve been going through.
Who were some of your early production idols?
Definitely Darkchild — those first Destiny’s Child beats that were really skittery and chopped up. I just loved the fast, frantic energy and the stop-start nature of those songs. Of course Timbaland, always. The next big influence would be The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, hearing the way they made R&B. Then I would say more recently Mike Will Made-It. There’s a softness to his music, even though you can play it in the hardest club set.
In working with Syd, you’ve spoken about the importance of gay artists’ collaborating. Is it a particularly important time for those partnerships?
I think it really is. I’ve never been that comfortable talking about it before. I’ve never been a closeted artist, but I thought: “That’s not part of what I’m doing.” But seeing Frank Ocean come out and Syd being so out and amazing — and so many other people, too — it just made me realize that’s powerful activism on its own: just two gay people from different sides of the country, different races, coming together. It’s an essential time to do that and show that we can make something universal together.
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