It's no surprise that I didn't notice the man sitting quietly at the bar at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill three hours before show time, watching a replay of the Conan O'Brien "Tenth Anniversary Special" while sharing a few sporadic laughs with the bartender. After all, I was busy trying to hunt down Tadd Mullinix, the man behind Dabrye, and there was no way that some of the most innovative instrumental hip-hop being produced today could come from a guy who stands no taller than 5 feet 6 inches and couldn't weigh much more than a buck twenty-five. But when I asked the tour manager about Mullinix's whereabouts, he pointed to that very same man, now returning from a chain-smoking binge out on the patio.
Tadd Mullinix maintains an anonymity that seems to suit the 24-year-old Michigan native. Dressed in jeans and an orange T-shirt, he draws no attention to himself, standing completely devoid of any semblance of bling-bling. Furthering the effect, he records music under four different names. In addition to Dabrye's hip-hop, he publishes experimental electronic works under his given name, dance music under the name James Cotton, and "crazy mashed-up dancehall drum 'n' bass" under the name SK-1.
If Mullinix is a man of slight build, he's a man of even fewer words, which became apparent often during the interview:
Me: "How's the tour going so far?"
Mullinix: [Takes a long drag on his cigarette.] "Pretty good."
Me: [After a long, very nearly uncomfortable pause.] "Fair enough. What was it like working with Scott Herren on his last Prefuse 73 album?"
Mullinix: [Takes an even longer drag on his cigarette.] "Pretty good." [Long pause.] "Went well."
Me: "Well all right ..."
Simplicity is clearly his thing, an attribute that should be expected, given his work to date. On Dabrye's debut LP, 2002's One/Three on Ghostly, buzzing bass lines and filtered keyboard progressions blend with minimal yet irregular beats held together by a pulsing, glitch-y glue. Earlier this year, Dabrye released Instrmntl on Scott Herren's Eastern Developments label, an EP so efficient it leaves out even the vowels in its title. The EP showcases Dabrye's warmer, more loop-based tracks, with a sparseness that leaves it accessible to those who haven't yet fallen in love with the erratic electronics of artists like Prefuse 73.
But don't assume you're being clever by calling it glitch-hop or hip-hoptronica or clickety-hop or one of thousands of titles thrust upon his music. "When people start going the click-hop or trip-hop route I get kinda frustrated," he says. "It's reasonable that they do it, but I don't really like a lot of trip-hop and the click-hop thing is just kind of a goofy subcategory. I just want to do hip-hop."
The road to hip-hop today is paved with street credibility; initiation generally involves being discovered by Dre or getting shot nine times, or some combination thereof. Mullinix, however, cites influences such as composer Phillip Glass. "I'm more into post-war classical [music]. From studying cello I think I developed a musical ear. With serialist and minimalist composers, I think that's had a big influence on me with creative ideas."
It's not exactly daring to assume that Mullinix is the only contemporary hip-hop producer who traveled to hip-hop via the trombone. The big brass horn marked his earliest involvement with music back in fourth grade, which he followed up with the violin in fifth grade and the cello in sixth. While attending ninth grade in Birmingham, Mich., however, Mullinix's musical tastes began to broaden. He discovered hip-hop records by Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim, and in the following years, given Birmingham's proximity to the flourishing Detroit techno scene, he explains that artists like Aphex Twin "made me realize, 'Oh wow, there are new sounds.' "
And new sounds are indeed unleashed upon the crowd at Bottom of the Hill. Almost as soon as Dabrye's set begins, the crowd is turned into a sea of bobblehead dolls, powerless to keep their noggins in one place. Thunderous, vibrating bass fills the room, much to the delight of the smiling young woman perched upon one of the speakers. As Mullinix fires up the wobbly riff of "No Child of God," he remains focused on the boards and boxes and pedals and dials and knobs that envelop his workstation. He allows the assault to lapse periodically, more a break for the crowd than for himself. During these pauses, the crowd erupts into applause and cheers, and Mullinix briefly looks up, mouth closed tight in a modest half-smile, nodding sheepishly before launching into the next track.
The last song of his set is one of his newest, a collaboration with Slum Village producer/emcee Jay Dee and MC Phat Kat, which will appear on Dabrye's upcoming album, Two/Three. The track is a bit of an oddity among Dabrye's primarily instrumental work. Mullinix maintains, however, that working with emcees has "always been the goal. I just never knew any, and wasn't really submerged in Detroit's hip-hop scene."
Integrating emcees into his music has been a new challenge for Mullinix. "Since all the emcees are different, it's taking a little longer. With Jay Dee we met, hung out in the studio. But in general I just make beats that I like and sometimes I get a little bit of guidance from emcees as far as what they prefer. Maybe if they've heard something I've done before we'll try to do something like that."
But the challenge has been welcomed by Mullinix, who's kept himself busy during downtimes in production by working at a used record store. "When I have a lot of time off my day job, I think I take all my free time for granted. I feel a little more grounded if I try to stay somehow normal."
As the popularity of his music grows, however, hip-hop is likely to become Tadd Mullinix's day job.
"For a while you feel like you're waiting," he says, "and then all of a sudden it kicks in really quickly. It's kind of a fast life right now."