"Punk, originality, and videogames": a conversation with Friendzone

Last week, California-based rap duo Main Attrakionz released their highly anticipated album 808s and Dark Grapes III. Three years in the making, 808s III sheds the guise of its predecessor’s cloud-rap trappings, becoming something all the more strange, serene and triumphant.

Friendzone, the instrumental hip-hop crew behind the production of the album, have been pulling influences from the fringe corners of anime and videogame culture for half a decade and transforming it all into dope hip-hop.

We had the chance to speak with James Laurence, one half of Friendzone, on executive producing the album, plans for the future, and the indelible ties between his music and videogame culture.


KS: How are you guys doing?  What have you been up to lately?

Pretty good, last night we had the Green Ova Underground showcase which was really awesome. It was a packed audience, which was cool because, not to diss the Bay area because I love it with all my heart, but last night kind of restored my faith in the Bay area music scene. We’ve had shows where there were thirty people, but this one we had over a hundred people come out and show love. That was some of most fun I’ve had in music since we first started.

I’ve been in bands since I was fourteen. My first band was a hardcore punk band and it was fun, we played hella shows. That’s when the Bay area was thriving, we had venues everywhere. And now we have like, more than two places. We can book like 1015 Folsom and all these other places but they’re expensive and they’ve got weird rules. You can’t crowdsurf, which is understandable, but it’s not what we’re used to. We used to have this thing called Sick Sad World, this warehouse venue we would go to every few weeks. We would pack that place with close to three-hundred people and it was crazy. Shout out to Bobby Peru and the Trill Team Six guys because they found this warehouse and we started throwing shows there. This was back in 2011. That do-it-yourself vibe was really inspiring and I knew I wanted to do music again after that. I went to school for music but I dropped out. I’m very close to finishing, I could go back and finish but I feel like when you have you’re own wikipedia page that’s your resume.

KS: How has your relationship with Main Attrakionz changed/evolved since you took on full-production credits of the follow-up? How did that decision to exclusively collaborate come about?

How do we work with Main Attrakionz? They just come over to our place and record pieces! we had a studio that Dylan and I lived in and they came over nearly every single day and we would just make music. And we would have beats! That’s why you don’t see any “Friendzone and someone-else” material, it’s usually Friendzone and Main Attrakionz. We do stuff with Antwon and other people but it’s very sparse. Every beat that I make they’re usually two steps away from being on it, it’s hard for me to give it to anyone else because of their availability and proximity.

Left to right: James Laurence, Dylan Reznick, Charles Glover, Damondre Grice

KS: How did you end up working with Main Attrakionz? How did you link up?

I first met Charles (Squadda) on twitter after I downloaded a compilation that he appeared on. This was around 2010 when in my first year of college, I tweeted him and we got to talking and it turns out we lived in the same neighborhood. I made these two beats, rap paradise and perfect skies, and we didn’t expect them to record that day they came over. But they just knocked those two songs out and we were taken aback by how they could spit off the cuff with no pen and paper. At that point we didn’t see ourselves as rap musicians, we just had these weird beats that people could rap over. It was a beautiful experience.

Fast forward to 2012 to 2014, I was living with Dylan in this closet of an apartment where 808s III was recorded. It was really chill but this room had no windows, so imagine just being in this dungeon and making beats all day ‘cause that’s literally all I did.

KS: It’s been roughly three years since the last 808s installment. How would you describe the mood of this album compared to the last?

It’s completely different. We produced the whole thing so that’s the main difference, 808s II only had Perfect Skies and Chuch on it. So imagine an entire album sounding like that. Speaking of Chuch, that features a sampled loop by Gigi Masin, a classical composer from Italy. He actually found the song on Youtube and reached out to us to say that that he loved what we’re doing and mailed me this CD full of samples of stuff he was working on at the time. That sample’s actually been used by a bunch of different musicians, from Bjork to Nujabes.

KS: It’s funny that you mentioned Nujabes. When I heard that beat for the first time, I immediately thought it sounded like ‘Latitude Remix’. When was the first time you heard Nujabes? What was different about his sound that stuck out to you? How has his production influenced your own music?

I love that song, the Five Deez killed it on that track! When I first made the beat for Chuch, I named it “rip-off” because I was just messing around. I was in high school when I was listening to Pase Rock and I heard “Fly Love Song” off of Uyama Hiroto’s first album. It was mindblowing for me, so naturally as the nerd I am I looked up the label he was attached to called Hydeout and from there I got into Nujabes. Both of their work have definitely influenced me. I was devastated when I learned he died because it was on my birthday. There’s a song on 808s III called “Ain’t No Other Way” that’s definitely a tribute to his influence. He had a very simple and melodic approach to flipping samples and incorporating piano into his loops and I think we take a lot away from that. My approach to drum and snare sounds is from observing his music.

Sonic 3 is the main influence over almost everything that we do.

KS: What have you been listening to lately? I know that you’re very much inspired by early 90’s era videogames and classic instrumental music. What are some of the games that you’ve drawn from for inspiration on 808s III?

A lot of early Square games, Castlevania. Between Dylan and I, Sonic 3 is the main influence over almost everything that we do. We fucking love that game. We’ll talk about that game for ages, I actually have a sample pack of that game’s sounds and they’re used a lot in all of our music. Ico had a huge impact on me personally. I can’t wait for the Last Guardian! I remember playing it as a kid and just holding the hand of this girl, and the only music that played would be when you saved. The combination of the music and ambiance of Ico, especially with the art direction, deeply impacted me. I’m almost getting teary-eyed thinking about it [laughter].

KS: You two have been making music together as Friendzone since 2010. How did you first meet?

Dylan and I go way back. That’s my blood brother, we’ve been through blood, sweat and tears. So after I left my hardcore punk band I got into harsh noise music. This was in high school, tenth or eleventh grade. Dylan was in this noise rock band called Robin WIlliams On Fire, and I was playing under the name Doe. I would just set up my laptop and route the macbook through a pedal, like a crunch pedal just to fuck with the sound. And then I would split the audio and create this havoc audio loops. So I played at his house one time and he brought me into his band. We called ourselves “Destroy Tokyo”, which is a horrible name but whatever we went with it.

KS: You’ve characterized your original lo-fi sound as something that you are now for the most part “done with” and that you want to create a loud bombastic production akin to Outkast’s ATLiens. What albums would you want 808s III to inspire comparisons to?

That’s a really hard question! I don’t think I can compare it to anything else because it doesn’t sound like anything else. I truly believe that. You could say it’s a little bit Nujabes, but it’s also a little bit of Drake. We didn’t know how to mix a rap album for awhile and we learned that through observing Drake’s producer “40”. 808s III is mixed in a certain way where you can’t call it lo-fi at all. Each song is a different place or moment in our lives since 2012.

KS: Both of you have acknowledged past experience in Japan as being formative experiences and influences on your art. Have you two visited or performed there recently?

No, we have not! Anyone in Japan, if you read Kill Screen, hit up Vapor Records and tell them you want to see Main Attrakionz and Friendzone because I need to go back there. The scenery in Japan is fucking crazy, it’s like burned into my brain. The lights, the buildings, the billboards. I was young when I went there and it just shocked me and left such a deep impression. There were arcades everywhere and I love arcade gaming.  I would go back to Japan in a minute, but plane tickets are expensive and I hear renting a concert hall is nuts too. We had DKXO and his crew stay over at our house when they needed a place to stay and they’re from the surrounding Tokyo area. They were the best house guests, and I know anytime I go to Japan I could hit them up for a place to stay.

Left to Right: Glover, Reznick, Grice, Laurence

KS: You’ve talked about how important marketing is to you. How has Japanese artwork and music influenced your brand, such as the use of the late j-pop idol singer Yukiko Okada?

So for the record, we are both two white males and our intentions have never been to appropriate any culture or who Yukiko Okada was. My approach to album artwork is influenced by my favorite band, The Smiths. They would always put James Dean on the covers of their singles and just put the name of the band and album title. I love Yukiko Okada and her music and the story of her life. Lately all of our artwork has drifted away from emulating Japanese iconography. I art directed 808s III and we took a very personal approach with the use of polaroids and Kreayshawn took a lot of those. Our early artwork comes from a place of deep love and respect for that culture, not to sound like an otaku, but we didn’t want to run the risk of blindly appropriating something that we love. I notice a lot of artists using Kanji now on their promo art and i don’t want to do it anymore. I know through Bandcamp we’ve got a fanbase in Japan and I think that’s because we respect a lot of things they’re into.

KS: What kind of games have you been playing lately?

Bloodborne! That game is incredible, I have two over 100-level characters. That was my first ‘Souls’ game. I couldn’t get into the medieval setting of the first games, but this one is a joint-collaboration between From Software and Sony. I play a lot of Street Fighter, Blazblue and Mortal Kombat X so I’m really involved in the local fighting game scene. I also do a lot of speedruns of Resident Evil games so I go back to those a lot.

KS: If you could make a videogame, what would it look and sound like?

Oh yeah, I’d love to work on a game! If I were to work or score the sound design for a game, my ideal game would probably be a mash-up between King’s Field meets Dark Souls with a hint of Megaman. We know Devolver through Twitter and they like our music, so that’s something I definitely want to explore in the future. Sega, hit us up! You need me and Dylan working on your games!

Ico had a huge impact on me personally

KS: Who are the composers and producers that you look to for inspiration, videogame or otherwise? Which games have you played recently that you thought had interesting music?

Well first off, Mitsuda Yasunori because he did music for Chrono Cross and Radical Dreamers. Bloodborne has awesome music direction. Ico obviously stands out to me, so Michiru Oshima.  Outside of games, Kanye West is definitely one. Every one of his albums is on point, production-wise. 808s and Heartbreak is my favorite. I listen to my friends for a lot of my inspiration, so Suicideyear’s music is dope. I listen to a lot of Young Thug because he’s like rock star Lil Wayne when Lil Wayne couldn’t pull that off. Mykki Blanco too, we worked with him on a track for Adult Swim and he was the nicest and most punk guys ever. The time we got to spend with him was very inspiring.

KS: A lot of your most notable productions have been for rappers such as Asap Rocky, Yung Lean and yes, Main Attrakionz. Have you been in touch with any other big names for collaborations? Who are some rappers you’d love to produce for?

Main Attrakionz will always get first pick of beats. Beside them, producing for Young Thug would be cool. We were in touch with the manager of Skooly from the Rich Kidz and we’d love to get back in touch with them. 808s III dominates most of my attention though so right now I’m only concerned with the rollout of that and touring. There’s been a lot of people hitting us up, so I’d be open to producing for another major label artist.

KS: What would you say is the “theme” of 808s and Dark Grapes III, lyrically and musically?

So when I was reading Meaghan [Garvey]’s review for Pitchfork she definitely pointed out the theme which is struggle. This album has been the last three years of our lives and it’s been a rollercoaster, we’ve had ups and downs. Right now is definitely an up. That’s what happens when you’re making something that challenges yourself and what you thought you were capable of.

KS: What are your plans after 808s III? Do you think you’ll come back to produce any future installments in the 808s series?

We’ll see. All of that music that we recorded is going to come out in one form or another. There are so many tracks I love that aren’t out yet, it’s crazy. One of my favorites has this sample from Bruce Springsteen’s track from Jerry Macquire and they fucking killed that beat. We didn’t put it on the album because we thought the sample would be too much to clear and nobody really felt like putting it on the album, strangely enough. There are so many songs like that. So in a few months we’ll probably meet up and talk.

I’m also mixing my own vocals for my solo work right now and it’s gut-wrenching. I feel like I almost have to get someone else to mix it because I feel so judgemental over my voice, that’s why it’s taking so long. That stuff sounds like Xiu Xiu, The Smiths and my own personal spin on things. Whatever you do, make sure you’re making it your own. That’s what it’s all about, originality. Punk, originality, and videogames. Three most important things in life!

This interview was edited for length and clarity.