Chino Amobi On The Development Of His Music-Making Process
Native Instruments heralded the release of the Komplete 11 audio production suite with Komplete Sketches: a set of 24 commissioned compositions by a range of artists, all of which were made exclusively with the new software. We’ve linked up with five of the enlisted Sketches artists—WIFE, Chino Amobi, Throwing Shade, Jlin and Deru—to go in deep on their workflow processes, the useful tips they’ve learned throughout their career and the techniques they use to create their own distinctive sound. This week we chat to Chino Amobi, one of the founders of the intersectional and activist-minded NON Worldwide crew along with UK-based Nkisi, Cape Town’s Angel-Ho. Chino, who currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, discusses the development of his creative process from his formative music-making experiences with PlayStations to his current setup.
What’s your production setup?
I’ve been using Logic. I use a MIDI controller with an Alesis keyboard, and it’s really simple. I use some of the factory instruments, my samples and my vocals. I mix all of that with melodies that I play and things that I find online. There’s a lot of sampling.
You’ve sampled Alicia Keys on your tracks.
I’ve been using a lot of that kind of thing: Rihanna; Beyoncé; Alicia Keys. In a certain way, I love working under that pop context, taking those tracks and then reusing them with classical music. I’m primarily a visual artist, and this is basically collaging. I love to create sonic interpretations of the methods I use in my visual work—it translates really well. I think those vocals make a great stand-in for a female vocalist. And it helps that they’re so flawless and compressed already. I used Beyoncé’s “Formation” vocal at Berghain, and I’ve also used it in some mixes. She sounds great, and I love that song.
Do you work with soft synths as well as sampling?
Yeah, I use some plugins. I like using Absynth, for example. I like Native Instruments plugins in general. The Logic instruments are good when you need strings, but they’re not as rich as the NI ones. With those, you feel like you’re there—it feels live, you know? I love that aspect of it. And especially with the drums, like the India or the West Africa kits, it feels like somebody’s really playing it. With synths or plugins or instruments, I want things to sound rich. If it sounds rich, I’m all over that. If you get something that doesn’t have that sound, you can play the exact same notes and it just won’t sound cool. If you do have that rich sound you can even play a bad note and make it sound good.
What’s your general approach to creating new music?
Some creators can say, “Okay, I’m going to make three beats per day,” but I’ve never really been like that. I’m kind of a romantic or something. When I see that theme or hear that note—that spark of divine creativity that moves me—then I get moving. So I think that it varies from person to person. It’s good to have balance, though: If you wait for that inspiration and it never comes, then what? I released some tracks recently that have a vibe or type of sound that I wouldn’t normally go for. Right now though, I feel free enough to just put it out there. My identity isn’t at stake to the point where I can’t just share these things. It’s been a while since I’ve actually allowed myself to have fun with a track or just be a little less serious with it.
Were you more serious in the beginning?
Yeah, definitely. It’s still important for me to be taken seriously as an artist, but play is important too, and I want people to be aware of that. My music is not this thing that’s removed from interaction and my environment. You don’t have to suffer to make a good track, but sometimes I still do. There are times where I just get so frustrated working on something that I’m just like, “Ugh.” At that point, I’ll take a break. But I haven’t gotten that way in a while—not to the point where I feel super frustrated while working on a track. You know: if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I’ll move on and watch a Nigerian movie or call my girlfriend.
You were born in America to Nigerian parents. Has that heritage influenced the collective you’re a part of, NON?
For sure. Growing up in America, I always felt alienated. My parents were hesitant to teach me and my brother Igbo, which is the language they speak, because they were concerned about us not being able to assimilate. So I’ve always been in love with Nigerian culture, but then there’s this thing of, “I don’t speak the language” and I can’t talk to my grandma when I go to Nigeria. There’s this disconnect that I felt, and I’ve always wanted to fill that void.
[Fellow NON members] Nkisi and Angel-Ho have similar experiences. Nkisi is in London but grew up in Belgium, and her mom is from the Congo. Angel-Ho’s dad is Portuguese and their mom is South African. So there’s this interstitial state that I feel like we’re all in. I like to draw the connections, and I really love doing that on a global scale. And sound is such a powerful tool right now. It’s always been that way, but now information is able to spread so quickly and open people’s minds so quickly. I love doing that on a global scale, and I’m starting from Africa because that’s where my origins are. They also transcend into other territories though, and I think it’s interesting to think of sound itself as a territory. That way, you can appoint yourself as your own governing body creatively. That’s really cool to me. Anyway, the response has been great, and NON is its own self-sustaining entity now. That’s what I love about it.
You use a lot of sounds of weapons on your tracks. Would you consider that to be related to the idea of a sonic “state”?
Right. It’s like sonically embodying this militant state: We’re protecting one another and looking out for one another, so it’s this symbol of unity. It’s like we’re our own troops. We are our own people, and we are together. Militant aesthetics have always been really cool to me.
Is NON a label, or do you see it as more than that?
I see it as a holistic experience—a total way of living. It extends into the fields of social justice, art, literature, film, fashion; total immersion. Sound is just where it starts: the foundation. That’s one of the reasons we changed the name from “NON Records.” I like “NON Worldwide” because it just sounds like a shipping company or something. It’s a bit removed from the context of records—actually, we don’t even have a record! We’ve got a distribution deal, but we haven’t put out any vinyl yet.
So NON could be doing fashion or anything else really?
That’s it; absolutely anything. So writing a book or a letter, holding a rally or doing a speech, or even architecture and city planning. I don’t want to limit it in any way. Also, I really want to work with kids more because they’re such fast learners and so receptive to information. They have great ideas, too. I’d like to do workshops and open up a design firm that transcends into sound and performative design. Kids who haven’t had access to anything like that before can come in and learn. From there, they can start to teach each other. I’d like to do that in South Africa, in Nigeria and in India.
Did you get involved in music as a kid?
I used to be jealous of the kids that did music lessons, but I was always doing art as a kid. I got lucky. A lot of parents from West Africa or Nigeria specifically would say, “I want you to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer” because they want you to make money and do something safe. But my parents always nurtured my artistic side. As a kid, that meant messing with computer programs that involved sound creation, like eJay or MTV Generator for the PlayStation. I was drawn to them. I also used to rap in high school with my brother and his friends, so sound was always an important tool for communication: the fact that you could always lay a beat down and use your voice. It also unified us. That was our common ground. It wasn’t until I went to art school and thought about performance more that I started to think more seriously about the whole thing. Also, going to shows in the city and seeing people perform at punk and queer spaces really started to open my mind to the possibilities. I just grabbed a laptop with GarageBand and started messing around. There’s always been a computer involved: a laptop or PlayStation or whatever. Some kind of computer was always the foundation.
That’s often the way. Nowadays a lot of electronic musicians have never even owned a hardware synthesizer.
The MIDI controller was the first instrument I ever got. The computer just felt natural. Making music was part of the flow of being on the internet or playing games, and I never really felt like it was something separate from that.
Did you have artists that you looked up to when you started or were you more into PlayStation games?
When I was making that stuff, PlayStation games were a huge inspiration in terms of the sound design and stuff. I used to look up to those because they were always so next-level. But in terms of artists, rappers like Nas and Wu-Tang were important for the way they created their own world. I’m into any artist that can do that. Take Björk, for example: I would listen to her music, and it would take me into her world. I’d see it through her eyes and always loved that. Radiohead too—the things that they do sonically would just be so different to the extent that it started to feel other-worldly.
Those artists aren’t necessarily making music primarily with computers. Do you play any traditional instruments?
I used to tour with a cymbal, hi-hats and drums, but it got a little tricky because I like to travel light and I’m not into driving all that stuff around. I don’t have roadies so it’s just not efficient. I do love playing live, though. I was in the studio with Dutch E Germ a month ago, and he brought in some old synths—some Moogs and these really cool polysynths. He was playing the drums and we were just jamming out with those. It had been so long since I’d done that. I feel like I used that experience to bring some looseness back into my work. It’s still tight now, but somehow looser at the same time.
Do you feel that becoming proficient with an instrument can actually inhibit your creativity?
I do feel that way. I’m not gonna lie—sometimes I hear a classically trained pianist and I’m like “Dang, I wish I could do that.” But at the same time I do think that kind of thing can get a little formulaic or feel premeditated in a way. Untrained musicians have a lot of room for intuition. I think that as long as you can feel music, you can produce it. You don’t have to be able to read it too. If I like something, I’m going to loop it and play with it. And it does feel more like play than really working on something.
Do you watch tutorials for software and things?
The only tutorials that I really watch are about how to use a plugin or a specific instrument. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. But all those tutorials about how to make a specific Metro Boomin beat or whatever can be kind of a negative. It’s okay to watch that stuff and learn from it, but you need to take the basics and manipulate that to do your own thing. You don’t need to get that exact sound and practice it over and over. I’m not anti-tutorial and I’m always up for learning, but taking somebody else’s sound and using it as a crutch is self-defeating. It takes away from the play. You can make a lot of money by re-creating whatever is successful at the moment. But why not try to create your own sound and your own niche? People will be way more receptive to that in the long run. I think it’s very important that music comes from your soul. When it comes from your heart, people feel it. Whether you’re this expert or not, people respond to that.
Read past Native Instruments Komplete Sketches interviews with Jlin and more here.
Published December 12, 2016.