"Sometimes I feel like my main “koan” or paradox with music is the fact that I am goal oriented and project oriented – but still have to completely separate myself from that while I create. It is a challenge I have had for years and is something I constantly have to practice."
In Zen Buddhism, the term koan denotes an enigmatic riddle, story or saying used to challenge the thinking and faith of students. Used primarily during meditation exercises, koans are used to provoke self-growth and a deeper understanding of the world’s universal truths. For Burlington-based producer Es-K, these paradoxical sayings reflect the conflict he feels when creating in the moment while thinking forward to his long-term musical projects and goals. And so it felt only natural that he name his latest solo project after them.
Es-K’s Koan is mature boom-bap at its most refined. Sleek Rhodes keyboards, unquantized, skittering hi-hats, and filtered sample chops weave their way in and out of each beat, creating a hazy, mindful mood that doesn’t let up throughout the whole project. That’s not to say that Koan is without its moments of raw excitement, though. One such moment comes when Es-K works in a sample of Redman‘s rowdy 1994 anthem "Can’t Wait" into the coda of "Hiveminded," amplifying the track’s energy and serving as a reminder that none of Redman’s many references to "buddah" throughout his career have ever been about Buddhism. Some of the album’s other highlights include the warped "Sevenuvum" and closer "Stopwatch," where Es-K’s crisp production eventually breaks down into a bluesy, freewheeling solo by guest keyboardist Danny Whitney.
And unlike many chillhop producers who focus primarily on instrumental music, Es-K is also well-versed in working with vocalists. He’s closely affiliated with Smif-n-Wessun’s General Steele — who he released a collaborative album with back in 2016. Their project — the polished-yet-overlooked Building Bridges — is a case study in aging gracefully in the music industry, while updating a classic sound for the present.
NINETOFIVE caught up with Es-K recently to discuss the evolution of his latest project, his origins as a producer, and his extensive production work with General Steele. Get lost in Koan and get to know him!
Why did you choose the title "Koan" for your latest project?
So a Koan is essentially a riddle or anecdote you can’t solve — a paradox used to demonstrate how sometimes logical reasoning can’t be used to solve everything. And this album was made very spontaneously, with no specific goal in mind. I had been working on lots of different stuff and struggling to complete projects. I was bouncing around back and forth from different things, trying to coordinate with lots of different people, trying to fit a specific sound or vibe, etc. At one point during all the chaos, I decided to take a step back from the projects and just sit down to create. So this album was a result of me stepping away from my other projects and responsibilities.
Are you a practicing Buddhist?
My father has been a practicing Buddhist my entire life but I don’t practice it. I would consider myself spiritual in many ways, though, and I have used meditation at many points throughout my life, although it’s not part of my daily routine.
Does spirituality play a role in your creative process?
Spirituality effects all aspects of my life. When I sit down to get creative my goal is always to let go of everything, to get into a peaceful frame of mind. Letting go of a specific goal, a specific sound, everything — I just push any ego aside and I create. I feel like this is the best example of how I use spirituality in my music — simply letting go.
How did you first get into producing?
I grew up surrounded by art and music. Both of my parents’ houses were always full of music and art so it was natural for me to pick producing up. I played cello for a bit during elementary school and began playing bass when I was 13 or so. By the time I was 15, my friends and I had been in some bands and had just discovered Fruity Loops. We quickly also discovered Reason, and then became familiar with what an MPC was. By the time I was 17, I had an MPC, a turntable and I began a strictly hardware approach. And now here I am, about 12 or 13 years later. Music production always appealed to me because it added another layer of creativity to the music making process. And to this day, I still feel like I am learning all the time and that the possibilities only continue to grow.
You’re also affiliated closely with General Steele from Smif-n-Wessun. What were the origins of your creative relationship with him?
2014’s “Serenity” was dedicated to a close friend who had passed away. During the creation of it I reached out to Steele because he was one of my favorite MC’s of all time. I wanted the dedication to my friend to be truly special and involve some of my favorite artists. When I reached out to Steele we ended up connecting immediately. A few months after the album came out I was in Brooklyn and contacted Steele to let him know I was around. He invited me over and we got to listen to my album, talk about the reason he participated in it, break bread, etc. As the saying goes — the rest is history. We did Building Bridges together over the next few years and also put out VVS Verbal’s Rebirth of the Slickest. And there is much more on the way.
When you’re producing for someone like General Steele — whose early career is iconic but overshadows their later work — do you feel a pressure to help them surpass their classics?
At the end of the day, our relationship and collaboration is pure and natural. We are simply friends and collaborators who are here to create, so there are really no specific goals when it comes to surpassing any projects or reaching a certain pedestal. As I was mentioning earlier I truly believe that my best material comes when I can completely let go of any ego or specific goals. If I was thinking about surpassing a classic or trying to compete with a specific release, I think it would just put a creative roadblock right in my path. If our creations end up being recognized under a special light like that early material, it would obviously be amazing, but it is not necessary for us to continue creating together.
What projects can we expect from you throughout the rest of the year?
Nothing ever goes quite as planned, so I’m gonna leave a bunch of potential stuff out of this list. For now, my main two projects are an instrumental album and an album with vocals. The instrumental album is something I am creating using recordings of my dad playing piano and keyboards. It’s about 50% done and I am really excited about how it’s coming out. I have always dreamed of doing a project with my dad, so I am putting a lot of energy into this now. The album with vocals is something I’m putting together with Steele and Bucktown USA. I can’t go into it much yet, but it is a very special project to me and I will be sharing more details about it in the near future.
Photos taken by: Rico James