Elaquent has seen it all.
Né Sona Elango, he first emerged in 2008 with his In Color series of beat tapes, but he’s been actively producing far longer than that. Raised in Guelph, a midsize city an hour and a half west of Toronto, Elaquent got his start in the late 1990s, digging through online sample caches before searching for loops on the internet became commonplace. “I came up using random samples from blogspots way before Youtube even existed. If it sounded cool, and if I could somehow get it into my computer, that’s all that mattered to me.”
Elaquent’s drive and resourcefulness has allowed him to grow slowly over the years, releasing album after album of silky, forward-thinking boom-bap, and building partnerships with keystone labels in the beat scene like HW&W, Fat Beats and Mello Music Group. His newly-released album Forever is a Pretty Long Time is a break from his past work, though. Forever is Elaquent’s answer to J Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit – the album where the era-defining Motor City producer first let vocalists take the helm over his off-kilter, jazzy instrumentals. Over the phone from his current home in Cambridge, Ontario, Elaquent explains that his pivot away from majority-instrumental projects happened organically as he started sending out track after track to his network of collaborators and labelmates.
“The first beats I made for the project were “Guidelines” and “Annoyed.” It was when I made those beats that I started to realize that I didn’t want to just do another instrumental album. A number of artists passed on those beats at first, but they eventually found their way to Odyssee and Saturn, Alexander, so it was for the best. I kept sending out beats to everyone I knew, and the rest of the project just grew around that base until it turned into a full album.”
Deciding to step back and yield partial creative control to his guests has absolutely paid off. Heavily-swung drum tracks, filtered samples and woozy keys are the defining features of most of Forever’s tracks. The early single “Airwalk” juxtaposes Chester Watson’s smoky, murmured lyrics with twinkling Wurlitzer runs, while instrumental numbers “Vices” and “Jollof” showcase Elaquent’s wide-ranging sample collection, as he chops choir vocals and keys in and out of his dense, unquantized drum loops. The soulful “One Week” is another highlight; Toronto-based vocalist A l l i e fits seamlessly into the downtempo R&B track, singing softly about a romance with only one week left before she leaves the city for Los Angeles.
Forever’s definite standout, though, is the triumphant “Thread Count,” where Elaquent pairs Guilty Simpson’s deep vocals with a marching brass section, lush Rhodes lines and a loping drum break. “Swear to God, life’s too short, they want me in the box guarded by pork,” the frequent Dilla collaborator drawls confidently in his signature slow flow as he toasts the loyal friends in his circle while taunting police and would-be enemies. It’s opulent, brash and joyous, and sounds like the start of the spring we’re all missing in this year of pandemics and enforced isolation.
You’ve been a fixture of the beat scene for a long time now, and I’m curious to hear about what inspired your early love for production. Did you grow up in a musical household?
Definitely. My older brother was the biggest influence on my music in the house. He was more into the rap side of things, and he was always buying tapes and CDs that he’d play for me. I was six or seven, and I could have told you about Nas or Brand Nubian. Nobody else in kindergarten was into that – especially not in Guelph, where we grew up.
I didn’t get into actual production until I was about thirteen or so. I had a conversation with my brother where I said I hated the beat in a particular song, and he told me to “do something about it,” to learn how to do it myself. I took that as a challenge, and soon I was Yahoo-searching how to make beats until I found Fruity Loops. And the rest is history.
Forever is a Pretty Long Time is your first album where you put vocalists at the forefront, rather than just your instrumentals. How did that affect your creative process?
Well, the process behind producing is different when you know it’s for a vocalist, whether they’re a singer or a rapper. You can do whatever you want when it’s purely instrumental, but when you’re producing for an artist you have to consider the space they need, and what compliments their sound. The artists I worked with on Forever is a Pretty Long Time could kill anything though, and they adapted really well to the production I gave them.
Right now, you live in Cambridge – about an hour outside Toronto, for those who don’t know the GTA. Were you working remotely with artists, or did you travel to work in-person?
Forever is a Pretty Long Time was all the magic of the internet. It’s a beautiful thing. A l l i e – who lives in Toronto – was the closest geographically to me, everyone else is scattered throughout the United States. I generally prefer to work with folks in-person, but this record would certainly not have come together the way it did without the internet.
I think that because Toronto’s seen as such a nucleus for music and entertainment, at least within Canada, artists feel a certain pressure to be right there at the centre of it all.
Absolutely. I do make trips to Toronto to play shows, but as far as moving there, it’s just not something that ever felt right for me. I kind of like the idea of being on the edge of things; in Cambridge, I can work uninterrupted without the distractions of the bigger city. Plus the $2000+ rent is insane.”
I unfortunately relate to that rental price – for a 1+1.
Yeah, it’s tough.
For producers, overcoming the money crunch and working full-time often means getting featured on Apple Music or Spotify playlists and beating the algorithms. As someone who’s been active in the beat scene since the early 2000s, what’s your take on how the rise of streaming has changed the beat scene?
I’m torn on it, to be frank. On one hand, I don’t like how so much of your livelihood is put in the hands of random people who just happen to be Spotify curators, but I’ve benefited from that on a couple occasions too. When you do get playlisted, it certainly boosts your income, but it’s transformed the scene. There’s so many fake PR companies trying to sell artists on playlists, and there’s pressure to make music that can fit cohesively into certain playlists. It’s the idea that maybe you should make a beat like Sango, so Joe Kay will play your music, or a Dilla type beat, so you can get on Mellow Beats. You should just do what you want to do.
It’s more authentic. Plus, the sheer number of streams you need to get to earn a living wage is insane.
Exactly. Right now, I balance music with a job. I’ve done music full-time, and it’s really rewarding, but anyone who works freelance already knows the pitfalls of it. It’s precarious, you feel like you’re waiting by the phone, and at least right now, I’d rather put in the extra time outside of work without that instability.
I respect that. There isn’t always a linear path from doing music part-time to doing it full-time, and it’s more normal than people think to go back-and-forth between the two.
There’s definitely a sense that if you’re a musician and you don’t do it full-time, then people are somehow looking down on you because you don’t only care about your art. But working a 9-to-5 doesn’t mean you’re not serious about what you do creatively, and I think there shouldn’t be a stigma around being a working artist. It’s more important to get out whatever you need to get out through your music, put your stamp on whatever art you do, and leave something worth remembering. That’s part of what I meant with the album title, although there’s a couple possible meanings – forever is a pretty long time.