Amidst the dizzying array of chopped, looped, and sampled sounds that constitute much of today’s electronic music scene, New York City-based producer/musician/gifhead Nick Koenig’s work stands alone. Koenig, who performs under the moniker Hot Sugar, relies on his own surroundings and aural intuition to craft entirely original beats from scratch. The process, which he refers to as Associative Music, involves recording found sounds (such as a rat’s heartbeat, Hurricane Sandy, a cracking skull) and manipulating them into infectious melodies. The technique requires meticulous skill, risky experimentation (Koenig once admitted to electrocuting himself for the “zapping sounds”) and often, an affinity for the eccentric. Since bursting onto the music scene in 2011, Koenig’s unorthodox approach and unpredictable instrumentals have caught the attention of rap artists The Roots, Big Baby Gandhi and Das Racist, triggering a string of dream collaborations, a new album, and recently, a big-time Grammy nomination. Koenig filled us in on his latest successes over email, where he signed every message with a far-from-sinister ‘<3’.
First off, congratulations on being a Grammy-nominated producer. Can you explain exactly how that came about, and how you feel about it?
I recorded a requiem to be played at my funeral in case I was to die in my sleep. I recorded it in my bed (under the covers because my room gets freezing in the winter) using an old Casio keyboard into a cassette player. My friend Aaron (from Honeycomb Hideout) sang on it and the demo leaked around to a couple bloggers. A few months later, a friend hit me up and asked me if I knew that I was performing at The Roots’ festival. My name was already up on the concert poster and no one had even told me. When I got there, I met the Roots’ manager and he told me that they were starting a new concept album about the death of a kid who fell into a life of crime. The kid dies in the first song and the rest of the songs trace his life in reverse. My song was that first song (where the kid dies) and they didn’t have any other songs yet, so mine was intended to set the tone for the rest of the album. They even called it Sleep, (which was the name of my requiem).
The album turned out amazing (as all of their stuff does) and now it’s Grammy nominated for the BEST RAP ALBUM. I don’t really follow awards shows because very few of the people that inspire or influence me ever get recognized by them, but I know it’s a big deal to some people and if it helps validate independent or underground movements to a mainstream audience then it think it’s progress.
You also recently released your MiDi Murder EP, featuring collaborations with some pretty established artists like Heems and KOOL AD of (the now defunct) Das Racist. How has your work evolved since the days of your first EP Muscle Milk in early 2011?
I prefer making instrumental music. Muscle Milk and Moon Money took a lot more time (and feel more personal to me), but while I was working on those I was helping a lot of my friends (Big Baby Gandhi, Lakutis, Das Racist, Izza Kizza, etc.) on their projects. I was a big fan of everyone I worked with before I knew them, and I love posse cuts so I started picturing dream collaborations between my favorite artists and then tried to make them happen. MiDi Murder is also a way to sneak my unusual recordings into more accessible rap scenarios. For example, some people will first listen to a song because it features some of their favorite rappers like Big Baby Gandhi, Nasty Nigel (of World’s Fair) & YC the Cynic, but then I can surprise them by revealing that the beat was made from a piano riff played by a rat.
That rat beat is genius. Is it really true you recorded the sound of your girlfriend Kitty Pryde orgasming and used it in tracks on your new EP?
Yes. I hate censorship and the company sponsoring my mixtape said I’d have to censor some curse words if they were going to put it out for free. I decided to replace the words they deemed controversial with actual sounds of concepts they would find controversial. For example, in one song they wanted me to censor Nasty Nigel saying the word “piss” so I ended up recording myself peeing and replaced the word with the actual sound of it instead. In my opinion, the censored version of my EP is way more obscene than the uncensored version.
You’re the self-professed founder of this technique you refer to as Associative Music, which basically means you make beats out of everyday noises. What’s your process and how did you get so skilled at it?
The process constantly changes (from song to song). I’ve been practicing for almost ten years and shudder to think of what kind of person I was back then. I used to spend entire days recording different types of white noise from analog TV sets to practice making instruments out of them (drums, basses, strings, etc.). The first time I microwaved cassette tapes I made my scientist friend log the experiments using the scientific method so we could log all the results as logically as possible. I took things way more seriously back then. All recorded sounds are just clay, so I would spend my life trying to shape them into the most unusual/unrecognizable forms. At some point I realized I should just relax and focus on the compositions rather than the sounds. That’s when I finally started releasing music. Now all those Associative Music techniques are second nature to me. The theories and procedures I use are simple, logical and consistent, but discovering them was very messy and time consuming for me.
Artistically speaking, do you consider yourself more a producer or musician? Is there even a distinction for you?
There’s no distinction to me because I feel like the definitions of those terms are antiquated. When you take a snake and let it slither over a harp, is the snake the musician or at that point is it the instrument and you’re the musician? When you take that cacophonous, atonal recording of that snake on a harp and process it into something unrecognizable from the original, are you just a producer or are you controlling the recorded audio as if it were its own instrument, the way a musician would? Associative Music is a step beyond the traditional assumptions of what a musician or producer is; it’s a synthesis of both.
Your new music video seems to confront ideas of self-performance and identity in a technology-saturated world. As an artist with a characteristically strong web presence, in what ways has the Internet intensified or limited your propensity to create?
Before the Internet, sharing your work must have been incredibly annoying. As a musician, you would’ve needed the approval and help of a label to distribute your music. As a fine artist or photographer you probably would’ve needed a gallery’s support in order to get discovered. All those middlemen just meant more filters and it would suck having to rely on (or even worse, pander to) another person’s taste just because they represent a potential platform for distribution. I can share anything I do on the Internet without anyone else’s approval, at anytime, and the majority of my fan base is actively paying attention. I’m so grateful and take full advantage of that.
Lately it seems like there’s a growing interest among kids to make beats from their bedrooms and showcase them on the Internet for recognition. Can you offer some advice to those looking to improve their skills?
Stop sampling other people’s music (it’s very lazy and cheap). Try your hardest to record original content. You don’t need a fancy microphone — if you have a computer and the Internet you can illegally download a program or something and the entire world is your private studio.
What has been the most surreal moment in you career as a musician so far?
Everything is very surreal. The concept that people listen to my music is surreal.
Awhile back you wrote a hilariously disturbing memoir about feeling pressured by a gang of kids in your seventh grade who made a ritual of listening to The Red Hot Chili Peppers and masturbating in front of each other. If you had the chance, what would you say to those punks today?
I still bump into them. Some of them have even come to my shows. My hometown sucks <3