All industrial/commercial districts tend to look abandoned at night. The look never really seems to change, and what remains is a vestige of business architecture that mainly involves shitty colors like brown and forest green, painted onto long, rectangular, utilitarian buildings. Spring Grove Ave., pressed against the skirts of Northside, is full of these things, but in one of the them you’ll find Fort Ancient Records studio. I drove there from 30 minutes out on a late Tuesday night to meet up with area producer Dren AD to discuss his upcoming release Travel, which drops October 2nd, as well as get an idea as to who he is. This will be his first solo release with the collective of anthropomorphic producers.
After pinging Dren, he met me outside and directed me up an unremarkable set of stairs leading to a second-floor hallway. However washed out those steps were, walking into the building certainly injected some personality into the night. Passing by the live rooms and other beat studios, we enter the door at the far end of the hallway. Charlie Bonepart is sitting on the couch, digesting whatever content being blasted from the bright LED screen of his cellphone. The walls are pitch black with soundproofing treatment. Dren takes his seat at the command center where the music equipment is, talking about how it’s been so goddamn hot for the end of September.
“It’s fuckin’ 90? Man, I’ve been sweating my dick off.” Dren says.
Dren’s calming, lower, bass tone voice serves as an appropriate foundation for his intellectual yet goofy nature. He strikes me as a dude who you’d find in the background of a party, posted up as that guy that everyone knows – or, just as a likely, – in a library for crate diggers, examining a portfolio of arbitrary jazz presses from names most haven’t heard, just to get that rare, perfect sample.
Travel is a six-track instrumental EP with Charlie Bonepart and Moxy Monster putting down vocals on tracks 3 and 5. When asking for Dren’s general vibe on the album, I put a little southpaw into the question and come at it from a different angle –
“So what colors do you see when you listen to this album?” I ask, invoking a sense of synesthesia.
“Actually… Fuckin’, it depends on which track – I actually just see places.” He answers. The first track he says reminds him of “silly fun in Cali”. The track features Fort Ancient roster mate Homage (CVG) on bass guitar.
Dren got into live instrumentation at a young age, playing in an orchestra. He developed an ear for hearing many layers at once, most of which are playing similar parts. So when it came to hip-hop, which features relatively very few tracks overall, it was easy for him to dissect.
“Being able to hear that they were all layered on top of each other, with a sample, made me believe I could do it.” He recalls, “It wasn’t so far fetched.”
Dren’s comment just made too much sense – listening to the album, you can hear his excellence at isolating samples. He’s cueing them in and out, some with an immediate attack while some swell into the song seamlessly. The instrumentals don’t sound like a single loop, monotonously playing over and over (I might catch heat for this, but I’m looking at you, Alchemist). The intro track brings up the concept of travel through a movie quote sample, quickly followed by a fast-paced almost breakbeat. Dren employs more up-tempo than down and as a result creates a sound that begs to be rapped over. Track 2, “Chokehold”, harkens back to dirty wax with its vinyl crack, an abrasive white noise popping atop a jumpy, stuttery bass guitar.
Dren is a light hearted person, and while the overall album conveys this, it’s the third track and main single that does it best. Featuring the ethereal wordplay of Charlie Bonepart, “The Salesman” rides a wavy bassline beneath short, dull stabs of a saxophone sample. Dren drums up another scene to describe the track.
“Remember back in the day when you drive with your homies and just cruise nowhere? Fuckin’ just, dope beat music, just have fun… Definitely vibing.” Dren explained about the track. “It’s goofy. It’s fun.”
Bonepart, another piece of Fort Ancient Records, was introduced to the group through Moxy Monster. He’s a person who’s very conceptual, a “left-when-right” kinda wordsmith. Thespian by nature, he’s aware of the effect music can have just beyond the content – the execution, so to speak. According to Bonepart, Monster had heard some of his content and hooked him up with the producers at Fort Ancient. The first track Bonepart got in on was The Salesman, coincidentally after he has been back and forth between California and Cincinnati. The stars seemingly aligned when it came to his current experience in life and the concept of this album being all about travel.
Bonepart’s whispy vocal melody attempts to take you on a journey through many instances of travel, from metaphysical to concrete. But that wasn’t so obvious through the first couple playthroughs…
“So…. What the hell are you talking about in this?” I ask to Charlie. Dren chuckles in the back immediately.
“The song is about, hmmm… I say ‘Watch me, watch me, pour more Rossi – Oh won’t you fly, fly high Tahuti’ – I’m setting the scene to reflect the message of travel.” Bonepart explains, “The whole song is about flight, magic and freedom.”
Later in the song, Bonepart flips the script and denounces various forms of materialistic travel by saying “Limousines, carousels, big wings won’t carry me, to where I belong”. Bonepart further goes on to eloquently put it that he wants to go “Beatles on hoes”. He wants to bring back something that makes you want to sing – even if you don’t understand it.
Bonepart’s intonation results in an almost Bradley Nowell slash Mount Sims sound. It’s as if you put the mix knob on 75% for a tonal effect. It’s catchy as all hell, sincere and simple. The Salesman found itself on repeat in my car many times. To be fair, much of this album did as you can rifle through its entirety in 12 minutes. Fort Ancient Records, in general, has taken this low-track-count concept and put a philosophy behind it.
“Short and sweet…” explains Dren, “‘Cause most of the music we make are instrumentals and.. People got short attentions spans, man. You know what I mean?”
The rest of the album holds weight, with “Boxcar” being more aggressive than any of the previous tracks. Its sound is expansive, filling out the environment a bit more than the rest of the tracks. While it’s a boom-bap, the samples sound somewhat recent. The next track, “Oouuiiee” features rapper Moxy Monster. With a more braggadocio vibe than “The Salesman”, Monster basically just shits on those who’re taking things too seriously – basically inline with the rest of the album. Monster takes it another step to almost an irreverent status, boasting comfortability in what others might consider a controversial position. Monster employs a cadence that has hints of Del The Funky Homosapien, light heartedly navigating through his mission statement. The chorus sums it up with “Oouuiiee, I’m dripping positivity, I don’t hear negativity, you n***** just can’t get to me”
The album’s closing track “Twain” is an artistic display of sample manipulation, a dreamlike surreal composition not having an immediate, concrete rhythm. A bass drum sample in the back is what tethers the track together until the rest of the drumset comes in. The instrumental features a spoken word quote from Twain himself with an overdub of Dren’s voice. The quote philosophizes how travel is necessary in a battle against racism and bigotry. “Twain” and “The Salesman” remain to be the heavyweights of this album, but that’s a difficult judgment to make as every tack holds its own. Moxy’s confidence is something to appreciate, Boxcar is arguably the most aggressive, and the first two tracks are as classic-hip-hop as it gets as far as production goes.
Overall, for the first solo release on Fort Ancient Records, Dren AD gets the ball moving. There’s a display of versatility as well as an authentic, signature sound. With a label that features producers whose roots are in classic hip-hop, Dren AD stakes his own sound with this album. It’s structure oriented, melodic heavy and less attentive to crazy chops or rhythmic manipulation. Folks, it’s a fuckin’ quick, awesome listen. You can play it on a Sunday as the weather is (finally) dropping into October, you can play it on the ride home on a Friday to celebrate your liberation from the 9-5. Whenever you do, make sure it’s in a car. I mean, it’s called Travel for a reason.