Leland Jackson has spent the last decade juggling two monikers, but there are many more than two sides to his music.
Jackson grew up in Japan, where his father was stationed in the Air Force, before moving back to the States. He hooked up with the Chocolate Milk collective in Richmond, Virginia, later relocating to Los Angeles, joining Matthewdavid‘s Leaving Records and performing at the famed Low End Theory with contemporaries like Mndsgn and Knxwledge. Jackson has mentioned before that moving to the US in the late ’90s contributed to a sense of feeling out of phase, as the US seemed to be lagging 5-10 years behind Japan in some respects, while Japan felt considerably more retro in others. Both of Jackson’s projects share this sense of untimeliness and estrangement, as well as a close attention to detail.
As Cakedog, Jackson pays homage to Chicago’s footwork scene. He was introduced to the music in 2008 by DJ Nate and later nurtured by one of the style’s originators, RP Boo. Cakedog is respectful of the craft and Chicago’s place in it, with a justifiable sense of detachment from his perch in Los Angeles. Cakedog’s music is not trying to appropriate but honor, somewhat distanced from the social side of the music but still aware of the central role played by the body. Our readers are likely more familiar with Jackson’s work as Ahnnu, whose music defies encapsulation. Often built around finding the pocket in off kilter ambient loops and exploration of shifting textures, Ahnnu lingers in the subtleties of sound. Change is the only constant. Sometimes anchored by explicit beats or rhythms, other times free form, Ahnnu can make extensive use of recognizable samples, or drift into pure abstraction.
While there are points of articulation between the two projects, each of which continues to evolve, they are also distinct identities that Jackson approaches with distinct attitudes. Being a genre project, Cakedog is understandably the more focused of the two, never veering too far from the orthodoxy of footwork. Ahnnu is the hat Jackson wears when he seems to want to be more experimental, to follow his own intuition. I’m reminded of Sasu Ripatti in this respect. Vladislav Delay (or Ahnnu) is granted freedom to pursue whatever, while Luomo (or Cakedog) operate within the form of a relatively codified dance music genre, microhouse (or footwork). Ripatti even explored footwork and juke through his Ripatti series, giving the two producers another point of connection. Like the Blues, innovation isn’t occurring on the level of form but of expression. Having the contrast of the free form persona allows us to better hear the artist’s style manifest from the limited gestures available within the conventions of the genre.
Ahnnu’s music often sits in an underappreciated but rich intersection of the shared history of ambient and hip hop. This is best heard on the sampledelic masterpiece World Music (2013), but can be heard across Jackson’s discography. In my own mental archive, Ahhnu is situated alongside DPI, Giuseppe Ielasi, and Andrew Pekler, all sample-based artists who maintain a clear artistic style across manifestly different projects. The influences of the LA beat scene are well documented, but more often than not the discourse around ambient music omits the central importance of dub and hip hop. While all these genres have their own relationship to the history of electronic music, hip hop producers have long been the vanguard of ambient music. George Lewis demonstrated 25 years ago how strictly jazz improvisation was kept categorically apart from the discourse around “experimental music,” conveniently omitting the contributions of black radical music from cannon of experimentalism. It seems to me we continue to do the same when we bracket certain types of sample-based music, certain types of sound collage practice, certain types of ambience. Especially when the influence of hip hop on modern ambient is undeniable. We’ve got heady headphone studio records that haven’t forgotten about the body. There’s a genealogy out their that weaves Lee Perry, Luc Ferrari, The Bomb Squad, Nurse With Wound, John Oswald, and the RZA together with Russolo, Cage, and Eno.
The so-called LA “beat scene” which came to prominence circa 2007-08 may have been the first manifestation of the catholic taste of the post-Napster generation trained on the connoisseurship of Dilla, Madlib, and DJ Shadow. Not for nothing, but this was a scene that was honed on friendly competition and yet was equally unafraid of making a “toy” sampler (the SP) a central instrument. As with working within genre conventions, it was the limitations of the SP-303 and SP-404 that allowed the great artists to emerge. While beats may or may not be present, the influence of hip hop registers across Jackson’s entire catalog. On early Ahnnu releases such as Street Fitness and Couch (both 2011), Jackson riffs on hip hop skits to grant a coherent shape. This is not unlike how RZA’s productions could use excerpts from Shogun Assassin, or Knx cuts up rap ad libs or dialogue from black sitcoms. Ahnnu’s early work has the feel of a mix tape, chopped samples punctuated by skits and maintaining a constant momentum. He even samples from the proto-rap of Bama, the Village Poet‘s Ghettos Of The Mind, perhaps a direct allusion to DJ Shadow’s “In/flux.”
Both Ahnnu and Cakedog have a long association with Leaving Records, a fitting home for Jackson’s restless pursuit of new music. While Leaving has the benefit of Stones Throw handle their distribution, the diverse roster attests to the label’s independence, a spirit reflected in Jackson’s music. The so-called “beat scene” is only one point in a broad constellation of artists who would rather explore the space between those guiding lights. That ethos extends throughout a catalog that transcends genre or stylistic conventions. Another facet of Leaving has been their role in recuperating a certain strain of New Age music, an expression of a philosophy that is perhaps not unrelated to their ongoing concert series in in Highland Park, “Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree.” Ahnnu performed as part of the series in October 2019.
Irrespective of which name he is using, Jackson’s music has gradually converged around different realizations of coaxing skittering beats from rhythmically-looped melodic fragments, or melodies coaxed out of rhythmic patterns. On more recent recordings, Cakedog seems to be exerting some influence on Ahnnu, as the latter has grown increasingly interested in rhythm and abstraction. World Music was the apex of a kind of research into sample-based grooves begun with Couch and Prohabitat. Levels (2011) and Battered Sphinx (2013) revealed a calm and occasionally unsettling minimalism, a vein he would return to with Perception (2015) and Special Forces (2017). Perception shares some of Battered Sphinx‘s DNA, uncovering a poetics of texture from within less conventionally musical samples, though the mood on tracks such as “Elastic” veers not too far from Burial, with a steady propulsion and two-step beat. Special Forces self-consciously eschewed beats altogether, using melodic sounds in more disquieting ways.
Rhythm never vanishes from Jackson’s palette for long, even at his most austere. The self-released Parallax (2018) and The Dreaming Arrow (2019), Ahnnu’s contribution to Longform Editions deep listening series, each gesture towards an Ahnnu that is moving into more abstract formal exploration of the sort that wouldn’t be out of place on Warp. With Pattern Play, this evolution is on full display with the accompanying animations. Samples are tight but utilize the full range of frequencies, and a higher bpm opens up new avenues of exploring space and texture. Titles like “F4518” resist coloring our interpretation with poetic association, instead conjuring of the image of a lab experiment log. Pattern Play is just what it says on the tin, and revels in zone between primal and futuristic. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Pattern Play AVAILABLE HERE
Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous conversations, as well as additional articles and features, here.
How do you approach a live situation in compared to how you work in the studio? Is there a different approach between your material as Ahnnu and as Cakedog?
My workspace being also my living space is a very intimate setting for me. Everything is made in the same small area where I spend the majority of my time, so I’m constantly engaging with my projects and ideas. When I’m in that domestic working mode its more of a personal study and practice as opposed to preparing for live performances where I consider an audience and sounds for live use. I think you can relate the difference with that studio mindset and approaching a live performance as analogous to the difference between a Cakedog set and Ahnnu performance, in that one is presenting a more private study and the other made to serve a shared energy between people. Between the two I have to switch gears mentally when I make footwork tracks. but it’s gained me a lot of insight when I do switch projects; being able to see technical issues and ultimately discovering newer ways of listening to myself. It’s great because both projects benefit off of one another in some ways. I do play a few newer footwork tracks whenever I play live as Cakedog, but usually the mixing needs a lot more time before it’s played out.
You make visual art as well. Do you have a similar creative process or is each medium unique?
Over the years I’d say I’ve approached music making in the same style I would a drawing or image. I tend to work fast initially then move onto a phase of reflection and refinement more or less. There are differences though. When I make loops or sounds I like to sit with the music, whereas a drawing can be resolved in a few strokes. There’s a staredown I can have with a painting that can last several weeks or months. Music on the other hand can always adapt to any setting or mood I’m in which creates an entirely different decision making process. Music’s possibilities, for me, like any art is determined by perspective and energy.
What was the path that took you to where you are?
I’ve always loved listening to music, as a practice it kinda just stumbled into my life as a way to connect with friends. Hip hop and electronic music were always present in my life and as it became more of an art form for me to explore, it helped me find like minded individuals who helped broaden my world and sense of creativity. It was a natural progression I think for me to develop an inclination towards ‘experimentalism’ and some of the more peripheral approaches to art making.
Do you have a particular piece of gear that you have a special relationship with you could talk about?
I’m the very least exciting person to talk to about gear because I never really invested into it very long. The computer is a tool I grew up with so I stayed with this machine since I’m comfortable. In no way I’m a committed to the computer as my central instrument though. I have so much curiosity for whats out there and whats new especially since I already lack so much knowledge on what already exists haha.
I’d like to ask you more about your practice in the studio and live. You use FL studio?
It was my first DAW I picked up and it’s been a special place for me to escape and play around with. In fact I’m still on a pretty old version of it (9) and I haven’t used anything else.
And how about your live performances? You play out with a laptop and MIDI controller?
It really depends the occasion, but I like to be flexible with the direction of the music so I bring out lots of different tracks and sounds. For the sake of convenience I try not to bring too much gear, but again I do have hopes I can expand my live performances with hardware additions in the future.
I can’t recall if I heard World Music or She Was No Tame Thing first, but around the same time. I probably chalked up the difference somewhat to collaborating. So, can you tell me about your approach to collaborating, working with Alex? At first blush I was surprised to see this reworking of Drake, so can you also explain where you guys were coming from with regards to the source material?
We corresponded online mostly, Alex had the idea to rework the Drake record that had just recently come out at the time. I’ve never been a huge Drake fan but I was very excited to try deconstructing the raw tracks and creating new songs. It was a fun and easy collaboration. We met up once at his spot and showed each other what we were tinkering with. After that it was put together pretty quickly.
And on the subject of collabs, can you talk about working with Knx for VATOGATO & CAKEDOG? Any other collabs you’ve done?
It was off the cuff as well, we had a couple sessions where we played sounds together and then he recontextualized some of my drum sounds. He sent me some tracks he was working on and it was really cool to hear how he expanded the original session into different tracks. At the time I was still in the beginning phases of understanding footwork production, experimenting really. So it was interesting to hear a different possible direction with the style of footwork/juke rhythm.
I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. Are there artists working in other media (past or present) that you feel an aesthetic kinship with?
I don’t often place myself in alignment with any past histories per se, though there is real transference between lineages and movements that one can’t ignore. I love the post-war period of abstraction, for example, but I have no direct emotional reaction as they did in their time. I do though find some universality with their ideas of abstraction itself, and apply my own energy to certain principles or approaches.
I heard you did sound design for a horror movie.
I didn’t know what I was doing really, I was tasked as composer but I did feel more like a sound designer. Maybe because the horror direction to music is very dissonant and atmospheric, but it was more or less a exercise for me to step into more darker sounds, creating cinematic cues and such. It was a fun learning experience overall.
You mention sharing a style between your music and your visual art. What are your thoughts on “style,” what does having a style mean to you?
Between my visual work and music I was meaning the methodology of how I produce, and how both processes for me at the moment are a somewhat sporadic and slow paced. But in terms of aesthetic I don’t think over it so much. I’m inspired of course by other’s work all the time, and take a lot of pleasure out of being a witness to something truly special or original to me, but I question if my own conception of ‘style’ whether it be mine or other’s has any real use in the actual production of new ideas for myself. It might be more defined as an artifact for cultural reasons of history and discussion. It’s natural that style is in the conversation when we talk about what inspires us and pushes boundaries. But for myself I try not to pay too much attention to I guess the ‘fashionable’ conceptions of style for sake of avoiding imitation and ultimately finding my own voice. It’s not a finite thing but more of a way of learning. A lot of “easy” or fashionable art making is valid in its own right, and meant to be fun. In my case it’s more of a way of orientating myself toward a pursuit of intimacy and truth in my thoughts and actions.
Could you speak on your memory of Ras G? I never had the honor of seeing him play, but even from the east coast I was buying all his tapes and watching everything he did very closely, and was really such a shock to learn he had died. I still can’t believe it. You played at the memorial concert last summer right? As a Leaving affiliate, LA musician, someone who performed with him, can you share something about your relationship to him and his work?
Yeah I was pretty shocked to hear of his passing. I didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with him one on one but he invited me out many times for his beat showcase ‘Beat Soup’ over at Poo-Bah Record Shop. We also got to share some of my favorite shows together. Since I was a fan before I even moved to California, it was always a honor to get to share the musical space with him and a pull or two from his Backwood he always had rolled up haha. I think though we both understood each other’s stoicism and respect for more ‘out-there’ sounds… I felt we didn’t need to speak much in that sense. But I’m very grateful to have met him and shared those brief moments with him. His music is still an influence to myself and many others, and it’s cool to think how many future artists he will inspire through his legacy, or people that will discover it and find new life, new perspective from it.
Lastly, I know you’re a gamer. My colleagues here at ACL launched the great Press A column last year, which has definitely rekindled my interest. I’ve been especially impressed with the sound design and music in video games, especially the use of spatialization. You have any thoughts on sound and music in that sector?
That is interesting, I haven’t put too much thought into where music and sound design is going nowadays with video games. I heard the game Death Stranding has some awesome sounds and effects in it though. I’m yet to play it. One of my favorite things is to watch TV/movies or play video games with headphones on. It seriously makes a huge difference for immersion.. on the subject of spatialization in games, I wonder how often people experience media in headphones or how many people listen to music on out of their laptop speakers. They really are missing out on the full experience!