Since 2011's Muscle Milk, Nick Koenig's associative music techniques applied to hip hop production have infiltrated the New York rap tableau and beyond. His presence and connections are almost inexplicable. Before the Moon Money EP officially introduced him as a glitchy beat-maker, he'd been nominated for a Grammy after collaborating on The Roots' Undun LP. The young producer just happens to know and befriend obscure indie rappers and a large portion of the Queens and Brooklyn vanguard. It's put him in the same studio as Ski-Beatz and it's led to misinformation about ties to director Michel Gondry, but it's all mostly true.
The four EPs belonging to Koenig, aka Hot Sugar, will make up a pentalogy, meaning a final unreleased EP remains to complete the set. Though when Koenig met with me on Skype, he was already looking past his EP series. Known for working fast, he's been consumed with crafting a solo instrumental debut.
'At this point I’m focused entirely on my solo thing,” he said. “I’ve been recording the weirdest things in my entire life. The recording sessions are almost turning into film productions with set ups and location changes. They’re getting really bizarre. I’ve never been in this creative space, so to speak.”
We eventually got to the topic of his recently released Made Man EP and his growing circle of rapper friends, but the discussion of an upcoming debut led to a discussion on independence and why it's doubtful the instrumental full length will have a home beyond Bandcamp.
Are you still under contract with Ninja Tune?
I was never under contract. They basically liked what I was doing and wanted to put out songs. I already had an album done, so they put it out as an EP even though it’s nine songs.
I’m not signed or contracted to anyone at all right now.
Are you shopping the solo instrumental debut?
No. I like a lot of labels, but I’ve never needed anyone. No disrespect to any of the brands I’ve worked with in the past, but I think my fans listen to me because they already knew about me. I have the Internet. I can use that or put it out physically and advertise on the Internet. I don’t think I need a label.
Financially are you able to fund your own record, say physically?
My records are free. I’ve never put out a physical record so I guess I don’t have that situation, but to make an album – it’s free. Whether it’s a throwaway track or one I got nominated for a Grammy for, those are all things that didn’t cost anything. There were no studio fees, no mixing and mastering budget. I do everything on my own. At most, I guess I’d have to pay for software, but I just download all those illegally anyways.
Would you say making everything free is part of a personal philosophy?
Yes. Obviously I want to make money from my art, but I also want my fans to hear it. If someone wants to give me money I’m so flattered and I appreciate it. If someone wants to steal my art, I’m just as flattered. People can download all my stuff illegally. I’ve gotten in trouble for posting download links to my stuff.
Music and all art should be free. If people want to pay me, I’m super psyched and obviously I deserve millions and millions of dollars.
On the recent Made Man EP, it’s very collaborative. Was the EP under your direction or were these tracks left up to the rappers and artists involved to create as they heard it?
So that’s the exciting part. I’ve been working with all these people for awhile, whether it was on their album or just hanging out with them. This was just me being indulgent and having a good time.
A lot of producers try to shop around their beats. They’ll send 10 beats to an artist, if not more, and cross their fingers that an artist will pick one. In this case, I chose the beats I wanted – whether they were weird or not – and chose the artists I wanted on them with little to no resistance. In that aspect I controlled the production 100 percent, but anything they want to say on my record is up to them. I’m really against censorship. Even if I disagree with some of the content, I’m down with them to say what they want.
Like Antwon saying he’s going to smoke meth?
That I don’t disagree with.
In working with these artists has there been interest in doing more one-on-one collaborative albums?
Yeah. To be completely honest I’m a huge fan of every artist on all of my projects. I would do a full album with any of them given the time.
Nothing in the works currently.
Nothing in the works because I want to do my album. I want to do way more than I can physically achieve.
How far along are you into the full length instrumental record?
I have a 100 songs. I don’t think they’re all going to come out. I think it’s going to be a more appropriate length.
I experimented as much as I wanted and I have no regard for tradition or demands. Some songs are for clubs, but some don’t have a discernable tempo even. They’d be impossible for a DJ spin. If the results confuse me as the creator and then the listener, I’m so satisfied with it.
Do you see it as an extension of what you’ve done previously or departure?
I don’t want it to be part of the MM pentalogy because those were me flexing my skills, being indulgent, and having fun with people, but they are very controlled. I want my debut to be confusing. I want it to sound like mayhem and chaos, but in a palatable way.
Has there been any influences lately that have pushed you towards wanting to seek mayhem and chaos in your music?
I think for all my other albums I was listening to… like most producers I was inspired by different genres and time periods and musical traditions. In this case I’ve been examining the concept of associative music and I’ve been inspired by the recordings in nature. I don’t wear headphones when I record stuff, so I don’t know what it’s going to sound like. It captures something kind of like a disposable camera. I don’t see what it looks like until I sit home in front of my speakers. It’s like developing something in a dark room. I listen to those things and it’s beyond anything I could create as a musician. The sounds of the universe completely baffle me and I’m just trying to, if anything, organize them in a way that will be successful and count as music.
Your bio says you were tapped to ghost-produce for Damon Dash.
I don’t know where any of these bios come from. I used to… well, I don’t know what I can talk about. I used to hang out at Damon Dash’s DD172 spot. I worked with Ski-Beatz for a little bit. That’s all I can say. That was a long time ago like before I even put out Muscle Milk.
You were in that circle though.
That was back when Wiz Khalifa didn’t know how to roll a joint. Literally, watched it.
Are you still in touch with The Roots?
Yes. We’ve been talking about their new album. That’s all I know. I wish I could say more. They are the busiest people I’ve ever seen in my life.
Maybe this will happen with the upcoming record, but do your see your music expanding beyond what would be considered hip hop and to an extent beat/instrumental music.
I want to score movies or even art projects. I love when music goes along with some type of visual component.
I’ve been making a lot of rap because they are my friends. Literally all my friends are rappers in New York City and they always ask me for beats. They’re all so good, so that’s what happens.
But if you had opera singer friends, you’d make sounds for operas.
I want to have opera singer friends, ones who party too hard.
There’s also rumors of a supergroup with Michel Gondry…
That’s another bio thing!
[He interrupts before I can say MC Paul Barman]
Let’s just spend this interview debunking bio and Wikipedia facts.
Paul is an old friend of mine. My first ever paid concert was performing at Paul Barman’s two-year old son’s friend’s birthday party along with him. I had an acoustic guitar and Paul sang Raffi songs to a semi-circle of disinterested two-year olds. I got paid $60 to do that. It was awesome. Paul was taking it very seriously. Paul was really mad. We were really good and all the adults weren’t focusing, neither were the kids.
Paul’s been a friend since forever and I’ve always helped him out. Him and Michel [Gondry] are friends. They were working on a project that I might have helped on. I don’t know how that rumor got started. Again that was like five years ago.
You’ve been tied to a lot of obscure underground hip hop artists, like MC Paul Barman and J-Zone.
J-Zone really opened my mind to what I do now. He’s more traditional with his equipment. But he always said he sampled the part of the song no one else would want to sample. That was inspiring to me. He was challenging himself as a producer. He also told me something really interesting.
I think I met him when I was a teenager. I said ‘look I can make this kick drum sound like a bass’ or whatever. He replied, ‘look at this point you can make anything sound like anything’. I know that sounds really simple, but it echoed in my mind for years. Still does. Everything I do with associative music is an attempt to make anything sound like anything. I owe a lot to J-Zone for tossing out that word of wisdom.
Let’s talk about two artists you collaborated with on the Made Man EP. First, GTW – who is that?
So it’s this dude James [King] who I met at a party in Chicago. He hit me up online. I heard one of his songs which I thought was really cool. It was another instance where I sent him one beat to see what would come of it and he sent it back and it was beautiful. There’s an effortlessness you can’t really mimic unless you’re as talented as him.
He’s in that band Jody.
What about Bill Ding? How did you meet him?
Dapwell actually put me on to him. I remember him tweeting at me. This is two years ago when I started working with Gandhi. I don’t even know where that dude lives. I think he lives in LA. He stays on Twitter and stays on the Internet.
When I put out Midi-Murder, Hurricane Sandy hit. Midi-Murder was a very New York-centric album but Sandy hit two hours before it hit the Internet. It was really awkward because we all wanted it out there, but none of us had power or water. We didn’t know what to do. We just put it out.
Some dickhead in like Denver, Colorado was like ‘how can you shamelessly promote your music during such a crisis in New York.’ This is a dude sitting on his couch in Denver, while I’m tweeting on my phone in the dark with no running water. I was trying to tastefully respond, but before I could respond fully Bill Ding – who wasn’t involved with the project – chimed in and attacked the guy with 10 tweets just going off. Nothing tasteful whatsoever. He didn’t have an argument really, but it was hilarious he was so down to fight random strangers on the internet on my behalf.
Everytime I check his Twitter every selfie was him with a tray of a million pills and then a cast on his wrist and his eyes half-closed, like I have no idea what kind of trouble he was always getting into. He just seems like a funny dude that came out of nowhere.
I’m wondering if he’s aware there’s already been a band called Bill Ding?
Oh, that’s on him. You’ll have to ask him.
Hot Sugar's Made Man EP is out now on Bandcamp.