On the eve of an album release, most musicians are almost giddy. Fueled by pride in their new creation, months of hard work, and logistical headaches that have led to this moment, their excitement is usually palpable. Marcus Amaker is no different. However, the poet and visual artist who is making his first big splash as a musician under the Tape Loop moniker is distraught — Prince is dead. We caught up with the artist about 48 hours after news of the Purple One's death broke. He's still processing his grief.
"I'm still trying to deal with that," he admits. "Prince is basically the reason that I started creating art."
Prince is a talisman for Amaker, who traces all of his impulses back to the pop icon. "My dad played me his music when I was three years old," he says. "That was really my first memory of art. I feel like everything I've created since that time has been informed by Prince, really. It's kind of a crazy emotional thing for me to think about."
The influence makes sense less when you examine the lush beats and electronic landscape on Amaker's new album, The Drum Machine, than it does when you look at the staggering and eclectic creative output the multi-faceted artist has amassed over the years. A talented graphic designer by day and a widely-known poet throughout the city with six books to his name, including one, Mantra, that is available as a multimedia app, there's more than a hint of Prince's relentless energy and bountiful talent in Amaker's artistry. He's also frequently collaborated with musicians, from reading spoken-word poetry over the backing of jazz drummer Quentin Baxter's band to performing as part of a J Dilla tribute show. That insatiability extends to Amaker's musical output, which has been a steady part of his creativity even though it's often been placed on the backburner.
When he's asked why his musical production hasn't been a bigger part of his public persona until now, Amaker gives a surprising answer.
"It's fear," he admits. "It's the thing I love to do the most, but I realize that a lot of it isn't easy to listen to, particularly the early work. I guess I got comfortable in my poetry skin, because that goes well to a crowd and all that stuff. But I've always been a little fearful of people listening to my music. But the older I've gotten, that fear has gone away."
The "early work" he's referring to dates back to a 10-year-old Amaker beat-boxing on a tape and then recording his own vocals over the top. It's an endearing look into the formative years of the young artist, and he's uploaded a slew of subsequent tapes that illustrate his budding talent as the available technology and his production skills quickly advanced. As he points out, though, many of the records are a bit difficult, tackling big concepts like nuclear war and the dangers of social media through a heavily mediated set of loops and samples that can feel slightly claustrophobic. Gradually, though, a distinct aesthetic emerges, one that melds organic hip-hop sounds to ghostly and ominous electronic soundscapes in the vein of Trent Reznor's film scores.
The Drum Machine is Amaker's more carefree and playful distillation of many of those ideas. "It's sort of a light version of what I've been doing," he explains. "It feels more fun to me and like a better entry point to my music."
It's in this record where you can see that looser and more organic spirit of J Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest juxtaposed next to the influence of Reznor and electronic musician Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, another Amaker favorite.
"When you listened to A Tribe Called Quest records — and they do it a hell of a lot better than me — but that's the sound I want to reach, where there are Rhodes keyboards, really organic-sounding drums, and crunchy sounds, dusty sounds," he elucidates.
And it's clear Amaker wants his music to play a bigger role going forward. He's making a limited run of clear vinyl copies of the album available for sale at the album-release show, replete with his own artwork. And he's curated a lineup of friends, including a collaboration with Sara Sumner's dance company Movement Union and Jenny Broe's Dance Lab.
Still, he's at pains to make this show as much an electronic music festival as an album release. He's branded the event as Surround Sound and says he hopes to continue the event as a way to showcase electronic music in Charleston.
He's also quick to credit percussionist and fellow electronic music maker Nic Jenkins, who will himself be performing under his eclectic, anything-goes guise of Infinitikiss, for helping him organize his first "real" music show, as well as Khari Lucas, a.k.a. Contour, who will be closing out the night with a set that's a blend of Madlib and Flying Lotus-inspired instrumental hip-hop and electronica.
"I really want this event to grow and be a kind of electronic music festival in town," Amaker concludes. "And you can't do something like that without collaborating with a bunch of different people."