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INTERVIEW: Hip Hop And Electronica Cross Paths Through Vapor Eyes

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 30, 2014 7:10PM

Photo credit: JEROS

Earlier this month Colorado-based producer Pretty Lights lit up the Chicago skyline and drew one of Spring Awakening Music Festival's biggest attendances in the event's three-year history. In less than a decade of touring to Chicago, Pretty Lights has collected one of Chicago's largest and most rabid fanbases in the electronica realm but one doesn't need to look west to find an artist mixing hip hop beats with the aesthetics of electronic music.

Local artist Vapor Eyes (real name David T. Cohen) took the time to chat with Chicagoist about his sounds and what Chicago's own scene has to offer.

Chicagoist: I originally reached out because I've always found similarities between yours and Pretty Lights music. I wanted to highlight a local sample of that style. Do you get that comparison a lot?

Vapor Eyes: It's funny. I'm part of a small label called Young Heavy Souls, based out of Michigan, and I was telling the guy who runs it that you had reached out to me. It got me thinking about Pretty Lights and your idea. Personally, I don't think I sound like Pretty Lights. The comparison probably comes from the fact that I believe both of us are influenced by the same upbringing, musically. I came up on a lot of hip hop and I know he did too. Then somewhere in the early 2000s there was this fusion of hip hop and electronic worlds with Prefuse 73 or, even earlier, DJ Shadow. I know they inspired guys in and around my age group: late 20s, early 30s and even mid-30s. That's where I fall and that's where Derek [Vincent Smith] from Pretty Lights falls into so I think it's more like being influenced by similar stuff. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Pretty Lights fan. I'm an old school fan; I remember seeing him at Park West in 2009.

Chicagoist: I think you're right. I wasn't trying to imply that you sound exactly the same. I think it was the influence of hip hop and the downtempo rhythms that made me draw the comparison. You're also both much more melodic than a lot of the drop-heavy dubstep stuff that you hear right now.

Vapor Eyes: I agree. I can ride with that. I don't really teeter on anything would be labeled "bass music." But Pretty Lights has that fusion going. He's got a lot of the current sounds but on the flipside he comes from a very chill, down tempo forum. There's other groups too that are out there like Emancipator and Bonobo. There's still people that seem to like more of the mellow, cerebral kind of hip hop stuff rather than the in-your-face, blow-the-roof-off-this-sucker bass. There's a time and a place for everything but I tend to take the chiller road.

Chicagoist: Definitely. Well, I don't want to focus this entire interview on a comparison so let's talk more about you as an artist and how you got your start.

Vapor Eyes: If we rewind back to around the year 2000, that's when I bought my first drum machine. I was doing a short stint at Illinois State and my roommate was part of a Chicago band called Chandeliers. He had a turntable and I had a drum machine and had rigged up this funny tape deck thing. We just screwed around with it basically. I left [school] early and took that influence home. I had been put onto a lot of different styles around that era too, musically. Around that time I was really getting into more electronic music and so those influences carry with me pretty heavy. In 2006 I seriously buckled down and bought some gear and a laptop. I've drummed since I was in high school and was playing in a kind of heavy punk rock group very temporarily. It wasn't doing it for me and I decided my heart was really in [producing].

Chicagoist: When you're making your records do you work with live musicians or is it all sampled? How do you go about composing a track?

Vapor Eyes: Most of the music is created by me. Every once in a while I'll work with a guest—turntablists, MCs, singers—but as far as the music goes it's played live and sampled. It's a fusion. I want to say about ninety percent of the music I make is hardware based. There's no right or wrong. That's just how I've trained myself. I play a lot of it on synth or drum machines or program it and use a turntable, sampler or effects boxes and I just create this collage of sound.

Chicagoist: It seems like you have a lot of different influences and when I listen to your stuff, I immediately hear the hip hop in it but a lot of people would still categorize Vapor Eyes as electronica or dance music. So where does your loyalty truly lie?

Vapor Eyes: Well, I don't consider myself EDM. *laughs* Sometimes I feel like I'm probably the antithesis of EDM as far as my output is concerned because there is more of that chill, down tempo sounds whereas EDM is a harder, dancier style. Don't get me wrong, my loyalty lies with music, period. My upbringing was just super diverse. My mom listened to The Beatles. My dad was a huge Genesis fan. When I got cable in 1992 I discovered MTV on my own. I was watching "Headbanger's Ball" and on Friday it was "Yo, MTV Raps!" So I had everything and I feel very lucky that I had that exposure very naturally. I still to this day have a love for all genres.

Chicagoist: As any good musician should. So tell us a little more about your Push Beats collective for people who might want to attend one of your events.

Vapor Eyes: We do a weekly event every Monday night from 9 p.m. to close. Rodan (1530 N. Milwaukee Ave) is the spot in Wicker Park. We've been going on four years.

Chicagoist: I've seen a few other fliers for different venues too though. Do you move every so often?

Vapor Eyes: We do it weekly at Rodan. That's kind of like our hub. On the other hand, we're trying to expand into more parties or one-off events. We've done the Hideout, Door No. 3. We're doing another one at Door No. 3 in July. The whole goal is to expand within our boundaries and try to communicate this movement and this music to a bigger audience.

Chicagoist: So, we've established that you're not a part of the mainstream sound that most people think of when they hear "EDM" but where does your Push Beast audience come from? Do you have a following of your own or is a mix of people from different scenes every week?

Vapor Eyes: I would say, first off, we do have our own community but there's a lot of diversity even without our own members' sounds and the same thing goes for my label Young Heavy Souls. It's still a very beat and electronic-based label but everybody has their signature sounds. It's kind of an interesting time in general in music because the access is so free. I feel like I lucked out because I had metal and rap [influences] at the same time when typically you were either a hip hip or a metal head. Now everybody can be everything because of the Internet. The access is so free. The same thing can translate to shows. I've played with dubstep groups and I've played with jam bands and hip hop, beat-realm acts. So it's cool because I can fit into wherever I have a spot and obviously the goal is to keep expanding the audience and open minds to what we're doing. I feel like for a lot of us in Push the whole point is to come from a really pure spot, being yourself and push creative boundaries. It's a really open minded crowd. But I feel like it's still accessible. It's not going to go over heads that are already privy to electronic music or attend Spring Awakening.

You can download Vapor Eyes' music on his Bandcamp page now on a name-your-price basis and catch him live weekly at Push Beats. Push Beats' upcoming show at Door No. 3 will serve as a Wicker Park Fest after party on Saturday, July 26. As with the collective's weekly Rodan event, there is no cover.