Time? Astonishing! may be L’Orange’s most zany, surreal and oddly upbeat album yet, but it was recorded during the bleakest period of his life.
The eccentric North Carolina producer toiled on the LP late last year, partnering with veteran New York MC Kool Keith for the project. Keith was enticed by L’Orange’s unique sampling, which forgoes hip-hop’s common looping of ‘70s soul, funk and R&B in favor of dustier snippets from jazz’s cabaret era, along with segments of dialogue from old timey radio dramas. The fledging producer’s previous releases invoked a gangster era that had largely been ignored by rap: one in which tommy guns were toted instead of glocks and AK’s. L’Orange, on the other hand, had always admired Keith’s abstract, idiosyncratic rhyming style. Working with such an esteemed elder would appear to be a dream project, although many collaborators might worry about keeping step with rap’s most famously offbeat MC.
But L’Orange didn’t have any trouble in that regard. In fact, he inadvertently took on a role that was stranger than any of Keith’s concept record personas, and more tragic than the characters in even the most melodramatic of radio matinees that he sampled—he became the record producer who may no longer hear. Unfortunately, L’Orange had been suffering from an internal growth that had left him all but deaf in his right ear. While recovering from the surgery that had removed the abscess, he finished working on Time? Astonishing!, pushing himself to stay in the studio and complete the songs, despite being off balance from the operation and having to walk with a cane, and being addled with powerful pain drugs.
“I realized if there was ever a time to make an album while under the influence of recovery pain medication, then this LP with Kool Keith is probably the one I should do it on,” L’Orange says with a laugh, during a recent phone interview with Paste, of his chemically laced studio work for the bizarro elder MC. But L’Orange is quick to point out that the experience was by no means a psychedelic, fun-filled extravaganza, mainly because his illness also had a psychological impact. He explains: “It was terrifying, of course, because it’s my hearing,” adding that he now has five to 30 percent hearing in his right ear, depending on the day. He also says: “I had a lot of dizziness after the operation, was not taking care of myself like I should have. But going deaf in my right ear was so scary, so I think I might have looked to this project to release some of the tension in my life, because things were getting so real.”
Thanks to the medication, Kool Keith’s oddball lyricism, and L’Orange’s longing for levity, Time? Astonishing! became the producer’s funniest and strangest release yet. Its beats are breezier and far lighter in tone than his previous material, and he furthered that choice by opting not to incorporate dialogue from radio matinee gangster dramas, instead sampling monologues from the early sci-fi serials that were also popular on the airwaves in those days.
L’Orange says that part of his latest, Buck Rogers-esque sound is inspired by Keith, adding that he was pleased to delve into a new aesthetic with the veteran MC after releasing another album earlier this year with up-and-coming lyricist Jeremiah Jae called The Night Took Us In Like Family, an album that drew heavily on hardboiled noir. L’Orange adds: “I’ve always been drawn to the brooding and thoughtful elements of hip-hop, and taken myself very seriously. But I was at a different point with my music after The Night Took Us In Like Family, which was a little bit quirky but also very grim. So when I was working with Kool Keith, it was an opportunity to do something absurd and not serious at all.”
In an email to Paste, Kool Keith says he’s glad that L’Orange got into a “comfortable zone to be free” for the new album, adding that the producer helped him do the same. His email also said: “I like to rap to all types of beats. You can tap on a toilet seat and flush the toilet for the hook and I’ll lace the shit crazy… (but) I’m used to producers trying to copy (my debut) Dr. Octagonecologyst, and sending me the wackest replica. But when L’Orange hit me with some far left shit, it put me in a solid writing vibe.”
And although that zaniness is evident in Keith’s lyrics and in L’Orange’s action-adventure themed instrumentals on Time? Astonishing!, the album’s quirkiness is also evoked by its title. As L’Orange explains it, working with a surreal storyteller like Kool Keith finally allowed the producer to indulge his fixation of early radio drama space operas, adding: “These 20th century sci-fi shows would be tales to ‘astonish’ you, and they’d have these elaborate names like: ‘the amazing, fantastic, astonishing…’ and on and on, it’d be a nine-word name.”
Those yesteryear dramas may seem like a peculiar influence for a hip-hop artist, but combining the two came quite naturally for L’Orange. He recalls becoming captivated by those bygone radio serials as a boy in ‘90s, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night with his tape recorder, fiddling with the dials on his family’s boombox, “scouring the radio stations and finding out what I enjoyed. I’d record bits and pieces of my favorite parts of jazz songs or radio dramas, then and put it onto a, I guess you’d could call it a mix.”
L’Orange’s love of early jazz segued into his obsession with hip-hop when he heard Digable Planets’ “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” a smooth, bass driven early ‘90s rap hit that also sampled an Ornette Coleman-esque saxophone line. Before long, L’Orange was learning to play the bass himself, and was learning about North Carolina’s storied alt hip-hop scene, which had birthed highly influential acts like Little Brother. But when L’Orange first attempted to leave his own mark on that scene in the mid to late 2000s, he was promptly rebuked. As he recalls: “My style of sampling and affinity for vinyl was outdated for the people looking for something modern. And my song structure was too wild and unconventional for the traditionalists. So when I couldn’t find any validation with the people around me, I went inward.”
Before long L’Orange had honed his cabaret flavoured, radio-drama rife style, finding a niche audience online, and gaining respect from his local peers as his sound became more distinct and as he more deftly balanced vintage jazz and hip-hop beats in his instrumentals. Today he is signed to Mello Music Group, a label stacked with fellow fledging, left of centre hip-hop artists. L’Orange is now also based in Nashville, where he plans to soon work with live bands and sample their organic jam sessions, instead of only limiting his instrumentals to dusty LP’s. And although he’s enticed by those new prospects, he has yet to grow weary of his older projects, occasionally listening back to those earlier works, and feeling a nostalgia akin to what that radio dial would offer whenever he snuck downstairs late at night as a boy. He adds: “Sometimes I’ll go back and listen to one of my older albums and think: ’Wow, this sounds like something that would have really comforted me seven years ago, when I was trying to figure out my own style. This would have validated my sensibilities.”