Teebs: Better Living Through 'Beat Music'
Mtendere Mandowa, also known as Teebs, is an electronic artist from Los Angeles. Though he rarely works with musical instruments himself, he takes other people's recordings, loads them onto his laptop and manipulates the sounds. He adds layer after layer, beat upon beat, until he's left with a chaotic collage of sound.
Born in New York, Mandowa was raised by parents from Malawi and Barbados. As a child, he says, he listened to a lot of calypso, which influenced his music's aesthetic.
"Calypso is more fast-paced," he says, "but this happy nature, being on an island, it related right back into the music that I was making."
This type of music has often been described as "beat music" -- a style that originated in Los Angeles with producers such as Flying Lotus.
"It kind of stems from hip-hop, or people doing production for rappers," he says. "But as time went on -- and more kids had equipment to make their own things but not the proper vocals to fit their music -- they started filling in the gaps."
A number of things can fill these gaps, he says -- some conventional, others not so much. As Mandowa listens to the song "Double Fifths" with Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz, he points out the elements that go into each of his productions.
"You're hearing a harp, shakers, recorded drum taps ... and change falling," he says. "I have a machine called an SP 404 -- it's a little sampler with a built-in mic, and I record everything into there and keep re-affecting it there and then into a computer. I've used tape peeling off something and the door-slamming of a microwave before."
An Intense Time
Creating Ardour was not without its share of challenges for the 23-year-old producer. His father died in the middle of the project, at which point he returned home and stopped making music.
"That was a really intense time; it was last year. Actually, my brother ... was really sick at the time also, and he got taken away to be hospitalized because it was getting too out of control for my mother," Mandowa says. "So it was a crazy time when he left, and then my dad passed away, and it was just kind of like a whole shutdown, so I moved back home immediately after that, and I just wasn't making any more music. So there was a four- or five-month break period. Then I randomly bought some equipment, a little flute and wind chimes, and then I made a song on the record called 'Burner,' and I think from then on, things were a little bit different."
Mandowa's father had never listened to his son's music before getting sick. But during his fight with cancer, the elder Mandowa was able to connect with his son and learn what he'd been working on.
"At first, he didn't really know too much," he says. "He died of cancer, and when he was getting more sick and in bed, he had more time. We actually spoke more. I was showing him songs, and he did start to really appreciate it. It was really amazing. He slowed down, and I had more time to be around him, and we kind of understood each other a bit more."
They connected over one song in particular.
"The 'While You Doooo' song was the one he mentioned," Mandowa says. "I was playing him a lot of tunes -- not just my stuff, but a lot of relaxing songs. He didn't even know it was mine, and he thought that was a really beautiful song. And he just kind of stopped the tape. I told him I was the one who made it. It was a really crazy moment."
(Soundbite of music)
GUY RAZ, host:
This is the sound of an artist named Teebs. He is an electronic music composer from the suburbs of L.A. - and by electronic artist, I mean he rarely works with instruments. What he does is take other people's recordings - and even the sounds of household objects like a fork hitting the ground - and he loads them into his laptops and then he manipulates those sounds. And he does this all from the comfort of his bedroom. He then adds layer after layer, beat upon beat until he's left with this chaotic collage of sound.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: Teebs's real name is Mtendere Mandowa. His debut album is called "Ardour." And he's with me now.
Teebs, welcome to the program.
TEEBS (Musician): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
RAZ: Before we get to your new album, I want to find out a little bit more about you. You were born in New York. Your folks came from Malawi and Barbados. Is that right?
RAZ: So what kind of music were you listening to as a kid?
TEEBS: A lot of calypso, a lot of reggae, but a lot of calypso. Throw that back in.
RAZ: How do you think that translated into what you do now?
TEEBS: Just the energy or the vibe. I mean, calypso's a lot more fast-paced, but just this happy nature, I guess. Being on an island, maybe, is kind of related right back into the music I started making.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: How would you describe beat music for someone who's not, you know, all that familiar with it?
TEEBS: It kind of stems from, say, hip-hop or people doing production for rappers or singers, but as time went on and more kids had equipment to make their own things but not the proper vocals to fit their music, they just start filling in the gaps.
RAZ: Using computers to...
RAZ: ...and laptops and things and Macs and to make your own music.
RAZ: Well, I want to hear an example of that. This is from your record. It's a track called "Double Fifths."
(Soundbite of music, "Double Fifths")
RAZ: It has that kind of sparkly fantasy sound in there. Now, I want to know about the craftsmanship that goes into a track like this, because there are so many elements, right? I mean, there's so many things that are just layered and stacked on top of each other. Can you break it down for us? What are we hearing?
TEEBS: You're hearing a harp. I kind of just really beat it up and kept re-sampling and re-looping, changing the sounds. And then shakers, recorded drum taps, like, around the house and change falling. It's a lot of little toys, I guess.
RAZ: So you go around with a microphone or you set up microphones around your house and you try different sounds out and then you sort of feed them into your computer and then work with them?
TEEBS: Pretty much, yeah. I have a machine called the SP-44. It's just a little sampler and it has a built-in mic. And, yeah, I record everything into there and just keep re-effecting it there and then, yeah, into a computer.
RAZ: So - I mean, a lot of the sounds - I mean, obviously, the harp is a harp, but I mean, a lot of these are kind of, like, created sounds, the change falling on the ground.
RAZ: What's the weirdest that you've used to make a sound?
TEEBS: The weirdest thing I've used - tape peeling off something or a microwave. I used a microwave before.
RAZ: How did you use a microwave?
TEEBS: Just the door slamming.
RAZ: Oh, just the door slamming, right.
TEEBS: The little buttons, touching the microwave buttons.
RAZ: Just that sort of beep-beep?
TEEBS: Yeah, yeah.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: How old are you, by the way, if you don't mind me asking?
RAZ: Do you think that guys your age grew up with videogame systems at home -and presumably you play them.
RAZ: Do you think that there's a connection between growing up playing videogames and making this kind of music and having the ability to kind of understand intuitively how all this stuff works?
TEEBS: I think it does, because you just have that same format, you know, placed in front of you. The medium is the same. It's just samplers are usually a little box. They look like toys, and you got computers and you've been looking at computers all your life already playing videogames probably. So, I think it definitely relates to why a lot of kids are picking up these new tools.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: My guest is the electronic music artist Teebs. His new album is called "Ardour."
Teebs, I know that while you were making this record, you father passed away, and I'm sorry about that. Did it have any impact on the process? I mean, did it stop things for a while?
TEEBS: Yeah, that was a really intense time. That was last year and he passed away in the summertime. And it was kind of crazy, because my brother - this is kind of like a back story - he wasn't really involved so much, but he was really sick at the time also, mentally ill, and he got taken away to be hospitalized because it was getting too out of control for my mother.
So it was just really a crazy time when he left and then my dad passed away. And it was just kind of like a whole shutdown. So I moved back home immediately after that. And, yeah, I just wasn't making any more music and just kind of taking time reflecting, hanging out with my mom, helping her. So, there was maybe like a four-month, five-month break period.
RAZ: What did you dad make of your music?
TEEBS: At first, he didn't really know too much. It was just more so when he was getting more sick and in bed he actually had more time to - I hung out with him more, we actually spoke more. Like, he had time to listen to it because he was also really busy guy - had a 9:00 to 5:00, and he was always working. He slowed down and I had more time to be around him and we kind of understood each other a bit more.
RAZ: Is there a track on this record that you think he would like in particular?
TEEBS: I think definitely the "While You Dooo" song is the one mentioned. I was playing him a lot of tunes - not just my stuff but a lot of relaxing songs. And he didn't even know it was mine. He thought that was a really beautiful song. He just kind of stopped the tape and I told him that I was the one that made it and it was a pretty crazy moment.
RAZ: And it wasn't even calypso.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: That's Mtendere Mandowa. He's better known as Teebs. His new recording is called "Ardour." You can hear a few sample tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Teebs, thank you so much.
TEEBS: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music, "While You Dooo")
RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. You can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio tomorrow with more news, stories, music and more. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.