Chino Amobi Likes to Stress the Distressing – AdHoc

Chino Amobi Likes to Stress the Distressing

Chino Amobi recently tweeted that “the best compliment” he got about Paradiso was that it was “unlistenable.” Paradiso is the latest full-length from the Richmond-based producer and co-founder of NON Worldwide, a record label and resistance movement centering the artistry of musicians from within the African diaspora. The album’s sprawling 20 tracks brim with industrial beats, MIDI horns, and the raw power of his own voice—as well as the sounds and voices of his many collaborators, including Dutch E. Germ, Elysia Crampton, and Moro.

Ahead of Amobi’s live set on July 20 at St. Vitus, AdHoc spoke with the musician and organizer about the liberatory politics of Paradiso, and how difficult music can amplify marginalized voices.

Your new record is incredibly rich—there’s so much going on in every song. Could you talk about the process of composing these tracks?

I just wanted it to be something different, to have a moment where I liberated myself sonically from a lot of the stuff that I hear—[stuff] that people classify as “electronic.” These tracks are in conversation with so many artists, so many people that inspire me. I really wanted to go all over the place—to do things that were not only challenging for  myself, but also challenging for  the listener. I wanted to construct a narrative that felt cinematic.

That’s kind of the way my mind works, too—I’m inspired by so many different themes within the span of a day or an hour, and I really wanted to respect that thought process. If you look into my work, I don’t really have a style—I do, but I don’t.

The press release for the record describes it as “a musical epic set in a distorted Americana populated by a cast of sirens, demons, angels, imps, priests, hierophants, monsters, and peasants.” Could you tell me about the narrative you’re conveying? 

I view this world from the perspective of angels and demons and cartoons, so I apply that to the work. I think about theater, and characters donning costumes and taking them off in the same scene—very theatrical, dramaturgical situations. I create the scenery and the set design, and the characters come in and put their flesh on top of that.

A lot of the characters are people that I know—my friends. I didn’t know exactly what [my collaborators] were going to do. It was impromptu work, which is of value to me: not knowing exactly what would happen. I would tell each person a little bit about what I was thinking, but they would just take it and run with it. And that was very exciting for me.

[During this process, I also thought] about [collaborative records like] Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and The Chronic 2001, and albums by DJ Khaled and DJ Clue. Those were formidable, listening to them growing up—thinking about those curated experiences, and how the characters would play on one another from one track to the next. I also think of myself as interacting with a sort of folklore—folklore that is happening inside the city that is Paradiso.

How do you envision the authorship of this project? Whose record is it—Chino Amobi’s? NON’s?

I don’t bifurcate [those] things in two—is it a Chino Amobi record, or is it somebody else’s record? Having the direct voice [of others] was important for me; there’s nothing better than working from a direct source. My voice is a collective voice, a collaborative voice. If you watch a film, it says “a film by Quentin Tarantino,” but the director works with many other people: the actors, the people who do production.

I think of it as a designed experience. I feel like the glue that brought it all together, but I don’t take credit for every moment, because that’s not realistic. I also like to challenge the myth of the Western genius-artist, because I get really bored with that narrative. Let me give you this multiplicity of voices, this trans-individuation, where all of our voices become one voice. That is more neoteric, or “of the times,” in my mind.

How does your graphic design expertise crystallize in your music? 

I think of things very visually when I think about music. [I think of] certain repetitions, certain sounds, as signs that delineate spaces and proximity. Or like the four-on-the-floor—it’s a beat that’s used as an organizing principle. I think of [bass and drums] as things that people are already familiar with, sounds that people feel comfortable with and have a certain understanding of. The way that the producer moves through that structure can add another interpersonal dimension, a dimension that subverts certain tropes. So, it’s like fucking up the establishment in a way.

Paradiso plunders and reassembles a huge variety of sounds, from alarms to Adventure Time sound-bytes to spoken-word poetry. It blends a range of styles that makes the record seem placeless. But NON, as a project, seems deeply concerned with issues of geography, especially as they relate to people who identify themselves within the Pan-African diaspora. How do you negotiate between those two relationships to place? 

I embrace them both simultaneously. That’s important to me, because I think there’s a liberation in transcending place as a marginalized body and being able to speak beyond your immediate location—while celebrating your locality as well. This [duality] is essential to what I was trying to do with the album.

At the same time, I wanted [it] to feel like this experience can happen exactly where you’re at, wherever in the world, and that it can feel specific to that location. Elements of that location can take over: it’s an ever-evolving space in that way. The map is constantly changing.

That’s one of the reasons why we went with the word “NON.” It represents nothing and everything at the same time. But there’s a specificity within that as well. There’s [an] intention behind it, in terms of a certain celebration or certain kind of liberation.

Post-colonial scholarship has increasingly implicated the discipline of geography in the violent oppression and subjugation of people of color. How do NON and Paradiso rewrite geography as a practice?

In terms of the way that maps have been used to colonize and create erasures and exclude voices, that’s definitely a theme. When I made a map of Paradiso, I was thinking about how we draw connections in a fugitive way in order to survive—and how that is transformed into a sense of community.

I also try to put that in the music as well. But the map [I make] is constantly changing. Once you start to understand the logic of the map, it shifts. And I think that’s a tool of survival and a tool of evolution. That’s a way of eluding imperialism.

I’m also interested in how NON approaches listenership. I’ve seen the abrasiveness of some of your releases characterized as a “weaponization,” but I’ve also heard you express a desire to foster a community of inclusion and healing. 

In my mind, every single form of communication—when you’re trying to put something out in the world—is a type of war. Simultaneously, I’m also very concerned with bringing a certain type of emotional resonance to that. It’s paradoxical: there’s a strength to the military insignia, there’s a power [that comes with] the fear of war, but how do you use that? How do you subvert that?

When we’re talking about poetic implications and multiple layers of understanding [in NON’s output], I think people read things too fast. People don’t allow for a certain amount of complexity with marginalized voices. [Our] objects need to have the space to come into being, and not just appear for the sake of commodification. The story is not finished being written.

Your songs sound almost unstable, too. The seem to break down and transform without warning.

Yeah, that’s critical and intentional, in terms of not necessarily being able to be pinned down. Through that destabilization, you’re able to re-territorialize not only yourself, but your collaborators as well. And to keep control, in a sense, of your agency. I really try to put that in the music, so that stuff can be mapped out.

Paradiso resonates with conventions from the Western classical tradition—like the refrain, or leitmotif, that flits in and out of multiple songs on the record. But many of those elements also belong to African musical traditions. How does your music navigate these parallel legacies? 

For me, it’s important to have a certain level of detachment [when telling a story]. I love to be in the space where there’s a narrator telling a story to somebody, but then you’re suddenly in the world. That level of the meta-narrative is important to me as well: where the setting is described in the third person. I think that you’ll find in that the Pan-African legacy, and you’ll also find that in the Western legacy.

In the Western legacy, it’s more the dissecting level, or a scientific classification level, that comes out in my work. But I also think of my work as a kind of visceral storytelling, a shamanistic way of transmitting things on a metaphysical level. I don’t necessarily divorce the metaphysics from the classification—I like to use a technological approach, with a cyborg narrator, a disembodied voice.

Like the “Welcome to Paradiso” voiceover that appears throughout the record.

Exactly. If you hear it enough times, it functions like that epic narrative; it starts to become something more ancient as well. I’m interested in where the two start being able to collapse upon one another, to be there for one another and form a new understanding that challenges the separation between the Pan-African and the Western. I get excited about collapsing that space without a homogenized moment happening, where there’s still specificity flourishing within that breakdown. I like to stress the distressing.