"We exist everywhere." The voices of Future Brown are crackling into life via Skype from three different cities: Berlin, where Fatima Al Qadiri is camped out at present, in between apartments while on tour; New York, the longtime home of Jamie Imanian-Friedman, better known as J-Cush of the label Lit City Trax; and Los Angeles, where Nguzunguzu's Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda live. "It's really wherever we are and in a studio that we can rent," sums up Al Qadiri, giggling as the four friends grab a moment to reconnect ("How's the place you're staying?" "It's really cute." "Cute!") "There's not very many boundaries, you know?"
Even the most cursory listen to the production supergroup says as much: their raucous club rhythms, graceful melodies, icy synths, and enchanting percussive licks call out to different corners of the planet. Their self-titled debut album for Warp features a rotating cast of vocalists, like Tink, Kelela, and Sicko Mobb. Lean in, and you can hear London grime, Angolan and Portuguese kuduro, Jamaican dancehall, Latin reggaeton, and Chicago drill and bop, all rubbing up against one another. Sonically, Future Brown cannot easily be pinned down—just like their name, which began as a trippy revelation. DIS Magazine co-founder and editor Solomon Chase came up with the idea of "future brown" while on mushrooms in upstate New York, pegging it as an artificial color that had "no definitive shade." Al Qadiri became obsessed with the concept, and when she started making music with Maroof, Pineda, and Imanian-Friedman, it only seemed fitting that they bring that color to life.
"If you are really preaching freedom, then you have to allow for others to express what is reality to them." Fatima Al Qadiri
All four members of Future Brown have a reputation for globetrotting in their respective bodies of work. Al Qadiri grew up in Kuwait, listening to bootlegs of American gangsta rap records, and most recently explored Western perceptions of China on her seductively sinister first album, Asiatisch, playing on Eastern motifs using the sonic palette of grime. Having spent his childhood between London and NYC with his Iranian mother and American father, Imanian-Friedman drew on a love of grime and, later, Chicago footwork to launch his label, Lit City Trax, which specializes in spotlighting region-specific club sounds from around the world.
Maroof, a Bowie, Maryland-born daughter of Indian immigrants, and Pineda, who was raised in Oklahoma City by his Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father, first met at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, just after Pineda had graduated. Together, they embarked on an immersive electronic music education, recording their early tracks to cassette in an attempt to pinpoint the moments when their transitions would "lock in," bringing the many disparate sounds they loved into dialogue. Nguzunguzu, the resulting global dancefloor project, sends contemporary sonic detritus—police sirens, sinister rattles—skittering across unnervingly glassy melodies. The chaos made them the perfect fit to kick off the avant-garde club releases of Fade to Mind, in 2011.
The four have been hanging and playing shows on the same experimental club music circuit for over four years, but it wasn't until the fall of 2012 that they started talking about working together. In the summer of 2013, they announced their existence to the world with the Tink-featuring single "Wanna Party," a hooky ode to getting in the zone at the club that set Future Brown up as masters of the party track—the predominant language of popular music—with a Patrón-soaked wink.
"You can kill people and bomb other countries, but you can't swear on the radio? Get the fuck out of here!" Fatima Al Qadiri
But sink your teeth into their as-yet-untitled debut album, and a multitude of worldviews spills forth: there's English, Spanish, and Japanese, plus more than half a dozen regional dialects. The music is designed to speak to the mind as much as the body, splicing the usual party rhetoric of sex, bass, and inebriation with head-on confrontations of racism ( Could never see a man like me on X-Factor / My jeans low and my face too black, spits UK grime MC Dirty Danger on "Asbestos"), declarations of female sexual empowerment (Jamaican dancehall artist Timberlee's raw turn on "No Apology"), and linguistic resistance to polite society. On "Vernáculo," for instance, New York's Maluca rhymes the Spanish culo with vernáculo—"Basically saying, 'Kiss my ass, this is how I speak,'" Al Qadiri explains.
Just as there's no definitive shade of "future brown," there's no one voice or point of view here that takes precedence over the others. "Life is really equal, you know?" says Al Qadiri when asked about the gender split of Future Brown, which she'd described in a previous interview with The FADER as an "equal opportunity workspace." Wait a minute—life is full of massive inequality, isn't it? "But there's massive inequality not because of reality; there's massive inequality because of power, because of the status quo, because of things that don't reflect reality, you know?" Al Qadiri says. "There's tons of female rappers; it's like, who wants to give them shine?" picks up Maroof, neatly illustrating Future Brown's desire to highlight artists and musical styles that are often overlooked. "The people are out there; they're there hustling, grinding in reality. It's just whoever brings it to life." For the record, there's an equal number of female and male-fronted tracks on the Future Brown album: four a piece, plus three male/female duets. Not that they'd counted: "Oh we didn't even realize that," says Imanian-Friedman. "That goes to show that it's pretty organic." Not surprisingly, Future Brown only ever works on tracks when all four are in the room, just to ensure that everybody's opinions get heard.
The shared thrill of tapping underrepresented sounds may be what sparked Future Brown's union, but it's their differences that keep them together. "Two heads are better than one, but four heads are better than two," says Maroof. "The thing is, if you have a comfort zone, you're only going to repeat the same shit," reflects Imanian-Friedman. "I always found that if I was being pushed into something where I'm not particularly comfortable, that's where the best results come out of it." Being open to alternatives runs underneath everything the four producers do. In fact, Future Brown's existence would seem to pose a vital challenge to an electronic music landscape still dominated by white men. Yet, while it would be easy to read the project as a musical prototype for a more culturally diverse tomorrow, as I was gently reminded in the interview below, to impose such a narrative—or any narrative, at all—would negate the creative freedom at the heart of the arrangement. As Al Qadiri puts it, "We are just randomly four brown people, really. That's the reality of it."
"There's tons of female rappers; it's like, who wants to give them shine?" Asma Maroof
Is there a Future Brown manifesto? IMANIAN-FRIEDMAN: Give the people good music. AL QADIRI: Honestly, I feel like we don't have one. I feel like this is a project about dreams and fantasies. It's a fantasy for the four of us to be in the studio working together, and it's another layer of fantasy to work with vocalists that we want to work with. Beyond that, getting signed and creating this album—it's just been a dream process. We haven't had a chance to breathe and think about the ramifications of what we're doing, let alone have some kind of manifesto. MAROOF: Yeah, the agenda would be to hold the record in my hand finally. Because there's tons of people involved in this process, it's a beautiful thing to just be like, "Yes, we did it!"
I know you said that you got your name via your friend's mushroom trip revelation, but it also suggests how race might evolve in years to come. AL QADIRI: I feel like the race issue takes away from the idea that this is something that exists without having a definition. I think that's the beauty of it. The color exists, but there's no definitive shade of "future brown."
Still, to have a name like Future Brown—working with so many different global music styles—feels loaded. AL QADIRI: I feel like some things are better left unsaid, you know? I just feel like beauty lies in mystery, and the more you define these very concrete, very limited definitions, you just get stuck, and it's not fun.
Is there any sense of resistance to mainstream pop music in what you're doing? PINEDA: I think that comes naturally to us. I mean, we work with vocalists that we wanna work with, [but] I don't think we necessarily reject radio play or anything. AL QADIRI: I feel like the lines are not drawn in the sand so strictly. We exist in this industry as artists, regardless of what is cult and what is mainstream. We don't set limitations on ourselves—if we like something, we like it. It doesn't matter if 500 people listen to it or millions of people listen to it, you know?
"It's not like the breakdown of all genres is the goal." Jamie Imanian-Friedman
While musically you're making party tracks, some of the lyrics are super political. MAROOF: As far as the topics and the lyrics are concerned, all the vocalists came up with the content. We never came to anybody saying, "Oh, you have to make it about this." PINEDA: We had general concepts, but most people brought a lot of their own content to their tracks. Credit goes to them. IMANIAN-FRIEDMAN: I think we knew the lyrical content of the people we wanted to work with. It's just cool that all of them had something important to say.
Were you comfortable with everything they touched on? AL QADIRI: Who am I to tell this rapper or this MC what to rap about or what to sing about? I think that's a very arrogant position. For instance, on "Killing Time," there are definitely misogynistic moments. I'm not even going to lie or try to pretend like they're not there. I personally blank them out because I like to think of myself as a hardcore feminist, you know? But I'm not going to try to preach to a rapper in Chicago about misogyny. I just don't think that it's the appropriate thing to do. If you are really preaching freedom, then you have to allow for others to express what is reality to them.
How did the collaborations work, logistically speaking? IMANIAN-FRIEDMAN: The tracks we sent people were tailored for them. So if we sent somebody a couple of tracks, they'd be something that we could hear them vocalizing. MAROOF: Our beats are never straightforward hip-hop or straightforward reggaeton, but like 3D Na'Tee says in her rap, I'm still gonna kill this, even though it's a new feel.
Do you imagine a future where all the disparate music styles that you're championing will come together into something new? IMANIAN-FRIEDMAN: People are much more open to things outside their localized region now, because everyone has more access. They're being inspired by genres from places where they've never been. It's not like the breakdown of all genres is the goal. I think it's exciting when people are open to hearing different kinds of things, open to not necessarily knowing what genre it is they're hearing.
"We had general concepts, but most people brought a lot of their own content to their tracks. Credit goes to them." Daniel Pineda
Were you thinking about cultural appropriation while recording the album? AL QADIRI: The thing with appropriation is if you're working with someone who is mimicking a sound or creating a false reality, then it's a problem. But if you're working with a vocalist from the place or from the genre, it falls less into the trap of appropriation. Also, it's appropriation if it's meant to be watered down and diluted. I can't wait for the censors to go ape shit on our record; so many of the tracks are going to be shish-kebabbed before they get to radio. We heard the clean version of "Wanna Party"—it's crazy how much Tink swears on it, but that's how adults talk. To try to clean it up for whatever fucking reason is dumbing down the reality. You can kill other people in other countries and bomb other countries, but you can't swear on the radio? Get the fuck out of here! IMANIAN-FRIEDMAN: The children don't have to listen to rap radio. Parents, know what your kids are listening to. AL QADIRI: It's a method of control. It's just gross, and it's infantilizing adults. If you don't like the word "fuck," turn the radio off. Don't pretend that it's not out there.
Language feels like a key theme in your music. With all the different voices, dialects, and vocabularies on the album, it feels like a challenge to English being the predominant language of popular music. AL QADIRI: That's the future of no limitations: there are no linguistic barriers. Wiley said that grime would never be big in America because of the language barrier, and I think that's what's echoed in grime from the time that he defined that problem. Even with 8TMG from Chicago, who did the vocals for the track "Killing Time"—there are some things they say on that track that I just can't understand because of [that crew's] specific Chicago accent. We don't have a problem with that. We love all these kinds of music regardless of how much we understand of what the vocals or the lyrics are saying.
You've said that your label Warp is a "home for misfits." Is that how you see yourselves? AL QADIRI: No, I just feel like that's the whole point of the color of "future brown": it goes beyond definition. Today I heard this really cool quote by Kierkegaard, which is very random, because I wouldn't normally be able to pluck philosophers' quotes from the top of my head, but he said, "What labels me, negates me." It's about definition. It's really beautiful.