It’s a grey day when I meet Kingdom in Griffith Park, a massive green space in the heart of L.A., where he’s lived since leaving New York in 2010. Among the families spending their Superbowl Sunday queuing for pony rides, he stands out: tall, in a black snapback with his trademark fade. Like many, I first encountered the innovative producer’s dark, deconstructed bass tracks at smoky warehouse parties, so at first it feels a little strange to chat during the daytime. But it turns out Griffith’s weird, secluded wilderness is appropriate for discussing Tears in the Club, Kingdom’s years-in-the-making debut album, crystallized from a period of introspection.
Kingdom, born Ezra Rubin, got his start DJing around New York in the late aughts, including doing runway mixes for fashion label Hood By Air. He released his debut single — the rave-ready “Mind Reader (ft. Shyvonne)” — on N.Y.C. label Fool’s Gold in 2010, followed by a couple of EPs with U.K. crew Night Slugs that expanded on his jagged and emotionally charged machine sound. Then, a year after his move to L.A., he started Fade to Mind with Dallas producer Prince William as a platform through which to develop their shared vision — an experimental mix of techno, R&B, grime, garage, and club sounds, with a Y2K visual aesthetic. Rubin devoted himself to being a label boss, overseeing a slew of releases, including producing three tracks on Kelela’s breakthrough mixtape, CUT 4 ME, in 2013, and dropping his own cyber-dystopic EP Vertical XL that same year.
While Fade to Mind found a name with deconstructed club sounds, Rubin began leaning even more toward R&B territory, including working closely with singers including former Danity Kane member D∆WN. On Tears in the Club, he runs with it, calling on the talents of Syd from The Internet, New Jersey R&B star SZA, and Florida singer Shacar for tracks that maintain an experimental core but feel downright radio-friendly. Extroverted vocals are balanced out with sparse, haunted soundscapes gleaned from a darker headspace. “[It] became a chance for me to become extra vulnerable, maybe make something a little less club-focused,” he explains in a thoughtful, demure tone.
Although his album's title feels especially poignant in a year when dance floors have been repeatedly recast as sites of mourning, Tears is gleaned largely from personal experiences — not so much made for the club as it is about the club, as an emotional and physical space. In a quiet corner of the park, we sit down to talk about the new record, the suppression of feminine energy, and the responsibilities that come with working in an underground club space.
You’ve been making music publicly since the early 2000s but this is billed as a debut album. How did you approach Tears in the Club differently from your other releases?
I really think the transition was starting to work with vocalists and exploring making more melodic work that a vocalist would want to sing over. Doing stuff with Kelela and D∆WN set me in this direction. That’s kind of where the beginning of it happened and then along the way there were traumas and failures and problems, and it kind of also became a chance for me to become extra vulnerable, maybe make something a little less club-focused. Despite the name of the album, it‘s really kind of nurturing [and] emotional, and a place to experiment with that vulnerable side.
Back in 2015, you talked about wanting to work with different vocalists and try out new ideas for vocal collaborations. How did you choose who to collaborate with?
I feel like SZA and Syd both bring something alternative or more organic in their vocal delivery, and my beats are really synthetic and influenced by club music and [a more synthetic] R&B sound. So it ended up working really well — these abstract, heady singers over these weirdo radio-sounding beats. I liked that, as opposed to trying to work with someone who’s got that same AutoTune-y commercial sound.
I got to see a big change [with SZA] because we did two songs. When we did the first song [in 2014], “What is Love,” she was still starting out. At the time, she wasn’t as sure of what she wanted to do and she wrote very off-the-cuff. What you hear on the record just pours out of her and there’s so much control to her voice. I was so blown away and so inspired to work with her.
Fast-forward to the second song — [in 2016] she was in L.A. and I randomly went to visit her at her studio. By then I feel like she had changed what she was doing with her voice: there wasn’t as much intentional indie phrasing to it. She had really come into her own really specific style of how she writes. For the first time, I sang a couple demos and sang over AutoTune — not to put my voice on the final record but just to experiment. The hook and the bridge were melodies that I had written, and she changed it and added words, filling it in, structuring it, doing the verses all herself.
Right after she cut it, Mike Will came into the studio because he was the next person who was going to work with her. So I got really nervous, like, ok, Mike Will is hearing my record. I really look up to him — his work was definitely an influence on the record in some ways, his take on R&B and rap production is really clean and emotional and really epic sounding. So it was cool to have that experience and to contrast it with the first time we met, which was just me and SZA in this tiny little studio, and then to see her when she was almost done with her album.
What was it like working with Syd and Shacar?
Syd, that was a really special experience also. She’s just such a boss — she makes it look so easy. She writes and edits on her own and just lays down section by section and every couple hours we would take a break to smoke a joint outside. She’s as laid-back as she sounds on the records but my favorite part was, after she had done a bunch of rough cuts, she basically nudged the engineer out of the way and just started chopping up her own vocals and doing her own effects and mixing. Everyone knows she’s a super-talented producer and engineer in addition to being an artist, but it was cool to actually see her do it and be like, ok, she just laid this record and now she’s editing it.
Shacar, he’s a new singer. He’s from Florida, [and is now based in New York.] My brother actually turned me onto him. He ended up fitting because he’s got this laid-back, more abstract flow. He really vibed with the track and gave it his own unique twist. He’s the only male singer but he brought a real vulnerability and a feminine side to his performance. He’s just starting out so I’m excited to do more stuff with him in the future.
“I love the idea of gay people making pop music together that’s not just some gay identity song.”
“Nothin’,” the track with Syd, is the poppiest thing you’ve produced so far. What was it like to make that?
It felt good. I did some collaborating with another songwriter on that in terms of the instrumental so the outro has this almost live sounding bassline which is totally different for me too. There’s definitely a West Coast feeling — that song to me is just driving towards the horizon and those introspective moments alone. There’s this slight peek into an eeriness, too, that I’m glad is still there. There’s something still a little fractured about it but it’s just little slivers mixed in with this really pretty package. I definitely enjoy making pop records, I just want to make sure there’s something slightly fucked up as well.
Also I love the idea of gay people making pop music together that’s not just some gay identity song — it’s just a song that two gay people happen to make together. I mean, she does mention a female love interest in the song, so there is an outwardly gay moment, but we focused on making a great song and making something new and interesting. I thought it was really cool for that moment to happen and it’s happening more. Frank Ocean and Kaytranada and Syd and so many other people are collaborating and I think there’s just going to be so much more of that coming.
There's also a darker, more introspective side to the record. On “Breathless,” Shacar has a line about feeling trapped, and there are all these industrial machine sounds on “Into the Fold,” for example.
I feel like that’s kind of two parts of my personality. There’s a really sweet soft side, but [also] I definitely have my issues with anger and violent urges. That’s all human, that’s stuff we all go through. I went through a depression over the past few years that I’m just coming out of, and that was me processing that. There’s a healing feeling that I get listening to the album. But those more mechanical, industrial, or violent moments are just venting the rage. Also I guess that’s just what a dark club feels like — the walls are painted black and there’s a metal grate over the speaker and there’s all this harshness to create that environment. So even when I’m making something more vulnerable and introspective and atmospheric, that’s where the club element cuts through a little bit.
This is kind of a weird left-field question but there’s a song on the album called “Haunted Gate” and there’s a haunted quality to a lot of the vocal samples. Lately, I’ve been really interested in how ghosts come up in work by queer or otherwise minoritarian artists. Are there any specific hauntings on the album?
To a degree, I feel like maybe my feminine side is somewhat of a ghost in that sometimes I feel like I’m not safe to show that to the world. That might be part of why I’m so attracted to female vocals: there is this female side to everyone and to me. Maybe it is an apparition or something that’s not fully visible because of public opinion or public shame or my own shame. I don’t feel safe showing [my feminine side] to people or I don’t feel like I can fully embody it, so sometimes I use my music to embody that part of myself.
I feel like when sampling women there’s always a risk that people would be like, oh why is this gay guy objectifying women or using shreds of female work? And I don’t want it to feel that way because I so honor the women that I get to work with and I don’t want to feel like I’m taking something. I really feel like I’m expressing this other side of myself in that space.
“I don’t feel safe showing my feminine side to people, so sometimes I use my music to embody that part of myself.”
Tell me about how the album title came about.
I named the title track when I first made it and then it stuck. I did [think a lot about] the club space, making it a safe space, or bringing emotions into the club space that aren’t usually appropriate there.
But as the last couple of years progressed, the title took on all these other meanings for me. Coming up in the New York club scene, I feel like I was lucky and experienced a really big degree of safety. I didn’t see a lot of fights or a lot of trauma in that space, I felt like I was actually pretty safe there. But more recently, I witnessed some bloody fights and bad incidents and sexual harassment and things I really either hadn’t seen or hadn’t seen in my close proximity. It’s kind of made its way into my actual existence and opened my eyes and surprised me.
And, of course, with the club becoming a place where there have been shootings: Orlando and the [attack] in Istanbul. Now I feel like there’s something in the back of people’s heads that’s like, maybe the club will get shot up tonight. That’s more a potentiality now than it used to be. That’s a new tint on the idea of club culture that wasn’t as much there before.
After the Pulse and Ghost Ship tragedies, there is definitely this additional layer of fear that you’re talking about. It’s also interesting because after Pulse there were all these articles like "the club is no longer a safe space," but in many ways the club was never a totally safe space. And because of that, there’s this other kind of violence where all these clubs are getting shut down, supposedly in the name of safety. But at the same time, the club is not just a place to party, it can also be a space for processing and mourning.
There’s so many levels to it. With “Tears in the Club,” I’m not trying to say the club is horrible, it also means, what if we made tears safe in the club? What if it was a really safe space for any type of emotional expression or any type of person? The title has a darker slant than the album itself. I think tears can be good, it doesn’t have to be always negative.
Do you think the current political climate is going to affect how people relate to or frame the release?
Yeah. I think even though I didn’t make this album with a ton of political intention, it’s already made me feel differently about it. I think it’s just inevitably going to change it.
I don’t want it to feel like everyone who is creative has to now make a protest song. It shouldn’t be so heavy-handed and didactic like that. People still need to express their other emotions and express joy and all the other things that we go through. I’m excited by the amount of action and that people are speaking up so much more, but I want every type of expression to feel safe, too.
There are many ways to process the political climate or to do political work.
I put a lot of women on my projects and I want to do that more. There are still so many albums and lineups and festivals that are so completely male-dominated. I’m not saying I’m making some giant political change by putting mostly women on my projects, but I do think that’s something different. It’s still so much of a boys club in music. Even some of my favorite hip-hop and R&B — there will be a girl on the feature but there’ll be a guy talking over her, or she’s just on the hook or something. There’s still such a suppression of feminine energy. There’s this feeling that the feminine and the vulnerable is just not as cool. I think it’s important to amplify that and bring that out.
Fade to Mind works with a lot of LGBTQ and PoC artists and many of your collaborators come from these communities that are threatened under this administration, but have also always been under threat. How do you negotiate that as a label boss?
I think most of what I can do is wholeheartedly support and protect the people I work with directly. And try to do some calling out when there is something going wrong [or something that’s] infringing on our rights and making that public.
It’s mostly about showing a strong unity and creativity. There are straight people on the label too, it’s not exclusively a queer space or PoC space. I think showing that we’re all family and a team and supporting each other, that’s the most that we can really do.
There are all these intricacies of music business stuff which I’m still learning about, but I think maybe that’s a way I can help protect and assist the people that I work with. A lot of people sign contracts that aren’t fair or that take advantage of the fact that they might not have a lawyer to look at it. These queer or PoC artists are getting less than their fair share.
I’m trying to be more involved in [MikeQ’s ballroom collective] Qween Beat too. MikeQ has all his extremely talented artists that he’s bringing up as well. I’m trying to help them protect their work and make sure that they can take advantage of all the opportunities.
Now that a lot of bigger artists like Chance and Skepta are seeing a level of success while still being super independent, what role do smaller labels like Fade to Mind play?
I would definitely tell any artist to go independent if that’s what they want to do. It’s cool to see that being a really fully functional option. I think what Fade to Mind and small labels offer is more people to bounce your work off of and more people to, like, go back-to-back DJing with. I think maybe it works better for DJs and producers than for a singular vocal person that wants to push their solo project. But for a DJ, if you want to do remixes and edits, it provides a cool community to share tracks early and get feedback. More and more, someone will send me a melody stem and I’ll add drums to it and just make work together. I think it offers that community that can build each other up together.
I think even artists on Fade to Mind will be doing more stuff that’s on their own, as well. I’m cool with that, that’s something people need to explore. But there’s a lot of legal, technical, annoying stuff [involved with the music industry], which, if you go out there on your own as an artist, you might not get all of. So I do think there’s some advantage to working with a label where they can help you through stuff, at least at first.
When Fade to Mind parties first hit New York, it felt really revolutionary, musically. Unless you had been following drum and bass or jungle and grime, it felt really new to people. And now that kind of dark, sinister, and sexy production is in a lot of bigger pop records — it’s all over ANTI, for example. In your perspective, how has the landscape changed?
I think that’s why [my] record has that more melodic sound. It has chord changes. I’m trying to tell a story and create movement in each track and that’s more my personal exploration. I want to somewhat depart from that sound that’s so popular, but, at the same time, it’s cool to see that it’s gotten so big. I still feel like people don’t really know that that’s something we pioneered — not something we invented but something we helped bring through. I hope people recognize that. But I’m so glad that these younger artists are creating these new collectives and it’s spreading further. I think it’s all moving towards a good goal.