Milwaukee hip-hop duo AUTOMatic is known as a solid throwback act, maybe one of the most respectable in the area: light on the swagger, heavy on the talent and dedicated to staying true to a more genuine time as well as a more genuine sound.
Sometimes the pair has been accused of, as emcee APRIME says, "sounding like the '90s." Not necessarily a bad thing, but no artist wants to be pigeonholed.
Sincerity, respect and a healthy love for the roots of hip-hop are what makes AUTOMatic so popular with its fan base, both here in Milwaukee and even around the world.
But all good artists still have to push the envelope.
"We want to be able to accommodate the fans to a certain extent but at the same time it’s like we want to be able to go somewhere else with our sound," he said.
AUTOMatic's third album, "Art Imitates Life," which is the first volume in what will be a series of three, was released by Dope Records in late September. The 11-track LP features collaborations with emcee Logic (of Logic & Raze/The Hollowz), guitarist Mike Carpenter and vocalists Elle Razberry and Aaron Cunningham.
It also offers a sampling of a different, more progressive sound from AUTOMatic's members, emcee APRIME and producer Trellmatic.
"As we were recording, one of our goals was to try to expand our sound," said APRIME, whose real name is Darius Windom. "We’re a little bit more saleable, boom-rap influenced – like ‘90s rap – so considering that our fans are really attached to that particular sound from us, we didn’t want to really stray too much from that.
"But at the same time we wanted to expand on our musicality, so that’s the reason we have live instrumentation throughout the album, you know, with a little bit of guitar and whatnot and that way we can just kind of like sprinkle a little bit of flavor onto our core sound."
The record’s first single, "Move" featuring Elle Razberry, marks a departure from the classic, more familiar sound of previous records. It has a stronger funk/pop influence and smooth but prominent dance beat.
Even though it was something different, Windom was perplexed by the negative feedback the song initially received.
"A lot of people really didn’t like that sound from us," he said. "People kind of reacted to it like, ‘Oh, yeah … so, we’re gonna need you to do that other thing that we love so much.' So it’s kind of like a weird position to be in, you know, as an artist."
Because in the end, APRIME and Trellmatic are just that: artists. They don’t simply produce goods for consumption. The duo has a healthy appreciation for their fans’ love of the familiar, but they still see themselves as manipulators of a more fluid medium.
Windom himself is a versatile musician with a background in soul and R&B, while Trellmatic’s forte is jazz.
"That’s the reason why those influences are sprinkled throughout our sound," said Windom. "So as soul and R&B and jazz is a little more progressive, that’s our mindset. We want to continue to progress our sound. And we definitely don’t want to alienate the fans that have been with us from the beginning.
"But if it was up to us, we would’ve probably done a full record like ‘Move’ and that’s where we would’ve gone because musically, that’s where we are. But we understand that our fans are not there."
Inserting tracks like "Move" is part of an in immersion therapy-esque technique AUTOMatic took on this new album.
"We just wanted to put a song on there or two so they could kind of get used to it," he said. "’Vespa’ actually worked out really well and a lot of people really were ... it was a pleasant surprise. But not so much ‘Move.’ And I don’t understand why, because stylistically ‘Move’ is just an advanced version of what we’ve been doing."
Windsom said he felt that the feedback from "Move," "messed with our cred a bit," but that the latest single, "The Back Up" featuring Logic and Mike Carpenter, is being received well. Delivering a more classic sound and beat reminiscent of the ‘90s, the track is what AUTOMatic fans are used to.
"Right now ‘The Back Up’ is doing, like, tremendous," Windom said. "We were getting so much love off ‘The Back Up’ video and like we’ve been picked up by all kinds of sites here and internationally – it’s just been crazy, the response. We haven’t heard anything bad about ‘The Back Up’ at all versus, like, everything that’s been going on with us with ‘Move,’ so it’s been kind a crazy. But we’re enjoying it. It’s more a shock than anything."
Winsom said he and Trell don’t listen to hip-hop while they’re working on a new record, and he himself has broad musical taste – The Beatles, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Heat Wave, to name a few. His full-time day job is working with children with autism, but he credits his part-time position at independent record store The Exclusive Company with providing him with constant exposure to all different kinds of music.
"My co-workers, all of us are basically experts in different genres. But we all have similar tastes. So it’ll be, like, ‘OK, you’re into this guy? Well, maybe you should check out this guy." And then like constantly there’s a stream of good music being played at the store … they’re really helping me to become a better musician every day whether they know it or not."
It’s understandably frustrating for a versatile musician to be pigeonholed.
"When I want to work with someone else, they try to play me production-wise as similar to something that Trell makes – and it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t want Trell’s sound when I don’t have Trell,’" he said.
"That is not all I do. I have a nice range that I can do, so it’s just kind of weird. But at the same time it’s respectable because I had a conversation with Ed Cayce from the Hollowz and he and I were talking and he was like, ‘Well, you know, one of the reasons why a lot of people don’t see you as more than just AUTOMatic is being you haven’t really shown them.’ So it’s just like basically putting yourself out there and then just, like, it takes people a while to catch up, and it’s not by any fault of their own. People like the familiar."
He cites the advice given to him by DJ JDL, who did the cuts for "Art Imitates Life" and with whom he is currently working on a separate project.
"Sometimes I kind of slip into the way of thinking where it’s like, ‘OK, well, if I do this I don’t really want to offend anyone but at the same time I want to go there (musically),’" he said. "And his (DJ JDL’s) mindset is like, ‘Dude, if you can go there, then go there. Just go for it and let the results be the results, because a lot of times people don’t know they want or they need something until you give it to them."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.