The distinction between high and lowbrow culture is something that plays heavily on Chromeo‘s mind. The electro-funk duo arrived onto the scene in 2004 with their debut album She’s In Control, and ten years later they’re about to release their fourth, White Women. Such a title could give the wrong impression to the uninitiated. But the components that make up the Chromeo sound are a careful combination of outrageously catchy melodies and lyrics that approach typical themes in a totally atypical fashion.
Chromeo may be heavily inspired by ’80s artists such as Hall & Oates and Robert Palmer, but their music eschews an exclusively retro sound. They are equally inspired by their electronic contemporaries, which creates an interesting dialogue between the two periods. We sat down with Dave 1 and discussed their aesthetic identity, a hip-hop education, and the artists past and present that inspire their sound.
Chromeo has such a distinct sound, I’m interested to know what bands and musicians you were listening to before you started the band?
Growing up we listened to hip-hop. For our generation that was really the most transformative, musical movement, so we were really hip-hop kids.
What in particular?
Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas. We liked West Coast stuff too, Dre, Snoop Dogg, all the classics. That was the golden era for rap music, or one of the golden eras, so that was really what we grew up listening to. I mean all the way through to the early 2000s, you know, Jay Z and OutKast and stuff like that. That was really what we identified with and what was the most formative music we listened to.
All of the best stuff.
I mean I like everything in rap today as well, you know. I don’t think it got worse. There’s always gonna be a special place in me for Illmatic, because I was a teenager when it came out. The ’80s music that influenced Chromeo, we never listened to that when it came out because we were too young. But it was hip-hop that made us discover old records. We started producing and collecting records and that’s how we discovered funk and soul.
I guess hip-hop, especially from that era, is almost an education when it comes to the sampling and what that leads you to listen to.
That’s exactly what it was, we got our education from De La Soul and stuff like that. That’s what taught us about old records and we started becoming fascinated with older records and eventually that’s what lead us to want to start Chromeo.
“Our influences have that ’80s thing but it’s only funny and it’s only interesting because we mention Robert Palmer in 2014. It’s the dialogue between the two periods that makes it interesting.”
And when you say you’re still listening to hip-hop now, is that the same hip-hop that you were listening to then, or are you into the current hip-hop scene as well?
Current, current, current!
What sort of artists do you listen to?
French Montana, all day. French Montana, A$AP Ferg, Danny Brown, Action Bronson. I love current hip-hop, that’s all I listen to. I love Drake, Kanye. I love Young Thug, Young Thug is incredible. Future! I want to get Future on a Chromeo song one day. Even though our music is very retro, we’re not stuck in the past and we’re not conservative. We’re not reactionary. Our whole thing is not, “Oh we’re bringing this back.” We’re not bringing anything back. The music is now. We draw influences from a sound and we use analogue gear, but really we’re now.
I feel that the way to stay current and fresh as a musician is to always be evolving and obviously that’s what Chromeo does.
Yeah, it’s all about re-contextualizing. Our influences have that ’80s thing and of course some of our heroes are these old musicians like Robert Palmer and Hall & Oates, but it’s only funny and it’s only interesting because we mention Robert Palmer in 2014. It’s the dialogue between the two periods that makes it interesting. We’re just as much influenced by Hall & Oates as we are Justice.
I wanted to talk about your aesthetic identity because the Chromeo logo, your album covers and videos all have a distinct aesthetic. How important is it for you?
It’s the most important. It’s as important as the music. And we’re really only starting to get it right. It’s a little bit like the music to us, I feel like we’re improving. On our first album, Needy Girl, was great, but there’s other songs where you can really tell we hadn’t mastered our craft yet. I think on this new album you’ll hear a lot of progress. And visually too, I think it took us a minute to get the artwork and the videos to have that real, perfectly branded identity that was as good as the record. Whether it’s KISS or the Beastie Boys or Justice or Wu-Tang, all bands that have a strong visual identity. And I think now we’ve got the visual language on lock, I really feel like now it’s the best that it’s ever been in terms of the Chromeo visual vocabulary. If you look at somebody like A$AP Rocky, the visuals go 50/50 with the music and the message only gets across when you see the full picture.
Yeah, it is a double package. People want to see things as well as hear things, they want to see what they’re listening to.
Yeah, that’s the experience. It was the experience in the ’70s when people had vinyl records that they could hold in their hands and look at while they were listening to the music. Now it’s still a multimedia experience except that you’re on YouTube, you’re on Instagram, you’re on SoundCloud and it becomes one big language. The visuals, even like the track names, what they evoke, the videos and then the music. It all goes hand in hand and then even further, like merchandising.
You announced the release of White Women on Valentine’s Day, what is the significance of love and women in your music?
Despite all the female imagery we use, which is to be taken with a pinch of salt anyway, I think the themes are more focused on love and relationships. And we deal with those themes from a different perspective, rather than presenting an idealized, hyper-sexualized, and unrelatable macho image which is portrayed in a lot of songs. We talk about the things that don’t go well, we talk about the things that there’s an obstacle to and we try and make it funny, so that hopefully it’s more charming and more relatable.
I watched your performance with Daryl Hall of “I Can Go For That” and it left me wondering, do you hope to see yourself in his position at that age, collaborating with the next young electronic musical duo?
Of course, we would love that! And I think what’s happening with Nile Rodgers right now, that’s every artists – not even musicians – but every artist’s dream. To be able to cross generations like that and if you’re discovered by new fans, again it’s that idea of not being stuck in a time capsule.
I was reading an interview where you were talking about how you like either really highbrow or really lowbrow culture, can you expand on this?
For example, I‘m interested in the fact that like Benny Blanco, who is like one of the biggest pop producers in the world, his protege is Cashmere Cat. And Cashmere Cat is one of the most talented, dopest underground producers. And he’s making music with Benny Blanco, the guy who produced Rihanna’s ”Diamonds.” That is really interesting to me.
How do you feel about that crossover, when people talk about “selling out” in music, or musicians that began underground and then gain success through mainstream charts, where do you and Chromeo stand on that?
I can’t think of examples of people who have done that and it’s not been accepted. I think mainstream music is so closely tied in with underground music now, there’s no real difference anymore. I mean obviously when we were growing up Tupac was one thing and alternative music was another. But now, where does How To Dress Well end and The Weeknd begin? Where does The Weeknd end and Drake begin? It’s all one big continuum. Where does Chromeo end and Bruno Mars begin? So I don’t really get that whole concept of selling out. I think the only thing that sucks is when somebody becomes whack and that’s pretty objective. But you know, people that break out and have commercial success with good music, you can’t say anything about that.