Zen Sounds Interview Series 002: Kabuki
Talking to the Frankfurt musician about the early days of jungle, Japanese artisanry, performance art and Werner Herzog
This interview has to start with a disclaimer, because Jan Hennig aka Kabuki is not only one of my best friends; I’ve also worked with him for some years as an artist manager.
At that time, we’re talking about the mid 2010s, Kabuki had long left his roots in drum’n’bass behind and produced melancholic, instrumental hip-hop, as well as eclectic club and bass music with a strong influence of UK soundsystem culture.
In the last years, Kabuki’s works have branched out even further: He turned to the modular synthesizer, orchestrated performances and installations, created dreamy ambient for Canadian label Séance Centre with an old friend, the house music producer Lars Bartkuhn, and played on an ECM-style jazz album with guitarist Max Clouth and cellist Sophie-Justine Herr.
His concept album »The Crucible« followed in early 2022, and towards the end of the year, his fifth solo record »No Maps For These Territories« was released on German beat label Block Opera. Both records continued down the path Kabuki set out with his first instrumental album »Meditations« in 2014, combining classic hip-hop beats with strong jazz and ambient influences.
The following conversation looks back on key moments of his decades-spanning career as a producer, DJ, artist, musician and lecturer, without raising any claim to completeness.
In the 1980s and 1990s, your hometown Frankfurt was known as a techno capital. How important was that music for your musical upbringing?
As a youth, I lived in Hanau, an outpost where I made my first musical steps. Hanau was a garrison town, quite provincial, but through the US army base we received the signals of the world. My first nightlife experience happened in an army club that hosted bingo evenings on Thursday, and on Saturday, they grilled wings and played New Jack Swing.
In Frankfurt, there was the legendary club »Funkadelic«, where James Brown and Prince did stop over. For me, their sound was more identity-founding than techno. I just noticed techno marginally. As I used to study jazz guitar, everything about samples and broken beats seemed way more interesting to me.
In Frankfurts record shops I found direct imports of early US hip-hop records. They grabbed me, because I heard my favorite jazz records in a manipulated form. I noticed that something happened with me on an emotional level.
When and how did you get in contact with jungle music then?
That must have happened around 1993/94. I was a bit frustrated because I was such a big fan of hip-hop and specifically the D&D scene in New York, but hip-hop only seemed to work in English to me. I didn’t find it authentic to copy it in German, because after all, we were living in totally different circumstances.
But jungle – back then we still called it hardcore – fascinated me because it used the same ingredients as, say, DJ Premier, but it put together a completely new recipe. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it.
Jungle reminded me of Bomb Squad’s and Marley Marl’s uptempo hip-hop. In England, groups like Hijack, Gunshot or Silver Bullet developed that sound further and kept increasing the BPM.
There was a similar attitude you could find in hip-hop and in jungle back then. Jungle was born out of soundsystem culture, and that fascinated me. When I made my first trips to England, I saw first-hand what it was all about: The producers met every Friday at Music House, stayed for six hours and cut their self-produced DATs to acetates that they would be able to play in the club only a couple of times.
Through this connection, I got to know and study the whole reggae culture. If you come by such a culture, you need to approach it with respect, or else you won’t be shown any respect. For me, it was kind of a rite of passage to get included as a peer by the original protagonists of that culture. In the end, it’s all about the passion that you feel for the music. This universal currency will always connect you with other people that think and feel like you.
Back then, German producers were all about techno and house. Why did you want to produce such a special UK music and get in contact with the London scene?
I just felt I needed to become a part of it. I listened to the early Reinforced records, specifically those by Dego and Marc Mac. They were brought up on jazz, funk and soul, so their productions always had very emotional, harmonic and melodic aspects, but at the same time they had an extreme roughness, with all those distorted 808s and atomized breaks. This tension mirrored how I felt inside. It felt familiar, the militant aspect of the music as well, like in Underground Resistance and later in Metalheadz. For me, this music was able to transport deep emotions, but it didn’t lack the street attitude I loved in hip-hop so much.
When I saw those 3D wildstyle pieces in the booklet of Goldie’s »Timeless«, I suddenly understood the cultural connection.
Exactly. At first, jungle was nothing more but a »wrong« use of a certain technology. Similar to a record player that’s clearly not built for scratching. It was just that some people tried it out and found that it sounds amazing. The early hardcore producers just pitched up classic hip-hop breaks – and it sounded revolutionary.
You said you traveled to London frequently, but did you have a like-minded community in Frankfurt as well at that time?
Yes, there was an early breakbeat culture in Frankfurt. There was a club called »Box« near Willy-Brandt-Platz, and they hosted happy hardcore parties. Even Bryan G played there. So there were a few people I was able to learn from. Just an example: When I was able to afford my first Technics 1200 record players, I didn’t know that the thick rubber mat didn’t belong on the turntable. So the record started extremely slow, and I learned DJing that way – I just let go of the record early enough, so I made it unnecessarily hard for myself. Then I saw a DJ in the city who just had slipmats on his turntables, and I thought: Oh, that’s how you actually do it.
You released your first own jungle production as early as 1996.
A remix for Kosma [Roskoe] of Jazzanova that I put out under the Megashira moniker. That was my first official release. Megashira was a cooperative I had with two colleagues. We had thrown together our equipment in a studio and used this name for our collaborative productions. I was mainly responsible for pre-production, chopped breaks and arranged samples. Back then you had little to no independent labels in Germany, the industrial infrastructure relied heavily on the majors. We were lucky enough to get a deal at Infracom in Frankfurt, one of the few indies.
There was a positive reception around the Megashira records, even from the UK.
Yes, we even got a positive review in »NME«. Of course they put the Kraut stamp on us, writing something like »Krauts can cut breaks too«. (laughs) Then we played Tribal Gathering, right before Roni Size and Reprazent, when they had just released their »New Forms« album in 1997. We got lucky that many people were welcoming towards us and supported us. That was the start of my personal development as a producer.
At the tail end of the 1990s, you were closely connected with the No U-Turn label around Nico, Ed Rush and them, right?
Well, like I said earlier, attitude was always quite important to me. And with No U-Turn, their philosophy really stood at the center of what they did. They took their name literally: If you got into that tunnel, there was no turning back. Nico was like the next incarnation of Phil Spector. He dreamt up his own sound and then made it a reality, with all consequences. But if you go to those extremes, at one point you will meet an end point. I think Nico knew that. It was more like a social experiment to him. But in that time, I learned so much – it was super inspiring.
Jungle was a Black music culture, initiated by migrant kids from the Caribbean. That aspect sometimes gets lost in the re-imagination of jungle on TikTok these days.
Definitely. But even back then, you had these white-washing tendencies. Suddenly, people felt that the term »jungle« was burdened somehow, so that promoters didn’t want to use it for their parties anymore. They said that it would draw in a trouble-making crowd. You weren’t allowed to wear certain brands in the clubs anymore. The uptown promoters were scared of the Afro-Caribbean community. So they found this alternative genre term, drum’n’bass, but it was just a derivative. Even that term comes from reggae culture – it’s the part of the arrangement where the vocals are being taken out of the mix, leaving only the rhythm section and delay.
For many listeners, drum’n’bass was linked to that characteristic two-step beat, consisting just of a kick and a snare, which later turned into tech-step and then into clown-step – that was a derogatory term thrown around back then. (lacht) It then lost its excitement to me. Jungle had been a music full of references, the early records combined shouts from Cutty Ranks or Dennis Alcapone, rare groove samples from the Headhunters or Bob James and vocals chops from rappers like Method Man or Redman. When jungle turned into drum’n’bass, the music cannibalized itself. It lost all connections to the outside world. Like the Ouroborus, that mythological snake that eats itself – that’s how it seemed to me. I missed the cultural aspect that had initially led me to jungle.
The trio Megashira turned into the duo Makai, and in the end you went solo as Kabuki. In 1999, you released an album with legendary German hip-hop producer Roey Marquis II. under the project name MK2. How did that come about?
Calo [Roey Marquis II.] and the label I was releasing on were operating out of the same office space, so we met there naturally. I had big respect for him and appreciated his pioneer work, and we were quite similar in regards to our ideals. He was interested in jungle back then and saw me as a like-minded spirit. We got a major deal for that album, so we had a budget, flew to London for a few days and commissioned a remix from DJ Suv, who was part of the Reprazent crew. We produced the album in Calo’s studio in Frankfurt though. It was a fusion of b-boy culture, traveling through different speeds and attitudes, but it had a central theme through the breaks and samples.
Any other connections to the German hip-hop scene that had its first commercial peak at that time?
There were a few moments of exchange. One time, I had Stieber Twins in my studio, a legendary rap duo from Heidelberg. But a member of their crew suddenly got a call because his house apparently stood in flames, so everyone stormed out of the studio before we were able to record anything. I met Martin [Stieber] a few years back at a concert, and we had to smirk at the thought of what might have developed out of that collaboration.
Being from Frankfurt, Azad was another rap artist that I always respected. Our paths crossed a couple of times, as he had a room near Calo’s studio, and both of us frequently visited a record store called Freebase. Upstairs they sold techno records, and in the basement it was all broken beats, so hip-hop and jungle heads were mixing downstairs. But we never got to work together.
Your artist name refers to a traditional Japanese masked theatre, and in the 2000s you moved to Japan yourself. Where did that deep appreciation of that culture come from?
I talked to dBridge about artist names a couple of years ago, and he said every artist chooses his alias through his deeper subconscious. Sometimes you need to find out about that psychological meaning yourself. In Kabuki theatre, the actors and actresses wear masks and morph into different roles and personas. That is why the name means so much to me: I want to play different roles as well, and not be forever bound to a certain thing or style. I have too many interests, be it in music, art or philosophy.
Aside from that, Japanese culture has always fascinated me. It’s all about discipline and artisanry. Everything I do, I want to do whole-heartedly, so that everyone can feel it. You know, how a good craftsman does his job thoroughly, even in spaces that you won’t see in the end. That’s how I approach my music as well. It’s also about a dedication to tradition, appreciating those who came before you and interpreting their work in your own way, without just copying them.
In Japan it’s usual to find a passion – say, making noodles or forging swords – and perfect it over decades of constant learning and hard work.
There’s a Japanese saying I like a lot: Experts don’t advertise. If you’re really good at what you do, you don’t need to market yourself, because your reputation will bring the people to you. To me, that is a very beautiful idea.
So when did you get to Japan first?
In 1997. For a Makai album, we had been able to secure a major deal with Intercord/EMI, and they licensed the record to Japan. That’s how I got the opportunity to play my first show in Tokyo. On this journey, I met many people that would help me to set foot into the local industry – starting with the label that licensed many of my albums for the Japanese market, and contacts to the Japanese gaming scene that would give me the opportunity to live and work in Japan. So the music clearly was the door opener.
For how long did you live in Tokyo?
Well, back then I was still working as a DJ and received many bookings from Europe. It was important to play those shows because if I hadn’t, someone else would have taken my spot quickly. So I usually stayed in Germany for three months, and then went to Japan for the next three months. I did that for almost seven years, and it was a very exciting and enjoyable time.
Japan wasn’t as touristically developed as it is today; you wouldn’t even find transcriptions in the restaurants, and when I took the subway, I needed to count the stations to my destination. It was very different, but at the same time I felt at home immediately. That’s why Japan became such an anchor in my life.
How did that manifest itself on a spiritual level? In your music, your artworks and song titles, I often find references to far-eastern philosophy.
In Japan I learned a lot to appreciate the spiritual world. To concern yourself with your own spirit is a tradition prevalent in the east. I found it fascinating to learn how people still uphold that tradition today. It shows in small things. If you get your food on the table, in Japan you don’t say »Enjoy your meal«, but »Itadakimasu«, which means something like »I accept what is in front of me«, and then you wait a few seconds. So before you start inhaling your food, you create this distance to really notice what you have on your plate. The world is the same, after all, but the perspective is different.
I was also interested in martial arts and practiced Aikido, where spirituality and the transformation of energy plays an important role. I was able to learn a lot for my artistic endeavours. Performance often deals with the change and channeling of energy. That aspect I understood in Japan, and I was so lucky to have these great talks with some amazing people that really touched me deeply.
Aikido is a traditional, more defensive martial arts practice, right?
Aikido is about redirecting the energy of your opponent. As a relatively small woman, with this technique you can just throw a much bigger, vigorous man. You use the laws of physics in your favor and learn about the right angle to use his own energy, which he’s putting into a hit, against him, so that this energy will be pulling him. You can directly translate that into daily life. In many ways, you will not be able to decide about which energies you are being confronted with, but you can always decide how to react to that energy impacting you. I have experienced that in my training and it helped me a lot in my life.
You have been a recording artist for 25 years. In some phases of your career, you had major deals and made good money, but there were difficult phases as well. Did your spirituality help you through these times?
Absolutely. There were boom phases, when jungle was a huge trend, and every major label wanted to sign jungle artists, paying out big advances. But the crash came inevitably, because this music didn’t have roots in mainland Europe, so it never really became part of everyday culture. Some of my peers had planned to keep on doing the same thing for the next 20 years, but I was very realistic about seeing the situation how it is and not how I want it to be. For some people around me, that was a problem. They couldn’t deal with the reality, because they didn’t even accept it. For some years, it was difficult for me to live off the music as an artist, but I never felt above doing a day job and making music in my spare time. I never wanted to commercialize my art so much that I wouldn’t be able to look into the mirror anymore.
I got the impression that »artists« starting music because of a primarily commercial motivation will be the first ones that give up when it gets hard.
Thoughts about audience were never relevant to me. I didn’t think about how many people like what I do. I just love the moment when I’ve accomplished something – when I had an abstract idea and transformed it into reality. That is a fascinating process: The electrons in your brain make you have an idea, and then you take certain steps to bring this idea into the world. And that is the only thing I can actually influence. I can’t influence if anyone will like the outcome or not. I can just make sure that I will keep on creating new content. The more creativity I transform, the bigger the chance that my work might speak to a bigger audience one day – but it might also never happen. I’m satisfied when I’ve implemented my idea.
After ten years as a jungle producer, you released your album »Warrior Soul« in 2006 with V Recordings. In that time, many producers switched from drum’n’bass to dubstep or techno. How did you experience that period?
I had summoned all my energy into that album and did everything possible for me in that format. I was burned out afterwards. I knew I couldn’t continue down this path with the same love anymore. Since then, I have experienced similar moments again: I knew that I’d close one door, and another door would open. I am actually celebrating it. I give things their time, but when that time is over, I move on, with a good feeling and a positive energy. Back then, it felt like a departure. I wanted to use the opportunity to work on the music I’ve always loved but never produced myself. I started working on instrumental hip-hop beats.
The next album after »Warrior Soul« was »Meditations«, and I’m sure I asked too much of some of the listeners that knew me from my productions on V or No U-Turn. In that moment, I didn’t care though. I wanted to keep my music authentic and soaked in my soul, and then it would need to find the right people that are interested in it. That’s why I never feared hitting people over the head. I see it all as part of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
If someone likes my ambient album »The First Minute Of A New Day«, then there’s at least something about »Meditations« that person might like as well. That music doesn’t come from different planets, those are just variations of the same feeling. So it was an important moment for me, overcoming those concerns and just saying: Anything goes. From that moment on, I’ve released everything under my artist name, no aliases anymore. Everything that comes from me is Kabuki, the full spectrum.
With »Meditations« you showed respect to the »holy trinity« of hip-hop producers: DJ Premier, Pete Rock and J Dilla. With »The First Minute Of A New Day« you went even further back to your own roots in jazz.
Hundred percent. I remember being in music school in Vienna and someone playing me Herbie Hancock’s »Maiden Voyage« for the first time, or »500 Miles High« by Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. When working with Lars [Bartkuhn], I was finally able to interpret that feeling by my own means for the very first time.
In the last decade, you produced club music, ambient, hip-hop beats and sound installations. But you gave up on DJing completely.
I made very essential experiences in the club and will be eternally thankful for them. They influence my life every single day. In conversations and interactions I am able to work with that knowledge, how to read and shift the mood in a room with 1,000 people. But one day, I stood in the club and thought: I don’t feel anything at all. And I am not a good actor. That was the moment when I knew it’s not the place for me anymore. Even the music that I’ve once written specifically for these moments, I can’t reproduce it authentically anymore.
I realized that if you do something with honest intentions and full of passion, then you will feel that in the outcome – but you can never actually go back to that condition, the »magic moment« can not be repeated. Because we change, every day we turn into a new human being, just from our molecular structure. If at one point I’ve done something using my full energy, that is my definite statement on that topic. And then I have to move on. I never want to produce a derivative of a derivative.
Scientists believed that the human body needs seven to ten years to renew all of its cells, but newer studies show it’s going even faster. That being said, I think the idea of a fixed, steady identity, which is currently shaping part of our cultural discourse, is a huge mistake.
Letting go of all ego is just the beginning of the adventure. If you’re able to stop viewing yourself as a static entity, but as something which is in a steady flow of constant renewal – that is the moment when life gets exciting.
The First Minute Of A New Day...
(laughs) It’s really magical. I find it important that we make ourselves conscious of that fact once in a while. Right now, this is a special moment, and it will not come back. If I stay conscious of that, I will naturally be more present and awake and will really try to soak up the moment.
It’s just hard if I’m occupied with finding the right camera angle for my Instagram story.
Right. That is a big mistake, to think you would be able to re-live the moment afterwards. It’s always just a reproduction, but the moment is long gone. That fascinates me about music as well – it’s a medium that moves through every moment but you can never quite catch it. It is so ephemeral. And every listener interprets music in a different way, nobody hears it the same way as another person. On a philosophical level, that is quite fascinating.
Is that why you’re always looking for new formats to present your music in?
I love developing an idea or a format that’s distinctly tied to a certain form of expression. I will dive deep into the medium and ask myself how I can express myself creatively in that frame. Looking back, I produced a lot of music that was made to be pressed to records and then played to an audience in a club. That was so far removed from the idea to form a band and play live to an audience; in that context, the recording usually comes afterwards.
In these last years, I’ve discovered the compositional art installation as an adequate form of expression for me. I am setting a tonal and harmonic frame, and even though I’m responsible for that frame, I will let it speak for itself and draw myself back. An exciting experience.
In the pandemic year 2021, you produced your album »The Crucible« live on your Twitch channel. For every session, you limited yourself to a certain palette of instruments and sounds.
Even here, it was all about the frame I set. Every other Monday, I threw myself into cold water and started on a blank piece of paper. It was about showing myself vulnerable, because sometimes it all goes wrong. In polished formats like »Against The Clock« or »Rhythm Roulette«, everything is moving on safe tracks. For my sessions, I just put the ingredients in front of me, but developed the recipe live in front of the eyes and ears of the audience.
I had to leave many worries and concerns behind: What do I look like right now? What do people think of me? As an artist, you sometimes wrestle with an inner critic that will try to anticipate what the audience might think of your work. The worst thing that can happen is when that inner critic shows up early in the creative process and tries to keep you from trying out certain things. The more you can free yourself of that voice, the more you will be able to bring your own identity into the work.
Looking at »The Crucible« that way, it was an exciting confrontation, as I had to deal with people that commented on my creative work during the process. My most important insight was that I can actually deal with that quite well now.
You grew up in subcultures like hip-hop and jungle, but you’ve since arrived in the art world, holding lectures and orchestrating performances. Which artists are inspiring you these days?
I am very inspired by artists that were active in a time when the context of their work wasn’t clear at all. If I hear someone like [Thelonious] Monk, or Bill Evans – those are giants to me, mythical creatures from another time. At a certain point, they created something entirely new and consequentially found their very own identity. I also find someone like Stockhausen really fascinating, or Beuys – what an extreme power and intensity they both had. Sometimes their ideas needed a long time for the public to grasp them. These are examples of artists whose vision and stubbornness I admire. They just seemed to have this inner compass. They didn’t care if anyone understood right away what they’re trying to do. They just believed in themselves and said: I am doing this no matter what, and in the end I will know if I was right or wrong.
You could translate »stubbornness« in that context with »loyalty to your values«, that doesn’t sound as negative.
It’s essentially about believing in yourself. That feeling that you are just right in what you are trying to do. Like Werner Herzog who famously said: That boat needs to go over that mountain, it is a metaphor for something, I don’t know yet for what, but it is important just now. From these stories, I draw inspiration. When I watch a Herzog movie, I feel the energy he put into creating those images. That, to me, is true art. It’s not about having a university diploma in arts, it’s only about the fact that your energy, your intention, all your sincerity and passion has flown into an object of art. And everyone will feel it immediately.
»No Maps For These Territories« by Kabuki is out now on Block Opera.
© 2022 Stephan Kunze