Chee designates himself a ‘Trailblazer’ with new Tsuruda collaboration [Q+A]
Back in the early 2010’s, Chee—real name Lesego Mlangeni—was walking down the street after school with his friend Jon Casey when he first discovered bass music. Both artists were in eighth grade at the time, and Skrillex was riding high. While bass music itself was not extraordinarily popular in South Africa, from which the two artists hail, they were able to discover the sound due to a passing car that was blasting it through its speakers.
“I looked at Jon and we were just like, ‘we have to follow that sound.’ And we’re just walking, following the sub. And it’s this ghetto car with this guy playing dubstep in his trunk with 20 subs in there,” Chee reflected.
The moment served as a catalyst for them to move to the United States and later become some of the most talented rising stars in bass music. With his new collaboration with Tsuruda—”Trailblazer,” which arrives via Deadbeats—Chee is showing just how prominently he’s making waves.
Marked more as a “producer’s producer” due to his experimentation in sound design, Chee’s artistic signature finds him dabbling in darker atmospheres influenced by the cold weather. Rather than returning to South Africa when the pandemic first began, Mlangeni hunkered down in Philadelphia, writing new music every day.
“I was writing a lot of dark music at the time, but honestly, everything I write is pretty dark, so it doesn’t really make a difference,” he explained.
“It’s such a playground,” Mlangeni added of creating music. “I can do whatever I want. You know, I can open Ableton and throw this there and there and there. I try to take advantage of that as much as I can, you know, and I think that’s where all the weirdness comes from.”
He laughs at the sentiment that his sound caters more to other producers and also at their capacity to “nerd out” over how different plugins work and the different sounds that can be created. “Sometimes I’ll come across a producer who knows their shit like, to the fucking T. And they start asking stuff like the exact frequency it takes to play a specific note. And I’m like, ‘I only like doing this because it makes it go ‘bruhlbruhlburhl’ or whatever.'” But Chee stands firm that he will not play it safe when it comes to crafting his own sound.
With live music kicking back up, Chee has gone back to a steady touring schedule. Although the artist had already performed a few shows before joining Zeds Dead for their annual Deadrocks event, he “was shaking.”
“I was trying so hard to just stand still,” he said. But, he’s managed to return to a routine that sees him traveling consistently alongside Tsuruda for their “Trailblazer” tour. The shows see both artists taking to the stage for their own sets, with a 30-minute back-to-back that closes out the show.
Calling in from his apartment in Philadelphia, Chee spent an evening chatting with Dancing Astronaut about his new collaboration, the tour he and Tsuruda are in the midst of, how he’s evolved his sound, and more. Read the Q&A that resulted below.
What initially inspired this collaboration?
Chee: “So this track was actually called ‘Hollow Bastard.’ That was the initial project name. And I was going through this process in quarantine where I was writing a track a day because, you know, you’re stuck inside the house and it’s really not much for you to do. It was kind of a challenge I wanted to do for myself. And this song was very inspired by Madlib and J Dilla, like really old-school hip-hop beats, obviously with a little bit of an electronic twist.
Thomas [Tsuruda] and I have been friends now for almost four years, five years? And he’s always been a massive inspiration for me and is one of the people I enjoy collaborating with because we both listen to the same music. We both execute a lot of ideas and sound design in a very similar way. So I was chatting with him on Discord and we just thought, ‘Hey, we should write some music. It’s been a while.’ Cause we have a bunch of collabs we’ve worked on. And I sent this over to him on Discord and we worked on it in quarantine. We weren’t really in the same room, and I much rather like collaborating in the same space as another person. Online collaborations are weird.”
What influenced the change in title?
Chee: “I guess when I sent him the project file it was ‘Hollow Bastard’ and he sent me the project back and it was called something else. And I was like, ‘well, we’re not using ‘Hollow Bastard’ anymore, I guess.’ But also the track name was going to be what sets the tone for the tour as well, and I don’t know if it would have been a good idea to have the word ‘bastard’ on a tour. I feel like if people had to see that on a flyer, they’d think ‘Hollow Bastard’ might be a punk band. ‘Let’s go check it out!’ And then they’d just get disappointed by hearing a bunch of beep boop noises and bass.
I feel like ‘Trailblazer’ was the perfect word because we’re both artists that stand for honest bass music, just not compromising and trying to pioneer a new sound, you know? And I have notes where I keep a whole bunch of track names. There’s something about naming songs or projects that just gets me even more excited because I can start taking the art direction in a way that represents the track name. Sometimes the name just helps with the art.”
You mentioned that you couldn’t work on the track in the same room due to COVID-19. How did you adjust your process in order to comply with that?
Chee: “The process is just like in the studio, just writing beats. And I didn’t really have it in mind to send to Thomas, but you know, when the idea of collaborating came up, I went through all my project files and I was like, ‘wait a minute, I’m going to try and find something we can both resonate on.’ This project had a Madlib influence, and Madlib is also one of Thomas’ favorite producers as well. I think I just sent him the project file through Discord and he just whipped it out. He made it like in a week and he sent it back to me and I was like, ‘holy, what the hell?’ And that’s kind of the unfortunate thing about not being able to collaborate in the same room because you can’t really see the process, but because we were sharing the same project file, I could analyze what he’s done on his end.
And it’s kind of one of the beauties of collaborating with artists. You learn so much more than what you’re familiar with. One of the best ways to grow as an artist is collaborating with other artists, and I feel like this is something we’ve all done as a species; we’ve collaborated. We’ve referenced. Everything is also a copy of something, you know? I don’t mean that in the sense of people stealing, but rather people copying out of inspiration and stuff like that.
So I guess [‘Trailblazer’] was the whole back and forth thing, and this was a couple of months ago. This was almost a year ago when we worked on this song. And only recently, when we decided to go on tour together, it was like, ‘I need to finish this song,” and I finished it a month ago.”
So it’s been a long time coming.
Chee: “It has been, it has been. We have like four or five songs that we’ve worked on and this one just kind of stood out.”
Is there any possibility that you might release some of your other collaborations?
Chee: “There might be a possibility. Honestly, I’d be totally down with that. We don’t really have another song that we’re planning to release—at least, not yet. I’m going to see him and we’re probably going to talk about it and be like, ‘Hey, should we put out some of these other things that we’ve worked on?’ So the chances are slim of releasing something while on tour, or at least this run that we’re doing in October and November, but the chances of us releasing more music together are very high. We’ll probably release a bunch of other stuff in the future.”
What was your inspiration for first creating this track way back when it was still “Hollow Bastard,” when it first started?
Chee: “Just the really dark, depressing weather in Philadelphia and the state of the world just felt hollow in general. I was writing a lot of dark music at the time. I mean, honestly, everything I write is pretty dark, so it doesn’t really make a difference.
Tsuruda was actually like my inspiration writing this. I’ve known him for four years, but I’ve been listening to his music for six, maybe seven years since I was in South Africa. The first song I heard of his was ‘Too Much Lean,’ and I heard this beat and I remember just dropping the mop. I was like cleaning the house and I heard this beat on a mix and I just dropped it and was like, ‘what the fuck is this!?’ And this music like changed my life. So I feel like it’s kind of something that’s stuck at the back of my head. Every time I write anything hip-hop oriented, Tsuruda is definitely one of my inspirations.”
Do you guys have anything special planned for this tour?
Chee: “So [Tsuruda] has a lot of rap beats that he’s been playing out under his other project, and as far as that goes, I know he’s just playing a lot of new unreleased music that the world has still yet to hear. We’re both on the same tip where we’ve been writing music every day almost, and every time our sets constantly change. There’s a very slim chance that two stops are going to have the exact same set. I’m also creating visuals in the process of doing this tour, so when it goes on, the visuals and the music are going to change up. At the end of every show, we both have a 30-minute back-to-back that we’re going to do. So that’s something fun.”
What about this tour are you really excited about?
Chee: “Just being able to tour with Thomas is exciting, because he’s a good friend, but it’s also an honor because I look up to him. Our first show was in Arcata, California. I was watching his whole set and I was mind blown that I get to tour with someone that I look up to. Every single song he was playing I was like, ‘what the fuck? What? What? What’s this? Bro? What the fuck dude, chill out.’ You can only take in so much energy, you know?”
You mentioned that you’ve been creating darker tracks over the course of the pandemic, even more so than usual. Do you think that there may be some kind of lightness as we come out of it?
Chee: “Oh, 100%. I’ve actually been dabbling a lot in music theory. I’ve been trying to take the time. One of the reasons I write a lot of dark music is because of my lack of music theory. It’s not that you need music theory to write music, but it does really help expand beyond dark sound design. You can tell stories. You can be very emotional and connect with people a lot more with stuff like that.”
Do you think you’d do a tour around South Africa once the pandemic is over and the borders reopen?
Chee: “I really do. I definitely want to do a tour back in South Africa. Like once everything is done, it’s one of my bucket list things to play all the festivals I’ve dreamed of playing, but like somewhat headlining them in South Africa. I feel like it will be super cool. Just meeting up with some of my old friends and going on tour with them, like them joining in and just being like, ‘we’re gonna go on the road. We’re going to go to Rocking the Daisies. We’re gonna go to Africa Burn. Like everything, together.’ That will be really cool. It’d be nice to play music in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zambia.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Chee: “Sometimes when I write music, a lot of the time I think I need to resonate with myself. What childhood trauma can I reflect on this track? Stuff might get all deep, but then there’s certain songs that I’m just like, I want this to bang. I want this to slap. This is just the bopper. And I feel like this song is a blend of being a banger and something that represents a certain darkness to it.
I think both myself and Truruda, when we approach writing these speeds, it’s more so about honesty. I feel like that’s how we should all write music. We truly feel there’s a lot of music out there that is being made for the purpose of feeding into the algorithm or the industry, and because of that, so much stuff gets diluted. It’s weird that it’s normal for us to be concerned when an artist doesn’t release music for a year or two.”
Featured image: @c.2.h.2/Instagram