The Internet and the R&B Upgrade | KCET
The Internet and the R&B Upgrade
Chateau Marie Studios is tucked away off Highland Ave., not far from Sunset. It's built out of an old, second story flat and its vibe is instantly comfortable and familiar, the kind of hip Hollywood pad your cool aunt might have let you borrow when she was out of town (just with more vintage and state-of-the-art recording equipment installed). The R&B duo known as The Internet -- aka Sydney "Syd tha Kyd" Bennett and Matt "Martians" Martin -- spend a great deal of time here but so does their expanded clique and every 15 minutes or so, someone new comes through the door, whether an engineer or one of Martin's childhood friends from Atlanta. It's like a sitcom apartment just without a laugh track and a lot less white.
The studio takes its name from the late R&B star Teena Marie. Much of the older equipment once belonged to her and the singer's daughter, Alia, is Syd's friend and co-owner of the space. Syd used to have a home studio but explains, "I needed a place where I could invite strangers, and I couldn't invite strangers to my house. Alia wanted me to build her a studio out of her mom's equipment so we started looking for a place together, and that's how we ended up with this place." Artwork that belonged to Marie -- alongside gold and platinum record plaques -- adorns the walls and while you wouldn't call the space a shrine, Marie's legacy exerts there's a respectful, almost reverential vibe. It's good karma at the very least.
Part of that vibe seemingly worked its way into The Internet's critically acclaimed sophomore album, the aptly named "Feel Good." Like the group's previous album, 2011's Purple Naked Ladies, "Feel Good" is also awash in warm, cozy layers of synthesizers and baselines but unlike the more frenetic, prominent drum programming on their debut, for "Feel Good," the textures are softer, the sound literally more acoustic; at times "Feel Good" sounds as much avant garde jazz as it is (neo) soulful. Matt laughs and admits, 'Purple Naked Ladies,' to be honest with you, we wanted it to be some wacky, weird, random shit," and then Syd chimes in, "With "Feel Good," we wanted something that was consistent. In our minds, "Feel Good" is kind of our first album." It's all evidence that the duo is maturing quickly despite the fact that Matt is 25 while Syd is only 20. As prominent members within the larger Odd Future collective, The Internet is part of movement of young Angeleno musical talent whose increasing presence feels like a clarion call for a generation ready to take over. Make way for The Internet.
Their name is memorable enough -- "who hasn't heard of The Internet?" as the joke could go -- but it's also apt. Syd and Matt met via MySpace back in 2007, fans of one another's posted beats but strangers else-wise. Syd was still in her teens yet had already built herself a home studio at age 14." My dad's brother, Mikey Bennett, he's a really well-known producer out of Kingston, and every time I would go to Jamaica as a kid, I just loved spending time in the studio seeing, "Oh! This is how these are made! That's crazy!"" she says, adding, "I always loved music; I always loved the feeling it gave me. It was less about being able to have your face everywhere, and more about being able to say that "I made it, that I made this piece of artwork that everybody loves.'"
Meanwhile, Matt was living in Atlanta and like Syd, his gateway into music was partially through family. Matt's older brother [Mitch Martin] works as an A&R with members of the extended Outkast family, including Janelle Monae. "I grew up pretty much around a structure of an up-and-coming group, similar to Odd Future," he says. "The artists in Atlanta will now go to Janelle's house and brainstorm ideas. It showed me you can do everything in-house, you can do it yourself." If Matt has been more intent on breaking into the hip-hop scene, he might have stayed in the ATL given its burgeoning scene but he wanted a taste of something different so he decamped for Los Angeles instead. "I spent 21 years in Atlanta, and it was like, 'what is life about if you stay in the same area you were born in?'" he posits.
A friendship born via MySpace gelled even further when Matt and Syd finally met. "We were both raised in very similar households," says Matt. "Our parents are very versed in music. Like, her mom's raised her on neo-soul. My parents raised me on '70s funk. You can hear it in our music." Individually, both of them had already begun -- also beginning with MySpace -- made connections with members of Odd Future, then in its early formative stages. Syd recalls sending messages to various members but tried not to inundate Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future's prominent, notorious head honcho: "I wasn't going to hit up Tyler or whatever because he had a lot of people hitting him up, I'm sure, but he ended up on my doorstep one day."
The group's connection to Odd Future makes perfect sense on one hand - they're all young, creatively ambitious, cultural insiders/social outsiders but because Syd is the collective's lone woman, not to mention an out-and-gay, she's often put in the uncomfortable position of having to constantly "answer for" the allegedly misanthropic attitudes expressed by other Odd Future members, especially Tyler. "I was the one who had to take on most of that in the beginning just because they were quote-unquote 'homophobic and misogynistic," says Syd. "People were always asking, 'well, why are you part of the group if they're like that?'" She describes the experience as "annoying," since these criticisms usually missed Odd Future's particular, savvy penchant for "trolling" people for the sake of generating buzz rather than being expressions of deep-seated prejudices.
Case in point: The Internet's video for "Cocaine" (off of Purple Naked Ladies) drew its own heat because it depicts Syd meeting up with a girlfriend at a carnival, sneaking off to do lines of coke, and then leaving said girlfriend dead, in the dirt, from an overdose. Syd laughs, recalling where the song first began: "Someone was in a corner, sitting down, and started singing, 'Do you want to do some coke?'" "That was funny! We ran with it" says Matt but he explains that, "we didn't go into those videos wanting to be crazy." Instead, they had been watching movies like Natural Born Killers and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and were inspired to make their video like a mini-movie with a dark ending. "You're watching something that's not real, but some people don't understand that," Matt says.
Good and bad publicity alike helped The Internet land on tour and it was there that "Feel Good" got its start. Syd says, "we started performing with a live band from jump. Live, "Purple Naked Ladies" sounds like a completely different album, and we wanted our next album to sound like how 'Purple Naked Ladies' sounded live." In came Patrick Paige on bass and Christopher Smith on drums along with frequent appearances by singer and keyboardist Tay Walker. "Feel Good" was originally meant to be an EP but the chemistry with the new band was good and the decided to turn into a full album, working together in several different studios including Chateau Marie and their friend (and rapper) Mac Miller's pool house studio: "it's right next to the pool, and it's sick. You walk in and it's all red lights and beanbags," Syd describes.
Mac Miller, who, like Matt, has also relocated to Los Angeles, approached The Internet after a local show and invited them on tour with him this summer. That kind of basic congenial outreach and collaboration is part of a larger social network that The Internet (fittingly) taps into and feeds out of. As noted, Matt could have stayed in Atlanta to kickstart his career but he felt that Los Angeles offered something different: a sense of community and camaraderie. "If Earl [the Sweatsrhirt] has a show, Mac will try to come out," Matt says. "Everybody will try to come out. Everybody won't make it, but we all try to at least support. We're all genuine friends, and it's rare to find. It's almost like we're not even in competition, which is weird."
This is precisely what makes The Internet, Odd Future and other, related artists such as Kendrick Lamar so compelling right now. For the better part of twenty years, the L.A. hip-hop/R&B scene has been dominated by '80s and '90s icons such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop, the late Nate Dogg, etc. The dystopian, South Central-centric L.A. of "Boyz 'N Tha Hood" and "Menace II Society" may have had roots in certain socioeconomic and political realities but they didn't always speak to the experiences of a younger, post-L.A. Rebellion generation, growing up in upper middle class black neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills or Lafayette Square (where Syd is from)...kids more interested in skate gear than gang colors and as into Erykah Badu and Neptunes as Tupac or Warren G.
Syd reflects on her own career evolution within this movement: "growing up in it, you're on MySpace in middle school, listening to Tyler create beats, listening to the" Future Volume 1" tape. Then there's all these other people around, each takes from something else, or each pulls from something else or somebody, and it's just a big network. You can get anything. You can get a video shot for free." Matt cuts in: "That's what I'm saying, L.A. is so small, man. I'm not even from here, and I know everybody. A lot of people actually like music out here and will do a song with you because they really like you. That's the energy people like when they come out here. N----s are just working together out here."
Perhaps the best testament to The Internet's success within this -- and other -- networks is the fact that their name, once derided as being "un-googleable" is actually the very first entry you find when you google "the internet." It's a small victory for them, not least over the former objections of Syd's well-meaning mother. "She'd come to us and be like, 'you know that name! It's just hard to find!'"," laughs Matt. He insists though, "I knew somebody was going to take this name eventually. This is our shit, and I'm not about to give it up!"