Local hip-hop producer Alex Zavala isn't a big name. If you've heard about him, it's probably because he's half of Dark Time Sunshine, who released Vessel (Fake Four) last year—and the other half of the duo, Seattle rapper Michael Martinez, has recorded for Rhymesayers, one of underground rap's most influential labels, as a sometime member of Grayskul. (Martinez usually performs as Onry Ozzborn and is credited as "Cape Cowen" on Vessel.) That said, many reviews of Vessel gave equal time to Zavala, and last month he played his hand: Fieldwerk Recordings, the upstart label he runs with fellow Chicago producer Crushcon7, put out a vocal-free version of the album.
The Dark Time Sunshine Vessel Instrumentals, credited to Zavala alone, initially sounds a little naked without Martinez, who's a compelling rapper with a raspy, highly listenable voice. But his absence gives the beats more room to breathe, uncovering layers that weren't so noticeable before, and most of them do just fine on their own—some even improve. Without an MC over it, "Now They Know" barely even reads as a rap beat—with a stoned wah-wah guitar and buzzing synth melodies stacked over a Bonham-like drum break, it sounds more like a wild-eyed loner trying to replicate the Flaming Lips with an MPC. And the sample of an infant's cooing that pops up amid the spooky keys on "Little or No Concern" becomes pleasantly surreal sans Martinez's babies-having-babies morality tale (a must for any indie hip-hop record). Only a couple of cuts, like the noisy, Neptunes-ish "The Sleestack Payback," make you wish for someone to jump in and drop a 16.
Zavala came to production largely out of necessity. In the mid-90s, when Dr. Dre more or less owned MTV, Zavala was a teenager in the northwest suburbs, just getting over an obsession with bands like Pantera and Metallica. He fell for hip-hop hard, but when he decided to try rapping, he couldn't find anything he wanted to rap over. "How I kinda got into production," he says, "was just my lack of ability to get beats. I really wanted to make my own stuff because I wasn't really feeling what anyone else was doing. And more importantly, no one around me was really doing it. I was the only one who was really interested, in the area I grew up in. Everyone loved that music but no one knew how to make it."
When Zavala was 16, the industry-standard Akai MPC sampler cost around a thousand dollars (up-to-date versions still do), far outside his budget. Serendipitously, affordable PC software capable of comparable sound quality became widespread at about the same time, lowering the price of entry into hip-hop production. "I went to Best Buy and got Acid 2.0 and put it on my family's computer," he says. Now 29, Zavala has since lost interest in being an MC himself, but his talents as a beatsmith have grown explosively—he's easily among the dozen best in the city.
Zavala doesn't count many current producers as influences, though he says he was inspired early on by Chicago backpacker icons like the Molemen (especially PNS) and Meaty Ogre—they particularly shaped his taste in drums, which tends toward the type of funky sampled breakbeats that have gone out of style in some corners of hip-hop. "Guys from out of town always say that about Chicago—that we all have a similar sound, in that we're all into getting these drum breaks," he says.
He also speaks highly of the gig he played last year at Low End Theory, a long-running party in LA that's a sort of spiritual home for post-hip-hop producers like Flying Lotus—but he says he doesn't actually listen to much of the music coming out of that scene. He claims he barely listens to music at all if it's not by him or his friends. "When we're on tour, if it's me and Onry, we'll have the same four CDs in the car, and we'll just constantly listen to them. Then they get lost and it's just comedy on XM Radio."
Zavala's aesthetic seems to have been shaped more by inanimate objects. The dusty, fuzzy, organic feel of Vessel, he says, "has something to do with the low quality of equipment that I use." And as he tells it, his technique—intricately layering elements, paying fastidious attention to the sound of each one—likewise has its roots in crappy gear.
"Back in the day," he says, "you'd get cassettes from dudes who'd been rapping on four-tracks or whatever they did, and I remember how fun—for me at least, it was fun to throw a cassette in and have to EQ it constantly. It was kind of like being an engineer, you know what I mean? For me that was more of an experience. You'd have to tweak it all yourself. Maybe it's something subconscious with me where I want to have all of these textures." He pauses to consider. "It may have to do with my ADHD too."
Though Zavala hopes to make music full-time, he doesn't care to shop his beats to rappers—the customary way a hip-hop producer raises his profile. He says he's not interested in working on spec, and if his packed schedule is any indication, he doesn't need to. He's already at work on the next Dark Time Sunshine album and another instrumental record. He plans to collaborate with Rhymesayers-affiliated DJ and producer Abilities on something "more live-inspired," though he's quick to disclaim that description: "I would never call myself somebody who plays an instrument. I basically piece stuff together." And he's talking about a project with Mendee Ichikawa, vocalist for Free Moral Agents, the proggy side project of Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens.
"I don't want to be continually making rap music," he says. "I'm into different ideas." I ask if he'd consider revisiting his metalhead days, and he laughs. "Man. Dude. Maybe sometime. I would love to." Then he stops laughing. "I've always had crazy ideas about going back and making a record sampling Megadeth and Metallica. Just for kicks."
E-mail Miles Raymer at firstname.lastname@example.org.