Meet Fax Gang: experimental cloud rap for hyper-connected ears
The aesthetic renewal rap has gone through these last years has changed eveything we used to know about the art of the rhyme. Rappers with increasingly bizarre, cartoon-like personas; deformed instrumentals that defy every notion about rhythm and melody; outrageous lyrics that reinvent slang in each verse… This is the path to experimentation.
To keep track of the dozens of micro-genres that have branched out of what we used to call hip hop is a task only for the most dedicated fans -and even then it’s easy to get lost in the music. Cloud rap, tread and trap metal are some of the sounds that have gained the most attention in online communities, to name a few, but there exists an entirely different beast lurking the underground: surge, also known as hexd, among half a dozen other names it goes by.
But the “bit-crushed” and “lo-bit” aliases are the most appropriate ones when naming the scene, as they capture one of the most intriguing aspects of it: amorphous beats of (intentional) low and murky quality, losing on hi-fi production but creating an engrossing aura that is contradictorily both warm and discomforting. When describing rap’s newest bastard child, producers refer to their creations as “broken”. In lo-bit rap, beats are not created: they are destroyed.
Out of the artists that are part of this new wave, Fax Gang remain one of the most exciting ones. The quintet, formed by four producers (Blacklight, GLACIERbaby, maknaeslayer, NAIOKI) and a rapper (PK Shellboy) who live in different parts of the world but spend their free time exchanging snippets and ideas through Discord, have crafted their own sound in just one EP and a few assorted singles.
Buried among anime and J-Pop voices pitched-up to a ridiculous degree, electronic intereferences that threaten to break it all up and hypnotic percussions, PK’s voice rises above not triunfally but often distantly so -yet surprisingly warm and comforting-, under a myriad filters and distortions. “Rapping over beats like that requires a different angle of attack”, he explains. “Modulating my voice over the instrumentals captures a certain feeling of disconnect; it creates a filter between me and the listener, very similar to the wall that separates us on the Internet.
In conversation with After Música, he reveals how to craft futuristic and dystopic rap through the Internet. All done, of course, without a recording studio in the middle: the era of chat room beat-making and home-office rap is upon us.
How did you start in music, both as a solo artist and as part of Fax Gang?
As a solo artist, I started back in 2017 or early 2018, playing some lo-fi hip hop stuff that nobody has listened to and that I am now very, very ashamed of. After I realized that I was not making music that was too great, I worked on honing my skills and songwriting for around a year.
Fax Gang actually started as a joke between me and a friend, toying around with an auto-tune plugin at his house. And he had the idea: starting a cloud rap group. We wanted for the name to mean something that was 00s/90s era nostalgic because of the vaporwave and retro aesthetic that we were very into, so we came up with “fax”, which is an appliance nobody uses anymore. Then we settled on “gang” for a collective name because it sounded the best.
Because it started kind of as a joke, me and my friend were writing semi-ironic lyrics and treating it as a fun thing to do. Once it started getting a bit more serious he left the group since he wanted to focus on other stuff and cloud rap isn’t quite his genre.
The current line-up features musicians from different parts of the world, which means that while you work on the music from Philippines your bandmates do so from the UK, Norway and other countries. How did you guys get the project going?
I am at a private Discord server in which I have a lot of friends in, and I knew that some people produce there, so I asked around to see if somebody wanted to be part of it. Some of them joined, and that ended up becoming the roster for Fax Gang.
Since everyone is from a different country we obviously work in different timezones and have never met each other. I don’t really even know what a couple of their voices sound like, they just send over beats and I work on my vocals and effects.
If there’s anything I can compare it to it’s the stories of what MF Doom and Madlib were doing for Madvillain, when Madlib would send over beats and then the next day Doom would send over just him over the beat and the song would be pretty much done. It’s similar to that, although I guess a bit more collaborative.
Fax Gang beats could be described as “abstract”; heavily distorted in the vein of what is called “bit-crushed” rap. How do you approach instrumentals like that from a vocal standpoint?
Something that some people might not know is that I never get those beats clean. They are already crushed and distorted by the time I receive them. I have never heard any Fax Gang instrumental not yet screwed and have no idea what they sound like clean. I think I like to keep it that way.
I think rapping over them requires a different angle of attack. We are very inspired by groups like Drain Gang and Reptillian Club Boyz and they’ve been doing this kind of music for years now. So I think it’s easier to approach it from that sort of lens, rather than a more traditional hip hop style.
I use this one plugin when rapping that isn’t really even for vocals but it fits like an absolute glove over the instrumentals; it clicked SO well. Having the vocal effect over the beats actually makes it easier to do the songwriting and the melodies because I can work with what it will sound like as I write.
Aesthetically it fits with the post-internet type of music we do. It captures that feeling of disconnect; it puts a sort of filter between me and the person listening to it, which is very similar to the wall that everyone is separated by on the Internet. But it’s mostly a sonic decision, since it fits the emotions that I try to express and the melodies very well.
Regarding this post-Internet aesthetic you name, it has been a thing quite lately in rap and a lot of terms have been created for this new sound. Do you guys feel part of a particular wave?
I find the hexd/surge/bitcrushed/whatever-people-wanna-call-it wave really interesting. Some of the producers knew about it and that’s part of the reason why we sound the way we do, because they took some aesthetic inspirations from it right when it was still really, really obscure. There’s just so much potential in the techniques being used in bitcrushing and the experimental hip hop sphere.
But I had no idea the wave existed while I was working on the FXG3000 EP. At the same time now, I still want to operate independently from it because although we definitely belong to the wave and take cues from that sound, I want to create with my own influences rather than chasing a trend.
While I’m obviously very inspired by music like Drain Gang, Bladee and Yung Lean, I’m also actually really influenced by J-Pop artists like KOTO and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. That’s where a lot of my melodic ideas come from actually. Regarding the producers, GLACIERbaby is heavily inspired by the cheap-sounding and mysterious sound pallet memephis rap has. NAIOKI and maknaeslayer are also very inpisired by K-pop and J-pop, while blacklight is into emo and indie rock, stuff like Orchid, Snowing and Modest Mouse.
You guys have a new album coming up. What can you tell us about it?
I can’t say when it’ll be out yet, but it is coming, although not this year. It’ll be out on the No Agreements label. The album is going to be entirely new material while the EP and the singles we have already put out are going to be a completely different thing.
I’d say it’s about 20, 30% done. We are taking our time and trying to flesh out the sound. I don’t want to keep treading the same ground that FXG3000 did. I think that we can expand on that sound while at the same time move forward from it.
When we worked on FXG3000 it had this utopic/distopic sort of dichotomy, a 3D futuristic city vibe, filled with neon lights. I think this new record, on the other hand, might end up being a bit more indie rockist actually. Not to the point where it is actual indie rock, but it’ll definitely sound different, that’s what I can say.
In anticipation for the record, let’s break down the songs from the EP. It opens with “Breathe 2”, which features a very cool stuttering beat. What can you tell us about it?
That was a fairly early beat, sent a fairly substantial amount of time before the EP came out, which was mostly made in a two-week, three weeks span. I am a huge fan of that sample flip and I love the original song that the sample is from: “Marathon”, by J-Pop artist Kana Hanazawa. blacklight is a genius for flipping that track; it works so well.
The hook was the last thing that was finished. blacklight had an idea for it and he sent me a midi file for the melody that I tried to sing the lyirics along to. The outro, if I’m to be completely honest, is me humming because I found it really difficult to write a good rhythm melody for that instrumental part. It ended up working really well and I kept it.
The second track, “Jailbroken”, was a single prior to the release of the EP. Was it one of the earliest songs you guys worked on?
I think “Jailbroken” was the track that made us realize that we could make an EP. We finished it about 30 minutes before release; we were proud enough of it to just put it. It’s a lot more chiptune-y than a lot of other tracks on the record.
From a narrative standpoint, it’s a very “unrequited love” type of song, but with some retro-futuristic motifs in the lyrics. I’m glad that it was our first released song because I think it put together the expectations for what the EP would be really well.
“Soaked” features a repetitive vocal delivery that gets hypnotic as the track goes on. How was that track done?
In the case of “Soaked”, those are actually really, really old lyrics that I saved for when I would find the beat that worked well with them. maknaeslayer gave me that beat, it has a sort of tread-inspired kind of sound. It might be the song that we spent the least amount of time on because he made that instrumental really, really quickly actually.
Originally, the song was called “Moist”, and it was “fit is moist, yuh” rather than “soaked”, but “moist” is a sort of gross word so we changed it. When it came to the flow, it was a challenge to myself because I wanted to do a song where every line ended with the same repeated theme as an exercise. And I’m actually really proud of the way it turned out because it has a really hypnotic flow that works well over the huge bass that track has.
Then we have “Centrifuge”, which features some quite dark lyrics. What inspired you for that song?
It’s sort of about getting lost in alcohol and regretting decisions, a testament and ode to regret and drinking. I think it was the first song we actually finished. The noise outro was blacklight taking a lot of inspiration from emo and Orchid’s outros specifically. It’s definitely the darkest song on the EP.
Closing the EP we have, “Jeopardy”. It features a very intriguing vocal sample that repeats over the beat. Where does it come from?
That vocal sample is some secret sauce that I do not want to reveal, it’s so crazy. It is from a corny as FUCK song… How do I even describe the genre of this thing? Imagine Evanescence but make it for kids. GLACIERbaby chopped it so crazily that no one is ever going to find it if they don’t already know where it’s from.
In terms of lyrics and rhythms, I started with the hook. “I got no questions, no Jeopardy / got answers, Alex Trebek on me” might be the cheesiest punchline I have ever written. I really wanted the verses to have a sense of constantly moving forward, as a contrast to the hook. None of them are really connected in terms of theme: while the first verse is about finding something special in another person, the second one is a typical braggadocious rap verse, and the third is about being sad that somebody is trying to get out your life.
Since then, Fax Gang has put out two singles, the first one being “Highlight”, which features a guest verse by AOL. How was the collaboration done?
AOL is now a really good friend of mine, but at that time she actually just DMd our Soundcloud saying “yo, we need to work together”. I was unsure if she could carry the Fax Gang production style since she hadn’t done much stuff in that vein, but she killed that verse.
In terms of the rest of song, we expanded on the song structure, ideas and melodic themes that “Breathe 2” has. Blacklight and I sometimes jokingly refer to “Highlight” as “Breathe 3”, due to their similarities.
The most recent single is “Cells”, an anomaly within the Fax Gang repertoire due to its political nature. Is that a path you would like to explore even further?
I think that “Cells” is going to be more of a one off thing in terms of its message. I wrote it at a time in which I was really, really angry. I despise what our president is doing to our country: let’s just say that death squads exist here. I was also very inspired by the Black Lives Matter explosion and I wanted to help out, so I thought “why not write a song about it and donate the proceeds to charity”.
On that track, I just wanted to prove myself that I could still straight up rap, because on all of FXG3000 there is very little traditional rapping. I think hip hop has so much space for political expression and I thought it would be interesting to do that within the sound that we have.
Lastly, do you guys have some shows coming up?
Very soon. Some people on music Twitter are organizing a festival called Banger Fest and we have a spot there. Around the same dates we also have a DJ set coming up on Manilla Community Radio and I’m very excited for people to hear that because I think the eclecticism of the setlist is going to at least open some ideas for a lot of people.