A Conversation with Hieroglyphic Being
Jamal Moss is as prolific as he is original, recording as Hieroglyphic Being, IAMTHATIAM, and The Sun God. He collaborated with Steve Poindexter as I.B.M. and with Noleian Reusse as Africans with Mainframes. Adonis is his mentor. Like Theo Parrish, Jamal is reinventing house by bringing it back to its lo-fi DIY roots, but he is better known overseas than in his own city. Jamal’s music is gritty, otherworldly, and beautiful.
Jamal has appeared on labels as diverse as Sony Europe, Crème Organization, International Deejay Gigolo Records, Interdimensional Transmissions, Klang Elektronik, Axis/6277, and Ghostly International/Spectral Sound. He runs his own label, Mathematics Recordings, which began when Jamal sold test pressings out of his backpack in 1996. The label really got rolling in 2001 after a bad break-up—Jamal wanted to prove to his ex-girlfriend that he was serious about music and to “pay homage to his adoptive parents for giving him a better life.”
Jamal’s latest release is the double 12-inch So Much Noise 2 Be Heard, which he culled from eighty tracks, many of which were tested on live audiences in Japan. I met Jamal at a bar halfway between our apartments in Evanston, just north of Chicago.
Jacob: Did you grow up in Chicago?
Jamal: Yep. Far South Side.
When did you first get into music?
My first encounter with music is my parents always playing a lot of jazz records around the crib. And then when my mom was busy doing house chores, she would leave National Public Radio on, or some station would always play classical. So, me being black and growing up in the hood, nah it wasn’t no P-Funk in my life. Wasn’t no Midnight Star or Con Funk Shun or The Dells. I can’t front and say I came up with that type of soul. ’Cause I was adopted, so my adoptive parents were from a different generation from that. They were much older, so they came up during the thirties, forties, and fifties…. I got exposed to a whole different way of thinking. I learned about The Ink Spots and Cab Calloway and all that stuff.
Do you think that background helped you as a musician?
It helped me in my left-brain thinking. Because you can have certain music that can be emotional, you have certain music that affects intellectual…. That’s what made me just different from anybody in my neighborhood. It was a lot of “Family Classics,” a lot of Ray Bradbury. I was the only kid at six years old with a thesaurus and an Encyclopedia Britannica. Comic books. It kept me in the house most of the time. Until I got a certain age, and then it was like, yeah, you need to go outside ’cause you ain’t looking so cute no more…. ’Cause I was cocooned in a little bubble for those first couple of years, I didn’t like what I seen on the streets. I would hang out in the backyard or sit on the front porch and read.
When I was growing up there was a lot of snow storms, so a lot of times school would just get canceled, even though the damn school was just a block up the street. And then they’ll tell you, there’s no school, there’s no reason you still can’t learn. So they’ll say listen to this radio station. That’s how I learned about The Hobbit, you know a precursor to Lord of the Rings. A guy would sit on the radio and read knowledge. And my parents would make me sit there and listen to the radio. So that’s what gave me the keen concept of appreciating more aboriginal, deeply textured creations or thought concepts. Unlike today where people hear some music and they might go back five years, I learned no matter what I hear there’s always gotta be a precursor to it. In literature, music, art, whatever, somebody’s influenced by someone else.
So what are your more direct musical influences?
Sun Ra. I got a chance to see him when I was little, when he played in Chicago. That was cool. I didn’t know it was really cool at the time, I thought it was just really weird and strange watching this dude do what he do. That was one of the first things that caught my attention. And after Sun Ra, I started learning about Parliament Funkadelic, how they was influenced by him.
My adoptive parents had a biological son. He was in his teens at the time, so he was part of the street thing. Because we were ages apart, he didn’t hang out with me…. He would listen to Kid Creole and The Coconuts. When I started getting older, I come to find out I didn’t see a difference between Count Basie and what Kid Creole and The Coconuts would do.
So when did you start going to clubs?
Let’s put it this way. Unofficially, sneaking out of the house, twelve. Officially, sixteen. I graduated high school…. I left home at sixteen, I was able to go out a lot and catch a lot of stuff going on. Even at twelve years old, when I would tell my parents I was hanging out at somebody’s house for a overnighter, we would go to a school party. When I was growing up, “house parties,” whatever they wanted to call it back then, were everywhere.
What kind of stuff were they playing at those parties?
At the time I didn’t know if it was Italo or disco or New Wave. I didn’t know the terminologies for that…. Back then everybody would mark-out the record so you couldn’t even see what the hell they had, because everybody was DJing they didn’t want nobody having the same record they had. If I was fortunate enough, somebody would tell me what it is. And my money was going towards comic books. If I could scrape up the money, I would reach and go find a record and buy it and start a little record collection on my own. Wasn’t trying to be a DJ; it was just something that was really really good or obscure abstract, I would try to go out and get it. One of the first records I bought was a Liaisons Dangereuses album, and then Anne Clark. That’s because of the upbringing, in the house I’m hearing something different, it had me gravitate towards the Italo disco or house scene.
And industrial too?
Industrial too, but that didn’t come ’til a little bit later. Technically speaking Liaisons Dangereuses is somewhat industrial, but at the time they were playing it, it was just considered house music. They had the electronic aesthetic, so there was really no separation.
At the time I still wasn’t really listening to the radio that much, only the stations that were set on the dial in the house, ’cause my parents were like, don’t change the dial. You gotta leave it there. And eventually when I got my own radio from a flea market, I cut it on, and I got influenced by WBMX. But not because of the Hot Mix 5, but in general WBMX would just play Euro stuff anyway, or Italo disco, or obscure disco. So it wasn’t like it took Farley or all those other cats to bring it to light, because a regular radio DJ would play it anyway. But it was KKC, a college radio station, that went more off on a deeper, deeper end where they would play obscure New Age or industrial or really obscure disco. Just wylin’ out stuff. Pink House, T. Chablis, and all those cats. And then they would talk about the deeper parties. They wouldn’t talk about just Mendel or the common spots, like Coconuts or whatever. They would talk about some really deeper, in stuff, and that’s the first time I heard about The Muzic Box.
The three times I got down to The Muzic Box, I only got in twice. One time I was able to be there the whole night, and then one time I got kicked out. Because they realized, like wait a minute, you look a little bit too young to be up in here. And the one time I didn’t get kicked out was because me and my friends were standing out front and Ron walked up, and I was just like, I wanna get in, and he was like yeah, they with me. And we got in. Just that one night of fully being up in there and hearing what was going on affected me a lot. It was working the intellectual side and the emotional side. It had both synapses going back and forth, all over the place…. I was overwhelmed; I was shocked.
But you know, Ron, he played a lot of places, it wasn’t just at the Box…. Ron would get hired out to play hotel parties, school sock hops. That’s what they were, sock hops. Just would happen to have a house or disco DJ. Even my high school would hire DJs. The first time I ever ran into Boo Williams, he played my high school homecoming sophomore year.
You were involved with a club night called Liquid Love Parties. When did that start?
It was the end of ’89, and it went into ’90, towards the summer. It ended because it was some problems with the owner of the spot and the city, about some permits or whatever. He just had to close down.
Where was that?
It was actually in the West Loop, for a while, and then he moved, and thought he could get over the city and move into the old spot at 2210, and he was trying to get set up, but then the city just still stopped him.
Was that a teen party?
I left home at 16, that was in ’89. I’d had to figure out a way to hustle, and the one way to hustle was throw some gatherings. At that point in time, a lot of places around the city were hiring people just to try to get people in there for teen parties because they all copied out from Medusa’s. Because they were doing so well. So if you could get some people in there between five and say ten o’clock and kick ’em out, why not. Before you geared up for the adults to come in later on. And we had our hustle for Sunday evenings. So a lot of skateboarders, graffiti writers, BMX bikers, that was the clique. Come under one roof and just kick it.
What did you do? Were you the promoter?
It was me and a group of people that promoted it. But then I just got access to some equipment that was given to me by a family friend that was actually a sound designer/engineer for a lot of performance art dance companies. He worked over at the Edge of the Lookingglass. I went in there one day, and I come to find out that’s where some DJs started going there to play late at night. All I know was during the day it was a theater place. I asked the dude, what is this stuff, and he was like, oh, some drum machines and whatever. And I was like, what about the stuff sitting over there. He was like, some of this stuff is broke. Some of this stuff works and some the stuff you gotta bang on. I was like, well how much you want for it? He was like, take it! That was how I was able to get some of my own personal equipment. It was an E-mu Drumulator and an Orbitron effects unit with the big knobs and foot switches. It was blue.
The “cool” DJ of the clique, before he would get there, they would need something going. And I was just like hey, well I got this, just let me mess around with some sound stuff, tweak it out some. And that was part of my experimentation.
Technically speaking, from ’89 to ’92, I was kinda homeless. I really wasn’t paying my own rent and my own bills. I’d crash at friends’ houses or me and some other friends would squat somewhere else or a chick’s parents would go to Europe for a couple of weeks and we would crash in there. I didn’t really get solid until ’92. That’s when I was like, hey, I’m tired of this floating around and being unstable, and I just said let me go ahead and start school. [Jamal received a degree in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He minored in ethnographic film studies.]
When did you start Mathematics?
Actually Mathematics started up in ’96. Graduated in ’96 from school, started graduate school, but then I left in ’97…. The type of music that I was making and what I was doing wasn’t “professional” enough, which is the same thing I hear to this day, and no label would put me on. Any person I would try to hook up with that was hot then would not let me into their professional studios…. I’d record to a VCR or record to a regular cassette tape…. Basically I would just run around and sell my cassette tapes at different parties.
Eventually when I got access to burn some CDs, I was able to do CDs and started selling those, but still bad sound quality. I would still try to go to these labels, give ’em my stuff, and they’d be like, oh it’s interesting, but it needs to sound like this. And there was no way in the world I could figure out how to sell my soul to make it sound that type of standard. I kept doing what I was doing.
So I got some magazines, looked in the magazines, and believe it or not back then in those magazines they were giving out P & D [pressing and distribution] deals. A lot of these magazines in Europe… and I just got some cats in the UK and they were just like, yeah, we’ll do it. Of course I name-dropped Steve Poindexter and Adonis. That helped out a lot too. So I sent them a couple of projects, they pressed it up, actually sent me three or four boxes of test pressings…. I went around practically giving them away….
In the process I got two releases put out, but the place folded…. That’s when that whole UK garage two-step scene was starting to pick up… so they said they didn’t want to deal with the whole house aesthetic…. So I went back to hustling my tapes and CDs after that.
Your music still has that gritty sound.
I don’t know nothing else. I didn’t go to the engineering school…. The majority of the clubs that I went to, it didn’t sound pristine. I think back then it was much more raw and much more original feeling in the systems, and I guess that’s what’s always in my ear, that dirty aesthetic. That’s what always moved me when I would hear a person playing and they would do crazy distortion with the basslines or the drums or the high-hats. That’s why a lot of my records have some very high highs. And I always have mastering guys to this day, it’s like, why are you killing me with these highs? But I’m like, well that’s what it sounded like to me when I was kicking it back then [both inside and outside of clubs] and that’s what made everybody scream. Now you go into clubs and you listen to it, it’s all flat across the board.
I try not to really worry about what other people think anymore, because it’s just me creating and doing my own thing. If other people can appreciate it for what it is, then I accomplished what I set out to do…. If they feel like it would inspire them, either by hate or love, to say oh this is whack, I can do better, then do so. If they love and appreciate it and it cause them to still wanna do better but out of the love, I really appreciate that too. It’s the call and response.
What can you tell me about the Members Only edits?
Everybody was running around talking about me me me…. Nobody would be doing nothing if it weren’t for the people who was coming to pay to keep this thing going. It was the dancers that came that made the DJ…. It’s the crowd that makes it hot…. That was what Members Only is about. Trying to give it from a point of view of the consumer, the dancer, the partaker…. [It’s] my perspective of what tunes that people react to, that set them off. Or a certain way that song was organized that would set them off….
If you walked down in the city right now you’d probably run into some older black person that’s probably in their forties and you asked them about a club in Chicago from back in the day, they’d probably say, yeah I kicked it. There’s a good chance.
Thousands of people.
Thousands upon thousands of people. You don’t hear their story because they’re not in this structured culture now. Even though they were one of the aboriginals of it, they’re not part of it now because life has other things ongoing for them. They were enjoying that moment in time.
This Members Only thing is basically letting people know that the other ninety percent is not forgotten. So no matter who does these little DVDs, these magazines, these documentaries, these ten percent would be nothing without the ninety.
What do you think about the current music scene?
That a lot of people need to start giving back and not taking, and not letting it be about them. That’s why the scene is messed up, because everybody’s crumb snatching on crumbs that’s not even there.
That’s the perspective I just want to put in this interview, whoever reads this, they need to know that if they want to come into this, don’t get on it because it’s a quick fix, don’t do it because it’s ego…. Fuck all that. You gotta do it because you really care about it and you’re trying to give back, you’re trying to add to the collective consciousness of what we call artistry.
I definitely want it to be known that Mathematics is more like a co-op to give back, to help other people who I feel really care about creation. And I dare any label out there to sign any new artist and let them still own one-hundred percent rights to the music and masters.
What are your current projects? What’s next?
At this point I gotta really start focusing on me and my career because I turn thirty-six; it ain’t sexy being single, trying to barely pay the rent month to month.
Do you have a day job?
No, this is it. ’Cause believe me if I had a day job with benefits and health insurance and a 401K plan, I don’t think I’d be wholeheartedly into this thing, you know what I’m saying? If I gotta be up by seven, out of the house by eight-fifteen to be at work at nine and then I don’t get home until about six, the last thing I want to look at is a drum machine. I said if I decide to do this, I gotta be all into it or not. And that’s the sacrifice that I make to do this.
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