Virgil Abloh — The prolific polymath talks to Gilles Peterson about his career
Abloh, Virgil. Creative. Designer. DJ. Musician. Long-time Kanye West collaborator. Artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear. Founder of the Off-White label. And, at heart, a passionate and knowledgeable music nut.
In a freewheeling conversation with Gilles Peterson for Worldwide FM, Virgil spoke about an incredible range of artists that have influenced and inspired him – Dev Hynes, Steve Lacy, Common Sense, slowthai, Dizzee Rascal, Boy Better Know, BADBADNOTGOOD, Alfa Mist, Honey Dijon, James Blake, The Martinez Brothers, Seth Troxler, Erykah Badu, Octavian, Mos Def, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang Clan, The Roots and, of course, Kanye.
Virgil also spoke about his collaborations with Theaster Gates and Serpentwithfeet, introduced Gilles to some of his own songs and created an exclusive mixtape, which took in the highlife enjoyed by his Ghanaian immigrant parents, through funk and hip-hop, “finishing off with what's happening in the clubs now.”
Here is just some of the incredible insight Virgil shared with Gilles – covering his friendship with Kanye, his creative approach and quite how obsessed he was with The Roots…
On his career
You know, it's funny because it's waves, right? You've surfed many different types of waves because the cultural waves are coming and going. I'm surfing trying to do the same; trying to do a long surf. As artists, that's the freedom you have.
It's like, hey, how long do you want to keep doing it? Especially in music. The whole Madonna theory or David Bowie – reinvent to stay relevant.
On picking music for runway shows
It's hard. As a DJ you come in with a chip on your shoulder, like, oh, I know music. This is fashion.
The big brands with big budgets can get anything, and then there's always a lack of surprise, twists and turns, to the soundtrack of that. Of course, our friend Benji was doing Celine shows before with Phoebe Philo, which had that gravity to them and also the design and clothing had that same taste and tone, which was really good.
In New York there's a brand called Hood By Air. They, in a lot of ways cracked the door that I came through. They're from ballroom scene, you know?... So what they did was an unapologetic transfer from the ballroom clubs in New York City, and put it on a fashion show and watched the industry jaws drop at something they completely didn't know what was what.
The best that fashion can be is when someone from one of the corners that's not represented just puts it fully unapologetically on the plate... I love when I don't understand, I think, is at the core of it.
On his own musical ambitions
One thing I will never do is be on a microphone. I said that when I was DJing, doing graffiti, break dancing. I was like, "I'll leave MCing completely off of it." I have no ambition to hear my own voice.
Life is like a bookshelf that's empty, you know? Everything I make, I archive it and I want to be able to look back at it.
On The Roots
Of course the golden era was like A Tribe Called Quest and the De La Souls, but I was a little bit young to relate to it because I was too busy listening to the Wu Tangs and the Mobb Deeps. So when it got to The Roots, it was perfect for me...like that tried and true hip-hop ear.
Everyone probably has the band or the group that they most obsessed about... I was seeing six Roots concerts a summer, something like that. I saw Kanye West open up for The Roots in my college town of Wisconsin. I was on the Okayplayer message boards. I was that much of a Roots fan, you know?
I knew everything, every album gripped me in a particular way, because Questlove was knowledgeable about music and he was outward facing, you know?
On playing your own songs as a DJ
Yeah, it’s weird. You're scrolling through and it's like "Wait, this actually applies." And then it's weird seeing other DJs that I respect play it in a setting... We all have a million tracks...and you realize that they're like little soldiers that are going out.
I love when I don't understand something. I think that is at the core of it.
On producers as unsung heroes
As we move on, this crisscrossing of generations, production is going to set apart the quality of whatever becomes the next big thing.
I think there are amazing producers that aren't in the limelight. You now have new kids that want to be in the limelight, but producers that are producing at a level that's high, high, high with an immense musical background, that's the popular music that I want to see.
In a lot of respects I wouldn't be where I am without Kanye West. He has a connection, like something from outer space, from music. Those who have dedicated their life to music have interjected his brain to produce what doesn't tangibly exist by one plus one equals two.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for example, we had Elton John in the studio with James Blake next to some new kid who was working at the restaurant. Kanye was crafting a sound that isn't one plus one when he was working with Jon Brion or Bon Iver, Kid Cudi, Frank O. He's dedicated his life to finding the melting pot, but he does it with his eyes closed.
It's an amazing sonic thing... But from someone that was so close to those albums in the past, it's intense… His new record – without speaking about another artist's work – is absolutely insane, production wise. Jaw dropped from the very first thing I heard all the way to the end.
He's always been not given the exact format or opportunity that he wants to express himself, so you'll always get that tectonic plate. From a friend speaking highly about another friend, that’s the soil that he makes his art from. It's a unique thing when you ask for an artist as your entertainer, he's like, hey the full package you get from me, is me.
Being that close to it and seeing the other end, it's not surprising that there will be moments of turbulence. But at the end of the day, his humanity and gift will shine through, because he’s a good person and means well for those that don't have a voice.
On his philosophy
Life is like a bookshelf that's empty, you know? Everything I make, I archive it and I want to be able to look back at it. All of us are putting vibes out into the world. I firmly believe that the world will be a better place with good art.
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