Chilly Gonzales – »Hip-hop’s piano player«

Foto: Theda Schoppe
The piano might be the greatest of all instruments, one which is able to contain all voices like no other, an instrument which leads us to the very core of music and its composition. That this also counts in the world of pop music is going to be shown in a series of interviews. This time: Gonzales.

The piano might be the greatest of all instruments, one which is able to contain all voices like no other, the first tool of a composer – an instrument which leads us to the very core of music and its composition. That this also counts in the world of pop music , that the piano is more than joining keys, is going to be shown in a series of interviews. This time: Gonzales. It has been ten years since Gonzales’ Kitty Yo debut Gonzales Über Alles stroke Berlin’s underground scene and opened the doors for the Canadian Crew in Germany’s capital. It took another five years and his album »Solo Piano« to show the world that the »Worst MC« has been a brilliant composer, songwriter and pianist. On his seventh studio album The Unspeakble Chilly Gonzales challenges himself by bringing together rap and orchestral music and looking back on his decade.

Would you mind talking about the piano?
Gonzales: No, I’d love to talk about the piano.

You once said that your destiny is to become hip hop’s piano player. Do you think you’ve achieved that goal already?
Gonzales: Well, I think it’s a life long process to be a sort of modern person. When I said I want to be hip hop’s piano player, It’s a way of saying I’m trying to bring the image of what a pianist can be and try to bring it up to the modern era. For me the modern era is the hip hop era. It’s the dominant force for me and what’s good about the modern times essentially all came from hip hop. You know, I have the skills of a music professor or a session musician, I have a real technical ability to remember a lot of music, can reproduce it and absorb a lot of information, that’s what I call my musical genius, the technical gift of music. And it would be more natural to become an academic or a session guy. But I wanted to make albums and i wanted to make music for people my age and I had ideas of what I think music should be and so I just spent ten years trying to build up that idea, bringing the piano into the electro world, into the places that I play in, into the concert world. In this case it’s more literal cause it’s combining orchestra and this kind of maestro element of music together with rap, but it’s just again trying and take all my skills, which are old fashioned skills and try to find a way that it’s still meaningful and fun and I can still have beautiful young girls in the audience.

So, the piano remains the basis of your music, you compose your hip hop tracks on the piano?
Gonzales: Yeah, most of it, most of it. I mean when I was producing music myself I always composed on the piano or used the keyboard.

Solo Piano, 2004, was your only classical piano album…
Gonzales: … and it’s also my most successful album by long shot – the most selling and the one giving me access to a much larger public than ever before. It was a really good move, but it was also a surprise that it did so well. I wasn’t sure if it would be just be a small thing. Most of the audience were hipsters and I might have been too boring for them, you know, and it turns out that there was a whole other world of Gonzales fans out there that were just waiting to have an excuse to get into me.

You once said that it is the technical ability that gives you the confidence to do whatever you want. Were you trying to prove that ability once and for all when you did Solo Piano?
Gonzales: Well, it wasn’t quite so conscious, but very quickly I realized that it was having that effect. When I played it for people they said: Wow, this is amazing, this is so much deeper, musically, than what you did on your first few albums. And I thought: Good, and already before it came out I saw that it was having this really positive effect, confirming something that people wanted to believe. I spent five years saying “musical genius this” and »musical genius that«, in a way the piano album was the prove for them, because it’s so pure I guess. It’s easier to hear just the musical element, there are no vocals, the humor is much more melancholy musical humor and not direct provocative verbal humor like there was so much before What happened at that time is that I started to produce with Feist also, so there was a general feeling of »Wow, he also exist in a more traditional music world« somehow: A girl with a great voice doing this great folk songs and doing a piano album. That was really the combined effect of that. And it was very positive for me for sure.

So, the first orchestral rap album, The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, is your next step?
Gonzales: I think a lot of rappers have done concerts with symphony and I’m sure there has been orchestras playing on top of rap beats before, of course, but I think what I did for the first time is an entire album of new songs based on a fairly large history of classical and soundtrack music. We are really using the gestures of classical music and the emotional triggers which have so much do to with soundtracks. Because people always know what they’re supposed to feel when they hear a lot of these orchestral gestures because we’ve seen so many movies. We know what a action scene is, we know what a sad scene is, we know what a evil scene is, so its really easy for me to put in what basically sounds like the themes of »Jaws« f.e. at the beginning of the album. First thing what people think when they hear the beginning of the album is: »Jaws«. That’s where rap is great because it takes from everything, but when you take out the beats and you have just the orchestra i think you can get somewhere even more far away from rap. My brother is a soundtrack writer and he does a lot, he does four or five a year so he’s the guy who knows how to do it quickly. He needs to make you feel tensed? He can do it in five seconds and that’s what i like about. It’s like pushing emotional buttons with the music and then choosing the lyrics that can make a surprise or that go with it or go against it.

How did you work? Were there beats in there before that you removed later?
Gonzales: No, it was only piano and vocals. But my brother really went much further than what I gave him. He wrote brand new sections and had the idea to turn Party In My Mind into a kind of Bollywood type of thing, he had the idea to use choir on Beans – it’s almost like the Braveheart-soundtrack or something. He really produced this thing, yeah.

Is that why you say »The genius is in the arrangements« on one of the tracks?
Gonzales: That’s right.

You did the first orchestra rap album, the longest concert in the world and called yourself »The Worst MC«. Do you like to use superlatives?
Gonzales: I’m known for having a really extreme way of expressing my opinions and I can go against them the next day and I can then be embarrassed my them, but, yes, I like the idea of using language in an extreme way – it gets people’s attention, absolutely. Like I’ve said: If you don’t like rap, you’re racist. That’s not exactly what I mean but it basically gets the question out there. It’s like when I say musical genius. It’s not exactly what I mean, but it gets the whole subject out there and gets us on the same page. So you have to be a little extreme, because otherwise it gets lost.