Medium Zach: As I do more, it just makes me want to experiment more

Medium Zach: As I do more, it just makes me want to experiment more
Photo by Tommy Ellis

Producer and rapper Medium Zach of Big Quarters recently dropped his first solo effort Valued Input, a three song project. The unveiling comes in conjunction with a show at Icehouse this Saturday featuring a new direction in his material.

Gimme Noise sat down with Zach to ask about the project, working with MaLLy, Meta, and Slug, and how he's developed to this point.

Is this your first solo project?
Essentially yes. This is the first thing that I've released under the name Medium Zach. Primarily most of my releases that I've had a hand in releasing or making have been Big Quarters. Since I was 16 I've always wanted to make a production record where I work with rappers and release it. As I grew, it always manifested into other things. Being young and making songs with other people, it would progress into other things. That's how I would land beats on other people's records. The things I was getting tired of was records not coming out. It was becoming obvious that if we wanted our music to come out we had to put it out ourselves. We did that with some instrumental projects, a couple of beat CDs with Fam Feud, and then our first [Big Quarters] project we came out with in '04. Me and Brandon knew we had something different in terms of chemistry and material, so we just put all our energy into that. It was always off to the side that I was working with other people. Right now, I just feel like I'm at a different point in my career and artist life that I'm confident in how I work with people and that I can make a song with someone, finish it, put it out. It makes sense. 

The record with Mankwe brought you to the stage performing production alongside her singing.
I wanted to play the background of that record. I felt like it was important to produce an artist and let the artist be the focus of the record and the project. That's the only other record that came out where I produced it. We had worked on that for a few years and we had no idea how anybody was going to respond to it. As I do more, it just makes me want to experiment more and get more stuff out there. The great thing about performing with Mankwe is that people do get to see that I'm the person on that record. Rather than just be on the record, I get to play the shows with her.

How has your production method developed through the years?
That's a layered question, I could way talk too much about that [laughs]. Every stage that I've been through beatmaking, I'd always focus on trying to do something that I would want to do that I didn't understand [and] do it a few times until I got the hang of it. In making sample-based music early on, it basically taught me how to play keys just by ear. Sampling a bass notes and playing a bassline on a beat, it just grew over time where I started using single sampled notes to play instruments to create sound collages, and that eventually led me to creating my own synth sounds with the sampler. In 2006 Mux Mool got me a copy of Reason, he showed me how to set up the sounds, and then I started rewiring it into Pro Tools. I started having access to way more synth sounds and virtual instruments, and I started incorporating that with sample-based beats, and then I started getting curious about working with musicians that played instruments. 

Basically, the only instrument I had was a saxophone and a thumb piano, so I started working with a guitar player. I grew up being a visual artist more so. Although my background is hardware samplers where I gotta edit by ear and lay stuff by ear, I'm very much a visual, hands-on learner, so once I dove deeper into Pro Tools, I just kind of go nuts with it. I worked more with session musicians on the recent Big Quarters record. The material had become more advanced and my technique and editing had become more advanced, but it's still the same process.

I wasn't charting any music out, I couldn't tell anybody what notes to play, it was really based off the communication of working with the guys in the studio. Over the past few years I've been learning some music theory and learning how to play piano. I used to collect small instruments, just shakers and toy xylophones and the recorder, but then I've recently been able to collect more legit instruments by good fortune. Valued Input is just the first thing. Part of what I'm debuting at the show on Saturday are my solo songs, and my goal with my solo projects is that it's only me doing everything. Production, instruments, recording, video, artwork... I always like to challenge myself to the point where it's too much. Maybe like, not efficient.

With Party Like A Young Commie and Somos No Joke, I took 30 songs, worked with different musicians and did mad editing to revamp those tunes, and basically all my production on those records, I collaborated. That was the most Brandon beats on any of the records, but any of my beats, I collaborated with another musician. My vision for those records, especially Party Like A Young Commie, is I wanted it just to be everybody involved. I wanted to have somewhat of a Roots vibe, the idea that, it's Big Quarters but there's like 20 people involved. That was my goal with it, and now my new challenge is coming back to what it was like being 16. Coming off of a few Big Quarters records over the span of three, four years, I want to challenge myself again in songwriting, try new things. When I was thinking about the scope of what I eventually want to do, these were the three songs that I was most proud of and I liked how they fit.
How did you figure out what guests you wanted to work with?
I had met MaLLy just around the scene a little bit in 2009. There was a mutual respect, we respected each other's craft but I didn't know him personally at all. We got asked to do Welcome To Minnesota tour for 2012 just a few weeks before Party Like A Young Commie was gonna come out, and I ran into MaLLy again and we had shit-eating grins on our faces and we just wanted talk and chop it up. I had him over to my house and we chopped it up for like three hours. Most people I work with, we spend time with each other like that, letting each other know our stories and stuff like that. When we were meeting then, it wasn't about collaborating, it was really just about getting to know each other. We've just remained friends since after the tour.

Then we got together to work on some things. I gave ["Live In Color"] to MaLLy to see what he could do with it, and what he did with it was exactly what I [wanted]. I love making rap songs that are just relentless, no chorus. The way the beat was is how I laid it out, so it's like two and a half minutes, and he came at it with just this long verse. It was just super raw. That's why I wanted to put this out, I didn't want it to collect any dust. I didn't want it to age, I wanted to make sure people heard it. 

What about Meta?
With Meta, I've known him since I was 16. When Brandon was a freshman at the U, I used to hang out at the U with my brother and Meta was a dude who was around our friends. We used to freestyle, clown, run around to different parties. He was as dope then as he is now, then. Just on the freestyles, just a natural, just crazy. We had a special bond through that. Me and him never really reconnected, he would just pop up. In '07, we did a show in the Mainroom, and he was telling me how some verse I was crazy -- I specifically remember it was my verse from "Painkillers." It felt genuine, and it was such and honor that he would compliment me. That was encouraging to me. It's been a long time coming for people to recognize what he does. As we were seeing each other around more and more, it was just coming up more like, we gotta work.

And Slug?
Then with Slug, the way he introduced us at the Welcome To Minnesota show here in Minneapolis, we didn't anticipate him saying what he was gonna say. Me and him had never become close friends, but he's know me since a kid in the record store. When I moved here, I went into the record store and handed him a tape. He was like, "I'ma give it a listen, and you call the store in a week; I'm about to go to Chicago and I'll listen to it." I'd just become familiar with Atmosphere, and really knowing that there was any rap music in Minneapolis that was making records. The first thing I heard really was Overcast!, the vinyl EP, and when I heard it, I was like, okay, I can be in Minnesota and make rap music. When I gave him that tape, it was [with the] intention that we would work together, even though I didn't have much of a reference to how that looked. I didn't do any work in studios, I hadn't collaborated with rappers yet, I just knew I had this beat. Then I became this like a record store kid who called in, I'm basically buggin' em.

And then I stopped buggin' 'em and I made a song with Carnage which ended up trumping anything I'd made in that period, and I got to work with different people but Carnage, and this other cat Illusion, made this song that trumped those. Still never came out. This is all the stuff I made that didn't come out. As we were becoming more defined as artists, it was becoming less clear what I would do with a solo project. We were really just coming into figuring out how we make records, how we mix them, make them, and promote them. I remember [Slug] coming out to [a show at Bryant Lake Bowl], and then the next time separately when we came in the store, Brandon went into the store, and Slug walked up to him like, "I saw you guys there, you guys are really dope" or whatever, "you guys can really rap." Brandon brought that news to me, I was like, oh shit! So, the way Slug sums it up in that "New Plateau" video, he sums this whole story up in two sentences. He says, "First they start coming around with tapes of beats, then they're coming around with raps, and now they're fucking veterans."

Basically, I meet him when I'm 16. By the time I'm 27, we're cool, we're all cool shooting the shit. And we know enough mutual people where we've been in scenarios where we're hanging out or whatever, but never got to know each other like, that in-depth personally. [One time] he's like, "When's that record coming out?" We're like, "Two weeks," "What's your travel plans for it?" We were both kind of speechless, and Brandon was just like, "We got nothing planned. We're available." At this point, by 2011, we've seen a lot of people get their shot on the road with the Rhymesayers guys. Him saying that, we're like, "That's not something he's ever asked us." Brandon pushed it forward a little bit and gave him a call, [and] he's like, "I want you guys on the Welcome to Minnesota tour."

It was no longer me being a punk-ass kid. We got to know each other through that process, through the tour, then after that we connected a couple of times at my house. Somewhere in the middle of that he had suggested to me that we work on something. He came through to my house; this had to be winter of 2012. He was basically just warming up to write for the Southsiders record. He's made a lot of cuts recently with different people, I would say he's just exercising, all over the place, his chops. I made a couple joints with him, and the one that is the one on the record, I made that beat right before the MInnesota tour, and I was kind of intending to show it to him. He was looking at it like a demo, like if it ever becomes anything we'll relay it or something. Even though I re-record things, things that get done at my house, I try to finish them. I've recorded all our stuff in-house since '04.

What can we expect at the Saturday's show at Icehouse?
Last spring, the stuff with Mankwe was the first time I saw my name on the lips of people who weren't mentioning Big Quarters. It was just getting me more used to the idea of what it would look like if I did my own thing. i've played around with production sets since '04, where I would just have a CD player and my ASR, and loading a beat off floppy and playing the CD, going back and forth. I did that at the Turf Club in '04. Then Fam Feud at the Dinkytowner, everybody's equipment, shuffling rappers on and off, musicians on and off. In 2006 I had a Soundclash with Benzilla at Dinkytowner. It was the same thing; we had ASRs, turntables, CDJs, this whole orchestrated set of me and him battling and going back and forth. I've played with different ideas of what it looks like to perform with production. So with Mankwe, I started playing more ideas with her.

Within Big Quarters sometimes, I can get comfortable with not pushin myself harder, because sometimes I could lean on Brandon to lead the direction of the song, and I'll just write my verse and do it the best I can, but I'm not necessarily always the one to come up with the vision of the song. It's always collaborative. So I got some things in the works, trying some different stuff that isn't Big Quarters. Some new songs I'm working where it's me on the music, me on the vocals. It's my golden birthday coming up, and I've never thrown a birthday show before. The last couple years it had been on my mind, it means something to me in my career. It's motivated to push myself individually more. The way that I look at this show is that it's not really a show that I'm going to pull off in any other show. Valued Input the record was really just something to get out there; I don't look at this show as a release show for that. It's just kind of me establishing myself as an individual artist, with the help and support of so many in the community.

Medium Zach. With K.Raydio and DJ O-D Todda. 21+, $5/$7, 10:30 p.m., Saturday, March 29 at Icehouse. Info.

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