Music

Back to Basics

Hieroglyphic Being’s Jamal Moss on telling stories and making history

Jasmin Liang

The thing I most immediately notice upon meeting Chicago house DJ Jamal Moss is just how casual and unworried he is. He’s an imposing man, for sure, with an all-black fashion style and a stature that has him towering over almost everybody else in whatever room he’s in. But when he opens his mouth, any intimidating undertone evaporates; all that’s noticeable is his grounded perspective on the world of art he’s a part of and his willingness to offer his thoughts on anything concerning dance music, Chicago, and the murky realm of “taste.” By the time the interview begins, he’s already grinning and sharing a story about meeting Kanye West in the mid-2000s.

Moss’s demeanor is a surprising contrast with the music that’s made the man a legend in underground dance circles. The most recent Hieroglyphic Being full-length, The Disco’s of Imhotep (the apostrophe is intentional), winds through aged drum patterns and sparkling, distant melodies, with track names like “Sepulchral Offerings,” “Nubian Energy,” and “The Shrine of the Serpent Goddess” that pair with the crystalline synths and lend them a devotional tint. It’s spooky, trance-inspiring stuff, and seeing the man who made it parse out his long-distance relationship or his gripes with the politics of booking shows is simultaneously disorienting and thrilling.

Moss is Chicago born and bred, and, hearing his background, it’s not hard to see why he’s been mythologized by the dance music press. In his Resident Advisor documentary, he talks casually about his tumultuous upbringing, which culminated with him leaving his parents and becoming what he called an “urban refugee.” Homeless and without a place to go, he took to spending his nights in all-hours clubs, sometimes even finding a place to stay with those he met there. Slowly but surely, he built up a reputation as both a regular attendee and, eventually, a house music practitioner, most prominently doing music for the “Liquid Love” parties at the all-night Powerplant club in the late eighties.

With more than a decade’s worth of tracks like “Fingerprints of the Gods” and “Speaking In Tongues,” Moss’s Hieroglyphic Being project (one of the many monikers he’s gone by, but the one that’s ended up sticking) bubbled under for years, as Moss brushed shoulders with and received mentorship from Chicago mainstays like Steve Poindexter and Adonis while beginning to carve out his own musical path, one filled with harsher, more industrial rhythms than his mentors’ music and dotted with esoteric religious and futurist references. By the early 2010s, Moss’s unique take on Chicago’s classic sound and his well-maintained label, Mathematics Recordings (with releases from the aforementioned Adonis and Poindexter), had both blossomed into idiosyncratic mainstays in the city’s dance underground. His music got attention from “in-the-know” publications like The Wire and Resident Advisor, the latter of which did a podcast with him in 2012. He became a known quantity in the underground dance world, if more as a sonic historian and reclusive mentor than a rising star.

But in 2015, when he worked with New York label RVNG, Intl. and Sun Ra member Marshall Allen on We Are Not The First, that tone suddenly shifted. We Are Not The First, an album that often veered towards free and astral jazz even as it thickened the Hieroglyphic Being project’s own artistic style, recast Moss as a key innovator in underground dance music. Moss was suddenly thrust into the muddled, uncertain world of hype.

Now, with more eyes on him than ever, he’s released Imhotep, a strangely accessible (but still strange, of course) turn that has Moss receiving accolades from the Tribune, The Guardian, Pitchfork, The Fader, and FACT Magazine. If 2015 was the year Moss broke through into the mainstream, 2016 has become the year he’s entrenched his position, becoming a representative of the dance underground.

Moss is hyper-aware of this. When I mention that I’ve seen more articles about him than ever before this year, he shifts the weight away from himself: “I think it’s one of those things that’s not really about me,” he says. “It’s about the machine, and the industry, so that they can sell their product….It’s not like I come with this deep, prophetic harmonious ‘Oh wow, the cosmos,’ and all this other stuff—it’s just who I’m dealing with and them asking the right questions for it to come out. And it just so happens that since RVNG, and the labels I’ve been affiliated with from that point, they have a [better] outlet for reaching certain media outlets than from two years ago.”

As the conversation goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Moss isn’t just hedging to be modest—he enjoys his newfound power as a lo-fi culture jammer in the world of underground dance, but this influence is something that found him, rather than vice versa. When publications describe him as “healing the world with house music” and take press photos of him emerging from a lake during sunrise with arms outstretched to match his ankh necklace, he doesn’t stop them, but it’s apparent that he finds it amusing more than anything else. He’s more occupied building his own narratives and sonic worlds, seeing how they might play with or against the trends of the day but not letting it concern him.

“I’m not saying the music is any better,” he says. “It’s just the fact that they get me more exposure to get it to a broader audience than what I had before.”

Because of all of this, though, he stands apart from many of the other house producers that have received attention in the same wave as him. “You know, technology changed, and the culture changed, where all of a sudden people think this is new,” he says, “but I’ve been doing the same stuff forever.”

It’s apparent in the music: a sort of “outsider house” movement of similarly lo-fi dance music artists has been praised by many of the same publications that promote Moss, but their tracks—best noted on labels like L.I.E.S. and 1080p and artists like Huerco S, Lnrdcroy, and Anthony Naples—tend to sound like practiced choices instead of simple stubbornness. Moss’s own musical and conceptual touchstones, however, seem devoid of retromania, thoughtfully chosen not for the way they signify certain periods of dance music history but rather for how they create new, concrete futurist possibilities rooted in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythology.

Moss also doesn’t have much patience, then, for more activism-driven efforts that aim to bring back some imagined “glory days” of dance culture, whether through more representative politics like the “women only” DJ nights now found at some of the more progressive clubs or nostalgia-driven efforts for “reclamation” that attempt to address and “fix” the demographic and aesthetic shifts that have occurred in club music since the 1980s. This includes attempts to counter the dominance of “the drop” or the continuing development of “bro”-ish EDM culture that tends to exclude the queer and racialized listeners who built the culture from the ground up.

“It’s separating people right now, instead of bringing them together, and it’s not really healing,” Moss says on the current state of underground DJ culture. “It’s about putting the right kind of frequencies and harmonies in the music and vocals so people can hear it and want to change. If you go to the press trying to change people, that just makes them more divisive, it gets them on the defensive.”   

“I’m not saying women aren’t being represented,” he says, but in his mind, the focus on identity can become limiting. “There were ladies who would get booked and it wouldn’t say ‘female DJ,’ but now, it’s like [the clubs] go out of their way to say we got an all-female lineup.” But Moss doesn’t believe that dance floors are apolitical—far from it.

“There were disco songs, like Carl Bean, ‘I Was Born This Way,’ talking about gay pride,” he says, “and you had straight men, who wasn’t gay, probably didn’t wanna deal with gay people, would get on the floor and start sashaying and twirling the hardest motherfucker.” But it’s more effective, to Moss, if you get someone to feel changed, not think about change. He’s a firm believer in the dance floor’s potential to heal and bridge gaps, or to subtly shift opinions, and he thinks the explicit, outspoken politics of the modern underground tend to prevent that from becoming a reality.

But though he may break ranks with the politics of representation, Moss sees himself as involved in other ways in the process of broadening and deepening the history of Chicago house. Now that he does have a spotlight on him, he’s careful to be educational with it. Speaking on the “ninety percent of Chicago house history” he says has historically gone ignored, he says: “You get certain people who come along and tell their perspective [when a scene first gets exposure] and people accept it as truth. Then, someone else comes along and says no, that’s not all true, there’s other parts involved, but that person is considered a ‘hater.’ There’s a lot of heroes that came before the people who was in the spotlight that made things happen that’s not known about.”

As a result, Moss makes an effort to flesh out the past for those who might be less well-informed, saying, “I try, when I do  interviews, to inject their name in there to get people curious and make them reach out to try to get their story. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.” Indeed, Moss is aware that not all of the people to whom he tries to give the spotlight are interested—indeed, many prefer to keep their role in the development of house and Chicago dance in the background for one reason or another.

Moss’s thoughts on the process of making The Disco’s of Imhotep throw much of this pragmatic perspective into relief: he’s most passionate in his desire to get “back to basics,” clarifying that he means “back to basics when it comes to designing tracks, and keep them to the point and telling a story and evoking something inside.” In an industry Moss sees as often infatuated with gear quality, beat-matching intros and outros, and lighting setups, his success operates as a corrective. “It’s all about the Funktion One speakers, and this mixer,” he says, “but what about the music that’s being played?”

On Imhotep specifically, he admits to retooling his writing approach slightly, operating with an awareness of the broader potential audience and focus of attention on him. Moss admits, “A lot of what I would put out before was just footnotes! Now, I’ve learned to properly construct a full legible sonic conversation for people to pick up on.”

“Before, I would call it a sonic diary,” he says, referring to his earlier work, “but this is a full-fledged novel, one that people can get.”

It’s a telling space of compromise for Moss. While the interviewer, the historian, or the DJ-with-an-ego might shift a narrative (intentionally or unintentionally) to exclude people or to over-determine what something “meant,” whether it was house, Hieroglyphic Being, or just music in general, there’s still a power in a story being told, and in being able to tell a story.

“I just let people know I came from this point, and excelled and bonded with other people, and it helped me get past that certain thing,” he says. “And I think for any movement, social, economic, sexual, whatever terms, if you want people to understand your story, you’ve got to give them a beginning, a middle, and then the end.”

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