These days, we're just living under the reign of the DJ. Despite the ever-repeated claims that electronic dance music is dead, it remains the fastest-growing genre in music today, according to the British Phonographic Industry. The number of EDM streams doubled over the course of 2015, with new acts and EDM-friendly festivals fueling that growth.
However the artists most worthy of celebration are not the genre's 1%, who pull in these record crowds, but those running just parallel to the genre's mainstream. The work these artists have been doing breaking down the stereotypes that have long boxed in EDM truly make up the lifeblood of the genre. Few pioneers are making as much noise as Slovenia-born, Brooklyn-based artist Gramatik, also known as Denis Jašarevic.
Gramatik isn't your average fist-pumping, build-and-drop kind of DJ. His music is rooted in blues and funk samples, like much golden age hip-hop. While onstage, he's head-nodding to the smooth but glitchy rhythms he's layered, always accompanied by a guitarist and sometimes horns meant to "spice things up," as he said in an email interview with Mic. Otherwise, he'd be "bored."
Gramatik's career is the definition of grassroots, having found success — and an audience — by mixing and uploading his music for free online. That freedom is now an essential tenet of his musical philosophy. All his LPs and EPs, which include collaborations with like-minded DJs like Griz (together, the two are known as Grizmatik) and Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon, are free. He runs his own label Lowtemp to push that objective with other artists.
During a break from his Epigram tour, promoting the album of the same name dropping March 25, Gramatik spoke with Mic about why this is the only philosophy that makes sense in today's music landscape.
Mic: Can you tell me where the name Gramatik comes from?
Gramatik: It's kind of a silly story. Before I learned how to make beats, I was writing and rapping first. This was in seventh grade. Two of my friends and I were rapping on beats by DJ Premier and other producers we liked. When we got to our first year of high school we formed a group and needed rap names. It was also around the same time we started smoking weed, so whenever I went to buy weed from a dealer, I could never afford to buy more than a gram. So I decided my rap name will be Gram.
Later on in high school I was kinda good at English, so my classmates were asking me how to spell this and that. English is our third language and at one point my classmate said, "Dude, you're not Gram, you're Grammatic, cause you're good with English grammar!" And I said "that's stupid." And before you know it, I was saving beats on my computer under that name, but I spelled it Gramatik because that's how a cool kid would spell it to be ironic. So yeah, like I said, stupid story.
What's your music making process like? Your sound is constantly changing and fusing together different genres. How do you find your samples?
G: At the beginning I would sample anything from the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s that could be flipped in a cool way. I would mainly just Google for stuff. I specifically like combining samples from like five to six different songs from different genres and different eras of music, taking bits and pieces of each song and warping and tuning them all together to form a new song. We call that collage sampling.
I still do that sometimes but lately I've been more into sampling my musician friends who are really good at playing instruments. It's a bigger challenge to make a good song that way, which is always good for progress. You're also able to achieve a higher level of originality if you're successful.
Can you tell me about what inspired you to pursue the free music movement? Why is it so important to you?
G: There are many reasons for that, so let's dive into it. Firstly, I think music is such an important and vital part of human existence that it should be something all people are able to enjoy and be inspired by to do great things in life, regardless if they are able to afford to pay for it or not. For most people in our deeply flawed society, music makes life bearable. To people like me, music goes even further and gives life meaning.
Secondly, most of the music I listened to as a kid that inspired me to become who I am today was pirated. I come from a working-class family. There was no way in hell my parents could afford to buy me all those high priced albums I wanted from all my favorite artists every year. Furthermore, there was no way in hell they could afford to buy me all the super expensive software that I was using at age 13 when I started to learn how to make music on a computer. I couldn't exactly get a job while in seventh grade. All of that stuff was made possible for me by piracy. If it wasn't for piracy and torrent sites, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. I'd be working a shitty job back in my hometown.
"If it wasn't for piracy and torrent sites, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. I'd be working a shitty job back in my hometown." — Gramatik
As I became "famous" on the Internet, I was finally able to afford all these things by making money off shows. The funny part is, the thing that really jump-started my career was making my entire discography available for free on those same torrent sites that made the aforementioned software available to me, and all the music I was inspired by, which made it a full circle for me.
So, not only do I objectively believe it's morally right for music to be primarily free, it's also subjectively the right thing to do in my case.
Lastly, in the age of the internet, there are people who take pride in paying for music; they will buy it no matter what. And there are people who don't like paying for music (or simply can't afford it); they will pirate it no matter what. There is no escaping or preventing that reality. That's why making your music available for free with an option to buy or donate is the most rational thing to do. You'd be surprised how many people appreciate this approach and donate money to it whenever they can, not only to pay for an album, but to show appreciation for the philosophy itself.
I've heard you say that music should belong to the artist and not a corporation. In your eyes, what would the ideal music industry be?
G: The ideal music industry would be one that is based on rationality and fairness on all fronts. It's not hard to recognize all of the ways artists are getting screwed by major labels. A sixth-grader can see that. Remove all the injustice perpetrated by corporate greed and make it fair, and you have a fair industry.
Can you tell me about Lowtemp? What was the gap that you saw needed to be filled with the label?
G: The original idea was just to have a digital imprint of my own where I can release my own music whenever I want. Later, it became a platform for artists we like to come and drop a single, an EP or album, and use it as a jumping point to further their exposure.
We don't act as a regular label, we don't have slave contracts, we don't demand exclusivity, we don't force people into anything. They are free to come and go as they please. We even encourage them to release their music on as many labels as possible to build a following as quickly as possible. In 2016, it's not about being on a label. It's about exposing your music to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, so you can build a following, start touring, become financially independent and finally be able to fully focus on your art.
What are the challenges to free music? How does the label make money?
A label like Lowtemp doesn't really make money past the covering of operational expenses. Most of it comes from donations and from people who purchase music from us even though they know it's primarily free. This is not a model that's expected to make money for the label; it's a model that's meant to promote artists and their music so they can start making money on their own. It's the exact opposite of a standard corporate model.
March 25, 2016, 3:36 p.m.: This story has been updated.