Given the variety his work with the likes Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, and Suicidal Tendencies (among others), it’s really no surprise that bassist Thundercat’s 2017 solo album Drunk was such an eclectic affair. In fact, the album jumps around so much between fusion, prog, funk, R&B balladry, and ‘70s-style st rock that it nearly caused veteran music critic Jim DeRogatis to drive f the road.
In its new, remixed form as the companion album Drank, however, Thundercat’s vision gets a radical overhaul, re-imagined as something akin to a classic smooth-soul/”quiet storm” platter by DJ Candlestick and OG Ron C the Houston DJ collective The Chopstars. As with previous Chopstars interpretations albums by Drake, Little Dragons and, most recently, the Black Panther soundtrack, Candlestick and OG Ron digitally slowed down — or “chopped” — the source material, re-sequencing the album’s running order and adding their own production touches the whole way through.
So far, the most vocal champion for the project has been Thundercat himself. “It messes with me emotionally,” says Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, “because since they’ve done that, I can’t un-hear the record that way. It literally feels like this is the way the record was supposed to sound.” Unaware that the Chopstars had gotten their hands on his music until he and Flying Lotus received a finished copy Drank, Bruner was struck by the tonal and timbral elements the Chopstars were able to highlight.
“You hear the things that are more outright,” he says. “Like switching different sections around, leaving drums here that were there, or the way they basically drop you into the record in different places out sequence.” Take, for example, how the Chopstars insert a down-tuned, pitched-down loop from elsewhere on the album as a connective segue between their downtempo version “Lava Lamp” and the Michael McDonald-Kenny Logins guest spot “Show You the Way,” subduing the zany spirit restlessness that defines the original album and forging steadiness out fragmentation.
While Bruner chuckles at how “Michael McDonald still sounds the same slowed down,” he marvels at the Chopstars’ artistry. “Anyone can slow-down a record player,” Bruner muses. “When I was a kid, I had those moments where you mess your dad’s record player up and you go ‘Ha ha!’ But there’s an art to this.”
Released on March 16h Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder, Drank showcases why the Chopstars have been able to create a veritable cottage industry out their techniques. For nearly two decades now, under OG Ron C’s leadership, the Chopstars have expanded on the remix style popularized in Houston in the ‘90s by the late DJ Screw. (Hence the “chopped and screwed” sub-genre, also known as “screw music” and “chop music.”) Countless chop mixtapes later, the Chopstars estimate their following at five million, telling Billboard that they receive three million hits a week to their subscriber site chopnotslop.com. Meanwhile, artists can now get their own songs chopped and earn revenue alongside the group on chopcloud.com.
“We try to be the kings staying on top the music and finding different stuff,” says OG Ron C, born Ronald Coleman, who first came to acclaim as the founder the Swishahouse label. “We feel like, with our twist on it, we can make anything sound melodic in ways that we like it to sound. We’re real music lovers, not just hip-hop lovers.” Candlestick, born Omar Barton, stresses that the Chopstars “do all types music: rock and roll shit, reggae, everything.”
Coleman and Barton were aware Bruner’s features in Kendrick Lamar’s music, but they hadn’t heard Drunk until they were turned onto it by their friend Sama’an Ashrawi, a one-time roommate Brainfeeder’s Adam Stover, who ended up getting co-production credit on the remix album. (Ashrawi recently directed the DUST animated series Afruturism and produced the Parquet Courts/Bun B collaboration “Captive the Sun.”) For his part, Bruner had been introduced to chopping about four years ago, Erykah Badu and a Houston native who works on his clothing line — but he was a casual fan at best.
Bruner is incredulous, for example, when it comes up that the Chopstars work their magic using mp3s instead turntables. (“Wow!” he exclaims. “I wouldn’t have imagined that.”) He is similarly impressed at finding out that Candlestick and OG Ron most ten chop music in one take.
As Barton explains, though, “With complex projects like this, you’ve really got to listen to get the feel and start organize the tracks into something you want the whole thing to sound like.” In this case, the pair gave some thought to BPM, and considered sections they wanted to use for intros and outros. But when all is said and done, the Chopstars feel most comfortable working on the fly, with Candlestick and OG Ron sometimes switching f halfway through a track. “And,” says Coleman, “we include the interludes, the skits — everything.”
Whatever their exact methods are, the Chopstars have succeeded in creating a singular, standalone work art out a singular existing work. And apparently, Thundercat’s famous friends agree.
“I had a moment the other night,” says Bruner, “listening to it with Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Robert Glasper and my brother Ronald. Chris Rock just used the original version my song ‘Them Changes’ to open up his Netflix special Tamborine, but he hadn’t heard the new version. I imagine he’s not super social media- or trend-savvy like that. But as the night progressed it became a whole 'nother record for them, too. Dave kept walkin’ up on me going, ‘Yo man, this is a whole other thing!’”