The Twilite Tone
Photo by Christine Ciszczon
The Twilite Tone Finds New Dimensions Of Sound On Debut Solo Album
The Twilite Tone is a dimension of sound and mind. The producer and songwriter also known as Anthony Khan has been making music for over three decades. He produced nearly every track on Common’s debut 1992 album Can I Borrow A Dollar?, helping to bring Chicago hip-hop to national prominence. After DJing for years, he returned to producing in the '10s, bringing the iconic Super Beagle sample to Kanye West’s GOOD Music posse cut "Mercy" and co-producing an entire Gorillaz album, Humanz, with Damon Albarn.
On Khan's debut solo album, The Clearing, he blends funk, disco, house, hip-hop, boogie and pop across 14 instrumental tracks. It’s an audio odyssey rooted in rhythm, with thumping grooves perfectly stitched together like a dancefloor DJ set that's still subtle enough for repeated listens on headphones. The album, out now via famed hip-hop label Stones Throw, is a fitting companion to the label’s roster of instrumental hip-hop by producers like Knxwledge and J Dilla.
Khan is in an enviable position after decades of making music: promoting his solo debut while visiting Atlanta to work on Kanye West’s next album, and still making time to read a bedtime story to his 6-year-old daughter every night. GRAMMY.com spoke to The Twilite Tone over video chat from Atlanta in early September about science fiction, his studio setup and the spread of hip-hop in Chicago.
What inspired you to release your first album?
About three years ago, I started composing this album and I realized that people knew about all my accomplishments, my affiliations and my reputation, but I didn't feel like they knew my sound. Producing on a song like "Mercy," you kind of get overshadowed if they don't outright put "Produced by the Twilite Tone." And I said, you know, forget always celebrating the things I've done and who I'm affiliated with. I want people to respect me now. Let me make an instrumental album where I don't have to depend on anyone and nothing is on top of it to deter you, or distract you, or deflect you, of who and what this is. So when I say instrumental album, I mean that, these aren't beats, these are instrumentals.
It sounds like you weren't ever interested in collaborating with anyone externally. Did you ever think about adding vocals yourself or writing vocal melodies to go on top? Or did you focus on making an instrumental project from the get-go?
The latter. Some of these songs did have top lines before, whether it was by me or it was other people, but I just felt like these songs, for some reason, they were speaking to me. I felt like it would be more impactful as instrumentals. And I felt like it wasn't time for people to hear my voice in that way, yet. Let me establish myself this way, sonically first, and I'll grow to that.
You've been around for a long time, and for a good chunk of that time, you were a background figure. Was there a turning point for you where you said, "Okay, I really want to put myself out there as me and establish myself as an individual"?
The turning point for me was DJing for Common the last four to eight years, where he would call me to do gigs with him when his regular DJ wouldn't be able to show up. He's only going based on his memory of me being a great DJ, I have far evolved from that, I wasn't even listening to rap music like that, let alone his music. And he would call me to do these intricate shows. I'd literally get the music and the show'd be tomorrow, and no rehearsal. I learned a lot from looking at how people galvanized around Common, and other artists that I work with. It was motivating and inspiring me to want to do it myself.
I selfishly started working on me and my project. I tried to work with other people [at the start], but it's like gathering up a crew and not having a ship. "'Okay, we got the crew together.' Well, I'm waiting on the guys to build the ship. ‘Well, call us when you got the ship.'" I guess what I'm saying is, I navigated on other people's ships. And I just was like, man, I think I want to go out on my own and do my own exploration, I think there's things that I could discover. And I appreciate being on these ships and learning what I've learned, no knock to all the different people I've worked with, but I'm ready to row row row my boat. [Laughs.]
What was the setup when you were actually working on these songs?
The whole album is composed on an MPC2000XL, a Triton Renaissance and a machine that is so near and dear to my heart that I have refused to divulge what that Moog-like machine is. Then it goes through a Fostex VF16 hard disk recording. I don't really EQ on the Fostex. I do all my sequencing and balancing on my MPC, but I'll add certain effects via the MPC or the Fostex recorder or my Triton or my "Moog." I use a compression on the overall mix. That's it.
It's funny to hear you say that at the time, you weren't even really listening to rap that much. Because in my mind, I think of you as the guy who brought hip-hop to Chicago clubs and Chicago parties. Can you tell me about how you came and went with hip-hop, versus house versus disco and all those genres that you're familiar with?
When I was a kid, I was inundated with all kinds of music. I was an MTV kid. And my family is very musically immersed and inclined, my uncle being a bassist and him being married to Chaka Khan, and then my mother and my father met dancing. Coming back to Chicago for grammar school, there was a stank brewing, it didn't have a name, but it was uptempo, and it was later to be defined as house. And I was into it, even though at the same time, I was listening to [University of Chicago radio station] WHPK, [hip-hop DJs] JP Chill and Chilly Q. I was going to parties, I was going to [legendary all-ages club] Medusa’s, and all these things, right? Then I got started working on music with my friends. I was making dance music while simultaneously making rap music. Only from the outside was there separation! From the so-called dance music scene, oh, I was ghetto, and on the other side, the people that was in hip-hop or rap was calling me gay or whatever.
So in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was a shift in the culture of Chicago. That shift was people wanted more than what was being played at the clubs. There was a group of us that just wanted to hear Soul II Soul, De La, Tribe, Jungle Brothers, we wanted to hear a quality rap song. We were met with a not great response. If I'm not invited to the party, I'll throw my own, and that's what we [hip-hop crew Dem Dare] did. That's not to say there weren't other DJs doing it. But the way that we presented it by having attractive young ladies there, from all of these magnet schools from Chicago, and having people from all sides of town, that was unprecedented.
I was embarking on a journey of being an artist, but it didn't work out because of the miscommunication, or lack thereof, with my colleagues who I was creating music with. So it caused me to fall into the role of being DJ guy. And so I rode that through the evolution, if not devolution, of rap music. When I got to the late ‘90s, I realized like, Yo, man, I felt like a drug dealer, and I'm not a drug dealer, and I don't want to play drug dealer music. That's how I got to not listen to rap music. I was more into, let me find what is me as opposed to what is not.
I did want to ask about the sci-fi motif that's running through the album. There's the HAL 9000 voice, and other samples and voice-overs that you included. What's the sci-fi theme mean to you?
The sci-fi is just in my genetic makeup. "The Twilight Zone" was my favorite show. Thus The Twilite Tone. The sound bytes are actually speaking to the bottom line of what I wanted to communicate. The sci-fi thing, I thought, would be a creative way to say what I want to say without being so direct and literal. And it sounded cool. And it's funny, you know, I use a lot of [Canadian synthesizer pioneer] Bruce Haack. And I found myself being a conduit for Bruce Haack. I felt like, damn, me and Bruce Haack are saying the same things. It just serendipitously came together.
Is there any advice that you can give to a musician or other creative person?
Be yourself. I just gave some advice to my god-nephew, because he wants to get into music, and he lives in Atlanta. He's like, "Man, but my stuff doesn't sound like this." I said, "Good. And it's not supposed to." And another thing I was saying is, would you do music for free? Then you're on the right path. You're doing this to hustle, and because you think it's easy to make money by making the hi-hat sound like semi-automatic weapons? I say stay out of it. We got enough of that.
Was there anything that you were listening to for inspiration while working on this album?
I don't listen to producers for inspiration. I daresay this may sound arrogant: a lot of people that people worship and look up to, they're my peers, or I've come before. That was another reason why I did this, so that I could start showing like, this is really me, I'm not trying to be somebody else or be the next up, none of that.
This is just the beginning. I'm actually a new artist, it's funny to say that. But I'm like [professional baseball player] Satchel Paige. Or Thelonious Monk: I lost my cabaret license, I couldn't play publicly, but that didn't mean I stopped playing at all. I really relate to Thelonious. A lot of people going crazy over John Coltrane and this guy and that guy, and Thelonious is not getting recognized because he can't [legally] play. He's not performing, he's doing other things. But when he finally steps out, it's like, oh my god, who is this guy, right?