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Bonobo's Favorite Productions: Phone Recordings, A '20s Bulgarian Choir, Moroccan Gnawa Music & More
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Photo: Grant Spanier

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Bonobo's Favorite Productions: Phone Recordings, A '20s Bulgarian Choir, Moroccan Gnawa Music & More

In celebration of his 2023 GRAMMY nominations and many contributions to electronic music, producer, DJ and musician Bonobo reflects on his favorite productions.

GRAMMYs/Jan 13, 2023 - 04:37 pm

Los Angeles-based producer, DJ and musician Bonobo is a beat master and sampling champ known for his chilled electronic soundscapes and globally inspired, jazzy rhythms. Listening to a Bonobo album is like going on a guided tour of  a lively market; it’s an expansive, vibrant sampling of sounds and flavors that remains entirely tasty and cohesive.

"I'm always trying to find something to be excited about," Bonobo tells GRAMMY.com. "If that's a new way of doing stuff; like working on samplers to working on Ableton, to now working with modular synths. There's always got to be an element of exploration, that intrigue is what keeps it exciting."

The Brighton-born artist dropped his seventh studio album, Fragments, at the beginning of 2022, its ocean of emotions born during the early days of the pandemic. Fragments is currently nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album and its lead single "Rosewood" is up for Best Dance/Electronic Recording at the upcoming 2023 GRAMMYs.

Now with a total of seven GRAMMY nominations, Bonobo has reached another career pinnacle. Yet his roots remain ever-relevant and ripe for a revisit, with each release unfurling new movement and exploration.

After a few singles and EPs, Bonobo dropped his trip-hop-leaning debut full-length, 2000's Animal Magic, and signed to legendary U.K. dance label Ninja Tune the following year. He began to introduce collaborators on his third release, linking with German poet and vocalist Bajka on 2006's Days To Come. 2010's Black Sands further expanded Bonobo's sonic world through the introduction of live instrumentation in studio and onstage. 

Bonobo's global travels inspired 2013's The North Borders — which opens with the enchantingly  moody "First Fires" and features the standout "Heaven for the Sinner" with Erykah Badu — and and he brought a nomadic energy to the aptly named 2017 project Migration.

He has since settled in Los Angeles and, as with many touring artists, spent his longest period at home in 2020. The result was Fragments, which was recorded during lockdown with virtual collaborators Jordan Rakei, Jamila Woods, Joji and Kadhja Bonet. We’ll have to wait to discover what’s next in Bonobo’s sonic world, but the energetic non-Fragments singles he released in late 2022 may be a taste.

In celebration of his 2023 GRAMMY nominations and his many contributions to electronic music, Bonobo reflected on some of his favorite productions. Calling in from Lithuania at the tail end of his massive Fragmentstour, Bonobo broke down some of his most beloved tracks from his discography — including his all-time favorite production.

"Rosewood"

(Fragments, 2022)

"Rosewood" was the last one, it was kind of the missing piece of the record [Fragments]. It was from this iPhone recording that I had of me just messing around on the piano in my house, from ages ago….which is the main loop. And then I started adding kick drums and other elements on it. The basis of it had this almost Nina Simone "Sinnerman" kind of feel.

For "Rosewood," I was going for classic Detroit-y house. I was listening to Theo Parrish and Kerri Chandler and that percussive, loop-based kind of house music. That was the mood, at least.

"Otomo" with O'Flynn

(Fragments, 2022)

I was working with a sample that I'd found from archives of a Bulgarian choir that was recorded in the '20s. That was the main part of the song. I was messing around with that and harmonizing it and trying some chords. This was at the time when you couldn't get in the room with people and I was stuck on how to structure the song.

I like the way O’Flynn switches between very melodic stuff and big percussive stuff, so I was thinking that maybe he was the person to get this one to the finish line, which he did.

"Otomo" is named after Katsuhiro Otomo, who is the creator of [the manga and 1988 animated film] Akira. I liked the mix of the choral and percussion sounds from Akira and that was an influence for “Otomo.”

"Heartbreak" with Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs

(Heartbreak/6000 Ft., 2020)

The Class Action sample [1983's "Weekend"] was a Paradise Garage classic. "Heartbreak" is a homage to a few different eras of dance music, having that throwback to '80s disco, that '90s breakbeat and something more contemporary as well. It's a real patchwork of different dance floor eras.

I collabed with Orlando [Higginbottom a.k.a.], Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. He had the palette of the tune already and I came in and arranged it and added the vocal, which fit quite nicely.

There are a lot of classic drum breaks in there, little nods to the era of '90s rave and breakbeat and drum and bass. For the synths and other sounds, it's actually a lot of chopped up — micro-chopped — samples. A lot of it is sample-based.

"Brambro Koyo Ganda" with. Innov Gnawa

(Migration, 2017)

That one I started as a kind of loop. I was messing around on a Rhodes piano. The drums were a big part too. I added a sample of a Moroccan Gnawa recording from the '70s, I think, but I realized it would be more interesting to record [something new instead]. I knew of these Gnawa players that are based in Brooklyn [Innov Gnawa], so we went to a studio in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] and recorded.

That group is great and ended up coming out on tour with us for a bit. It was this big, impactful dance floor moment, and then having that extra element — Moroccan Gnawa music is ceremonial music, so it was a version of traditional songs but they changed the lyrical narrative to something a bit more secular.

I discovered Gnawa music from spending time in Morocco. I really like that style of North African music. Besides being in Morocco, it's something I listen to a lot anyway. I recorded a lot of music with Innov Gnawa, there are a few other tracks we did. There were also different, longer versions of the single. A good amount of that session was expanded and extended and is out there.

"Heaven For The Sinner" with Erykah Badu

(The North Borders, 2013)

I had that tune for a while, it was just an instrumental. I met Erykah through a project she was doing with Mark Ronson. "Heaven For The Sinner" was the last piece on North Borders. She was in Dallas and I was in New York, and she recorded little bits; she'd do about one line a day over a long course of time, so it was taking the idea she had for the tune and piecing it together. It was an assembly of various recordings.

[I didn't change the instrumental] too much because I'd already left a lot of space for her voice. Mostly when I'm working with vocalists, the track is fairly complete.

She joined us for a few tour dates. At the San Francisco show, we did a version of that song and of "Bag Lady" — it was a beautiful, magical moment.

"Eyesdown" with Andreya Triana

(Black Sands, 2010)

I was living in London at the time [and] I was very immersed in what was happening in London around 2008, 2009, which was sort of the post-dubstep scene with [the club] Plastic People and [one of its club nights] FWD>>.

That tune was just a beat, really. My friend came over and listened to some stuff I was working on. I played him the instrumental for "Eyesdown" and he was like, "Wait, what was that one?" I was surprised that was the one that he liked, it was something I could've thrown in the trash at any point. But he was like, "Yes, that’s the one!" I was all, "Oh s—, okay. I'll work on it."

The cherry on top is Andreya's vocal, which is actually just one line repeated a few times throughout the track. I produced her first album; we were spending a lot of time working on her record in my studio. Once we were working on her record, it was a case of me asking "Do you have any ideas for this song?" So we were doing vocal takes for Black Sands at the same time we were making her record. We had a year long of working together a lot.

"Between The Lines" with Bajka

(Days To Come, 2006)

I think that actually started out as a remix for someone else, and I was like, "Nah, you're not having that" and ended up keeping the beat. I was really happy with that one. I'd been working with Tom Chant who's a woodwind player. He did the intro, that really strange sound, which is made with a technique he has of playing the alto saxophone with the end on his leg; it has insane harmonics. We were recording together a lot at the time. He also recorded the saxophone parts on Black Sands.

It was that very simple, heavy beat and some of those weird saxophone harmonics and Bajka's vocal.

"Flutter"

(Dial M for Monkey, 2003)

Oh yeah! That was a sample from one of those big band records from the '60s, these sort of party records. The production on them is insane. It's the build, the tunka tunk tunka tunk, and it just looped up really well. I was like "This is fun" and that was kind of it, it was quite simple. It came together quite quickly, as I remember. It was a fun process making that one. I was in [his hometown] Brighton at the time. But honestly, I don't remember that much because it was such a long time ago.

Erykah Badu - "The Healer"

(New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), 2008)

Ooh, [my favorite production from another artist has] probably got to be Madlib's beats for Erykah Badu's "The Healer" from [2008's] New Ameryka. I think that's my favorite beat that's been made.

Sonically, it's crazy, like nothing I've ever heard. There's a sample from a Japanese prog rock band, and it's all these very quiet sounds against delicate sounds that are very prominent and there's all this incredible stuff going on. Madlib on that beat is one of the most incredible productions I've heard.

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