Kenzo Digital is New York-based multi-talented creator that works in video, audio, and mixed media to create both artistic works and commercial products. Aesthetically informed by early 90s hip-hop, his latest and most well-publicized work, City of God’s Son, is a CC-licensed “opera for the blind.” The project finds Kenzo sampling and remixing numerous sources to create a vivid sound-scape that invokes imagery and a cinematic narrative through audio.
Today, in conjunction with our interview, Kenzo is releasing the most recent addition to COGS titled City of God’s Son: Cinema for the Blind. The piece features interviews with blind musicians on “sight through sound, synesthesia” and the film itself, crafting a fascinating perspective on how our senses work in conjunction with (or without) one another. You can watch the piece, which is released under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial license, in HD at YouTube – check out a still of the video below:
We caught up with Kenzo recently to pick his brain in regards to the project generally, his approach to creation through sampling and reuse, why he chose to CC-licence this project, and much more. Read on to find out what he had to say.
photo by Tommy Agriodimas | CC BY
Can you give our readers some background on yourself and the project? What inspired you to create City of God’s Son? You call it a hip-hop opera and a ﬁlm for the blind – what do you mean by these descriptions?
I am a digital artist, video artist, director and music producer based in NY. Early 90ʼs hip hop was always a big inspiration to me growing up, it served as the soundtrack to a lot of my childhood and adventures growing up. I was really into grafﬁti as a kid, and used to sneak out of the house all the time and run around with my friends or sometimes by myself and go bombing. I considered the city at night to be kind of an altered reality. No one was around except for the junkies, prostitutes, and gangsters who occupied the same streets that by day would be bustling with business men, school kids like myself, and delivery men. I loved the fact that in my mind only a few people were privy to seeing these same streets during the day while I was entrenched in my civilian life (school and family), and at these late hours were things were pretty wild, and as a kid of course I was very excited by that. What really inspired me as a kid was also the fact that the only traces of my existence in this alternate reality were the tags and grafﬁti art left behind. Music played a huge role in this. My walkman was probably one of the most essential things going out at night, as the music was a key component to setting the mood and getting myself in the proper frame of mind to create. By experiencing the city this way, and listening to the music, everything through the night played out cinematically. So much so that it would leave these super visual impressions in my imagination that I could recall and trigger through the music.
Musicʼs relationship to time, both as a medium and a device to manipulate time, in addition to a listenerʼs historical relationship to a song is what “City of Godʼs Son” seeks to expand and explore. “City of Godʼs Son” is a hip hop opera in that it is an epic, a greek tragedy, and like opera, understanding the actual lyrics and slang is not necessary to understanding the story and experiencing the drama of the story. Understanding the slang and verses deﬁnitely adds another level of meaning and depth to the story, as well as a knowledge of hip hop music history. “City of Godʼs Son” while seemingly a strictly music focused project, is equally about gangster cinema culture as well, as references to everything from pre-code Edward G. Robinson gangster ﬂicks, to 70ʻs Japanese gangster ﬂicks like “Branded to Kill”, to “Le Cercle Rouge”, “Clockers”, “Goodfellas” and of course “City of God” litter the story and soundscape, as some of hip-hopʼs most inﬂuential artists of this generation collide with the gangster ﬁlm icons that helped deﬁne their genre. It is about weaving the various mythologies from each medium and creating a new language called “Beat Cinematic”. It is a ﬁlm for the blind in that it exists in the listenerʼs imagination and recalling of their own psychological associations to music, ﬁlm, and sound. I speciﬁcally wanted to play this for blind people because I wanted to see how blind people reacted to a ﬁlm made to be experienced sonically. I am interested in how a blind personʼs mind works like a visual sampler depending on whether the person was born blind or lost their vision along the way, and what those visual impressions mean to them now. It is also a ﬁlm for the blind in that my own artistic journey into music production was inspired to make this project. As a completely self-taught disgustingly bad keyboard player, creating the music for this project was in and of itself a very blind process in that I had to really feel out my entire way through this new world of sound.
COGS is a project that would not exist were it not for its use of sampling and reuse. From your perspective, what kind of relation does COGS have to its sample sources? While the samples are obviously sources of inspiration, COGS is much more than simply the sum of its parts – how important is the act of appropriation to your art?
COGS seeks to really expand upon how artists sample and really giving everything a critical meaning. Every sample, verse, sequence, and sound design element is carefully planned and placed, and there is a great amount of interesting metaphor and symbolism that is delivered through the juxtaposition of verses, samples, and dialogue in the story. The more expansive your music and ﬁlm knowledge, the more rewarding the experience and the more ways you can understand the characters and story. In this way it is really a tribute to both my favorite hip hop producers and ﬁlm directors alike, blurring the line between the two in a medium that has yet to be fully explored. I also want it to inspire people to explore and seek out the sources of music and ﬁlm, exactly the same way I discovered soul music, jazz, and world music that hip hop producers inspired me to search out through the samples used in their beats. This is how I discovered Joe Bataanʼs music, through a background song on a skit off The Fugees “The Score” album.
You have said that hip-hop is the ideal medium for this sort of project, as it is “a genre created using only the resources available and re-contextualizing them.” How is this ethos reﬂected in the project?
Hip hop music was originally based on sampling, with DJʼs in the 70ʼs turning two turntables into the worldʼs ﬁrst sampler. Most of my career as an artist has been in more visual mediums like ﬁlm, video, print, and drawing. Naturally I always dreamed of making a ﬁlm that captured the same sensation I felt as a kid starring these very same rappers and actors. Instead I felt it would be interesting to really utilize the technology I had available to me, and create the epic ﬁlm experience I always dreamed of making in this new sound medium I call “Beat Cinematic”. By my deﬁnition, “Beat Cinematic” is any audio and music driven sample based long form narrative. It is in that vein and spirit that this project was created, making the most of what I had access to, and funding it through my own video and commercial endeavors as a director. That is why hip hop is the perfect medium to explore this story.
The project itself is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND license. Why did you choose to use this license for the project?
I picked that particular license because it enabled people to share the project freely, and protected the project so that it has to be kept in its original form which is essential to retaining the narrative function of the project. This is not merely a remix project, this is something that I hope raises the bar and opens peoples eyes to the potential of sampling.
What was production like? You pull from a variety of sample sources to create a cohesive narrative – how did you go about organizing and choosing these sources? What sort of relation do the beats have to the project as a whole? How was the production different on COGS as opposed to a traditional music project?
With COGS, I really wanted to create the illusion that all of the various elements used were unique and not sampled by creating a seamless and lush soundscape where the characters could be reinvented in this mythical jungle-like New York metropolis. While the goal process-wise was to mask and re-contextualize the source of the content, it was also really important that the each piece used somehow referred back to the original source through the music to pay homage to the original creator. Some ﬁlm sound bites are more recognizable than others. Speciﬁc scenes are homages to some of my favorite directors, and even sound design elements sampled from speciﬁc ﬁlms are more of a tie in conceptually with COGS and the message of the ﬁlm. For example there is a speciﬁc sound design element sampled from “There Will Be Blood” in the opening scene that ties the relationship between father and son and concepts of masculinity to the characters in COGS personal plight. There are scenes in COGS that are direct tributes to Scorcese, Tarantino, Spike Lee, Fernando Merielles, and some of the lesser and more obscure gangster ﬁlm directors like Seijin Suzuki and Jean-Pierre Melville. This is to further meld the musical mythology and the ﬁlm mythology to really further explore the uniquely American gangster icon obsession and satirize it. While I am a fan of the genre and of course hip hop from the 90ʼs, I am disgusted with the exploitation and gloriﬁcation of that lifestyle, which is why I chose to pay homage to my favorite rappers and crime ﬁlms through a sound based medium so that the listener could escape the redundant imagery of modern gangsterism and live the story through more of a cerebral and imagination based visual language. It is a very anti-gangster tale, where my childhood heroes are humanized and turned into vulnerable characters. It is a new language, and intended to be a new experience that rewards your attention and willingness to experience a story this way in a new form of audio induced dramatic sensory experience.
The actual production process of COGS was very intensive. I was a DJ for many years back in high school and had compiled a healthy record collection, as well as a deep appreciation and knowledge of music and ﬁlm, but had never really taken the step into music production. As an artist over the course of my life I bounced from drawing to grafﬁti to deejaying, then went to art school at Carnegie Mellon, and then back to ﬁlm/ video working with video artist Nam June Paik, and then starting my own production company. I saw this project as the perfect convergence of my two sensibilities, playing off of the cinematic elements of music and the musical elements of cinema to create something in between. I decided to start making beats in order to have maximum control over the dramatic tone and pacing of each song, and through this project really got into music production. Aside from the beat making aspect of it, I worked with a great sound designer named Joe Fraioli and together we did a lot of ﬁeld recording and layering of both ﬁeld and sampled recordings to meticulously craft this pseudo 90ʼs New York crime noir world. It was a massive undertaking, and we essentially created a dewey decimal like library of sounds, dialogue, tons of material. Since Iʼm not a trained music producer by trade, I canʼt say how this differs from production of a “regular” album, but I can say that this was a very visually and cinematically driven approach to music. Each scene, each beat, every verse was speciﬁcally used and created to ﬁt a speciﬁc dramatic beat. This process is all about a visual inspiration to create a sound, and then bringing it full circle with the soundinspiring the image within the listenerʼs mind.
What is next for COGS? I read about a possible installation piece – is that still taking place? Anything else our community should know?
Yes, the installation is the true intended experience for “City of Godʼs Son”. As an artist and ﬁlmmaker, I ultimately seek to explore new formats and cinematic experiences of all kinds ranging from traditional ﬁlm to experimental, as I believe technology and new media enables artists to explore the strengths of various mediums and bridge and connect them to create new experiences, which is what COGS is all about. Right now I am trying to raise funds for the installation for COGS, as well as the production of “City of Godʼs Son” pt. II. If you are interested in donating and helping the cause you can visit the website.
photo by Tommy Agriodimas | CC BY