Eric Lau: Makin’ Sounds And Savin’ Children

Acclaimed London-based soulful Hip Hop producer Eric Lau joins SoulCulture’s Tola Ositelu to discuss what it’s like being a Dilla-be, his favourite qualities in a vocalist, his collaboration wishlist, making a charity single for Save the Children and his brand new project, Makin’ Sound.

SoulCulture: Eric, you’ve said in previous interviews that your musical journey started quite late and that you don’t come from a particularly musical family, besides your mother singing opera in Hong Kong…

Eric Lau: I think that’s been taken out of context by a lot of people; it’s hilarious. During the revolution in HK there’d be local rallies and she got up a few times and sang.   She loves Karaoke but she’s not an opera singer as such.

SoulCulture: All right, now that’s cleared up!  So, you didn’t study music at University…?

Eric Lau: I studied Business and Marketing.  Before then, when I was young I really liked music [but] I never really made it, never believed I could.  I had a guitar and played basic songs, stuff like the Beatles.  I never thought I could ever be a music producer.  Music came at Uni when my friend lent me some software and I just learnt it myself.  It just seemed effortless.

SoulCulture: You’ve described J Dilla as ‘the Michael Jordan of producers’.  What was the song or album that really got you into his work?

Eric Lau: The first time I didn’t even know it was him.  I wasn’t really even into Hip Hop when I was young.  My friend had The Pharcyde ‘Running’ on CD.  I remember the cover was a fat guy half naked, I think.  I just loved the music and the hook.  The melody is so haunting.  Then later, when I went to college I remember my friend had Funkmaster Flex Vol 2 and there was this song with [A Tribe Called Quest] called ‘Dat S**t’.  There was this group, Slum Village with ATCQ and I thought ‘Oh, who are these guys?’  I really liked it and that was the first time I heard Slum.

SoulCulture: What are your thoughts on the posthumous release of some of Dilla’s work?

Eric Lau: There are two sides to it.  Firstly it’s fantastic that people want to hear and celebrate his music; especially works that people may not have heard before, so that’s great.  The second side of it is; he’s produced the music but he’s not producing the song.  That’s a totally different thing and very few people can understand how he would like it to sound.  

You can see it as disrespectful or not… the products that are released after his passing aren’t on his level because it’s not him.  He hasn’t produced the album has he?  They’re not songs; they’re beats.  There’s beat-making and there’s producing.  Making a beat is one thing but producing a song and telling the artist how to deliver the vocal in a particular way [is another].  One of the albums that got released, I doubt he would have ever released an album like that himself.

SoulCulture: I’m sure you’re aware of the death of Japanese producer Nujabes [seen by many as J Dilla’s Far Eastern counterpart], earlier this year…

Eric Lau: From the work I’ve heard of his, I feel it’s a tragic loss.  There have been quite a few tragic losses…People who didn’t get the love, like Baatin from Slum Village…absolutely tragic.  I don’t think people realise how talented he was.  Listen to Baatin’s solo stuff, it’s crazy.  His phrasing, his delivery…obviously his lyrics were of a different planet.  He was accessing that and very few people have gone there so he was a sad loss.  There’s been a lot recently.

SoulCulture: You work with some quality singers who all have a very left-of-centre style of vocal.  What do you look for in a vocalist?

Eric Lau: Close your eyes and listen to her or him sing and if you feel it, you feel it; instinct first, gut instinct.  Second, it’s technicality.  You listen to someone’s tone and delivery then you see the technical side of how they write.  It’s like you see a guitarist and you try and see them within your music, whether you can collaborate and come to a compromise to reach a good song.  Those are the qualities I look for.  I know what you mean when you say people are left of centre but I don’t think it’s unconventional.   I just think it’s them being themselves and me bringing themselves out of themselves.

Conventional R&B is constraints and limits and formulae that people think is the standard in terms of technique.  To me you could be the most technical singer in the world but it doesn’t mean I’ll feel you because you need those subtle nuances and realness to come through.  That’s why you feel Lauryn Hill when you listen to her.  She’s not the perfect technical singer is she?  She’s got…the feeling and honesty, you know.

SoulCulture: You seem to have a particular chemistry with Sarina Leah.  It’s as if she’s your muse…

Eric Lau: Sarina was the first vocalist I worked with; we know each other quite well from University and we grew musically together.  I didn’t know what I was doing and she didn’t really know what she was doing; we were just making music.  I was working in the Student Union shop. ‘The Blast’ (Talib Kweli) was playing and she came in singing it.  I was really surprised she knew it so we kind of struck up a conversation and she said she sang.  I said I’ve just started making music; let’s work together and it came about.  It was really innocent, really pure and that’s probably why you might feel it.

SoulCulture: Are there any vocalists with whom you are yet to work, that you are keen to get in the studio?

Eric Lau: Definitely Eska.  I ain’t ready yet. I haven’t been ready to work with her.  I need to do something ridiculously special for her. She’s the queen of this hemisphere, hands down.  No-one’s close to her right now.

SoulCulture: Any male voices?

Eric Lau: Of course Bilal, D’Angelo, Cee Lo...

SoulCulture: Talk us a little through your working relationship with Jodi Milliner; how did you meet? Do you feel that you influence each others artistry?

Eric Lau: We met through Tawiah. Tawiah, Jodi and Rahel all went to the BRITS school together. I met Tawiah through just going out and we’d always see each other. Then Rahel and Tawiah were like ‘You need to meet Jodi!’  They were always going on about him.  Apparently he’d listened to my music and wanted to meet me as well.  He’s a special, special talent.  I think he’s one of the most talented people that no-one even really knows.   People need to know Jodi Milliner; he’s ridiculous.   I’m sure the record he’s doing with Tawiah right now is going to blow up.

SoulCulture: For ‘New Territories’ you have had Gilles Peterson and Phonté amongst others singing your praises.  You’ve done remixes for the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Hil St Soul, Guilty Simpson – do you ever feel overwhelmed by it all or you just don’t have time to process it?

Eric Lau: All compliments are nice and it’s positive energy; whether it’s from Gilles, whether it’s from you, whether it’s from someone in Poland or Mozambique hitting me up on Facebook saying they really like my music… it all means just as much. It fuels me to do more and it makes me believe that I’ve been given this gift to share with everyone. If I make people forget about time and your problems for five minutes, my job’s done.  But yeah props to all those people for championing my music and supporting it because hopefully it gets heard more so it can help more people out.  That’s the ultimate aim.  I get more support from abroad, the US than here [in the UK].  My main audience is the US and Japan.  It’s cool.  There’s a lot of love here, don’t get me wrong, I love it here but it’s funny…that’s the kind of feedback I’ve had so far.

SoulCulture: Tell us a little about your experience working with Lupe.

Eric Lau: He’s a really nice guy.  I sent my ex-manager’s cousin a beat CD.  He and Lupe used to do a radio show with each other so he gave it to him.  Then a week later Lupe hit me up saying he’s recorded a track.  I was like ‘Wow, fantastic’.   So that’s how it came about.  Whenever he comes over here to London, he’ll give me a shout.  Some of his family lives here.  I’ve got to hang out with him a few times.

SoulCulture: Tell us a bit about Makin’ Sound.   Is it in a similar vein to [J Dilla’s] Donuts…?

Eric Lau: No, not really (laughs).

SoulCulture: You’ve described it as being some kind of aural sketch book…

Eric Lau: Yeah.  I haven’t really put out that much music in the last couple of years… Not as much as I would have liked.  All this music is just sitting on my computer.  I wanted to share it with everyone and to make it a sonically cohesive project.  The tools I was using then I don’t use anymore.  I wanted to just finalise that chapter.

SoulCulture: Is there any particular reason why you didn’t work with singers this time around?

Eric Lau: Obviously as an artist I am proud of [New Territories] but now when I’m doing a song, trust me I want to put more work into it than that.  I don’t want to undermine ‘New Territories’ at all because it is what it is but if I’m approaching a song with vocalists I want to be able to record it in a proper studio, mix it properly.

SoulCulture: Did you do a lot of New Territories in a home studio?

Eric Lau: The whole project was done at home. Sonically it’s not how I would want it but I was learning.. .I’m still learning.

SoulCulture: How did you get involved with Rolling Sound (a scheme to help under-privileged children train in various aspects of media and entertainment)?

Eric Lau: A really good friend of mine I went to Uni with and a mutual friend, Simon started a project doing workshops for young people.  When he told me about it I thought, ‘I could bring music production to it.  I reckon I’ll be good with kids.’  I became the head tutor and wrote their courses.

SoulCulture: A few years ago you mentioned trying to connect with the music scene in Shanghai.  Have you managed to make inroads there yet?

Eric Lau: I haven’t abandoned that; that’s the motherland.  I want to go there and just give people a bit more understanding of the music that I make, that there is this world of music out there and you don’t have to be a certain race to do it.  On one side I see myself as being Chinese and I’m really, really, really proud of that.  I’ve got Chinese values; I’m really lucky.  But on the other side sometimes I forget; I’m just a person.  I just do what I do.  It would be good to speak to the youth out there in Shanghai.  I know Hong Kong and there is none of this [an organic Hip Hop movement] there.

SoulCulture: So it’s not like Japan in that sense…

Eric Lau: Japan is absolutely different.  They are the second biggest music consumers in the world.  China has a very different mentality.  As for “black music” they don’t understand it.  It’s not that they won’t like it; it’s they’ve never tasted it before.

SoulCulture: Do you think the political regime has anything to do with that?  Perhaps some music hasn’t always filtered through?

Eric Lau: It’s hard for me to make a judgment because I’ve never lived there.   From my impression a lot of the youth in Hong Kong especially-I don’t know about Shanghai and Beijing and other places in China – but in Hong Kong there doesn’t seem to be many movements.  No-one’s creating their own scene.  It’s very consumer-based. Even though there’s a lot of choice in Hong Kong – tenfold to here – people base their identity in being different in consumerism rather than their creativity.

They’re taking someone else’s creation and moulding that and thinking that’s individuality.  That’s what I strive to do for the young people of Hong Kong and for China; to show that you can have the opportunity to make something of your own whether it’s through music or art or whatever.

SoulCulture: It’s interesting how well your music translates live although one wouldn’t necessarily expect it.  How do you go about the challenge of adapting your sound to the stage?

Eric Lau: It’s the biggest challenge but it’s the easiest thing to do at the same time because the musicians involved are absolutely ridiculous.  I’m their biggest fan.  They’ll be able to play anything great and take it further so it’s easy on one level. The challenge side of it is project management and musical direction.  I had no experience of working with a band but they made it so easy because they’re so great….and they’re friends.

SoulCulture: What’s next for Eric Lau?

Eric Lau: Before we go into all of that, we haven’t covered the Save the Children project.  I did a project with quite a few artists; all the proceeds go to Save the Children and I want you to check it out. 

It’s called See and Understanding. Some of the artists involved are Sarina Leah, Rahel, Szjerdene, Fatima, Akwasi Mensah and Finn Peters

Basically I had a vision to do something for a reason.  So much music coming out is all to fund ourselves and our egos and what we do.  There are so many natural disasters going on in the world.  I thought, “Cool it’s really great having fundraisers for earthquakes and so forth but what about an ongoing cause?”

The people affected the most by poverty or disaster are young people and that’s why we chose Save The Children as an international charity.  I want people to support this and spread the word.

We wanted to make a statement, to come together to do music for good intentions.  I believe that should happen all the time.  I wanted to set that example and hopefully make a difference.

I don’t mind if you buy Makin’ Sound or not; that’s just me wanting to share some music with you guys.  I’d rather you spend some money on See and Understanding.  You can buy it on the KilaWatt bandcamp; it’s £2. So go and support that!

Interview by Tola Ositelu
Photography by Lily Lau.