From humble beginnings with his primarily sample based first album Chinoiseries, accomplished French based hip-hop producer Onra is about to release his 5th album Fundamentals.
Fundamentals finds Onra exploring a futuristic re-interpretation of his teenage obsession with 90s RnB / Hip-Hop, alongside a forward-thinking entourage of talented collaborators – including Oliver Daysoul, Daz Dillinger and countless others. Take a listen below to “So Long” – the west-coast tinged second single from the album for a taste of what’s to come – the album will be out May 14th 2015 on All-City Records.
Just last week, Liveschool’s Thomas McAlister got on the phone with Onra for this interview ahead of his upcoming run of free shows around Australia to dig deep into his sampling workflows, MPC based setup, and the creative process behind his new album.
Catch Onra playing a run of free shows around Australia this month as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Club Night series, including a very special free Sydney Opera House show on the 22nd May as part of RBMA’s 5 night studio take-over at the Opera House (with the other 4 dates curated by Sydney tastemakers Astral People, Mad Racket, Elefant Traks & Goodgod) – free RSVP here.
First off, what were the inspirations behind your new album, Fundamentals
I made this album for the 15 year old kid in me. You know I really miss the feeling that I had when I was listening to these records when I was growing up, these Hip Hop and RnB records. There’s nothing that gives that same feeling these days. I really wanted to make music that would inspire in myself the feeling that I had back then.
So not only the music from that period but the feeling of excitement you had at that age?
Yeah, most definitely. Obviously it’s inspired by the 90s because of the music I was listening to, but it’s not a throwback album, I think it still has a modern twist to it. I wanted to connect the old with the new.
While its not a necessarily retro sounding album, it makes sense that that theme was in place while making the record. I hear sounds that are reminiscent of that period, especially certain synth sounds. Was Fundamentals less sample based than other albums of yours?
Yeah, there’s definitely more synthesisers, and samples being used as synthesisers. There’s some straight loops in there, which are also part of what I do. Sometimes I will just take a loop of something, but then there’s one track in there which uses no samples at all.
You have had strong themes behind your sample sources on albums in the past, was there a particular type of music you were sourcing your samples for Fundamentals?
For this record, not really. The samples are from all different styles of music and eras. What mattered was really the vibe that the sample could bring to the album. It’s less like say the Chinoiseries, where I was like “OK I’m only going to sample chinese music” or with other records where I would be like “this time I’m only going to sample funk”. With Fundamentals, I was taking samples from all kinds of records, given that they worked within the style of the album.
Do you tend to sample as you go or have “binge” sampling sessions?
I don’t usually binge sample unless I’m about to go on tour or be away for a long period of time. Of course then I am trying to sample as much as I can before I go, so that I will have stuff to work with while I am away. But usually I will sample something and make the beat straight away. The sample will often inspire the beat.
Like a lot of the music you’ve made, the first two singles of Fundamentals have a feature vocalist. Does your workflow tend to change if you know the track will have a vocalist? Or is that even on your mind while you are in the early stages of a track?
Not really. A few of those tracks I had a made a few years ago, and I just picked them out for this album because I thought they would work with a vocalist. But with most of my beats, I don’t really think about the vocalist while I am making them. There’s only really a couple of songs of this album where I had the vocalist in mind – where I was totally aware of what I was going for and who was going to sing on it. There has only been a couple of songs ion the past where this has happened – otherwise I’m just making beats and seeing where they go.
Speaking of workflow, are you still making everything on the MPC?
Yeh 100%! Always, everything on the MPC, everything is sequenced even mixed, all on the MPC. When I then get into a studio to record, I don’t even separate the tracks, I just take it straight out of the MPC. But it’s 2015 man, I think I have to move forward. When I see what you can do with software it’s just crazy. Sometimes people will tell me about things you can do with software and I’ll be thinking – can you really do this stuff? If you’ve ever used an MPC before you’ll know what I have to go through all the time. I just use audio with my MPC too, I don’t use MIDI at all!
I guess one of the appealing things about being restricted by your equipment is the limitations that are forced upon you – which can be conducive to creativity and to a productive workflow. Is this something that consciously has kept you working with the MPC?
I guess it was too late for me – I had started making music with the MPC and pretty immediately things started happening, I didn’t exactly have time to take a break and learn any new setups or workflows. That’d be like learning to make music again you know. So I guess I decided “OK, this is what i do”. I mean I’m trying to be humble with it, anyone can do what I do with the MPC. There’s no magic or mystery behind what I’m doing, like J Dilla or Pete Rock on the MPC or Madlib on the SP-404. With me on the MPC-1000, I’m doing things anyone can do, you know?
I guess what I’m doing on the MPC anyone could also do in software. I hear people who who are using software, who only started music like a year ago, and they’re doing some pretty amazing stuff.
You mentioned you’re looking to move on from the pure MPC setup, do you have any idea how you might expand or change the way you work?
I’ll probably do one last record with the current setup, but yeah, I’m looking to move forward. Obviously there’s a lot of solutions. I’ve used the MPC Renaissance a bit, and then there’s software like Ableton Live obviously – a lot of people I know have moved on to using that. There’s also Maschine which has been recommended to me a lot because I’m an MPC user. So theres plenty of possibilities, but I’m not too sure yet. Outside of the MPC I have a couple of synths that I use, again without MIDI though, just recording the audio straight into the MPC. So i guess if I’m going to move to a software based setup, I want to have something where I can fire everything up and have instruments ready to go.
So whats your live set up like at the moment, are you still using two MPCs?
Yep, two MPCs. I don’t use two because I want to be flashy, or to carry extra shit doing my trip, but because it’s kind of a half live / half DJ set. I’m kind of playing my beats and DJing my beats at the same time, so it makes sense to have two MPCs on stage. I also have a Korg Kaos pad for some effects, and a compressor running – but thats it.
So finally – and we’re kind of coming full circle here after what you said about the concept behind this new record – if you could go back and hang out with your 15 year old self, would there be any advice you would give him?
I mean if could back 20 years ago and tell myself that one day I would have an album with Daz Dillinger and Do Or Die, I just wouldn’t believe it – it would be like if you told me now that one day in the future I will walk on the moon. No matter what advice I could give, after telling him that the younger me would just think i was talking bullshit!
That must be a pretty great feeling?
Yeh, you know I’m really happy that I can have those kinds of people on my album and be able to tour places like Australia for like the third time. It’s a blessing.
A big thanks to Onra for taking the time to chat with us – RSVP here for his free shows around Australia in May 2015.
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