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Bwog sat down with graduating senior and producer Nick Rubertone to discuss his latest project, Press Start, as well as Columbia’s on his musical evolution throughout his undergraduate career.
The full transcript of the interview can be read below.
Bwog: How did you get into hip-hop and producing?
Borris: Going way back to when I was nine, I was really into Lil Wayne’s The Carter III drop in 2008. I got into Odd Future from there, I listened to a lot of those guys when I was in elementary and middle school. After that my musical interests took a lot of weird detours going from indie music, like Animal Collective, and a lot of folk, punk stuff. I got into jazz for a while and performed jazz a lot at high school, and then eventually in college, too. From that, I went back into hip-hop, by virtue of artists like Kendrick Lamar who are using jazz in their music a lot. I started producing because when I was a freshman here, I lived on the same floor as Payton and every night he left his door open and made beats. Watching him make beats, I was like, “This is crazy,” so that summer, I bought a beat pad.
You said you performed jazz—what instrument do you play?
I play alto sax and tenor sax sometimes.
Do you incorporate those live instrumentals in your beats?
I haven’t done it in a while. I did it a lot when I first started making beats. I have a MIDI controller called an EWI that’s pretty much like an electronic saxophone type thing that you plug into your computer, and then you use it as any other type of synth, so I’ve used that in a bunch of beats to write melodies and stuff.
What’s your process of making or constructing a beat or a track?
It’s always really late at night. I never make beats before 1 am. All of my beats are just like, I’m sleep deprived. I need to go to bed but I’m gonna make this beat right now. Last night, for example, I was going to go to bed and I was like, “Great, let’s make the beat.” I sat down at 2 am and made some really fast-paced drum and bass, boss-battling music.
How long does it usually take from then once you have an idea?
Rarely do I go into a beat having an idea of what I want to do. Usually, I’ll just grab a synth, find some sounds that I like, and then just start either writing chords with them, or writing melodies with them. Or just basic sound design stuff, making sounds that I like and then build a beat out of that.
On the track “Rulebook,” for example, you include these clips where they say “don’t ask questions, don’t think.” Is that something you found on YouTube and thought, “Oh, this would sound cool on this project”?
I feel like there’s a lot behind that, not in terms of the meaning of the words at all, the words I just thought were really fun. I feel like one thing I do think about a lot though when I produce, especially being a white person who produces, is I’m always really hesitant to sample the voices of Black people in my music because there’s a whole concept in sociology of digital blackface, where it’s white people using imagery and sounds of Black people to feign being Black in their art. I try to be really careful with the voices that I include in my music as to not posture something that I’m not. So that being said, this video that I found was a commentary about a propaganda film on social conformity in the 50s, and so that’s why there are so many things like “don’t ask questions about this,” “don’t think about this” and it was just really goofy. The reason why I choose to sample things like that is because I feel like, again, as a white creator it’s something that I can use and be like, “Okay, I’m not like painting anything I’m not.”
How did you come up with this concept of Press Start?
A lot of my beats are super inspired by video game soundtracks that I listened to when I was a kid. I was like a huge Nintendo fan. I still am. When I was a kid I was a huge Pokemon fan, Kirby fan, Donkey Kong Country, all the Mario platformers. All those games have incredible soundtracks that I grew up on and I feel like, even though I don’t really draw direct inspiration from them now, I don’t really ever listen to video game soundtracks, I feel like the types of things that I’ve always drawn by are very video game-y. So the idea for this project started because I found this video on YouTube of this guy putting a cartridge into a Super Nintendo and the audio was really crisp. It reminded me of a lot of albums like the first track on Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside which starts with him putting a cassette into the cassette player, and then the album starts. I’ve always really liked things like that so I was like, how can I put my own twist on that? Instead of doing something like that, let’s load up a video game. The first part of that song is supposed to sound like an old video game start menu. The story about Press Start is like starting a video game. That’s like a Skyrim-type game where you’re entering this world and learning about the history of whatever video game world you’re in. So that was the idea, starting a new video game. It’s always a fun experience.
So you had this clear introduction to the album. Were you thinking of a video game progression normally in your head for the rest of it, like “Okay, this audio sounds like this stage”?
Press Start starts with “Create New World,” like you’re creating a new world in Minecraft. For “Loading,” it felt very transitioning, liminal. In “Welcome,” there’s more presence here. I’ll usually make beats and then map concepts onto them later in a way that makes sense. Generally, I try to make sure that the beats that are next to each other flow really well which is something I take pretty big inspiration from Pierre Bourne with his project, The Life of Pi’erre 4. He does so many good beat transitions, that album is incredibly underrated for how well it’s sequenced. In terms of sequencing my project for the transition between ”Welcome” and “Where Am I?” where the beat speeds up and then part of it starts in the song before, that’s straight out of the Pi’erre textbook.
What does this project mean to you?
I’m always trying to put my own spin on sounds that I like. I feel like with this project, I did that in a more substantial way. Toward the end of making this project and then very heavily in the stuff I’m working on now, which I plan on releasing after I graduate, I’ve been into taking a lot of really ambient sounds and mixing them with super glitchy, weird drums. I feel like this project was my first foray into that sound. This was the first project I made where I found my own, musical voice in a more substantial way.
If you could describe your music style in one word, or I’ll give you a sentence, what would it be?
I’m just gonna give you a word soup. Definitely video game-y. The stuff I’ve been working on more recently is very glitchy in the realm of IDM sometimes. But also ambient—since I started making beats, I’ve always been really into ambient sounds and these lush soundscapes so I would have the word ambient in there too.
Who are your creative inspirations and how have they influenced your music?
A really big influence for me is JPEGMAFIA—one, just as a producer, he is criminally underrated. He has a lot of the glitchy-type of things that first got me in that way, and I’ve definitely borrowed from ideas that he was using in his beats. He also walks that line between mixing ambient, cloud rap sounds with some distorted, glitchy, disgusting shit. His ethos in making music is super punk and really abrasive, and I love the way he infuses politics into the music. When I started making beats, I was also at the time listening to a lot of Juice WRLD, Uzi, and Playboi Carti, so a lot of their producers like Nick Mira, Pi’erre Bourne, Maaly Raw, I feel also really influenced my sound in terms of these trap sounds. Tobi Lou is a huge inspiration for me in terms of bubbly sounds.
Do you ever go through “producer’s block” and how do you get over that?
I feel like I’m always in producer’s block. One thing that I started doing a lot is I’ll take a really cheap MIDI sound, something that just sounds terrible, and I’ll drown it in effects until I can get a really cool sound out of it. I’ll just do weird sound design stuff to take something really bad and make it sound really cool, and then that will usually give me some sort of idea.
I feel like whenever you’re trying to figure out those chord progressions, etc. when constructing these beats, I assume your jazz background comes in handy a lot in that process.
Yeah, for sure. That was one of my big influences when I first started making beats. It was using jazz harmony with hip-hop stuff. I still try to use my knowledge of jazz harmony to come up with cool ideas for melodies. I would not be able to do anything in music production if I did not have my background in jazz, so it’s definitely still super important for that.
How has the pandemic affected your work both in actually creating beats and how has it changed your sound?
I feel like one thing for sure is that throughout quarantine, I’ve gotten way more into hyperpop, which I was aware of before quarantine started last year but didn’t really pay too much attention to and then started paying a lot more attention to it over the summer. I don’t know if that’s a direct effect of quarantine, but just what I’ve been listening to is pretty heavily influenced the type of sounds that I’m drawn to now.
How has Columbia influenced your growth as an artist?
CUSH [Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop] has put me in touch with a ton of artists on campus. I definitely became a lot closer with Payton [Johnson, CC’21] and Ty [Stinson, CC’21], who is a rapper friend, shoutout to Ty. I’ve worked on music with them and they have creative feedback—I’ll send them something, they’ll send something my way. Things like that have definitely influenced the types of sounds that I’m interested in. On the same level, being exposed to all different types of music in any capacity I think is super influential on any artist. Watching people make beats is something I love doing. There have been nights at WKCR where someone will just be in the studio making a beat. Things like that are just super inspiring.
Where did the name Borris come from?
10 years ago my sister was dating a guy named Nick. They would always talk about Nick and they would never know if they were referring to her boyfriend or me. Then, they decided they need to give my brother a name a nickname that no one else in the friend group has. For some reason, they settled on Borris. For the first two years, I hated it but then when I got into high school I started hanging out with her friends more and they all knew me as Borris. At that point, it was just like, “Alright, I’ve got to lean into this whole Borris thing now because that’s what all my new friends are calling me” and so that stuck. When I started releasing music, it was an obvious choice; I already have a nickname, I should just start dropping music under this name that people already know me by. No one really calls me Borris at Columbia, which I think is probably good, but it’s still in my music.
What can we expect from you in the future?
A general blend of ambient sounds alongside a lot more hard-hitting, glitchy drums is my focus for this project. I’m also working on this thing with Ty and Payton so that’s going to happen eventually. 90% of the beats I make never got released, so maybe I’ll start releasing some of those.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Press Start is available on all platforms.
Image via Borris