Bill Salas, better known as Brenmar, makes what he calls “club music for the present.” His production combines the smooth vibe of Chicago house music with the production sensibilities of classic hip-hop and R&B; filtered through a deep understanding of sound design. Brenmar quickly gained notoriety for his remixes of pop acts Jamie Foxx, Cassie, Justin Timberlake, New Edition and of course, Aaliyah. This year marked a transition for him as the producer of the dizzying crowd stomper “Wavvy” by Mykki Blanco. The duality of Brenmar’s production; he seamlessly weaves together progressive hip-hop and chi-town house elements, fits perfectly with the gender fluid rhymes of Blanco. From there Salas has continued working with a distinctive brand of vocalists: Nina Sky, Kaleena Sanders on the Keith Irving re-imagining “Children of the Night” and a hearty attempt at a summer jam with “Goodnight Summertime” with Jade. Stepping out from behind the production, he recently released his first EP At it Again on Discobelle Records, solidifying himself as an artist to watch. This led to being offered the opening slot of the east coast leg of Major Lazer’s fall/winter tour. I called Brenmar while he was in the studio in New York City and talked about his history, John Cage, Timbaland, people’s love/hate relationship with Diplo, Aaliyah and the balancing act of working as both an artist and producer.
Shannekia McIntosh: Tell me a little about yourself and your influences.
Brenmar: I was a hip-hop kid growing up for the most of my teens, just a hip-hop, R&B kid. In Chicago, you have like Juke and Ghetto House all over the place and that was pretty popular in the early 2000’s and that was cool. I got into that for a little while. In my late teens, I met new kids and made new friends and they introduced me to different kind of music, like jazz kids and hipsters and indie shit. I just got into it naturally. I’ve been listening to hip-hop for so many years and I got into all this other stuff for a little bit. I was doing my music thing and then I ended up joining this band, These Are Powers, which is the reason I moved to New York. It was this three piece and I played the electronic drums and samples. We did our thing -super weird noisey pop kind of band-we toured a bunch. We put out a couple of records and then that kind of just ended. I got back into making solo beats about three years ago and that’s basically the Brenmar most people are familiar with. I’ve had that name since I was a teenager before the band when I was making my own tracks. I just went back to that with an emphasis on club music. It was just exciting for me. Just the feeling I got never left with making beats. So, I just kept on doing it. I went through a lot of different phases.
Shannekia: So that’s the History of Brenmar.
Brenmar: [Laughs] Yeah, pretty much.
Shannekia:The House and R&B influence in your music is pretty pronounced and has been heavily commented on. I’m curious: Do you find any inspiration or influence from the other genres you’ve mentioned in the music you produce?
Brenmar: If it’s there it’s pretty abstract. I went through a couple of years where I listened to a lot that [jazz] and I went to a lot of shows and I got really into noise music and experimental sound. Now, in hindsight I can’t sit down and listen to those kinds of records anymore. They don’t do anything for me anymore but at the time, yeah. I was reading about John Cage and experimental music from the 50’s and the 60’s, I nerded out on all that shit, the vanguard composers and stuff like that. I never got crazy into it but I slept with it for a little bit and I went to a few shows. Chicago has a very big experimental music scene. New York is pretty good for that too but Chicago is one of the better cities in the states for that stuff. If it’s in there- it’s in there more subconsciously. Maybe I want to break down in a little noise section for thirty seconds in a song and then bring it back up before the drop. I feel like I have a little bit of knowledge in terms of sound design. I guess that’s what it’s kind of parlayed into.
Shannekia: Funny you should say that I remembering hearing “Kingpinning”. The Thermon throughout the track was an interesting choice. Simple noises you wouldn’t expect to hear in a dance track. Since you mentioned John Cage, is that the way you like to approach the music you produce?
Brenmar: [Laughs] Yeah, That spooky sound sample. I’m in position where people are really listening to what I’m doing and I don’t take that for granted because I worked really hard to get to that point. I want to make sure that I deliver on my end. I know what I like, I’m very particular about what I like and it doesn’t leave the studio if I don’t sign off on it one-hundred percent, I think people pick up on that. But, yeah that song was weird but it’s cool working with Mykki because he’s open to whatever, anything I do. He’s super weird [laughing] and so I can get weird with him. I can’t push it that hard with other artists sometimes but with him it’s pretty fun to work because he’s open to whatever. I’m well aware of all that stuff because of that. That shit [John Cage] really changed my whole perception of sound and Timbaland; the baby- the baby laughing. If you can make it to the Top Ten in America while still pushing a certain aesthetic or sound that goes against the grain a little bit, that is an achievement in it’s own self. The fact that Timbaland scored so many top ten [songs] making weird ass shit that no one else heard before; taking the weird and making it popular, that is the biggest achievement anyone can achieve in my eyes. It’s easy to be weird-
Shannekia: But making it accessible.
Brenmar: That’s what I’m talking about. That’s where I think genius comes in. I’m like “How can I take this weird and have a lot of people like it?”
Shannekia: I read somewhere that you are currently working in the studio with LE1F, he produces his own stuff and for other people. How is it working with other producers? How’s that process?
Brenmar: Yeah, I got a song on his new mixtape and we pretty much finished it. It’s almost done…we’ll be working on some other stuff. Sometimes, it can be really fun if you are both working on the same page; sometimes you can be really knocking heads, I’ve been in both situations.
With him it’s not really like that. He knows what he likes so it’s really cool. When you have someone that knows their sound and they have a vision for what they want. My job is to basically come in and help you realize that. By default it’s going to have my touch and it’s gone to sound like me but ideally it’s going to sound like whomever I’m working with. It’s like when you hear a Timbaland song-it sounds like a Timbaland beat.
Shannekia: You just got opened for a few dates with Major Lazer. How was that experience for you?
Brenmar: It was cool, a good experience. Playing in front of big crowds is still kind of a new thing for me. My music in general is a little weird and a little bit more suited for intimate environments. It’s a good challenge, I’m still learning. It was pretty fun and those particular shows were all pretty cool. He’s always been supportive of my stuff from very early on and he’s done a lot just in the last ten years. I remember seeing him when I was a teenager; when he was just kind of setting off and playing shows outside of Philly and he made a little name for himself. He’s come a long way and that’s cool because what he’s doing no one else has been really able to do. He’s paving the way which is why he has his detractors, if your doing something right you’ll always have a few. There really isn’t anyone in his shoes that can say they’ve done what he’s done. The main reason people will talk shit is because he will take these niches and underground stuff and bring them to a mass scale. That’s also the same reason people love him. I think it’s good. For the most part, most of the people that come up with that sound or that scene benefit from the association and the attention that he brings to it. For the most part and that’s cool. He’s in a position where he can really help out your career if he’s into what you are doing and stuff like that. Nowadays it’s harder than ever, any support is good support, as a musician you can’t be very picky now. It’s hard you got to take the love and the money where it comes sometimes because no one is buying shit anymore. You either got to work a part-time job or make music 24/7. I know what I’m doing.
Shannekia: You initially gained attention for your remixes and more recently collaborations with 90’s revivalists like Jade and your work with Mykki Blanco on “Wavvy” and “Kingpinning”. If there were something to tie them altogether it would be an influence of 90’s Hip Hop and R&B and that kind of production style and aesthetics. Is there a specific quality you are looking for when you decide to work with vocalists? Are you looking for something specific?
Brenmar: It’s hard. I’m a pretty versatile producer; I can play with a lot of different tempos and a lot of different genres. I can do dark, I can do pop. I can fuck with all that stuff. Still at the end it has my little touches. I feel like if their bringing something creative to the table, that helps. You mentioned a couple of throwback references and that’s not my intention. I’m very into new music and new sound and new modern technology to make all that stuff. I definitely nerd out about all that shit but there is definitely a reference to something that existed in that era that I’m trying to bring back. You know, so it’s kind of like “How can I make the music of 2013 feel a little bit like the music I used to listen too in 1999 or 2002?” Which to me is some of the most amazing music, ever. I always throw it back a little bit into that era. I put the old songs in the context of the new stuff; I feel like that’s sort of my job a little bit, to try and connect the dots.
Shannekia: Well, that’s right. Recently I was with a friend who had no idea who Aaliyah was. It was just something he was never exposed to growing up. When I started playing his some of the classic Aaliyah tracks he commented on how new it sounded. It’s interesting how fresh that production is 15 years later. It’s easy to dismiss it as being nostalgic but there is an undeniable quality to it that is probably hard to recreate. Do you try to not think about that? Or is that not your goal to recreate these sounds/vibe?
Brenmar: Yeah, I’m not trying too. I think there is a certain amount of nostalgia, it’s really hard to pick up on because we deny it at every turn and it’s definitely very real. I think for, both you and I, there is a reason if I’m working on a song and I might choose a certain synth because that synth reminds me of something The Neptunes used in like 2003. But I have no intention of trying to make their song because I’m trying to carve my own path. Anything new, nothing is made of scratch, is just pretty much a combination of the right thing at the right time. That’s the game I’m trying to play. If I make a song and I might have another person or producer in mind but if it sound too much like it at some point in the process I got out of my way to fuck it up a little bit.
Shannekia: Going back really quickly to the 90’s production stuff. When you look at Timbaland and Aaliyah their work together, he was basically able able to push the boundaries of what was considered R&B before that. After she died they tried out other singers like what’s her name? Trixie?
Brenmar: I know who you’re talking about. What’s her name?
Shannekia: Trixie….. Tric– no, no, that’s wrong
Brenmar: No, no, I know who you are talking about
Brenmar: Are you talking about Tweet?
Shannekia: It’s Tweet! Are you looking for that now? Are you looking for a vocalist that you can collaborate with consistently?
Brenmar: Am I looking for someone? Or something?
Shannekia: Well, you’re a producer. You don’t sing and there are people who do it all themselves but you’re in a different position because you do track for other people but you also do sampling and instrumental stuff on you own.
Brenmar: Kind of, you just need to nowadays. I have my own identity as an artist but I’m also comfortable stepping behind the scenes and letting someone else take the shine. I’m comfortable doing that and I will keep doing that. You mentioned Diplo earlier on and he kind of set the standard for that for me. I look up to him in regards to that in particular. He has his own name and essentially his own brand people come for him for a certain sound and that’s what I’m trying to establish. In regards to looking for one particular act I would say yes and no. Right now I’m in a position where I’m trying to work with anyone I can and whoever wants to work with me and make something cool. My intention is to make the best music I can with whoever I can. And if you listen to most of my stuff almost ninety-five percent of it has vocals or vocal sampling. Vocals take the music to a whole other emotional level that I really like. It’s just kind of a natural thing for me to work with vocalists. This was in the planning stages for a couple of years; I just had to let people know that I can make beats. And from there trying to get to rap on my tracks and now that I can make them sound good. I’m at a point right now that people have a general idea. I have more work that I can actually finish at the moment. Which is cool.
Shannekia: Speaking of vocal sampling, you’ve done a lot of remixes of mainstream pop acts. If there was one of those artists you can work with right now who would it be?
Brenmar: Umm. I would love to work with, um, it’s a pretty big list but Ciara is pretty high on the list. She’s cool and we would make something so weird that would be the shit. I’ve gotten asked that question a couple of times and I always want to switch it up but she’s always the first name and I can’t really get her out of my head when the question arises. Meek Mills is someone else. Meek Mills would kill any beat. He’s dope as shit. I can go on rattling names forever.
Photography by Jason Rodgers