Interview 4080 - Nick Catchdubs On His New LP, Music Business vs. Making Music

Words by Alexander "DJ RTC" Fruchter
Photos by Josh Wehle

This is our new interview column, Interview 4080.  The gist is that we speak to people (some of them our friends) that work at other record labels - and the multitude of similar concoctions that pretty much do the same things under different names.  The hope is give supporters of Closed Sessions a chance to get another perspective on releasing music and working with artists in the current climate.  It also serves to calm our own anxieties by letting us know there are still others that share our level of insanity by continuing to work in the music business.  

To kick off the column, I spoke to Nick Catchdubs of Fool's Gold Records.  Nick has been successfully running Fool's Gold since 2007, when he started the label with DJ A-Trak.  Since that time, Fool's Gold has really set the standard for what an independent label can do to endear itself to all factions of music culture.. FG also helped to spearhead the late 00's genre blurring that can be heard today at the same clip on underground blogs and what remains of commercial radio.  While Nick has released iconic records such as "Day N' Nite" and "Barbara Streisand" as well as acclaimed projects from artists such as Danny Brown, Low-Pros, Sammy Bananas (and countless others), he has never turned those same energies towards a full project of his own. Until now...

On April 28th,  Nick released his first official LP, Smoke Machine.  The project is 34 minutes of expansive, stick to your bones, full-bodied Hip Hop that features verses from a motley crew of emcees that includes Troy Ave, Nasty Nigel, ShowYouSuck, IAMSU! and others.  Smoke Machine also stays out of the average "producer with hella rappers" lane through Catchdubs' cut heavy instrumentals and head-nodding production that elevate the music well beyond the raps.  I know head-nodding is a lazy way to describe music, but I've been thinking of another word for the last 15 minutes, literally nodding my head continuously. 

In this interview, Nick talks about channeling the Beatnuts, working both sides of his brain, and not trying to be a hipster DJ Khaled.  Enjoy. 

Smoke Machine was officially released yesterday. Does this release feel any different than other Fool’s Gold releases? You’ve been through this process many many times as a label boss, is it more personal this time around? 

Nick Catchdubs: I wish I could detach and experience this solely from the artist side! Some of my favorite moments in FG history have been when we made someone’s dream come true: handing Kid Cudi the “Day N Nite” vinyl out of a plastic grocery bag in a club and watching him jump up and down on the couch in excitement, that kind of thing. I’m so closely involved in every stage of the process that it’s hard to just enjoy the fact that my shit is finally out. But seeing such a positive (so far!) response from my friends and peers has been awesome. 

I’m not totally sure what your exact role in releasing other people’s music is, but I can imagine some of it based on my experiences at Closed Sessions. Is it tough at all to turn those actions inward for Smoke Machine? I sometimes find myself spending so much mental energy & creativity on an artist’s vision, that I’m just drained when it’s time to do anything creative for myself. 

Nick Catchdubs: It’s difficult for sure. But at the end of the day, it’s just time management. I’m only human… let’s keep it a hundo, there have been moments where I’ve been resentful of the demands of the label. Like, why can’t I just wake up, pour some coffee and make art for me? Why do I give all my creative ideas to other people? Me me me me me! But that’s a toxic way of thinking. Fool’s Gold as a label and brand is bigger than any one person, any one artist. And that’s awesome! We’ve built something special, something that I feel is a force for good in the world of music. So I view that as it’s own cool thing and appreciate it for itself, as opposed to something that takes my attention away from another thing I want to do. 

Was it tough to get into a music making zone? How much does running Fool’s Gold run your life? 

Nick Catchdubs: To follow up on that last question, I thought this said “ruin your life,” and laughed. Then cried. Just kidding! (Kind of.)... The actual act of making music comes quickly to me, I’m constantly recording little ideas, recording riffs and sketches, beatboxing into my phone - that’s where all the little interludes on Smoke Machine come from. The difficult part is finishing this stuff, and refining it to the point where it sounds as dope as possible. If I could condense it down, the total amount of time spent writing my album was not that crazy, it just happened to be spread over a long-ass time period: recording sessions every other other Sunday, the occasional long flight, whatever random snatches of free time I could get. And if I wasn’t actively writing in the studio, I was trial-and-erroring to become a better technical producer and engineer, testing out (and scrapping) alternate ideas, and figuring out an approach to sound design that felt like “me.” I would tell people the record was “70% done” for a year and change. But once I got into the deadline danger zone, it all congealed. Scary fast. The short instrumental cuts like “Tick Tick Bounce” became revelations for how I wanted the whole album all to flow and sound. I remade a few beats completely, dug into the archives (the “Smoke Theme” intro is actually a loop from a practice-room recording of my band from college), and wrapped up the final mixes right before Coachella.  

What was the process like in putting together this album? Did you go into with the goal to make formal project, or was it more collecting songs one by one & at a point you had enough to drop it?

Nick Catchdubs: My favorite songs have always been the “album cuts,” the weird outliers and experimental moments. The interludes and random vibes. I felt that spirit in the tracks I was making… so if I’m writing all these “album cuts,” I guess that means I’m making an album, right? 

Beyond that, I’ve been doing my thing as a DJ and running the label for a long time, and knew I wanted to craft something substantial. There’s only so far you can go pushing singles and EPs, everyone always asks “what’s next?” Plus, I had a definite point of view I wanted to get across in a body of work. Music is so dark now, even the banger records sound sad. Rae Sremmurd literally shoot each other with water guns onstage, but the tunes are all minor key. Why so serious? I love Future but I don’t write those kinds of tracks. I was missing the vibe of Redman, Beatnuts, Beastie Boys kind of records. It’s not “comedy” music by any means, but there’s a sense of humor, a sense of fun. Absurdity. Playfulness. That’s my personality and that’s what I wanted to capture with the album. I would stockpile all the stuff I made in that vein until I knew it was ready.

Did you go into this project with any goals or objectives? Is there a measure of success for you in terms of Smoke Machine? 

Nick Catchdubs: I force myself to have NO expectations whatsoever when it comes to my career. (Or at least that’s what I try to do.) They’re dangerous, and will seep into your creative decisions. That doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious - I would love to play bigger shows, work with bigger artists. Yeah, make more money too, but I really just want to spread my art and my particular take on things to the widest audience possible. The reality of this business is that it’s a popularity contest. You can’t just be dope - there’s a plateau. You need hits, you need “socials”… why do you think superstar DJs release as many memes as they do mixes? So sure, I would hope that this record brings new fans and new attention to what I do, and showcases my vibe as an artist and entertainer in a stronger light. But I really just want to make quality, original shit. As long as I’m doing that, I’m straight. Smoke Machine could go double wood, it doesn’t change the fact that I loved making it and grew a lot as a producer and as a person in the process. 

The rappers you chose to include are very different & pull from a wide range of influences/interest. Yet they do seem to all mesh well.  Were you just asking friends for verses? How did you end up with this collection of emcees? 

Nick Catchdubs: Definitely friends. I wasn’t throwing darts at a map of the US, I didn’t call up anybody out of the blue, every artist on the album is someone I’m actually cool with. I DJed Troy Ave’s mixtape release parties. Been friends with MNDR for years. Show comes hang out whenever I play in Chicago. I didn’t want the record to be a calvacade of marketable stars, I’m not trying to be hipster Khaled here! On paper, it’s a very strange guestlist, but I think the randomness makes perfect sense in the context of the album. Everyone has their own distinct voice, and THAT becomes the unifying thread.

Why the name Smoke Machine? 

Nick Catchdubs: There’s one in every club! At first, I just wanted a sick phrase. But there’s an inverse to that too. I’m not trying to be flippant, but we are living through some fucked up times. Making a record (especially one like mine) can seem silly or futile in the grand scheme of things. It’s all going to be vapor in the end. But instead of getting depressed, I embraced that, and doubled down. Life is war, art is war… I was thinking about the “Flex bomb” and how to take that literally. I told the illustrator Niv Bavarsky I wanted a smiling mushroom cloud for the cover, and showed him a bunch of images of post-apocalyptic Mickey Mouse cartoons. He killed it. You can enjoy it on the surface, and have that “AHA!” moment if you feel that other wavelength I’m on too. Levels, Jerry!

You were kind enough to welcome Alex Wiley & I into the Fool’s Gold store when we were in New York a couple months ago, and I loved the whole vibe and energy.  How crucial is having the store? What kind of role does it play in the Fool’s Gold mix? 

Nick Catchdubs: I love bringing people to the store! It’s a great way to show off everything we do. The physical space really sets Fool’s Gold apart and makes an impression. Designing our merch is one of my favorite things to do, and the look on someone’s face as they pick up all-over print socks, geek out on a pic disc, or notice the hidden references on a shirt is priceless! I’m excited to do more in the store as we hit summertime when people are just out and about more. For me, the perfect new fan is someone who gets drawn in by the colors and crazy shit on the walls, and leaves with some music they would have never discovered otherwise.

As the owner of an indie label, what do you see as most important to the artists you work with & come to you for record deals? So many people & companies seem to speak for artists & what they want without actually talking to any. 

Nick Catchdubs: On a macro level, my attitude is that the “deal” is overrated. It’s not the finish line, it’s the starting point. We’re not a bank, we’re a business partner. We’re not a distribution middleman, we’re a creative collaborator. All artists are unique. They have different wants and needs. I just try to be as transparent as possible, and make sure everyone’s expectations are aligned. Fool’s Gold is a big umbrella, we have a history and (if I do say so myself) a pretty awesome track record. We’re hungry and we have good ideas and energy. So if you’re on the same page as an artist, and you’re down for that input, there’s a lot to accomplish and a lot of fun to be had…

With this project out, did it light a fire at all for more? My partner calls the music business his crack addiction. Are you itching to put together another project like this, or nah? 

Nick Catchdubs: Well, “making music” and the “music business” are two very different things! One is my passion, the other is my job. It’s nice when they overlap, but as much as I can enjoy it, I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to running a label. But making stuff is a legit compulsion. Now that Smoke Machine is out, there’s a bunch of other projects I’m excited to pick back up on… I started an EP with Black Dave that needs to get finished for the summer, I have plans to do more music with ShowYouSuck, and I’m reallyexcited for the artist projects of my own to follow up. The next proper Nick Catchdubs release will probably be a lot more uptempo and dance-y. Recording guitar parts for the album rekindled my love for the rock side of things too, the last few tracks I’ve sat down to make have been very riff-y, almost like electronic Mac De Marco or old Weezer / Rentals. I might fuck around and take my shirt off! 

Smoke Machine is available now via Fool's Gold Records.