We’ve had the pleasure of engaging with several act and artists from today’s net-based retro electronic music scene over the years that we’ve had this Tiananmen Square Dance thing going on. Among the most enthusiastic and prolific producers that we’ve befriended is Steven Michael, who alternates between pseudonyms Dez Harley and Ailani Tropicana, depending on whether there’s more cloud rap or vaporwave in the forecast. Showcasing a talent for overlaying glitch-hop and chillwave samples with sunny, light-hearted rhymes, Steven Michael has sampled everyone from Macintosh Plus to MF Doom, and we’ve wasted no time in repeatedly featuring his work here and as a part of our VHS Wave series. Enjoy this interview we did with Steven, and be sure to check out his latest release as Ailani Tropicana, last year’s mini-album, Post Evening Downtown.
1. What are the stories behind the monikers “Dez Harley” and “Ailani Tropicana”?
Both were made basically on the spot. When I first started recording vocals with another hip-hop artist from the area named Marc Blake, I was taking writing seriously, and I was forcing myself to get better. But I was brand new to the world of rapping in front of a microphone. This was early summer 2011. He had already been working on his craft, and wanted me to start trying it more. After freestyling for years before just hanging around, he knew about my love for classic hip-hop and all sorts of genres. He had a lot of faith in my potential and would always give me props for saying cool lines, coming up with interesting flows, and that meant a lot. I was 14/15 at the time, and all of the guys around, including him, we’re 2, 3, 4 years older. So him pushing me got me into the idea in the first place. I started becoming more enamored with the idea of being an artist, being the man. and my motivation was growing exponentially.
He asked me to help him with artwork, and wanted a feature from me on his first project. He called me a few days later and said, “Man, have you ever thought of coming up with a name for yourself? Think of something and call me back soon.” After a few minutes the idea of Dez sounded really cool, then I shuffled a few words around to follow it, landed on Harley, and stayed. It was one of those impulsive things that kinda stuck. “Hey, that oughta work”. He dug it, and anything that I work on as vocalist has that label on it.
Ailani tropicana came from getting more in touch with internet-based electronic styles of music in the underground. I was big on chillwave when it was first breaking on the turn of the decade. And going into the 2010s, all of the styles that were influenced by it were becoming even more interesting. I was stuck to the idea of making sonically screwed retro-pop and funk soundtracks to old movies that don’t exist haha. So when I was making |untitled|, I had ‘Tropicana’ stuck in my head, and when looking up Hawaiian native names, I saw one that rolled off the tongue nicely, ‘Ailani’: The chief of the tropics.
2. How would you describe your own music?
Genuine. It always comes from a genuine place emotionally and mentally. Plus the ideas themselves for where I set my standard of quality also come from wanting to make music inspired by genuine intelligence.
The type of music that’s undeniably great, and it’s apparent that whoever was behind it knew what the hell they were doing, and had focused vision on how they wanted this sound, lyric, and instrumental casserole to affect the listener.
3. What are your greatest influences (artists, experiences, weather, etc.)?
More than anything, albums are what keep me going. I have an obsessive fascination with classic artists, and classic records; old and modern. If I were to go on about who/what I love, it would take a long time. I’d be ranting, man haha. Elaborating on every little detail about dozens of artists, from dozens of genres, how/when they broke-through, their effect on music and culture. It would get ugly fast. But I’d love to give you some albums that’ve been viciously inspiring me lately though. Is this It by The Strokes, The College Dropout by Kanye, Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, Discovery by Daft Punk, Be by Common, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. Cocaine Piñata by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Salad Days by Mac Demarco. Idk, those are a few off of the top. 2014 has been a great year for music thus far. The Led Zeppelin remasters that came out, sound killer. Pop’s new princess, Ariana has serious chops. I think she’s got the special charm both in her, and her music to stick around for a while. Oh yeah, another album to list is Lonerism by Tame Impala. I think Kevin Parker is special. His legacy is gonna be muscular. I think he’s filling a void, in this era, in being somewhat of a modern day Kevin Shields or Brian Wilson or something haha. It’s a big statement, but whatever. He’s a studio dweller paving a new road for rock sonics. All in the name of great songwriting and killer pop melodies, he crafted a masterpiece. To this day when I hear “Elephant”, I kinda get a rush of disbelief at how good it is.That song is a psychedelic freight train. Those Aussie’s aren’t fucking around.
See what I meant about rambling man? I gotta stop haha.
4. What is your opinion on the ever-changing structure of independent music?
It’s a beautiful thing. Our generation has practically created our own world and standards on the inter-webz. It’s been an amazing thing to see evolve over time. It’s become a platform for undiscovered talent, and we’ve gotta continue to take all of the positive aspects of how it’s changed and keep running with it. We will continue to do special things to, and for the art world. People who live for creativity, overall. And I promise you, I will be apart of it. I have to. I feel like i’d be wasting ideas and perspective if I didn’t. I have to help us continue walking down the road of change to somewhere even more special. I owe everything music, and I have to give back.
5. Does making music pay the bills? Is it more of a dedicated hobby?
Not at all, yet. It’s not my job, but i’ve been viewing it as a career for years because of what it can potentially be. But all it’s done is cost me money. A lot of it. Studio time isn’t cheap if you desire quality production. I’m sure y’all know. It adds up over time. But in doing so, I’ve learned so much from my engineer Corey. He worked on my debut album with me. He’s the man.
6. What do you do for a living, and do you like it?
I worked at a shoe store for a while, but lately I’ve been studying to get my certificate in audio production. Doing freelance photography work. Behind and in front of the camera. More in front. I’ve done photo editing for a few people, and a little bit of modeling for another. It’s all been mutual friend/local stuff, but it’s been rad. Met a lot of cool people. Made a few bucks.
7. What are some other things you enjoy about life besides art?
Fashion, football, food, conversation, women. Beautiful, intelligent, sassy well-spoken women. They keep me going brotha!
8. As a known music fan, what are some of best musical experiences you have had with other people’s music?
One experience that shaped my life was finding out about A Tribe Called Quest. I was a sixth grader. Already being a huge fan of hip hop, I was asking my uncle about Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa. And he was telling me about Kraftwerk, “they’re pioneers of electronic music. You know that synth sound in the Planet Rock chorus? Here’s where they got it from.” So I grabbed his mp3 player and ran upstairs. I’m scrolling through the list of artists and see a long ass phrase. Like, what? I was intrigued. The first song that plays is “Electric Relaxation”. My idea of how hip hop music could sound just shifted again. It was just like hearing Boyz in the hood, Shook Ones Pt. II, or C.R.E.A.M. for the first time. It blew me away. The dusty jazz bassline, the electronic twist, the smooth flows, the call and response rapping that Tip and Phife perfected. The atmosphere of that song fueled me. The next song that played was Bonita Applebum. To think that song was produced in 1989/1990 is mind bending. Q-Tip was always far ahead of his own time. I was inspired by how the music had hit me, and why it hit me, so they became a new favorite.
9. Also, what are some of the most memorable moments for you in your own musical journey?
Some of the first music I can ever remember hearing and loving was Bossa nova jazz. I have memories of jamming to The girl from Impanema by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. Her voice was hypnotizing. Here you got some 3 to 4 year old trying his hardest to sing a long to a melody. Music does amazing things. You play the right song to a toddler and they’ll start moving and shaking, smiling. This is a human in raw form. And for some reason these rhythms and harmonies makes them happy. They don’t even know why or what they’re enjoying, but it’s changing their emotion. That’s primal.
10. Ever have anything particularly weird happen while touring or playing shows (if applicable)?
I hosted a listening session and art gallery for the release of my debut album. It started slow, but the turnout was great once people really started to roll in fashionably late. A couple of people were there that I had never met before, so I went up to thank ‘em for coming out. One of them knew about the music, loved my stuff, and the rest were along for the ride with their friend. All of ‘em were mellowed out, but one of ‘em in particular was all sorts of hazy. He was looking at one of the art pieces alone. I went up and told him the album was gonna start playing soon, and asked him if he had heard anything of mine in the past. His response was, “Nah man, I haven’t, but I heard good weed and good music would be here.”
We went outside, smoked a joint, talked about some random stuff, and went inside to listen. Cool dude.