Manikeneter | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Bring The Noise: Manikineter makes blistering sounds for brutal times
Looking at the entire timeline of the existence of hip hop, it’s difficult to imagine a period where the rise of noise rap would have been a more perfect fit than 2020. With artists like Moodie Black and H9909 bringing the industrial damage, and emcees that reside in even more traditional lanes like Denzel Curry delving into harsher sounding moments, noise rules rap. And yes, so many music articles are going to be talking about “these times”– with Covid, uprisings, and a president whose race baiting is out of control — but seriously, these times desperately call for rap music that is as creative, noisy, and as responsive to and informed by chaos as Carl Kavorkian and his Manikineter project.
Emerging from the land of mixtapes, large baggy Echo Unlimited jeans, and backpacks that was the underground rap scene of the late 90’s and early 00’s, Carl Kavorkian now brings us music that embraces distorted aural textures, dreamy synth washes, and blistering feedback drones– a soundscape ridden by his cyberpunk, doom-drenched lyrical expositions. Dressed in tight leather gimp mask and dark clothing, Manikineter’s live persona creates a daunting experience, as Kavorkian entrances the listener like a post-apocalyptic evangelist, vocally alternating between his steady, battle-honed rap cadence and blood curdling screams.
The thing is though, CK been doing it. Having first heard him on records like “Rhythmortis”, a Def Jux-ian piece of dark bombast over warbling synths, it was always clear that Kavorkian was intent on pushing the envelope. Despite his out-of-persona presence as one of the nicest guys you’ll ever talk anime with, on the Manikineter project, he’s ready to shove that parcel down our collective throats. We spoke with the soft-spoken noise-rap innovator about his origins, the power of eclecticism, and the rise of noise-rap in these chaotic times.
The Key: So, I wanted to ask about your early days in rap. You started rapping as Carl Kavorkian in the late 90s, inspired by obscure acts like Rubberroom and Cannibal Ox. Had you been rapping before that wave? What were your early experiences like in the rap scene?
Carl Kavorkian: I started writing raps in 7th grade back when MC Hammer dropped “Turn This Mutha Out.” I liked him and his music but for some reason I can’t remember, I felt like I could write a better rap than him. I used to do written battles on Prodigy, an early version of the internet, to get better. I pretty much wrote raps and DJ’d from 7th grade on but didn’t start actually rapping in public until the late 90’s. Dust II Dust, the crew I used to hang out with, used to drive to Villanova often to freestyle on our homie Bazooka Joe’s radio show and we were lucky enough to be featured on one episode of Bahamadia’s B-Side.
By then I had a few demos and recordings under my belt, but when I got access to some friends’ studio equipment and eventually my own, is when things really got serious. Once I had my own songs, I’d go to open mics at a bar in my hometown and perform them. I’m one part shy and two parts just stay out of everyone’s way, so I kinda fear public speaking. I started playing the open mics with other MC’s the production company I helped start was working with at the time, and eventually ended up playing them solo. Those experiences were how I dealt with that uncomfortableness of “all eyes on me”. Just throw myself on the coals and don’t look back. After becoming a bit more confident I started looking elsewhere for actual shows and Philly was where everything was going on. I think I found 215hiphop.com/phillyhiphop.com and got involved in that whole scene. Shortly after is when I met Jimmy Greek and Rummage (Jam Faction) and we pretty much became the weirdos of the Philly scene. Being that different back then was a whole different ball game than it is now, so it wasn’t exactly easy to find a willing audience.
TK: One of your first records I remember collecting from you was “Rhythmortis.” I know this seems like a while ago, but in it I can hear the blueprint for a lot of modern noise-rap and even the current threads of acts like Run the Jewels. Did you know that you were creating a different sound back then? What was the scene like when “Ryhtmortis” dropped and how was it received by rap audiences?
CK: Definitely. Doing things differently comes naturally but I did set out to do something different because there was too much of the same. One of the partners of the production company (COTEPro – Core Of The Earth Productions) I had back then also listened to a lot of weird hip hop, so we were always bouncing new music back and forth to check out. So hearing this abundance of different music, in my headspace my sound was in good company, but then it came time to step out into reality and it was pretty different from what others in Philly were doing. Floors were definitely cleared, but the music would always find those one or two people in the room that knew what time it was. We got more love out of town but I kinda feel like that’s probably how it is for most artists. We actually did a somewhat organized marketing campaign for that record, so I can say that that project had some visible results from a DIY label perspective at the climax of the physical medium era.
TK: What was the catalyst for approaching your current sound? Was it a deliberate effort to distance yourself from boom-bap? What about noise-rap and industrial music and hardcore appeals to how you make music and art?
CK: The catalyst was being around all these dope artists creating all of this sick art that is unapologetically different. Especially seeing so many black and brown people doing some outside-the-box shit. Like I never knew such a scene existed (outside of Afropunk of course), let alone how thick it is. I’d say it’s more of a deliberate effort to get closer to what I’ve been searching for. I’m taking some of that boom bap with me but just know there’s some other shit in the trunk, and it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. I love the adrenaline rush, aggression and abrasiveness of those genres. I’m pretty laid back, so it’s healthy to have an outlet in music. I like loud, gritty sounds and visuals, so naturally that becomes part of my music and art.
TK: What inspired the current concept of Manikineter? I can hear the evolution on CK albums like EleNtine. Do you consider this project separate from Carl Kavorkian related music or a part of the whole and can you explain how it either fits or doesn’t fit with Carl Kavorkian?
CK: I’d go as far as to say that the Serpephant Elentine EP itself inspired the current concept. A lot of work and thought went into that project so it was pretty draining. While mixing it down I needed to get some creativity out but it needed to be real quick since I didn’t want to get caught up into anything too deep. So I made “With Age Comes…” in Reason, and wrote the lyrics on yellow sticky notes. I just wrote it in pen all the way through without thinking twice or crossing out any words. I also wrote it how I would’ve wrote the lyrics for one of the metal bands I was in. That’s why it doesn’t rhyme or anything. I want to keep ideas flowing and not dwell on any one thing. It was supposed to just be a one-off song and back to CK stuff, but after I dropped Serpephant Elentine I felt like the results weren’t what I was hoping for and that I did too much creating it. I liked the simplicity in the workflow when I did With Age Comes, so I banged out the rest of the first EP in the same manner. I do consider it a separate project from CK. It’s a different mindstate. Like I mentioned before, I feel like I’ve found my lane so things look a little different. For years now, my mantra has been that it’s no longer a competition, it’s a contribution.
TK: Live you approach it very– for lack of better word, tactile. You’re not just rapping to a backing beat, you’re manipulating sounds and creating this kind of dystopian world. What influences those soundscapes? What instruments are you working with, if you can reveal, and how does the concept of you playing the beat live inform the lyrical process and the performance?
CK: Honestly, I don’t know. I kinda see most of the pieces of equipment I use for noise as volatile and unpredictable. I use three oscillators, two Bastl Instruments Kastles and one DIY from someone I’ve played a show with, and one Bastl Instruments Dude mixer. They all run on batteries, so as the batteries run down the sounds change slightly. So since for the most part they never sound the same as they did the last time I used them, I feel like I’m trying to tame and gain control over them to create something palatable. I manipulate a sound until I get that warm rush of satisfaction and can let go of that breath I’ve been holding. Maybe like when you nail your vocals exactly how you imagined and get that tingly feeling in your face. I hate finishing a set feeling like I was just twisting knobs chasing a vibe I never got a grip on. I also want to keep the attention of the part of the audience that are not fans of or do not understand the concept of noise. I also have a Kaoss pad, a loop pedal, 3 effect pedals and an SP-404 in my live setup. I actually started doing noise in between songs because I don’t like talking in between songs. I can’t stand it when artists take long breaks in between songs to crack stupid jokes or whatever. I like to make the most of every second of my set. I’m also out of shape so it also gives me a breather in between without appearing to break the momentum, haha.
TK: On my personal favorite Manikineter track, “Trouble with Technology” where you scream “broken memes,” you’re calling out a stark reality we need to face with regard to technology and the surveillance state and the pursuit of “likes”. Can you explain a bit the impetus for writing that song? What do you think the future holds for the internet and how we interact with technology in general?
CK: That came from my dislike of memes, haha. I’m talking early, “impact font on the top and bottom, big pixelated photo, not even funny” memes. I always just found it to be a silly and lazy way of communicating. Like you could’ve posted something informative, but you’re just gonna go ahead and post this dumbass meme? I don’t know. Seeing the evolution of (internet) memes has been weird. The human psychology and behavior behind it is interesting, but it’s kinda depressing. Personally, over the years the internet has become more of a tool than a source of entertainment. I’m into new technology and improving things most of the time, so I welcome that. There’s a significant portion of the population that doesn’t, so they kinda get left behind until they decide or are forced to catch up or abandon all hope. Things will definitely advance, but how fast is not known. Hopefully not too fast, so we can fully understand what we’re working with. I’m really interested in seeing where VR/AR and blockchain technology go because they can be entertaining and very useful all at the same time.
TK: One thing that stands out with Manikineter in general are the venues you’ve played in and the bands you’ve performed with. From indie bands, to death metal, to noise bands, to hardcore punk — both my bands have even shared stages with you! Is that by design for Manikineter? Do you think more hip hop and non-traditional Black artists should be playing these stages? Why or why not? How has the reception been for your music in the indie punk world?
CK: That would be a true statement. I enjoy all of those genres (and more), so some element from each one ends up intertwined somewhere in the Manikineter project. More hip-hop and non-traditional artists should absolutely be playing these shows. Honestly I don’t think a lot of hip hop acts and sometimes promoters themselves even know that there is a possible audience within these shows. I’ve enjoyed playing mixed genre shows so much that unless it’s something special, I choose not to play all hip hop shows. Also having a crowd that knows there is going to be a variety of genres (and wants to see that), eases any worries that a band / artist might stick out in a bad way. I don’t care about that kind of stuff because I’m trusting that the promoter booked me for a reason and knows what’s gonna go down. My worries lie in putting on a decent performance and not whether the band before me was heavy or acoustic or whatever.
As far as Black artists doing something different, let it be known: we are out here and the radar is always on. Seek out the shows you want to play or make them happen. These days promoters say they are looking but they don’t know every artist / band in their scene. There’s room in this for everyone, so claim some of that space. The reception for Manikineter has been fantastic from the indie / punk world. In fact, it feels like reception from other scenes has been better than hip hop. With every project released, my replies and coverage from hip hop blogs and publications has dropped like crazy. After seeing this, I began targeting people who just like music in general. I also find playing basements and DIY spaces more enjoyable than bars, although it’s nice to play through a good sound system every once in a while.
As a youth I always associated punk music with Nazi skinheads so I didn’t venture into punk music. I owned one punk tape back in the day, Surf Punks Locals Only, which I randomly bought at Sam Goody because I liked the cover. I had heard of The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, etc, but that was it. Even Bad Brains, but didn’t know they were black. I didn’t even know that or listen to them until I was much much older. I feel like I’d have been a significantly different person if I’d have known as a kid. Finding out about Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz in their early stages absolutely had an impact on my love of music, especially not being ashamed of listening to rock and metal. But learning that punk was not what I thought it was would’ve opened up a new world of music to my childhood. Not to mention I could’ve had a better, earlier grasp on the whole DIY concept being that my entire music career has pretty much been DIY. My first exposure to the indie/punk scene in Philly was a BLACKIE, Moor Mother, Soul Glo and Show Me The Body show at Everybody Hits. I was blown away seeing black people in that environment and was left wondering why the hell I never knew about it. I can say that that was definitely a turning point for my music and I am grateful to have learned of it as well as be a part of it now.
TK: Darkness and nihilism are huge aspects of Manikineter, from the masks you wear to the sounds to the lyrics. Is there hope in Manikineter songs? So much of what you sing about is prescient observations that are coming to fruition, especially in Covid times, in times of real uprising and zeitgeist change — will these events effect future Manikineter music? How so?
CK: I’d consider my CK material more dark and nihilistic than Manikineter. There was definitely hope in some of the early projects. I tried to make the content more universal than the CK stuff which I feel was more critical of the internal workings of myself and people I’ve encountered over time. I wrote more in a battle rap type of style with a sharp tongue. In my eyes Serpephant Elentine showed growth and maturation from earlier work. Manikineter deals with more worldly thoughts and ideas, and is an attempt to be more “social” I guess. I had been meeting a lot of cool, friendly people and enjoyed it, so it kinda rubbed off on the purpose of Manikineter. That and a previous UK tour put me on a path to grow, not be so anti-social and align my music to get to a better place.
A lot of what is going on now, we can say “well, we been telling y’all this for a LONG time.” As long as people are stubborn, willfully ignorant or slow to recognize things, I don’t think Manikineter music will change much. And with the proven short attention spans the internet has bred, I’m kind of skeptical of where things may go from here. Especially on those who are just now realizing things have been pretty jacked up for a while. I’ve actually been suprised that that number has been more than expected, which is absolutely a good thing. I just hope those people understand it’s gonna be a long game to fix them.