The tactile world of Teebs
The L.A. producer breaks down his dreamlike songwriting
The music of Mtendere Mandowa, better known as Teebs, hinges on the same skittering rhythms threaded throughout Los Angeles' influential beat scene, but the subtle layers in his songwriting give his music a vivid mood. Layers of static and warped textures wrap around Teebs' beats, creating a visceral world in which stray eardrums find plenty of room to roam around. "Texture was always important," Mandowa says. "When I learned how to use samples and sounds, keeping texture in just came naturally to me."
The L.A.-based producer hasn't attained the wide-reaching appeal of labelmates such as Flying Lotus or Thundercat, but his debut album, Ardour, left a singular impression within the cosmic hip-hop universe.
Mandowa's entry point into production was unusual, but made sense given his penchant for creating tactile works of art. Before releasing albums on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, Mandowa was a painter who organized art shows around his high school neighborhood. The transition from paintbrushes to beats happened organically: Where one medium picked up on a conversation the other one left off.
Songs such as the bossa-tinged "Wind Loop" on Ardour take shape like a painter's creation, with abstract electronic sounds dancing around like daylight on a forest floor. The organic feel comes from Mandowa's love of field recordings and using random samples as percussive elements. "When I started out, I wasn't hip on the computer so I was getting sounds around me and I was into getting things that were dirtier and more textured," Mandowa says. "I used to sample car keys, coins jingling, whatever's in my house really."
Like his paintings, Mandowa's beats are pieced together from sounds stripped of context to create a dreamlike world." This method of using non-vocal textures to conjure images links back to his childhood fascination with video games and anime. The limitations early game developers faced translating dense soundtracks using 8-bit sound palettes created a new language shared by many artists on Brainfeeder's roster. "When I met Flying Lotus the first thing we did was play Street Fighter," Mandowa says.
His second record, the elegantly understated Estara, further refined his patchwork songwriting. But in 2015 Mandowa began working with a live band. The idea came after playing a party at L.A's Museum of Contemporary Art where he tapped friends to construct live versions of Estara's songs. The success of that show led him to recruit Stones Throw producer Mndsgn and Michael Lundy, guitarist and head of the label Rap Vacation. The trio is in the throes of producing an album based on their collaboration. "I've never worked with other musicians and I don't have a musical background so my language is such shit," he says. "That's been the biggest challenge of trying to lead musicians that actually are versed in music language."
Mandowa is also crafting another Teebs record, but with a desire to shake up the aesthetic he's refined over the last five years. "I wanted to add more live instrumentation and experiment with the idea of not making my music loop-based," he says. "With Estara I polished the idea of the first record out, but that story's been told at least for myself."
The few videos of Mandowa with his live ensemble tease this new direction, where the rhythms find a meditative pulse and his cinematic textures create an even more vivid world.