A lot of rap fans are plotting the death of trap music, but trombonist and producer Alexander Lewis has bigger plans.
Born and based in California, Lewis first picked up the trombone at age 11, enamored by the endless jazz tunes playing at his grandmother’s house. After a stint in the school band, he moved to New York to pursue a traditional music education at The Manhattan School of Music, but his passions pivoted when, by his senior year, he was completely enchanted by electronic music.
“I went to New York and studied jazz and then fell in love with electronic music and started making beats of my own, mainly because of Team Supreme,” Lewis tells me over the phone. “They had this weekly beat cypher that I got heavily into, and was submitting these one-minute clips. One-minute beats started becoming full tracks and finally, I felt like I had good enough production chops to start releasing stuff.”
After leaving the jazz conservatory, Lewis moved back to California and threw himself into the undertow of eclectic production by Flying Lotus and TOKiMONSTA, which began his own wonky streak of experimentation. “I would sample my voice and turn it into this arpeggiator,” he recalls.
Now, at 28, Lewis has a lot to be proud of. A frequent collaborator with the GRAMMY-winning duo Brasstracks and a student of the Los Angeles indie beat scene, Lewis is bringing live brass to trap music, ostensibly to help keep the genre alive and allow it to evolve.
“People keep saying trap’s gonna die just like people keep saying future bass is gonna die, and yet people keep playing it and enjoying it,” he admits. His booming trombone keeps his sound fresh and engaging. Every track on his latest release, the OMNI. EP, is earth-shaking in its grandiosity and triumph. The attractive clamor of trap music and the catharsis of an EDM drop combine into a near-cleansing experience.
“I’m trying to be in the front. I want to be the person everybody’s looking at, and I’m gonna do that with the trombone,” Lewis attests. “I think that’s a new thing: horn players being the voice, being the superstar. As far as impact, I hope that would resonate with some people and make them wanna pick up an instrument and do the same thing.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Alexander Lewis, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Walk me through your music history.
Alexander Lewis: When I was about 11, I started playing trombone in the regular school band. That was mainly because of my grandma, who was a musician and trombonist as well. She always had jazz playing in her house, so I naturally was led to playing jazz on my own.
After high school, I went to New York and studied jazz [at The Manhattan School of Music] and then fell in love with electronic music and started making beats of my own, mainly because of Team Supreme. They had this weekly beat cypher that I got heavily into, and was submitting these one-minute clips. One minute beats started becoming full tracks and finally, I felt like I had good enough production chops to start releasing stuff.
How instrumental were your jazz studies to your present career?
Mainly, it just helped a lot with having a good base of theory and just having a good ear. Jazz really set a foundation for how I hear things and the way that I think of music.
How do you hear things?
I break down all of the instruments and what they’re doing separately, hearing the rhythm, whether it’s drums, bass, and piano. Then vocals. I guess that would be your basic setup. I mean, I break down rhythmic figures: what the drummer is playing versus what the bass is playing and the relationship between the two. Then I listen to what type of quality chord the piano is playing against or with the bass player.
Does that make it harder to enjoy music?
It’s important to be able to turn that off and just listen. I will definitely obsess over what’s going on in a track. I’ll go back and listen to [a section] over and over again and figure out what they’re doing. It’s nice to just sit back and enjoy a piece for what it is. But I don’t think I could sit there and not analyze music. When it’s going by I’m always noting certain things. It’s just the level of attention that I give a track varies from time to time.
How do you manage this obsession during the creative process?
Oh, boy! That’s funny that you mention this because I am literally obsessing over a half of a bar of music right now… If you’re sitting there listening to it over and over and something is not coming, the best thing for you is to step away from it for a little bit and come back with fresh ears. It’s kind of a blessing you called me when you did because I would be sitting here for three hours trying to figure out what to do. At that point, you’re not really being productive.
And you know when it’s there! You know exactly what you want, just sometimes you’re bouncing around with different ideas and nothing’s sticking. A good thing to do is just get up and leave.
I sometimes find stepping away impossible.
It’s extremely difficult and it takes a lot of willpower because in the back of your mind you’re thinking: “Well maybe the next idea is gonna be it.” But if you’re at a creative block you should just stop. Go get a coffee, go for a walk. I do that a lot—go for a walk when I’m feeling creatively stuck.
In 2016, you spoke with Magnetic Magazine about your process of fucking around with a bunch of genres before finding your sound. What was the weirdest direction?
When I was getting really into FlyLo and the LA beat scene in 2014, I was listening to a lot of TOKiMONSTA and a lot of Shlohmo. I had just left jazz school, and then all of a sudden got introduced to this world of these independent beat makers, so I just started making really weird shit. I would sample my voice and turn it into this arpeggiator, or just get weird sounds and make them into pads. While I was a little less refined as a producer, I was a little bit more adventurous. Now, not so much. I think that always happens when you’re trying to find a sound: you’re making weird shit.
I imagine that choosing to experiment with your sound is more challenging than mastering a jazz standard.
No, because I feel like when you’re diving into something and it’s new and no one is expecting anything from you, you’re free to make whatever the fuck you want. It doesn’t feel daunting like you’re gonna be graded on it. As opposed to learning jazz standards at jazz conservatory, they expected a lot out of what you were playing. That became really tiresome and it made it not fun because you weren’t allowed to really explore your own sound as an instrumentalist. They wanted you to fit a certain cookie-cutter mold of how they thought a jazz musician should sound.
So when I started producing electronic music, it was so freeing to me because I was like, “Fuck this, I can make whatever I want.” No one’s sitting here telling me that’s wrong. It seems like there are no rules at that time, which was great!
Which brings us to your new EP, OMNI., the most hip-hop-minded project you’ve released. Why the change?
It’s everything that I’ve been influenced by. I’ve always loved listening to hip-hop and there’s nothing wrong with really hard EDM stuff, but I just don’t see my sound fitting with that vein.
You’re delivering this grandiose sound and vibrancy with your trombone, but it never overwhelms. How did you learn to temper your energy?
That’s a good question. I don’t know! I think it’s just my taste and how I think a trombone should be presented. The trombone is a heavy instrument in its own right, and it does well in the trap scene, which works out well for me [laughs], but I don’t think about holding back.
A lot of conservative hip-hop fans like to say the trap sound will eventually implode on itself. Is live brass how we keep the sound alive?
Possibly! I think maybe it’ll keep evolving. That’s one of the main reasons why I’m kind of keen on bringing my horn into a more hip-hop sound and not really going so heavy with drops. People keep saying trap’s gonna die just like people keep saying future bass is gonna die, and yet people keep playing it and enjoying it.
Is live instrumentation valued enough in hip-hop?
Good question… I’m not really sure about that. I think it is valued, but I don’t think people view it as a necessity. If they have it at their fingertips, it’s a little easier to produce something instead of seeking out a bunch of instrumentalists. Can we come back to this actually?
Sure. Let's focus on the trombone. In a popular light, do you believe you can change the way kids think of the band?
I’ve had some people, younger trombonists, reach out and say, “You’re an inspiration doing this,” and that makes me feel good because I got picked on being a band geek. I would hope that people would see it and think, “Damn, that’s really cool. I wanna do this.”
Whereas in the band and in the orchestra, the trombone is a very background voice, I’m trying to be in the front. I want to be the person everybody’s looking at, and I’m gonna do that with the trombone. I think that’s a new thing: horn players being the voice, being the superstar. As far as impact, I hope that would resonate with some people and make them wanna pick up an instrument and do the same thing.
In terms of kids picking up instruments-is it a lack of funding informing a lack of interest?
I think a lot of it has to do with funding. People aren’t seeing the value in what actually learning a physical instrument does to stimulate your brain. Obviously, it’s a very good mental workout. Hopefully the more and more I make music, and Brasstracks and GRiZ and Big Gigantic make music, that inspires kids to just go out and learn shit on their own.
You really don’t need a school program. I think the school programs introduce the instruments to people because they don’t know they’re out there. I think that’s the good thing about school programs offering band because some kids don’t even know what an instrument looks like. I get people asking if my trombone is a saxophone. People are clueless. Hopefully, the more and more we get in the spotlight, people will be more inclined to seek learning an instrument on their own.
Okay, I'm ready. Is live instrumentation valued enough in hip-hop?
I think people value live instruments, I just think not a lot of people know how to play instruments. Hearing live instruments in a hip-hop jam is always preferable to hearing fake horns, or someone playing fake bass that was recorded on a keyboard. It’s valued, but the skill is not in a lot of people.
Tell me if and how trombone has saved your life.
Saved my life?
Like, you were in danger and you needed to use your trombone case to escape.
[Laughs,] well I’m not sure that I want to really share this specific thing, but I definitely could say that music has in general saved my life-if you catch my drift. If it weren’t for music and being able to escape and leave the world behind, and kind of dive into practicing my horn or being able to look forward to something that took my mind off other shit. In general, music just saved my life. It’s always been there for me.