Preservation favors adventure above all else. On top of producing for some of the most notable names in gritty East Coast rap—from Wu-Tang’s RZA and GZA to Roc Marciano and Mach-Hommy—he’s also traveled the world as the tour DJ for Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def).
When we spoke on the phone last week, the New York-born producer/DJ—who politely refused to reveal his government name and age—told me about what is easily his greatest adventure yet: living in Hong Kong.
“I felt like there was always a connection,” Preservation said of New York and the special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
In 1996, Preservation received his first taste of Hong Kong when he visited a friend who was living there at the time. During his brief stay, he became enchanted by local neighborhood flea markets and record shops, both sources of untapped musical potential.
Years later, when his wife received a job transfer to Hong Kong in 2014, Preservation’s newfound appreciation for Chinese music presented another opportunity.
“It was supposed to only be for three months, and then it eventually turned into three years,” he explained.
In those three years, Preservation soaked in the music and culture of the city, creating hundreds of beats whenever he wasn’t called to DJ a Yasiin Bey show.
Thirteen of those beats became the basis for Eastern Medicine, Western Illness, Preservation’s latest album released in May via Nature Sounds. The concept is simple: beats sourced entirely from records found in Hong Kong featuring (mostly) rappers from the United States.
Quelle Chris, Roc Marciano, and others wax introspective across the project, yet Preservation’s porous production remains the star throughout. Songs like the fiery “I-78,” featuring New Jersey spitter Mach-Hommy, and the contemplative “A Cure For The Common,” featuring Brooklyn rapper and longtime collaborator KA, split the difference between Pres’ muted approach to boom-bap and the traditional Chinese musicianship he’s come to admire.
Preservation couldn’t have released Eastern Medicine at a more prescient time. The ever-present threat of the coronavirus and escalating Black Lives Matter protests give certain songs an eerie new weight (“People walk ‘round like it weren’t never gon’ be a reckonin’,” billy woods raps on “Lemon Rinds”).
The album’s content and newfound context—given the coronavirus’ origins in China—were almost enough to make Preservation postpone the album entirely. But he saw yet another opportunity to meet fate head-on.
“I thought it might rub some people wrong because of the title and where it’s coming from,” Preservation revealed. “I went to my close people, and they told me this is the medicine we needed.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What inspired your initial move to Hong Kong?
Preservation: In 1996, a friend of mine was living there with her husband, and I got a free ticket. She said, “Come visit,” and I worked it out. It’s always been this place for me because of the movies we’d watch when we were younger. I felt like there was always a connection between New York and Hong Kong. They were similar, but there was a deeper connection I was attracted to. I wound up visiting an area called Sham Shui Po. There are certain weekends or holidays out there where people will clean out their house to clear out the spirits. They put a lot of stuff out on the street, so you’ll find a whole bunch of different things, including records. It’s kind of like the flea market neighborhood in Hong Kong.
What inspired you to go back?
My wife’s job transferred her to Hong Kong in 2014. It was supposed to only be for three months, and then it eventually turned into three years. We were living there, and I was just working out of my house and traveling with Yasiin here and there. His shows slowed down a little, which made it easy for me to dig deep and look for music. I didn’t have a project in mind at first; I was just making beats. Whenever I’m in a city, I just like to dig through local music and soak in the culture.
How, if at all, did living in Hong Kong for three years affect your creative process?
Musically, it was limiting because the music had a specific sound to it. Some things were a little more modern-sounding and rich, but there’s this twangy guitar-sounding mid-range sound. That was another aspect of feeling my way through the city. I was also getting excited by what I heard back home from a lot of younger cats coming up.
Where did the idea for Eastern Medicine, Western Illness come from?
At the time, I was playing KA some things I was doing out there. I was thinking of a solely instrumental record at first, but he was instrumental in helping me get some people on the record that I was a big fan of at the time. He and I started going through a list of titles. I was reading off some stuff, and he would hit me back with something similar, and then we adjusted it. That was a collab.
I don’t generally like concept records, but because I was making it out of this experience living in Hong Kong, it automatically had a concept. Coming out of the Days With Dr. Yen Lo album with KA, I figured I’d continue with the whole medical thing. Getting the Western cats on the Eastern sounds, it just kinda worked. Obviously, with the times being what they are now, a lot of these verses speak a little louder to me.
Right. A handful of these songs feel prescient, considering the COVID-19 outbreak and the recent surge in Black Lives Matter protests. I first heard “Lemon Rinds,” featuring billy woods, the night the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis burned down.
Wow. Those verses are some of the illest on the record to me. It captures the image of everything so vividly. woods has been doing that shit for a minute, but when those things happen in the present, they electrify and hit harder. With the title and everything, it looks like some crystal ball shit, but it was not planned, and the concept was basic. There were so many different delays waiting for people to finish their tracks. It’s difficult putting a record like this with so many different people together. The album was ready to go, and then COVID hit. I thought it might rub some people wrong because of the title and where it’s coming from. I went to my close people, and they told me this is the medicine we needed.
I know this all happened unwittingly, but generally speaking, as an artist, do you feel an obligation to create music that speaks directly to the times?
Yes and no. I think artists should use their talent to educate and provide opportunities to open up ideas for people who might not be exposed to certain things in their regular life. When you look back at the past and see certain eras of music, when that music speaks of things that happen at the time, it’s powerful stuff. I didn’t set out specifically to address anything in terms of events with this record. If it touches the times, then that’s a good thing. If I can put out music that gets even just one or two people through the day, then I’m good.
You’ve mentioned that KA played a huge role in helping you corral many of Eastern Medicine’s guests. Could you elaborate on who?
Tree, for sure. He and I love Tree’s music, and they have a relationship, so he reached out. I was listening to what [Mach-Hommy] was doing with Griselda at the time, and it piqued my interest. KA hit me with HBO, and I knew this was something different. It was an automatic number one. I reached out when he was still on IG or Twitter, and he hit me right back, and we just built a relationship over the phone. I met [Navy Blue] through KA as well. These were all people reaching out to him off the love, and he blessed me with a lot of people.
Eastern Medicine features rappers from different generations of the rap underground from New York and Virginia to Chicago and Detroit. Was spotlighting rappers from across different spectrums a conscious decision on your part?
I always want to work with people I feel like are great artists contributing to the culture. As far as the generational thing, I’ve always loved listening to new stuff, and it rubs me wrong when cats give up on it, or they stay in a decade. You miss some great stuff [from] young people influenced by the stuff we grew up with in the ‘80s and ‘90s; they’re flipping it and doing it in their style. [It’s] important to keep it going and carry the torch because we’re not gonna be doing this forever.
Your production style is loop-heavy and utilizes dead space incredibly well. What inspired this direction?
Making Yen Lo gave me a lot of lessons on space and breathing room because that’s what [KA] wanted. I was doing stuff with loops and no drums for a long time, but during those sessions, I was learning a lot about opening things up and letting things just ride. My thing is layering and creating a collage of sound. For Eastern Medicine, Western Illness, I felt like I was bringing some of the elements I used to do before Yen Lo and trying to blend them with drum loops here and there. I’m still working on that to build those elements together and make the drums sound like they were in the loop even though I’m getting them from different places. I think [“A Cure For The Common”] captures that.
Talk to me about recording the intro track “Dragon Town” with rapper Young Queenz and closing track “Mouth of A River” with opera singer Michelle Siu.
I wanted a couple of artists to rep their hometown and their city. [Michelle] is a young child prodigy opera singer. I wanted to make the song sound like an actual singer from the ‘60s on that track. She re-notated an old folk song and updated it, and she did an incredible job.
I also had Chinese rapper Young Queenz set the album off [on intro track “Dragon Town”]. A lot of the themes on the record are medicine themes, but I wanted the beginning to take you to this place I was at. I wanted someone from there to set the scene. A friend of mine named Gary Leong from White Noise Records gave me a Queenz CD. It was kinda like Black Moon-style boom-bap with a real raspy voice. I knew his voice would be able to match the other artists on there. Without even saying anything, he just made a song about his city.
I’m happy with those bookends. It’s special to me and special to them. It’ll hopefully get some more people to check out some things going on in a different part of the world.